Actors Jeremy Strong and John Magaro were in Boston recently to talk about their latest film The Big Short. The film is an inside look at the economic collapse (especially the housing market) that happened in the US just a few years ago. It stars Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carell, and Ryan Gosling among others. It is directed by Adam McKay, best known for comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers. McKay co-wrote the script based on the book by Michael Lewis who also wrote Moneyball.
Since McKay isn’t exactly known for political dramas, but more for slapstick comedies, I asked them how he “sold” this type of film to them. Jeremy Strong, “I think it was more about Adam. He pitched this to Plan B, Brad Pitt’s company. The movie had been kinda stalled at Paramount. Adam’s agent said Adam really loves this book and really wants to direct this movie. I think they thought it was a really inspired, knock out idea. I think it was. If you spend 30 seconds with Adam it becomes apparent really quickly that he is a brilliant guy. He just happens to have one kind of platform to make one kind of film, but he’s eminently capable of breaking out of that mold. He understood this stuff and really cares about it. It was a real passion project for him.” John Magaro (laughing), “Yeah there was no them pitching this to me. They offered me a job. But on top of that I read the script and knew I wanted to be a part of it right away. I knew it was something special. I connected with the storytelling. I connected with the characters.” Strong, “I loved Moneyball and hadn’t read Michael Lewis’ book, but as soon I heard they were doing it I went out and read the book. I was amazed at how gripping it is. It’s like a Robert Ludlum book. It really reads at a clip. To me the movie really is a human drama that incidentally is about these financial instruments. But it‘s about these people and this crisis of faith they all go through.”
Both of their characters are based on real life people and they were asked if the political element of the film is something that made them want to get involved with the movie. Magaro, “You know when I initially read it I didn’t look at it as a political piece. I looked at it more from the character standpoint and the struggle of the character. By the end I didn’t see who was the exact villain. I saw more of an analysis of the situation and that there were wrongs, but the wrongs were spread around. I don’t think you can point to one individual person. So I didn’t see such a political tone.” Strong, “I think, and I’m sure other people feel differently, I think in order to do this job as an actor, it’s important to remain apolitical. Your job is to connect on an empathic level to a character and their point of view. You are just one instrument in an orchestra and Adam is the one who has the perspective. That sort of macro perspective. Our job is to figure out what makes this person tick. In this case, the person I play had a very strong perspective on this. A very innate mistrust of the system and a real contempt for criminality and fraud. He kind of landed in the middle of the perfect storm. One thing that Michael Lewis writes about is all these people are essentially expressing an emotional point of view through a trade. In this case we are all betting against something because I think we are pessimists and we don’t trust the powers that be. As actors that’s where you have to go.” Magaro, “I think we subconsciously put blinders on to those tones. Especially for Charlie and Jamie (his and Finn Wittrock’s character), they are new to this. They sense something might be wrong, but they don’t really know the actual implications until Brad’s character lays it down for them towards the end of the film.”
Even though they remained apolitical in the film itself, they were asked if the actual real life events pissed them off. Strong, “As a civilian sure. It pissed Vinnie (his character) off for sure.” Magaro, “That being said, I can’t put the blame on the right. I can’t put the blame on the left. There’s plenty of blame to be shucked around. I’m pissed off and I know things need to change, but I’m not going to say this guy’s the villain or that guy’s the villain.” Strong, “I would have just as happily played an exec at Goldman Sachs for this film, you know what I mean? Outside of it I have personal feelings, but this isn’t the arena for me to express that. I think Adam made the film to get people talking. I think he felt it was urgent and he had a sense of outrage about it. Outrage that we as a culture are paying attention to white noise and popular culture while this kind of stuff is going on. He’s made the film as a way of igniting, hopefully, a larger examination and awareness and a wake up call. I think the movie does make you mad. But it also makes you laugh. He doesn’t lose his sense of humor which is what I think makes it so special. I was really entertained by the movie.”
Both actors have solid careers going so far, but working with a cast and crew like this, I asked them what they learned while doing this movie or if they picked up any tricks from their cast members. Magaro, “Working with McKay, even though this isn’t his typical comedy, is such a master class on being quick. Doing your homework. Being able to shift at any moment and try something new and be spontaneous. Nobody does that like he does. That was such a gift. And working with Brad who is so funny that I don’t think people realize how funny he is. But if we think about his great characters in Snatch, True Romance or 12 Monkeys, they are all kind of quirky and off the wall. He brings such specificity and imagination and nuance and detail to his work that seeing that was something.” Strong, “It’s a hard question because the truth is, I don’t know if acting works that way. I don’t think you pick up any tricks, but I do believe every experience you have, you reinforce or discover your own way of working. You learn a lot from each process because they all demand different things from you. There was a lot I learned working on this. You’re always trying to push your boundaries and go out on a different limb. That inevitably makes you grow.”
The subject of the film can be difficult for anyone to understand. Well at least the full understanding of Wall St. and banks and insurance. The actors talked about understanding what their characters were doing. Magaro, “We spent as much time as we could with our real life versions. Having them lay out what they went through. We also had a great advisor who was NPR’s financial correspondent. A month or two months before filming, it was just sort of a crash course trying to absorb as much as we could.” Strong, “I think it’s similar to what you guys do. There’s a journalistic aspect to acting which is you try to become an expert or a sponge in the time you are working on something. You need to master it in the time you have. I read a shit ton of books. There’s great books about this. There’s a bunch of documentaries. But really, as actors, I’m not an authority on any of this, I’m trying to absorb enough it so I can have an understanding on an emotional level. In terms of understanding any of this stuff? It’s all gone now (laughing).” Magaro, “If I was you, I would not give me money to invest.”
I asked them if after making this movie did they start looking into where their own investments were going. Magaro (laughing), “Well I don’t have any so I don’t have to worry about that.” Strong, “People asked me how I was during the crisis. I was a theater actor. I didn’t have any money. I definitely learned some things, but I’m not a savvy investor. But if I get a Schwab account I can ask Vinnie (the real life person his character is passed on) for advice (laughing).” Magaro, “This kind of trading we have to be aware of because it effects all of us, but none of us are out there investing like this.”
With movies like this, Margin Call and Boiler Room, the world of investing makes for great drama. Strong talked about that, “The stakes of the world are so high. There was this great book that I read called More Money Than God by Sebastian Mallaby. Each chapter is about different hedge fund mavericks. They are all these idiosyncratic, totally different characters with different investment strategies. But those investment strategies are their own point of view. You can see why it makes for such great dramatic material.”
They talked earlier about how pop culture influences people’s lives today so they talked about how this movie could influence someone. Magaro, “For me that’s sort of a wonderful dream from when I first started doing this. Obviously it’s great to tell a story that’s entertaining, but if you get to be part of something that has something to say, something real to say, something relevant to say, that’s the best. I hope people feel that way.” Strong, “I feel the same way. I don’t know if there’s room for any awareness of that while doing the work. I think it’s best entirely to forget that you’re making a movie at all and just be in the situation. But before and after, that certainly helps to feel ignited by something and feeling passionate about it. This feels substantial and meaningful, but that’s how I feel personally. I think when you enter into it as an actor, you try to be a blank slate and just be in the scene on the day.” Magaro, “I think it would be difficult to go in with an agenda. I think a lot of actors would disagree with me, but that’s not your job. We’ve been saying this the whole day, it’s your job to serve the character and story. So much is out of your control as an actor.”
The Big Short opens limited on December 11th with a wider release to follow.