After starring in the Star Trek franchise reboot and a Terminator sequel in 2009, Anton Yelchin could have transitioned to making blockbusters full-time. But the actor, who died yesterday in a freak automobile accident at the age of 27, went in the opposite direction, putting his franchise clout to work on movies by cult directors like Jim Jarmusch (Only Lovers Left Alive), Joe Dante (Burying the Ex), Paul Schrader (Dying of the Light) and Michael Almereyda (Cymbeline).
Yelchin didn't talk like a movie star, either. For someone who'd been in the industry since he was a child, Yelchin seemed remarkably unguarded when I spoke with him in March, just before the release of Green Room — another movie he signed onto largely because he admired the director, Jeremy Saulnier. Yelchin wanted to talk up Green Room, of course, but it wasn't a dutiful promotional exercise: He was justly proud of the film, but more than that, he was excited by it, and by the ideas it stirred up. There was little chance that the connections he drew to the work of the French philosopher Georges Bataille would end up in a feature on the film — and indeed, they did not — but Yelchin was as engaged by them as any discussion of his character or his craft. (He also shared his enthusiasm for the Los Angeles punk band Egrets on Ergot and Rancid's bass player.)
The son of Soviet figure skaters, Yelchin was raised in the U.S., but the way he describes Pat, the punk bass player who weathers a siege by neo-Nazi skinheads in Green Room, the character sounds like a Dostoevsky hero, a man who's lived his life according to rational principles forced to confront, and embrace, the world's fundamental irrationality. Green Room was clearly a personal film for Yelchin, who grew up going to punk shows and played in a band called the Hammerheads, but it also fit the way he approached his career, which might have been incomprehensible by Hollywood standards but yielded a body of work that, though now tragically truncated, yielded an uncommon breadth and depth of great performances that we'll be watching for years to come.
I first saw Green Room at a midnight screening at the Toronto Film Festival, and the atmosphere was electric. I went in exhausted, on the verge of falling asleep, but two hours later, I was wide awake and buzzed.
It's that kind of a movie. It's a hard movie to sleep through. I'd be curious to meet the kind of person who sleeps through that movie. I'd be kind of excited to meet them. They're like, "You know what? This is what I love to nap to. Punk rock kids getting murdered by skinheads puts me at ease. I wanna pass out."
So what grabbed you about the script?
I really liked [director Jeremy Saulnier's] Blue Ruin. And I'm not interested per se in skinhead culture — not in a positive way — but I find it fascinating and terrifying. Cinematically speaking, for better or for worse, as with any radical group, the aesthetics tend to be very strong. A very broad generalization, obviously. There's a cinematic quality to that culture, and to punk culture as a whole, that I just find exciting. I've also always loved punk music and have always been into punk music, and I was in a really shitty, I guess you could say, like a garage punk band, so it was all sort of a long line leading to this.
Movies almost always get music culture wrong: You never see a club show that looks or feels like a real show. But when a character in Green Room says that the movie's skinheads are "right-wing, or, technically, ultra-left," you know you're dealing with someone who knows what he's talking about.
I can't remember if this line is still in the movie, where Pat says, "Are they SHARPs or what?" Just reading that — most people don't even know what a fucking SHARP [anti-racist skinhead] is. Most people have no idea about that stuff. I was never in that scene, but all my friends were, and in L.A., at least for my age group, it all sort of bled together with the ska scene. There'd be SHARPs and skinheads at the ska shows, and those would be the people who'd go to the punk shows. So there's a real authenticity to it, because Jeremy just knows it. That's what makes it a good punk rock movie.
I would never recommend a movie that I thought was a kind of poseur punk film to my friends, because they would call me out on it. That culture has been so — what was transgressive about it has become very, very readily available and mainstream. The actual culture of it is still transgressive and unpleasant. It doesn't matter how many kids wear their T-shirts, there are certain bands that will always be transgressive, by virtue of how ferocious the music is. Not so much in hardcore, but like grind bands. That's always gonna be there. So I'm excited to be in a film that cares about that.
It's not a movie about punk in any literal sense: The movie's characters end up in the skinheads' bunker because they're playing a show, but they could just as easily be a group of kids who take a wrong turn in the woods. It's not integral to the plot.
What's integral is that they are in a band where you spend a lot of time in a shitty vehicle playing shitty shows together with your best friends. I think that's a big part of it. When you watch it, it doesn't play like a tragedy. But when you're thinking about it for work, you have to take that position. So their bond comes very much from being a shitty punk band. Not even so shitty. They're pretty good, actually. I'm pretty sure my band is much worse.
Your character, Pat, has this line early on explaining why his band isn't on social media: "When you take it all virtual, you lose the texture." Did that strike a chord with you?
With Pat, there's a real dichotomy. He's the rational one. He's the thinker of the band. But as a result of the rationalism, he's also the most trying to find logic or reason in a situation that's entirely absurd. I think that's a throughline between this and a film like Blue Ruin, where the absurdity of existence overwhelms any reason. Jeremy's films tend to do the same thing with genre. Genre is a very particular logic, and by subverting that logic, you're almost implying that order in and of itself is kind of arbitrary.
