Sam Shakusky Goes To College: An Interview with Jared Gilman

 
Left: Nico Tavernise/Right: Hoebermann Studios

Left: Nico Tavernise/Right: Hoebermann Studios

 

by Lauren Wilford

Five years ago, in the spring of 2012, Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop traced the phrase “Moonrise Kingdom” into the sand of a New Penzance beach. Jared Gilman’s sincere, self-possessed performance as the runaway Khaki Scout helped give the film its moral center.

Today, Jared is eighteen and about to head off to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. He’s worked consistently since Moonrise Kingdom, appearing in films like Elsa and Fred (with Christopher Plummer and Shirley MacLaine), and, most recently, with Moonrise co-star Kara Hayward in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson.

I met up with him in the courtyard of Manhattan’s High Line Hotel. He wore a Summit Ice shirt (from Nathan for You), jeans that he “got at Cannes” (“I always have to say that, I think it’s just like this funny cool thing”), and big headphones around his neck. We ordered some iced tea and sat down for a long conversation about life on set, Wes Anderson, growing up fast, and what it’s like to watch Funny Games with your parents.

***

So what are you working on right now?

I actually just finished my classes, but I have a senior project which is basically a glorified internship. I’m going to be working at a production company, reading scripts and writing coverage and stuff. So I’m excited. I’m starting this week.

Is production the thing you’re interested in going into?

Well, I’m going to college next year, NYU. I’m going for film. Mainly because I’m a huge film nerd. When I was really little, I used to make, like, really dumb, stupid action films.

As the director?

Director, writer, editor, star.

The auteur.

[laughs] Sure, if that means “he makes movies all on his own.”

[laughs] Pretty much, yeah.

Every now and then I’d have friends who would be in them, but for the most part, they were all films that were made by me, starring me, everything me. To the point where I had to learn how to splice more than one of myself into the same shot.

Oh wow, so truly starring only you.

Yeah, it was that bad. It was awful.

How old were you when you were starting to do this stuff?

Late elementary school. Like fourth, fifth grade. I guess later middle school is when I stopped. It was something I always wanted to go back to. And so I’m hoping that college, it’ll give me the opportunities that I’ve always wanted to have.

So how did Moonrise Kingdom come about? Was that your first role?

Yeah. First role. First anything, really.

How old were you when you were cast?

I was 12. It was somewhat of a long process. I had my first audition September 2010, and I was just going in to sixth grade at the time. Back then, before I filmed, I used to have really long hair, down to my shoulders. And I also used to wear these awful, like, sports glasses. Like Rec Specs with the thing that goes around the back of your head. Basically because I thought they were, like, comfortable, and I’m a golfer, so every time I’m lining my shot up, and I don’t want to have to keep pushing my glasses back up. It was really stupid, I don’t even know. Anyway, when I started auditioning, I got a second pair, like a backup pair of glasses. So Moonrise was like my second or third audition, and when my mom and I went into the waiting room, we realized we had left my auditioning glasses in the car. So I had to go in with the Rec Specs.

Maybe it was kind of a Richie Tenenbaum look.

[laughs] Oh, I don’t know. In interviews, Wes said it was like Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

He liked them though?

Yeah, that was one of the things that stuck out to him about me. That and the long hair.

But I went back a couple months later, and that was when I first met Wes. And they had me reading with another girl who was auditioning to play Susie. And they had us read about 30 something pages of the script.

That’s a lot.

It’s a lot. But, you know, I think he wanted to get an idea of us, and all the people who were reading for the role. Then I had another callback another couple of months later, and this one was at Wes’s office? Or apartment? In the city? And it was just one-on-one.

And then, a couple months later, I had a third callback. Most likely what was going to happen was that I was going to get cast, but they weren’t sure if I was going to be Sam or be a scout. Because people who were Khaki Scouts read for Sam. And actually, the Criterion edition of the movie has the auditions. They have my audition, they’ve got Kara [Hayward]’s audition, they have all the scout auditions. And... I can’t really watch it without cringing.

But it worked!

It’s very weird, because it’s also the catalyst for the thing that changed my life. I was auditioning back when it was called “Untitled Wes Anderson Feature.” All I knew was the character breakdown. I had seen Fantastic Mr. Fox—all of his other movies were a bit too inappropriate for me at the time. But then when I got cast, we kind of stopped caring.

You did a pretty huge movie as your first-ever project. You’ve worked on several other films since then. Looking back, do you have a different perspective on the process than you did jumping right in as a twelve-year-old?

I guess I look back on it and I see it as a kind of learning experience. After doing the next few films, it made me realize just how unorthodox some of the things that happened on Moonrise were.

