Thomas Dekker: Fearlessly Disappears into Characters

Photo by Eric Ray Davidson. Thomas wears t-shirt and jeans by Levi’s, vintage leather jacket. Styled by Rachel Pincus.

In February, Thomas Dekker was working social media for his new Fox series Backstrom and noticed that William Shatner had posted about the show. Never one to bite his tongue, Dekker shot back at the Star Trek icon, “I wonder if he remembers we worked together when I was six?” Shatner didn’t (though he did remember Dekker from another show, and replied with a thumbs-up emoji). Shatner probably isn’t alone in his hazy recall of Capt. Picard’s son on Stark Trek: Generations. Few remember Dekker as the creepy blond-haired son in John Carpenter’s Village of the Damned. Or for the fairly significant parts he had as a child on Seinfeld, ER, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, or Seventh Heaven.

Dekker had a great time as a kid, but doesn’t particularly care about being lauded for that period. “My father was a huge film aficionado and he had — it’s still in my house — a huge library of movies, three to a videocassette. My favorite when I was eight years old was Carrie. My father showed me Kubrick and Bergman when I was like nine,” says Dekker. “So there was definitely something in me from a young age that loved great cinema. But it really didn’t feel like those films were connected to my own experiences as an actor.”

“By the time he was 17, Dekker was ready to move on from acting; he filled out an application to work at Amoeba Records, put a band together, thought about directing. But instead of quitting, he switched representation, booked a huge role on what would turn out to be the mega-hit Heroes, then quit that show to play John Connor on Fox’s TV adaptation of the Terminator franchise, then landed the lead in Gregg Araki’s Kaboom in 2010.

When it was done, and I was at Cannes, at Sundance — I just felt like, My god, I am part of a universe now that I have grown up obsessed with,” says Dekker. “I still can’t believe that I was given the opportunity to be a character that weirdo kids — like I had been myself — loved and watched.”

It was a role that his agents had advised against (too sexual, too risky), but they were missing the point: For Dekker, it was a transformative experience. Suddenly he was free to go for it, to play roles in any sort of off-kilter way that seemed right. And that’s
what he did, taking on all sorts of twisted projects, like the eccentric Lance Loud on HBO’s Cinema Verite and a heroin-addicted rocker in Catherine Hardwicke’s Plush.

Which brings us around to his current gig with Fox: On Backstrom he plays the flamboyant, petty- thief roommate of the title character. It would be a pretty run-of-the-mill police procedural if it weren’t for his character, and for the fact that Backstrom is
played by the similarly eccentric Rainn Wilson. “We said the whole time that it felt like we were shooting two different shows: Backstrom and The Backstrom and Valentine Show,” says a laughing Dekker, who admits that he embellished what was originally a much smaller part when he auditioned. “I’ve never
wanted to be this guy that you recognize in every role. What’s interested me has always been how different I can be from one role to the next, how unrecognizable I can be.”

Hair: Tony Chavez
Grooming: Jo Strettell

How to Play Shailene Woodley’s Alcoholic Mom, A Chat With Eva Green

“I’m very shy and awkward, so playing all these characters and taking on these different roles from myself makes me feel alive and gives me blood,” Eva Green tells me when I ask about the mysterious and darkly seductive roles she’s known for in contrast to the person she is off-screen. “I’m breathing and alive when I’m acting, and I’m confident when I’m acting—I’m not always in real life.” But for the alluring French actress, her intense sensuality and cunning intellect have made her one of Hollywood’s most sought after women, from her breakout role in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers and her turn as a bond girl in Casino Royale to starring on Showtime’s Penny Dreadful and her latest role in Gregg Araki’s White Bird in a Blizzard.

Starring Green alongside Shailene Woodley, Araki’s film (King of Teenage Doom) takes us back to the late 1980‘s to tell his dark suburban dream, based on Laura Kasischke’s novel of the same title. In White Bird, we follow Kat (Woodley), a 17-year-old girl whose emotionally unstable mother, Eve (Green), vanishes mysteriously one afternoon. Caught up in her newfound sexuality and exploration of desire and emotion, Kat represses the confusion and anger of her mother’s haunting disappearance, as her father (played by Christopher Meloni) continues on with his life in the shadow of Eve’s absence.But as the story unravels, we’re given insight into Eve’s life, with surreal flashbacks and snow-covered dreams, revealing the natural of Kat’s uneasy relationship with her mother and how deeply miserable Eve was in her caged-in life as a homemaker.

And although she is but a mere decade older than Woodley in real life, Green manages to elevate her Mommie Dearest-esque character to someone untethered by time, a ghost haunting their lives. Wonderfully theatrical while not going entirely over the top, Green plays up the ugliness of Eve’s alcoholism and anger to age herself, adding a sense of hyper-melodrama akin to one of Fassbinder’s women on the verge. So with White Bird in a Blizzard now out on VOD and in theaters next week, I stole some time with Green to chat about her fears about playing Shailene’s mother, her ability to make herself invisible, and acting inside a dream.

As a new actor to the world of Gregg Araki, how did you become involved in the film?

