Justin Timberlake, Emile Hirsch, Ben Foster, Anton Yelchin and Shawn Hatosy
This Team of Actors is Down in the Dogs
by Brad Balfour
Talk about going against type. After Nick Cassavettes made the treacly The Notebook, few believed he could go on to direct the likes of Alpha Dog – a nasty, unrepentant documentary-like drama about some pretty shitty drug-dealing kids from the Los Angeles suburbs who go on to commit a very stupid kidnapping and murder. But, to make this cautionary tale (based on the true story of Jesse James Hollywood), Cassavetes did what he had to do and exposed his cast to some really nihilistic youths – a bunch you don’t want to meet anywhere, especially in the hot California sun.
That cast includes Emile Hirsch as the drug-dealing Johnny Truelove; singer Justin Timberlake is his eternally stoned cohort Frankie Ballenbacher; Ben Foster’s speed-addicted Jake Mazursky, rips off Truelove; Anton Yelchin is the 17 year-old Zack Mazursky, brother of Jake who thinks he’s not kidnapped by Frankie but just hanging with his brother’s dawgs and Shawn Hatosy is the cretinous underling Elvis Schmidt, who actually guns down Zack for Truelove.
Though Hirsch is best known for his roles in The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys, Lords of Dogtown, and The Girl Next Door, he has never been as punk as he is here. Yelchin has been acting since he was six months old, and more recently has done House of D. and the upcoming Fierce People. Hatosy has been in dozens of TV shows including Six Feet Under. Besides appearing as Angel in X-Men: The Last Stand, Foster’ has been in several major films. Of course, Timberlake is a graduate of the faux-soulful boy band N’SYNC, doing vocals behind his own hits “Cry Me a River” and “SexyBack,” and now portrays this badass buddy.
So together again, this gang gave the following ensemble interview – which in some ways reflects each of the characters these guys portrayed.
Justin, some people have said your character is one of the most morally repulsive characters seen on screen recently.
Justin Timberlake: I’d like to thank you for pointing that out. We didn’t really plan out the characters, so we didn’t intend them to be repulsive. The point was to reveal the truth of the story. There was so much information on the [real people involved] and I think that all of us felt morally responsible for portraying that. This is a tough movie to watch. This is as close to what happened as we felt like we could make it.
Did you think it was a risk to play this character? Most people want to play sympathetic characters in high-profiled debut like this.
Justin Timberlake: My only stipulation for the movie was that I just wanted to crack a couple of jokes here and there. That was it.
So what’s going to happen to your music career?
Justin Timberlake: Well I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I haven’t thought that far.
That’s right… You have a music career [laughter]?
Justin Timberlake: I know. Yeah, I’m sort of a struggling musician. I’ll give you my demo.
How did you guys – particularly you Justin, since you’re a newcomer to acting – work together to establish the characters?
Shawn Hatosy: Nick [Cassavetes] made us all get together and train, so that was helpful for us to get to know each other. These characters grew up together, they played sports together, they did everything together; so [we got] the opportunity to work out and spend like two months [together] prior to shooting.
Justin Timberlake: Five days a week.
Shawn Hatosy: Yeah, that was pretty intense.
Emile Hirsch: It was nothing short of boot camp. There’s one really funny story though. We had to lift weights and stuff, and I got it in my head that since I was the youngest one, that I’m going to make a statement through this workout. So we had these two-pound weights but we were doing reps like a thousand times until your arms were dying. Then I showed up and told our trainer, Frankie, that I was moving on to five pounds. And Shawn looks at me like “Dude, no, no!” But I was like, “Yeah.” So I killed myself lifting those five pounds and as soon as I finished, [Frankie was like] “You did, you did? Everyone’s doing five.” And so we all did five and it was torture.
Justin Timberlake: You made some enemies that day.
So have you guys kept it up?
Justin Timberlake: Does it look like it [laughter]?
Did any of you get to talk with people that experienced the events surrounding this film or people like them?
Justin Timberlake: I don’t know that I knew anyone who was specifically like this. All of us can relate to the kids. Kids are cruel. When we signed up for the project, we all got a stack of files. It was so thick – all the police reports, the newspaper reports about what had happened – and I know that Nick was able to really get a lot of information. We just trusted him, and we all signed up to portray the truth of what happened. And we followed Nick’s lead on that. I actually went with Nick upstate in Cali to go to prison to visit the guy that my character was based [on].
Emile Hirsch: I never met Jesse James Hollywood [the real person Johnny Truelove is based on]. He was on the run at that time. His dad was on set almost every day, and he told a lot of interesting stories. He definitely wanted to get across that he loves his son, and he’s like, “My kid is good,” and it’s complicated talking to a father about his son like that because you don’t want to be like, “Oh my god get away from me, you monster.” You have to be understanding and reasonable.
Anton Yelchin: But the weird thing is that when you watch the film, like Justin said… you get a terrible feeling at the end of the film because you liked the characters for the first half of it. When I watched [the film] I thought these are cool guys – I wouldn’t mind spending time with them. And the more you like them, the more you either feel guilty or at least uncomfortable with yourself for liking them. It’s terrible. When I saw it, I didn’t really know what to do with myself – and I knew everything, obviously. But [then] you watch it and you aren’t sure how you feel. You want to like these people but there’s just no way you can. It’s almost a paradox.
