Photo Credit: Getty
Zachary Quinto and Jenny Slate star in the quirky drama, Aardvark. The film is an earnest approach from director/writer Brian Shoaf, about the examination of mental illness, the powerful effects it has over relationships and the blurring lines between perception and memory. The story focuses on Josh (Quinto), a man suffering from an ambiguous mental illness, whose delusions explore the haunting reality of abandonment by his famous older brother Craig (Jon Hamm) and the memories of their youth.
The story starts with Josh hesitantly seeking help from Emily (Jenny Slate), a social worker who isn’t personally equipped to balance work and her personal life without disastrously mixing the two. At first, the two exhibit an almost comedic dance during their sessions as they try to take down the other’s respective guard. However, Aardvark truly gets going when, after years of staying away, Craig returns home to start a romantic relationship with Josh’s therapist.
Paste caught up with stars Zachary Quinto and Jenny Slate at the Tribeca Film Festival to discuss the film’s important exploration of mental illness and their own discoveries with the source material.
Paste Magazine: How does it feel to debut Aardvark in front of a New York audience at the Tribeca Film Festival?
Jenny Slate: I think it’s really cool! I moved here in 2001 to go to college, so when Tribeca started I was in college and it seemed like such a cool, stylish, and intelligent scene. To be included in it and to be in a movie that I’m proud of is a really nice marker in my life.
Paste: Do you think because this is Brian’s first feature as a director/writer that he gives a fresh perspective to the material?
Zachary Quinto: Definitely. I’ve known Brian for a long time. He and I went to college together so I’ve been aware of his unique point of view on things for many years. He’s a really talented actor, and when he shifted his focus to the writing world, I was very interested in what he had to say. This script is a great example of that. I thought he created a story and characters that were really unexpected.
Paste: Since he started as an actor, did he bring a certain kind of understanding to the set?
Quinto: I think so. It doesn’t surprise me that this story was created by an actor, because I do think the way these characters are written, the complexity is inherent in the script. I don’t necessarily know that every writer has that capacity. I do think his experience from a psychological standpoint, from understanding other lives, really helped in creating multidimensional characters that also have humor and heart while dealing with a serious subject matter. I think it’s operating on a lot of levels.
Paste: When dealing with an issue like mental health I think, in both cinema and society, there’s this almost knee-jerk reaction to suck the levity out of it. This film gives a full picture of the tragedy, while still having moments of comedy. How did you two find that tone?
Quinto: The tone was the biggest challenge Brian had as a filmmaker. It’s one he gave a lot of thought. I do feel like the levity was key, and that comes back to the fact that Josh is someone who wants relationships, and whether or not those relationships were real, becomes the essential question. Is Craig magically manifesting himself in these different characters, or are these characters different projections of who Josh wants him to be? There’s a weird beauty in that that I liked.
Paste: There’s a quirky dance between therapist and patient in the film. Did you create that chemistry off screen, or was it a matter of experiencing everything on set?
Slate: You do have to think about it, but there’s a lot of things that happen naturally if you’re lucky. Zach and I had a really nice connection and had for a while. So, that was something that was personally satisfying to build on. It’s like an acquaintance who becomes your friend, who becomes a co-worker, who you work very closely with. That’s very gratifying in itself and then, of course, the script is a pretty clear road map for what you’re going to do. So, a lot of it for me was following the natural progression of things and making sure that, although I was playing a person that was a little bit rigid or hard sometimes, that I myself am flexible and open.
Paste: What kind of research went into taking on these roles that went beyond the script?
Slate: I’ve been in a lot of therapy. I’ve been on the other side of it. One of my siblings is a therapist, so I asked her a lot of questions. For me, most of my process was about withholding, because I’m not that type of a person, and it is a skill to learn. And Emily is someone who’s really different than I am. So for me, as an actress, it was about pulling back. She’s trying her best, but she’s doing the wrong things. Her instincts are not helping her to work through her feelings.
Quinto: In terms of the mental illness aspect of it, I read a lot of stuff so that I was able to understand the kind of ways that different things manifest in people. I read up about bipolarity, manic depression, schizophrenic tendencies, and hallucinatory disorders. Those were things that I tried to understand. We would talk about what was being triggered in Josh at any given time, and what might have triggered that—is he overtired? Is he under medicated? Is he overmedicated? Calibrating that became something that we were tracking throughout, but it’s also about presenting the essence of him. He wants to love and be loved, and that’s the thing that was really the foundation.
Paste: What was it like playing someone who didn’t have a specific diagnosis?
Quinto: There’s an ambiguity to what he’s struggling with, so Brian and I talked a lot about that. It’s reflective of the landscape of mental illness in some ways. People get misdiagnosed, or get diagnosed in different ways depending on what doctors they see. Overmedication is an issue. Josh’s goal is to thrive and connect, even though he’s up against a lot of obstacles in that pursuit.
Paste: There is a very interesting debate going on right now in western medicine about overmedication. The film touches on that in a unique way.
Quinto: Medication is a really interesting and controversial topic. He was self-medicating too, and would get these meds and kind of do what he thought was right. In the end, Josh is someone who does realize there’s probably a balance of medication that would help him. In the end, he’s kind of surrendered to that a little bit.
Paste: It can become a cocktail.
Quinto: It can. The pharmaceutical industry is designed to encourage doctors to steer people in that direction. For some people, that’s the thing that helps them the most, but I don’t think that’s true of everybody. As people, we need to explore that in ourselves and know for ourselves what the right answer is, rather than taking the script to the pharmacy. Everybody has to answer that in their own individual way.
Paste: Where do you hope your characters land on their journey?
Slate: I think she’s exactly where she should be. She’s had an actual meaningful experience. She’s connected in one way or another to these brothers and it was certainly a mess and definitely inappropriate, but it’s about making a teeny tiny change as often as possible. Sometimes there will be months in between where you’ve reached a point where you can change. She seems to be more peaceful. She’s certainly not better, but there are little moments where we can change and those are totally worth it.
Quinto: I feel like Josh and Craig are obviously on the road to repairing their relationship. I love that they’re fixing up the house. I don’t think Craig stays forever. I think he gets an itch to leave again, and probably does. But I think the inroads have been made for them to stay connected. All the things that Craig was most afraid of have been assuaged in this newfound connection with his brother. The vision I have is that Josh ends up living in the house that they fix up and Craig comes back and stays with him more frequently. And he gets himself together in a way where he’s able to exist fully, and without a lot of the stress that he’s been up against to this point.
Aardvark is playing at the Tribeca Film Festival on the following dates:
3:00 PM – MON 4/24 CINÉPOLIS CHELSEA 7
9:00 PM – THU 4/27 CINÉPOLIS CHELSEA 7
2:30 PM – SAT 4/29 SVA THEATER 1 SILAS