Interview by Paul Salfen
Charlie Plummer photo by Scott Green, Courtesy of A24 LEAN ON PETE is in theaters NOW
From acclaimed filmmaker Andrew Haigh (Weekend; 45 Years), and based on the beloved novel by Willy Vlautin, comes Lean on Pete—a deeply moving story about love, loneliness, family, and friendship, told through the unique prism of one boy’s connection to a very special racehorse.
Fifteen-year-old Charley Thompson (Charlie Plummer) arrives in Portland, Oregon with his single father Ray (Travis Fimmel), both eager for a fresh start after a series of hard knocks. While Ray descends into personal turmoil, Charley finds acceptance and camaraderie at a local racetrack where he lands a job caring for an aging Quarter Horse named Lean On Pete. The horse’s gruff owner, Del Montgomery (Steve Buscemi), and seasoned jockey, Bonnie (Chloë Sevigny), help Charley fill the void of his father’s absence—until he discovers that Pete is bound for slaughter, prompting him to take extreme measures to spare his new friend’s life. Charley and Pete head out into the great unknown, embarking on an odyssey across the new American frontier in search of a loving aunt Charley hasn’t seen in years. They experience adventure and heartbreak in equal measure, but never lose their irrepressible hope and resiliency as they pursue their dream of finding a place they can call home. Featuring an incredible breakout turn by Charlie Plummer (The Dinner; King Jack; All The Money in the World) and memorable supporting work by indie stalwarts Buscemi, Sevigny, and Steve Zahn, Lean on Pete is a compassionate and heartrending look at the desire for love, family, and acceptance that drives all of us.
We talked to Writer/Director Andrew Haigh and Actor Charlie Plummer just after the premiere at SXSW. The audience had reacted positively at the premiere the night before and the words “Oscar-worthy Performance” were starting to circulate.
AMFM MAGAZINE: Congratulations, it’s got to be a great feeling to see the audience react like that at SXSW…
ANDREW HAIGH: It is, especially when you’re not manipulating people in a commercial sense. You haven’t got a huge swelling score. You have to work a bit harder at making it more emotional. I like films that do that to me – when you leave the cinema you’re still thinking about it. That’s the best…the film leads up to the ending and I want you to go home and I want it to pop up into your brain and keep having an effect.
AMFM: (addressing Charlie Plummer) After people see this they probably will want to give you a hug.
CHARLIE PLUMMER: Whenever people connect with anything, especially something like this, something you’ve worked so hard on and you’ve put so much time, thought and energy and emotioninto…to see that hit home for people you’ve never met and getting to a certain place for them, it’s the best thing in the world. Whether place that is through tears or laughter, that connection is real.
AMFM: But for all the ups and downs, there is hope in this movie.
ANDREW: Yes, there is hope in there. That’s what I found so great about the book. It’s not necessarily a hopeful world that Charlie lives in, it’s a very very difficult world, but he is driven by some hope. I find that a not so hopeful film to be driven by hope is fascinating to me.
For me, from a European perspective, it articulates something about the American dream – it doesn’t necessarily work as a concept for everybody. Some of us are left very much behind. But there is some kind of weird hope inherent in the philosophy of it, that drives people forward. But for my own sake, I couldn’t tell this story unless there was some hope for Charlie.
ON THE CASTING OF CHARLIE PLUMMER
ANDREW: This film would have been a complete disaster if we had not gotten the right person to play this part, the film would not work. We knew it from the moment that we received his audition tape he had it and could do it, and his performance was at the level that makes sense for what I want the film to be. So I feel we were very lucky that he wanted to do it.
AMFM to CHARLIE: Was that kind of nerve-racking for you? This is all you.
CHARLIE: Yes. Honestly it was, but truthfully I was most nervous because I loved this story so much and I cared so much about it – also I had so much respect for Andrew and everyone that was working on the movie. As soon as you’re on that set with all those people you don’t want to let them down.
But quite honestly, I really didn’t feel that pressure “well if you fuck up, that’s it. Our movie will never do anything.” But I have to give that to Andrew, he gives his actors a lot of space, and room to feel comfortable to go with whatever the impulse or the instinct is. He was really encouraging me to follow that, and it was so helpful. I never felt like “Oh My God! I’m going to ruin everything!”
ANDREW HAIGH: AHHHH! You’re going to mess it up Charlie! (joking). It’s all on your shoulders, nothing to do with me! It’s all your fault! (laughing).
AMFM: This is what some would consider star-making material. Are you ready for that?
CHARLIE: Oh, I don’t know man. You know, it’s been an interesting process, making the film, because some people really connect with it on a deep level. “Oooh! Where’s this movie been!” and others may say “Yeah, whatever.” But these are the kinds of movies that I would love to make, getting to that place where you’re comfortable and confident enough in your own work as well as the people you’re making the movie with. You’re setting out to make a certain kind of movie, and some people are really going to connect with it on a deep level and some people aren’t, and that’s okay. I just hope that I can continue to make films like this with people like Andrew. But in terms of all the other stuff, I have no control over it.
AMFM: Well A24 is fantastic at marketing films, but I was thinking about this one. Andrew are you involved in these discussions, how do you market a film like this without giving too much away?
ANDREW: It’s a tough film to have to market, I don’t envy what they have to do. It’s the same in all the other territories, the same in England. It’s very hard because in concept you think “Oh, it’s a story about a boy and a horse.” Something goes on in your brain…but this isn’t that movie. To be honest with you, what comes into your mind is not a movie that I would want to see. Like a sentimental, Disneyfied version of a kid wandering around with a horse and the horse talking back, or whatever. So, it’s a hard film to talk about, because it’s a very unsentimental kind of story. It’s not really about the horse, it’s about Charlie. It’s not even necessarily that the relationship between Charlie and the horse is fundamental to the story…it’s not the whole story.
