It’s much easier to imagine Clark Duke being from Arkansas if you close your eyes. Visually, he evokes something between LA scenester and creative professional, depending on length of hair and presence of mustache. But when he talks, the tranquil composed Southerner comes through, thoughtful, affable, unhurried.
Duke’s directorial debut, Arkansas, is set there, adapted from John Brandon’s book of the same name. Duke has a grandfather he says was a tertiary figure in the Dixie Mafia, about whom he’s reticent to offer specifics, but says Brandon’s story allowed him to scratch that same itch. The film is set in the criminal underworld, focusing on organized crime that isn’t too organized, in the vein of Southern crime shaggy dog stories from authors like Charles Portis, Elmore Leonard, Harry Crews, etc. It even opens with a quote from Portis’ Dog Of The South: “A lot of people leave Arkansas and most of them come back sooner or later. They can’t quite achieve escape velocity.”
Duke himself appeared to have achieved escape velocity early on, getting cast opposite John Ritter and Markie Post in Hearts Afire when he was just five years old. The show ran until 1995 but after it ended the family moved back to Arkansas, where Duke spent his middle and high school years. Lots of us have probably experienced the feeling of being hemmed in by our small towns, but it’s hard to imagine doing it as a former child actor. High school in Arkansas was an experience Duke says he “didn’t enjoy that much” and so he returned to LA and to the entertainment world.
He shot a pilot with Michael Cera while he was still in college at Loyola Marymount, and fresh out of college he landed roles in Sex Drive, Hot Tub Time Machine, Kick-Ass, and a few others — still probably the period he’s most known for. Yet Duke returns to Arkansas once again with his directorial debut, a movie he’s been trying to make for the better part of a decade. Just getting people to read the script was a challenge, but once he landed Liam Hemsworth as his lead the other dominoes started to fall, including John Malkovich and Vince Vaughn in a memorable role as a drug lord named “Frog.”
And now, after all that, and with his movie finally finished, Duke gets the peculiar experience of releasing it direct to streaming and doing a “press tour” from the comfort of his home. It’s the kind of bittersweet glass-half-full ending you might expect in a story like Arkansas, in fact. I spoke to Duke by phone this week.
So was the plan for this originally to have a theatrical release?
How do you feel about it?
We were going to premier at South by Southwest and then have a theatrical release also. So, it’s pretty personally devastating because, I mean… You hate to complain because these are very luxurious problems to have, given what other people are dealing with right now, but it’s tough. This was something I’ve worked on for ten years. And we kind of didn’t get to do any of the fun parts of releasing a movie.
Right. But at least a lot of people can potentially see it still.
I hope so. I mean, that’s kind of the silver lining hope of the whole thing, is that everybody’s sick of watching Tiger King and they will check this out.
So, you open with a Dog of the South quote. Who are some of your other influences?
Well, I mean it was a book adaptation — the book is also called Arkansas by John Brandon, and I would say John Brandon’s book was the thing that I was trying to kind of stay very close to, tonally. But other literary influences — Portis, a fellow Arkansas guy. Elmore Leonard, I’m a big fan of just because of the dialogue, like everybody else on Earth. Movie-wise, director-wise, kind of my formative years as a viewer that made me want to be a director were your kind of mid-’90s Miramax guys, like Tarantino, Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh. And then from there I kind of got into the guys that were their influences. Brian DePalma, Scorsese, Coppola, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Altman. Robert Altman may be my favorite director. And I definitely stylistically probably lift a lot from.
When did you first decide that you wanted to adapt to this?
I read the book, like I said, when it came out about 10 years ago and I immediately bought the rights to it. I knew I had to do something with it because… I’m from Arkansas, the book is set in my hometown, and my grandfather was a tertiary Dixie Mafia character, so I’d always wanted to write something about him in that world, but I could never figure out what the angle was. So when I read the book, I was just, “Oh, this it. This thematically is covering what I want to do.” And I love the dialogue so much and it’s a really cool, eloquent structure too.