I remember I was in Bulgaria doing the 300 film and my agent was like, “My god, you need to look at this I’m sure you’re going to love this.” And then I just really loved the story, and it was so unusual and frustrated and it had such a great conflict with the daughter. I was very moved by it, so I said yes straight away!

Had you been a fan of his past films?

Yeah, I remember I saw Mysterious Skin in the cinema when it came it. It was dreamlike and very tormented. There’s something in his films that are a bit David Lynch in a way. Seeing the film in the cinema I remember it was like a dream and fucked up and I loved that very much. His other films are all teenage trashy bonkers funny and this one, White Bird, I find more grown up. It’s in another category of its own. 

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How was the experience of turning in this character and playing a woman who was written significantly older than you? Did you read the book to get of the feeling of who she was?

When I found out my daughter would be played by Shailene, I was like, oh my god! It’s a bit unbelievable; we look more like sisters. But Gregg was like, don’t worry, it’s a bit surreal and you’ll have another hairdo. I was worried that it would not be believable, so I loved her journey. You see her young in her 20s and then it ages me. But I tried to portray that aging more in her character. She’s an alcoholic and her body changes and her voice changes, so it was a challenge.

She only exists in these surreal memories and in flashbacks, so in a way she felt ageless.

Yes, yes.

tumblr_nauvdx0VjB1ts6gi0o4_500There’s something about your character that also felt out of time and very rooted in melodrama, like she belonged to films of the past, in opposition the natural cool of the teens.

It’s true. She’s kind of a mixture of a lot of women. She could have been a movie star but she didn’t fulfill her dreams and got trapped like a bird in a cage. Sometimes it felt like, am I going completely over the top, a complete alcoholic kind of thing, but Gregg allowed me to go there because it was a dream. You have all these teenagers and they’re cool and I had the excuse of being in a dream.

You’ve worked with a lot of great directors, but what was the experience like working with Gregg Araki?

In the beginning it was a struggle to find the money for the film and then the actors. But it’s nice that this film was made all with heart, and Gregg is very open and he’s so passionate. He’s like a child on set, with this passion and he’s so loving. He’s really all about who these characters are and the story. It’s all fun. There’s no judgement or games or bullshit. It’s pure joy and we all loved it.

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How was Shailene as a co-star and daughter?

I was intimidated at first. I thought, oh god am I going to measure up? Is this going to believable? But Shailene was so great and she calmed me down and made me feel confident. She was very supportive. She’s very wise and very mature, an old soul. And she’s also very aware of the world and extremely bright and amazing.

Looking back on the roles you’ve played, there’s been a lot of characters that fall into the darker, more dramatic realm. Do you tend to gravitate towards these roles or do you find that people approach you for them because that’s how they perceive you as an actor?

You take what you find, but I am always looking for something that’s complex and something that’s interesting. I also don’t want people to put me in a box of one character also. So I always hope people have enough imagination. But I am always drawn to something complicated. It’s jubilating in a strange way, but you also have to be careful. 

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Do you find that you’re a much different person off-screen and not the mysterious woman we often see you play?

Oh, yeah. No one ever really recognizes me really. I take the tube all the time and it’s fine. I can make myself invisible, I have that power. I’m also very shy and feel so awkward that playing all these characters and taking on these different roles from myself makes me feel alive and gives me blood. I’m breathing and alive when I’m acting and I’m confident when I’m acting. I’m not always in real life, but I would like to be. So I think I’m very different for sure.

What are you working on now?

I’m going to Ireland to shoot the second season of Penny Dreadful. I get to play a very gifted and fabulous character. It’s an interesting character and one of the most interesting I’ve gotten to play. She’s in the dark but she’s fighting to get to the light and she goes through such an amazing, rich journey. 

‘Kaboom’ Creator Gregg Araki on the Real Rooney Mara “Story” & the Cult of Lars von Trier

“He’s almost at the center of this weird cult, but, I mean, good for him,” says Gregg Araki, himself a cult-film icon, referring to Denmark’s cinematic bad-boy, Lars von Trier. “I wish I was Lars,” adds the 51-year-old, Los Angeles-based filmmaker. “I don’t know where he gets all the money to fund his movies. My dream has always been to have some crazy benefactor who loves me and pays for everything for the rest of my life. I’d never have to take another meeting again.” The occasion for this meeting, from inside the IFC offices in midtown Manhattan, is the release of Araki’s latest film, Kaboom, a sex- and drug-fueled end-of-days thriller starring Thomas Dekker as Smith, a Dionysian college co-ed who, along with his friends Stella (Haley Bennett) and London (Juno Temple), is forced to contend with exams and the apocalypse. It’s surprising, given its supernatural subplot, that Kaboom is Araki’s most autobiographical movie yet.

What’s also surprising is that Araki, whose previous credits include underground classics such as The Living End, The Doom Generation, and Nowhere, turned down actor Rooney Mara for a part in the film. Luckily, Kaboom‘s two female leads are astonishing. Also lucky was Mara, who eventually landed another role in something called The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

Has it gotten increasingly easy for you to finance your films? Yeah, people just throw money at me. I literally have money coming out of my ass. No! It’s a struggle, the same struggle it’s always been. I still pound the pavement, trying to get people to give me their cash. It’s actually gotten more difficult given that a lot of buyers have gone out of business. Making these independent films and getting them seen gets harder and harder.

