Interview: James Frecheville; star of Animal Kingdom.

James Frecheville’s starring performance in Animal Kingdom is one of the most divisive of the year. Less flashy than Jacki Weaver’s and Ben Mendelsohn’s (who are each given juicy, menacing roles to chew on), Frecheville’s function in David Michôd’s Aussie crime drama is that of a bemused spectator. He is a mumbly 17-year-old who discovers the only way to survive his traitorous criminal family is to remain completely detached. It’s a risky performance choice that works for some, but not others.

Richard Corliss of Time Magazine compares Frecheville to Mad Max-era Mel Gibson. Jay Antani at Moving Pictures is less complimentary: “The actor mugs and mumbles his way through what feels like a catatonic state, such is the lack for charisma and vitality in the performance.” David Edelstein of New York Magazine says that Joshua is a little too inexpressive for his liking, but admits that, “the movie would be less bloodcurdling if its hero didn’t stand there, mouth open like an imbecile, while the horrors around him go down.”

I personally believe Frecheville’s pitch-perfect performance is the key to Animal Kingdom’s brilliance, and jumped at the opportunity to speak to the young actor about the decisions that led to the crafting of his character. I was surprised to have been met on the other end of the phone line by someone who spoke thoughtfully and articulately about their acting process (memories of J’s monotone mumbling still ringing in my ear). Frecheville shared with us how he became involved with Animal Kingdom, how he and Michôd developed ‘J’ into a character, and his interpretation of the film’s ambiguous ending.

SM: Do you remember seeing a film, or a performance, when you were younger that inspired you to become an actor?

JF: I don’t think so. No, it wasn’t like I had a dawning moment on me sitting in a cinema deciding it was what I wanted to do. I went into a youth theatre when I was five or six; it was really basic kids theatre sort of stuff. Then, by the time I got old enough, it was already kind of a done choice, I suppose. But I wasn’t like I had a dawning moment.

SM: It was fluid then. You didn’t have to break the news to your parents? Was it sort of expected at that point?

JF: At that point it was kind of expected.

SM: Tell us about auditioning for, and landing the part of, ‘J’.

JF: I found out about the audition through a teacher at my high school, and I went through the open call casting. I hadn’t really done many auditions before, so instead of wanting the part per se, I was more interested in doing a good job to make an impact on the casting director. Because it wasn’t really for me to say that I was right for this particular role. So I went in there not stinking of desperation like a lot of people do sometimes, and, yeah, I think in the first audition we had group improvisations, and we did a small scene that we were asked to prepare. I was kept behind and we went 40 minutes over; I remember coming out of my first audition and there was a big room full of guys glaring at me. Then, every two or three weeks I was called back to do more auditions, and then I got a call around the 20th of December that it was down to me and one other kid. I found out on New Year’s Eve I got it.

SM: Throughout the film, ‘J’ maintains a sort of bewildered demeanour, amidst the horror going on around him. Was that how you originally read for the role, or something you worked out with [Director] David [Michôd] later on?

JF: Probably about half and half. I think it seemed pretty obvious that the character was quite repressed emotionally, and just seemed like a very passive kind of kid. But we really fine-tuned that in the rehearsal period before hand, just getting some of his mannerisms down and the way he sort of shuffles around and carries himself. How he kind of sits like a fly on the wall just watching everyone. Yeah, a lot of that was David, but I can’t really remember how much of it, and how much of it was me.

SM: Do you recall how your original reading of the character differed?

JF: Yeah, I suppose the way the character talked was different, and I think a lot of it was in the speech patterns. We sat down during the rehearsals and figured out a formula to the way Josh spoke, which was that most of his sentences will end with an upward inflection on them, just to aid how uncertain he is about everything. So even if he says a statement, he’ll end it with an upward inflection to make it sound like a question, even though it’s not. Like he’s trying to seek the validation of his uncles, and see if he’s doing right by them. I had to lose a bit of my diction, and mumble a bit more, so I started to talk like that.

