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‘Indignation’ Stars Logan Lerman And Sarah Gadon On Philip Roth, Sylvia Plath And The Perils Of Oral Sex

"There are so many things that are accessible about this story from a contemporary perspective, and one of them is that notion of going off to college, finding your people, finding your voice, and having your brain cracked open."

"Indignation" Logan Lerman

“Indignation”

Indignation” director James Schamus certainly has confidence in his cast.

Sarah Gadon was my first call,” Schamus told IndieWire. “I knew that she had unbelievable technical ability, but also that’s super vulnerable and capable of just letting it out. She can fly. And Logan Lerman can, I believe, go on to have one of the great careers.”

If any first-time filmmaker knows about great careers, it’s James Schamus. The former CEO of Focus Features (which, during his leadership, released modern classics like “Lost in Translation” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), the co-writer on many of Ang Lee’s most beloved movies (such as “Brokeback Mountain”) and a professor at Columbia University’s film program for more than 25 years, Schamus knows what raw ingredients are required to make a great movie.

READ MORE: ‘Indignation’ Review: James Schamus’ Philip Roth Adaptation, Starring Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon, Resurrects the Focus Features Legacy

Adapted from Philip Roth’s 2008 novel of the same name, “Indignation” is a somber, shattering melodrama that unfolds like a Jewish riff on “Atonement.” Marcus Mesner (Lerman) is the nicest Jewish boy in the world. The son of an increasingly nervous Newark butcher who worries that his only child will be slaughtered overseas, Marcus matriculates at a small Ohio college in order to dodge the draft and put some distance between himself and his father’s rabid paranoia. It’s a sensible strategy that Marcus adheres to with great focus and tremendous care, but blowjobs have a way of messing with even the best laid plans, and the one he receives from Olivia Hutton (Gadon) is enough to turn his world upside down.

As “Indignation,” which premiered at Sundance, prepared to begin its theatrical rollout, I met with Gadon and Lerman in Manhattan’s Crosby Street Hotel to discuss their unusual director, growing up Jewish and why some first dates can go a little too well for their own good.

 

It’s not often that a former studio head directs a movie, let alone a 53-year-old one who’s never stepped behind the camera before. Did James feel like a first-time director, or did he bring his history in the business with him on to set?

LERMAN: It’s a combination of the two — he’s the most experienced first-time director there is. He knows the process better than most people do, certainly better than most well-experienced filmmakers. He knows how to organize a production at this budget in a way that allows him to keep his power in terms of decision-making.

He knows how to manage his compromises, and so he didn’t have to compromise too often. That’s not like most first-time filmmakers, who are learning from their mistakes — he was learning from other people’s mistakes. This was a really pleasant production to work on because of that. But that said, he had the enthusiasm of a young filmmaker. The joy that radiated off of him every day on set because he just loved doing what he was doing wearing this hat, being the director for the first time. It is reminiscent of any first-time filmmaker and how exciting that must be.

GADON: I think the mark of a good director is that they surround themselves with good people, and that was something that was very important with James. He would say, “I want to work with talented people, but nice people, too.” And everyone on set was so lovely! And we all had this camaraderie and it all felt like we were on the journey together.

That must be a nice vibe to have when you’re adapting Philip Roth.

LERMAN: We had a lot of fun. But at the same time, all of the… what is the term for it… below the line members of the production? What a stupid term, I hate that — we’re all working hard to make film. But whatever. These people are constantly going from production to production, and it’s just a job or a paycheck or whatever, and they talk about what’s coming next and can they get on that job. Where for me and for Sarah, it’s not as often that you’re on set, so you’re always really passionate about what you’re doing.

That said, on this project, every department, every member of the crew was passionate about this script and this story, because it was different from the other films that they were working on. And they were passionate about James’ vision and aiding him, and also owning their department — one of the most important qualities a filmmaker can have is to inspire their crew and allow them to take ownership over their medium, and James really allowed that freedom for everybody to be creatively open and curious and contribute whatever they could.

In sharp contrast from the book, the movie feels like it’s told from Olivia’s perspective. Was that something you were able to internalize in your performance at all?

GADON: I thought that was a brilliant choice that James made in the adaptation, I really felt like he lifted her off the page. In the book, I found her really enigmatic, and she’s so much more fleshed out in James’ screenplay. It was really great to be part of the Philip Roth story as a woman in a very complete way.

Logan Lerman in "Indignation"

“Indignation”

What does Olivia see in Marcus?

