In Matthew Porterfield’s Sollers Point, McCaul Lombardi stars as a former drug dealer, Keith, who’s under house arrest. Trying to get his life back on track after a stint in prison, he wanders through the film’s titular Baltimore neighborhood, looking for some kind of break, only to see his petulance defeat him at almost every turn. Throughout, Lombardi makes us understand Keith’s humanity, his palpable sense of being trapped, how he’s his own worst enemy. It’s in his words, whether they’re angry, polite, or contrite. And it’s in his coiled body language, and the hurt behind those piercing blue eyes.
Lombardi’s performance is a hurricane of woundedness, and one hopes that it will lead to more leading roles for the young actor, who aspires to have a career like that of Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Hardy. In a recent conversation with Slant, Lombardi discussed his preparation for this role, the tattoo on his chest that he memorably showed off in Andrea Arnold’s American Honey, the social fabric of Porterfield’s film, and growing up in Baltimore.
You tend to play fuck-ups and bad boys. I'm not suggesting you're being typecast, but what's your understanding of these kinds of people?
You're going to see me as a romantic lead in my next film, Just a Little Bit Longer [now called We, The Coyote], with Morgan Saylor. It's a love story about us leaving Chicago and making our way to L.A. So you're going to see a completely different side to me, an organic side. I think I get the bad-boy stuff because I do kind of carry myself with a chip on my shoulder.
Why do you have a chip on your shoulder?
When you get told no so many times, or you're never going to do anything—especially being from a town like Baltimore, where everybody is first to downplay you, or downplay what you want to do, downplay any dream you have—I fight for that because I can't stand to be told no.
What were you told you couldn't do?
My dream was to play football. I couldn't skateboard when I was growing up.
You weren't allowed, or you weren't good?
I wasn't that great at skateboarding, but I'm really good at snowboarding. I just did a three-month tour of Europe. It counterbalances. I couldn't play college football, and I had to get out of Maryland, so where am I going? At first it was New York, then I found my way to L.A.
Keith makes bad decisions, but to him they're the only or best decisions—consequences be damned. How do you see his actions reflecting who he is?
He's definitely his own worst enemy. I was asked at the film festival in San Sebastián, if I could tell Keith one thing, what would it be? And I said, “It's not you against the world. You're just fighting yourself right now. Everything you're doing, you're doing to yourself. Your sister and your grandmother and your dad care about you.” He felt his dad [played by Jim Belushi] was always there, but never there for him. He can't accept his father's love because he's a hard person to deal with, even when Keith is trying to do good.
Throughout the film, we feel he wants to be better, as when he tries to avoid the white supremacists he knew in prison.
Doing the research for the film, we went to the prison in Jessup where Keith was locked up, and I researched the jail. The white-supremacy thing, in my backstory for Keith—he was just scared of going to jail and being a white boy, even though he doesn't have an issue with race. Most of his—and my friends—from Baltimore are African-American. He gets out and has to readapt and let go of stuff. We had guys from the gang Keith's in on set checking us to make sure we weren't saying anything that would get us in trouble.
I like how much Keith listens. Can you talk about how you physically conveyed the character? You internalized his body language so well.
It was the pants. I lived in my wardrobe the entire shoot. I spent two weeks in the area where it's filmed walking and talking. If you walk around, guys walk around like Keith. You observe. You listen more than you talk. That's one thing he learned in jail. All that time alone you become more internal. In my head, he was sentenced for two-and-a-half years and got out after a year and a half.
If I can ask a personal question, have you ever been arrested?
I have. When I was 15, I quote-unquote broke into a house. But it was my good friend's house. I was looking for him. I climbed a fence into his back porch and went though his window. His window was next to the pantry. So I took his Lucky Charms. And I went to the woods and ate them with some friends. When he got home, we told him we went to your house and took his Lucky Charms. And he told his mom, and four hours later, two cops rolled up to my house and put me in handcuffs. I was super shocked. He was my buddy. He lived across the street. I haven't talked to him since. That was absurd. I visited prison for the research, but I've not been to prison.
My understanding is that some people who go to jail just pick up where they left off when they get out. Keith just had a two-year hiatus on life, arresting his development. Do you think he changes over the course of the film?
