It probably isn’t accurate to call Kyle Chandler a “revelation” in the Sundance hit “The Spectacular Now.” After all, he won an Emmy for “Friday Night Lights” in an iconic role that constantly challenged his range, but never found any limitations.
But maybe it would be accurate to say that the version of Kyle Chandler we see in “The Spectacular Now” is the revelation. In James Ponsoldt’s film, which has been performing well in increasingly wide release, Chandler plays the long-absent father to Miles Teller’s live-in-the-moment Sutter, a character discussed off-screen until his on-screen arrival marks one of the film’s turning points.
It spoils none of the film’s pleasure to say that from his stubble to his accent to his posture, this is a very different version of Kyle Chandler. In my review from Sundance, I wrote that “Kyle Chandler is at his least Coach Taylor-y in a key role,” which I meant as a high compliment.
With “The Spectacular Now” expanding its theater count, I talked with Chandler this week about why he accepted this image-shifting role, why the part scared him and what he learned from the experience. We also discussed his Ridley Scott-directed Showtime pilot “The Vatican,” but when I brought up a possible “Friday Night Lights” movie at the very end of the conversation… Well, you’ll see.
Click through for the full interview.
HitFix: It seems like every high school reunion features a couple guys like your “Spectacular Now” character. Do you know guys like this? Are you friends with guys like this?
Kyle Chandler: No, I really don’t have any friends that are that bad. I know a few of them, but not that I’m too acquainted with, so no.
HitFix: Obviously the movie is structured so that Miles’ character ends up judging his father and the audience will judge him as well, but I assume you can’t judge. How did you build your understanding of this guy’s way-of-life, of his ethos, as it were?
Kyle Chandler: I had the book to go back to and I sorta went back to my high school years and reflected a little bit back on what high school was like for me. If anything, I don’t relate as much with the father as much as I relate with the character that Miles played. And within knowing the character that Miles played and relating to that more than, like I say, the father, I got an idea of what a father would do to a son. I’m not saying that my father was that man at all. But my father died when I was young and I was lost and it was just easy to relate to what that young man was going through in the story. So that’s sorta the angle that I took on it.
To be quite honest, when I saw the role, I initially said, “There’s just no way.” I didn’t have interest in it. I finally realized that it was because it spooked me a little bit, because I just didn’t know any character like this. I have two girls and my biggest pride and joy in my life has nothing to do with my career. It has to do with my family. I’ve taken the exact opposite path of this father and I’ve tried to pride myself on my family and so I just had no idea how you play a guy like this. It just seemed so utterly foreign to me. But, like I say, knowing the kid’s position, what happened is I kept wrestling with it and I finally decided I had to take the role because it was bothering me so much and I was shying away from it because of that so much.
I had a lot of time. I found out I had this role for about a month before I shot and I had another role at the same time for about a month, so both of them I got at around the same time and I started working through them. And then thing shot at the University of Georgia and the director, he graduated from the University of Georgia and I also went to University of Georgia, so I hopped in my Jeep and I drop straight through into Athens, Georgia, my old school town. I had a lot of insecurities and a lot of good memories, bad memories and everything else came back to me when I got there. It’s almost like even being in the college atmosphere when I got there was part of the whole insecurity and distance from the scenes that I was working on. When we shot the first day — this was a two-day thing — it’s right in my wheelhouse as to how we were shooting, because it’s very quick and there’s not much rehearsal and we were able to play with the dialogue and just try and find it. That’s really enjoyable. There’s pressure and there’s also freedom. And, of course, the other two actors — Shailene and Miles — they’re really wonderful actors and we had a wonderful director, so everything was set up for the perfect deal and we just jumped into it. I wish I could say I mapped something out for myself that was just perfect, but I’d have to say that at least half of it was just faith that when I got there, I was gonna let the environment, let the other actors and let the research that I had take over. Truly, when I got onto the set, it was like stepping into that fog and we just sorta went from there.
That’s basically how it happened. It’s a funny situation, because it’s done so well, but going into it, I had no idea. It’s, “OK. I’m the dad. I know it’s an important role.” You go in, you go out. But after watching it, even I have to admit, it’s pretty damn fun. It was a fun role to do and I like watching it on screen. What a son-of-a-bitch!
HitFix: Going off of that… We’re so used to seeing you play characters who have the posture and the tone of authority on screen. What is the fun in getting to play a guy with totally different body language and tone?
Kyle Chandler: It was! It was very enjoyable. There was a lot of freedom there. He is a really fun character, because he’s just so sad. He’s so lonely and he’s so childish and, the way I felt about him while I was doing it, he’s a scared person. He lives on fear and booze. He’s a lost soul. So yeah, it was interesting playing him.
