After getting his big break in Dead Poets Society in 1989, Josh Charles has spent most of his acting career on television, most notably in Sports Night and The Good Wife. But before shooting his last season with The Good Wife, Charles took the opportunity to return to the big screen in French director Pascale Ferran’s fantastical new film, Bird People. We caught up with Charles at the Toronto International Film Festival about the film, which recently opened in select cities.
Paste: Well, first off, what attracted you to this project?
Josh Charles: What attracted me was Pascale’s work, the script. I thought it was so interesting and different and unlike anything I had read. I was really interested in doing something that felt completely different than anything I’d ever done. And I was also incredibly touched and flattered that she wanted me to make the film with her. She had first become aware of me, I think she saw me in In Treatment and it had stayed in the back of her brain. So when they started casting she thought of me, and I was just really touched by that. It’s not often that you get a phone call from a French filmmaker that you admire saying, “I want you to be in my new movie.” And I was really struck by the script. I thought narratively it was completely daring and unusual. The hybrid structure of it, obviously the secret and what happens. I was intrigued to see how she was gonna pull that off. Meeting her and hearing how specific and clear and passionate she was about the film and what she wanted to say, that it was not only a film that took place today. But really she wanted to say something about the world today and about the sense of alienation and loneliness and the idea of the more sort of literally connected we are, the more emotionally disconnected we can become. [She’s] interested in this sort of organic flow between one and none, between group and individual, and the whole idea the duality of the film I found interesting.
Paste: Yeah, I imagine just even reading the script you probably had that sort of same reaction as the audience has watching when all of a sudden, this story that’s very grounded and very real take this fantastical flight.
Paste: Reading that, how did you react?
Charles: My reaction was I sat down and I said, “This is really interesting and I find the film fascinating. There are a lot of things I like in the material. It reads almost like a novel. But how is that going to be made? How is that section going to be made? I’m interested.” And we talked a lot about it, and of course she had been asked that question a bunch, I’m sure, with all the financiers, with everybody, so she’s really thought a lot about it. You know, we made the film two years ago—my section two years—so that portion of the film with the birds and all the post-production took quite a long time. And I think it’s kind of, you know, now I’ve seen the film a few times and I just marvel at how they did it. Whatever anyone thinks of the film, that aspect of it, it’s very invisible to me how it’s all done, and I think it had to be to that way to keep the film working, because if you could see too much of how that’s done—I’m trying not to talk about it with giving things away. But I think that it’s pretty impressive special effects if I may say so.
Paste: What was it like filming with the birds. I mean, you don’t have a lot of scenes where…
Charles: No, I have that one at the airport, and some of that was CGI that I didn’t even, wasn’t a part of all of it, and then the stuff on the people mover, that was a real bird. They may have done some stuff with the CGI, but that section was… I know I did shots with a real bird. We had the bird wrangler and everything.
Paste: Are you a fan of French cinema in general?
Charles: Yes, I mean I love all cinema and love many French films and Italian films, and just, yeah, I love movies.
Paste: It’s a very difficult emotional time for your character in this movie. What are you drawing on, particularly in the scenes with your wife on Skype?
Charles: It was hard, I mean, that was the hardest thing for me to sort of, I would say lock into. It was what I struggled with the most when I first read the script and the idea before accepting the role. I was like, “How could someone do this to their family?” I know people do it, but it was really hard for me to fathom. So I appreciated that the film didn’t try, didn’t intentionally try—in the script and in the film—didn’t try to explain too much as to why he’s doing what he’s doing, which I think some films would feel the need to do, but purposely doesn’t. In fact, quite a lot of what he’s rebelling against are things that a lot of people feel like, “Yeah, well my job’s boring,” or, you know, “My marriage is up and down.” But they feel an obligation or a duty to try to work things through. Now, some people don’t, but most often people do.
While there was no sense to try to romanticize what he was doing, I was very aware of the cruelty of which he was behaving towards his family, and that was tough. But, you know, it’s your job as an actor not to necessarily judge the character, but to make him as human as possible. And I think for me, what I really drew on making the film, and I never really even talked to Pascale a lot about this because I always believe it’s good to have some secrets as long as they connect to the story you’re trying to tell, and you’re always looking for clues in the film. So for me, the clue comes when [Jeffrey Cantor], who’s Gary’s business partner, says “Is this about Matt?” You know, Matt was a friend of theirs that had died. And it was a little sort of piece of information in the film, I talked to Pascale about it and she downplayed it, but for me it was a kind of my way in. Because I had a friend who went through a very similar story too. Let’s say this very dear friend of mine, that a good friend of his passed away and it set him off and sort of had him do some radical things, changes to his life. He moved out to the country and broke up with his girlfriend at the time. There’s a lot of things that he reacted very strong to them. So I kind of drew a lot on my friend’s experience, this, that these things can happen. I think I was using the sense that this guy, Matt, he was very close to passed away and he wasn’t really dealing with it. And all these other things and issues that he was feeling in his life. Unhappiness at work, with his family, not being able to sort of be who he wants to be and live the life he wants. It was all there sort of percolating under the surface. And as often I think happens in life, certain things happen that bring it up that, you know, he’s traveling, he’s at work, he sees an accident, just the idea of an accident, and death suddenly just triggers all these unconscious feelings and triggers the panic attack that leads him to realize, you know, that he needs to make an immediate decision and feels the sense of panic that feels like—I’ve talked to people have those intense panic attacks and feel like you’re literally going to die. It was enough to scare him to within an inch of his life and want to decide that he’s going to take some radical changes. And I don’t think he, like I said, I don’t think he is conscious of a lot of it and I think it’s sort of him happening as the film’s happening. But all that stuff was difficult.
