Catching Up With Daniel Gillies
Casual fans may know Daniel Gillies best for his role in The Vampire Diaries, but _Paste_readers will also recall that he’s the mastermind behind the indie film Broken Kingdom (which he wrote, directed, produced, and co-starred in) and the making-of-film turned state-of-indie-film-meditation Kingdom Come (for which he was a producer and the main subject). He sat down with us recently to discuss both films, as well as his television career, the films of Richard Linklater and Ang Lee, and why his wife Rachael Leigh Cook is like an old Italian man.
Daniel Gillies: Essentially after I’d finished Broken Kingdom and it was sort of picture-locked, it had been more than three years since I had acted. Because I was too stubborn, resolute and probably stupid, and I wasn’t going to take a job during that period. At any rate, when I came out again, like most actors, when I started to go and audition again, I felt like, ‘Am I going to book? Am I going to book anything?’ Like, I’ve taken such a monstrous period off. So when I contacted my manager, Ben Levine, I said, ‘Hey, I just need to get out there again and work.’ And he said, ‘Well, what kind of auditions do you want me to send you?’ And I said, ‘Just send me fucking everything. Fucking everything. I don’t care what it is.’ I just took everything, I said I’ll do guest stuff, I’ll do anything, I just want to be out there. I just want to be generating income again. I’m just so in the hole and I don’t know how I’m ever going to get out.
It recreated my psychological approach to acting really, because whereas I used to go into an audition in the past, I’d feel like, ‘Man, I’ve gotta get this. I’m an actor. This defines me.’ Now, I was like, ‘I’m a guy and I’m broke and I kinda need the money, and I’m doing this thing and I’m a good actor, but if this goes to shit, this audition, I’m also kind of a filmmaker now. I’m going to make that next film no matter what, come hell or high water, you know? So, it’s kind of a neat thing to have that, and it imbues one with a degree of confidence that I don’t think I necessarily had before. It was neat. I mean, I did five shows and 39 episodes of television in a little under two years. I did True Blood, I did NCIS, I did The Glades, I did Saving Hope, I did Vampire Diaries obviously. And Vampire Diaries was kind of a big surprise, because I booked that and they really sort of heavily inferred that it was going to be a three episode deal if that, and I felt blessed at that point. And then, I guess the character became more popular. I don’t know what happened.
Paste: You kicked ass. That’s what happened.
Gillies: I think I got very, very, very blessed with a great character and eventually it became—they started writing for him more and more. Even when I would die, I would sort of be resurrected like
Paste: That’s the good thing about a vampire show.
Gillies: Yeah, it’s kind of a great thing about a vampire show. Four deaths, man. … I’ve died four times on that show. So, it’s kind of terrific you know? I mean, I died in the very first episode I appeared in. And they were really looking at that to see whether or not they wanted to bring me back, but I think they just liked the character so much. It’s been really gratifying man, and that show, really that show and Saving Hope sort of dug me out of the debt and then some. I’m very, very, very grateful. I think it’s a privilege to be an actor. It’s also a hell of a lot easier than being a director. It’s a hell of a lot easier, but it’s also just such a privilege, man. To be working actor. Like, I used to have a distorted sense of where the quality of television was in relationship to movies. I treated it like a tier system. There were movie actors and TV actors, and those lines have become indistinguishable over the last several years because it’s just as respectable to do—you know, it’s probably more respectable to be able to do a Breaking Bad or a Mad Men as it is to do a killer independent film. The rules have changed, and it’s great for actors because there isn’t this weird stigma, there isn’t this weird disdain for television.
Paste: We’ve said repeatedly at Paste that this is the second golden age of television.
Gillies: Yup, 100 percent.
Paste: And it’s hard for me to say because I’m always one to say that the old ways are the best ways. But I have to say objectively, you look at in the past decade, if you look at the TV shows that have been on the air, there’s no other era that comes even close as far as the quality of everything.
Gillies: I agree.
