“Making Sense of Something That is Beyond Us:” Anton Yelchin’s Spring 2016 Interview

The MovieMaker staff was shocked and saddened to hear about the untimely passing of actor Anton Yelchin on Sunday, June 19.

A talented performer who put in memorable performances in blockbuster and independent features alike, Yelchin was someone we looked forward to watching for many years to come.

As the lead in this year’s Green Room, he graced the cover of our most recent Spring 2016 issue, alongside director Jeremy Saulnier and co-stars Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots and Patrick Stewart. Yelchin was interviewed by MM writer Jeff Meyers for that cover story (which you can read here). In the light of this tragedy, we’ve decided to publish the full transcript of his interview, in which he proved himself to be an eloquent speaker, dedicated craftsman and passionate cinephile. He will be missed. – MM Editors


Jeff Meyers, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): I saw a brief interview with you where you talked about your time in a punk band. Did you use any of your experience of being in a band to make Green Room more authentic? How did it shape some of what you did in your performance?

Anton Yelchin (AY): Jeremy was in a hard-core band in the early ’90s, during that stage of hardcore in Virginia. His account of being in a band is incredibly authentic, based on his own experience. He was in a shitty band, driving around, gigging. So I never ever took it upon myself to offer any advice. We ended up bonding over stuff, but I think that Jeremy’s experience was a lot more authentic than mine, because I never gigged around in a van. I mean, we played a few shows in Santa Barbara, so we put all our shit in my truck and drove up, but we never did a tour where we were living out of a van [like in the film]. The people that you’re playing with, they’re usually your best friends, and it’s an incredibly emotional and moving experience. Some of the most fun I have had with my friends is that time when we would play shows together, and we would suck together or we’d be OK together, get hammered, stop being able to project the lyrics, forget what we were doing. There’s a real beauty to that feeling when you’re all together and sharing that, especially in punk music, which is very aggressive. There’s a lot of commonality between who’s on stage and who’s in the audience—you’re just all in it together. We all had shows we played like that, where we really were only inches away from people moving around and throwing themselves around.

MM: Is there anything you and the cast did to get that sense of familiarity with each other? I have a lot of friends in bands and they’re somewhere between close friends and dysfunctional family.

AY: Yeah, I mean, I could really relate to the band element in the film in the sense that our bass player and our guitar player would always be fighting, always. They’d get in a fight and we wouldn’t play music together, and in a few months we’d get back together. So it is like a dysfunctional family.

I hadn’t done a film before with Alia; after two films, we’re good friends now. I was really stoked on [playing the band’s music], because I hadn’t played music in a while with my friends. So I was like, ‘Fuck, I get to have a band and form a bind with these guys in a way that I would in a band.’ I thought it was very important that that bond got formed because it had to translate on screen. The amazing thing that happens when you practice four songs over and over and over again together is you’re all working together and you start coming up with your own stuff. By the time we got to set and we were ready to shoot, we just felt really close and that happened through the rehearsals, on the phone.

Callum [Turner] joined us a little later, so for the first few rehearsals it was just me, Joe Cole and Alia. And at first we were all just trying to nail it down the phone, but after a while you start connecting with one another. By the third rehearsal, Joe, Alia and I just felt so at ease with one another; from that moment on we felt really close, because we had all sucked together, learning the songs and figuring out the songs. We were close. On our first night, a little bit outside of Portland, we all went to CVS together and drove around. Joe, Alia and I walked to Subway and got beef jerky at the liquor store, and we already felt like those characters; we were all just hanging out already. It was really wonderful. I haven’t thought about that Subway beef jerky trip in a bit. It was such a nice, fun time. It mirrored the experience of what you see onscreen when the band is having a good time in their van; that’s pretty much us.

Alia Shawkat as Sam, Anton Yelchin as Pat and Callum Turner as Tiger in Green Room

Alia Shawkat as Sam, Anton Yelchin as Pat and Callum Turner as Tiger in Green Room

MM: Well, it really comes through clear. Talk to me a little bit about how you look at scripts for projects you want to get involved in. Do you read a lot of scripts, or do you let your manager do the heavy lifting? What makes interest in something turn into ‘Yes, I’m going to do it?’

AY: I read everything, of course. I can’t make the decision if I don’t do all the reading. I don’t let other people read for me. I’m a really big fan of film history and a wannabe movie historian, a wannabe nerd, so I really respond to filmmakers that are making their own kinds of cinema. I watched Blue Ruin and I thought Blue Ruin was moving and somber, and then I got this script about a punk band, and I love punk music, and that was pretty much it. I instantly wanted to do it. It was really that simple. Jeremy is just the most stand-up human being, and he’s such a good man, and that comes through in the way he talks about life and about cinema. I just wanted him to want me to do it. I wanted him to want me in the movie.