What's interesting to me is that Pat, of all people, loves this arbitrary energy that exists and then evaporates once you're done with the show, once you're done with the moment. But he's the one that has the hardest time acting in that way. I always found that really interesting. Emotionally, he's so connected to that energy, but when you see him act, he's trying to find reason. There's this almost oxymoronic, or binary dialectic within him. He knows exactly what punk rock music is and being with his friends is, which is the moment — which you really cannot capture as an objective thing. You can't really reify that. But his logic is such that he wants to reify the absurd in this way where he can make sense of it. I find that really honest about him, and moving about him.
The thing I love most about playing [music] with my friends is being with my friends in that moment. We live in a culture where it's all about posting that moment, so you let other people know that you are doing this thing. I joke around with my friends that if there's not some cheap photo posted of the moment, the moment didn't happen. Youth culture is so orientinted on commodifying a moment and projecting it as a part of your identity, as opposed to just living that moment. Which is really the beautiful thing about playing music with your friends: Hanging out and making music and playing these crazy shows and seeing people fall down and eat shit — you know what I mean? That's what punk music is. That's what's beautiful about it.
If you go to a punk show, and you're there with actual kids who are there for the music, a lot of those kids don't have their phones. They're in the pit, being silly. That's the really beautiful part of that music. Its aggression is meant as a release. It encourages what is abjected. You just want to lose yourself in energy. It depends on where you go, but a lot of it is that everything is reified into these images for social media.
As humans, we're looking for sublime experiences. When you're a kid, it's playing in a punk band and moshing. Our streets, our buildings, our fucking politicians, everything that's made to imply order, really is hanging from a really loose thread, because as animals, we come from freedom, and we want that freedom. I really believe that.
One of the themes that runs through Green Room is the idea of aggression, and what happens to those feelings when you get older. Even the people in Pat's band have outgrown some of their youthful anger, but the skinheads obviously haven't, and what what was once youthful hostility becomes much more dangerous.
I've been reading a lot of [Georges] Bataille, and there's a feeling in the beginning of the 20th Century that all order is really just set up so that people can experience the kind of basic disorder that we come from. As humans, we're looking for sublime experiences. When you're a kid, it's playing in a punk band and moshing. Our streets, our buildings, our fucking politicians, everything that's made to imply order, really is hanging from a really loose thread, because as animals, we come from freedom, and we want that freedom. I really believe that. It's in primitive cultures why they would have orgies. It's because that is necessary, that release. When you see really repressed cultures, the awful and dangerous thing is the orgiastic energy is channeled into usually very bad things. That's the danger of repression. It creates a conceptual order, but it still wants the release, and the the release usually comes from fucking someone up or killing someone. That's just my view of humans. The skinhead order channels the same thing a kid feels when they want to play music really quickly, or just run really quickly. It channels it in a really malicious way, because it's such a repressive order. It's a complete perversion of freedom that then has to get channeled into this vicious, fucked-up outlet.
A lot of actors shy away from thinking about their movies in such intellectual terms, because they feel like it interferes with their process. Is that something you do before you make a movie, or only afterwards?
It's really hard for me to judge films from a film-lover's perspective when I'm making them, because I have to be able to understand the philosophy of the film and what we're trying to accomplish, but I also have to be able to lose that critical point of view and just be present at the set. I find that when you're exploring the character, you're already learning the philosophy of the film, and you hope that the filmmaker can accomplish that philosophy at the end of the day. That's not always the case. But with good filmmakers, they take you on a particular philosophical journey, and as you're studying the character and who they are, you're also learning what the ideology of the film is going to be as a whole. Sometimes, it accomplishes that ideology, and sometimes, you don't know what the fuck happened. But with this film, if I were to look at my notes from when we were starting, a lot of it has to do with the idea that the sublime reality we come from is absurd and unmanageable, and Pat trying to rationalize that to save his friends. And in the end, succumbing to it.
Pat has that speech near the end of Green Room about playing paintball, and watching his friend defeat a strategically savvier team by acting crazy and irrational. Pat didn't learn the lesson then, but now, after trying to negotiate his way out of an impasse with violent neo-Nazis and seeing several of his friends die, he finally gets it.
When Jeremy and I were together, he was like, "Look, the one guy in this band that could die and they could easily play a show is Pat." That says a lot about Pat's personality. He's the bass player. Unless you're Rancid, and you have Matt Freeman — I've seen some pretty great punk bands without bass players. Think of the Gories: They're fucking awesome, and they have two guitars. That's Pat. He's the observer, and his presence is integral, but only emotionally. There's a lot of stuff in the movie I find very touching. Some of it is Jeremy saying bye to that period of time in his life. Pat having to lose his friends is that. It's saying bye to this really tender time in this guy's life.