It’s hard to pin down exactly what kind of roles Shiloh Fernandez likes best, as the California-born actor’s resume is dotted with both movies and television, comedies and drama, studio pictures and indie outings. Last year, he co-starred as the best buddy in the Zac Efron-starring EDM movie “We Are Your Friends” and the creepy stalker in the Rosamund Pike-starring thriller “Return to Sender,” while also making time for a “Law and Order: SVU” guest appearance. His past work includes turns on the lauded TV drama “The United States of Tara” and film roles in Gregg Araki’s boundary-pushing “White Bird in a Blizzard” and the 2013 “Evil Dead” remake. He popped up in indie darling Zal Batmanglij’s “The East” and Catherine Hardwicke’s “Red Riding Hood.” He broke into Hollywood after being hand-picked by American Apparel founder Dov Charney, who hired him first as a model and then as a stock boy (yes, you read that order of events correctly).
In Harbold’s film, debuting in the festival’s Narrative Features section, Fernandez plays James, a smooth-talking player who initially seems to not care about the various women in his life he so callously uses and discards. Styled like an anthology, the film is broken into various sections named for each woman they chronicle (“Katie,” “Monica,” “Natalie”), and as the film unfolds, so, too, does James. There’s a lot more there than initially meets the eye, something that Fernandez happily acknowledges, and the film cleverly uses it conceit to tap into Fernandez’s talents in unexpected ways. Fernandez recently got on the phone with Indiewire ahead of the film’s SXSW premiere to talk about his unusual casting process, what he liked best about the film’s unique style and why he’s so bent on doing new things.
How did you get involved with the film? My understanding was that it was an unusually long process.
Yeah, I think it was like a couple of years ago when I got sent it. For me, over the course of my short career, there’s been things that you have to do or things that you should do versus what you really want to do. It’s one of the reasons why you make movies and have an unknown question of how people act or react to certain situations and I was all about it. I think my agents at the time were really all about it because they were having trouble finding things for me.
I think I was in Vietnam when I read it. I got in touch with Chadd, the director, and we spoke for — usually a meeting is about half an hour — a couple hours about life and what it is and why it exists. I think it was a good conversation for him because he had been trying to make a movie for a long time. Later he said, “Look, I have producers [who need to see this], so can you make a tape for the audition?” and I said sure. The day I got back from Vietnam, I made this tape and sent it to him. He said, “I love it,” but then I got a call from him. I still have the voicemail, but it was this drawn-out thing where he said, “Look, I’m so sorry, I really like you, but the producers need a name” and it was one of those crushing things where I couldn’t call him back for a week and he didn’t pick up. We sort of avoided each other.
Then I was on a bus going to set in LA for this other movie, and I was a little miserable about the state of things. But then I got a text from him saying, “Hey, I have exciting news,” or something like that. I said,”Oh, Chadd wants to make a short film with me” or “Chadd wants me to play a mini part in the movie.” I called him and he said, “I want you to be in this movie.” It was kind of amazing because he gave up one of his producers to hire me. He gave up the money to make the movie.
He said, “I want to make this movie with you, and if it means we have to take longer to make it or for less money, that’s fine, I just think you’re the dude.” And that’s how I got involved. It was a huge leap of faith on his part to give up this money after he had been working for a couple of years to get the money. It meant a lot to me.
Had you ever felt that strong of a connection before not just to the material, but also to the person making it?
I don’t think there’s a lot of times where you get to spend that amount of time getting to know somebody before there’s a project. The system is kind of broken in terms of how casting goes, where you have an audition where you get to have a conversation versus getting to know the person, understanding why you write to make this with one another.
There are things that I’ve really felt passionate about, and there’s people that I’ve looked up to or wanted to work with or respected or enjoyed their company, but not to the extent where we kind of had a shorthand as friends and as people who would want to work together in the actor-director way.
You said that your agents were having trouble finding things for you. Did you tell them the sort of roles you were looking for and that didn’t pan out?
I think, for me, it’s been a real up and down, rocky road in terms of starting and needing money and television shit and then getting movies that I liked. I’ve never really had the opportunity to call my own shots of, “This is what I want to do.” But it’s more of a process of elimination of what I don’t want to do, so that’s what it is. I think for me, there’s been a real amazing growth lately.
I think I’ve come to the conclusion of, “What kind of actor am I? What do I excel at?” versus what I’ve been cast as or offered. I think this movie in particular is great because there’s an element of who I am, but also a real performance in that. I think a lot of the movies where you play a lead role of a young man are tropes or have this formula. Sure, you can show a side of yourself, but [the character] doesn’t necessarily get broken or get healed or whatever. It’s these archetypes that are set up, and so this movie was something where there was nothing outlandish about it, and yet it was up to me to go really deep into the leading role.
The way the film is structured, almost as a series of short films, you do get to show off so many facets of James’ personality. What were your favorite sections? Were there certain ones you really connected with?