Like what?

Like we didn’t have trailers on that set. We had Coleman tents.

Everybody had a Coleman tent? Like, Bill Murray had a Coleman tent?

I think so. I don’t remember about the big name actors. They stayed in a house together, whereas all the Scouts, we all stayed at a Holiday Inn Express.

Also, everyone had to come on set in costume and makeup, which I quickly found out was not something that’s normal. Like normally, you come to set in your street clothes and you get changed there.

It was funny—the costume fitting for Moonrise was, like, really elaborate. My costume fittings would last two to three hours, and it would just be me standing in a room, kind of like a mannequin, with the costume people adjusting pockets by like a millimeter this way, a little bit that way—they had to get my costume exactly right, because then they were going to model all the other Khaki Scout outfits on mine.

But then the next movie I did, when I had to go for costume fittings, I was kind of dreading it—but then I got there, and the costume designer gave me a couple pairs of clothes to try on, and I tried them on, and that was it. It was done in like fifteen minutes, not even. It was a far cry from Moonrise.

Tell me a little about Wes Anderson.

He’s a really nice guy. He’s actually really chill. I guess the image of him is that he’s super controlling, like OCD whatever, but really, he isn’t. He’s very particular about blocking and stuff like that, but as a director, he’s really cool.

Did you guys talk about your character?

It came out during rehearsals. Because we had a lot of rehearsals leading up to filming. And I think that was the period of time when I was able to get a grasp on what he wanted out of me.

Right, because films have different schedules as far as how much rehearsing the actors get to do ahead of time.

Yeah, I think Wes really wanted Kara and I to rehearse because again, it was our first film, and he wanted to get a good idea of us as actors before we got on the set, how to properly communicate with us. I also had to learn how to kayak and flip a fish over an open fire.

In Paterson, Jim Jarmusch had you and Kara sort of reprise your Moonrise roles. I’m curious about how that came about.

He likes having cameos in his movies, scenes with other people from other worlds, and I guess he thought that that scene in Paterson would work for us. But all I knew was that I had gotten this call from my manager saying that he wanted me to play some role in [Jarsmusch’s] new movie, but he wanted to meet with me first just to talk. And it wasn't until the day-of that I found out Kara was also invited to this meeting. Which I was totally cool with, because I hadn't seen her in a little while. And then we met and we chatted, and he told us his idea for the scene. We were pretty down with it, of course, because it's him.

So: how do you feel about all the couples who dress as Sam and Suzy for Halloween?  

It's very interesting. I guess I'm always thinking that they're paying tribute to Wes and his characters. I think the weirdest one was probably, most recently, Ariana Grande and Mac Miller did a thing for a magazine where they were dressing up as various characters for Halloween, and one of them was Sam and Suzy. And I remember a bunch of people from my school were like freaking out about it. It was weird just because they’re so... I always see them as so much bigger.

That movie was a big deal!

I guess I don't think of myself as anyone that people think about, so it's weird when that type of thing happens. But ultimately it's positive-weird, not that I'm offended or scared or anything, it's just kind of this... I wish I had a word, but I don't.

What was the effect of that film on your high school experience?

Luckily the school that I go to, I've gone to since 6th grade—it’s a 6 through 12.

So they knew you already.

Yeah, there's a good percentage of people at that school who knew me before I did Moonrise. They knew me back when I was this weird frickin’ kid with weird hair and weird glasses. So, you know, I like that.

The weirdest thing, though, is seeing yourself tattooed on another person's body. That's happened once. That took me a few days to process. But the conclusion that I came to was that this person was honoring Wes's character. It's not me personally, and also they're paying tribute to the person who came up with the original fan art as well. It could be a lot worse. At least it's not a personal photograph or a headshot or whatever. I can sort of look at it and be like, I'm looking at Sam Shakusky on this person, and not Jared Gilman.

A character you’re related to, but not you.

Yeah. One's a fictional character who just happens to look exactly like the sixth-grade version of me. And the other one is me.

You’ve talked about being a cinephile and a movie nerd. What are you into right now? 

A lot [laughs].

Drop a couple on me. A couple movies you’ve seen recently that you loved.

Last night I watched Hunger, the Steve McQueen movie. I’d only seen 12 Years a Slave and I loved that, so I want to watch this guy’s filmography from the beginning.

That movie was insane, just that one conversation scene was... he has a lot of balls, that director, he has a lot of guts to just hold on something. To just sort of have minutes go by without any dialogue, just these very quiet yet haunting scenes.