Paste: I love some of those shows from the ’60s and the ’70s and the ’80s and whatever, but when you look at things like The Wire and Six Feet Under, and you know The Sopranos and
Gillies: Yeah, I mean, it goes on and on and on right now. And especially, one has to give credit to the cable networks.
Paste: And HBO specifically.
Gillies: Well, exactly. HBO specifically, but then you’ve got, um, but then you look at what Showtime is doing and FX and AMC and these guys, they’re all just doing astonishing stuff. I was looking at stuff like American Horror Story the other day or—what’s the new Jeff Daniels’ show written by Aaron Sorkin?
Paste: The Newsroom.
Gillies: Yeah, The Newsroom. You know, look at these shows man. The Good Wife. They’re all like, they’re all so, so addictive and brilliant. Cable had a latitude to move which created less censorship and bestowed upon the artists, the writers and the creators, more liberty to create their shows. I mean, it’s no wonder that someone like a Dan Harmon walks from a NBC, like, when a guy like that who’s as brilliant and talented as that has as much frequency and power and brilliance as he does, of course he’s going to find working for a network like a straight-jacket. Dan’s a good friend of mine and I think he’s brilliant and to me, it just seems illogical that he could ever work in somewhere that has sort of constraint. Like, he needs liberty, you know? I would venture to say that that’s probably going to be on cable network television and if not, a very liberal generous network.
Paste: Kevin Smith has a great quote that the equivalent of having a film deal with Miramax in the ’90s today is having a TV deal on AMC. It’s the same pinnacle.
Gillies: That’s awesome, that’s awesome. That’s so great. By the way, Kevin Smith is so great in Kingdom Come, isn’t he? He’s kind of this very earthy poet. He just has this immediate gregariousness, like, you kind of just want to be his pal. Even if you had never sampled alcohol in your life, you could show documentary footage of Kevin Smith to somebody in the lost regions of Amazonian rainforest to pygmys, and they’d want to sit down and have a beer with Kevin Smith after looking at this footage. There’s something about him that makes you want to hang out with him and there’s a deep wisdom and frequency of intelligence. And yet he cusses like a sailor, so it’s sort of this disarming, eclectic thing.
Paste:, I think he’s got a real disarming sweetness to him too. That’s what kind of gets you—to me, that’s what like opens me up to him. He’s really smart, but he’s got that really regular guy feel. And he’s not afraid to be a teddy bear, you know? I listen to his podcasts. And I interviewed him for my documentary on Richard Linklater and of course, Linklater was who made Kevin Smith realize he could make movies.
Gillies: You know, I gotta tell you a movie I revisited recently was Waking Life… And to honest, I revisited it when I was in Toronto shooting the show and I gotta tell you man, I watched it one night, I watched it again immediately that same night, and I watched it every night for several nights afterwards. I’ve never seen anything like it. I think it’s his masterpiece. I really do. And Before Sunrise was kind of like a revolution, you know? But I felt like there’s some kind of, like, I’ve always said, I’ve said in many interviews that I feel like film has a greater relationship to dream than any other art medium because it’s both sound and picture.
Paste: And it’s in the dark. And it’s an hour and a half. The same time as the sleep cycle.
Gillies: Exactly. And it’s just total immersion. There’s something about that movie which is so like every time you visit it, something new happens to you and something else affects you. There’s a lot of information, but it’s also deeply moving like the music—that movie is so special. It’s just timeless. And I mean, it’s called Waking Life, it’s his deliberate decision, but it’s just so fucking—it’s just gorgeous. What a feat. Who thinks of doing that in that kind of film too?
Paste: Or who has the balls to actually do that? That’s what Ethan Hawke said when I interviewed him.
Gillies: But look at the variety of his style too, like look, you take a Wes Anderson film, who I adore by the way, you take any character from a Wes Anderson film and he can walk out from one of those movies and he can be a character in any one of those other movies. Not so with Richard Linklater. Linklater will do A Scanner Darkly, then he’ll do a Before Sunrise, and then he’ll do a Dazed and Confused. And then, he’s so fucking different.