GADON: James always used to say that Marcus and Olivia are the only two freaks at Winesburg, and they find each other. And I think that’s the thing. As specific to the time as the story is, there are so many things that are accessible about it from a contemporary perspective, and one of them is that notion of going off to college and finding your people, finding your voice, having your brain cracked open and being exposed to all these things.

Unfortunately, Winesburg is a much more oppressive environment, but Olivia and Marcus find each other, they see each other, and that’s intense and exciting and really fuels the love story. I read a lot of Sylvia Plath in preparation for the role, and one of the things that Plath wrote in her journals when she was in college was about this idea of being stuck in these dorms and not being able to leave on the weekends or at nighttime unless a guy or a family member signed you out. In Olivia’s case, she has a very fraught relationship with her family, and I think part of it was that she just wanted him to take her out!

LERMAN: She’ll take any old Jew on campus.

GADON: But she notices him in class! I think everyone’s had that moment where you’re sitting there in class and notice someone for the first time.

And for Marcus, there’s that shock of someone reciprocating his interest. 

LERMAN: Marcus is just so indignant to begin with. He feels like everyone is trying to control him, like everyone is trying to categorize him, and [his date with Olivia] is the first time in his life when he can’t comprehend why he received something.

GADON: Do you think that’s a symptom of being a young man? Or of being Marcus?

LERMAN: I think that was a symptom of Marcus. That was something I couldn’t relate to, something that took me a long time to wrap my head around: Why was he so troubled by a blow job? Wouldn’t that be great? I was saying “James, please help me understand this, because I want to bring truth to this but I just don’t get it.” I wanted to understand what was socially and sexually acceptable in the 1950’s. You have to really put yourself in the time period to understand Marcus’ reaction to everything.

James has said that he cast you as Marcus in part because you’re Jewish. Do you think that your background helped you better find your way into to the character?

LERMAN: Of course. I know what it means to be Jewish, and I don’t think someone who wasn’t Jewish would really understand. I know this person, I know Marcus. I grew up in a Jewish household, and that made it easier to relate to him. It’s funny, I’ve played a lot of Christian characters before, and I had no relation to some of them. I could not understand. I had to learn what it was like to take… what’s that thing called again?

GADON: The host.

LERMAN: Yeah. Being Jewish made this character easier for me to understand.

GADON: In other movies you were like: “Where do I put all my guilt?”

LERMAN: Here’s a layer about being a Jew that someone else wouldn’t necessarily understand. In the 1950’s, someone like Marcus is coming from the repopulation generation, which is post-WWII. Jews took it very seriously to marry other Jews and repopulate the Jewish bloodline, and my father’s generation gets very serious in my household when they’re like, “You have to marry another Jew,” because that’s still kind of the mentality coming from the baby boomers. So I know that type of pressure. Marcus meets and falls in love with a girl who isn’t Jewish.

GADON: I think that Olivia knows that Marcus is different and is attracted to him because of that. She comes from her own set of very rigid familial set of obligations and rules, and I think there’s a certain amount of risk there. And voyeurism! He stands below her window every night — it doesn’t get more voyeuristic than that.

LERMAN: He’s hiding in the darkness.

GADON: And she loves it! And she’s really curious why he’s not getting a better vantage point.

READ MORE: James Schamus On How He Made His Directorial Debut

So much of this story is about how the best laid plans can be completely undone by sudden blushes of feeling. But James is a very research-driven director — he’s an academic by nature, and he assigns a lot of homework. As actors who need to bring their characters to life in the moment, was it difficult to negotiate those two forces? 

GADON: Yeah, for sure. It sounds really corny but every film that you do is its own journey, it’s its own experience, it’s its own thing. Often you think it’s going to be one way and then it goes another way — you think you can chart a character and then other things happen. That’s the amazing thing about our jobs, it’s constantly changing and it’s extremely dynamic and you therefore have to be dynamic as well.

LERMAN: It is obvious when an actor has put work into prep and research and understanding their character, and they’re making choices, because that’s what happens when you take the time — or have the time — to really think about the material, but that only accounts for about 60% of what happens on the day. When you’re in the moment, you throw it all away. Well, you don’t throw it all away, but it’s in you now, and everything is reactionary in that moment and you have to be honest and present and listening.

GADON: And you often have a great director who’s like, “Well, actually I don’t even want to reveal you until the end of this scene” or something like that and it totally changes everything that you thought it was going to be.

“Indignation” is now playing in theaters.

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