SM: During your prep, did David give you a reading list of other performances, or was that considered a bit poisonous to your character?

JF: I don’t think he did. I didn’t really have to go do filmic research per se. But I did personally – only because I wasn’t familiar with Ben Mendelsohn or Jacki Weaver, really –I hired out Cosi (laughs).

SM: Right. Where they are playing very similar characters, aren’t they?

JF: Oh yeah.

SM: Did you spend much time with Jacki or Ben, or the rest of the cast, to work on that family dynamic?

JF: I spent a bit of time with Jacki, and Guy came in for maybe a day or two. So roughly I got to spend about two full days with each of the other actors, bar Ben. I didn’t meet Ben until the first day on set, and at that point he’d managed to become very intimidating very quickly.

SM: Well that works for the character really; to not know him beforehand.

JF: Exactly. And what I didn’t know was that it was all calculated and deliberate. He was calling me John and Jack and The Kid and Stunning Youth and all of these ridiculous things, just getting my name wrong. Initially I was just really wary of being in this guy’s personal space, because I didn’t want to piss him off too much. He was given up on the very first day by a friend of his that was on the set, and at that point I knew he was doing it deliberately to help aid the relationship dynamic between both of our characters, and how volatile Pope is, and how you need to be very uncertain of what to expect from him. So then I just kind of went along with it, but didn’t really let up to anyone that I knew that’s what they were doing.

SM: Were there any scenes of yours that took quite a while to work the kinks out of, whether in rehearsal or even during shooting?

JF: I’m not sure. Some of the police interrogation scenes; when we shot them they were up to eight minutes long, without being edited. It’s hard for me to remember now, because it was a year and a half ago. But I do remember one particular day where there was this scene that I hadn’t rehearsed, and I gotten into the habit of picking up my sides on the morning and knowing the script so well I could just go in and do the scene. And this one particularly day I hadn’t worked through with David. And I think the character’s words were written grammatically incorrect, so I was struggling to get the lines down. And we were at a location that was losing light. I just remember that being infuriating. It was just an off day. Other than that, I don’t really remember how long we worked on particular scenes and that sort of stuff, but we’d work on it until it was right.


SM: In regards to the film’s ending, obviously the ambiguity of what comes next is one of the film’s biggest strengths. But in terms of your own motivation when you’re shooting that scene, I’m curious as to what you, or ‘J’, is thinking when he comes home and goes to his bedroom. Does he expect Pope to follow? Is he psyching himself up?

JF: I think he did that out of respect. It was always his intention to come and kill Pope; he did it more so because it was their battle, instead of just coming into the living room and shooting him in front of everyone. I think it was just to try to lure him away.

SM: Interesting.

JF: And I’m not sure whether he knew if Pope was going to come or not. But he was prepared if Pope did.

SM: What’s next for you? Do you want to continue acting?

JF: Yeah, definitely. I’ve got an offer for a film in the states that I can’t really talk about yet. I’m just waiting back on Visas and stuff. But that could be shooting in upstate New York and Puerto Rico in early November, which is pretty great. I’m starting to dabble in a bit of screenwriting.

SM: Can you tell me whether you’re tossing around story ideas, or working on one particular script.

JF: Yeah, One of them is based around – the one I think I’m going to start on next – basically if you can imagine every pub anecdote you’ve ever heard of, we’re gonna clobber them together into one great big farcical…imagine someone like Crocodile Dundee without the nobility or the charm and put them in a schlocky action film. Just a shit human being basically, with karma coming and biting him on the arse. So imbecilic that everyone gets to look down on him, and that’s where the hook will be. Someone so stupid, everyone gets enjoyment out of watching them suffer.

SM: Great. Thanks so much for talking to me James, and best of luck with all your projects.

JF: Thanks Simon.

Check out my review of Animal Kingdom here. You can also read my interview with director David Michôd here. Animal Kingdom is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.


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