Can you tell me about your grandfather? What was his story?
(Laughs) I don’t really want to get into that too much, to be honest. But the character of Frog that Vince Vaughn played, not that it’s any kind of literal adaptation of my grandfather or anything, but thematically, it kind of scratched that itch I had. Plus, I thought that the two younger guys played by Liam Hemsworth and myself, I thought there was a real interesting opportunity to show sort of what I’ve noticed in the last 10 years or so since the book came out. Just the kind of malaise that these young men their age have. Just guys that have kind of lost all interest in modern society, civilization.
I mean there’s that kind of fatalism and, I don’t know, quasi-mysticism that seems to go along with a lot of Southern crime novels. Where do you think that comes from?
I mean, I think the South is more spiritual and religious in general, so I’m sure that’s part of it. The South also has a lot of kind of gallows humor. Almost like the British to a certain extent as far as the fatalism goes. I don’t really think it’s nihilism or cynicism though, it’s more just like an acceptance of reality. And that was definitely a tone that I wanted to get across and something that I really hadn’t seen. I mean you don’t see stuff set in Arkansas and you don’t see Arkansas shown on film very much. But I really didn’t feel like I had especially seen the tone and the stuff that I thought was funny and interesting about the people there on screen very much, other than Billy Bob with Sling Blade. It’s hard to think of a lot of other examples.
So you were already acting by the time you were pretty young. How much of your formative years did you spend in Arkansas? Were you traveling back and forth a lot?
So it’s a bizarre thing. My mom had a childhood friend in LA that was working as an actress that we came and visited when I was five. Her manager saw me and was like, “Oh, we’ve got to send him out on an audition.” He sent me to a commercial audition and I booked it. I did all these commercials. I ended up on a sitcom called Hearts Afire with Billy Bob, actually, and John Ritter. And that ran for three years. But then after that was over, and I’m, I think 10 or 11 years old, we just moved back to Arkansas. So other than that weird sojourn between the age of five and 10 in LA, I spent the rest of my childhood in Arkansas. I went to middle school and high school all in Arkansas and then moved back to LA for college.
And then you ended up back in movies pretty fresh out of college again. Do you think that having a certain amount of notoriety early on, is there anything you think you missed out or that you’d change?
Not really, because I mean, truthfully, I kind of felt like I got a good dose of both worlds. Going to LA young, I knew it was possible, and it made me fall in love with film and TV. But then just living in Arkansas, like I said, for all of middle school and high school, it was just a normal high school experience that frankly I didn’t really enjoy that much. I knew I wanted to go to film school and go back to LA. So no, I don’t feel like I missed anything as a brief child actor, no.
This character that you play in this, he’s kind of like… A lot of your characters seem like they have an aspect of not really fitting with their surroundings, being kind of an anomaly. Does that come from a personal place or is that just something that you think is funny?
Probably both. I mean I’m sure it’s subconscious on some level because that was kind of my overall feeling when I did live in Arkansas. High school was like, “Oh I don’t fit in here.” And as far as the character I play in this movie, Swin, everything down to his look and wardrobe was designed with just broadcasting outward like, “I don’t belong here.” And it’s in kind of a “fuck you” way. Because you know as a criminal you don’t want to stand out. Even multiple characters say in the film, “Don’t draw attention to yourself.” And he’s kind of dressed like a big perfume billboard all the time. So yeah, that’s definitely intentional in this film. If I’m doing that in other stuff, I wasn’t aware of it and I’m sure it’s just a subconscious thing I can’t help.
Tell me about casting Liam Hemsworth. He’s kind of like stereotypical movie-star handsome. And then in the first scene where your characters meet, you kind of call him out on it, “Oh you’re the strong silent type.” Tell me what you saw in Hemsworth, and why he made the right choice for this character.
