Simon Stone’s The Daughter is based on Henrik Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, and deals with the weight of homecomings and family secrets. Paul Schneider plays Christian, who upon returning home to Australia for his father’s (Geoffrey Rush) wedding, discovers his best friend’s (Ewen Leslie) daughter (Odessa Young) might have a secret that could change all their lives. Schneider plays Christian as a man on the constant verge of unraveling, as we see him deal with his partner over the phone, and are given clues to understand that exploiting family drama might be enough of a distraction to keep him from dealing with his own problems, or might in fact become his absolution from a troubled past. Watching Schneider opposite the masterful Rush, and the fresh Young is to see an actor at the top of his game, he is always able to say so much with so little. We spoke to Schneider about playing a character some might consider the villain, his fascination with editing, and why theatre both excites and terrifies him.
Did you read the Ibsen play to discover more about your character, or was the screenplay enough?
It’s not really one or the other, the screenplay was fantastic and I was interested to read the play for my own curiosity. If it’s going to inform me to play the character, I’m happy to gather enough information as possible.
Many people refer to Christian as a villain, I’m assuming when you approach the character you avoid passing judgment on them. So how do you enter a character like this?
I don’t know how to approach any character, I don’t think anybody really does. I’m just there trying to learn the lines, and somehow in the process of me memorizing the lines you get little notions or ideas about how this person might react in a certain situation. For me there’s no secret sauce, it’s very nuts and bolts. On the day you’re shooting, a lot of my job is responding to what my co-workers are bringing to the table. Not just that, but I want to be able to give the director different flavors, I rarely feel so strongly that I can’t try something another way. The way people talk about performance after the fact is very out of touch with the actual doing and preparing of performance.
I probably would be the worst actor ever, so I’m always mesmerized by what you all do.
Probably you wouldn’t because, at least for me, it’s not as hocus pocus as it is for other actors. I feel I’ve heard other actors talk about this kind of New Age-y mysterious process, but it’s never been like that for me. I studied editing in film school and spent a lot of my time in college editing performances, so a part of that was getting performances and making them better by using nonlinear editing for example. Years after the fact when actors talk about their choices, it’s really only the editor who sat there, but no one talks to the editor and says “you got a really terrible performance, but you cut it and put it together into a really fantastic one, what did you do to make this terrible performance a really good one?” If we want to know how really great performances happen we have to ask to the editors about their choices.
Does this mean you try to be extra nice to editors and give them a bunch of different options?
No because it’s a different part of the pig, the nose never says hello to the tail. At the same time, obviously, I find editing really fascinating enough to study it for a few years and consider that it was what I’d be doing with my life. It also depends on the situation, there are technical considerations, like the frame size, the specific things I’m doing on camera, and how we might want to try things out in different ways so editors have choices. There’s infinite options in filmmaking where you’d want to give someone a choice. When it comes to performance though, you have to think about how dialed in you want to be in terms of the performance, if I’m doing a scene where Geoffrey Rush and I are having an argument, I’m more focused on what he’s doing - as his character - so in those moments the emphasis if what you’re doing shifts.
It’s like the filmmaking process between David Lynch and John Cassavetes, you can only imagine how different that was. There are some filmmakers who are all about the technical act of filmmaking, the camera and the technique, and there are others like Cassavetes who when you look at something like A Woman Under the Influence, Gena Rowlands is firing on so many cylinders in that performance that you don’t want the technical aspects to get in her way at all. You just want to back up and film her performance, watch her do whatever she’s going to do. There’s different kinds of films and different demands each of them place on you. I just want to be a good collaborator in whatever flavor of film I’m working on.
I haven’t worked with David Gordon Green since 2001, we made some short films in school, and then made George Washington and All the Real Girls, but I think there are a handful of demands that stay the same, and some that change based on the material, the location, budget, production schedule. It’s sort of like an issue of form and content, the physical structure of the filmmaking process, you can plug in those numbers and that suggests a form, but the content is always changing. One thing that’s never going to change as far as my job is concerned is I have to sit down with a script, write down a million notes, make cards and recordings, and memorize my lines. I don’t find that fun, but it’s what gotta be done.
Once that process begins, repeating this boring task over and over again, slowly it goes from being an athletic task, into an artistic task. Ideas only happen when you’re learning what the hell you have to say. It’s funny, when I do interviews I feel like the journalists and I spend a lot of time talking about the similarities from production to production. In the filmmaking process there’s a way of doing things and practices that we have come to understand are the best way to do certain things, but the content changes so much there’s very little carryover from one production to the next. For me it always feels like the first time, I never sleep the night before shooting, I’m still kind of nervous and just wanting very much to do a good job, earn my paycheck, have a great working relationship with the crew, and hopefully tell an interesting story.
One of the things that got me most excited about the film was realizing Jan Chapman was a producer. I love her work with Jane Campion and you’ve said before how important The Piano was to you, so it was great to see you in Bright Star. Since you also do television, are you a fan of Top of the Lake as well, and would you be interested in being on that show?
Oh yeah, I love Top of the Lake, my friend Ewen Leslie from The Daughter was in the latest series. I’ve always said Jane was the one who started me in the world of film, I saw The Piano and I remember at the end of the movie these two names: Jan Chapman and Jane Campion. It’s kind of a miracle I got to work with them, I got to work with Jan again, she’s like one of my filmmaking hero/mentor/friends. Growing up in a small town it’s kind of unbelievable to say that, you see a movie at 17, see these names, the movie really affects you, and later on you become dare I say good friends with the filmmakers. It’s an unbelievable world we’re in.
Speaking about the world we live in, one of my favorite things you’ve done is the episode of Drunk History, given how messy the world is now do you have an interest in doing more comedy, maybe more political comedy even, to try and make sense out of what’s going on?
Absolutely, yeah. I’ve never had the chance to do as much comedy as I’d want to. If it’s good I don’t care what it is, I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way.
It would be great to see you onstage too since you live in New York.
The process of making a piece of theatre is one that I’m really interested in. I spent the last semester teaching directing at Columbia, and I got to think about the acting and directing process. In film it can be a very technical process, more than anything right now I’m interested in what that process is like in theatre. It scares the shit out of me, so I feel absurdly attracted to it. I gotta go do it because it terrifies me.
The Daughter opens in theaters today.