Josh Peck Maneuvers Through "The Wackness"
(from brinkzine.com 7/2/08)
If you weren't, like director Jonathan Levine, a high school senior in 1994 New York City, stayed away from drugs and hip hop, and never hung out with anyone resembling the film's off-center characters, you may try to watch "The Wackness" from a distance--but when you least expect it, something will happen on screen, some striking truth will be revealed, and you'll find yourself saying, "Wow, I can relate to that!" Gaze beneath The Wackness's anarchic surface, and you'll discover that Levine's bittersweet, deeply-personal rite-of-passage film uniquely and wisely deals with mismatched couples--friends, lovers, husbands and wives, parents and their teenagers--whose will either barely survive or go down in flames. An equal attraction are sex scenes that are truly erotic--and novel. Yes, this is the film in which Ben Kingsley smooches with Mary-Kate Olsen. Coming of age, right along with his troubled young protagonist Luke Shapiro, is Josh Peck. The extremely likable and thoughtful twenty-one-year old has graduated from Nickelodeon (on which he was a lovable, overweight goofball) into this edgy, adult-themed film in which his friendless high-school grad deals drugs from an ice-cream cart to make ends meet; bonds with his loopy, miserable, drug-consuming psychiatrist (Kingsley); and has his first real relationship with his psychiatrist's fetching step-daughter, Stephanie (rising star Olivia Thirlby) in one tumultuous summer in the city. Peck returned recently home to New York City to promote what he hopes is his breakthrough film and I was present at the following roundtable interview.
Q: Do you worry about alienating your Nickelodeon fans with this movie?
Josh Peck: I'm grateful to that audience because everything I am today is because of Nickelodeon, and I felt I had the great gift of making kids laugh. But this movie isn't really for them. I started doing "Drake & Josh" when I was fifteen and a lot of the audience then was twelve or thirteen. Now I'm twenty-one and they're eighteen, and I think this movie is right in their wheelhouse. If they are too young, I leave it up to their parents' discretion for now—but I hope they see it on DVD in a couple of years. "Drake and Josh" spoke to who I was at that age, but now I've matured and this is a movie I'd like to see at this age.
Q: Do you relate to 1994?
JP: I was eight then and still watching "Power Rangers," playing Nintendo, and listening to Spice Girls and—I can't wait to see this in print--my first Joey Lawrence album. I tried to go back to my dormant memories, use some of the vernacular like "that's mad crazy," and remember what my mom was talking about during that time. She was talking about "Pulp Fiction" and the new Clinton administration, and Guiliani's anti-crime laws. So it was about that time, but the theme of this movie, the story of redemption, is quite universal. People my age can relate to the time the same as those in Class of '94, who are now in their early thirties, because of Luke's internal struggle, his moral inventory, and what the film says constitutes being a man.
Q: As a kid, did you listen to the hip hop on the soundtrack and smoke?
JP: Not at eight. I loved hip hop since I can remember. I remember listening to The Chronic and The Method Man & Redman album. Hip hop is the music of my generation—poetry set to a beat, and people talk about the every day struggle, getting out of the ghetto and making money. I've grown up with it. Now I'm less into the generic hip hop that talks about females in a derogatory way.
Q: Would there have been a wrong way to play your character?
JP: Yeah, as a coke dealer, because that really hurts people. I think it would have been a mistake if the movie was more hinged on his profession because that would have been disingenuous to who he is. If he'd have different guidance, maybe he'd be a Young Turk or some enterprising young cat. What he does is sort of the most primitive form of capitalism. All his actions are a reflection of his inner life. What he has is a lack of a support system. He's really a product of his surroundings.
Q: In the production notes you say, "I have a crystal clear image of who Stephanie was to me in my life." Explain that quote:
JP: I met Olivia and said, "I know who you are." I knew Stephanie because I was very fresh from my first relationship. It had ended only a few months before, and like all good relationships do, it reared its head every couple of months and made me realize why I was happy to be single at that moment. I was able to infuse that into my character. At the time of the breakup, it felt like the worst nightmare. I was plastered to my mom's couch, eating Rice Krispies Treats. After your first breakup, you don't know whether you're going to live or die or grieve endlessly. Acting is not therapy but it can be therapeutic. I think it was Time that helped me forgive inevitably--without pot-smoking.
Q: Why do you think Luke seems so calm being with drug-dealers with guns yet has such difficulty in personal relationships?