I think it was helped by the fact that I was making a film where I was a lot of what the character was. I was very isolated in a foreign country working with a foreign crew. Not many people spoke English. Certainly my director didn’t speak English, so we communicated through an interpreter. And the buzz that you feel when you travel or you’re in a train station in Milan or in Paris or a restaurant and there’s all the chatter going on. I don’t know, maybe you’re bilingual, but I’m not, and you hear it, and you know, it just kind of gets you into your own thoughts very easy and, for me, it feels like nobody’s paying attention to me. And that was helpful for me as an actor because it created a sense of freedom that I could sort of just try things and Pascale is so specific and she doesn’t miss anything. I knew right away the first few days of filming before even having any dialogue that there were things that I was doing or thinking that she was saying. You know that moment when you touch the doorknob and you were thinking something, what was happening there, and think “Wow, she’s really paying attention to every little nook and cranny, there’s not one thing that gets by.” And that I really enjoyed. I loved that. Because that’s what you want. You want to feel like the person watching is really paying attention and she really was and that felt incredibly freeing to me. It made me feel very safe.
Paste: It’s a very different kind of acting, too. So many of your scenes are without dialogue and the camera’s following you as your internal struggles are going on. Was that a challenge, was that sort of enjoyable to try?
Charles: I mean, it was lonely. It was a lonely time. Look, I’ve been to Paris, I have a lot of friends in Paris, I had spent time there before. It was beautiful to film. Even though none of my scenes were shot in Paris proper, I stayed in Paris. But I’m there often for a large part of it by myself. My wife came for a brief period, even though the scene with Radha [Mitchell] was so emotionally gut-wrenching, it was nice when she was out there because at least we filmed that and she was in the studio next to me and we filmed it sort of live via Skype with three other computers, but at least I got to ride home with somebody and talk about the day. Normally I was just by myself. So it was difficult in that regard, but my experience was one that I really needed at the time. You find certain times certain things come to you. You know, like I said, I made this film two years ago, so I was in the middle of shooting Seasons 3 and 4 of The Good Wife, but I felt like I wanted to do something completely different, and this served all of that. And I’ve had experiences like that sometimes in the theater where you just feel like, “God, I don’t know,” you know, doing a play somewhere outside of New York, and I just had an experience that really pushed me in different ways and made me grow and that’s all you really wanna do as an actor is feel like you grow and learn more. And that’s what this film—it helped me do that.
I really saw it for the first time in Paris right before coming to Canada. Here, it’s just nice to see it out there in the universe. It’s a film that’s so narratively unusual and emotionally sort of out there that I know that it’s not a film for every single person. but the people that it’s for, I think they get it. So far of my experience have been people who are really passionate about it, and I find that exciting. You know, I have no problem with mixed reviews, you know, I think that’s good. I think that’s more interesting than sort of, “Eh.” I don’t think it’s a film that you’re like, “Eh.” I think you’re gonna love it—
Paste: You’re gonna be passionate about it one way or the other.
Charles: Yeah, exactly. I’m all for that. I’ve got no problem with it.
JJ: Well, your career has been divided between film and television and theater.
Charles: Primarily TV.
Paste: Primarily TV, but you got your start
Charles: I started in film, not a lot of plays, but yeah, I’d say TV is sort of the longest gigs I’ve had.
Paste: So what is it that you enjoy about each? Do you love television -
Charles: I love television.
Paste: and look at film as a side hobby?
Charles: First of all, I love television and I think television right now is just that… it’s the bee’s knees. Such great writing in TV. I look forward to doing another television show. I think it’ll be one that’s not 22 a year, so I can have the ability to do something else a year or travel with my family, things that you wanna do. What’s great about right now is there’s no lines anymore. Even when I was a young actor, it was clear. TV was TV and film and there was theater, and now it’s all mixed together and that’s great for actors. So to me, it matters not what the medium is as much as the material. If it’s via television, just looking for stuff. I want to do different stuff. I want to do comedy, I want to do projects that scare me a little, like I said. I want to do projects that can make me laugh, and I’m just looking for it all. It matters not what the media be. If it’s a film, great. If it’s doing a bit on a comedy show, great, whatever it is.
Paste: What are you excited about that’s coming up that you’re gonna be in?
Charles: I can’t really talk about things right now because there’s one that’s not all set, but there’s stuff that I’m doing. I made a film with Sarah Silverman which is really fun called I Smile Back. That’s a dramatic film Sarah’s starring in, and I haven’t seen it yet so I’m excited to see how that turned out. It was really cool for me to be part of a her doing something different for herself, kinda what I’m talking about, and I think she did that and really went for it and I just think the world of her.