Talking To The Star Of The Savage Punk Movie You Need To See
You’ll probably have a hard time guessing the host of a wild, zine issue launch at Circus of Books, the porn book and video shop in Silver Lake, Los Angeles. A punk band was playing in the back between magazine aisles and amongst walls that were plastered with xeroxed images of the host wearing a wig and a pink silk dress. He wasn’t a performance artist or a nightlife impresario or any of the other things you might expect. In fact, it was the actor who famously played the young savant Chekov in the Star Trek saga, and a lover in the emotional romantic drama Like Crazy: Anton Yelchin. However, this wasn’t Anton acting, nor was it Anton doing research for a role; this was Anton in his element.
Cut to one month later. Anton and I are surrounded by velvet and plush furniture at the London Hotel in West Hollywood, where he is promoting Blue Ruin director Jeremy Saulnier’s new film, Green Room. He plays Pat, the bassist in an ill-fated hardcore band. While playing a gig at a skinhead locale in backwoods Oregon, Pat witnesses a violent crime. The band then gets locked in their green room while white supremacist killers wait outside, the leader of whom is played by the iconic Sir Patrick Stewart, also famously of Star Trek. The movie, which also stars Imogen Poots and Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat, is so savage that I can’t get into details without you throwing up on your screen. It’s pretty fantastic.
You would think that this posh hotel suite is a movie star’s natural habitat. And sure, for someone who’s been acting in Hollywood since he was a kid, this is par for the course. However, this isn’t exactly Yelchin’s scene. I had planned to ask him if playing a punk rock bassist was a stretch for him, but after thinking back to the zine launch, I decided to nix that question. Obviously the world of Green Room—minus the extreme violence—is closer to his real life than the marble coffee tables and silver-plated luxury of our current setting. So to compensate, we sat down to talk photography, music, and what band he would bring to a desert island.
What caught your attention about this project?
I saw Blue Ruin, and I found that movie to be very melancholy and very moving. If I’m moved by something, I’m drawn to it. And this is a punk rock thriller! I really haven’t seen that in a while. A lot of films can be called punk films, but those literally deal with punks. I haven’t seen one like this. I identified with the palpable sense of absurdity of Jeremy Saulnier’s films. There is a sense of absurdity in which people are trying to figure out a way out of a situation that will not yield to sense or order. We, as human beings, are intrinsically struggling with that every day. We are all so terrified of the disorder lurking around the corner, and Jeremy’s films cut straight to that.
“I go to the best free film school around. How can I complain?”
I know that you’re an extremely visual person, and that you have your own photography projects too. How do you tune out your visual instincts when you’re acting and someone else is in control of the imagery?
To be honest, it’s hard. I have to devote all my energy to accomplishing my job as an actor. But I just love learning the visual language that is being employed. I like talking to them about the aesthetic that they’re designing. I go to the best free film school around. How can I complain?
Especially your character, Pat. He seeks out a sense of order.
Yes, and I find that very moving about Pat. He is the one that has to see all of his friends in jeopardy. And he is struggling so hard to make sense of it and solve it. The absurdity snowballs and it won’t get solved. And I found that very moving.
Right. The most horrifying thing about this movie is how evil humankind can be to each other.
It’s the banality of evil, a concept by philosopher Hanna Arendt. Evil can be this masterminded, malicious intent thing of just following orders. Some of the characters are not malevolent but they just don’t care. And that’s even more terrifying. Darcy (Patrick Stewart) has an operation, and he tries to figure out how to solve this in a way that is as pragmatic as possible—the lives of these kids don’t matter. You are subsuming others into your own context. I worked on this other movie, The Experimenter, about [psychologist] Stanley Milgram’s power experiments, and that movie touches on that subject as well. Humanity can be at its worst when it looks at things absolutely pragmatically.
Why do you feel like you’re drawn to those kinds of movies?
I’ve been in a bunch of different movies, but my favorites ones confront some deep existential fears that I have about being alive. Sounds cheesy, but it’s the only reason why I would want to be moved by things. I’m more interested in exploring those kinds of ideas.
Since you do play music, how did you feel about playing a musician on film?
I hesitate to say that I’m a musician, because there are some really amazing musicians walking around here. But I’ve had a shitty punk band and played shows for like five people and I know what that’s like. We needed to learn these songs to play in the movie. And we also needed a day to just fuck around and make our own songs. If we didn’t do that, then we’d never have known what that feels like. Alia Shawkat is a good friend of mine, and [actor] Joe Cole didn’t know how to play drums, but he learned how to play hardcore drums in six weeks—he’s a beast! Then we played the wrap party. Alia has an incredible, ethereal voice. We were sloppy and shitty. If we could have had more time, I think we could have been an actual band.
In the movie, your character Pat has trouble picking out the band that he would want to listen to over and over again if he were stuck on a desert island. What is your desert island band?
I’m very much like Pat, I really don’t know how to answer that question. I’m very close to saying either nothing, just the tunes of the island. Or some Delta blues, because those guys always sing about things that I can really relate to, even though I’m this middle class white kid in Los Angeles and they were struggling and preaching in the 1920s—sounds completely unrelatable, but somehow, they are.
Go see Green Room, in theaters now.
Film stills courtesy of A24.
Stay tuned to Milk for more punks.