Danny Peary Talks To… ‘Take Me’ Actor & Director Pat Healy
(from danspapers.com May 3, 2017)
MAY 3, 2017 BY DANNY PEARY
Pat Healy’s Take on His Bizarre Black Comedy “Take Me”
So you weren’t in the audiences that cheered Pat Healy’s Take Me at the recent Tribeca Film Festival? No worries. This wild and witty—and a bit insane—black comedy is opening theatrically this Friday, May 5 in NYC (at the Village East) and L.A. (at the Laemmle Monica). The film is also streaming now on iTunes and VOD.
The synopsis from the Take Me press notes:
“Ray Moody (Pat Healy) is a fledgling entrepreneur, trying to get his company off the ground in Los Angeles. His business: the niche Kidnap Solutions, LLC, specializing in abductions that provide alternative therapy for his clients. When a mysterious call contracts him for a weekend kidnapping with a handsome payday at the end, Ray jumps at the opportunity. But the job, and his target—business consultant Anna St. Blair (Taylor Schilling)—may not be all that they seem.” Watch the trailer below and read on.
This combination of film noir and screwball comedy, in which abductor and abductee engage in a supercharged and very emotional and physical pas de deux, is the directorial debut of one of my favorite cult actors, Pat Healy, who in this film proudly wears the ugliest wig in film history. I was eager to speak to him about his new film, that hairpiece and his long and fascinating career, including playing the sinister villain in Compliance, a portrayal that still gives me chills. We found time to have this conversation over lunch at a diner in Tribeca during the festival.
Danny Peary: After acting in forty films and many TV shows you’ve finally directed your first feature film. Go back to the beginning of your career. You are from Chicago. Did you go to L.A. with the intention of acting or directing?
Pat Healy: I went as an actor but from the beginning it was my goal to direct. I was acting in Chicago, working at Steppenwolf Theatre, and doing whatever movies, TV or commercials came through town. My agency had an office in L.A., so I was able to go there in 1998, and immediately started auditioning and got roles soon after. Within three months of being there, I was cast in an independent film that got into Sundance that year. Then I worked pretty regularly guest-starring on TV shows, and getting little parts in movies like Magnolia.
DP: You have a cult following from a number of later pictures in which you had bigger parts, so it’s surprising to me that you’ve said fans recognize you most from Magnolia, which came out 18 years ago.
PH: People do know me from Cheap Thrills, Ghost World, The Innkeepers, Compliance, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but Magnolia is really the one people ask me about most. Because everyone remembers the scene in which Julianne Moore comes into a pharmacy to get medicine for both herself and her husband who has cancer and I’m the pharmacist who gives her a hard time and she has a tirade. Like with Ghost World, in which I had a small part, I was only on the set for two days. I guess Paul Thomas Anderson did it the way Robert Altman did it, which was to have a rehearsal day in which everyone sat around a table for 12 hours and we all had a scene with Julianne. There was Philip Seymour Hoffman, Michael Murphy and all these other actors, and Paul made me feel I was as important as everyone else, so I felt appreciated and gave it everything. That was a really remarkable experience for a young actor. I was doing a few commercials at the time and got an offer to be the spokesperson for something, but I stopped because I had just done Magnolia and I didn’t want to be associated from then on for pitching something on TV.
DP: How long were you in L.A. before you wrote, direct and starred in your short, Mullitt?
PH: Two years. It premiered at Sundance in 2001. Michael Shannon and Henry Gibson were also in it. I did two shorts actually, but the other I didn’t get very far on. Someone said, “Great, what do you want to do next? Where’s your script?” The trouble was that I didn’t know how to write. It took me five years just to write the short I got nowhere with. Working on something for five years is what taught me how to write, because I had no natural skill for it. Then I wrote a script in two weeks for a feature called Snow Ponies, which is a western that is getting made now, 11 years later. Then there were 10 years of writing microbudget movies, rather than writing scripts for me to direct that someone was going to finance.
DP: You continued to rack up credits in movies and on TV. Were you getting typecast from the beginning?