That was the hardest part. He doesn't change. There's not a moment, even with Courtney [played by Zazie Beetz], where you can see a breath of hope. I tried to live everything in the moment, and keep the character as real as I can. When I was talking to a kid in Jessup who was locked up for double homicide—he killed two kids with a hammer when he was 15, and he's 32 now—one of the questions I asked him was, “If you got out of jail today, what would be the hardest thing for you to cope with?” And he said, “To be honest, man, probably doors.” And I said, “What?!” He has spent the last 17 years waiting for a door to open. He's standing at a door looking at it waiting. That's not the answer I thought he would say. That shows you some of the patience. You're confined to that area, and you have to find some kind of meditation. So I wanted to keep his demeanor, his energy, constant. You saw him pop multiple times.
Sollers Point is a relentless film. Keith tries hard to control his world, but he's a bit hotheaded. What fuels his anger?
You don't see his mom in the film. In my backstory for the character, she died while he's locked up. His hatred is that he's fucked up. In my head, as the actor, I'm mad because I fucked up and missed my mom's funeral. She was the only thing that meant anything to me. The one part that I thought would never leave me, my rock, that's gone now, so I'm angry with the world.
Do you have a temper? Or do you have the patience Keith is told to practice?
I have the same chip on my shoulder that Keith does. I grew up with older brothers and got beat up all the time by them. In life, I won't let anyone beat me up anymore because I got beat up enough by them. I really believe that people from Baltimore have these little chips on their shoulders. At 18, I was a little fighter. I was a hardheaded 18-, 19-, 20-year-old dude. That's why I related to Keith. I'm a couple life moves that went wrong away from having been Keith. I know Keith. I can call 15 types of Keith right now. That's why I love him. I knew these kids. I went to school with these kids.
Keith's room fascinated me. It's decorated very deliberately. Did you actively work on creating that? It expressed so much about his character.
I built a good part of my character around his room. This kid named Sebastian, a local Baltimore kid, build that room. He's an incredible artist. Mind-blowing. We sat down with my photos, and all the drawing stuff was Sebastian. We're friends now. They tagged it up. He knows 15 Keiths too. That's what's cool about the film. We're showing a part of Baltimore that's not rare.
But it's rare on screen.
That's what's cool. It's 100% rare on screen, but it isn't rare for a lot of people.
So I'm curious: What does the tattoo on your chest say?
Those are my words. It reads: “This world is my kingdom even through the darkest of night. I will be the light. I will guide us to Atlantis. I am a pirate that has seen all seven seas. Forever in search of my dream. I will sail where they may be. Come what may.”
Why that quote?
The true story? I was driving to the tattoo shop when I was 17, and I had this idea of the Lost City of Gold. I wrote it for my ex-girlfriend. We're going to persevere through all the waves that life is going to throw us and we're going to find our way to our City of Gold, come what may.
We see how Keith goes through life. How do you go through life?
I like to keep not cleaned up. “Homeless chic.” I'm just not that person who wants to put myself all together to leave the house. Looking at me now, my facial hair is ridiculous, and my hair is long. It's going to have to be cut, so I'm enjoying it now. I don't take anything too seriously. I'm very go with the flow. I feel people's energy, and that's how I suss people out. Energy is a very, very real thing; you can feel if someone is authentic or phony. I'm an easy guy.
Keith is trying to figure his life out and admittedly doesn't have a plan. You're on the brink of stardom and Sollers Point could be a breakout role for you. What is your career plan? What do you hope to achieve as an actor?
I want to make great films I believe in. This industry is hard. People bite the bullet and do whatever, even if they don't really believe in something. I'm not about that. As long as my bills are being paid and I'm happy, I don't need to sign five years of my life away to do a TV show, and have scripts thrown at me and not have an opinion on something. I have an opinion, and I think that if you want to have an opinion on your art and how it's perceived, you should have a hand in it. I want to do the stuff that my favorite actors are doing, Jake Gyllenhaal and Tom Hardy. But I also understand that this is a process. That's hard to get used to. It's not going to happen overnight. I sacrificed a lot to even get American Honey to happen. That was the start of it all.