Matthew Goode puts his angelic good looks to sinister use in Park Chan-Wook’s dark and defiantly odd coming-of-age fable “Stoker.”
In the “Olboy” director’s English-language debut, Goode plays uncle to India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), a young troubled woman with harboring some daddy issues after the surprise death of her father (Dermot Mulroney). When Goode’s character, Charlie, returns home under mysterious pretenses for his brother’s funeral, his arrival causes friction between India and her widowed mother (Nicole Kidman), throwing India off the deep end.
Indiewire sat down with a dapper-looking Goode in Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel to discuss the sociopathic nature of his character, the pleasures of working with Park, and why “Oldboy” makes for a great date movie. “Stoker” is currently in limited release.
“Watchmen” obviously wasn’t the first thing I saw you in but I did draw some parallels when watching this performance — you have a knack for playing duplicitous characters. Why is that?
Oh, Christ, I don’t know really. In some sense one is deeply sociopathic and the other one I always thought was the most intelligent man in the world making a decision, somewhat mathematical, so I never looked at him as morally ambiguous as much as everyone else did. Everyone wants to save the world, he just does it. The world’s going to end anyway, everyone forgets that the doomsday clock is at midnight and so that’s it.
But with uncle Charlie — I don’t know. I wouldn’t say I’m drawn to dark roles, and it’s not like I pick and choose. But I love Park, the role became open, and I loved the script. The character was fascinating and the story was fascinating. There’s such a small amount of actors, and it’s quite meaty, although there’s not a lot of dialogue. So all of those things together mix up, and you’re jumping through hoops trying to keep your name in the hat for as long as possible.
It’s a bit of a lottery really, but it’s nice when it’s a director like Park. For him to choose you to be in his film, it’s quite something. It was a long time, I remember them saying, “Oh, I’m sure you’ll hear this week,” and two months passed. It got to the point where I was like, “Please just tell me I haven’t got it already.” And luckily they gave it to me. And then you have to go do the job after all that. But it’s a good thing, and many people would cut off their arm to be in the same position.
Actors are prone to saying they can’t judge a character to truthfully portray them. Did you find yourself doing that with Charlie?
Yes, I’m not a method actor, I think that would be rather exhausting on this sort of a project. But I don’t judge the character; I think that’s safe to say. You’re conning yourself between action and take. I don’t think about it too much, I just do what you have to do. You know there’s a camera in your face, and there are times when you can just get completely lost in it and the take is over. Then sometimes it’s very choreographed and you have to get your head in there to match with someone’s eye line, and I love that. I love the technique.
But ultimately you’re there to do a job. It’s a director’s medium — I’m there to please one person and I don’t go AWOL. Sometimes you don’t see what someone wants you to do and in your mind you think, “I don’t know if that’s right,” but you still have to commit to it. It’s their vision. So with a darker character like this, it’s quite fun. It’s something that’s very different to who I am. I’m not a sociopath and I don’t go around strangling people. It’s just like kids playing. That’s really what our job is. We haven’t grown up.
It kind of harks to the twist in the film.
Well, that’s true. That was also what we wanted to try to implement with Charlie. We didn’t want to answer every single question about him. I think with all of the characters there’s a certain interpretation. Some people think it’s “vampiric” in ways, which it is. I don’t eat, really, and I wear sunglasses. There are all sorts of little things that are sort of interesting.
But as much as it’s a coming of age story for Mia’s character, I always felt that Charlie was stuck in the past. There’s a sort of childlike quality to him. Not an innocence, but the loneliness. They’re all very lonely characters. It’s an isolated location, a Gothic horror kind of thing. Although it’s set in the South, it’s not set anywhere. It’s not given a discernible time period, but we know its sort of ‘90s, ‘80s, somewhere around there. And the way that I dress sort of reflects that. Seems sort of washed and from the past. A sepia quality to the clothes I wear. We wanted him to be masculine, male and adult and then a childlike innocence back and forth so that you don’t necessarily know. It’s oft-kilter watching it and it’s quite disturbing because you don’t know what he’s going to do.
