Talking to Patrick Stewart about ‘Green Room,’ Neo-Nazis, and Donald Trump
We caught up with the venerable actor to talk about his uncharacteristically terrifying turn as a Neo-Nazi patriarch in 'Green Room.'
Patrick Stewart. Still from 'Green Room'/courtesy of A24
Green Room, Jeremy Saulnier's follow-up to his 2013 cult hit Blue Ruin, is a grim and grisly horror-thriller. It focuses on a young hardcore punk band from DC, the Ain't Rights, who find themselves at the mercy of a group of neo-Nazi skinheads after witnessing a brutal murder at a remote white power club in the Pacific Northwest. Confined to the club's eponymous green room, with one burly white supremacist held hostage as a bargaining chip, the bandmates use whatever resources they can in order to attempt to escape their perilous situation.
The film has a timeless quality thanks to its remote, anonymous setting, the near-total absence of technology (the Ain't Rights proudly have no social media presence, and one cellphone between them), and Saulnier's obvious debts to veteran genre filmmakers like John Carpenter and Walter Hill. However, given the recent resurgence of openly white supremacist views in the light of Donald Trump's rise to prominence, Green Room can't help but feel stomach churningly timely: White power slogans and stickers pepper Saulnier's frame to nauseating ambient effect.
Green Room is also, at times, exceptionally violent, with Saulnier adopting a more-is-more approach to depicting the effects of grievous bodily harm. However, aside from the lingering images of disemboweled innards and hacked limbs, the film's most startling aspect is the presence of esteemed British actor Sir Patrick Stewart as Darcy Banker, the drably attired, soft-spoken club owner, who also happens to be a coldly pragmatic neo-Nazi. Darcy becomes the key player in deciding the fate of the Ain't Right's.
There's more than a hint of Breaking Bad's Walter White about Darcy's detached demeanor, while Green Room's marauding racists recall the antagonists who made the final season of Vince Gilligan's show such an unpleasant ride.
I recently caught up over the phone with Stewart to discuss his attraction to the script, the loneliness of the Oregon backwoods, and the chilling pragmatism of his Green Room character.
VICE: What attracted you to the Green Room script in the first place?
Patrick Stewart: I received the script via email, which is the usual way now, since they don't plop on your doorstep like they used to in the good old days. I started reading, and I was at my home in West Oxfordshire, England, which is just surrounded by land. It was evening. I got about thirty pages into the script, maybe a little more, and I closed it up quite suddenly, and went around my house checking that all the doors and windows were securely locked. I then put on the perimeter lights all the way around my property. I set the alarm mode for "stay," and I poured myself a large glass of scotch. That's what the script had done to me in about thirty pages.
That's a good sign.
It's a very good sign. I finished the script, very grateful for the whiskey in my hand, as the unease turned into fear, and terror into horror as the story developed. I was gripped by it. It seemed to me that if, under those circumstances, I could be so moved and involved with words on a page that by the time it was made into a movie, then this might be something very unusual, which I think it has proved to be. It was the script, and then it was the role itself.
You have an extremely convivial social media presence, while a younger public might be more familiar with your heroic roles, like Captain Xavier in X-Men. So the nastiness of this role will come as a shock to many. Was there a kick in that for you, to play such a villain, such a pragmatist?
I've been a professional actor for over fifty years, and I have played a multitude of very different roles. One of the last main stage roles I played was Macbeth. The very first date I went on with my now-wife was the evening after she'd been to see me as Macbeth—it said a lot to me that she had the stomach to go out to dinner with me having just seen my severed head being held up on a pole. So, this is not the first bad guy I've played, and yet, there was something about the tonality of Darcy Banker that drew me to it. There was something pragmatic, practical, logical, and rational about him. Something extraordinarily calm, given the situation that his business was in, that I found very appealing and interesting.
There followed a long, transatlantic conversation with Jeremy, who was days away from starting production [on Green Room]. They hadn't yet cast Darcy. He very much concurred with my feelings about the role. He wanted this man to seem reasonable: doing his best to help these kids get out of this situation, while at the same time causing their destruction. There was a wonderful paradox in this character, and, you know, sometimes all that actors are looking for are some nice contrasts and contradictions to get hold of. They sent me a plane ticket, I drove down to Heathrow Airport, got on the plane, and flew to Portland, Oregon. I was there about a week later when they started production.
And that was that.
That was that! I was there for four to five weeks. Darcy doesn't have a huge amount of screen time; he is an essential character, but he isn't seen too often, so it was fine for me to take on the role with only a few days' notice. I enjoyed the experience very much, although it was different from almost anything else that I've done, not just because of the subject matter of the film, but also the way the story was laid out. Darcy actually never comes face to face with the five young people who are trapped in the green room until very late in the day.
I felt—and I think this was shared by the others—that we just didn't have any relationship when the cameras stopped rolling. On most movies, you sit and chat between takes, you find out about one another, you go out to dinner and all that. It didn't happen ever, at all. I was on my own, but there was one night when their [the other actors'] car didn't show up, and they shared my car, which was about an hour's ride from the wilderness where we were filming to Portland. But that was the only time I had informal, casual, relaxed conversations with the rest of the cast.
So in a way, the setup was a bit "method." Do you think it was beneficial to the tone of the film?
I think it was terrifically beneficial. The only person I got to know quite well was Macon Blair, who plays my right-hand man, Gabe. It was a very intense atmosphere on the set. There was something about the story and the situation and the grimness of the location. I cannot tell you how bleak it was. That barn and industrial space was really there and something that can't be built. It was deep in the middle of the Oregon woods, up on a mountainside, and it rained all the time.
Did you do any research into the white supremacist ideology espoused by your character?
Yes, I did do some research right away. Thank God for the internet. I was able to get up to speed with how these kinds of groups operated. To my astonishment, I discovered that a heartland of the white supremacist movement is in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. [Editor's note: At one point, Oregon boasted the highest per-capita membership of the Ku Klux Klan .]
Now, I don't think anyone could have predicted the rise to prominence of Donald Trump. Not even Donald Trump could have predicted the rise of Donald Trump, but there's no question that his presence has certainly helped the kinds of extremist attitudes you see in the film become more prevalent. Did you ever think the film would be so timely?
Well, of course, we had no idea that Dreadful Trump would be up to these antics that he is up to now, and I call them "antics" because how could they possibly be taken seriously? But I've been interested in and involved in politics all my life. My first act of political civil disobedience was in 1945 during the post-war election, so I am interested in parties and groups. Particularly, in these days, we are confronted by extremist points of view and extremist actions, certainly since the troubles with the IRA.
Something particularly chilling is the respectable front Darcy puts up...
Yes, on the side of Darcy's van it seems to be some kind of electrical repair van: that is his conventional front. Then there is the music venue and the bar and the revenue for all of that. But, as we discover, neither of those things are his main cause for concern in having to protect his livelihood. What's going on underneath that floor is central to Darcy Banker.
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Green Room is now playing nationwide.