Pablo Schreiber’s acting resume is filled with characters that might seem unlikable on the page. From The Wire to Orange Is The New Black to American Gods, his strength as a performer seems to come from nuanced portrayals of characters that don’t typically reside in a moral high ground. In his latest film, Thumper, written and directed by Jordan Ross, he plays Wyatt, a ruthless drug dealer who employs teenagers to peddle for him on the streets. We got the chance to talk to Schreiber about how he tries to inject humanity into otherwise unlikeable characters.
There’s something very striking about this character right from the film’s opening scene. It’s like I know this guy. Or I’ve known people just like him.
I’m glad you felt that way. The thing that got me involved in it and got me interested was how far he was from me as a person, or how far his world view was from my own. It seemed like a really interesting challenge to play somebody that thinks incredibly different than you and still humanize him and find the things that make him relatable. So if you feel like you can relate to him and understand him, I guess it’s because I ended up finding the things that made me relate to him or understand him as a person.
To Jordan’s credit, he put things in the movie that make him feel like more of a human being. Obviously, with this kind of character, you can just have this sort of villain. The intimidating, terrifying creature that just stops the protagonist or gives everybody trouble, but when you put in a scene at the very beginning of the movie of him playing with his kids and you put a scene in where he kind of explains why he says what he does and how he’s gotten to the point that he’s gotten, it just makes the guy way, way, way more relatable. So if that comes off at the end of the day, feeling like you know him, then I think that’s a job achieved.
There’s also moments of humor. It’s his own dark, twisted humor, but it does give him dimension.
Yeah, he likes to have fun, he’s a fun loving guy. He’s got a childlike side. I mean he’s got all these kids working for him, so obviously he has some affinity and connection with his own childish side, you know? So, that was a very important scene. There’s a number of places where I think you see that side of him come out. You want to see those flashes of, “Why is this late thirties guy hanging out with all these kids?” I mean, obviously they’re working for him, but at the same time, he’s really drawn to them. So that idea of him being this kind of overgrown child I think definitely helps to that end, to flesh him out.
Also, the pharmacy scene is huge, learning that he’s a veteran, just having a hard time kind of keeping things together, explains a lot. The more you learn about the villain in a movie like this, I think the more interesting they become.
How much of this was on the page when you started?
A lot of the information was on the page. The pharmacy scene appeared mostly as it is. The scene with Eliza where he explains the reasons behind why he does what he does and how he’s gotten here, was mostly on the page. I adjusted some of the dialogue to fit better in my mouth and to help him story wise, but for the most part, it was as written. Then, my contribution to it was looking for every opportunity to bring some levity, bring some lightness, bring some fun, bring some playfulness and find competing colors as often as possible.
The opening scene ended up being a very big coup for us. That was just essentially happenstance and really good fortune. They had found this location in scouting, it was a real house. He had hired these kids to play my kids and then the day before we shot, he came to me and said, “You know, I was scouting the location that we’re going to be shooting in, and there are these kids that live there that are exactly what we need. Do you want to work with the actors that I’ve hired, or the kids that live in the house?” I was like, “Oh my god, of course, the kids who live in the house.”
Then it was a matter of just coming to the location and interacting with these children that are already there and are already comfortable with the space. It’s their space, and they know it. It was more of a situation of fitting me into that space, and finding ways that I could interact with these kids. As we’re watching the kids play around, if the younger one runs over, jumps up on the table and jumps off, we’re all like, “Oh my god, he’s gonna fucking kill himself! We have to put that in.” So then that became a part of the thing and it all came out of just seeing and interacting with a real environment rather than trying to create and enforce these things on this space.
So that feeling Wyatt,it’s that stuff that comes out of really finding the stuff in a real space with real people that ultimately makes the character so relatable and understandable. I think it’s part of what makes the movie as interesting as it is that instead of just having this awful villain as the secondary character, it makes everything much more morally gray and it just makes it feel a lot more interesting.
To hear you say that, and to look back on your career that’s been earmarked by these morally gray characters. Even if you don’t necessarily root for the character, you understand their circumstance, be they a leprechaun, or a kid from Baltimore, or whatever.
I definitely think I’ve grown into a lot of things over the course of my acting career, but I think what you’re speaking to it probably grows out of the fact that I’m interested in the extremes of human behavior. People who do terrible things, or people who do things that I wouldn’t do. I’m really interested in figuring out what that is. I want to relate to those people. I want to know why people do what they do. So one of the things that has come out of that interest, that kind of search for the universally human. I’ve ended up being drawn to and playing a lot of characters that operate in the extremes of human behavior, and a lot of them have been the negative extremes of human behavior and why they do those things and how can I make that relatable.
A lot of that came out of my theater experience in New York. I did a lot of plays where I was playing characters, not necessarily bad characters, but characters that had very… I guess that’s probably an effect of theater. Theater tends to have really heightened circumstances, and so as a performer, you need to find how you can relate to these extremely heightened circumstances and playing characters that were morally ambiguous, but finding out how to relate to them was part of the big challenge. That kind of moved into TV and film career, I guess.
I’m not that interested in it as it relates to being the villain and how do I make these awful people relatable? I don’t want that to be the ultimate career arc for me, but I definitely have an interest in finding out how to make people that are, on the surface, un-relatable or unsympathetic, how to find what makes them human and what makes them relatable for us as human beings. And then, does that translate my relation to the character, my understanding of the character, how can I translate that into the audience also relating to them when maybe they shouldn’t?
Is that the same motivation that drew you to the character of Wyatt in Thumper?
Yeah, very much so and this is one of the more extreme examples. I read a script where I was confronted with a character that was just so different from who I am and his beliefs and world view was so far from my own, and yet there were these inklings of things that I could relate to insecurity, being marginalized, manhood and your ability to provide being questioned. All these things were things that I could relate to and see how that kind of behavior could stem out of those fears. Yeah, it was very much in the same vein as some of those things in terms of the quest to relate to behaviors that you wouldn’t necessarily embody. This was one of the more striking examples of that.
Thumper is currently available to watch on VOD