When Jeff Grace had to find someone with effortless cool to play Jason, the rock star half of his debut film “Folk Hero & Funny Guy,” it wasn’t long before he thought of Wyatt Russell, but while he knew he was right for the part onscreen, it was surely a relief to find out Russell was the same off of it, particularly when things got hairy for the wild indie production. A rollicking road comedy in which Jason attempts to cheer up his down-on-his-luck pal Paul (Alex Karpovsky), who’s fallen into both a personal and professional rut as a stand-up comic, by suggesting a carefree cross-country tour, “Folk Hero & Funny Guy”’s filmmakers actually had to book some clubs itself to shoot in and just as Jason and Paul run into issues with managers, so too did the crew of the film when they learned as they were about to roll cameras that one such place they had booked had scheduled their shoot for the wrong Friday. Enter the unflappable Russell.
“We can’t lose the day, and [the club owners’] are like, ‘Well, you can shoot here until five and then we’re opening up,’” recalls Russell, who was set to perform a song for the film. “So we’re shooting at five, and everybody’s like come on, ‘Let’s go,’ and my guitar string breaks for the first time in ten years. I restring the guitar really quickly and people are filing into the club while I’m playing guitar for the movie and they think it’s real. It was so odd, but we got that day.”
Russell says this without trying to impress you, though you have to be since nearly anyone else in his shoes would’ve flinched. Radiating the same genuine warmth and boyish enthusiasm in person that has made him such a welcome presence in films such as “Everybody Wants Some!!,” “22 Jump Street” and “Cold in July,” the actor perhaps gained fortitude from his previous career in hockey, which he was forced out of with a chronic hip injury, but one suspects the effortless charisma is innate, something that makes his role in “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” so compelling as Jason comes to reckon with a desire to be challenged after fame and success have made things easy for him in all aspects of life. Writer/director Grace makes sure to throw more than a few curveballs in Jason and Paul’s way, namely a sparkplug in an aspiring singer/songwriter (Meredith Hagner) who joins their tour and an overly aggressive fan of Jason’s (Heather Morris), and does well not to make the resolutions so tidy, but draws out a whole host of strong, nuanced performances to show how getting out of one’s own way is complicated enough.
Shortly before “Folk Hero & Funny Guy” hits the road this weekend as the film is released in theaters, Russell, who knows how to play as many grace notes as an actor as he does on his guitar, spoke about how he was drawn to Grace’s directorial debut, the close-knit crew that lived together during production and writing songs for the movie.
How’d you get interested in this?
I read the script that Jeff [Grace] wrote two-and-a-half years ago, and I saw there was music in it. I had written music and played guitar, but just for myself and I thought maybe this could be fun time to be able to show people what I can do and hopefully not suck. Then I met Jeff and I knew what movie he wanted to make, he knew the tone, he knew who he wanted in it and it was something I wanted to do right away. And he wanted all the music to be live and so did I, so it was very easy [to say], ”Yeah, it’ll be great.”
Was there a detail to you could latch onto to figure out who this character was?
There were parts of it, but sometimes you just read something and you know that person. I’ve seen that person and been around that person, and sometimes you just want to play a character that you enjoy and have wanted to play and that for me was a singer/songwriter. But I thought would be fun to bring all of those elements of people I had known in the music industry — the bullshit of the music industry I find compelling and funny — and I liked being able to pepper that into this character I had my own ideas about. There was no one person I modeled myself after because I really didn’t want to hear after the movie was over, “You really remind me of Jack Johnson…” [Which is] not anything against Jack Johnson – I just didn’t want to be associated with some other real artist, so part of the challenge was to do it like you do it and [let it] live on its own.
Jeff has said he actually based it a little on Adam Ezra, who composed the film’s score and wrote some of the songs. Did you actually spend time with him?
Yeah, we spent three days together and I learned all of his songs [such as] “Hair Down” and “She’s Just a Girl.” It was really fun to be able to listen to him, take from him all the stuff I was able to input into the movie and into the songs. Meredith [Hagner] also spent a couple days with him — she’s a truly incredible songwriter and [she and I] wrote “Take the Dog,” which is the song we sing at David Cross’ record booth, and then the song in the park, “New Cadillac,” together and then Meredith wrote a bunch of her songs for herself. So [there was] a lot of original music, and [I’m] really proud of it. It really turned out great.
Did you know writing songs, in addition to performing them, was part of the gig from the start?
