You’re currently filming 'The Buried Girl’ and I couldn’t find much information in regards to the plot of the film, but I understood that it is a murder mystery. Are you able to elaborate on the story?
The story is about a kid named Clay, who I play. He kind of gets involved with the wrong crowd and because of that, he gets the people around him into a lot of trouble due to his poor decisions. It’s all I can say without giving away too much. It’s honestly a lot different from what I’m used to be playing. The kid goes through a lot, so it’s cool, because it pushed me a lot. It’s driven me to explore realms and different places that I’ve never experienced before. I'm getting a lot of things from some of the talented people who are working on this film with me.
That’s exciting. The unavoidable: You played Jeff Atkins on Netflix show ’13 Reasons Why’, which ended up being a major success. How was it working on this project?
I think none of us had any idea. We hoped just to go in and tell a story that needed to be told. Everything else that followed was a bonus - we wanted to affect people’s lives positively and bring light to a situation many people choose not to speak of.
Your character Jeff, he was not a character from the book, so you had to build the character from the script. It’s very unusual to see a likable jock and you’ve been getting so much positive response in regards to Jeff - everybody was so upset when you died.
I’m so happy with the response. I’ve honestly not seen any negative feedback for my character Jeff, so that’s a good thing. I created the role of Jeff by speaking to the creators and the director of every episode, as we had different directors almost every episode; talking through it with the various directors and me giving them my interpretation of who Jeff is. The freedom they provided helped me establish his character; who he is, what he is about, how he sees and perceives the world.
Okay, so you receive a new script, what would be your process when developing a character? What are your steps from here?
I try and figure out the basics: Who is the character and where is he from? From there, I attempt to stem it from: What’s important to him? Is it family? Is it money? Is it power? Is it love? What’s his mission? What’s his goal as a human being? And then I might take it to: How does he look at the world? Also, how does the world look back at him? Who is he when the world is not looking? It’s almost like you have to get into the mindset of this other character and it’s hard because you’re so used to being yourself. I think the longer I have a script, the better, as I then get to explore different things. The fact that we shot ’13 Reasons Why’ as a series and not a movie provided me with more time to develop his character with every scene - especially with Dylan - and everyone else that I encountered throughout the series. It’s a long process and I think episode per episode, I started to develop who Jeff Atkins was. It didn’t just happen at the very beginning. Over time I began to get a feel for who he is.
What I thought was terrific with this series is how it touched so many. How does it feel to impact so many different ages?
That’s what I love about being part of a series such as this. Naturally, it does connect with a younger crowd, but no matter who you are or what age you are, we’ve all been children, and in high school, and I think that’s why so many people can connect with the show. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, either you’ve lived through it, or you're going through it now. You know what these kids are going through, whether it is Bryce, Jessica, Clay, Jeff, Hannah, and the fact that there is so much diversity in the show. We have such a diverse cast, and I think that helps.
Definitely. The show brings forth a serious topic - suicide and mental health. What is your relationship with the subject of mental health?
What I hope for the show is that it allows people to feel more comfortable knowing that no matter how hard things might seem, there is always somebody who is willing to listen. You might not always have someone who understands what you’re going through, but I think what saves someone’s life is just having somebody to be a listening ear. For me, I have my dad - I can call him no matter what time of day. Whatever the case may be, to some people it might not seem like such a big deal, but to me it is. And that’s what matters here. My stress might not be the same as yours, but we still all have stresses. It’s so important to have somebody that can listen to you and talk to you. When you hold everything locked up in your mind, you start to overthink things, and that's not healthy. The fact that Hannah Baker felt like she had no one to talk to - I think that’s why she got stuck in her head. And Hannah’s parents - they were too busy, so they didn’t notice the signs.
I can imagine that as an actor you’ve had to face a lot of rejection. How do you handle that?
As an actor, we’re always concerned with that. While on set, you enjoy the moment. When the film finishes, if you don’t have another job lined up, I'm sure we all think; ‘Well, what’s my next role?’. It’s been a long journey, and I’m glad that I’ve had the support from my family. Since the moment I decided to pursue acting, my family’s support has helped me. Like anybody else in life, we all have our highs and our lows. I’ve had my fair share of down times. The people who are closest to me have gotten me through the hard times, and for that, I couldn’t be more grateful. Without my dad or my mum, I would have probably never have become an actor. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to impact people’s lives like 13 Reasons Why did.
You’re going to be in the movie ‘Bright’ with Will Smith, which is coming out in December. Could you elaborate a bit on your character? I understand that the world your character is in is quite abnormal – humans and mythical creatures living side by side.
