Lucky As Sin: An Interview with Lou Taylor Pucci

Lou Taylor Pucci in Thumbsucker (2005)

Very rarely do you catch an actor during that chrysalis phase between crawling out of the cocoon of one character and into the skin of another. This is exactly where I caught Lou Taylor Pucci, who is an innately gifted actor, well known for playing vulnerable souls and identity seeking characters, like the thumb sucking angst-ridden teen, Justin Cobb in Mike Mills’ 2003 debut feature, Thumbsucker alongside Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio and Keanu Reeves. The role made him a fixture in mid-aughts indie cinema.

Then there is his most recent role as Evan in the genre-bending, sci-fi, love story horror film, Spring, which features a more mature actor grappling with demons that are both figurative and literal. In Spring, Pucci plays the heartbreaking role of a young man who loses his mother and decides to go on an adventure of a lifetime. The film, shot on the beautiful coastline of an ambiguous Italian village, shows his character searching for meaning, destiny, self, love…anything to quell the longing. He finds his purpose when he meets Louise, a beautiful young woman who is hiding a frightening, monstrous secret that far outweighs anyone’s definition of “baggage.”

The film is the second feature by inventive directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead who start the film off during the low tide of the character’s mourning of his mother and his stages of grief. As the tide rises, the film crashes beautifully on the coast of Italy, where slow motion drone shots and multiple minute long pans follow the character into a deep, dark world where every part of his psyche is pushed to the limit. It is a Kafkaesque tale that harkens elements and overtones of German Expressionist cinema with a little bit of Jarmusch-cool.

Pucci fits into these roles perfectly. He is an actor that is not afraid to be vulnerable, which is the mark of a great actor – if not a believable one. I first met Pucci, who is a New Jersey native from a creative, folksy kind of showbiz family (think the Carter family), before the premiere of Spring. He has grown a massive beard for his next role, as Romeo 'Prickface' Griggs, in Poor Boy – a film about two misfit brothers who try to survive in the desert. In the following candid interview, Pucci talks about his unique upbringing as an altar boy, his dichotomous entrance into the world of independent cinema and his future goals as an actor in the Hollywood machine.

How did you get your start?

I started in musical theater. I grew up in a, I don’t know what the word would be, because I can’t exactly say that I was in a poor family, but I was in a lower middle class family. There was not much money. But my dad was a musician and my mom has done modeling and she loved musicals. One of the first interesting memories I have of my dad was him up on stage at a fair playing guitar.

So it was in the blood already?

Well, yeah, my name – they named me Lou Taylor Pucci, because my mom and dad both thought it was a good stage name. They thought I was going to be a musician, which is hilarious.

That’s really thinking ahead.

So, yes, I grew up in a family that was based in entertainment and art. My dad was also a graphic artist and still is. He is actually still in bands now as well. He is in a Crosby, Stills and Nash cover band. He’s a great singer with a really high voice. So I was sort of born into that. I have two brothers and a sister and I was the first one, so they wanted me to do something. My mom wanted me to take dancing lessons.

Did you enjoy it?

You know, I was about 9 or 10 and I was in school and people were such assholes about everything, so it was literally, like, “faggot this” and “faggot that.” And it was terrible. I had very few friends that I could relate to in my regular school. But I did it…I took the lessons. It took about a year of fighting – then finally I was, like, “Fuck it, I’ll take the lessons!” I was basically given this option by my parents before I even existed. They would say things, like, “All you do is watch TV and go to school.” Then they said, “You can either become an altar boy at the church or you can audition for a community theater show and we’ll bring you there and give you ten dollars.” Basically, they really wanted me to be on stage. So, I decided, “whatever, I’m going to be an altar boy.”

Wow…what was that like?

I was an altar boy for about six or seven months. I was really up for it for a little bit longer than that. I loved it…the different colored robes and different colored belts. It was actually pretty funny. Finally, though, I decided that I couldn’t do this any more. You have to wake up so early. It’s the same thing every time. You know, I did grow up with church as a big part of my life. We didn’t go to church every day, but I did go to a Catholic school for my entire life. Even during high school…I went to an all boys Christian academy.

