I have never been to Los Angeles
Interview with actor and musician Joshua Burge
by Alessio Galbiati e Roberto Rippa
from Rapporto Confidenziale numero38
Rapporto Confidenziale: First of all, are you a musician turned actor or are you an actor who turned musician and then went back to acting? Or were you always both?
Joshua Burge: It’s hard to determine. When I was seven years old I used to stand in front of a mirror and pretend to play guitar. Was I a musician or was I an actor? For me, performing is the certainty. If I write the material to perform or somebody else writes the material to perform, so be it. I am happy to perform.
RC: How did you start working with Joel Potrykus? We know that he directed a few videos for Chance Jones, your band.
JB: I met him while playing video games in Northern Michigan. We had both studied film at the same university, although he studied it much longer than I did. We talked about film and got along well. I had heard about this film, Gordon, that Joel directed. I watched it, and I loved it. Joel started bringing a camera to a couple of Chance Jones shows and editing them into videos. He was interested in my ability to engage audiences and I was naturally impressed by his filmmaking. We respected each other as artists and became friends.
RC: EAnd what was Happy Birthday, Goldenboy?
JB: I’m laughing because I had forgotten about this. It was my birthday and Joel had made this short video for me as a video birthday greeting. The shot is from outtakes or “lost” footage of Coyote. Joel, myself, and our friends have this concept of the «golden hour», which is a moment right before sunset when the atmosphere is correct and the sun shines in a way that makes everything looks like gold. So, Goldenboy is a term of endearment.
RC: Both in Coyote – short movie by Joel Potrykus where you play a junkie who turns into a rabid werewolf – and Ape you have very demanding roles. How did you prepare yourself for them?
JB: For Coyote, Joel and myself did research into drug use, through literature, film, and the internet, because we were upset about how drug use is usually portrayed in cinema. We wanted to get the ugliness correct. The thought was «What if I was a werewolf and didn’t want to be?». How would a person deal with that. Would they tie themselves up every full moon? Would they commit suicide? Would they turn to drugs to escape? Ultimately we felt that drugs would be the option most people would choose.
For Ape I was fortunate that Joel had experiences in New York City as a comic and I had experiences there as a struggling performer as well. So we were able to trade stories and discuss ideas about what it was like to try and succeed. Also, I worked as a dish washer in a restaurant next to a comedy club. I met many comedians. They were the saddest and most depraved people I have met in my life. So I could remember my interactions with these comedians and had the good fortune to see more than what was presented on stage. I could relate to that and thought of it as a possible unique bond amongst all performers and entertainers.
RC: Coyote, apparently your debut as an actor on screen, is a 24-minute short film directed by Joel Potrykus filmed two years before Ape. Looking at it through the eyes of those who have seen Ape it may look like a study that prepares to what will become Ape. But it’s also an excellent underground work full of explicit homages to the Nouvelle Vague cinema and some cinema of the 70s and 80s. How was Coyote born?
JB: To really know how Coyote was born you would really have to ask Joel. At the time of filming I had recently purchased a great collection of “Ye-Ye” music and had become fascinated with Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy, Jacques Brel, Sylvie Vartan, Jane Birkin, etc. and Joel wanted to pay homage to Godard. As a result there is a dance sequence inspired directly from A Band Apart. So we integrated the French chanson as an overall motif. My understanding is that the first two films, Coyote and Ape are stories heavily centered around one figure to express primary emotions. Fear and anxiety in Coyote, anger and frustration in Ape. The third film will follow this way and complete the “Animal” trilogy.
RC: The story for Ape comes from a personal experience of the director, based on when he was performing as a stand-up comedian. This makes it mostly a personal story, we guess. Did you work together on building your character or did you leave total freedom?
JB: Joel and I knew each other well enough to discuss character. We both had experiences in New York City as performers that we could talk about. Obviously, having the ability to interact with the director of the film on such an intimate basis created an atmosphere of comfort. If there was an idea that I was confident about then Joel would say, «go for it», and if there was something that Joel felt was necessary then he was adamant about it and he felt that it should occur. If there was something that we were debating then he and I always felt that the other person had the “better” idea. But the subject matter was not alien to either of us. So we were able to work out any problems in rewrites of the script very easily.
RC: The strength of your acting lies, according to us, in your incredible ability to enter into the role of Trevor Newandyke, to transform yourself in Trevor. In Ape you succeed in giving likelihood and depth to an evanescent and timeless character. How did you work in building the character? Who’s Trevor Newandyke?