Paste: This would make a really interesting list: filmmakers that are the best at making such wildly varying and yet so distinct world.
Gillies: Well, you’re talking about wildly different material, but with the same voice. I’ll tell you another good example well, there’s several, but Ang Lee—I mean, he’s ridiculous. I mean, he’s kind of a more obvious example, but he’s just so diverse. He can kind of do anything. I mean, look at the difference between Crouching Tiger and kind of like Ride with the Devil. I mean, but you know that a lot of people hated his Hulk. And a lot of my filmmaker buddies who hated it, I urged them to revisit it because I think it’s one of the few superhero movies that dealt with a really, in my opinion, deep motif. Which is that men of yours and my generation are not permitted to be angry. You know, it’s like 200 years ago, guys like you and me would have either in kilts or carrying a spear or you know, dueling it out, shooting each other in the face.
Paste: Pulling out the leather gloves.
Gillies: The concept of “civilization” is such a recent development on the clock of mankind and now suddenly—and I love that humans aspire to this kind of idea to transcend our animal selves, but we’re just these I mean, look at The Master. I felt like The Master was just an exploration of those things. People have this huge problem of, ‘Oh, where’s the narrative in The Master.’ To me, one of the reasons I think this is one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s greatest pieces of work, if not his greatest piece of work is that movie was the motif which is more triumphant, the animal or the creature that wants to transcend the animal? We’re so equally made of both. We’re both Prospero and we’re Caliban. That’s what we are. And I love watching the duality, and it’s never more prevalent than when you see in The Master, that image of the cage, and he’s pacing around destroying Philip Seymour Hoffman. I wasn’t looking for a linear narrative in that movie and I feel like Paul Thomas Anderson was throwing you off that scent of, ‘Don’t look for this. This is just going to be like a glimpse into the window of the basic struggle of modern man’ is what I thought it was. I didn’t think it was in any way derogatory of Scientology. I think it could have been set in a brothel. I think it could have been set in—well, hold on, it needed ideology—it could have been set in a political campaign or it could have been set against a television show, you know? Scientology was almost nothing to do with it. It was just the idea of the pursuit of an idea above self. But anyway, I’ve drifted on a huge tangent. I’m the worst. Don’t even get me started on movies. I’m the worst.
Paste: Well, let’s talk about these two films. Let’s talk about
I don’t know, which one do you want to talk about first? Which one would be easier to talk about first?
Gillies: Neither [laughs].
Paste: ‘Please don’t make me. I’ve already talked about it until I’m blue in the face.’
Gillies: No, it’s not just that. It’s more that—you always kind of think, well, the thing that articulates this the best is the pieces themselves, but we’re living in a world that asks you, and in fact implores you to talk about it otherwise, you and I wouldn’t be sitting here. You always want to kind of navigate these things carefully especially when you—like, I’m talking to you right now and I’m thinking a lot of, a good percentage of my brain is like, ‘Don’t repeat yourself.’ And naturally, you kind of do go through— you have some stock things you say, but I’m so violently egotistical, narcissistic and proud, I try and swerve around those. I try, but I still
Paste: Those neural pathways are already blazed in, to go to those places.
Gillies: It’s true. But, I’m doing my best is what you ought to know. It’s such a weird vanity. So, let’s begin with Kingdom Come.
Paste: Okay. Why don’t you tell me about, sort of, how the process came about to not only shoot a film, but to shoot a film about making a film.
Gillies: My producer, John Murphy and I, were depressed and we had been so for a little while. John and I were sitting in the farmers market and it was 11 a.m., and we were on our second jug of beer. Drinking seemed like the ideal way to sort of alleviate our issues.
Paste: To self medicate.