Finally you acquiesced?

Eventually I said yes, I took the ten dollars, and auditioned for Oliver! and I got into the show. When I auditioned, I was like, “Holy crap, I didn’t know I could do anything like this. I am singing and I’m dancing right now.” And this was just at the audition! They auditioned me to play Oliver…I got up to the last callback, but I faltered at the end because I had never read any script or had done any acting stuff in front of anybody.

Did you get a part?

I was a part of the ensemble anyways, not Oliver, but all of a sudden, it was like, holy shit, I have all these friends and there’s a bunch of girls in the show and they like this stuff and I like this stuff right now because I had all these people I could relate to finally. It was great.

"...I went from wearing a sailor suit

to playing this tortured hitchhiker.

I mean, I wasn’t even going to go to the

audition, because it was so ridiculous..."

Then what happened?

Well, I started doing Broadway [after community theater]. Amazingly, long story short, I ended up on stage doing The Sound of Music running around in a sailor suit as Fredrik Von Trapp for like a year and a half. I was about 12 when that happened.

That’s an amazing trajectory!

Yeah, it was. Well, I think there was a strange motivation my whole life that maybe I didn’t know about. All I saw was my parents fighting about money and so I just wanted to fix everything. I had this complex based on fixing or helping the family. As the first born, I felt this inclination to take care of my brothers and sisters. You have to be a part of their life. And I don’t know, my dad became a huge guy…he had a weight problem that was very insane. So, it was a real concern that he was going to die. Luckily, he has since taken control of his life, but I definitely came from a real weird, fucked up family and we didn’t have any money. But the only thing that they did have is an insane amount of ambition and love and they wanted me to do something. So, they would drive me to these community theaters and they would drive me to New York.

They were really dedicated.

They would take the bus to New York and the take the bus back to New Jersey to finish whatever they had to do and then take another bus to pick me up and take me back home. This was every day.

So, when did the movie thing start happening?

I think I was about 16 and I was still in high school and I was going to a lot of auditions. I was auditioning for about a year. So, I did the theater stuff and then I decided to take time off. I decided to go to high school. I wanted to be a real kid. I wanted to go to prom. I wanted to do things that normal kids do. Because I realized that I probably was going to do things that weren’t normal for the rest of my life. So, I went to high school and I was going to auditions, but I really wasn’t getting anything. I think I was not getting what film was. I didn’t know what it took to be in a film. I mean, I came from a theater background.

But you eventually booked something, right?

So, there was this one audition…for Personal Velocity….and Rebecca Miller wrote and directed the film and Parker Posey is in it with Fairuza Balk and Kyra Sedgwick. You know, Rebbeca Miller is married to Daniel Day Lewis and is daughter to Arthur Miller. The thing is, though, that I had no idea about any of this. It was just this opportunity that came up. I went to the audition and I went from wearing a sailor suit to playing this tortured hitchhiker. I mean, I wasn’t even going to go to the audition, because it was so ridiculous from what I knew that I thought I could only fail.

Lou Taylor Pucci and Fairuza Balk in Personal Velocity (2002)

But you didn’t fail….

My dad told me that I have to try it…don’t miss this opportunity. He was always like that. In fact, he was really the only reason why I went to the audition. And then I went in and something just clicked in this really weird way. I was so nervous to go to this audition in the first place, but that nervousness was actually a part of the character. He was such a tortured, biting his fingernails until they bled, character who would not make eye contact and didn’t have a lot to say, but has a lot to react to and so in that room, I had a lot to do and something happened where, all of a sudden, because I couldn’t say anything, I finally understood what I was trying to do. I sort of understood what acting for film was.

What did you learn?

Well, when I walked out of the room, I remembered having tears in my eyes and sort of feeling very sad and terrible. I was, like, “Holy shit, it worked it! Something happened here.”

And a lot of actors don’t get that experience, right, that seems very authentic?