JB: Well, if I can speak honestly, I would say that when the role of Trevor was offered to me I wasn’t in a happy place in my life. I had experienced a very difficult spring and filming Ape and getting into the role of Trevor was a good way for me to channel a lot of that sense of failure. Many of the frustrations captured on screen are in many ways very real. But with failure comes many emotions. I felt sad and lonely but I also felt as though I wanted to be liked and succeed again. There is battle that occurs then. Sometimes you feel defeated and sometimes you want to go into a rage. I thought if applied all of these attributes to Trevor, he would be an interesting character.
RC: We’ve seen Ape as a film about rage. A very good film about rage that efficiently mixes comedy and drama (just as your music – according to us – efficiently blends old school soul, punk and glam rock). Is it difficult as an actor to find the balance between this two opposites?
JB: It is not difficult for me. I have always seen these elements as related to each other. I have always attempted to be as broad and dynamic inside of a three minute song as possible. So transition that concept over to acting was tricky and confusing at first but once I began to realize how to do it, it was quite natural for me, given my experiences as a writer. It’s a matter of preference really, but I happen to prefer a song that can take an audience through a wide range of emotions in such a short time. The characters in my songs attempt to do that so naturally the character with the character I portray I’m going to bring a lot of that same outlook..
RC: It also appears to be an effective depiction of life in the province of the US. Is it, according to you??
JB: Life as an entertainer in the United States is difficult. When the Ape crew arrived in Europe we were so happy to be there, but many people told us about their frustrations with their government not giving them appropriate funds for their filmmaking endeavors. This confused us. In the United States, art is not a form of monetary capital. So American artists struggle and hurt not just for themselves, but they hurt because there is so much they want to belong to. There is so much they want to talk about. American artists understand that their families and themselves have been given great bounties, but the American artist is confused and scared and worries about one’s place in the world as anybody else would. The United States is a big place. It is not only New York. It is not only Los Angeles. There have been many people who have lost their homes not because of war, but because of banks. There are so many talented people who you will never hear from. You will never see their work. You will never know their names. Yet, they are sometimes the best America has to offer. That is what I think is presented in the film. Not that Trevor is the best America has to offer but that there are whole worlds in every town across the country where people are trying to express themselves and engage audiences and generally they go completely unheard and often unwanted. This film is a presentation of a world like that. We, in the USA would call it the Rust Belt. It’s a place of economic struggle, a place where show business doesn’t really exist. It’s a place where Joel and I are from and we wanted to represent it through our perspectives as artists in the region.
RC: How much was your role already written in the script and how much came out from improvisation during filming?
JB: For the most part the film was performed as written, although Joel would provide re-writes on the day of shooting. Joel would give us the liberty of saying the lines as we wanted to, however, the actors in the film felt they should deliver the lines as written. Which tells you something about Joel’s extraordinary ability to write. The only two words that were completely improvised were “Critters 2”.
RC: Your acting in Ape, so eccentric and original, reminded us of some big names of Slapstick Comedy – Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd above all – as we told you after watching the film in Locarno. What are, if you have some, your models, your sources of inspiration?
JB: I know my face is not one of a “leading man”. There was a time when leading men had faces like mine – Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel. Imagine, the reason this occurred was because the faces were interesting. Not necessarily handsome, but different. No one looks at anything unless they are interested in it. Some of my favorite actors aren’t conventionally good looking men but I love to watch them on screen. Of course, I have no control over the dimensions of my face, but if you found it appealing then I consider it a job well done.
RC: You and Joel are based in Michigan, far away from both the cinema industry and the main music scene. Does this make it difficult to make your work be seen and listened throughout the US?
JB: Yes. Joel and I would both prefer to be in a more entertainment-oriented area. However, we have been given the gift of a generation that has the vehicle of the internet. I cannot speak for Joel, but I realize that I will never be able to see full fruition on anything that I attempt if I don’t live in a show business town. Entertainers in Michigan make no money, but my experience in New York tells me I wouldn’t make any money there either. I have never been to Los Angeles.
RC: We read that you’re willing to direct a movie, are you working on this? What is it about?
JB: I have been working on a script for a while. It’s about a guy with no direction in life. All of his friends have very active lives but because of their actions toward each other their social circle gets very damaged and all of sudden this man who had nothing now has all of the responsibilities of his friend thrown upon him. He basically tries to clean up the mess. ■
August 29, 2012