The Kid Stays In The Picture: An Interview With Asthma's Benedict Samuel On Acting, Hope, And Redemption

Asthma, which makes its premier today in New York and on streaming services, could be confused with a modern retelling of Godard’s Breathless, but it’s much more than that. Not that there’s anything wrong with putting Asthma in the same orbit of Breathless. Indeed, there is a galaxy of films about the outsider, the fuck up, always fucking things up, profusely apologizing, riding off into the sunset and finding redemption before the credits roll into a blur of black and white words. But Asthma is distinctly original in the sense of its cinematic nuance and its ability to crawl over your skin like warm honey. There is softness to it. It is a romantic film bent on destroying the archetype of a film about romance; whatever that means. Asthma is also the first film of director, Jake Hoffman, who shows an enormous amount of promise in the realm of telling a great story and making it look easy as hell to tell it. Another thing that makes the Asthma star shine the brightest is, well, its star: Benedict Samuel. An extraterrestrial by American standards, Samuel hails from the land down under. There is a strong history of Australian import to the American movie screen, but there is something iconic about Samuel.

Maybe it’s that he’s just cool or maybe because he’s not afraid to show his vulnerability – both things you can’t learn in acting class. In his role as Gus, Samuel shows a generous sensitivity by not making heroin addiction look fun, but where he radiates the most is in his ability to be relatable on screen, despite the tying off and nodding out. Starring alongside actress Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad, Big Eyes), the character of Gus plays like a magnet to her character’s own suffering and longing. Together they go off on a journey of chaotic and dysfunctional proportions, from the gritty streets of New York City – the late, great poet and bon vivant of Manhattan’s high and low life Rene Ricard makes a cameo – to a hippie hideout in Connecticut’s countryside where a band of misfit musicians will give you major FOMO.

Along the way, we learn a lot about Gus – some revelations seem obvious, but important nonetheless, but some are more shocking, but not shocking when you realize the implications. Whatever the case is, Benedict Samuel was born to play the part. Cast after sending in an audition tape, Hoffman was unsure if he was seeing the actual character or an incredibly convincing actor. When we asked Hoffman if he was surprised by Samuel’s interpretation of the character, he had this to say: "When I saw Benedict's audition I was blown away by both his talent and his take on the character...Watching the tape I thought: that's the guy. That's not to say he did everything exactly how I imagined, rather it was fun to be surprised by his choices, [choices] that were his and felt honest, but always in synch with the original vision and intention."

In today’s cinematic landscape, there aren’t a lot of films where more than one scene gives you that visceral chill. There are also not a lot of films that feel memorable in the sense of capturing the aura of a zeitgeist – one that you can look back on without feeling duped. Asthma has all these qualities and watching it will become an important part of your movie-watching digest – that’s for sure. It also has cameo appearances by the likes of Rosanna Arquette, Iggy Pop and Nick Nolte. Or watch the damn movie for the sake of seeing Samuel’s performance. In the following interview, Autre has a casual conversation with Samuel over the phone while on his way to a cemetery in Australia to have his portraits taken for this feature. We talk about the weather, his acting style, how he prepares for an intense role like that of Gus, working with Iggy Pop, and why redemption and hope are precious things in which to hold on.

OLIVER KUPPER: I hear birds chirping. It sounds like paradise over there.

BENEDICT SAMUEL: Oh man it’s a beautiful day today, it’s gorgeous.

OK: We are in downtown L.A.

BS: Very nice, I love it down there. Where abouts?

OK: We are on Spring street, we’re in the heart of downtown L.A.

BS: Oh grand!

OK: Yeah we just moved our headquarters here.

BS: Oh cool man! I was flicking through the magazine online, it’s such a fucking great mag man.

OK: Thank you! We watched the film a couple nights ago and it’s incredible. You’re really great in it.

BS: Oh thanks man! So you enjoyed the film?

OK: Yeah really enjoyed it. Jake had showed me the trailer about seven or eight months ago and I couldn’t wait to see it. And I’m glad that IFC is putting it out.

BS: Yeah they’re great at supporting films which is awesome. It’s just what the film needs, you know?

OK: Are you going to be at the L.A. premier or were you at the recent private New York premier?

BS: No, I went to the New York premier, just last week. Which was crazy man, I think I was in the air longer than I was in New York. It was real quick.

OK: That’s wild. How was it? Was that the first time you’d seen it in a theater?

BS: No, I saw it with Jake when it got accepted into the Karlovy Vary, it’s a national film festival in the Czech Republic. The first time I saw it with the clean cut and the music and everything, was in the old Czech Republic.

OK: Wow. And that was a film festival right?

