New from Jon Espino on The Young Folks: Blake Jenner On Portraying A Real Person and the Timely Social Message in ‘American Animals’ [Interview]

The is an undeniable allure to heist movies, and not just because we’ve all thought about robbing a bank at some point in our lives. It’s the adrenaline-fueled rush of excitement that makes us feel invincible, but that all too quickly fades when something inevitably goes wrong. That was the case with the based on a true story hybrid film/documentary, American Animals. We talked with Blake Jenner on the pressures of portraying a real person, the film’s social message, his upcoming film Billy Boy, and more.


 

The heist and story behind American Animals is such an interesting one that I was surprised I had never heard of before. Were you familiar with the story before signing on to the film?

Blake Jenner: I actually wasn’t. I hadn’t heard of it or read any articles about it until after I’ve read the script. I knew it was a true story, but it was all news to me even though it happened over 10 years ago, which I found very fascinating.

So what drew you to the film?

BJ: The premise and the story, and how all of these guys fell into this. I loved the fact that it goes in and out of the interviews with the real guys. I’m a big fan of documentaries and I felt like it was really in tune with my taste. I was really grateful to get the part because I felt like it was such a unique and unconventional story. It’s a different experience than something people are used to taking part in.

I did love that it was done partly in documentary style with the real-life people talking about their experiences. Did you get to meet the person you were portraying, Chas Allen?

BJ: I didn’t. The director, Bart [Layton], told us early on that he didn’t want us having contact with the real guys. Once he told me why, it made sense. We were telling the story and making the movie 10 years after everything had taken place. As you get older, your mind changes and you remember things differently. Bart just didn’t want us to feel a blind responsibility to play these characters a certain way, or feeling like our choices were already made for us. He told us that he wanted us to color these roles in ourselves. He knew that these were real people, but he wanted us to bring what we had to the parts. It’s very liberating as an actor. With something like this, it’s very important to approach it as a blank canvas and then go with the motions.

Was it more difficult or did you feel more pressure having to portray a character based on a real person?

BJ: I think it’s all subjective. I’m sure that if I was talking to the real person, I would feel a responsibility to get it right, but because this is such a particular story done in a very particular way, I didn’t feel too much pressure. Bart was amazing with us. He had an open door policy. He would let us in on any thoughts he was having and he would let us bounce any character choices we were thinking of making. It was more of a learning experience.

The heist in American Animals happened over a decade ago. While it was fun to see it all come together, the film’s main message about privilege, peer pressure, and toxic masculinity make it especially relevant now.

BJ: It’s definitely a cautionary tale through and through. I do think it touches on all of those things. I think it’s important in the time we’re in now. It comments on peer pressure and how consumed we are on social media right now. It’s all about social currency like followers and how we are obsessed with it now. I know this takes place before social media, but these guys had that kind of drive to feel special and different and they went about it the wrong way. They were using the wrong filter to hone that energy in, but if it would have been exercised in a different way, their lives would have been affected for the better.  

What are some of your favorite heist films?

BJ: Ocean’s Eleven is a fun one to watch. Bart recommended we watch Dog Day Afternoon. He said the guys in the movie thought they were in Ocean’s Eleven but really it ended up being more like Dog Day Afternoon. Another one of my favorites is definitely Heat.

Read More: American Animals Movie Review: A Keen Eye in the Director Chair Elevates a Basic Narrative

You have a film coming out in a couple of weeks that you wrote and star in called Billy Boy. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

BJ: I started writing that when I was 19 pushing 20. We thankfully got the financing for it. There was an amazing team built around it. Our director, Bradley Buecker, was incredible. I had worked with him on Glee, and the majority of my heavy stuff on the show was done with him so I trusted him and our ability to collaborate. When I wrote this, I was dying to do something different then what I had grown accustomed to doing as an actor at that point. This is where my heart was lying at that moment. I’m excited to see how it resonates with people.

Having written the screenplay, is it a different experience to portraying a character you created?

BJ: Yes and no. Yes because you created this so you already feel like you know them. Sometimes you just have to talk to the director to let them know what you’re thinking about this character you basically gave birth to on paper. I grew up doing improv, which is a very collaborative process. Some writers might want people to only say their words, but I’m very open to letting people try things out that might be different to what I put down. You do end up feeling more ownership as an actor when you’ve written the script as opposed to just being cast in a role. It’s a very different feeling and experience.

Until recently, most of your roles have been much more in the comedic genre. Do you miss comedy?

BJ: I do miss comedy. It’s funny that you say that because my next project is a comedy I wrote with a buddy of mine. We’re now looking to get it financed and made. I feel like it is unlike anything I’ve seen out there and the script we wrote is top notch so I’m very excited to get started on that.

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