AMFM: You had some great co-stars, Steve Zahn and Steve Buscemi. Without giving anything away, there are some scenes that must have been tough to film, we’re not used to seeing this.
CHARLIE: Yeah, just to work with them and learn from them, and hear stories from both of them about their experiences. They have been working since they were very young. Steve Zahn was in New York when he was in his early 20s. Steve Buscemi was working with Jim Jarmusch and living in the East Village. To hear those stories…and both of them have worked with some of the greatest directors alive today…they are both real character actors. To work with them…they’re my favorite type of actor. I’d definitely say the same about Chloe Sevigny. To hear those experiences, and to hear how they make decisions. To hear Andrew talk about how why he wanted to work with them, it was a really wonderful thing for me as a young person. I felt so fortunate getting to work with them.
AMFM: Andrew, behind the camera it must have been…
ANDREW: Yes! They’re just so good. All three of them, and Travis. They bring something really different to the material. It was so easy for all of those supporting characters to just be cardboard cutout cliches. The Dad could have been just a bad alcoholic Dad. Del could have been a cantankerous unpleasant man. But they all brought complexity and nuance to it. And that’s because they’re all really good character actors, and they know that within a limited space and time they can bring these characters to life. But they also know that they’re servicing a wider story about Charlie. And let’s face it, some actors are selfish and they want it to be about them, but all of the actors knew that this was a story about this kid, and their part was to tell that in the best way that it could be. They drift into the story, they drift out of the story, they don’t necessarily have their big grandstanding moment.
When you employ someone that is famous, you can’t escape what they’ve done before. To think that you can doesn’t make any sense, but I love the kinds of films they’ve done and also you can also play around a little bit with expectations. Say for example Steve Zahn’s character. When you first meet him in the shelter you think, “Oh, he’s going to be a really nice, sweet guy because Steve Zahn often is. You think “Aw that’s great” and you want Charlie to trust him, even if he is a little bit nervous. So when he does turn, it’s even more terrifying. It helps it become more complex.
AMFM: This really humanizes the homeless problem too. You think “Wow, that could be anybody” after a few bad turns here and there.
ANDREW: There’s been a huge rise in homelessness over the last ten years. Not just America, but throughout Europe, and it’s the same kind of thing. People are falling through those cracks easier and they are there before they know it. They’re on the street and they’re homeless. It’s different than it was thirty years ago. It’s easier to fall through those cracks and be left abandoned.
For me, that was one of the interesting things about the story. Charlie doesn’t even think that he’s homeless. But he is, and that’s how easily it happens. If you don’t have somewhere to live…if you don’t have a home…you ARE homeless. Homeless doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re in the street, it’s just that you are in temporary accommodation. It’s difficult if you’re in that situation, and it’s definitely an important part of the story.
AMFM: I think this film will mean a lot to a lot of people and spur discussion. Is that what you wanted?
ANDREW: Yes, absolutely. Some people will connect with the family elements. Some people will connect with the relationship between Charlie and the horse. Some people will connect with the socio-economic things. That’s great, at the heart of it there is something that is linking all of those things together. An individual need to not be alone, a need to be protected, a need to be cared for. Whether it’s family or friends or society. I’d say I’m a relatively political person. It’s simple. You want the country you live in to support you like your family would support you. You want to be nurtured, protected, looked after. It’s quite simple. That’s what you wish would happen but it’s not always the case.
AMFM: Are you ready for the gauntlet of Awards Season?
ANDREW: Who knows? I went through that with “45 Years,” and Charlotte Rampling. Do you know what? It can kind of overshadow everything, and I’ve learned from that to not think or worry about it. You never know what’s going to happen. It will either be that it will or no one will ever mention it again after April. That’s the truth of it.
AMFM: There are a lot of young actors and directors that will be looking for advice from you. What would you say to them?
ANDREW: For me, it’s just that you really have to analyze what kinds of films you want to make. If it’s really small personal stories, follow that. If it’s a comedy, follow that. There’s no one better than the other. Horror, or a big action movie. If that’s what you want to do, stick to it and try not to be pressured into doing something that doesn’t feel correct. You can’t really go wrong, and you may not succeed, but at least you’re doing what you want to do.
CHARLIE: Don’t take advice from me, I haven’t been doing it for that long. So what Andrew said, but also just be really firm with “why” you’re doing it, and ask yourself that on a consistent basis. Be really clear about that, especially with something like this where you’re putting your heart out there and giving so much of yourself. You should consistently ask yourself why you are doing it and why it’s important to you.
ANDREW: And try to disassociate your self-esteem issues with the filmmaker in you. Most of us are probably doing this because we have low self-esteem and are desperate to be loved. If that is the case… (all laugh) Don’t, it’ll never make you happy.
AMFM: So what was the film that you looked up at on the big screen and thought “That’s what I want to do?”
ANDREW: It’s varied. I grew up in the 80’s in a family that didn’t go and watch art house movies. So my movies were “Back To The Future” and “Gremlins” and that sort of film. I don’t necessarily want to make those films but love them. When I was older I got into other things and my taste varied. So it’s not any specific films but there are always things that affect me and stay in my mind, and linger onwards.
CHARLIE: For me, it wasn’t a film. When I was twelve I saw a play with Mark Rylance called “Jerusalem.” on Broadway. I went back the next night and saw it again. For me as a young person…as soon as he walked out on stage, he was a different person. You could see how much pain and struggle there was, but you could also see how much fun he was having, and how much joy there was behind it. For me, that’s when it was solid. I hadn’t seen anyone before that was able to capture all of that in one performance.