Get into the unusual rhythm of writer-director John Magary’s The Mend and you may find it impossible to get the fascinating comedy-drama about two siblings in crisis out from under your skin. The film stars Josh Lucas as Mat, a ne’er-do-well who arrives at his younger brother Alan’s (Stephen Plunkett) New York apartment the night before Alan is leaving town. While Alan is away, Mat invites his girlfriend, Andrea (Lucy Owen), and her son, Ronnie (Corey Nichols), over to stay. Trouble ensues, however, when Alan returns home early and in despair. The two brothers try to ameliorate their pain by examining who they are and what they want out of life. Lucas makes this flawed fuck-up of a character appealing, something the actor manages to do in his best roles, from the sleazy Darby Reese in The Deep End, to Jamie Bell’s badass brother in David Gordon Green’s Undertow, and even as Neal Cassady in Michael Polish’s underrated Big Sur. Lucas, who gives a knockout performance in The Mend, spoke with Slant about playing sly, seductive guys who more often than not find or cause trouble.
Mat is a pretty earthy guy. He crawls along a New York subway platform, pisses in a sink, among other places, bleeds, smokes, drinks, snorts, and otherwise misbehaves. How do you throw yourself so completely into a role like this?
I have my moments doing all of those things, definitely. That’s part of it. The joy of acting is you behave in your life and misbehave in a character. You can exorcise some of the demons and rage that some characters demand. The Mend has this borderline disaster of a character, and it was my job to make his repulsiveness enjoyable to watch. It’s freeing to be bad. My main reference was Mike Leigh’s Naked, with elements of Cassavetes, and Scorsese’s Mean Streets. We shot the crawling in the subway platform guerrilla-style. As we were shooting it, the cops showed up, and kicked us out immediately. We were glad we got it in that one take.
What’s so striking about you as an actor, and what I respond to most in the films you make, from The Deep End to Undertow and Big Sur, is that you exude seductiveness. You’re cocky and you have swagger. How do you make your characters, however unsavory, so appealing? There’s a confidence at work. Where does that come from?
You mentioned some phenomenally interesting characters in my career. Each one accepted the demons inside of themselves. Darby Reese in The Deep End is a destroyer and he revels in it. The same is true in Undertow. In my research I was surprised to find something often empathetic even heart breaking about these men who had committed this most horrifying of crimes. With these roles, the key is to make each character as real and honest and as dangerous as possible, but also recognize that there are people who love them. It’s never about villainizing the character. Oftentimes, we like watching bad characters among us who behave badly. They’re not villains. It’s enjoying that process and not chewing on the scenery. Is there someone who loves them, or wants to have sex with them at the end of the day? With The Mend, people like being with Mat until he throws a beer at them, or punches them in the face. That’s where the swagger comes from. He accepts who he is. That’s the battle we all face: How do we accept our flaws and behavior? I don’t think these characters are lying about who they are.
Mat is also indecisive, bored, and shiftless. How easy or difficult is it to play bored and make that interesting?
It’s an odd film for me. I’m not a fan of mumblecore, as I think it’s indulgent. I find Williamsburg hipsters off-putting. Why do I want to watch them buying groceries? But why do people like watching a cat? Because you don’t know what the fuck it’s going to do. The Mend is like that. It’s a deeply personal film for John, and absolute truth to his relationship to his own brother. I was playing John and his brother at different times. There’s a terror and excitement of him being around his brother. It could be a fistfight. You don’t know. That’s not mumblecore; it’s Cassavetes and Mean Streets. The danger is when you have a dinner party and he shows up, and it’s like, “Fuck! This guy is here!” It’s like in Naked, where David Thewlis is tremendously compelling and unsavory and exciting to watch even when he’s buying cigarettes.
Mat is said to have the biorhythms of a lion. How did you find his character? I mean, what motivates him, other than ice cream, and beer?
He’s gotten to the point where he’s become a middle-aged child. He’s given up. He doesn’t give a shit about playing the game anymore. He’s not on the hamster wheel, grinding, working his ass off, dealing with family and kids. Mat is a guy off that grind. He cares nothing about what people think about him. There’s something interesting about the biorhythms of a lion, who sleeps whenever he wants. That’s Mat. He has nowhere to be. He doesn’t care about anyone’s boundaries. The second he’s home alone in Alan’s apartment, he’s free. He’s not in pain about his girlfriend kicking him out. He’s free of constraints life presents. And there’s something intriguing about that, and that is really fun to play. [Laughs] In real life, you no longer go to a bar with or invite guys like Mat to a dinner party. They’re broken, but they’re wonderful to watch in a film.
What’s your relationship with your own brother/siblings like?
I have very little of Mat inside me. I wish I did give a fuck less, or was a little more punk rock in my own life. But I have a Mat in my life, a family I’m close to, and a child, and obligations and priorities. My relationship with my bro is opposite of this one in the film. He’s working his ass off, and I enjoy—and am inspired—to be around him. He’s more comfortable with middle-class, middle-age life. That’s the fun of a film like this. You play this all day then come home to bigger priorities than desires. For sure, these two brothers are battling with different problems than my brother and I are.
What about parenthood? Mat is good with Ronnie, and has a bad relationship with his own dad. What are you like as a father?
I try to play with my son as much as I can. That’s partly because my father got into the grind of providing for his kids, and he was tired. I don’t know that I succeed as much as I can, but it’s my favorite thing in the world to play with my son. Mat treats Ronnie that way: Life is hard, let’s just enjoy this. It takes the pressure and responsibility away from Mat. There’s a level of honesty that Ronnie respects in Mat. It’s Mat treating Ronnie like an equal, not like an adult. He’s [acknowledging] we’re more like each other, than Mat is like an adult. I want more moments like that with my son.
It seems like The Mend was a very organic project, from the script to the direction and the action. How much of it was improvised?
Not one second. I understand Cassavetes was the opposite. In the case of John [Magary’s] work, I read that script and it had the densest dialogue, with overlapping “ums”—as if he recorded conversations. He worked tremendously hard to create those rhythms. We can’t take credit for any improvisation. It was very precise writing, with very nuanced, organic dialogue; it was as scripted and precise as you can imagine. He was tight on it, and very demanding. The lines are so personal. I would question him about things I didn’t understand. I didn’t get the hairball line, and he explained that it came from this late-night cable-access show. He said, “Do it,” and hopefully it works. He absolutely knew what he was doing. It’s a real achievement.
Mat also catches a mouse and throws it out the window. The mouse is one of many symbols in the film. There’s a stuck door, the broken glass, the helicopters, the power outages, etc. How do you view symbols in the film and in everyday life?
Years ago I read the film Signs and Wonders. I wanted to be a part of it. It asked the question you did, and that film does, of how much do signs matter, or are they in our subconscious? And what do we make out of it? In The Mend, they’re precise. John put precise symbols in the film. The helicopters are a key sign, and the mouse is scratching at the inside of the walls and my head. The dream sequence is truly a dream—and that’s a moment that wasn’t written as a dream. They were bizarre moments we shot and John crafted them into a dream. In my own life, I try not to make them into something. But then a sign comes along and I tell myself to pay attention to it. Can you dismiss it because of coincidence, or how much do you believe in destiny?