To Be Young & Gifted: Michael Angarano on the Making of ‘Ceremony’

Ceremony hits our sweet spot: young, hip director makes low-budget movie about misguided love, starring young, hip actors and Uma Thurman. We’ve been on this picture like a model on a scale, publishing interviews with its director, Max Winkler, and with one of its stars, Reece Thompson. Here, in the final installment of our informal, fanboy Ceremony series, another of the film’s stars, Michael Angarano, talks about Jesse Eisenberg, catharsis, and making movies in your 20s.

How did you get involved with the film? I met with Max, read the script, and thought it was a very unconventional type of romantic comedy. It was very well written and very witty, and reminded me of a Billy Wilder movie or something. Originally I was going to play Marshall, and when Jesse Eisenberg had to drop out I spoke with Max and we thought I was kind of in the right place to play Sam.

It would have been such a different movie had Jesse been in it. Yeah, Jesse’s amazing, I think he’s one of the best actors of our generation and it’s just so interesting to think about what it could have turned out to be.

Could you relate to your character? Sam was 23 years old and Max wrote it when he was 23 and I was 21. It’s that time in your life when you feel so impressionable by everything around you—the latest book you read, or the latest movie you see, basically defines your wardrobe or how you talk the next day. Sam has this utterly romanticized idea of love and life, and imagines himself to be a Cary Grant or a character out of some old movie, and he’s just not that guy. His references kind of build him up to be this person he’s not, especially with the woman he loves.

My favorite thing was watching Sam go from pompous to a really deconstructed mess. It’s so obvious he’s not that guy. He’s really just overly sensitive, and very insecure and deeply flawed, and that’s his realization, and it takes a smack in the face by the woman he loves to realize that this is not reality. What I do relate to is Sam’s idea of love, really. I think this is the question that the movie poses: Is Sam’s love for Zoe the right kind of love? It’s kind of unbridled, unmitigated, unconditional puppy love that’s completely untainted by real life. Is that real love?

What was it like working with Max? This whole experience has been so personal and cathartic for both of us, it was like a therapy session. He wrote it in a stage of heartbreak, and I acted in it in a stage of heartbreak. It’s just two young guys coming together and creating art, and channeling their emotions in art.

Do you ever want to make your own films? I’ve always said that that’s a goal of mine. My idols in life are Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and the Marx Brothers, people that really kind of create themselves and then manifest it on the big screen. Watching Max, such a young guy write and direct something, it was incredibly inspiring.

This is the first time a lot of audiences are seeing you as an adult. Is that something that was important to you? I hadn’t worked for about a year and a half before this movie, and I felt like a completely different person, like a young adult and that’s what it is. So I was dealing with all these issues and it felt natural. I’m excited for people to see it because I do feel that it’s different from things that I’ve done.

A Sit Down With the Director and Cast of ‘Ceremony’

Before Jesse Eisenberg was cast in that movie about Facebook coming out on Friday, he was in rehearsals for a small, sweet indie movie called Ceremony. Once Eisenberg jumped ship (can you blame him?), he was replaced by BlackBook New Regimer Michael Angarano, initially cast as Eisenberg’s best friend. It was up to the young actor to portray the unbearable heartache of Sam, a sort of hipster doofus set on winning back the heart – and ruining the wedding of – his much older ex-girlfriend, Zoe, played by Uma Thurman. The directorial debut of 27-year-old USC grad Max Winkler (who previously worked on the Michael Cera-starring web series Clark and Michael), Ceremony counts Jason Reitman among its executive producers, a good sign when it comes to hunting for distributors. We sat down with the ambitious young director, Angarano, and Jake Johnson (whose scene-stealing performance as Zoe’s boozy brother is a highlight) shortly after the film’s well-received Toronto International Film Festival premiere to discuss the physical rigours of directing, heartbreak, and Uma Thurman-inspired erections.

Was the premiere a nerve-wracking experience? Max Winkler: I wasn’t nervous about the movie – I’m very confident about the movie. Mike Anganaro: The first half-hour, my heart was just beating really fast because it’s a funny movie, and if people don’t laugh at every funny thing, that makes me nervous.

