Actress Pell James
PELL JAMES TAKES A HOT ROD TO THE DARK SIDE IN SURVEILLANCE
Virginia native Pell James hit the ground running following graduation from NYU’s drama school in 1999, mixing TV and stage work, then landing her first high-profile part in 2005’s The King, co-starring with Gael Garcia Bernal and William Hurt. Since then, James also made impressive turns in Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers and David Fincher’s Zodiac, in one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, as one of the notorious Bay area killer’s victims.
Pell James shines in an entirely new light as Bobbi, a drug-addicted drifter who comes face-to-face with evil incarnate in Jennifer Lynch’s Surveillance, a smashingly original thriller hitting theaters June 26 from Magnet Releasing. She also appears in Shrink, a tableaux-like satire of life in L.A., starring Kevin Spacey, which arrives from Lions Gate on July 24.
Pell sat down with us recently to discuss life, film and motherhood. Warning: spoilers ahead!
Tell us about taking a ride to such a dark destination. Does it stay with you after the director says “cut”?
Pell James: It’s funny because we were just talking about this. When you shoot these movies, and you’re literally stepping over pools of movie blood and Ryan (Simpkins) was talking about how the actor who plays her brother was eating the macaroni that was supposed to be his brains, and it’s all over the road (laughs)…no, it doesn’t stay with you. I see fake blood. I see macaroni. I see “cut.” I remember the boom guy being really stinky on a certain day. When you watch the movie all cut together, I’m only going to see the film in that context, which is really hard. So many of the films I’ve done, I’d love to watch with a sort of amnesia from my involvement with them, so I could just enjoy them as a regular audience member.
Pell James in David Fincher's Zodiac.
Even Zodiac didn’t stay with you? In a movie full of disturbing scenes, I think yours was the most unsettling.
See, I find it all so not disturbing. I’m sure it is, obviously, and many people have told me that. A lot of my friends and family haven’t watched it for that reason. But it’s the same thing. I remember (David) Fincher gave me knee pads because my knees were getting wrecked from doing so many takes of being hog-tied on my knees. We weren’t cracking jokes between takes on that particular film, because we were trying to be respectful, but you often do crack jokes during the down time on a really dark film. On this, we were just laughing the whole time we were shooting.
There is an undercurrent of dark humor in this film, like in A Clockwork Orange or Natural Born Killers.
Especially French Stewart’s character. You can’t help it: you just look at him, and you laugh.
So by and large then, it’s just a job for you. Another day at the office.
Yeah, more or less. There was one hardcore Method actor on set, who will remain nameless (laughs), but most of us, I think, shared the same work ethic.
What was having the one Method actor in your orbit like? Did it add or subtract from the process?It was a little uncomfortable. When I got the gun shoved in my face, that was a little uncomfortable. I didn’t think it would go that far.
It sure got a realistic reaction from you.(laughs) Yeah, it sure did.
If anything, it thought the humiliation scenes with the cops were tougher to watch than the splatter scenes, mostly because so much of the splatter was so gleefully over-the-top.Yeah, exactly. Even in the room, seeing the blood packets go off, there were such conspicuous amount of blood coming out, we had to be careful not to step in the puddles and make footprints on the floor.
It was like Sam Peckinpah blood.(laughs) Yeah, exactly—Straw Dogs. They’re remaking that, you know.
Pell James as Bobbi in Jennifer Lynch's Surveillance.
They were also trying to remake The Wild Bunch, which thankfully I think they’ve given up on, setting it in present day South of the border, with Mexican drug cartels instead of revolutionaries.Just change the name and slightly change the story. I really hate the idea of remakes. There are so many great, untold stories out there.
Yeah, you can’t remake perfection.They’re also remaking Bonnie & Clyde—with Hilary Duff. (laughs) Sorry.
Yeah, I hear you. Supposedly they’re going to stick closer to the real facts of the story, like the fact that they weren’t lovers, that Clyde was gay.
Yeah, but I even got that he was gay in the original.
No he wasn’t gay. He was impotent.
I know, but he seemed gay to me. Did he not to you?
No, he even at one point says “I don’t like boys.” Warren Beatty, apparently, wouldn’t play him as gay.
Oh, that’s why. Okay, that makes sense, then. I always thought he was gay, and that line was just an excuse.
No, I think they portrayed him as being more or less asexual until he and Bonnie consummate their relationship in that field right before they’re killed.
It’s funny, I heard that Shirley MacLaine was originally supposed to play Bonnie. That wouldn’t have worked! (laughs)
There was a whole string of actresses that they wanted: Natalie Wood, Tuesday Weld. Truffaut and Godard were each attached to direct at one point. I think it was Godard who wanted to cast Bob Dylan as Clyde. Can you imagine?(laughs) No, no. Oh God…that’s bizarre.
On the subject of movie violence, I think Jennifer presents violence in a very honest way in this film, and that it didn’t have a happy ending. Sometimes the forces of darkness need to triumph in stories because they so often triumph in life, don’t you think?
Yes, I do, and we actually shot several different endings, but I’m glad she went with this one, too. It was interesting, because I kept texting her, asking which ending she was going to use, because her father was really pushing for her to keep Bobbi alive at the end. It’ll be interesting to see how people react. I did a movie called The King, which also had a really dark ending where there was no hope.
I really liked that film.
I loved that film! That’s my favorite of all my films, so far. I loved working with James Marsh, who just directed Man on Wire. Did you see that?
Yes. Big fan of that film, too.I love that movie.
Gael Garcia Bernal and Pell James in The King.
I thought The King was an unheralded film.
Those movies are really hard to push. My husband works at Lions Gate and it’s really hard to get people to go out to movies now. It’s tougher and tougher to make “smaller” films. People are still making them. We did Shrink, and it was just tiny, a really tough shoot. But it’s hard to get people to show up now unless it’s an “event” movie. I hope that changes.