It takes place in Los Angeles, and during this period, you’ll have elves, orcs, ferries, and humans living amongst each other. As you see in the trailer, Will Smith plays a human and Joel Edgerton an Orc. They end up working together to accomplish a common goal. My character Mike, despite him being an orc and a badass guy, he does have a heart, and you see that in the movie. I can’t say too much without giving it away, but my character Mike has a conscience, and he does have compassion - even though he is this big, mythical creature.
How did you find playing an orc?
It was different, because I had to learn another language. I had a dialect coach on set with me every day because I wanted to perfect the language. Embodying this character, it’s not like I was playing another human - I was playing a creature that doesn’t exist, so it was great since it gave me a lot of freedom to just try different things. And also, being in the environment of the production team, the set designers - there was such an amazing atmosphere. It wasn’t too hard getting into character - once I was on set. Our job is to be people that we are not, and if we believe that we are this person or creature, then others will believe it as well.
You’ve worked with some incredible people lately - the Rock, Will Smith and so on. How has that been?
It was an unbelievable experience working alongside the Rock, and then to work with Will. This past year has just been great. Honestly, sometimes I have to take a step back and recall all the great things that have happened. I have a jar at home that I write down the great things that have happened to me on a piece of paper, and then I throw it in there. At the end of the year, I crack the jar open, and I read all the great things, because it’s so easy to forget. A year is such a long time and so much happens within a year, so I think self-reflection is good once in a while to see how far you’ve come when you have those down moments.
That is such a good idea - genius actually. What are the things that you’ve been learning from these established actors?
Trusting yourself. I had a fear of ‘sucking’ - we all have this fear that we’re not good enough. The most significant thing I picked up from Will and the others, was to have faith in your choices. You made these decisions for a reason. I think believing in myself and the process, knowing that everything might not be okay right now, but if you keep working at it, there is always sunshine at the end of the rainbow.
What are you passionate about besides acting?
Food. I’m a big foodie. I love food so much - and travel. I think food and travel go hand in hand because there are places in the world that I would like to go to, yes for the scenery and atmosphere, but so much more just for the food. It’s one thing to have Italian food in New York City, but when you’re actually in Italy having Italian food, oh gosh… Or in Spain, having some paella. In Thailand, having some authentic Thai food. I’ll try anything, and if I don’t like it, that’s different, but as long as I try it. I will say though, that there are few things in this life that I’ve tried and haven’t liked. Luckily, my job allows me to travel to different places. I hope that my job will take me overseas at some point. Then while I’m out there, I’ll be able to experience another culture that I’m not familiar with while I’m working.
I read somewhere that you’ve been attending college on the side. What have you been studying?
Yes, I’m actually in my last few months of college. I’m studying mass communications. Studying communications has helped me a lot in regards to communicating with people. It taught me to understand that everyone’s different and everyone takes in communication differently. It’s not so much about what you say, but how you say something. I’ll say something, but then you might take it the wrong way. It’s helped me distinguish how I communicate my message to a specific individual. It kind of goes hand in hand with acting, since that is primarily about communicating with other people.
Social media is a big part of the industry today, what is your relationship with it?
After following came, with ’13 Reasons Why’, people now look to me or us for answers. If we give them the wrong answers, I mean, we have this power over the younger generation, so I feel like it’s our duty and job now to spread love, positivity, and kindness. Especially with everything going on in the world, because if we don’t use our voice to spread positivity and kindness, then I think we are doing the world an injustice. Say you have a million followers, now it’s your duty to make sure that you make an impact on one million people in a positive way. Social media is tricky, because it adds pressure, but also, I think it should be fun, organic and it should be you. The minute you start to look at social media as work, it starts to become very stressful, so I try not to look at it as work, but me just sharing with the world about who I am and what I love.
Who influences you?
I would say, God. In a way, he holds me accountable. He really does, because we all have our weak moments. Having a strong faith has helped me, especially moving across the country, away from home. He has held me accountable for a lot, and honestly, he is my most significant influence.
Sometimes it’s helpful to rid yourself of your worries and transfer it all to a higher power.
Just trust that it’s all going to work out. I don’t know how, but just trust that it will. Most of the time it eventually does.
What mark would you like to leave on the world?
I want people to do what they love. Many people are working these big corporate business jobs, but they’re miserable doing it, and they’re too afraid to leave because of the security that they have with this job. If you want to be an actor, a doctor, a painter, a dancer or a yoga instructor - I mean, if that is what you're passionate about, then do it. Everybody has this fear of not succeeding in life. Acting isn’t a secure and safe job like a corporate business job, but that doesn’t stop me from not doing what I love. I think pursuing what you love, although it might sound silly to others, that’s what you want to do, so don’t let anybody stop you. If you’re not placed in an uncomfortable situation from time to time, then you won't grow. You only get better with adversity.