Gillies: Yes, and we sort of arrived at this issue of how do we not compromise the movie? We hadn’t shot Colombia; we had only shot LA. We had run out of money for like the fourth time. How do we not compromise the movie, but shoot but raise the money? And what it was originally intended for was this. We developed this documentary. We get our very visible friends, you know, within the business, to participate in talking about what we knew they loved to talk about, which was the decline of independent cinema. Which was really very prevalent at the point, and it is now, it’s a real issue. We’d never seen a doc like that before and we’re like, ‘And we film ourselves falling into the ravine, because that way, we’re creating a win-win. Also, we can market the movies as a one-two punch, we take them to festivals when it’s all said and done, and we market both films together, you know?’ Didn’t quite work out that way because, you know, the film got finished a long time before the doc, and just different issues happened and what not, but it’s actually helped us tremendously now because we’re now coming to release, we’re doing this sort of self-release thing and it’s kind of like I’m certainly not comparing myself to these filmmakers, but it’s the same as having, you know, Apocalypse Now and Hearts of Darkness released at the same time, or having Fitzcarraldo released at the same time as Burden of Dreams.
Paste: I put that in the review yesterday, actally.
Gillies: To us, we just got like, ‘Look, to see a film and a making of, that’s like unprecedented,’ like I’m surprised that especially because they’re both really good films, I’m surprised that—there were two major festivals that we went to with that idea and I will say that they were both very interested, they both took a good look at us, and at the last second, passed on it. But, and I won’t name the festivals, but they’re both very reputable and both we came really close, but rather than get depressed, we were like, ‘Look, look what Louis CK is doing,’ you know? And we were like, Look, we’re not Louis CK and we don’t have the followers he does, and to be honest, comedy is a much easier sell, but we both agreed, why don’t we fail on our own terms if we fail here. I don’t care about making money I really don’t. I mean, it’d be nice and a lot of people would probably shoot me for saying this, but I don’t care about making the money. I just want as many people to see the films as possible. That’s what they’re created for. I’ve always resented filmmakers who say, ‘I don’t care if one person sees this or one million.’ I always want one million to see—I always want as many people to see it. Like, you create these pieces of work to be seen, you know, and to share ideas. And I think that both—they’re legitimately great in their own right, both the doc and the film, you know? Anyway, the result of the doc was kind of stunning because over time, when we weren’t filming the movie, we were getting interviews with really cool people from Don Cheadle to Kevin Smith to Alan Cumming to David Strathairn because between Rachel and myself, we had a hell of a lot of connections. It’s one thing to have your hat in your hand to ask people to do an interview, but it’s another thing altogether when you say, ‘Hey, can I do an interview with you, pal? We’re gonna talk about the decline of independent film.’ A lot of people are like, ‘That’s awesome. Yeah, I know how to talk about that.
Paste: In addition to getting material for the doc, did you feel like you learned stuff from talking to all those guys? That you could put to any use?
Gillies: Yeah, to hear the war stories was tremendous. I felt sort of almost cosmically blessed in some way because it was like, I’m hearing from all of these men and women that I really deeply respect, like, the natural proceedings of this. This is the way this is kind of supposed to unfold and it usually isn’t easy, you know? And that you just have to continue, continue, continue, you know? That was the big anthem throughout. And look, there were so many people that were like, ‘You’ve got to stop doing this. You’ve gotta quit. It’s not going to happen.’ But I never felt like that was an option. I just never even—truthfully, and I hope this doesn’t sound arrogant, but I know it felt like the train was going to stop for a second, but I just didn’t want to have squandered that time in the meantime, so that’s why the documentary became an even better idea because I learned so much, so much from these guys, you know? It’s—I learn more as I revisit the interviews too. I can’t wait to go back and make my next film. I can’t wait.