You know what? One of the most difficult parts of it, walking away from it when I was done, was the realization of… Usually, myself, when I go into parts, I like to think that I know what I’m going to do with something and not so much mathematically tracking a character out, but you have a basic idea of what you want to do and what’s expected of you. This was complete freedom. This was completely, “There are no rules here.” This guy has no rules. His life is so loose and so untethered that as an actor trying to find his rules, you can’t. It would be a disservice to yourself on the set. I didn’t know all of that going in and I think that’s what so exhilarating about it. It’s the fear of, “I have no idea what’s going to happen, absolutely no idea.” And that’s the character. He has no idea and I think the audience should have no idea what’s going to happen. Certainly his son has no idea and I think that’s the way the character probably lives and that’s kinda the way that I approached the role in sense.
HitFix: Being an actor seems to be a very Spectacular Now profession. You’re going from role to role, often at the mercy of producers or studios or networks, so you’re always living in the moment. Did that help the movie’s themes resonate for you? [This was a “reach” question that did not work. I tried to rephrase it a couple times, but it never got clear, which is on me, obviously.]
Kyle Chandler: Yeah, I’m still not quite sure… The one thing that I’m thinking of while you’re saying what you’re saying if I’m getting you right… My acting teacher when I got out to LA, I was lucky enough to work with Milton Katselas and you usually go into these classes and you look around for a while and then you decide whether you want to join up and I did immediately and the first scene I did with him… He was this great guy. He was a fantastic guy. He used to call me once a week and he’d say, “Hey, what are you doing with your career?” In the morning, he’d wake me up. He was a very caring man. He said to me after our first scene that we did, he goes, “Why are you in my class?” And I knew immediately what to say, because it was true, and I said, “I love this class because I’m not only learning how to act, but you’re also teaching what’s holding us back from acting” and, in that sense, as a young actor, what you want to do is have things to grab onto, to act with. You want to chew up the scenery, but in this case, this character had nothing to grab onto. There was nothing, other than his glass on the table and the cigarette in his hand. And that’s what I’m trying to say. That’s just kinda what it is.
Every role is completely different. For me, this is a new tool in my box. I’m truly privileged and I’m glad I took this role on. I’m honored that James asked me to do it and for such a small time on screen, it probably taught me more about my acting and myself as an actor than many of the other roles that I’ve done in last few years. So for that, it’s like a new color in my palette, so that was fantastic. People who are reading this may not know what the hell I’m talking about, but any actor will.
HitFix: Can you articulate a bit more on that, talk about what going forward you’ve been able to take from this experience and use? From that new color on your palette?
Kyle Chandler: I’m just saying it’s a tool. It’s somewhat esoteric. It’s hard to really explain, but it’s a tool that when I see certain roles now, I can grab back on this guy and use some of that. And I stretched myself a little bit by jumping into my own fear, by jumping outside the box with myself and that was just a positive thing to do.
HitFix: For a while, it seemed like you were being linked to every big TV project out there. Why was Showtime’s “The Vatican” the pilot you saw yourself wanting to work on potentially for years to come?
Kyle Chandler: “The Vatican” was an easy project to say “Yes” to because it involved so many people that I respect so much, [people] that I knew and now I do know. Ridley Scott, it’s the first television pilot that he’s directed before. I have always loved his work, obviously. Well, not “obviously,” but I’ve always loved his work and his brother’s work. And then there’s also David Nevins, who was involved with “Friday Night Lights.” David Nevins, to me, is one of those people that you really, really hope to be involved with, just good people. It’s hard for me to explain, but just everything about this, along with Amy Pascal and David and the whole group, it’s just good people, as my dad used to say. And the material itself, everyone was just so excited about it and I also enjoyed the idea of the material and where the possibilities could go, so that’s my reasoning for that.
HitFix: And what was it about the character in “Vatican” that drew you in?
Kyle Chandler: Well, “The Vatican” is about a young cardinal in New York who ordains a female priest again, obviously, the wishes of Roman Catholic Church. The greatest thing about the role for me, and a lot of these roles, is the research. And met a man who was excommunicated from the Catholic Church and I’d read a book of his and I went to see him a few states over and he also introduced me to some women who had been ordained as priests and I started doing a tremendous amount of research on the Catholic Church. I was raised in the Catholic Church when I was young, but I left. I pretty much stopped going after my father died when I was very young. At any rate, as Pete Berg used to say about “Friday Night Lights,” the Catholic Church is fertile ground for storytelling. I like the idea of a character who bucks the system and speaking to this woman priest who was ordained and her story, she was able to give me everything I needed to give me the reasoning why I would do it. That and, again, the people with the whole thing.
I saw a story a story about a man who goes from New York to Rome and it’s that fish-out-of-water kinda situation and I always like that. It’s fun to play.
You’ve also got Paul [Attanasio] who’s the writer. He’s a tremendous writer and you’ve just got an immense chance of opportunities for storytelling down the line, so that’s why I took it.
HitFix: And an obligatory “Friday Night Lights” movie question: The show had three perfect endings. Are you excited about all of the talk about a hypothetical movie? Or do you approach it with wariness and caution?
Kyle Chandler: I’ll skip that question. [He chuckles.]
“The Spectacular Now” is now in theaters.