Yeah, I think I scared the shit out of myself and it was great for that role. And I think that’s what all roles are sort of about…you have to find out how to trick yourself into being someone. Each character or role has a different formula on how to do that. Each one is completely different. And you don’t know how you are going to do it. Usually, you figure it out two weeks before you start filming. So, I’ve been attached to my next film for about a year. I have this big fucking beard. I’m playing a guy named Prick Face who is a dirty, southern, real hickish guy – but not trying to make fun of it. It’s about two brothers who are trying to survive, they are living on a houseboat and they don’t have any education and their parents have abandoned them. And even though I have all this knowledge about this character’s story and I look like this character, I still don’t know how I am going to play this part.

Is that scary?

When I get to Las Vegas to shoot the movie, something is going to happen, which always happens, where once you start getting all the dialogue memorized and you start saying the dialogue out loud to people, it’s almost like living in a dream. You start noticing things about other people and they start incorporating into you. And there will be a snap. And, again, you’ll be like, “Holy shit, I get it!” That may not be the case for the whole role, but maybe for certain pieces of it, like this is how he walks or this is how he talks. And it all comes together in such a way. That’s why rehearsals are such an important thing to me and my career.

Did you grow up watching movies…was there a specific movie, or actor, or scene that you remember really blowing your mind?

First two movies I remember seeing, honestly, are Batman and Terminator 2 at a drive-in movie theater. The truth is, that’s what I love. I love action, sci-fi, big productions. Not just spectacle, but come on, Bat Man and Terminator 2 are staples of our lives in the entertainment business. Terminator 2 was hands-down one of the best sequels. Bat Man was one of the darkest and coolest – Michael Keaton, Tim Burton – things ever created. Awesome music, awesome acting. They were turning a comic book into basically something real. And Jack Nicholson as the Joker – holy shit!

What about independent films?

Well, independent films are not something I seek out. It’s not what I go and watch. But independent films are important, because they have the freedom to be creative and original. Who knows, sometimes they do make a splash and become big. But big studio films now can’t compete when it comes to originality…they don’t even come close.

So, you’ve done a lot of independent films. Do you have aspirations to be in bigger actions films? What is your aspiration as an actor?

Sometimes people ask me, “What characters would you like to play,” and I don’t really know. I think there’s two: one would be Lestat de Lioncourt from the Anne Rice Vampire Chronicles and the other one would be Link from Zelda. So I guess my whole life revolves more around nerd stuff and video games and sci-fi. You know, Interview with a Vampire is definitely one of my most favorite films in the entire world. So, I don’t know…what would I want to do? More action films or more independent films? I think the whole point, for me, and what has become the point in my life, has become having a diverse career and maybe that’s because I’m still sort of at the beginning of my career.

How would you define your career?

When I look at a career, I take it apart, and say, ‘Look, here are the people that fucked up, like Paulie Shore and other actors like that.’ I’m not saying that he is a bad actor, he is just not the actor that I want to be. I mean, he stopped getting films because he did one thing and it faded out. But the thing is that he couldn’t do anything else because no one would let him. So, how do I extend my freedom to allow people, or trick people, into thinking I can do anything. At the beginning of my career, just like act one in any script, if you are going to make a script that’s horror and there is nothing scary in the first 30 minutes and then the horror comes along, it’s going to freak you out, especially if it’s a comedy or something. I mean, if there is nothing funny in the first ten minutes, it will be hard to laugh when the jokes come along. This is why you have to build all those genre tones into your first act to make sure that everyone is ready for what is coming next…so that they are available to it and accept it.

Building those genre tones is what was so successful about your current film, Spring, right?

The coolest thing that they did was that they knew that our little love story, which is the second act and third act, is fun. Its not necessarily two comedians talking, but they wanted the audience to laugh…to laugh with us. So what did they do? They made the first twenty minutes fucking hilarious. Even though it’s a horror film, they put so much comedy and fun into this depressed guy’s life. So, that’s basically like act one of my life and career. I want to diversify as hard as I can. Play everything that I can, so that there is nothing that people won’t accept.

"I am lucky as sin that people will actually pay

for this art because there is so much art out

there that people pay nothing for...I get to have

a life that I want. It’s really not that complex: I

just want to be doing what I’m doing."

And that would be the best-case scenario?

