Owen Teague is busy. So much so that even the rising young actor still hasn’t seen his latest film “Eileen” (Neon), co-starring Anne Hathaway and Thomasin McKenzie, which premiered at Sundance in January.
“How is the movie?,” he asked on a recent Zoom call with IndieWire. That’s because he was down in Australia for six months playing Cornelius, the horse-riding chimpanzee lead in the upcoming sequel, “The Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” (Disney, 2024).
Ever since he first moved to California from Florida at age 18, ditching NYU in order to shoot a movie with Gary Oldman (“Mary”) in Alabama, he has lived out of a suitcase. “I was just working. I actually live under a rock and that has gotten worse as time has gone on. I live under a larger rock now than I did two years ago,” he said.
He is proud of his other Sundance feature, “You Hurt My Feelings” (A24, out this week), which reunites him with writer-director Nicole Holofcener, who first hired him on 2019 HBO series “Mrs. Fletcher,” where he played a writing student of his best friend’s mother (Kathryn Hahn).
Given his youth (Teague was born in 1998), the actor has played a lot of children, from the wannabe playwright son of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ novelist in “You Hurt My Feelings” to Ben Mendelsohn and Andrea Riseborough’s troubled offspring in the 2017 Netflix series “Bloodline,” which he shot when he was still attending high school in Tampa. He’d go to school for a week, drive down to the Keys to shoot for a week, and return. It was a bit of a stretch at the time to dye his hair black and add piercings, he said: “I was kind of a nerd. And suddenly, I was playing this surly, chain-smoking emo kid.”
Teague watched Mendelsohn like a hawk on Season 1 so that he could “pick up the Mendelsohn-isms that became such a part of Season 2 and 3,” he said. “How much of him can I get into my DNA?” Teague met Riseborough and producer-director Michael Morris on “Bloodline,” as well as casting director Debra Zane, who became an early champion.
Morris wanted Teague to play the son of Riseborough’s down-on-her-luck alcoholic in “To Leslie,” which took years to get off the ground. Meanwhile, Teague starred in an “NCIS: LA” episode, followed up the hit Stephen King adaptation “It” with its equally successful sequel, and fiercely protected his vision of Harold Lauder in 2020 CBS series “The Stand,” based on another King book he adored.
When the director who hired him, Josh Boone, left the series, Teague disagreed with the direction his dark, destructive character was taking. It was a tough slog. “I believed in doing justice to that character because I think he has such real world relevance,” said Teague. “And so I wanted him to be done with some degree of what’s in the book.”
Since then, Teague has steered away from such tormented characters. With “Montana Story” (Bleecker Street, 2021), a dysfunctional family drama about a brother and sister caring for their dying father, writer-directors David Siegel and Scott McGehee offered Teague his first lead role, which nabbed him rave reviews alongside Haley Lu Richardson. Siegel and McGehee didn’t know Teague prior to his video audition, which he sent in early.
Inspired by James Dean and Montgomery Clift, the filmmakers wanted his character to evoke “emotional, vulnerable, struggling young men,” they wrote in an email. “You might call them weak — or even broken.” They watched his audition first. “He really nailed it emotionally, and was so compelling to watch. Riveting. So nuanced with language. Really blew us away, to the point where we really didn’t audition anyone else. … He’s a rare talent. Very smart. A giant heart that’s so open, so willing to be vulnerable. And he has the skill and talent to share it all with the camera, take after take, with subtle variation if you want it, or rock-solid consistency if you need it. He’s also pretty ego-free, and is a very generous actor.”
Teague went straight from Montana to LA and started “To Leslie” with Andrea Riseborough as another deadbeat mother. He admitted that playing the kid who has to care for the adult “was upsetting to do sometimes,” he said. “Especially when I didn’t recognize her. Obviously, it’s been a while, I was 18 the last time we worked together and then 21, but I didn’t realize it was her when she came up. She was a completely different person. And it was a little bit unnerving. Because you were just there with this woman. It wasn’t even Andrea.”
Teague was glad Riseborough got recognized with a Best Actress Oscar nomination for her “amazing work,” he said. “Isn’t this what the Oscars are for? So what if you don’t spend a billion dollars doing an ad campaign? You shouldn’t have to? That shouldn’t be why you get an award. Of everything I’ve done that’s the thing I’m most proud of, that movie.”
With “Eileen,” he returned to a small supporting role as a lurking prison guard with a glowering stare and a Ben Affleck-inspired Boston accent. “I felt like very much on the periphery of that one,” he said. “It was fun playing that kind of guy who’s actually not that great and she [McKenzie] just idolizes him and he’s a loser. I watched a lot of Boston movies.”
And you won’t see Teague at all in the upcoming Netflix thriller “Reptile,” as his work was cut from the final feature. “It was out there,” he said. “It was weird. And it was one day of shooting with Benicio del Toro. … And the director Grant [Singer] was like, ‘You can do whatever you want. Because this guy shows up once and he needs to be insane. And you have free rein.’ I’m sad that people will never get to see it. I’m also kind of glad because it’s so extreme: I gave myself a bowl cut for it. It was intense.”
On “You Hurt My Feelings,” Holofcener ran a relaxed and playful set, said Teague, whose character works a dead-end job as the manager of a pot store who struggles with a low self-image as he tries to finish his first play. “He doesn’t believe in himself as a writer,” Teague said, “and he wants to hear the truth from his mom [Louis-Dreyfus], that it’s OK to not be a genius writer. She’s a writer, a pretty successful one, and she just tells him that he’s amazing all the time, that he’s great at everything, and the truth is, he’s not. It’s a really sharp movie, especially if you do anything art-related or if you have a job that you care about how good at you are. It hits a sore spot, because it’s about how we talk to each other about things we may or may not be good at.”
One thing we can say for sure: Teague is good at acting, and will only get better over time.
Next up: “The Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” (2024), written by the previous writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, plus Josh Friedman and Patrick Aison; Wes Ball (“Maze Runner” series) has replaced Matt Reeves. This movie is by far the biggest scale thing Teague has confronted.
“I grew up watching Andy Serkis,” he said. “Part of the reason I’m an actor is because I saw him in ‘King Kong,’ and I saw him play a gorilla. And now I’m playing a chimpanzee. I’m doing the thing that inspired six-year-old me, I was obsessed with it. It didn’t really hit me that we were making a blockbuster until halfway through when we got to this one location 30 minutes outside of Sydney. And they had built six gigantic sets in the middle of this reservoir. They built a literal river with rapids that they could turn on and off. ‘Oh, this is huge. This is a huge movie.'”