MM: How did that come about? How did you make that case?

AY: I remember Skyping with Jeremy. I was actually shooting a movie with Alia, oddly enough, so I Skyped with Jeremy and then I didn’t hear about anything for a while. Then I heard that they were interested in me and I went into Portland, I remember, to talk to Jeremy, and I read stuff for him because I knew he liked people to read. I always think speaking to someone is one thing, because you can be really talented at bullshitting, but that doesn’t really make up for—you have to produce something in front of the filmmaker for them to see what you’re going to do.

We bonded really quickly, I think, over the fact that we both are really close with our friends growing up. I think with Green Room Jeremy is saying goodbye to a certain part of his life, as a married man with three children. You’re not 20-something in a punk band anymore. And I am at that age, but then I sort of look at when I did have my band and playing shows and stuff, and I really just missed that feeling, just constantly feeling love for your best friend, and we bonded over that. My best friends are my family; I treasure them.

MM: What does Jeremy do as a director that is different from what you’ve experienced on other film sets?

AY: He’s meticulous about the conditions that humans are in, and that’s what I really like about his films—there’s a really meticulous approach to how humans do everything and how they try to figure everything out, and how they try to compartmentalize. There’s that wonderful shot in Blue Ruin with the trunk of the car, when you see how [the protagonist] has arranged his whole life to live in a car. It’s the same thing in Green Room: He’s meticulous about the details of how the band is arranged, where they sleep, how they sleep, how they leave the phone in the room to go to the bathroom, where the charger is… I really appreciated watching Jeremy craft that world. Taking time to figure out how the specific act of siphoning gas is going to work. All the details come together, like how many cartridges there are, where are the things that they’re using to fight the Nazis, where do they find weapons, how are they trying to get out. Thing come back. Little material objects that you might discover in the first part of the film come back later in the film. You realize that humans use this material reality to try to combat the sublime experience of being alive, which is beyond us… You see people planning and figuring out and doing this and doing that, all these attempts at making sense of something that is beyond us, and it’s terrifying in a sublime way. You spend the whole of Blue Ruin trying to figure out what’s going on and you learn that it was an idiotic mistake. And it’s the same thing in this film; it’s just a mistake. There’s no explaining it, it just happened.

MM: So you have to maintain a pretty high state of fear and panic and confusion for a fair amount of the shoot. How do you keep that kind of intensity authentic day in and day out, especially because you know you’re on a set, and filming is always a herky-jerky kind of process?

AY: If you lock six or seven people that are screaming and crying in one room for 30 days, that really hurts, you know. And I loved all the people involved. Imogen Poots is a really good friend of mine. We worked together before and have been close friends for years. We were all friends; Eric Edelstein, and Patrick, who was always on the other side, but all of us got along really well. Chris Carol, the first AD, was the man. I loved the people that I was with, but it was fucking brutal. I think for Pat, the most painful thing is knowing that the loves of his life, his family, his best friends, are dying. It’s hard, and it’s every day, when you come back to that room.

I didn’t wash my clothes for 30 days. I don’t have a very good sense of smell, which is fortunate because I couldn’t smell my own T-shirt very well. I didn’t want it to get washed. There’s something about putting on the same disgusting T-shirt every single day for 30 days, the T-shirt that you wore two weeks ago and now it’s got two weeks worth of sweat, fake blood, snot and tears on it. It’s crazy; I wonder what they did with that T-shirt! It’s probably the most putrid, rancid T-shirt in the history of mankind.

MM: Was there any unexpected surprise or challenge about this shoot?

AY: Despite what I just said about shooting in there, it was such a good time. I had such a good time in Portland, because I was making a film that I really believed in. Macon Blair would have nights at his house on the weekend, where we all got together and brought food and stuff and hung out. It was some of the best times I’d had on any set. It was such a good group of people and always had this… I guess you could say “punk” ethos about it. I don’t really like throwing that word around because it’s so overused and it’s been so commodified, I guess, and dished out in every single way, but there really is an ethos to real punk bands and punk people and I felt that about our group. I felt that about Portland in general; Portland’s such a great city. I felt that about the aesthetic of the film. Everyday I was just stoked, despite weeping and sobbing and breaking down and running for my life; there were moments I would think, “This is fucking cool. We’re doing something cool here.” It was hard but it was great.

MM: Sounds awesome. Thanks so much for giving me your time, Anton. I really appreciate it.

AY: Yeah, of course. Thank you.

MM: And good luck. It’s a great film so I hope it has great success. MM

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

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