And did that happen at all? Max: I wasn’t in the theater. I was heavily sedated.

Why? Max: It’s hard for me to watch. I’ve seen the movie so many times, I feel like if I watch it anymore I won’t have the sort of love for it that I have. I’m really proud of the movie and I’m really, really proud of the actors’ performances in it. That’s the part that really kills me. There are certain parts I love and certain parts I wish I could do differently, how anyone feels in any sort of artist project. So it’s hard for me. I would come in and peak and they saved me a seat in the back for the very end.

Did you ask the cast how certain jokes played afterwards? Max: They all came to me in the back room and my face was white. There’s a very famous saying that filmmakers, especially Jewish ones, don’t believe any of the good press, they only want to read the bad press, which I think is very accurate. I took Michael aside and he said that it was very good, and I took Jake aside in front of everyone and I was like, “Jake, come outside with me,” so I took Jake outside and he told me it was good, which I still don’t believe.

Jake’s performance in particular slayed the audience. Max: I think the thing that really excites me the most about the movie is: people know Jake, they know Mike, but they’re really doing something different from what they’ve done before. They have sort of wheelhouses that they’re very comfortable in, and I think anyone who sees it will fall in love with these guys. Lee Pace, Reece Thompson, we have all these sort of amazing young talents that are anchored by Uma, who’s really fantastic. That part really excites me. Jake: One of the reasons I was anxious before, was that we all really like working with Max. Max was my good friend before this but as actors he allowed all of us to make choices, and when you know the director’s with you and kind of steering the ship, it’s a really nice thing. That doesn’t always happen, you’re not always allowed to just try things and go for it.

Max, do you think people will doubt you because of your young age? Max: I’m sure people always will. Max: Here’s the reality: there’s probably a number of first time filmmakers or directors who do go off the rails, not to say that I’m better than them, but I’m so neurotic that I just surrounded myself with really professional, incredible people from my crew to my actors. Jake: I didn’t know what I was doing. Mike: The first day was crazy for all of us, we kind of got in over our heads. Jake: I think things got a lot more comfortable by the second day. Max: Yeah, the second day was fine, the first was one of the worst days of my life. Jake: I freaked out because I had six days off and I went back to L.A. and I talked to Max and I felt like it was where one of my buddies was going to have to be like, “We have to let you go, it’s not personal, you were so good…”

Were you filled with doubt that day when you got home? Max: I could honestly not believe how much my feet hurt. I was dumbfounded by how much my body hurt. I was in training for this like a fucking boxing match, and I couldn’t believe how I felt. I had to wake up the next day at 3:30 in the morning and it felt disgusting and shocking to me.

As your career progresses do you think you’ll start doing bigger budget films? Max: I’d love to have as big of a budget as I can. That being said, I wouldn’t be able to direct a movie that I didn’t feel an incredible, personal connection to. Jake: I want that quoted and in 15 years when– Max: When I’m directing Marmaduke 3.

How did you guys nail the heartbreak thing so well? Max: I was heartbroken when I wrote this and I was just shattered, and I felt like I was the smartest person in the world and the only person to ever feel this kind of pain that no one else could feel. I thought my Dad was crazy for telling me it would pass and my friends were crazy, and I was just obliterated man.

Was it by an older woman? Max: Yeah.

Was she getting married? Max: She wasn’t getting married but I fucking–it was easy to write. I think we all kind of know that heartbreak, in one way or another. We’re all very similar, the three of us, in how we kind of view life and love.

