With small roles in Magnolia, Ghost World, Rescue Dawn and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford — not to mention lead parts in Great World of Sound, The Innkeepers and Compliance — Pat Healy has emerged in the last decade as one of Hollywood’s best-kept secrets, not that he wants to be. Healy repeatedly distinguishes himself even in small roles, and with the new film Cheap Thrills (not to mention minor parts in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Draft Day) he’s poised to break out as both a character actor and star, earning both attention and opportunities that he richly deserves.
In Cheap Thrills, Healy plays Craig, a laid-off mechanic who finds himself vying for cash with an old friend (played by Ethan Embry) in an escalating series of dares — a thoroughly modern concept that uses Jackass-style hijinks to examine deeper economic and social issues. Healy spoke to Spinoff Online at the recent Los Angeles press day for the film, where he offered some insights about how he initially saw the role, and how he worked with Embry, co-stars David Koechner and Sara Paxton, and director E.L. Katz to create a thrilling, funny, but sophisticated look at the lengths someone will go to secure their financial future.Additionally, he talked about the challenges of finding interesting work as an actor, and revealed a few details about his role in The Winter Soldier – including whether or not he might turn up in future Marvel films a la Clark Gregg, whose Agent Coulson evolved from a bit part into a staple of the superhero universe.
Spinoff Online: I was thinking about how this movie is a little bit like Jackass, which I love, but with emotional stakes. How did you look at it when you first took it on?
Pat Healy: I never thought about Jackass, which I love love love by the way, when we shot the film. It wasn’t really until after Drafthouse bought the film and started doing these “dare” competitions like the one at Fantastic Fest and the ones we are doing online as part of the promotion of the movie. To me, it is precisely unlike Jackass because there are emotional stakes. I wouldn’t shy away from the comparison because I think Cheap Thrills is also a fun ride in many ways. But if people come in expecting a light-hearted romp with Three Stooges-style gags, they are in for a world of hurt! But maybe that’s why it works so well. Here we have a recognizable and gregarious comic actor inviting us to participate in some seemingly innocuous, wacky dares and then once he has you on the line, you’re so far into the quicksand that emotional despair and desperation take hold. At least the Jackass gang put their bodies on the line. I enjoy The Hangover very much but think it falters when the guys are able to go back to their happy, normal lives at the end with zero consequences. But that’s why it made a gazillion dollars and ours will not. Although hopefully there is some crossover. Like I said before, Cheap Thrills is also a raucous good time at the movies. Particularly with an audience.
When you came in to do this like I guess are you just thinking about sort of the practical demands of something like this? Do you start getting into the sort of more subtextual aspects of what it’s about?
I find that like just approaching it from an actor as an actor or a person or someone who likes movies or reads scripts to just look at the progression from the arc of the character. I first want to know if it’s a good movie, and if I read the script most of the time you know if it’s going to be good or not. You can’t always tell, but as a cinephile, as you know, it’s like I don’t want to do junk unless there’s a lot of money involved. And then I think kind of I’ve been in psychoanalysis for a long time and I trust my unconscious mind to sort of take me to the places emotionally. I find it difficult, if not impossible, to play an emotion in order to say like I’m going to be sad here, I’m going to be angry here. But if I choose a really specific action, in other words if my action here is to irritate Ethan or my action here is to win, I want to win. Whatever emotion is going to – I’d say the overall arc of action is to win, whatever that means, and that means all kinds of things in our culture, especially in America. And sometimes winning is like the worst thing that can happen to you. And then within each scene there’s an action, a verb of like what am I trying to accomplish here, you know? And those very simple words evoke all kinds of feelings. I don’t want to manufacture a feeling, but I trust that between my unconscious mind and having a really strong action verb, for lack of a better word, will produce something, and it’s often something surprising. Like the scene between Ethan and I after there’s been this big, you know, violent sort of like thing and it’s a very quite scene between the two of us where we confront each other about our pasts, or rather more he confronts me about our shared past. It became a much different scene then the one that I saw them on the page. It became a really emotionally affecting scene. I felt very close to him. Whereas on the page it looks like – when I read it I thought it was going to be this we’re just sort of like going at each other. You’re a piece of shit and all that kind of stuff. But it didn’t become that all, it became a really like quiet nice emotional scene.
While there’s obviously a difference between a real dare and a movie dare, was there anything you felt a little nervous or squeamish to do? Or that even in concept you might feel apprehensive about doing?
I think the things that were most difficult were the risks I took emotionally. I was revealing parts of myself that I’ve never shown to the world before. That was fairly painful although ultimately cathartic. There were things that were physically dangerous but nothing scared me more than to go to the depths of some really dark places I knew resided inside of me but hadn’t let out in such a dramatic fashion. It’s easier than something like Compliance because you get to let it all out and that feels good because you are in a safe environment. Compliance was a safe, loving environment too but the character was so coiled up and I had to just sit and stew in those feelings for weeks. This was more fun. The dares were fun. Sometimes the consequences of the dares are not but I never hesitated about anything on the page that I can remember.
How accurate are the prices these characters are getting paid to what you might “charge” to do the same things?
I don’t think I could do most of the things in the movie but for 100 grand or more I could probably convince myself to do a few of them. Nothing where I was hurting another person or crossing my own moral boundaries though. I’m being honest because I’m not wealthy so if anyone has any ideas, you now know my price and can hit me up with some offers!