PH: I was being cast as psychos or jerks. Creeps. I felt I had an affinity for comedy but I was being cast in dramas. From a really early age, I loved Mel Brooks and Woody Allen and anyone who had anything to do with SCTV and Saturday Night Live.
DP: I was surprised to read that you did stand-up.
PH: Yeah, I did that from 2002 to 2004. I did fine at it, but mostly I did sketch comedy with friends. For a time I wasn’t working and was depressed, and doing comedy live was what brought me back from my professional and personal wilderness. We started doing it at the Steve Allen Theater in Los Feliz, at the Center for Inquiry building. There was a big bust of Steve Allen in the theater, which was recently torn down. Then a group of guys asked me to do a weekly sketch show in the basement of a Ramada Inn in Los Feliz, which also got torn down. I started doing stand-up as part of that show. I mostly talked about pop culture.
DP: Were you biding your time until something came along?
PH: I didn’t think of it that way, but I hadn’t done a play since I’d left Chicago. Doing comedy gave me my confidence back because I’d lost it from not performing in front of audiences. Then I started working more than I ever had in my life. Within a year I made Great World of Sound .
DP: Was that a big film for you?
PH: Yes, it was my first lead and the first time I worked with director Craig Zobel. I had been friends with its producer David Gordon Green for a long time and he introduced me to Craig and he cast me. That was a big break, and while doing that I got cast by Werner Herzog in Rescue Dawn. It wasn’t a big part but I got to spend three weeks in Thailand with Herzog and Christian Bale. I took a film studies class in high school when I was 16 and saw Stroszek, and I’d never seen anything like it, and it is one of my favorite movies until this day. I’d seen many more of his films in the interim. So I was excited.
DP: Did you flashback to when Herzog and Klaus Kinski were close to killing each other when making Aguirre, the Wrath of God?
PH: It’s a strange thing being in the orbit of someone like that. It’s like being in a love relationship and then you step out of it and think, “Why was I ever in something so insane?” He asked me to jump into the open door of a helicopter as it took off. I hadn’t done any training or practiced it, and I’d never even been in a helicopter, but I just did it. It wasn’t till later that I realized that was a little crazy. He was also the one who clapped the board and the one who wiped the sweat off our heads, so he was in there with us and would never have us do anything he wouldn’t do himself. He was lovely, and it was a remarkable experience. And from there, I got cast as Wilbur Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James with Brad Pitt.
DP: In your catalogue, that film sticks out as being different from anything else.
PH: If you were to talk about a cult movie that certainly is one now. A lot of my movies that now have cults received mixed reviews when they were released and did little business. Magnolia, Ghost World, The Assassination of Jesse James are the ones I usually cite as being people’s favorites of films I’ve been in.
DP: You are also in a number of other cult films, most notably Cheap Thrills—in which your lowlife character and his friend compete by doing increasingly gruesome things for money—and Ti West’s The Innkeepers, but my favorite role of yours is the villain in Compliance.
PH: Oh, yeah…That’s a great one. That’s the most difficult role I’ve ever done.
DP: I would have thought people would recognize you most from that film. If it were a true “horror movie,” that’s certainly the film you’d be identified with.
PH: It’s considered by some people to be a horror movie.
DP: It was part of a little run you had making films that reached your fans—The Innkeepers and Compliance in 2012, and Cheap Thrills in 2014.
PH: That was a great period for me. I shot The Innkeepers and Compliance a year apart but they came out almost at the same time. We shot Cheap Thrills when Compliance came out. They weren’t going to cast me in it because they wanted someone whose face they could put on a video box. There was a two-month period where the director Evan Katz—who has since become a very good friend—was fighting for me. But they didn’t want me. Then Compliance came out at the Sunshine Theater in New York and it did really well. It got great reviews and I got great reviews, so I got cast in Cheap Thrills.
DP: Did you audition for Compliance?
PH: No. Because I’d already worked with Craig Zobel.
DP: Your fake policeman, “Officer Daniels,” is alone in his scenes as he talks on the phone to the people at a fast food restaurant, manipulating them into questioning and testing a pretty young waitress in sexual ways to supposedly determine if she did indeed steal from a customer, as he implies. Did you ever see any of the other cast members?