Paste: I watched it with my wife and I was thinking a lot about the toll and the struggle in making an independent film takes not only on the filmmaker, but on those around him, who love him. I thought this doc would be great for a family to get for their filmmaker son or daughter, but I also thought it’d be great for a filmmaker son or daughter to get his or her parents to sort of help them understand
Gillies: It’s funny that you bring that up because I’ve had both those comments made to me. I met some parents out at USC who said ‘Our son’s really interested in doing this and pursuing this kind of life and we were going to get this for him.’ And I also had one boy who was out at Syracuse who said, ‘I’m putting together this thing and it’s taken me a year and a half, and I’m in the same position and this couldn’t have come at a better time for me.’ And he was crying while he was telling me and he said, ‘I’m going to send this on to my folks because I think they ought to know, like, kind of what it can mean to an individual.’ And a part of my mind was almost like, ‘Really? You want to show them my crazy face for like an hour? They’re just going to think you’re mentally ill.’ But no, no. The fact that the doc has this kind of anthemic quality, the prevalent sort of message in the movie—it’s not just about making movies, it’s about doing anything in this world. Have something to say and say it as loudly as you fucking can, you know? That’s important. We don’t know what we are. What are we? These little fucking collections of bone and bristle on this ball in space? What else is there? We should be standing naked screaming what we believe in, and I don’t care if you look like a lunatic. You should do it with all your heart. Anyway
Paste: John the Baptist was the voice crying in the wilderness, right?
Gillies: That’s awesome.
Paste: One of the things that was so compelling about the movie was—you are willing to, not only are you willing to go to the dark places, but you’re willing to let us come with you to the dark places. There is an obsessiveness and desperation in your experience that you’ve really let us in on. I think that’s kind of extraordinary. Can you talk a little bit about sort of what was going on in some of those dark places, and where did you find the openness to say, ‘Fuck it, turn the camera on?’
Gillies: Look, it’s one thing when your obsession/creation is consuming and eclipsing your own life, but when it’s starting to cast a shadow on the lives of those around you, the guilt that accompanies that is just insurmountable, you know? We had to sort of turn the cameras on and look at it that way, but I’ll be honest with you, I fucking hate watching that documentary. I can’t stand it. I know that it has value and I know that it’s worth something, and I know that it has a place in this world and I understand I can’t look at it. It’s like looking into it’s like looking into a breakup I had and I don’t like looking at it, but I also recognize that people are walking out of it feeling a sense of inspiration as well as having learned something about the experience. I’ll be honest with you, at a certain point, you know, I handed over the doc because I didn’t feel like I could be objective about it. That was the hardest decision for me to make, because I had sort of gotten the ball rolling with a lot of these big interviews, so I already knew it was a real thing, I already knew it was going to be this piece because we’d captured this other footage and we’d been filming ourselves. So, I already knew that we had a piece, but at a certain point, John and I both said, ‘Let’s hand it on to this guy, Paiman Kalayeh,’ who is like one of the directors and is also the major editor. And so we handed it to this guy—I don’t want to be calling the shots anymore, I don’t want to be calling the shots on what goes in or what goes out, but it shouldn’t be us because we’re not going to make it as valuable as it could be. I might not like the product in the end. I might not even like what it is, but we’ve got to let this be what it’s going to be, but that was the hardest decision to make. I remember thinking really specifically, ‘Let’s give this to somebody else. Let’s let them create it.’
Paste: Let’s go back to family for one second.
Gillies: You are a good ‘ole Southern boy family. That’s fucking awesome.
Paste: You and I have something in common, which is that we were both fortunate enough to marry extraordinary women who were not only incredibly supportive of our careers, but helped make our careers happen. And that’s what I wanted to ask about. Probably partially because it’s so much part of my experience too, I really resonated with Rachael’s contributions to all of this, and both my wife and I left the film with like this huge crush on your wife. In a completely appropriate, non-romantic way! Something as big and all encompassing and at times desperate and at times open like this—what going through that together does to a relationship and to a marriage in your experience?