BS: Yeah, it’s called Karlovy Vary.

OK: So do you want to jump into this interview?

BS: Yeah man, sure!

OK: So my first question- when did you know that you wanted to be an actor? Was there a sort of a moment where you knew you wanted to become an actor?

BS: It wasn’t like a lightning bolt situation but it kind of gradually happened. I think that interest was encouraged unconsciously by my parents. We went to a lot of theatres as kids, we read a lot of books, and then my brother started acting in school. I look up to him very much and it just seemed really exciting and intriguing. There was a kind of mystery about it that got me hooked. So I kind of followed, over a series of time, my brother into it.

OK: Did you watch a lot of movies? Were there any actors that you were really inspired by or that you sort of looked up to, besides your brother?

BS: Growing up it was more theatre, but I remember secretly Dave and I taped Pulp Fiction on VHS and because we were so young and because it was rated R, we would come home after school and watch this film for like ten minutes before mum or dad got home. So we watched Pulp Fiction over the course of about three weeks. That’s a good memory. And so now I really love the work of Phillip C. Hoffman and people like that who are completely and utterly invested in that world.

OK: So in Asthma you’re working with Rosanna right? She was in Pulp Fiction, was that sort of strange?

BS: Yeah! It was a real trip, you know? She’s a real beautiful, graceful actor and it did cross my mind - like wow! Fuck, here we are.

OK: So you watched Pulp Fiction, but there are a lot of amazing Australian films. The independent film industry in is huge out there. Did you watch a lot of Australian films?

BS: Yeah, yeah I certainly did. There’s one independent film in particular that is a must. It’s called Wake in Fright, and I think it was made in the 70s. But it’s exactly what its title suggests. And it’s phenomenal. But also watching the Edgerton brothers as I kind of grew more into acting and the creative nature surrounding it, those guys were an inspiration in particular.

OK: You went to a lot of theatre, were your parents in the theatre world?

BS: I’m pretty sure they did some amateur theatre along the way, but they’re both high school teachers.

OK: You’ve worked with your brother on a role, is that right?

BS: Yeah, I’m happy with it but it was certainly a learning curve. It’s an interesting process kind of trading notes and scripts back and forth. We’re working on a bunch of stuff at the moment which is exciting. But it’s a slow burn.

OK: Yeah, So I want to talk about your role in Asthma. It was a pretty intense character; I mean do you have a specific method that you sort of employ when you go into a character like that?

BS: It’s always tough to talk about that kind of stuff because in anything really, there’s not just one kind of technique. I always try and come from a place of honesty and not judgment whatsoever and try to talk about something real in a very creative and interesting way. So that’s always my ambition, and hopefully I don’t fall flat on my face.

OK: What’s life like between the scenes, is it hard to get out of character?

BS: I think naturally there are some things that stick with you for a little bit, more so than other things, but I don’t find it hard to excuse myself from the game that we’re playing, you know?

OK: And what was it like working with Jake?

BS: We hit it off immediately, and Jake and I developed a really great relationship. Which is really surprising because we only met over the tape that I did. But we just kind of got each other. I think Jake as a director is really calm and thoughtful. With that energy on set, coming from the person who is driving the scene, it’s infectious. That spreads through the crew. So it was fantastic, I think the world of him.

OK: And that was your first time in New York City, right?

BS: Yeah, I was there for three days driving around in a Rolls Royce, which wasn’t too bad.

OK: What was your experience like, what’d you think of New York?

BS: It was great. The funny thing is that it’s such a beautiful city and I hadn’t been there before. So, I’m playing this guy who’s like the New York fucking institution, and I’m looking up at stuff all the time, going - wow! And Jake’s like, Ben! Fuck man, people from New York don’t fucking look up. They look down. And I was like yeah, right, right, right.

OK: That’s funny. That must have been an awesome experience driving around in that Rolls Royce.

BS: Oh man, yeah I’ll never forget it, it was amazing.

OK: I guess there’s not a lot of movie roles that require you to have quite that great a time.

BS: I wish I got a Rolls for the shoot!

OK: Yeah of course. And what was your experience like, working with the late Rene Ricard and Iggy Pop? That must have been pretty cool.

BS: Yeah, I feel pretty lucky. I’ve got a lot to be thankful for. Firstly, working with Rene was just amazing. I didn’t know too much about him until Jake introduced me. I saw his artwork and had heard all these magical stories about him, and once I met the guy he lived up to every one of them. I think he was flirting with me. It was so much fun. He had these slippers that had dollar signs on them, I think he actually brought them himself.

OK: Wow, sounds about right.