PH: Yes. Craig thought at first that he’d keep me from them. But as a friend and good human being he realized that would be too cruel. We were on a soundstage in Bushwick—they were upstairs and I was downstairs and one of the reasons it worked so well was because we were actually on the phone with each other the whole time. But sometimes the phone wouldn’t work, so I’d have to go upstairs and say my lines to them off-camera. I’d be looking at them and would actually feel sick to my stomach. That character was hard on me. I was getting divorced at the time, which I guess was good for the movie, but there was no catharsis for me. I’m not a villain in Cheap Thrills but do villainous things and I could blast it out. Not with this. This guy was so coiled up and it was so internal. The movie is great and I’ve seen it a couple of times, but it’s not easy for me to revisit it for personal reasons.
DP: I guess you had to ask yourself, “How am I able to play such a character?”
PH: I am aware of a darkness inside of me, something from an early age, depression and things like that which have always been with me. Internally that stuff was going on with me but Craig wasn’t conscious of it. Here was this banal guy who was making a sandwich while giving vile instructions over the phone. He thought of himself as a guy making a huge practical joke. He wouldn’t have guts to do the same thing face-to-face. In the actual case the film was based on, the guy made the call from a payphone in front of a grocery store and the call was four hours long without anyone there questioning what he was doing.
DP: Did you and Craig discuss your character?
PH: Not a lot. It came along quickly and I had to jump into it. Craig did send me an entire season of the show Cops because he wanted me to know the rhythm of how the police talk—like how they call everyone “Sir” and “Ma’am” in the most condescending way possible. Otherwise I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare for the role. So it was very important that we had done Great World of Sound, which integrated real people who thought they were actually auditioning for us. I had certain skills and had just come off of that stretch where I was doing improv and sketch comedy, and he knew this role would require some of that. We had shorthand with each other while I was talking to the other characters on the phone. I’d do some improv to get certain reactions from them.
DP: I think that’s the film prior to Take Me in which you really have the opportunity to be creative. But in all your work, even when confronting carnivorous pumpkins in Tales of Halloween, you really give your all. You have always been a responsible actor no matter what the role.
PH: Well, I have to be. I’m not going to say I haven’t done sh_tty movies or spent a lot of time on crime procedurals that I’d never watch. I paid my dues on those and learned a lot. Those are actually harder because you get the script and go in to act without prep, never having time to develop a fully realized character. Sometimes you are handed a script and have to do a five-page monologue, and that’s a real challenge. But it does pay the bills, which means a lot. It’s a training ground for being in front of the camera but it also keeps you afloat.
DP: You’ve done scores of movies and television. For how many of those TV shows do you get still get residuals?
PH: Most of them. The CBS crime shows, of which I’ve done a half dozen—CSI, NCSI, Cold Case—are always playing somewhere in the world. And those are big checks. I wouldn’t make a great living, especially in L.A., but if I wanted to live off my residuals, I could.
DP: And how many of your movies are in the black?
PH: It’s hard to tell. For instance, I’ve never seen a dime from Cheap Thrills and I have to believe that made money. It’s been out three or four years.
DP: Were you looking for a film to direct by the time you made Cheap Thrills?
PH: I was front and center in that, I thought, and invested a lot of my own money to hire a publicist for the first time, and to travel around the country to promote it. It did work for me. I had the reputation for doing indie and horror movies and knew a lot of people, and was getting offers for the first time that didn’t require auditions. That was great because I was 40 and broke, but they were little indie things that didn’t excite me and nothing that paid really well. Then one day I was lying in a pool of fake blood on the floor of a Mexican supermarket at six on a Saturday morning, and I had to show up for another indie film at noon, which I wasn’t looking forward to. I was doing all this just to pay the bills, but it was burning me out. I had a “What am I doing with my life?” moment and told my agent that I was going to follow his advice and just stay home for a while and wait for the right thing to come along.