Mike, did you pull from past experiences, because in some of your scenes, it was like, Yeah this guy has felt that way before. Mike: The filming of the movie came at such an important time in my life. I hadn’t worked in like a year and half, which I think was really attributed to how special and novel the movie and the experience felt for all of us. I was making a bunch of genuine, new friends and it was overall a very cathartic experience for all of us. Overall, the whole thing felt like it had this special tint to it, like catching lightning in a bottle, aside from that first day that was horrific. We were all talking before the movie, the three of us especially, how this movie could be really good and it would be a really fun experience, and after the first day we were like Is this going to be the worst thing any of us have ever been a part of? Literally, that was almost the feeling. Max: I didn’t think it was that fucking bad! I was in New York prepping the movie, and I knew these guys were going to be in the movie whether anybody liked it or not, so I had these guys start hanging out, which was really awkward. Jake: He called Mike and he goes,”I have another actor,” and I had to audition for this movie a lot of times so finally Max was like “Well, Jake is in the movie, let’s have him audition with Michael.” So we were basically forced to have a play date.

What did you guys do? Jake: Hung out at my place. Max: You got your hair wrapped didn’t you? Jake: Yeah, we did each other’s hair.

How important was Jason Reitman’s involvement in all this? Max: Incredibly. He’s somebody who makes the movies that he wants to make, on his terms, and incredibly well. He wants something, he gets it. I think one of the most important things is to just know what you want. My first couple movies were with his company, one that I was going to direct but didn’t end up doing, and one that I wrote for him to direct. He’s incredibly decisive and he knows how to get what he wants.

Was he key to getting funding as well? Max: Oh my god, completely. A lot of people probably wouldn’t have taken me seriously with his name not there, and his name is so important to so many people. You just don’t make your first three movies that successful. He’s incredible. He was helpful in the editing and the writing of the script and he gave great notes. He was truly vital.

After your work with Clark and Michael and now Ceremony, it seems that you have an attraction to characters who think they’re the shit but really aren’t. Max: I loved doing Clark and Michael, but that was all them. I don’t take any credit for that. I was just happy to be there. I think there’s something really pleasing for an audience to watch a character have a very different perception of themselves than the rest of the world does.

That’s what translated right off the bat in Ceremony. Max: That makes me so happy because that’s my biggest worry, that some people truly don’t get that. They’re like, Wow, who’s that asshole wearing the cool suits? The suits are ugly for a reason. He’s not Clark Gable, he’s not Cary Grant. He’s a little boy who’s scared and wants his mother and has no idea who he is.

Michael was originally supposed to play Marshall correct? Max: Yes. Sam was originally going to be played by Jesse Eisenberg, but he left for very obvious reasons and we all gave him our blessing and we support him. Mike: Watching Jesse play Sam in rehearsal, it definitely influenced how I played Sam in a way. I didn’t know what it was going to be on day one.

Would Jesse have been able to grow a mustache? Max: Michael’s mustache was fake. Mike: That’s why people say I look like I’m 25 in the movie because honestly, for the first twenty minutes, I can’t smile. Max: I think those characters are my favorite. There’s a real sadness to those characters but they’re also very funny. I think Jeff Daniels in Squid and the Whale is the best example of that character. I think that’s one of the best characters of all time. He was so funny and you laugh at him, but there’s a real sort of sadness to him. I just love those kind of people.

Like Rushmore’s Max Fisher. Max: I feel like there’s this sort of taboo thing, where people kind of turned their back on Wes and denounced him as the creator of bad hipster culture. I think anyone that says that is foolish. He’s one of the best working directors around, and he’s incredible and his movies are amazing. I grew up watching Bottle Rocket. My dad took me to see it at Century City and I think that was the first sort of artistic aesthetic that I was influenced by, and so whether I knew it or not, the intent was not to do it. It was really based on my relationship with an older woman.

Speaking of which, Uma Thurman is amazing in this. Max: So fucking good. The scene where they finally kiss was the first sort of love scene I’d ever done so I was so squeamish and nervous, I felt like a little kid. Mike: I was really nervous but when we were rehearsing the scene she really took the bull by the balls at that point, she literally like, choreographed that whole scene by herself. She’d be like, Alright, well you’re going to– Max: You were erect by this point. Mike: Totally.

