I recently got the opportunity to talk to Jack Axelrod about his role in ‘Super 8’. Here, Jack talks about what it was like working with JJ Abrams and Kyle Chandler, and about how he got into acting in the first place…
Hey Jack. Thanks for taking the time out to speak to me – ‘Super 8’ has been released in UK cinemas as of August 5th. I’ve watched the trailer and it looks great.
For anyone who hasn’t seen the film yet, what is the general plotline?
A group of high-school students are engaged in shooting a detective movie when their town is besieged by a mysterious and very violent force. To finish their project they must deal with an equally violent government force with an agenda of it’s own.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
My role is brief and insignificant in so far as my activity does not materially affect the outcome of the story. I play Mr. Blakeslee, a town resident attempting to aid the local deputy sheriff (Kyle Chandler) in solving the mystery of the total destruction of a rural gas station. I am convinced that the cause of destruction was a bear attack.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
My involvement in the project only began when my agent sent me to audition for the part. Secrecy surrounded the film and I was never permitted to read the script. I was known to the casting director from previous work.
I’ve heard this film being compared to stuff like ‘Cloverfield’ – obviously another of JJ Abrams projects – and also Steven Spielberg‘s ‘ET’ – how would you say this film tries to be innovative?
Is this film ‘innovative’? While the film was dramatic and exciting, I didn’t think innovation was amongst it’s attributes. Except, of course, the creative – we are involved with a more or less familiar group of characters who exhibit the familiar spectrum of foibles and vices and virtues. They are placed in an unfamiliar and extremely frightening situation. We want our heroic surrogates (the Deputy Sheriff and the kids) to ‘succeed’, and the villains – (a sadistic and paranoid military) to succumb. For that matter, we end up siding with the non-human alien, who deserves our sympathy after exhibiting traits that we customarily consider ‘human’.
The film stars Joel Courtney, Kyle Chandler, Elle Fanning, Riley Griffiths and Ryan Lee – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? It must have been great to work with JJ Abrams, who is foremost recognised as one of the best directors of the 21st century…
JJ Abrams was gracious and courteous and avoided any behaviour that might have been stressful to the actors in our scene. There was one moment when he said to me that the scene required expanded dialogue and then he walked away. I assumed that he meant to confer with a writer. However, he left me to figure out the additional dialogue myself. He allowed us to be free. Kyle was the kind of open and friendly and thoughtful actor one always hopes to work with. That destroyed gas station was so believable…even to the oil-soaked gravel of the driveway…I still find it hard to believe it was a set.
If you encountered an alien creature on a set of train tracks – what would you do?
My reaction to encountering an alien creature on a set of tracks would certainly depend on the particular threat posed by the creature in question. Considering the creature we see in ‘Super 8’, I expect my response would be a paralysis of shock. Total paralysis. Total shock.
We should probably mention at this point that you’ve also been in another film this summer, ‘Transformers: Dark Of The Moon’, where you played Simmons Tileman – what was it like working on that franchise?
My role in ‘Transformers 3’ was even briefer. I was repairing the parquet floor in the small mansion that John Turturro was fixing up. He was engaged at the time in a Skype interview with Bill O’Reilly. Michael Bay, very tall and thin, told me rather off-handedly, “Walk sort of this way,” and then “Drop the mallet somewhere around here.” These directions I accomplished brilliantly. Later outside, he asked me to hang off the construction scaffolding. Sadly that scene was cut.
Let’s talk a bit about you Jack. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
There is no single reason that ‘got me into acting’. Rather, it was a confluence of events and forces. I think the movies gave me the greatest pleasure as a kid…what fantasises I had were probably forged watching films. It seems odd, now I think of it, that my parents took me along to the theatre with them. I recall crying at the violence exhibited by Laurel and Hardy in the very early shorts. Not voraciously, but I did read, and I listened to a lot of radio from the 30’s on. I was ‘clever’ at school, but totally lacking in self-assurance, and would never think of acting in a school play. In the mid-40’s, my cousin, Lee Grant, came to L.A. as Ado Annie in the touring company of ‘Oklahoma’. Perhaps this was a pivotal event. While majoring in architecture at UC Berkeley, I began drifting over to the Theatre Department. I was 19 when I first appeared, fearful, trembling, on stage as Ilya Ilyioh Telyegin in ‘Uncle Vanta’. After graduation, while working in architectural offices in the Bay Area and subsequently in Maine and later in Seattle, I continued with my acting on stage. It chanced that I had a leading role in a small theatre in Port Townsend. A fellow cast member (Ruth Sobotka, Kubrick’s second wife) persuaded me that I should go to NYC to study with Lee Strasberg. This I intended to do, but was dissuaded by my cousin, Lee (no a famous awards-winning actor), who advised me to study with Uta Hagen. I didn’t know who she was, but Leo’s advice was good enough for me. At 38, I moved to New York, planning to study with Uta for a year, and then resume my plan of returning to Maine and to open a small architectural office. I still believed I would die as an architect. But with Uta, the sky opened to me. For the first time I began to see the true nature of acting. I stayed for a second year and that’s when the carrot was offered: a Woody Allen film, and a Broadway play. Anyway, I was not a gifted architect.
You’ve had such a long career in the film and TV industry – what advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in acting?
To anyone wanting to pursue a career in acting, I would advise them to begin studying singing and dance immediately and to study foreign languages. To read everything, especially biographies, focusing on actors and directors and the great playwrights – to develop an interesting mind. Above all, I suggested they study with a great (not necessarily famous) teacher. Pursue the art of acting, strive for authenticity, and hopefully with a lot of luck a career might follow.
If you could recommend a film or TV series to someone, what would you choose and why?
Recommend a single film??? It would depend on who the recommendee was. Even knowing who that might be, it seems impossible. Okay, I’ll give it a shot. Two shots. ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, because it is entertaining beyond measure, and ‘City Lights’, because it veers between sublime comedy and pathos with such determination, or, perhaps, because of the final, unbearable close-up of the tramp with its depiction of all the torment of the human condition.
You’ve had a number of different roles on a range of different mainstream projects – who has been your favourite actor to work with so far and who has given the best advice to you?
After 62 years of acting, I cannot name a favourite fellow artist. However, I do have a favourite director, who once gave me the best advice: Herbert Berghof. We were rehearsing ‘The Love Suicide At Schoffield Barracks’ and from the house Herbert shouted at me with a thick Viennese dialect, ‘Lean forward on the lines!” – I’m still not sure what he meant.
What has been the most interesting piece of local / national news you’ve heard in the last month?
The most interesting piece of news I’ve heard in the past month was that a consortium of progressives, in and out of Congress, want to choose someone to challenge Obama in the primaries.
What’s coming up for you in 2011?
At this writing, I truly fear that nothing will be coming up for me in 2011…except, perhaps, my lunch.
Thanks for the interview!