And then you get to this scene where it’s these two characters talking for like twenty minutes and it’s done in two shots, one of them is like seventeen minutes long, and it's this wide shot—it almost felt like I was watching a stage performance, in a really really good way. And also just Michael Fassbender’s performance, especially at the end when he’s starving himself. That kind of stuff really gets to me when I see someone change their body for a role.

As an actor, you’re probably looking out for performances that you feel are inspiring. Do you feel like you watch films as an actor, or as a filmmaker?

I think I watch them as a filmgoer, or somewhere in between a filmgoer and a filmmaker. And an actor. Some kind of weird blend I guess.

I think some people think that if you are paying attention to something like the length of takes, that that can take you out of the movie, but I don’t feel that way about it. 

No, I think it’s just you're looking at it through a different lens. Is that a pun?

It’s a little bit of a pun.

Shit, sorry! 

You don’t have to apologize, that's allowed! So, do you feel like you watch movies differently after your—

After Moonrise?

Yeah.

I’d always been into film, but I had the worst taste when I was little, obviously, as anyone does.

Well, all kids have bad taste.

Yeah, as anyone does. But then when I got cast in Moonrise, I started watching all of Wes’s movies and that’s where I really first started noticing how someone shoots a film. I was noticing how the way he was shooting his movies was different from a lot of the other movies I had seen beforehand.

I kind of think that Wes Anderson is Film School 101, by himself, because he makes you see the filmmaking. What are some other movies that you feel like helped you fall in love with film?

It took me a little bit longer to make the transition from watching films purely for enjoyment to actually thinking about them in a more analytic sense. I guess Drive could be one of those.

[laughs] How old were you when you watched Drive?!

Probably too young. Even worse, and you might hate me for this, I watched it on a plane. I watch the worst movies on planes. I watched Drive on a plane. I watched Prisoners on a plane. I watched The White Ribbon on a plane.

It can be hard to be a young cinephile, because so much of great cinema is rated R. But it seems like that wasn’t an issue for you.

Well, I watched my first R-rated movie I was ten. It was District 9. And then, I’d watch another one here and there, in the next couple years. But it wasn’t until eighth grade when I stopped giving a crap. I would watch films behind my parents’ backs. I watched Game of Thrones without their knowledge. And then after that was when my mom was like, all right, whatever. At this point, it’s like, what can we do. [laughs]

I guess going back to films that I like—I can speak for directors I love. I love Edgar Wright, Shane Carruth—I can’t wait until The Modern Ocean comes out.

At the very beginning of this conversation, we were talking about you doing everything for your movies—directing, acting, editing, all that—and he’s that guy.

I was thinking about that.

When I found out he sound designed and edited Upstream Color, that blew my mind.

When I found out that movie had a fifty-thousand dollar budget, also, my mind was blown. I honestly don’t know how much I knew about Upstream Color before I watched it, but I watched it and I was like, what is this. What is up with this. This is crazy.

But yeah, directors that I love—Edgar Wright, Shane Carruth. I love Park Chan-Wook. The Handmaiden is my favorite film of 2016. Bong Joon Ho. I’m super excited for his new one. Obviously Kubrick... I’m getting into Tarkovsky, I’m seen a few of his and they’re pretty cool I think. And Michael Haneke.

You have a tolerance for some pretty intense stuff, it sounds like.

I do. I’m kind of an awful son. One night I tried to make my dad watch Funny Games with me.

No! [laughs] What were you doing? Had you seen it before?

It was bad. Yeah. I had seen it before. And it was right after I’d shown him Punch Drunk Love, which he really enjoyed.

That one’s okay for dads.

That one’s fine, I think. It just so happened that it was on TV and I was scrolling right as it was starting. And I was like, shit, I love this movie, but it’s also like, I was kind of hoping he’d fall asleep before it got really intense. The first fifteen minutes are okay, but then it gets really messed up.

NYU’s film application is a little more extensive than other applications. They make you write a bunch of mini-essays. One of them was about a piece of art that’s affected you in some sort of way, so I wrote about Funny Games. Obviously, the movie is sort of an indictment of the voyeuristic nature of people who watch movies and how we view violence. But one of the things that really stuck out to me was how attached I felt to the main characters—even though I knew they were fake, and I knew it was a movie, and I had that reminded to me several times throughout the film. Yet at the same time, because it feels so real, and the characters and the performances are so great, it doesn’t matter that you know that they’re fake.

What kind of stuff do you want to make?

That’s kind of what I’m figuring out, I guess. It’s another reason I want to go to college, because I want to find my cinematic voice.

But you are interested in directing potentially?

I’m figuring it out. I want to see if I enjoy it or not when I’m in college. I like making just short films with like a few other people, but I want to see how that translates into making possibly larger projects with more people.