BS: But yeah, it’s just such a shame that he couldn’t have seen the film because I think he would have been very pleased with his performance. And working with Iggy Pop was great, he rocked out, he didn’t know any of his fucking lines. The guy was drunk, (laughs) I’m kidding, but it was amazing. It was like working with one of the greats. Unbelievable.

OK: If you had an ultimate role that you would want to, or could play, what would that be?

BS: Um, tough questions mate! There’s not really one role, but one thing that I want to do, and keep doing, is working on the type of projects that allow you to have a collaborative, artistic conversation about what’s going on. That’s where I love to live- in that collaboration, and in the discussion about creating something that is a bit different, a bit skewed, a bit of a different viewpoint into the same story. I just want to exist with good people on good projects.

OK: Yeah! Are you working on anything now in Australia, or are you planning anything soon?

BS: Yeah, I just wrapped yesterday on a short called “Secret City” for Foxtel which is a political thriller, which is very nice. Jacki Weaver is in it, and a bunch of other fantastic actors. Also a show that I just finished earlier this year is premiering on Sunday, it’s a six-part mini series called “The Beautiful Lie” which is based on Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. It’s a contemporary re-telling of that. So yeah I’ve had a good year and a good time.

OK: Yeah, it seemed like after Asthma - after it wrapped - you started getting a lot of roles, which is pretty amazing.

BS: Yeah, well I’m so thankful for Jake because he really could have hired anyone he wanted to. I know that he wanted to hire the right person and I feel very lucky that he thought that was me. I’ve got a lot to thank for Jake.

OK: I mean you’re perfect for that role, it made so much sense.

BS: Thank you.

OK: When people see that film, what do you want them to take away from watching it?

BS: It’s an interesting question because I try and stay out of the way of that kind of stuff because I think what’s intriguing about this film is that it could mean so many different things to so many different people. I had a lot of responses from people coming up like, “I lost my best friend to that drug” and “I have hope now from this film,” while other people have come up and said, “this guy’s a fucking dick” or “I’ve been hurt too.” So I try and stay out of that conversation and let it happen because it’s so interesting that the thing that we all watch in the cinema can mean so many different things and I like to allow that conversation to happen. It’s delightful, it really is. 

OK: Did you watch any other films or was there any research that you did to learn about how that worked?

BS: Yeah, I think I’ve said this in a few other interviews as well, but addiction is a very real, serious thing. I didn’t want to glorify what he was doing and I didn’t want to judge it either. Because there are people who are in the throws of addiction and I wanted to be very sensitive and I wanted to represent it without saying “this is terrible” or “this guy's a jerk.” So I watched a lot of documentaries about heroin and really approached it with sensitivity because I know there are people who are going through this, and thankfully I’m not, and thankfully I don’t know anyone who is. Which is a real blessing. I guess in regard to your question earlier, what the film really is about is a notion of redemption, of hope. And I think no matter what, there is always the opportunity for redemption. It’s just whether you take it or not.

OK: Yeah, the film had a happy ending.

BS: Yeah I agree. I’m glad.

OK: A lot of films end without a happy ending, and you’re left without that sense of redemption.

BS: I think the film really needs that too, because the content is heavy; it’s true, it’s real. I think Jake didn’t compromise himself by allowing the audience to have their cake and eat it too, you know?

OK: Sure! Well thank you so much for your time.

BS: Yeah! I’ll have to shoot up by the office next time I’m in L.A., that’ll be great. I also wanted to mention how fantastic David Myrick is, the director of photography. He became a really really great friend of mine and without him too we wouldn’t have captured all these beautiful things in such a thoughtful way. The way he and Jake worked together was just beautiful. He’s a dear friend of mine, I love him a lot.

OK: It was shot very beautifully, the light was very beautiful, it was very well done.

BS: It was gorgeous, yeah we were lucky to have such great people on board.

OK: I can’t wait to see it in a theater, we saw it in an office but I can’t wait to see it in that experience.

BS: You’ve gotta see me in my undies again.

OK: Yeah, that’s the main thing we’re looking forward to.

BS: I told Jake it should be in the poster, but he didn’t want to give anything away. 

Asthma will make its premier tonight at the IFC Film Center in New York, director Jake Hoffman will be in attendance for a Q&A. You can buy tickets here. The film will also be available to stream on select streaming services. The film will make its Los Angeles premier on October 30th. text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. photographs by Elvis DiFazio, shot at the Camperdown Cemetery in Sydney Australia. Tuxedo jacket: vintage Gucci. Bow tie: vintage YSL. Shirt: Tom Ford. Pants: Models own. Stylist: Michael Azzollini. Follow Autre on Instagram:  @AUTREMAGAZINE