Evan said he was mystified to discover that foreign audiences thought your character was extremely heroic. Do you think this guy is on a hero’s journey?
I think these things are always open to interpretation. There are plenty of people who see Travis Bickle as a heroic figure and there is an argument to be made that some of the things he does are heroic. But he does them for all the wrong reasons! The same could probably be said for Craig. I think he starts off believing his cause is righteous but he does not know himself. He’s closed off to his true feelings. He eventually gets in touch with himself, for better or worse, and what happens happens. This kind of thing interests me. I really liked Alex Gibney’s doc about the Wikileaks people: [Julian] Assange, Bradley Manning et al. They are all people that did some very good things for us as a society but a lot of it seems to have been done in the name of ego or a feeling of low self-worth. In their case, the results have been largely positive but their motives are not exactly noble or altruistic. This will always be something that fascinates me. There are soldiers who genuinely love their country and fight for the cause of freedom and soldiers who just love to kill. But if they both get the job done is one less ‘heroic’ than the other? It’s a question I have. I don’t know the answer.
How easy is it to read a script and get a sense of whether you think it might become a good movie or not?
I mean, just like anything else I mean, you and I have seen many, many, many movies and we have a pretty highly developed sense of taste. And so that’s all subjective of course. But I like to think that I have good taste just because I’ve seen a lot and I know what’s good. And a person who’s only ever eaten McDonald’s thinks that’s the best food in the world or a person that only ever seen some crappy movies that those are the best movies that they’ve ever seen — if the person has only seen Police Academy movies thinks those are the best movies ever. So I like to think that I have good taste and judgment. I try not to get overwhelmed, like if it’s a good character but I don’t think it’s going to be a good piece. I don’t really have any desire to be like the one good thing in a piece of garbage.
Looking through your filmography, I realized your characters or the movies that you’re involved with are often about characters who have really unusual jobs. Is there something, whether it’s in retrospect or at the time that you feel like you gravitate towards?
It would have to be unconscious or coincidental, but since you brought it up and I never thought about it before, I do believe that the vast majority of the things that I’ve been cast in are things that I would like to be in. So there must be something in me that puts a little something extra into those auditions or those meetings or whatever to get those jobs. I’m not conscious of it at a time just like I’m not conscious of dogging something, but I know sometimes I can’t mask my contempt for a material when I have to go in for a audition. But I grew up feeling like a weirdo and a nerd who watched movies and that was my world. And so I very much became obsessed with cult type films when I was 11, 12, 13 years old. And those tend to be the films that I gravitate towards. And I feel like those tend to be people who make those films we tend to gravitate towards each other. They’re fans of my work and I’m a fan of theirs and I’m really fortunate because like a lot of those people are the people that I really look up to. As far as like the careers and jobs go I think anything like that is just interesting. Like the salesman that in Great World of Sound was a real world that Craig’s dad inhabited that I was fascinated it was something new. Even on this there’s a scene were I’m an auto mechanic. I don’t know the first thing about working on a car. And I just had the guy, with not a lot of time, not a lot of money, who worked at the garage telling me what I would do here. And he walked me through it a few times and I just did it and I look at it and it looks like I know what I’m doing and nobody else has complained. So it’s interesting to me because, I don’t know, maybe I learned something from that. Not just that I know how to change the oil on a car now but maybe I learned something about myself the way I behaved in that scene or that I can do something like that convincingly, even if it’s just pretending to do it.
At this point sort of geekery has so many different permutations. When you do a movie of this scale and with the sort of potential that this has, is that ever an attraction to a role?
I don’t think about it. I don’t ever think about anything other than the film itself and the role and the work that I’m going to have to do. It’s stuff I certainly take into consideration later. When I went to Fantastic Fest I was certainly welcomed like I had never been in my life and I realized that I had a, you know, a certain niche thing and hadn’t been – that I hadn’t known about before because I’ve done a few of the genre film in the last few years. And I love it. I was somebody – I think Evan was asking me about this yesterday and I said well, I think like this role in particular connects because it’s like he seems like the guy who is like them but then he becomes like the guy that they maybe really want to be, you know what I mean? That’s why the end of the movie is so powerful for them and a lot of people, and I relate. I certainly wouldn’t want to really do this stuff in real life but it’s fun to play in a safe environment.
You have a small role in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The Russos said that it’s a political thriller — did you get a sense that it was different from other superhero movies based on your time on it, or did you only see the stuff that’s more recognizable to audiences?
To be honest, I spent very little time on the set and I have not read the entire script. But the Russos are very good friends of mine and very smart guys. If they say it, I believe it. They’re great filmmakers with excellent taste and I’m glad they are finally getting to show what they can really do on a large scale.
Clark Gregg was effectively a day player who became an important part of the movie mythology. Is there any chance your character might do the same? Would you be eager to do that — become a part of that sort of mythological machinery?
It’s possible I suppose. I would love it! I grew up on comic books. The fact that they are taking these movies seriously and inviting real actors and filmmakers to participate now makes it so exciting. One of my fantasies is for the Doctor Strange movie to be delayed long enough for me to become exceedingly famous and get cast in the role. He’s one of my favorites. I have a good take on the mightiest magician in the cosmos.
Cheap Thrills is now in select theaters, and available digitally and on demand.