Like in all of Park’s films, there is a final twist that explains, in detail, the origins of your character and why he is the way he is. But from the moment you appear on screen, it’s never in doubt that Charlie is up to no good. Did you feel a certain amount of freedom playing a character that didn’t have to mask his evil nature?
I think so, because you can’t just play evil, you have to find some sort of psychological truth even if you don’t know what that is, in the sense that you make decisions. But it’s difficult to get in the mind of a complete sociopath, so you try your hardest and see what is captured and discuss things with Director Park. I worked closely with Mia and there are these animalistic qualities so the movement we had was like prey. We were hunting people, so it was underplayed and not hammed up so much.
There are moments that get heightened, particularly towards the end, such as that moment with Nicole. But it was a real pleasure subtly carving our way through it. As you say we know, but we still kind of like Charlie, and that’s kind of a worry for the viewer. But sex and violence, although we know Charlie’s like this, we aren’t expecting for it to be Mia’s right of passage. It’s quite disturbing to see a young girl go through that.
You expressed earlier a passion for the work of Park, so I’m guessing you’re a longtime fan of his work?
I was a paying customer to go and see “Oldboy” years and years ago when it first came out. It was actually a date movie I went to, which was a pretty weird date movie to go to. But I loved that film. It was deep, disturbing and beautifully shot and intelligent. I jumped at the chance, but he had to pick me obviously. But I knew what kind of creativity he was going to bring to the role and it was still fascinating to see how he was going to do it and the process of it all.
We showed up for pre-production and there was this folder with every scene pre-drawn out with how he wanted to do it. So that was a worry in some sense because you wonder if there is any room for maneuvering. But there was a lot more freedom there than I was expecting — that was great. We came up with ideas, like the whistling. We have a great respect for each other, which is nice that he doesn’t thick I’m an idiot. It was incredulously rewarding and I’d jump at the chance to work with him again.
Given that it was so storyboarded, I’m curious as to what your reaction was when you finally saw the finished product.
Well, it was everything you wanted. You sort of expected it, but some of the dissolves like with the hair, you just think, “Oh my god, that’s stunning.” And that’s one of the joys about working with a director who has a longtime collaborating director of photography. Some of this stuff you get to know about and some of it is just stuff they have planned. Even Nicole was like, “I wonder why they are spending so much time having my hair brushed.” So it’s nice to have those surprises when you’re watching the film, but the aesthetic is just incredible.
This not only marked the first time Park worked with English-speaking actors, but it also marked his first time working within the American system, which is so different than the one he’s used to.
Well, he had to adapt, because he said he would have shot twice as long in Korea because costs aren’t the same. He likes to do a scene with his actors and then cut and then go back and view the take and do that pretty much every take. It must be exhausting. I don’t mind watching things back after you’ve completed the scene, but you just get used to his style. He had to work quicker than he would normally.
Everyone was always thinking there would be this massive language barrier, but actually he had such a brilliant translator. And sometimes when you’re working quickly things would become truncated and you worked out shorthand. But once you’d been working for a week, it was easy.
And you’ve worked with some great actors over the course of your career, but Nicole Kidman must have been a highlight. Were you intimidated at all?
Oh, definitely. I was intimidated by the idea of her, but then I met her and it was all dispelled. You just realize bloody hell, that’s Nicole Kidman and I’m about to shake hands with her. And then you have a chat with her and she’s super nice and funny. I wouldn’t imagine she’s any different in L.A., but I think the fact that we were shooting in her hometown in Nashville; I think she’s very comfortable there. People treat her with such respect there and it’s a very family-orientated place. My family was there and our producer’s family was there so our kids all hung out on a couple of occasions. She was very generous with her time. And equally, Mia is a big star in her own way. I love her work and I love working with her and just hanging out with her was really fun.
Sounds like you had a really wholesome time on set.
I had a great time — I mean, besides the subject matter. When it’s so off the charts like this, you find yourself goofing around a bit in order to have a cathartic leveler. It was hard work and quickly shot. But that’s what we were there to do.