Gillies: I mean, I’m not sure we’d have survived all of this had it not been for Rachael. In fact, I know very few people would have stood by me during that period. You carry with you an energy of pain so often that it’s natural that it sort of ends up affecting the relationship, you know? Rachael always kept a healthy distance, to be honest with you. She was in the battle with me, but she wasn’t a heavy participant from day to day. And that’s not to take away any of her support. What Rachel was was this absolute place of tranquility, and this bedrock and support, like endless resounding kind of message that she naturally exuded to me, I guess, during that time, which was just like, ‘As long as you have this dream, no matter how bat-shit, fucking crazy you get, I’m going to be here and I’m going to tell you it’ll happen.’ And that’s more important than anything else in the universe. She’s also kind of one of the, I mean, I don’t understand why she married me for one thing, but I don’t understand her—I don’t think men can really understand the breadth of women’s kindness. I find that kindness is something that’s more the domain of women and Rachael’s just an incredible, shining example of it. She always thinks of other people before herself and it’s a quality that we don’t truly speak about much, especially in popular culture. I mean, we talk about it a lot, but women really have it. I was thinking the other day—I’m going to go off on a tiny tangent here—I was thinking the other day about the adjective cute and I was really these are the sorts of things I meditate on I’m such a fucking idiot. I want you to hear me out, so I’ll link it back in, and you can throw this out, but I’ve never expressed this to anyone, this is the first time. Think about the word cute, and think about how that word is largely wielded by women and gay men. It’s just not a word that suddenly heterosexual men are allowed to use. We’re not normally allowed to say things are cute. But let’s go further down the path and look at the word cute, like, look at what it imbues. It has a resonance and an energy that kind of respects and has an inherent compassion to it. Look, it’s applicable in so many ways, I mean, in the same way you can say, ‘Oh, those are cute shoes,’ which is really a pretty flippant and superficial comment to, ‘Oh, look at that guy sitting on his motorbike trying to get attention it’s cute.’ It immediately kind of creates—it speaks to a perspective of another. It speaks to kindness actually. I’m thinking it might be a really great thing if we teach our children, especially our sons, to say that’s cute.
Paste: To say cute, yeah.
Gillies: Because it’s like, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute?’ It’s, sort of, it’s actually looking at something from another perspective. Like, I remember the shocking occasions when I’ve watched women use cute, and I’ve seen it in a variety of different contexts, especially women. It’s like, ‘Oh, it’s so cute ’ and I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s the last thing I would ascribe that adjective to.’ But you’re calling that cute. And the prism of your significant other or your sister or you mother or whomsoever it’s almost always a woman who says, ‘That’s cute,’ and you go, ‘Oh yeah, that is cute.’ I wish I could think of a better example, like sometimes, like we’re all kind of pathetic. Like, being human, the nature of being human—I don’t care if you’re Einstein or if you’re an infant just new to the world, we’re all kind of pathetic. We all have our problems and our flaws and to look at it, I don’t know, and the one thing I love about Rachel—because I was, as much as I was a crusader, you know? And kind of fighting for this—because you become Don Quixote some days and other days you are this monstrous self-loathing kind of creature. And she’s able to see both and know which one you truly are. And that’s one of the most miraculous things about her. She doesn’t, almost doesn’t believe me when I misbehave.
Paste: I identify with that so much.
Gillies: And it’s kind of like, when I’m if I’m having a temper tantrum about a deal that didn’t go through or if I’m kind of sulking and being belligerent at a function that I don’t want to be at because my mind is too preoccupied with the next edit I have to do or that I need to raise money for this cut, she’s, like — the well is very deep, my friend. The well of her compassion. And it doesn’t sound sexy to talk especially in an interview about like someone’s support, but I can tell when I look in your eyes that you have that. And my girl is so special like that in a weird way, this movie is a love letter to my wife. It’s look, I’ve dedicated the movie to Ismael Cardenas. He’s a gentleman who died. He was our art director and he died shortly after filming. And listen, I miss him dearly. He was the greatest guy ever, but truthfully, the whole act was an act of kind of—Cus D’Amato?
Paste: Yeah, yeah.
Gillies: Tyson’s trainer? Rachel’s like a Cus D’Amato in the corner. She’s cutting your eye, she’s letting it bleed, and she’s dabbing you and you’re saying ‘I’ve done like eight rounds. I don’t know if I can do anymore.’ And she says, ‘Get in there, kid.’ It’s just—she’s my Cus D’Amato.
NOTE: You can download Broken Kingdom for $5, or both films for $8, here.