This was November and I had already agreed to do one more job in December, a short film called Breaker Breaker with a bunch of graduates from Brown who were all in their early twenties. The director was Eric Bogosian’s son, Jack Nicholson’s daughter was the production designer and costume designer, the writer was a guy from Brown, and this 23-year-old named Mike Makowsky was the producer. I did it and Mike and I became friends. Then he wrote a script and asked me to read it. I rolled my eyes because I get too many scripts that way, but since I liked him a lot I agreed to read it. But it sat in my email box for a couple of months. Meanwhile, he met with a couple of interested producers who sounded a bit shady, so I went into protective mode and read it. He never said, “I wrote this for you.” I was floored by it. I loved it. I immediately knew I wanted to act in it.
Then I talked in an excited way about it with Evan Katz and he said, “It sounds like you should direct it.” It had never occurred to me to direct something I hadn’t written. But as soon as Evan said that, I said, “You’re right.” I told Mike, “I want to direct this, too.” Mike said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea.” So how could I convince him? I emailed Jay Duplass and gave him the short version, saying I’d like to direct a script I liked. He asked me to send him the script and he passed it along to Mel Eslyn, who the Duplass brothers had recently hired to produce films for them. I met with her the next day and she said yes. I offered to not direct, or to not act in it, but they thought I should do both.
DP: In her interview in the press notes, Taylor Schilling says she was attracted to the project because she was a fan of Mark and Jay Duplass.
PH: Yes. They had done The Overnight with Taylor. I was actually worried that we wouldn’t get a good actress to star in it, but they had a list of really good actresses they could contact. Taylor was on the list. I was surprised how many actresses wanted to do it. I had choices and would have been lucky to have had any of them. But Taylor was my first choice. The reason I wanted to cast her is that this film has a screwball comedy element and I thought Taylor had a wonderful Carol Lombard quality—she is a beautiful, glamorous star who is funny and can play “nuts.” She also has chops as a trained actress. She certainly does interesting things on Orange Is the New Black, but I had never seen her do anything as multifaceted as this character, and I thought she deserved an opportunity to prove herself in this way. And she said yes. I didn’t see any need to audition her. I don’t like auditioning so I didn’t see a need to make anyone else do it.
DP: She was an inspired casting choice.
PH: Taylor proved to be the perfect person to play the part because there’s an unpredictable quality to her. That actually surprised me.
DP: I think Taylor works so well in your film and in Orange Is the New Black and other roles [because] she has mischievous eyes. You think she’s the victim, but her eyes indicate she’s in control and enjoying what’s going on.
PH: Absolutely. There is a lot in the eyes. There is actually one eye that does a little thing.
DP: Were Ray Moody and Anna St. Blair the original name choices for the two main characters?
PH: No. The character’s name was Craig but I’d played a Craig in Cheap Thrills so I didn’t think it was a good idea. Taylor’s character was always Anna but her original last name didn’t clear the legal department because it was a saint name. But we could name her St. Blair because there is no saint named Blair.
DP: Was it your intention to make a screwball-noir hybrid?
PH: Yeah. I don’t know if I said that, but I was looking at all these seventies and eighties noir films for the cinematography, and thirties screwball comedies, and thinking of films which had the tone I liked: King of Comedy, which is my favorite movie, and After Hours, both by Martin Scorsese. They are comedies that are as chilling as they are funny.
DP: King of Comedy is also an abduction film. And After Hours is about a guy hooking up with the wrong, slightly bonkers but alluring woman.
PH: Yes, being dragged down the rabbit hole. That’s typical of noir and screwball comedy. One ends tragically and the other ends with a kiss or wedding. Some film scholars do call them sister genres and I do see where they are related. Both genres feature a man who despite his best efforts only makes things worse for himself and everyone around him.
DP: It’s always a man who thinks he’s smarter than he really is.
PH: Right. That is key to Take Me.
DP: We know immediately that Ray isn’t so smart by his choice of toupee.