Oh yeah, because Jeff needed music and he knew he didn’t have the money to pay for it. I was more than happy to write some songs for the movie, [since] I’d been writing songs since I was 17 years old, I [wanted] to be able to try my hand to write a song specifically for the movie – I thought it could be really fun. And doing it with Meredith just gave it something that I couldn’t do by myself. When I write a song, it takes me four hours to think about it, and I’ve got to get the chords right and I’ve got to get the arrangement the way that I want it and then I start writing the lyrics down. [Then] two days later, maybe I have the song. Meredith could do this thing where she’d just go, “Okay, [singing to herself] ‘I’m a little rough around the edges…’” and [those are] the lyrics and she made it up on the spot. So having her there being able to do that was really special and it made it so much more fun for me. At that point, I knew the music was really good and she was going to be great, so that was pretty cool.
Is it true you built your our own guitar for this too?
Not for this [specifically], but the guitar I used was made by the guitar maker who I learned to build guitars from, Daniel Stickel. He lives in North Vancouver, British Columbia and when I was playing hockey there, I apprenticed with him to learn how to build guitars. He’s one of the best people you’ll ever meet and I was pretty pumped about the fact that I got to use one of his guitars in the movie because they’re incredibly built, handcrafted guitars that are one-of-a-kind.
What was Jeff like as a director?
He’s exactly I think what you think he would be, if you know Jeff. He’s a director in that he directs you where to go. He doesn’t tell you where to go. You have an idea of what you were going to do when you’re hired, and he goes, “Yeah, that’s really interesting. Now try this, and [you think] that’s cool and you go do that. He doesn’t [say] no, and you know [when] he’s not feeling [something], but he doesn’t shut you down in any way, shape or form, which is hard for people to get their heads around – letting go of their ego. He has very little ego, just enough, in my opinion, to hold on to the vision that he wanted to create and also let people find certain things. He’s a really good actor [as well], so he knows how to find things that aren’t necessarily on the page, and the page [will] says this is what I want to feel and Jeff is really good at guiding you there.
I know the cast and crew mostly wound up living together under one roof. Did it really bond you together?
Oh my God, totally. One house was like Jeff, Alex [Karpovsky], Meredith, myself and Nancy [Schreiber], who’s our cinematographer, and then Ryland [Aldrich, the producer], Blake [Brewer], who’s the [first assistant director] and a couple other people lived in the house right next door to us, so pretty much the whole crew. [Again], they didn’t have any money, so Ryland’s mom was like, “I’ll cook dinner like every night, breakfast in the morning, if you want it, and it’ll be awesome.” And it was. It was truly familial and I think that bled over onto screen.
Since you play longtime but now distant friends with Alex’s character Paul, did you actually want to spend much time with him beforehand?
We met a couple times before [the shoot] when we were rehearsing at Jeff’s house, and when we got to set, we were hanging out together pretty much 24/7. We were in each other’s rooms, talking, laughing, doing everything together and it’s impossible to get tired of Alex. He always has something interesting to say, or something funny that he wants to show you and you can’t get bored of him. He never annoys you. He’s like the world’s greatest roommate, so it was easy.
You also have this really beautiful scene with Melanie Lynskey, whose role I wouldn’t want to spoil, but it’s one of those moments that has a bit of everything emotionally. Was that a tough day of filming?
No, because you’re doing it with Melanie Lynskey. [laughs] She’s so good. It’s so easy to be natural and real and heartfelt when the other person that you’re looking across to is listening to you and feeling what you’re feeling. She’s effortlessly present all the time and that makes my job easy because one of the things you’ve got to remember when doing a movie is that half of what the audience is going to feel watching the movie is going to be the reaction on the other person’s face. That tells you more than what the person talking is telling you sometimes, so with her, it was really easy to get into and it was like an acting exercise that made me better. She was awesome.
If I’m not mistaken, this actually is your first lead. Did you approach it any differently?
It could be…[thinks for a moment] I think you’re right. And that answers your question — honestly, I didn’t think about it. I just had the utmost confidence in Jeff to make a good movie, and when you’re involved in that process, and you believe in yourself, it bodes well. When you get to set and meet all the other actors [who] are killer, [you’re] thanking the lord that they’re doing their thing on the other side of the camera because it’s nothing I could possibly think of doing and they’re making it so much better. [So the idea of being a lead] never even crept in. You’re just going off to make a good movie and you go do it scene by scene and you make that scene good. Then the director and the editor go make the movie and hopefully they give you something cool.
So that’s the secret to why I look forward to your films so much. What’s next?
I have to go to London to do a movie called “Overlord,” that J.J. Abrams is producing and Julius Avery, this great action director, is directing. He had a movie called “Son of a Gun.” And then I’m going to do a TV show called “Lodge 49” on AMC, so that’ll take up most of my summer/early fall, but hopefully, you’ll see other good things coming down the pipeline and [I’ll] do other good projects with good people.