It was so cool to have to be so specific. I saw the movie once at 3:30am, 4am. I put it on with my buddy, I just wanted to show him the opening because I thought it was so fucking awesome, and we couldn’t turn it off.
I don’t necessarily remember watching it, but the subtleties of having to figure that out with Chadd in that the way the first few sections feel like, “Oh, there’s this dude.” I can imagine that that’s going to be annoying for an audience for the first time, but if you sit there and sift through and you see these cracks widening. Because it was so subtle, there’s not a lot of huge moments.
I think that my favorite part was really just being an actor, being able to act with all these different young women, who are all pretty incredible in their own way. And experiencing the craft of acting with these unique women who were so incredible and brought something new to each dynamic. Showing up and being surprised by them and their own personality and them playing it their own way was really cool. That’s was probably my favorite bit.
Did Chadd bring you into the casting process for the rest of the roles?
A little bit. Honestly, for a time, we were talking about names, and people that were at my agency and trying to attract girls that were of some well-known stature. I think Chadd wanted the women to sort of tell him, or tell the agency, which role they liked, and I think that that was really difficult because I think young girls in Hollywood don’t want to make their own choices sometimes, unfortunately. I think it’s hard for them and say, “Oh, I want this part,” or maybe their agent says, “Let’s see who’s playing this part, and then we’ll play this one.”
Eventually, he started auditioning in New York and basically cast people off of their auditions. I don’t think I tested with anybody. I think that he did it on his own. We would definitely talk about it. There were girls that I liked that I sort of suggested, but he was really fantastic with just his choices. And to choose to not have anybody super-recognizable is really — in the end, maybe even if it was really stressful at the time, and it was hard to get money and stuff — was actually a really fantastic choice for a film like this.
I often hear that when you’re making an indie film with a small budget, there an obvious stress about the funding, but it also opens you up in terms of how you feel creatively.
I guess I’ve kind of done a little bit of both and I think it’s doubly difficult. I would say that, just for me, there’s big movies that I wanna do that I don’t get in. Not because I’m not wanted, but because of the logistics of that big money idea. I feel like I’m not sure how this all works, but I think in the end, it’s up to the actors, up to the person to sort of figure out how to go about it.
You know, anybody that goes through school or gets a job or figures out how to be the best, or very good, at what they do, there’s something that you don’t realize at first because there’s two sides of it: There’s being good, and hopefully being recognized at being good, and then there’s knowing how you’re good, or where you’re good. I think that’s something that I haven’t quite figured out, but I think it’s somewhat important that’s kind of overlooked, maybe.
You do seem to be in a transition period of figuring what kind of actor you want to be and what kind of projects you want to pursue.
I mean, I just moved to New York two months ago. I turned 31 on Friday, I moved to New York at 30, and I think, I’m from a small town, and I started acting pretty rapidly after I moved to LA at 19. I think there’s something about being an actor that I really want to experience, which is what actors went through, or what it was to be good versus being popular on Twitter, whatever that is.
So I’m here, and I wanted to do plays. I haven’t done plays. It’s just something that I was like, “Well, if I can do that, maybe there’s something there’s hope for me to do to have a career that is bigger than getting offered these movies, or maybe getting a chance at Hollywood.” So I came and auditioned for my first play here, and I got it, and I’m outside the theater right now. We start previews on Thursday.
Yeah, it’s fucking great. It’s really interesting. It’s cool, because this play, it’s called “Ironbound,” and this actress Marin Ireland, she plays the lead, this woman, and it spans 20 years of her life. There’s three men in the play who can offer her love or security, but never both, so there’s three guys in the play and her, and she stays on stage the whole time and each one comes into her world and she experiences it. In a way, like “Long Nights Short Mornings,” there’s an idea of how she reacts to each different person and their personality.
It’s been super cool and I think a play’s very different. I’m not sure I want to do one right afterwards, because it’s a lot. [laughs] Like, I don’t ever get to cross things out for the next day. I’m doing the same scenes everyday. The preparation, how different it is, and how many different ways you can do it, I’m really interested in that.
So you’ve been purposely changing up projects with the express purpose of evolving your career?
Yeah, I mean, I had to. I don’t know that I have a choice to be an actor in film, or I’m not sure how much of a choice I have about that. I don’t think I’d be good in anything else necessarily, but with that, if that’s it, then what the fuck are you gonna do? You’re just gonna be in the middle, and sort of meddling, or do you want to make sure that at least for yourself, you’ve stretched yourself.
I do think there’s something funny about my career so far that’s maybe not, there’s been a lot of facets to it already. The idea that I didn’t do something or that I left something behind — which isn’t necessarily true from behind the scenes — but there’s definitely decisions that have been made that didn’t take me down that path. And does it suck sometimes when you can’t even get past a movie like Chadd’s, that’s small? Yeah, sure, but at the same time, I probably wouldn’t have been able to see it any other way. I probably wouldn’t have been able to read it any other way.
“Long Nights Short Mornings” premieres at SXSW on Saturday, March 12 at 1:45pm at the Alamo Lamar.