Interview: Alicia Witt and Nick Stahl on
Escaping the Past With “Away From Here”

The still young old pros reflect on how their approach to acting has changed....Read More
Nick Stahl and Alicia Witt in "Away From Here"

As Alicia Witt would later explain, it’s taken her awhile to get to a place where she no longer carried her characters with her offscreen. Still, to hear her co-star Nick Stahl tell it, there’s one element of her character in their new film “Away From Here” that she has in common onscreen and off.

“You’ve got an amazing memory,” Stahl said. “It’s impressive. I don’t remember half this stuff, but you bring it up and it all comes back.”

For Stahl’s deeply troubled former youth pastor James, that’s an issue as he tries to carve out a new identity for himself as a past indiscretion continues to haunt him, yet with the aid of the waitress (Witt) at the local coffee joint where he starts out as a dishwasher, he’s liable to find the stability he needs to get back on his feet. What keeps “Away From Here” on its toes, however, is the chemistry between two old pros in the still quite youthful Witt and Stahl, who balance each other out nicely as burgeoning couple that steps gingerly towards a serious relationship.

Despite a shoot that featured Witt’s earliest call time on record and a long journey to the screen, the two fondly recalled their time making the intimate drama, working together for the first time and reflecting on how their approach to acting has changed since when they both started as kids.

Alicia Witt in "Away From Here"How did you get interested in this film?

Alicia Witt: I felt like the character really was someone that I related to very strongly right away, and she seemed liked somebody I could easily have been if life had dealt me different cards. There was nothing in her wariness or her openness that I didn’t relate to and I loved the balance that she strikes between having been hurt, and put up some really big walls, and also taking the chance at letting this stranger in because she can almost intuitively tell that he’s going through something similar.

Nick Stahl: Yeah, and something really spoke to me about Jamie, whose whole journey [was about] leaving this darker past behind, trying to make a new start for himself, and [having] a lot of his demons getting reflected back to him through his relationships. Overcoming these things and coming up the other side [made it] a really beautiful story.

Did you spend any time together before shooting to develop the relationship or was it best not to have too much prep?

AW: What’s great about this story is that at the beginning of it the two of them are actually strangers. We’ve met a couple of times before, but we certainly didn’t know each other very well, so the first couple of scenes where you see them meet in the film are actually the first couple of scenes that we filmed. That slight awkwardness you see is real and it was such a joy to get to work with Nick. I felt we are very similar kinds of actors in that we love playing off the other person and not rehearsing a whole lot, mapping out exactly what’s going on at every beat of the scene and letting the life of it takeover. It was a real joy.

NS: We didn’t end up having a whole lot of time to just know each beforehand, but it actually worked out real well. We spent a lot of time during the filming actually hanging out.

AW: I remember that one scene where we were playing pool we shot [after] one of the nights I performed [a concert] in New York where we did the shoot and Nick had come out, which was really nice, but then we had insomnia. We were texting at each other at like two in the morning, “Are you awake?” “Yes, but it’s so late.” Then the van showed up to take us to work at 3:55 a.m. and when I saw the movie, I actually did not remember filming the scene that we did that morning. It was a pretty good scene I think, but when I actually watched it and I was like, “Wait, when did we shoot this?” I think we were both so completely tired that we were giddy.

I’ve heard Alicia describe before how her connection to acting has changed over the years – that she used to draw more from personal experience and now there’s more of a separation – and since you both began working at such a young age, it seemed like a rare opportunity to ask you both if that’s true, in what ways has that evolved?

NS: For me, with age and experience has definitely come wisdom when it comes to what I do. I feel like I’ve gotten better and learned with every film I do and if I didn’t, it wouldn’t probably be as interesting because I still love it. When it comes to the process of actually acting itself, I would say some things have changed, but in a roundabout way it’s remained the same. I’ve gotten better at it, but it’s kind of remained the same through the process of it but when it comes to affecting my personal life, like she said, I’ve learned to separate it to a degree.

There’s clear distinction between who I am in my life and what I do. When I was a kid, I had a lot of my self-esteem and my self-worth squarely aligned with acting. If I didn’t get a role in something, I didn’t feel very good about myself, to be honest. That was my gauge of how good I felt about myself. It wasn’t as healthy. You are not able to sustain that because the one thing you’ve got to learn is you are going to get rejected [as an actor] about a hundred times more than you are going to get accepted. You’ve got to learn that pretty quick.

AW: And I agree with everything Nick’s said. For me, which is probably what you had heard me say, was that I felt that I used to take the work home with me a little bit more. If my character was going through something rough, I found that it transformed me in a way that’s not necessary for the work and also not healthy. I would do anything for a role. I love diving into it and really feeling what the character is going through, but I found through experience and trial and error that that stuff doesn’t really make the character better. Coming home at night and being in a lousy mood and taking it on people that you care about isn’t necessarily going to make you do better work in the morning. In fact, it’s much better for me to just really leave it on the set, come home and be, then go back into it well rested the next morning. That’s been a big change for me.

Nick Stahl in "Away from Here"Has the process changed as the industry has? I imagine the amount of time you have for these smaller indie films has gotten even shorter.

NS: You don’t have as much time to rehearse generally, but [Alicia and I] have somewhat similar way that we approach projects, which was nice. You show up on smaller movies and let it happen more. Sometimes I’ll lose a certain spontaneity or a certain something, and I like doing a little bit of a rehearsal, talking about it and jumping in and seeing what happens. That’s definitely what we did on this one.

AW: One of the coolest things about short shoots is that out of necessity, you just don’t get to rehearse things to death and I’m with Nick. I prefer not to. I prefer to let things happen as they happen, which isn’t the way all actors work, but it’s lovely that we got to work together on this and share that. A month-long shoot like this one was is a really nice length. I’ve also done films that are two-week shoot and there’s something magical about that too, but you also end up missing shots sometimes.

This one has actually taken a little bit of time to come out. With some distance, are you happy with it?

NS: The script was real good and it turned out a lot like it was written. Sometimes you get surprised from the script to the final product and if anyone just wanted to do more with what I thought it might be. I found it was really well made. I was really happy with it.

AW: You never really know. It was a great experience to shoot, but you don’t really know if you are acting in it how it’s going to turn out. You know how they are going to edit it or which shape they are going to choose or how the lighting is going to wreck it up, or is it sad music or who knows what. Films can get mangled in all different ways that you didn’t expect and it was really happy experience watching it for the first time. I was very, very proud of it and couldn’t wait for people to be able to see it.

“Away From Here” is now available on iTunes and on demand.

Stephen Saito is an L.A.-based writer whose work has been published in The L.A. Times, Premiere, and IFC.com.
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