I inadvertently shook Shiloh Fernandez from the get go when we met at a darkened bar in Austin on a Monday afternoon. I had arrived early, as the bar opened, which reminded us both of Long Nights Short Mornings, the film he was at SXSW for. In it, Fernandez plays James, a twentysomething dude who aimlessly traipses about New York getting shallowly involved with Katies and Monicas, making bad emotional choices with exes and friends, and calling a chick named Rapunzel (not her actual name) when he gets particularly lonely. He's a dude who has no idea what he wants.
In one vignette—the film is structured around the different women he encounters—James arrives to the bar to realize, Lily, whom he's meeting has beaten him there. She's normally always late, as he mentions to her, but this time she's early. And his game is immediately thrown off. She's been traveling around Europe, so it's implied that the pair (who clearly used to sleep together) haven't seen one another in a significant amount of time. But as Lily rambles on about Prague and Paris, it becomes apparent that she's using this small talk to let him down gently. Elephant Room was deserted when Fernandez and I sat down to talk over beers, a setting he mentioned was "very fitting," but I couldn't shake the sense that he was having emotionally off-putting flashbacks as we talked about his film, love, sex and masculinity.
In this movie, it felt like so much of your character James' crisis is because he, as a man, isn’t really given the skills to deal with his emotions in the same way women are.
There's a book by Robert Johnson, that's about the Fisher King wound, and it was a philosophic discussion that we would start having. I read a lot about men, and the history of men—how men used to be raised by their fathers and have a trade. Basically, the shift in the way that men have been raised has caused some issues in masculinity versus femininity.
It's James, but we meet him at the end, when he's making mistakes, when he's fucked up. He's had this smooth operation that has kept him from knowing himself and the wheels are falling off. I think James is an example of somebody who has deep dark demons and feelings inside himself and is so dreadfully afraid of sitting with them. And I don't know about men. I'm not a super bro type of person who experiences that type of energy. And though it might not heal us, though there might be something broken, though we might have the fisher king wound, we still are trying.
The one vignette that I think was the most devastating was the one where he and his friend sleep together after he's wingmanning her at a party. She seemed to be the one person he could talk to.
It builds on itself towards the end of the film.
I love that you saw that because I think it's a mistake to think, "Oh, he's fucking his friend." It's that he's in such a vulnerable place by losing his footing that he makes the horrific mistake of sleeping with this person, even though he doesn't want to. He's so lonely, he so needs what he thinks is pleasure or intimacy.
The movie feels very realistic, like you're watching it unfold in real time.
I think that's the kind of actor that I am. And I think that's why my career is the way that it is. I've played a lot of different characters. They're all different, but there's something naturalistic about each one of them. Even though people don't consider me a character actor. It's like, "Yo, look at the movies I've done, look at the characters I play."
What do you feel this film says about love, or especially love now, and relationships?
What it says about love, and what I know to be a fact, is that love is not possible unless one knows and accepts himself. I don't mean that it's not possible to love or be in love, but to be okay with one’s self in love. And I think that is, to me, that there's an honesty that comes with growing up or being a human, or with a life that is led somewhat nobly. I don't understand cheating in an adult committed relationship because you have to wake up and you have to go to sleep and carry that burden.
I'm not saying that you can't have open relationships or that you always need to be mutually exclusive, but I think that there's a big problem with secrets. I think that James can't share his secrets and he really wants to. Love is having somebody you can tell your secret to. It says a lot about love being possible. And that people are lovable. These women see James, and all James has to do is look in the mirror and see himself for once.
I was nervous that all the women in this would be one-note or not really people at all. I appreciated that they were fleshed-out characters though. How was it working with a bunch of great actresses?
My favorite thing was basically finding out about each actress being so uniquely themselves and so fascinatingly deep with their process. And how we got to show up and just sort of see how it went. And it changed the mood. I worked with a different person everyday.
I didn't necessarily read the script as something that was like, these women are full. However, I do know there was nothing stereotypical about it. And there was no description that was not unique to some woman who is going to come and fill it with all of her goodness and her badness and her fucking soul, which I think is so great. I agree, I'm like, I heard the first screening went well, but that's the thing: will you give this movie a chance to tell you that it's the exact opposite of what you think it is?
What do you think happened to James? That last scene with Rapunzel is particularly intense, we all have that person we call.
We do? I don't have that person.
I used to have that person.
Thank god, I never had that person.
Well not that exact person, but definitely the person who I'll call if I'm lonely.
I don't have that.
Good for you.
Well not good for me, it's not like I couldn't use it. I would love that number. But if it's James's number, I don't want it. That's rough. So what happens to him. Here's what happens to him: I mean we were very conscious, and Chadd [Harbold, the director] obviously before me, but one of the big things that I wanted was not for him to go home.
That's one of the things I was thinking, like, "Are we going to see where this guy lives?"
There might have been one incarnation of the script where he went home or something. And I was like, "let's not do this." At the end, what he does is he sleeps for the first time. He goes to bed. He gets to dream. He gets to leave. He's probably going to be in bed with the shakes for a week.
It's not that he's not going to fall back into it, but he gets to breathe. Maybe the insightful nature of the movie is just that: look around, open your eyes, see where you're at, see if you're lying to yourself, see if this is about progress or if this is about some block, if this is about wasting time in a confined space. And that's what it should be.
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