At seventeen, Justin Bartha moved to New York City from the Midwest to attend acting school. Who knew, that several years later, he’d be dating an Olsen. We’re only kidding, of course. Bartha has a far bigger accomplishment than dating Ashley, namely, being in movies. Some of them you love (The Hangover), and some of them help Nicolas Cage avoid bankruptcy (National Treasure). Bartha’s latest is the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it indie Holy Rollers, a cautionary tale Hasidic drug smugglers in Brooklyn. Bartha plays Yosef Zimmerman, who uses young boys from an Orthodox Jewish community to help him transport ecstasy. He employs a new recruit named Sam (played by Bartha’s good friend Jesse Eisenberg), who’s taken on a dark drug-fueled journey that makes him question the Big Four: life, love, faith and himself. Here is the actor on the making of Holy Rollers and his favorite Jewish deli In New York.
How would you describe your character in Holy Rollers? He’s the nasty neighbor and the wayward son. Yosef grew up in a broken home in a Hasidic community in Brooklyn. He got involved with a fast lifestyle very early on and he’s lost himself, almost completely. He’s given up on himself and has found a new family in this club and drug culture. Yosef’s job is to recruit other young Hasidic men and women to do the same as him.
What attracted you to this part? Jesse sent me the script a long time ago. We had been looking for a while to work on something together. I used to live above a Hasidic family in Los Angeles for a couple of years. They fascinated me. Their son was a troubled kid and their fights would keep me awake at night. When I read the script, I immediately thought of that. Jesse and I really got the chance to help develop this project and work on it together very closely, fleshing out the characters.
Did you do any research within the Hasidic communities in Brooklyn? We would go into Williamsburg and Borough Park and observe the people. At one point, Jesse was invited to a school.
Your character Yosef says, “Jews have been smuggling for thousands of years.” Do you think that helps justify his drug smuggling in his own mind? I think it’s something that Yosef says to sell what he is trying to sell. At one point, it probably did justify what he was doing. Every culture has smuggled something in and out of their country for thousands of years, so it doesn’t really mean anything.
Do you think Yosef sees a bit of himself in Sam when he first meets him? Our intent was always to try to make a character-centered film as a throw back to those ‘70s American films that had two male characters that fed off of each other.
When I was watching the film I thought of Midnight Cowboy. Absolutely, Midnight Cowboy and Mean Streets. The development of both characters very much played off each other. When I would look at what happened to Yosef I would always incorporate what I thought was going happen to Sam. What he went through, what their similarities were, who Sam is compared to Yosef, and just to connect them as much as possible. These people should seem real, and after we watch the movie we should actually think what is going to happen to them.
Any favorite restaurants you frequent in New York City? I like Murray’s Bagels. I probably go there more than anywhere else.
Are there any Jewish delis in New York City that you can recommend? My favorite deli is Katz’s on the Lower East Side.
Holy Rollers seems like a very personal project for you. My goal is to always try to do movies like Holy Rollers. I find them personally entertaining and self-gratifying because they’re a challenge. For me, it’s just about trying to continue to move forward, do different things and challenge myself.
What do you want people to walk away with after watching this movie? I want them to think about faith versus blind faith and to just be invested in the story. We do leave some nice opened-ended questions at the end of the movie. What will happen to these characters? If you even think about that for ten minutes, we’ve done our job.