Ever since memorably appearing as Mel Gibson's son in M. Night Shyamalan's 2002 hit "Signs," Rory Culkin has shied away from big projects, favoring indies with roles he can sink his teeth into. He had a great run as a teen actor, impressing in "Mean Creek," "Down in the Valley" and "Lymelife." Now 24, Culkin shows he has what it takes to lead a film in Lou Howe's assured feature film debut "Gabriel" (currently screening at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival).
In "Gabriel," Culkin stars as the titular character, a young man struggling with mental issues in the wake of his father's suicide. It's a performance that Indiewire's Eric Kohn praised as Culkin's "best." "Appearing in every scene," Kohn wrote, "the actor imbues Gabriel with a wily attitude; while recovering from a meltdown that precedes the start of the story, he's always on the brink of another one."
Indiewire sat down with Culkin in New York the day after the film's world premiere to discuss the challenging role, and how he goes about selecting his projects.
The film isn't an easy watch. I can't imagine Gabriel was an easy character to inhabit.
Well no, I mean before filming I try not to think about it too much, like not the audience or anything, or even the other characters. I think with Gabriel it was essential to become selfish. It's all about Gabriel, you know? He knows better than everyone else. Everyone around him is either evil, or stupid. He is smarter than the world. And that was sorta the mindset I had to have. So I didn't give myself time to be scared of the project, you know. I mean I was scared for the screening, the Tribeca opening. I'd seen it once before, through my fingers, because the first time you see it you sort of judge yourself. But this time I got to actually take in the story. And I was almost embarrassed, I was almost ashamed of Gabriel's behavior afterwards. I didn't realize how he was affecting the rest of the family so much. I think deep down he knows it's no one's fault, it's just chemistry. Damn chemistry man.
How did his actions not seem selfish to you when you first read the script? That's fascinating you only came to that realization after seeing the completed project.
Well I met with Lou Howe a lot, and we talked about it a lot, and I sort of let him into my imagination, and I tried to pull from... I told him what I used to think about when I was little, how I had this battlefield in my head and there were good guys and bad guys, and if I saw a movie and liked it, I would take its good guys and bad guys and add them to the battlefield. It just kept growing [from there]. So I sort of just let him into really silly personal thoughts. And he was great about it, he used it, he's very efficient. He always chooses the quickest route, whatever's going to get me there. And it can just be one word, like he'll come in and whisper "remember the fin," and I get it. He was very sensitive of me, and very protective actually. I didn't realize it till the end, because there were times like when the crew and everyone around me would sort of darken and blackout and it was just sort of tunnel vision.
It sounds like you were extremely close to Gabriel while shooting.
Yeah. Well I'm still sort of protective of him, watching it in front of all those people, it's, I don't know, I'm just protective over Gabriel and it's just kinda hard – I mean this is private, this is private stuff. He's yelling at his family and he knows it's the wrong thing to do and he can't help it. Do you think he wants to act like this? He doesn't. So it was strange, this guy that I'm so protective over is being exposed.
Do you feel this way about most of the projects you take on? Or was this one kind of special?
This one is special. Just because there are times when he's just so nasty. He's a five year old one second, and the next second he's a grown man screaming awful things to his mother. Really ugly stuff. And at the time, I didn't realize it. Because in my mind, she was being an idiot. Everyone was wrong, and I was right.
I'm surprised you watched it at all. It's common for a lot of actors to never watch the completed film, and you've seen "Gabriel" twice now. Are you one who can view something objectively for what it is after completing it?
Well if you commit that much to something, you HAVE to see it. You have to. And then watching it, it was rough. First time watching it was like "Ugh, God, I phoned it in right there, what was I doing with that." But yeah, you sort of have to watch it.
You've been acting since you were a child. It's clear from watching "Gabriel" and speaking with you now that you're more passionate than ever about your craft. Was there ever a moment growing up where you became a little disenchanted the business?
I try to always get behind it. I never really get discouraged. Some people are discouraged by media and things like that, but that's the job part, the rest is your art, you know? I mean if doing interviews and taking pictures is the downfall, then this is great! So no, never disenchanted.
Yous seem selective with what you take on. You don't just go for the easy paycheck. Is that indeed the case?
Sure, definitely. If I'm reading a script and I'm not buying it, I need to be able to relate to the character on some level, and they need to have more than one dimension. I need to have an idea of what this guy's thinking about when he's taking a shower not on camera. And if I can't picture him taking a shower and getting dressed, then he's not a real person. I want to play a person, I want to be a person. So as long as I can imagine them in their most private moments, and it's clear to me what that is, I'm totally into it. But if I can't picture them in private moments then I can't buy it, I can't get into it, if that makes sense.
You and your brothers are each fantastic actors, who each bring something singular to the screen. What do you attribute that to? Good genes?
I don't know, I can really only speak for myself. I think everyone in this business has to be somewhat sensitive, and it's just a matter of turning it on when you have to. I sort of look at it as if, if I'm talking to a five-year-old kid, and he's not interested in me, then I'm losing it. But if he's into me and we're making eye contact and we're talking, then I'm still good. A piece of me is still back there. I think we all need to have that piece that's still back there. Otherwise all these things, careers and educations and all these things just sort of pile onto your childhood and you need to be able to reach back, and reaching back to my childhood was essential to Gabriel, I think. And yeah, talking to the five-year-old is the test to see whether or not you still have a piece of yourself.