Georgia Byng’s precocious literary moppet, Molly Moon, missed the boat with Harry Potter in the aughts and failed to make the journey across the pond to American shores. Many years later, though, she’s managed to get herself a ticket into U.S. theaters with Christopher N. Rowley’s Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism, which adapts Byng’s first novel for the big screen by leaning on a cast comprised of Tomorrowland’s Raffey Cassidy, Emily Watson, Joan Collins, Celia Imrie, Anne-Marie Duff, Lesley Manville, and Middle Earth alum Dominic Monaghan.
Recently, Paste had the chance to catch up with Monaghan, whom most may know as either one of the comic members of Frodo’s entourage or Lost’s doomed-and-then-redeemed heroin-addicted rocker, Charlie Pace. Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism marks a bit of a departure for him by comparison to his best-celebrated performances: His character, the melancholy crook Nockman, is more of a straight-up scoundrel than he’s played in the past, but he’s the pitiable kind of bad, more of a misbehaved puppy than Snidely Whiplash. Like Charlie, Nockman is a man crying out for atonement. Unlike Charlie, he’s a living, breathing cartoon character. (In a good way.)
But the film gave Monaghan the chance to try something new for himself, which he discussed along with jaded modern adulthood, why bad guys could use a little sympathy, the energy of young actors, and how his mom convinced him to sign on for Molly Moon in the first place.
Paste: So, Molly Moon, I’m curious—were you a fan of the books before you were approached about the film?
Dominic Monaghan: I didn’t know about them—I think I’m slightly out of the classic age bracket for them—but my mom had read the books, which is interesting. My mom is an avid reader, and we have a lot of youngsters in our family nowadays; a lot of my cousins have kids and stuff, and I think my mom had read the books to try to work out if it was suitable for young kids, so that she could buy the books for Christmas for her nieces and nephews. So she had read it, and liked it, so when I was approached about the film and told my folks about it, my mom was like, “Oh, I read that book! It was really cool.” A lot of times you need outside interest to tell you whether you’re gonna do stuff, especially if it’s your parents, if they’re into it. So that was really the deciding factor in me doing the movie.
Paste: Oh yeah, of course! Your mom says you’ve gotta do it, then you’ve gotta do it, right?
Monaghan: Yeah, pretty much!
Paste: So what about Nockman in particular, about Simon, did you find appealing or at least interesting as a character?
Monaghan: I like being around young people. I find them quite inspiring, especially at work, because as adults we can all be susceptible to being a little jaded at times. But young people don’t have that. It’s all very refreshing, their energy, the way that they act, the way that they approach life. So I find being around young people to be a lot of fun, because it keeps me in the moment and keeps me remembering why I became an actor, and the magic of being an actor, and all that kind of stuff. You can see that very easily in youngsters. So I just like the idea of being in a film specifically for young people.
And the thing about Nockman is, he’s kind of sad. He doesn’t have anyone else. He doesn’t have a great relationship with his mom, he doesn’t seem to have a dad, he’s been on his own for a while, and he needs someone to be his friend, too, you know? He makes some weird choices, but ultimately he’s a lonely guy who doesn’t have a lot of things in his life that are good. So in the course of the story, there’s a nice kind of arc for him, because he starts as someone who seems a little nasty and possibly a little evil, and not a nice person to be around, but as the story goes on he goes through some changes, and that was what I liked about him.
I also played him a little caricature-y as well, just to have fun with him. I mean, he’s got … he wears kind of crazy John Lennon glasses, and he’s almost got, like, a Hitler mustache, and his haircut is not my favorite, it’s not something I would choose. It’s just fun to play someone that ridiculous, you know?
Paste: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, it does seem like you’re having a blast playing him. But what really works is that we’re supposed to feel a little bit sorry for him. Do you feel like even the bad guy—whether it’s Simon or any of the other awful adult characters in the film—do you feel like even the bad guy deserves redemption every now and again?
Monaghan: Well, I think bad people don’t think that they’re bad, you know? They just think that they’re doing their thing; they don’t think that they’re a bad person. They’re just living their life and making their choices. I think the way, as an actor, to approach a character is to always find something about that character that you empathize with and understand. That was one of my challenges with Nockman. He obviously doesn’t come across as the nicest guy, but you have to try and find ways to make him appealing as a person so that you can make sense of him, so the thing with Nockman that I saw is that he’s lonely, and he doesn’t have a huge amount of love in his life, and because of that he’s making the wrong decisions. So there’s always redeeming qualities in people, you just have to look hard for them.
Paste: Yeah, definitely. Earlier, you were talking about being jaded, like the experience of being jaded as an adult. It’s interesting, I talked to Seth Green a few months ago and we had a similar conversation about being jaded as an adult—do you feel like a lot of entertainment tends more towards cynicism?
Monaghan: Yeah, I feel like the society that we live in nowadays, everyone has kind of been there and done that, you know? It’s one of the interesting things about L.A., where I live. It’s a cool city, but there is an element of, like, you’re not supposed to be overly impressed by things, because that’s not cool, even if they are genuinely impressive! Like, if you were to be lucky enough to see something incredible that no one else has seen before, in L.A. the required response to that is just to be like, “Uh huh, that was cool.” You’re not supposed to be over the moon about it, and really get excited about it.
I think in grown-up society, the idea is that nothing is really that impressive, you know? You’re supposed to lose that slightly childlike love of things that are new, or things that are impressive. I don’t necessarily subscribe to that as a person. I think if something is truly impressive, you should make mention of it, you know? I think it’s worthwhile. You don’t see many things like that in your life, so when it comes along, you should step back and say, “Wow, I just experienced something that I might not experience again.”
Paste: Yeah, definitely! I agree with that for sure. I feel the same way—it’s in style to be jaded and to be unimpressed, but that attitude just means that you’re missing something out of life. I feel like Molly’s purpose in the movie is to remind the adults of the things that they’re lacking—Simon, Ms. Adderstone, or whoever.
Monaghan: Yeah, I mean, Molly is obviously a special little person, and she’s really trying to better her life and help her friends out, and help herself, obviously. One of the ways that I think she makes those things happen is to realize that there is a better life out there, that there is a life-beyond-the-rainbow-type thing, and you can go look for it. She’s not settled into this idea of, “Okay, I’m gonna live in this crappy orphanage, and people are going to treat me badly, and life is gonna just be how it is for me and my friends.” You know? She wants to go out there and make things different. It’s inspiring for young people to think that if you make the right choices, you can improve things for yourself.
Paste: Would you want to work on a movie like this again, with that attitude in mind? It sounds like you really found the experience invigorating.
Monaghan: Yeah, positivity is a great thing, I mean in terms of what we’ve just been speaking about. I think it’s important to try and be one of the different voices out there that is saying that existing and being around is an incredible thing, and you get one opportunity to be you in this particular body. Maybe you get lucky enough to come back as something else in some other body at some point. We don’t really know how all that works. But I’m gonna get one opportunity, and if that’s all I get, then the best thing to do is to try and experience everything and have a great time doing it, and try to inspire people around you to feel the same way. I always like to be involved in things that are positive. Also, variation in your career is an important thing, you know? I’m aware that I’ve played a lot of dark characters in my job, and I don’t necessarily feel like a particularly dark person. It’s just, I’m drawn to good scripts, and a lot of those good scripts happen to be dark, and I thought it was important to have some fun and show different elements of my personality.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has been scribbling for Paste Magazine since 2013. He also contributes to Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine, and Badass Digest. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65 percent Vermont craft brews.