“Don’t think I’m a nice guy?” Wyatt (Pablo Schreiber) asks Kat (Eliza Taylor), hovering above her as if to prove the contrary not so long after meeting her in “Thumper.” The answer becomes more complicated than you’d think in Jordan Ross’ feature debut, in which Schreiber tears up the screen as a drug dealer whose house is tucked away in a nondescript neighborhood, taking care of two toddlers of his own in the midst of tending to a group of older kids to sling his wares at the local high school. While most try to get out of Wyatt’s reach, Kat has worked her way in for reasons that become clearer as “Thumper” wears on, befriending Beaver (Daniel Webber), seemingly the weakest link in the clique with an undiagnosed learning disability and a younger brother to think about.
Kat has others to consider as well, and part of what makes Ross’ first feature so intriguing is how the writer/director weaves in how doing the wrong thing for the right reasons has led everyone in “Thumper” to dig themselves deeper and deeper into a hole they may not emerge from whole. This is particularly true in the case of Wyatt, who is vividly brought to life by Schreiber in a ferocious turn that gives new dimension to the notion of having sympathy for the devil. A former combat vet who has quietly found a hustle in a world that he feels has taken him for granted, Wyatt is both brilliant and brusque, a combination that Schreiber effortlessly blends together as he puts the fear of God in those who work for him while occasionally showing the fear he has privately. It’s a performance that demonstrates the actor’s incredible versatility and his knack for creating instantly memorable cahracters, something that he’s demonstrated time and again since first turning heads on “The Wire” as the doomed dockworker Nick Sobotka and moving on to roles as diverse as playing the Army Ranger Kris “Tanto” Paronto in Michael Bay’s “13 Hours” or the hapless corrections officer George “Pornstache” Mendez in Jenji Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black.”
After premiering earlier this year at the Tribeca Film Festival, “Thumper” recently reached theaters and VOD and to mark the occasion, Schreiber took the time to talk about how he came onto the film, undergoing the physical transformation for the role that meant shaving his head and a spider-web tattoo prominently featured on his cranium and how Ross fostered an environment where the reality of the situation being portrayed helped bring out the drama inside of it.
How did you get interested in this?
I liked the idea of the character – how far he was from my own worldviews and what a challenge it would be portraying somebody that was a far distance from me, but seems somehow instantly relatable and for men to humanize those worldviews. It was pretty easy for me to understand his frustrations with the world and with the way things have gone in his reality, and when I read the script, it felt really authentic and unique in its tone. So I met with Jordan, who came from a background of documentary/reality TV [which] I thought that would be a particularly interesting set of skills to bring to this project, and when we talked, I jumped on.
The look seems so crucial to the character of Wyatt – did you know what he’d look like from the start?
Yeah, for sure. I designed the look with Jordan and obviously, shaving the head and leaving the beard was the first step in figuring out how to make this guy jump off the page. We wanted him to have a menacing, intimidating look so we could tell the story of the guy who has climbed his way up and gotten ahead through intimidation, but then you have him playing with his kid in the first scene or you hear in the scene with Eliza where he’s talking about the reasons he does what he does to provide for his family, when you hear those words come out of the mouth of a guy who looks like that, it provides a real contrast to your first impression of him.
There is definitely an alternative version of this character who’s mean all the time and glowering and intimidating, but it’s less interesting. I wanted to see the guy who wants to play around and he’s got all these kids working for him, so obviously there’s a real childlike side to him. There’s a fun-loving happy family man inside this guy who is also terrifying and violent, and if you just have the one side, it becomes a much less complex character, but if you show as many sides as you can, then the human being actually starts to come alive a little bit more.
Since you’ve done your fair share of TV as well recently, do you approach a role differently when you know the full arc of a character as you would on a movie versus an episodic TV show where it’s more open-ended?
Longform storytelling versus shortform is a different thing, for sure. When you’re doing a movie, you know the beginning, middle and end, so I think there’s more ownership from the actor’s side of, “Okay, this is the arc of this character, this is where he’s going and this is what I’m doing.” And with TV, it’s a bit more of a jumping off the edge. There’s a bit more trust in the showrunners and in the writers and in the audience because ultimately the audience is going to also decide a lot of things in terms of what they’re interested in and what they want to see – that’s going to affect what you get to do going forward and how your character changes, so there’s just a lot of moving pieces. I don’t necessarily like one better than the other. TV is thrilling in not knowing where it’s going to head to go, but they both definitely have their virtues.
Grant Harvey, who plays one of Wyatt’s pushers in the film, has said after his meeting with Jordan, a lot of his dialogue was scrapped and Jordan told him to be himself. Did Jordan give you a similar sense of ownership over the character?
I was definitely given the same ownership, and there’s a lot of material in there that wasn’t scripted, but Grant improvised a lot more in his role. I thought what was on the page for Wyatt was pretty interesting. Depending on the material, I oftentimes rework my dialogue a little bit into something that feels natural and I’ll pitch it to the writer or director. In this case, it was the same guy, so there was a lot of coming in on the day, reworking the dialogue into something that felt like it would come out of the mouth of the guy I was playing and service the story, but Grant’s character was used a lot for humor in the movie, so they did a lot of off the cuff stuff, which ended up being really fun. He’s fantastic in the movie and I think the young actors in the movie do a really, really nice job. Seeing the end result, I was very proud of them. It’s hard when you’re that age just to figure out how to be natural on camera, but they were both natural and affecting.
Jordan appears to be a big fan of long takes with elaborate action unfolding, such as that breathtaking opening scene that moves with you throughout the house, with kids in tow. Are those tricky for you to negotiate?
Yeah, he does a lot of long, handheld tracking shots, and with that opening scene in the house, it’s a perfect example of just living in your environment. That house that we shot in, it’s not like that’s set dressing. That’s somebody’s home that looks just like that [in real life]. [The production] found it and they had hired these kids to play my kids [in the film], but when they were scouting [this location], they saw the real kids that lived in that house, playing around, and when I got to set, [Jordan’s] like, “Well, I hired these kids, but the kids that live at the house just are really interesting, should we just use them?” And I’m like, “Yes, of course. Use the real kids.”
So they introduced me to the kids and it was just a matter of finding things that worked for the kids and as we’re sitting there, talking and looking over the scene, [Jordan] saw the younger kid climb up on that [kitchen] table and just jump off. It was wild how reckless he was, just throwing himself off of stuff and we’re like, “Oh my God, we can use that. Let’s try this thing where we have this thing where he climbs up on the table and jump into my arms.” All of that was found in the actual location and it just feels so much more real and alive when you’re using real elements from a real house and a real kid who lived there, watching them live in their own environment and then putting yourself into that environment and interacting with them, rather than trying to introduce these child actors who are going to be very uncomfortable in the situation and try to force something. It’s a whole different way of doing it that makes it feel so much more in the moment.
That may have been it, but was there a particularly challenging day of filming on this?
Obviously the final scene and all the stuff leading up to it was all really brutal. When you’re trying to shoot documentary-style and have things look authentic, it’s easy to get carried away and forget about actor safety, especially when you’re dealing with a 6’5” guy and a small [actress like Eliza], so keeping track of how are we making her feel comfortable in this very uncomfortable environment, those are the most challenging things to make work. When you want [the scene] to be so brutal and terrifying and protecting the actors at the same time is definitely a challenge. But nobody was hurt during the course of the shooting and I think Eliza would say that she felt taken care of and safe. For me, watching the final product on screen, it’s horrifying and terrible and all of those things we wanted it to be, so I think we achieved it.