JP: Because with girls, it's life or death. At that age, it's not courage or fearlessness, it's ignorance and a sense of unawareness about consequences. Dealing with nefarious characters who are pointing guns is just another day at the office for Luke. It was normal in his life. He was in a dangerous profession and it probably wasn't the first gun he'd seen. I also don't think he was in the real depths of the drug world. The girl thing is something he has absolutely no control over. Females are the superior species, we're at their mercy. It can be very difficult to deal with, let me tell you. I'm still trying to figure it out and it's not looking good.
Q: Did you have a problem doing nudity with Olivia?
JP: It was awful. It was petrifying. Everbody has body issues, especially when you've transformed onscreen over the years, it's very difficult. Olivia and I didn't really talk to each other the first part of the day. We shot right around five o'clock, that magic time when the sun's going down on the beach. I didn't eat any lunch because I didn't want to be bloated. I did one hundred push-ups in my trailer beforehand, dropped the robe and oh, God.
Q: What was it like working with Ben Kingsley?
JP: It was a gift every day. It's rare that you're given a chance to work with people that you really look up to. This entire process was so great. I'm a New Yorker who got paid to come back to the city to work, and to be in a movie where New York is less a location than a character, a living, breathing entity with a pulse. It was a dream being in a movie that I'd like to see myself and to act with Sir Ben, who made me feel like a colleague. The first day we started shooting, he gave me a hug and said, "This part chose you." I tried to pick up any pearls of wisdom that he discarded. He knew that since Jonathan, Olivia, and I were just taking our first steps in our careers, we'd be intimidated by him. He was the seasoned professional, the Academy Award winner. Because of the caliber of human being he is, he allowed there to be vulnerability between us, which was helpful because naturally you're going to be vulnerable in front of your shrink--especially if you're under the influence.
Q: Do you have a personal connection to your character because you didn't have a father and Ben Kingsley's psychiatrist takes on a father role with Luke?
JP: I don't know if that directly correlates to Luke, although not having the traditional support system is something that Luke and I share. But I think Luke is worried that in his adulthood, he is going to lose all of his adolescence. Most adults he comes into contact with are adults he never would want to be. But he sees that Dr. Squires has the age and experience and still is able to relate to being a teenager.
Q: Lukas is isolated in high school and has no friends. What about you?
JP: I was completely ostracized, which was awful because I went to home school! Actually I went to home school only to finish high school. I went to Performing Arts on 48th Street. I think Luke and I share the feeling that we were the most popular of the unpopular. I think I was just one of those cats who didn't peak in high school, I wasn't especially cool, yet I grew up to be pretty comfortable in who I am and participate in things that I'm proud of and be happy. There are a lot of people like Luke who go through the metamorphosis in high school. I grew up a chubby kid, but anything that's wrong with you, the other kids will figure out to make fun of you about. I think this movie, to bust out some of my mom's Yiddish, is my tribute to the mensches. Luke is not a geek, or at least I hope he isn't.
Q: As a kid you were busy being other people, so how do you know who you are now and how does finding that out tell you about yourself?
JP: To be able to play characters requires that you participate in life. Because you are able to draw only from your life. To play Luke, I was forced to dissect the script and find where these emotional places live inside of me. For Luke, the worst-case scenario was having his family evicted and having to move away; so I had to find something similar from my own personal experiences. I've auditioned to play soldiers who have been to Iraq—and I can't even imagine wrapping my head around that experience, but I can think of what is "my personal Iraq," what situation would bring me down to my knees. So I explore what's inside of myself and that's the work I do as an actor. I want to find those places before we start filming, so that I won't find myself straining to find them in the moment. In that way I can be alive and present, and happy accidents may occur and I'll have those beautiful, organic moments. I love forgetting about myself when I'm playing my characters, and I'm just reacting. Movies become easier half way through because you're not analyzing so much where you are with your character. The character has already taken over. Sir Ben said to me, "You're going to start dreaming their dreams; you'll go into autopilot." And he was right. I did dream Luke's dreams.
Q: Is it hard to get back to your own life after inhabiting a character?
JP: When it's finished you have to find closure and put it to rest and continue to live. A lot of actors who are shot into the stratosphere and have an augmented existence then have a hard time playing characters with every-day struggles because they've been cut off from that. So I just try to keep it real and live my life and feel pain and fear. I was petrified to go to the premiere last night but I got past it. These are all tools to use. I don't know—talk to me about it when I become a Scientologist!