I want to be able to do any role that I want. That would obviously be the best-case scenario for any actor: they find a role, they say that they want to do that role and then they are allowed to.

That also seems like a recipe for not being type-casted right?

That’s exactly what I mean. I am always aiming for the long term. How do I make this last for the rest of my life? I mean, I have always wanted to play old man roles in sci-fi films - like an old mentor. I always wish that that’s what I will look like one day. I guess that’s why I have this big beard right now. I mean, I have a serious baby face and it’s going to be a weird road trying to figure out what I can do.

So, what do you think of the business aspect of acting?

It’s a business. It’s a strange, strange thing. I go out on auditions sometimes just to appease casting directors. I want them to remember me. That kind of stuff sucks sometimes. You are going out sometimes for roles you don’t even want, but you better do a good job because otherwise that casting director might think you suck. So, it becomes a real career…a business….that you have to tend to. It’s like growing a flower…you have to check in and water it every day.

Yeah, and there seems to be two types of actors: the ones that let the rejection get to them and they go back home and then there are actors – excuse the morbidity of this example – like River Phoenix that don’t think too hard about the machine aspect of it and they go into it with such passion and energy that they burn out. What do you think about that tightrope walk?

It is a tightrope walk. Most movies that I do are tightrope walks. I feel like now I do all the movies that normal people are sort of afraid to do. Maybe because it doesn’t seem like it’s been done. One of the better examples of that is Story of Luke and I played an autistic main character and it’s a comedy. I mean, try pitching that. How the hell do you do that? How does the tone match up? Is there any possibility that people are thinking that we’re making fun of autism if the main character is supposed to be funny, but has autism? The tightrope walk is terrifying. Same thing with Spring…how much of a love story are you going to treat this as? How real should you be? And how entertaining should you allow yourself to be?

Lou Taylor Pucci in The Go-Getter (2007)

What’s your least favorite thing about being an actor or being in that world?

For one thing, I think the whole system is disgusting. We’re made to be celebrities that some how entertain people into sitting on the couch or on their phone and they’re not even doing what they want to do. But one of my best friends I met when I was putting some stuff into storage and the guy working there told me that he saw The Go-Getter and decided to go to Australia for six months. We ended up going to Jumbo’s Clown Room and talking about it for hours. That is by far my favorite thing about being an actor.  

But the fame part or the fame game is what really gets you down?

I am lucky as sin that people will actually pay for this art because there is so much art out there that people pay nothing for and hold to a very low regard. Yet, in this world, acting is held at such a high pedestal that I get to have a life that I want. It’s really not that complex: I just want to be doing what I’m doing. But there are a lot of actors that can’t. I guess that’s the real hard part. But with the new modern invention of YouTube and all these pilots, there are a lot more parts now. But because we have focused so much on celebrity and because producers have so much invested in the films they make, they need to have celebrities on television supporting their investments. So, all the main parts are going to be played by celebrities that you already know and they are going to make a bunch of money.

Was it always like that?

You used to be able to move to Los Angeles and go out on auditions and wind up in roles. But that is not really how it is anymore. Everything is outsourced. Everything is shot in different cities. Casting directors still cast the main roles in Los Angeles, but the rest of the roles are cast in Louisiana or Texas or even New York. So, as an actor, it’s more worth it to go to where the work is. As a new actor, those are the roles you are going to go out for…the smaller roles. As a result, though, you don’t really need to be in Los Angeles to make your break, which is the positive side of things. If there is anything to learn, it’s that you shouldn’t come to Los Angeles if you haven’t established yourself at all yet.

That’s great advice…is that advice you would offer to young actors?

Yes, don’t come to Los Angeles if you want to make it. I think there are some laws being passed that will make it easier to make movies in Los Angeles again. I think that Hollywood should be brought back to its original glory. That’s why we’re all here competing in the first place, right?

You can watch Spring on Amazon Instant Video and most on-demand platforms. It is also in select theaters, distributed by Drafthouse Films. Text and interview by Oliver Maxwell Kupper. Follow AUTRE ON INSTAGRAM to stay up to date with art, culture, and more: @autremagazine

Trailer for Spring