PH: I’ve always been fascinated by people who wear toupees. I was going to wear a wig because I pictured my character as having funny hair. I don’t have enough upstairs to work with so I was going to wear a wig that I was going to pass off as his hair. Then I got on the phone with Taylor for the first time, and Mark Duplass. She was going to wear a wig herself because she was coming off a season on Orange Is the New Black and her hair was all fried. She wanted to have long blond hair. Mark said, “This is a movie about ‘actors,’ people performing and role playing. What if you make the wigs part of that, where it’s the characters who wear wigs not just you two actors?” So Mike and I wrote wigs into the script for both of us. For Taylor’s character a wig wasn’t right, but I kept the wig for my character. I found a $30 wig. What was interesting is that when we started screening the film, a lot of people had a problem with the movie because they just assumed we had no hair budget. They were taken out of the movie. So we put in some references so you know that we know he has a bad wig.
DP: You didn’t give yourself a writing credit, but how much had to be rewritten from Mike Makowsky’s original script?
PH: I did everything with him. I gave him notes with suggestions coming also from Mel, Mark, and Taylor, and he worked on the script for about four months. And then I took it and did mostly cosmetic things, like adding the wig and bringing things around more to my sensibility and punching up some of the humor. I don’t think Mike saw it as a comedy as much as I did. But there was always humor implicit in the situations.
DP: Was the very funny first scene, in which Ray tries to get a loan for his odd business from the bank teller, in the original script?
PH: Yes. I did add the one line at the end, when Ray comes back after being rejected by her and asks her for parking validation. That was a line from another script I wrote many years ago. I always thought it was funny when someone gives a big speech, says, “Screw you” after being turned away, and then has to come back and ask for a favor.
DP: Was Ray someone you could relate to?
PH: I talked before about my hardscrabble life in L.A., and though Ray isn’t an actor by profession, what he goes through to make a living is very analogous to my own life at one time. He’s too old to be playing around anymore and he’s pretending to be something that he’s not, and he needs to have his ass handed to him or he won’t survive. That’s where Anna comes in. She is sort of the manifestation of all of his problems, and a catalyst to his getting rid of them.
DP: In noir, the man lets fate play out even though he senses there is doom ahead. He won’t stop it though he should try.
PH: It’s because of the allure of the sex.
DP: And he’s intrigued by this sexual female who is a little off kilter.
PH: Right, and that confuses him. You want to know what’s going on, so you move in closer. You should be running away but you’re curious. You think you can solve the puzzle. Without giving too much away, what I like about this story, in regard to how it consistently subverts expectations in both noir and screwball comedy, is that it even subverts the romantic aspect by not giving you what you think you want. There is no sexual tension between Ray and Anna. I think back to screwball comedies. Some people refer to screwball comedies as “sex comedies without the sex” because of they couldn’t do sex because of the Hays Code. Fighting became a substitute for sex. In Nothing Sacred, there’s a fistfight between Carole Lombard and Fredric March. The sizzling punch-counterpunch dialogue takes the place of the sexual tension in that 1937 film and in Take Me.
DP: Does Ray at all enjoy the challenge that Anna is to him?
PH: I don’t think he does. Speaking from the experience of being a former man-child—and perhaps still being a little bit of one—we don’t like the challenge, although it may be good for us. I like being challenged now, but I was forced into adulthood kicking and screaming. I’m much happier now.
DP: Is there any way that Ray Moody represents an older version of Earl Lippy in Mullitt?
PH: Yes! I said that to someone else recently. Earl Lippy, Ray Moody, Pat Healy. They are all related. I think Mike had me figured out when he created Ray, whether it was self-conscious or not. From talking to me so much and seeing my body of work, he just knew.
DP: I believe that Earl could have reformed by now, but Ray is about the best he can hope to become, the ceiling for his improvement.
PH: A man-child who doesn’t want adult responsibilities. Bad hair. The jacket. Playacting. A toxic masculinity. He watches old movies and all his ideas of what a man should be come from false notions about movie characters.
DP: What was his childhood like with his sister, who now looks down on his line of work?
PH: I think they role played as kids in an innocent way. Then they got older and he never stopped. She went off and got married and had kids, and he’s still doing it.
DP: At one point, Ray calls Anna a pro. Do you think she’s hired someone to abduct her before?