You’ve always done small movies, though. Your first screen credit was for James Toback’s Black and White.
You know, I never even appear in that film, yet it’s listed on my bio on the IMDb and I still get residual checks for it!
That’s not something I’d be complaining about!
(laughs) No, I’m not, trust me. But it was just this thing I showed up for in New York when I was still a student. It’s so odd how these things happen sometimes.
You grew up in Virginia, but went to school in New York?
Yeah, I went to NYU, at the Tisch School, for acting.
When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
I don’t know that there was one moment. I just always did plays and loved the theater and was sort of surrounded by it, going into D.C. a lot, which has a great theater scene.
What do your parents do?
My dad’s a lawyer. My stepfather works for The State Department. My mom is a substance abuse therapist.
That’s interesting. Did you consult her for your research on Bobbi?
(laughs) I did, but it’s hard to get advice from your mother. It kills me saying that, because I know I’m going to have loads of advice for my sons. It was very quick. I read the script on a Saturday, and had to have an answer for them that night. I had a six month-old, and had been in a nursery for six months, so I was itching to get out, and shooting a movie in Canada sounded great. Plus, the opportunity to do a movie this good doesn’t come along every day. Most of the stuff actresses get offered tends to be pretty boring, so I don’t do it. But anyway, I emailed N.A. or some kind of online anonymous narcotics treatment group. I emailed them and said ‘I’m an actress and I’m researching this part I’m about to play as a drug addict. Could you answer these few questions for me or send me a packet of information about these questions. Thank you very much.’ So they email me back: “Thank you for talking about your addiction with us. We’d like to speak with you further. Call me. Craig.” (laughs) So I wrote back, saying ‘No, no, no. I’m an actress. I’m researching my new part.’ And I get another reply: “Thank you for reaching out to us…” It wasn’t an automated response from this guy. We were literally emailing back and forth, and he thought I was being in denial. And I continued to get emails from him months after we finished shooting, so I sent him the link to the IMDb page saying ‘Look buddy, it’s really a movie. See? It’s online.’ I haven’t heard from him in about six months.
Maybe he’ll go see the movie and think how authentic you were.
“You’re too authentic. You should reach out!”
(laughs) That would be the ultimate great review, wouldn’t it?
Tell us about working with Jennifer. I hope this film will finally give her the recognition she deserves.
She’s so gung-ho. Every day she woke up she was so grateful, and her attitude was infectious. It was great to be around that kind of energy. She also cast a lot of her friends in the movie, so there was a very relaxed feeling on the set and everyone was very happy to be there. She’s very thoughtful that way, giving people chances. It was great to work with her.
You mentioned earlier that there aren’t that many interesting parts out there for actresses.Well, not for the number of great actresses that are available, no. There’s so much talent out there, and not enough good parts to go around.
If there’s one actress whose career you could emulate, who would it be?
I love Faye Dunaway.
Pre-Mommie Dearest Faye Dunaway?
(laughs) I love Mommie Dearest. She directed a short a few years ago, based on a Tennessee Williams story. It was good. I’m such a huge fan. I met her around the time The King was at Cannes, and I saw her at a party out here. I was pregnant with my first son, and she pointed at my stomach and said “When is this going to be done?” (laughs)
What’s your favorite part she played?
Probably Network. I mean, where’s that part now? There’s no Diana Christensen parts out there now.
Well, there’s no Paddy Chayefsky now. I don’t think they make writers like that any longer, and with Sidney Lumet behind the camera. That movie was world-class for a reason.
That’s true. I was lucky enough to work with Sidney Lumet once. My part got cut, but everyone’s part got cut. It was this thing for HBO called Strip Search. Maggie Gyllenhaal and a bunch of other people were in it. This was back around 2004. I was so excited to work with him. I had this scene with Tommy Guiry, who was in Blackhawk Down, and I was terrified. It was one of my first jobs, and I had to kiss Tommy. We got to rehearse it in the Polish dance hall in the East Village where he’s rehearsed all his movies for years and years, with everything blocked out on the floor with tape. He told us stories and was very methodical and thoughtful and even though I just had a small part, he really made me feel a part of the process and made me feel important.
Let’s talk a bit about Shrink. Were you actually pregnant, like your character, when you shot the film?
I was. My best friend, Tom Moffett, wrote the script. Originally the character wasn’t pregnant, but then when I was, everyone was like “We’re going to have to recast,” and Tom said “No, we’re not.” He just added it into the script, which added a lot to the character. It was a very simple fix, that wound up working out really well.
Pell James in Shrink.
So Tom wrote the part with you in mind?Yeah, he did. And my husband worked on it, and my friend Braxton Pope produced it. My 2 ½ year old plays Saffron Burrows’ son. It was very homegrown. A lot of it was even shot in my old house. The intervention scene was shot in my old living room. It was very “guerilla,” stealing locations left and right. It’s funny, I worked more when I was pregnant than I ever did when I wasn’t. Hmm…maybe a sign? (laughs)
Surveillance took you into its own world, whereas Shrink was very immediate and very real, almost too close for comfort in some ways.
(laughs) Yeah, I really loved Dallas Roberts performance, because he reminded me of so many agents—not mine, by the way—that I’ve sort of met in passing: very neurotic, crazy, self-involved. I thought Dallas really nailed it.
How was Kevin Spacey?
He was great, so much fun. He’s an amazing mimic, and kept us entertained during the whole shoot.
Now that you’ve seen Surveillance in its final form, what are your thoughts and hopes for the film?
I’m very proud of it. I think everyone does their best work in it, especially Jennifer. I hope people finally recognize her and she makes many more movies after this.
Trailer for Surveillance.