I had seen Liam in this Western with him and Woody Harrelson. I can’t remember the name of the movie [The Duel, 2016] to be honest, but Liam kind of carried that whole movie without saying a whole lot. And I was really blown away by it, to be honest. And I was like, “Oh, people only know this guy from these big action movies, but he’s a real good actor.” And you know, it’s always kind of fun to play against type with people a little bit and kind of use the good baggage that actors carry around with them. The same thing goes for Vince Vaughn in the movie. Part of the fun of that character is that Vince is playing him but Liam was the first person to come on board and Liam’s the only reason there’s a movie, to be totally honest. I did not know him at all. He just read the script and really liked it and wanted to do it, thank God. Once we had Liam it was possible to actually get financing and cast the rest of the film and have a movie.
Right. I mean, you said it was a 10-year process. What were some of the hurdles along the way to getting this made?
It’s basically one big hurdle trying to make an indie film in general. I think everybody’s got a similar story. But when I initially bought the book, figuring out how to adapt this non-linear, kind of sprawling, set over 30 years, all these different characters, just kind of wrestling that thing into a screenplay was the first hurdle. Because there’s a lot of stuff in the book, so it was just a lot of logistics to figure it out. How are we going to make this make sense for the audience? And on and on. Then beyond that, I mean even once you have a script, you’re in this horrifying chicken and egg process with, nobody wants to finance the movie unless there are actors attached, and no actors want to attach to a movie unless that already has financing.
So you get on this terrible just months, years-long rollercoaster of… I mean you’re basically just sending carrier pigeons out. You’re sending a script to a stranger hoping that they’ll read it. And getting anybody to read a script for whatever reason always ends up being this weeks or months-long process. It’s really bizarre most of the time. But then pretty much to a person, anytime we could ever actually get people to read the script, they were all super into it and onboard.
I think Liam was literally the first actor that I just straight up offered a role to. But to be honest, I never in a million years thought he would even read it. And then he read it and wanted to meet, and I still kind of even then was, “This is a waste of time, fuck this meeting. He’s not going to do this movie.” And Liam always tells this story — this is what he said he was going to tell on talk shows but now nobody’s doing talk shows — he said I was so surprised when he said yes that he worried he had made a mistake. He said, “You just looked so shocked that it scared me.” But I mean, God, talk about fatalistic. You’ll get fatalistic trying to make one of these movies.
So now that it’s finally made, what is the press tour in the age of quarantines look like?
It’s just me and you on the phone right now. The other option is a lot of Zooms. Doing a lot of podcasts. I don’t know, I mean truthfully, I feel like now that they realize that everyone will do all this shit over Zoom, I’m sure there’ll never be another real press junket ever again.
It’s not nearly as fun. It’s like I said, it feels like we kind of skipped all the fun parts of making a movie. All I can hope is that, like you said, people find the movie. But, I mean, everybody’s in the same boat, kind of trapped at home listening to podcasts, looking at the websites, and watching stuff. So I’ve got to think we’ve got a pretty good chance of getting seen.
Yeah, I mean the junket thing seems almost like it’s like a bribe. It’s a bribe for the actors and a bribe for the journalists to get to go and do something and then in the process hopefully you get some publicity out of it.
Yeah, totally. I remember the one for Hot Tub Time Machine they had in Lake Tahoe at a casino, and I was like, “Oh okay, we’re just openly bribing everybody. Hell, we’re not even pretending.”
What are some of the most fun ones that you’ve been on?
That’s the only really fun press junket I could ever think of. The rest of them are always just at the Four Seasons here in LA. Pretty standard.
[The publicist interrupts to say we’re out of time.]
Okay. No problem. Thanks a lot. I enjoyed the movie a lot.
Oh, thanks man. I appreciate it. I haven’t got to watch it with an audience at all, so I’m kind of just curious to hear what people think about it.
That must be a bummer not getting to see the audience’s reaction.
(Dejected) Yeah, it is. It’s a huge bummer.