The New Holden: Michael Angarano

Michael Angarano looks too young to buy the cigarettes he smokes. And the 22-year-old actor, star of the recent Gentlemen Broncos, admits it’s not just his fresh face that makes him appear underage. “If I wasn’t acting, I’d just be coming out of college,” he says. “I would already have had four years of being on my own, but now I’m kind of just starting.” Anganaro is successfully making the transition from child to adult actor (he’s been working since he was 5, and his résumé includes supporting roles in Almost Famous, Lords of Dogtown and Will & Grace). In his next film, Ceremony, Angarano plays a young Turk intent on destroying an older crush’s wedding (Uma Thurman plays the object of his desire). “It’s a coming-of-age story about a boy realizing he’s a boy,” Angarano says, “Instead of a boy realizing he’s a man.”

Unlike many former child actors, the New York native, who moved to Los Angeles when he was 12 and still lives with his folks, insists his childhood prepared him for a career in Hollywood. “As a kid, I was able to distract myself and not have work take over my life completely,” says Angarano, who found himself splashed across tabloids when he was still dating his ex-girlfriend, actress Kristen Stewart. “If I didn’t have that experience growing up, I don’t know that I would be able to keep work from taking over now.”

You’ve been acting since you were 5 or 6? Like 5 and a half.

Do you feel like a part of “young Hollywood?” I just do what I like doing. And that sounds very arrogant, but in a way it’s all I can do. I have no thoughts about being anything.

But it’s good to be you. Of course it is. Acting is like a trade, like any other trade, so when people appreciate it for what it is and understand what you’re doing and what you’re going through, that’s what you do it for. Of course you like being acknowledged but at the same time it means nothing really.

Can you talk about making the transition from child to adult actor? It gets harder as you get older. The roles get harder. Life gets harder as you get older. As a kid I always had distractions, even when I was on set I was always worrying about school. My mind was always very busy. But as an adult when I’m on set it’s all I have to do and when I’m off set that’s also all I have to do. As a kid it’s easy not to have work take over your life completely. And it’s very important to live outside of your career.

What role have your parents played in your career? My parents have honestly been the most supportive people as far as my own career goes. They basically relocated my entire family when I was twelve years old so we could live in L.A. and I could have more opportunities to be seen by people. In a way it worked out for all of us. Both of my parents grew up in Brooklyn, so I think they saw an opportunity for a better life, to go live somewhere, to live more outside of yourself, not in the same place. My mom owned dance studios in New York all my life, but now she has a dance studio out in L.A. Both my sisters have gone to college out in L.A. It just worked out that way, with me as the catalyst for changing our lives a little. It’s great.

How many siblings do you have? Three. Older sister, younger sister, and a younger brother.

What’s your relationship like with your siblings? It’s really close. It’s always been extremely close. I have a very tight family. Even the family I have back in New York that I don’t get to see as often, we’re all very tight.

When you’re on set and not at home do any of your family members ever drop in? My father has actually been coming to sets with me since I was five. This trip was the first time I was in New York on my own really. It’s a crazy feeling. I don’t feel sheltered at all because I’ve traveled a lot. But I’m 21, if I wasn’t acting I’d just be coming out of college, I would already have four years of being on my own, but I’m kind of just starting to be on my own. But it’s amazing, realizing yourself.

Do you live by yourself? No, I still live with my parents.

What do you do for fun? I like traveling a lot. And I’ve been doing a lot of reading. The second I stopped going to school, I started reading exponentially more. I never read and now I read a lot. I’m reading a book called An American Dream by Norman Mailer and it’s really good. I’ve read Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and it changed my life completely. I love those books so much.

Tell me about Ceremony. In Ceremony my character is kind of a complete sociopath. The kind of person who really doesn’t care about anyone’s feelings except his own. The plot of the movie is that he tricks and manipulates his best friend into coming on this vacation with him for a weekend. But unknown to his friend, the only reason he wants to go is to break up the wedding of an older woman. The guy is maybe 22 years old, but just by the way he dresses and talks you would think he’s like 35 yeas old. He’s one of those people that, the major elephant in the room is how this person is acting. You feel like if you say something about what they’re doing, how false it is, it would pull the rug out from under them completely. That’s the kind of line that he walks.