Because you’ve watched that happen.

Yeah, I have! And I love being on set. I love something about that feeling; when you’re on something that’s functioning, it’s really, really cool. It’s something that I don’t get anywhere else. Which I guess is the sign of when you’re doing something that you really really love.

You’ve talked about how being on set makes you view films differently. What is something you wish the general population knew about making movies?

I remember talking to a friend when I was super little—and he actually thought that the way they did conversation scenes in movies was they’d have the camera on an actor and they’d be like, “Okay, say your line.” And then they’d cut. And then they’d turn the camera to the other guy and say, “All right, say your line.”

Which I guess is how you do it when you’re little and you have your Super 8 camera, but that’s not how you do it on set. So I mean, that’s an interesting thing to take away. What it takes to set up, the effort that goes into every shot.

I guess I wish, sometimes, that people would recognize when they’ve seen something before, or recognize when they’re seeing something that’s truly unique or exceptional. I guess whenever I see the general public talking about movies—people can watch movies however they want, ultimately—but I always see them talking like, “This character did this, and then I loved that, that the character did that.” And I’m like, all right, but what about the execution?

The conversation is much more on the plot than how the—

Yeah. And again, if people watch films for the plot that’s fine; that’s okay.

I get that you’re trying not to sound judgmental.

I’m trying not to.

Well, you’re a person practicing film craft, and I don’t think it’s judgmental to wish that people notice that or care about it.

I guess that something somewhat more specific is, if I talk to someone about comedy, most people say, “If it makes me laugh, it’s good.” Or I guess maybe if I’m watching a comedy, I watch it like I watch any other movie, which is, “All right, it made me laugh, but how did it make me laugh? Was it through improv? Was it through a visual gag? Was it through editing? What was it?”

Have you seen the YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting?

[Jared nods, knowingly and vigorously.]

You’ve seen the Edgar Wright video?

Oh yeah. Tony Zhou is great. I watch a lot of YouTube—probably too much—but he’s one of my favorites. And I’m waiting for him to drop another video. I think he’s done a few for FilmStruck? But he hasn’t done anything on his main channel on YouTube in a long time. Tony, if you’re reading this…! [laughs]

But yeah, I wish people would notice how a scene is executed, basically just because that was really what made me like more films, or weirder, artsier type films.

It can open you up to enjoying more things.

Right, it can open you up to stuff that’s more obscure, or that is different, that you can then have a better experience watching.

Not saying that you should ignore plot! I think plot’s important, especially plot consistency. Because when there’s a plot hole, or when something pops up that doesn’t ring true to you, that can ruin it. So that is important. But I also think that it’s fair to say that the cinematographer and the production designer and the editor and all the crew also deserve some sort of, like, attention.

I also think that sometimes CG can get a bad rap. Like, I love practical effects. Especially practical blood. But CG artists work tirelessly—like, hours and hours, days and days, to make a certain shot look right, and if they’ve done their job well, you don’t notice. You only ever talk about CG when it’s bad. You never really talk about it when it’s good, unless it’s like James Cameron’s Avatar or whatever. But I love watching effects reels, especially for films that you wouldn’t expect to have them, like Wolf of Wall Street—the stuff they did in that movie is really cool. Random conversation scenes happening in completely different locations. David Fincher does that a lot too.

One other thing I wanted to ask: if you ever make a film with actors the age you were on Moonrise, with 12-year-olds—

Oh, how would I direct it?

Yeah!

I think, I guess maybe just keeping a sort of friendly tone, like—I don’t want to ever seem like I’m threatening. And this goes with any actor; I want to make sure that I’m approachable. Or I want to make sure that they have their voice. Maybe this is just me—I don’t know. Because the way Wes directed, he was really cool all the time. He was always very calm and he always knew exactly what he wanted to do, or what he wanted us to do. Which made my job a little easier.

And also when I was filming Moonrise, I rarely ever thought of it as a job. I was honestly having a really great time on set filming. Even doing scenes over and over again, it was always great. And I really miss it.

It was nice seeing it have the reaction it did. That was one of those things that like, I had always hoped that people would get something out of it.

They definitely did.

That year was so weird; going to the award shows? I went to a couple award shows. Those were very bizarre experiences, especially being the young film fan I was. It was really weird being in a bunch of rooms with people who I grew up watching. And then even weirder when I’d say hi to them and them being like “Oh, I loved you in that movie.”

Have you gotten used to that yet?

I hope I don’t. I hope that’s something that still weirds me out. I don’t know if I want it to feel like a normal thing.
 

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)


Lauren Wilford is a senior editor at Bright Wall/Dark Room.