Were you able to talk to the victim’s parents?
Anton Yelchin: No, I didn’t but probably one of the most depressing things I’ve seen was this website they created dedicated to their kid. I looked through that and it was another one of those things I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. The only person I really felt clear about was the kid himself because I don’t know how much you can blame the family. The mother wrote letters to her son [about] how she misses him and how she’s lost him, and how she sees him every day, and he’s this angel. It’s just heartbreaking, but at the same time, she drove him away just as much as she loved him; it’s really hard to handle. It’s one of those things where you want to point fingers at everybody but you can’t. The weird thing is that the only choice you have is to make sure you don’t do anything similar and hope you are not going to be as selfish.
Did you meet any of the witnesses?
Anton Yelchin: There was actually a guy at The Sundance Film Festival who was friends with all these [guys].
Justin Timberlake: In California, it became almost like a legend. It was really interesting, because around Los Angeles and just outside of it, people would come up to me and say, “Hey you’re doing that movie on the Jesse James and Nick Markowitz thing, right?” – and they would always label it like that. I would always say “Yeah…” And [they would say], “Yeah, I knew that guy, Jesse James Hollywood.” Like everybody knew somebody that knew him.
It actually helped when we were making the film to hear those kinds of things, because you realize how kids spread [the story] and how young people converse with each other. You can tell immediately that half of the people who came up to tell you about it knew nothing about it. All they knew was that [Benjamin] Markowitz was kidnapped and murdered, but they would always be like “Yeah I knew him.” I found it interesting that through his infamy he became this weird sort of tall tale to these young people, who are, in some weird way, wanting to be involved with it.
The people who were actually like this – what do you think made them like this?
Anton Yelchin: I don’t think it’s difficult to find similar people because of the relative apathy in general that pervades society. These guys just took it to a different level. It seems shocking when you watch it – how did this happen? But when you think about it, everything is kind of justified in how ridiculous it is. It just happened and nobody really cared. It’s not hard to find people not caring. It happens all over the world.
As for your viewing audience, specifically the younger crowd that will see this film, what do you hope they will come away with upon seeing it?
Shawn Hatosy: What we are missing, though, is that there were a lot of parents there who were witnesses as well, and they could have done something. So these kids were misguided in every sense. Even the love that Jack Hollywood had for his son was misguided.
Emile Hirsch: It’s a good cautionary tale. You’ve got this kind of oh-it’s-so-crazy party lifestyle, and there’s a certain glorification of that. But that’s the hook that gets you. Then it hits you over the head with reality. So I think it’s even more important for young people to see this because as much as every kid may love rap or really violent music or video games, it’s good for them to get a healthy dose of reality so they don’t think it’s just always going to end up riding off into the sunset with no cops around. It’s good to see the consequences.
Have you considered that you have a role in this myth-making by virtue of the fact that you’re entertainers? You can talk about rap and all that but not all rap or hip-hop is 50 Cent “gangsta” stuff. Some of the myth-making comes from us too. We are all complacent.
Justin Timberlake: I find that conversations I have with anyone after they’ve seen this film is like a group therapy discussion, and rightfully so. 100% of the people I know, like friends I’ve brought to screenings, [feel] they have to speak about the film; they have to talk it through. I think what this film does is that it’s fun, fun, fun and then all of a sudden, it’s not. That was the responsibility of us. Yes, we are entertainers, but this is a different theme. What I like about the film is that it doesn’t treat you like a dumbass, so to speak – it lets you feel what really happened. You’re right – it’s not all just rap with kids. What I took away from the film is how just a little perspective on things can create a humongous outcome in someone’s life.
Ben Foster: I mean you bring up rap but it’s not rap…
Justin Timberlake: It’s hip-hop dammit [laughter]!!!
Ben Foster: It’s a vacuum of culture. It’s prioritizing things that don’t actually have value. The idea of fast cars and a fast lifestyle and bitches is not solely rap. It’s a Hollywood sort of culture. We’ve always had violent images in our society and it’s getting worse because we don’t have the moral guidelines to guide us along to process these images and these major entertainments.
Justin Timberlake: I think it shortchanges the film to say that rap music created this. That’s not what happened.
Emile Hirsch: I would think movies, more than music would…
Ben Foster: We’ve always had violent films; we’ve always had a form of violent entertainment. People are drawn to that but what is lacking in this society is [something] guiding us along to find our own morals and ethics. There is just a vacuum right now. And I think that everybody should watch this film. We know that young people have this lifestyle. It’s not an exaggeration. This is what it is, and I think that’s what drew all of us into participating in it, because the script is so authentic.
Nick did such an incredible job, documenting it and interviewing the kids. When you watch it, it feels legit. I was shocked. I knew these kids; I grew up in Southern California, you know. The fact that it escalated was not [because of] movies, it was not video games, and was certainly not hip-hop. It was a lack of guidance.
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Copyright ©2007 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: January 16, 2007.