PH: I doubt anyone other than Ray does this service, so I can’t imagine her doing this exact thing. I imagine her doing other roleplaying things in immersive theater. But this scenario of Ray’s is unique. It’s like a made-up job.
DP: Why do you think Anna wants Ray to abduct her not when she’s on vacation from work but when she has to give a speech that night and everybody will look for her when she doesn’t show up?
PH: It’s all about keeping it real. He’s a bad actor; she’s a really good one. It’s as if Scott Baio and Meryl Streep were cast opposite each other, and the humor comes from Ray and Anna not knowing they’re in different movies with different scripts. It becomes very confusing for Ray. He has always been the dominant male in his scenarios and the abducted customers have played their roles in the script he has given them. But now Anna has switched the script on him and he doesn’t know what to do. He’s not quick on his feet; he can’t improvise. He’s not good at it unless the other person goes along with it. And Anna doesn’t.
DP: At one point, Anna says she’s divorced, although I’m not sure if that’s true.
PH: I’m not sure either.
DP: But would it be surprising if she goes home and she has a husband and two kids?
PH: It could very well be that way. The office where Ray sees her may not really be where she works. Where she says she lives may be fake, too. She may be using a fake name. In fact St. Blair is a fake name.
DP: I’m sure you’ve seen movies where a man or a woman sits alone at a hotel bar and a stranger comes up to them and they exchange sexy dialogue and there is a seduction and exchange of room keys—and it turns out they are a married couple trying to sex-up their relationship. We could interpret this movie that way, saying Ray and Anna often play this abduction game and pretend not to know each other.
PH: Sure. There are a million ways to interpret this. I like that one. These people do that to some degree, they need this.
DP: We get to know Ray but we’re never sure about Anna. We think she hired Ray to abduct her but when she denies it we wonder if she’s telling the truth and Ray abducted the wrong person. What do you want viewers to think?
PH: I don’t want anyone to know anything for sure. The premise is a guy is hired by a woman to kidnap her for fun or therapeutic reasons, and she turns out to be the client from hell and it all goes wrong. From there, it’s anyone’s game in regard to what’s going on. I love movies that you want to see twice, and I hope this is that kind of movie. I want people to enjoy it the first time they see it, although they might not understand it all, and to see it again to make more sense of it.
DP: How satisfied do you think Anna is at the end of their time together?
PH: My interpretation is that she thinks he did a great job. It was a fantastic experience for her and it was completely unpredictable but he managed to roll with the punches. She thinks he played his part well all the way through, and was the perfect dance partner. She has no idea that she has crushed him, but the irony is that she does get him to be real with himself for the first time. He now can be real and stop acting. The last thing he does is allow himself to cry in front of another man.
DP: So it’s a positive experience for him too?
PH: I think so. It was a negative experience for him that’s going to lead to positive things.
DP: As in After Hours, the guy experiences his ultimate nightmare and by all accounts should be dead, but the next morning the sun comes up and he has escaped the worst possible ending and is fine.
PH: Both characters are forever changed. In After Hours, characters actually die. But I didn’t want to make a movie that’s a bummer.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: What’s it like being at Tribeca Film Festival?
PH: I’ve been to Sundance and to most of the US film festivals, but I’ve never been here before. I’m just really pleased. I have great respect and admiration for the festival. I’m really excited to be premiering my film in New York City in a 500-seat theater. I could never imagine it.
DP: Where does this film fit into your career?
PH: I think this was the next step in my career. It came into my life at exactly the right time and it didn’t kill me. It’s taking a lot of things I’ve done—the everyman who gets beaten up by life, literally and figuratively, and has to move on without knowing what lies ahead—but now it’s more hopeful. Until now I’ve wanted to quit every few years. This represents where I am today.
DP: As a film buff, how does it feel to be making movies and be part of film history?
PH: I go back to August, when I was cutting Take Me. I was invited to Alamo Draft House in Winchester, Virginia, a small town about 40 miles from Washington, D.C. They wanted to show a bunch of my movies and there I was sitting there and watching my life’s work back-to-back. It really hit me. And now there’s this.
Danny Peary has published 25 books on film and sports, including Cult Movies and Jackie Robinson in Quotes.