I’d assume the opposite would happen as you continue to become more established. It does help, because at least people know that if I start a movie I’m going to finish it. But indie movies, particularly ones that are outside the box, are hard to finance and distribute and get seen.

Tell me about the process of casting the film. It was just like Mysterious Skin in that we hired casting directors and held auditions. We met dozens and dozens of actors. The ones we chose were the best possible people for each part. We got so lucky with the phenomenal cast in this movie.

From Rose McGowan to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, your history of discovering new talents has been pretty incredible. It’s so exciting for me as a director to discover people and get raw, untapped talent. Thomas [Dekker] has done a lot of work, but there are other people in the movie who have hardly done anything at all. To see these people who are completely unknown, and what comes out of it, is exhilarating.

I’ve been such a fan of Juno Temple since seeing her in Notes on a Scandal. Juno’s amazing. She’s such a special, incredible actress. Originally when I wrote the part of London, it was not intended that she actually be from London. I just wanted her to have that name because I though it was cool. Every time London opens her mouth, three pages of dialogue fall out, and I don’t know how she pulled it off. Anna Faris [who starred in Araki’s last film, 2007’s Smiley Face] was the same way.

It’s a risky role. How do you gain the trust of someone like Juno or Thomas, or Chris Zylka, the actor who tries to fellate himself in the movie? [Laughs] Nude scenes are never fun to do. Something that’s really important for me as a director is to make those scenes as comfortable as possible for the actors, because by their very nature, nude scenes uncomfortable and the actors are so exposed and vulnerable. I try to make sure the set feels very safe, and I always tell the actors that I’m there for them, should they ever need to pull me aside and talk to me about something. The actors in this one are all a part of that generation that embraces challenging roles and likes taking risks, as opposed to doing the same old crap that everybody else is doing and playing it safe on some WB show. I think it’s called the CW now. I heard some rumor that Rooney Mara auditioned for a part in the film. She was one of the dozens of people who came in. We saw almost every young actor in Hollywood. Each of the actors in Kaboom won their part fair and square. We still suspect that the Rooney “story” leaked because it was planted by some angry agent or manager. It was such a weird press thing that came out before the movie was even cast. She definitely came in to read for a part, and she’s amazing. I think she might have auditioned Juno’s part, but I can’t remember. Juno was reluctant about taking the role, actually, because doesn’t see herself as the sexy girl. She associates more as a quirky art girl. That’s one of the reasons I loved her as London, because she played sexy without being slutty. London has a lot of sexual experiences but really she’s just into finding out about herself. It wasn’t like, “I’m just a slut and I want to fuck guys.” It was really important to me that her character didn’t just come across as a tramp, but that she was also an explorer, and Juno really brought that element to the character.

Thomas did, too, in that scene when he has sex with that stranger from the beach, and then says something like, “Wow, I’m a total slut.” But the audience doesn’t necessarily think so. Your college years really are about those experiences: the people you have sex with, the relationships you form, the times your heart gets broken. That’s what you’re finding out about yourself as a person, and to me those are the most important things you get out of those years. It’s not really about the calculus class you took or the midterm exam you failed. When I think back on that from the vantage point of middle age, I don’t even remember one specific lecture. I remember all of those other experiences.

How autobiographical is Kaboom? It’s one of my most wild, insane movies, but it’s also one of my most autobiographical. Thomas’ character, Smith, is very loosely on me at that age. I was an undergraduate film student at UC Santa Barbara. My best friend was an art major at the College of Creative Studies, and so much of that milieu is very specific to my experience or my recollection, of my nostalgia for that time.

Party culture—drugs and excessive drinking—is so integral to your canon. Is that a part of your life? People always think that I must have this crazy life, but I purge all of that stuff in my movies. I have a very stable—awesome, but stable—life. Now that I’m older, I don’t really go to nightclubs or bars. I do go to shows, though. I love seeing bands perform.

I remember having and loving the soundtrack for Nowhere [an Araki film from 1997] when I was younger. Back when you were just a wee tot.

Young enough that my family took issue with my listening to Marilyn Manson. Understandably. My soundtracks are always made up of my favorite bands in that moment. If you go to the Desperate Pictures Facebook page, I’ve written down the entire soundtrack. I don’t think we’re going to get a physical soundtrack made because it’s so hard to do that. But I wish we could because the soundtrack is amazing. All of the bands are incredible—everyone from Interpol and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, to some really obscure nu gaze bands.

Nu gaze? Is that a thing? It’s just like shoegaze, but new.

I can’t wait until it becomes old gaze. I don’t know if someone has the objectivity about their own work to be able to answer this question, but since Kaboom is your most autobiographical film, I’m curious to know if it’s also your favorite. My films are like my kids, I don’t have real kids, so I have celluloid kids. I love all of my movies, despite their flaws, just the way other people unconditionally love their children. So I don’t really play favorites. Usually, though, my most recent film is the one I’m closest to because it’s the freshest.

So, then, this one’s your favorite? Yes, it’s probably this one.