If there’s a “That Guy” of NY indie film, it’s probably Keith Poulson. He’s been in so many films that have played BAMcinematek, from a creepy art scenester in Hellaware to a cult leader in Stinking Heaven to a smarmy novelist in Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip. (He’s also worked on and appeared in two of Perry’s other four films.) Yet his latest role as an Iraq War veteran in Zach Clark’s excellent and moving Little Sister (premiering at BAMCinemaFest tonight) is maybe both his most personal, true to character, and also an unusual breakthrough role. (That’s how it was described to me by the New Yorker‘s Richard Brody. When I told Poulson this he said that was funny.)
“I’ve known Keith for a while, from making and watching movies in New York, and I always kind of had him in mind for the character,” says Little Sister director Clark. “His low-key sense of humor was really important for the film, it’s actually really difficult I think, to take material that is very sad on the surface, and play it as comedy but also not detract from the sadness, and Keith handles that beautifully.”
Poulson has a quality similar to old school Hollywood supporting men like Franchot Tone. He also sees more movies, old and new, than most directors and is down for the cause of no-budget filmmaking. Says filmmaker and cinephile Marie Bardi: “He’s always generally ‘around’ and willing to help out his filmmaker pals in any way, and that openness set him up to be cast in a lot of things. He’s such a blank slate that you can imagine him in an infinite amount of cinematic situations. Everyone has their ‘Keith movie.’ I’d want to make a ‘wrong man’ sort of film with Keith on the run in Jamaica. It’s just amusing to me to think of such a straight-forward, decent guy in that kind of dramatic scenario. And I think a lot of his films highlight that. Alex Perry always casts him as an asshole because it’s funny to imagine Keith as that kind of guy.”
We had a chance to talk to Poulson recently through email and chat.
Zach said you did a lot of preparation for this role. What sort?
I would say that it’s more that I had a good amount of time to prepare. The part was on my mind a lot for about 9 months before we started shooting. I read a lot of articles and watched interviews that seemed pertinent to the role, I read some books, one called Redeployment by Phil Klay which is a collection of short stories about soldiers/veterans of Iraq War. Also Zach had me reread the part of Sam Fuller’s book about his time in war, his feelings leaving the war, etc.
And how much were you thinking about that specific time period, 2008?
Honestly, I wasn’t focusing too much on that aspect, other than thinking about my own feelings about my own life during that time, which I remember were really optimistic and positive, beyond election-related things. I think doing a period piece about something that is so recent was interesting just because how vividly I could remember it. Also I guess I considered how the atmosphere of hope would seem once your life just became in some ways a lot more hopeless, but that’s more from the script than from me on my own.
Was this role more personal than some of your other movie roles? Or no?
I realize that most of the work I have done doesn’t really bring in the concept of family too much, so I think that alone made it more personal. I guess I’ve done films where I play a main character’s brother cracking wise, or there will be a scene in something where I’m bratty to a parent, but to make something with more dramatic heft which involves the concept of actual family made it more personal to me. I think about my family a lot and I have no idea how I would write something of my own about the subject, but it was nice to be able to use it. Also, the script has all these specific family concepts directly from Zach & Melodie Sisk [the film’s coproducer], but I didn’t even know some of the connections until we had already wrapped.
Do you think other roles you’ve played have been more about your face? And this was more about your body/voice?
Or do you think you’ve been cast more for your face?
I don’t think I’m cast mostly for my face in general. I guess to a certain extent every actor’s face plays a part in the casting, but I feel like I have been cast because somebody feels like I understand the type of film they are trying to make, more than my voice or face or body, but I guess people don’t over-elaborate WHY they cast you and I don’t ask. But this one, I feel like my vocal pacing/tone I was more aware of, because I’m playing a character that wants to be left alone more than a character that wants to be heard, which is more usual.
Could you elaborate on that? How did that effect the way you used your voice?
The direction I’m given most often is “faster” and “more energy” and that didn’t apply as much here. I could kind of take my time with the lines and feel them a bit more.
It didn’t mean I was using like a dramatically different voice or accent or anything, I just feel like I could keep some of my natural somber tone in my voice more this time around.
It’s strange to talk about performance months after you’ve performed it. Feels like it implies more control or that I had a really specific executed approach on the day of shooting, where as its all a bit more instinctual than that.
Oh I understand. But going back to what you said about doing something w/ more dramatic heft, in a weird way, with this it’s both more drama and closer to your own kind of deadpan humor. (Something Zach mentioned about why he wanted to cast you.) Is that also maybe why it was more of a “breakthrough” role for you? (I feel like you’re often the straight man, or straighter, in kind of wild comedies.)
Again, I wouldn’t call this a breakthrough role, but I get it if a role like this maybe would make people mention a performance more than other stuff I’ve done. I don’t know how often the straight man in a comedy really pops out to people, but a character in a truly difficult situation you will empathize a bit more so I suppose that will inherently make people connect with an actor more. But, I think Zach didn’t want somebody to be really milking it so I guess maybe he liked me because I’ve done kind of sad comedy and so this is just the reverse, funny drama.
Did you end up using your body more subtly or in new ways? Or was that no different?
I think that wardrobe actually affected the way I moved around in a way that felt specific to the character of Jacob. Almost like when it’s cold and people put sweaters on dogs and they seem like they move a little sadder and depressed, I think wearing this “I just want to sit around the house in sweats and baggy stuff” kind of helped me get into a certain sorta lethargic way of moving that seemed appropriate.
But you could also express so much of your closeness w/ your sister through just body language. But I guess that’s just normal acting that’s maybe more notable when we’re not focused on faces as much.
Yeah that may be true. I am always aware of my body, even when not acting, I don’t think this time was especially different.
You’re always aware of your body? Like in a self-conscious way? Or just an observational way?
I guess “always” is too strong of a word. Some in a self-conscious way, but more observational I think. Maybe it’s more that I often notice if I made a hand gesture or had a certain posture or did something along those lines, usually right after the fact. I think maybe I’m not the world’s best listener, but I think I am good at picking up on more visual cues body language are giving off than some people.
And when you’re acting you are also aware that people are seeing you and what you’re doing. I was on an airplane a while ago and somebody a row ahead of me was watching Goodfellas, and Ray Liotta is so good in that movie, even if it’s muted. I would watch his whole part with no sound and get nearly as much out of it
I love watching without sound. Or just sound.
Yeah me too.
Anything else you want to add?
I guess the only other thing I wish I had mentioned is that Addison [Timlin, star of Little Sister] and I were really close, really fast, and that’s a lot of why my performance is maybe a little more felt. We didn’t know each other at all before the film. I came to visit set when they were shooting the first week up in NYC before the company move to North Carolina and from the first conversation we just really clicked and then when I got to NC, my first stuff was more dramatically focused towards Molly Plunk’s character. But by the time we got to the stuff at the family house we had had a few days to just hang out and bond. And she’s so good, but I think it helps to like be acting with people that you care about, would care if something bad happened to them, that kind of thing, especially in a film like this that’s about family.