How are they going to market it? I’ve been trying to think about that. I think it will probably be marketed as this love story about this young guy trying to win over this woman and show her how manly he is and how capable and confident he is as a person. But it’s really a coming of age story about a boy realizing he’s a boy. Instead of a boy realizing he’s a man.

Any hints of Rushmore? Kind of. Max Winkler, the director, loves Wes Anderson and P.T. Anderson. I would say it’s influenced by them, but it just feels like it’s something that hasn’t been done ever. It kind of reminds me of a Billy Wilder movie. It moves extremely fast and the characters are very off-putting. It’s really biting and smart, but it’s also so sad. It’s about emotions really, about people being really selfish with themselves. It’s exciting. Especially after reading the Ayn Rand books.

What do you look for when you look at a script? I have no idea what to say when people ask that? I can only do things that I really like. I guess from a decision making mindset, you want to try something different, you want to challenge yourself with new things, so anything that’s new I like.

Forbidden Kingdom was a success in the box office. Did you think it would be? I think a movie like that is really rare, because you know it’s going to be somewhat successful. You know what you’re doing is going to get at least some kind of default profit because of the people involved, like Jackie Chan and Jet Le. You know it’s going to do semi-fairly well. But by no means when I signed on to that movie did I do it because it was going to be a big movie or anything. It was just like anything else; an incredible challenge. Independent movies are character driven and really simple and no special effects, but they can still be so ambitious, with the story they’re trying to tell. But a movie like that, that’s like the most ambitious movie you can make, because you’re really trying to make something people will revere and be surprised and entertained with. Even if it’s simple entertainment and even if what you’re doing is not like The Godfather, you’re still trying to tell a really whimsical, fantastic story.

Was it a physical challenge? It was ridiculous. It was five months in China and everyday we would be in like 125 degree weather. It was so weird because it was an all Chinese crew and literally there would be times where no one else on set would speak English. So it was a very uninvolved type of experience, and simultaneously it was one of the most crazily intense, life-altering experiences you could have.

What was the most useful martial arts maneuver that you learned? We were learning the choreography of each fight literally ten minutes before we were doing it. The more you fight the better you get at it. Even with fake fighting, the more you do it the better you get at it and the faster your mind works. The more you do the more you have control of your body in a spontaneous situation. You have to act quicker and let go of what you’re thinking. The less you think and the more you let your body decide what it wants to do, the better.

Angarano wears a T-shirt by Calvin Klein, jeans by Hudson. Photo by Billy the Kid, Styling by Wilson Matthews III, Hair by Charlie Taylor, Makeup by Lauren Whitworth using YSL Beauté.

Jesse Eisenberg Abandons ‘Ceremony’ for David Fincher?

Jesse Eisenberg has a couple of days left before he becomes a real life movie star, because his new movie Zombieland, with its epic cameo, is about to become a hit. When I spoke to Eisenberg in August for a profile in our October issue, he was stressing about how hard it is to land roles, despite the fact that he’s already appeared in critical successes like Roger Dodger, The Squid and the Whale, and Adventureland. He had a few movies “in the money raising stages,” but there was one role in particular he was excited about called Ceremony, about a young man (Eisenberg) who falls in love with an older woman (played by Elizabeth Banks) whose wedding he tried to stop. But today the trades are reporting the film has been recast with Michael Angarano, who was initially set to play Eisenberg’s best friend, now taking the lead.

Back in August, Eisenberg had this to say about Ceremony: “It’s a really good movie, a dark comedy. The director liked The Squid and the Whale. I think that’s why he cast me in it, actually. He would like to achieve a similar tone, you know, without being derivative. But, I guess because I’m articulate or something and maybe not a lot of actors are articulate. It’s with Elizabeth Banks. Do you know her? I go to break up her wedding.” Not anymore. Banks has also been replaced by the more Amazonian Uma Thurman. What’s going on here? Oh, right, The Social Network and David Fincher happened. Earlier this month Eisenberg was cast as Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg in David Fincher’s adaptation of Accidental Billionaires, which is set to begin shooting in October, the same month Ceremony is scheduled to start, once again proving the old Hollywood adage — you drop everything you believe in for a chance to work with David Fincher.