For his second feature film, director Adam Egypt Mortimer (Some Kind of Hate, Holidays) takes viewers on a psychologically driven descent into hell in Daniel Isn’t Real (you can read my review HERE), which is based on Brian DeLeeuw’s novel In This Way I Was Saved. The story follows an unassuming college kid Luke (Miles Robbins), who finds himself reconnected with his childhood imaginary friend named Daniel (Patrick Schwarzenegger), who helps him find confidence as Luke navigates his way in the world. But the more brazen Luke is feeling, the more Daniel’s true colors are revealed, leading to an epic showdown between the duo in an epic battle for Luke’s very soul.
Daniel Isn’t Real recently celebrated its world premiere at the 2019 SXSW Film Festival. Daily Dead spoke with both Robbins and Schwarzenegger, and they discussed their thoughts on the themes explored in Mortimer’s film, their experiences working through their characters together, and so much more.
Look for more on Daniel Isn’t Real soon!
So great to chat with you both today, and great job on the film. I was wondering if you guys could talk about what it was like to immerse yourself in your respective roles, and dig into all these different thematic elements like depression, identity, sexuality, and toxic behavior?
Miles Robbins: Oh, yeah. I think that there's a lot about the story that to me, speaks a lot of truth to the experience of being a young man coming of age right now. This idea that a man is one thing and that one thing is sexual and confident. That sexuality comes from a place of conquest. It's a very brutally toxic world that young men think they should inhabit around that age often. I have a younger cousin and she recently was telling us some stuff that the boys in her high school were talking about. I was like, "Wow. Right."
Young men have a really hard time knowing it's okay to talk to each other and share with each other the sensitivity that they might feel inside or the delicate nature of human existence. Often, the dialogue that goes on I think in a lot of young men's minds is based on societal pressures, and those pressures encourage a really dark internal dialogue, and something that leaves these young men to feel entitled, to feel like their confidence can only come from a kind of attitude of being a conqueror. For me, there is a lot about what Luke is going through in this that reminds me of finding confidence with Daniel.
The confidence that Daniel brings to him is effective, but coming from the wrong place. There's just a lot of brutal stuff that happens as a result of Daniel's influence and the influence of this internal dialogue that I think is so common for young men—finding that empathy of what it is to be driven to a place of cruelty because of the ideas that you have about what you're supposed to be at that age. I really felt like this was a really cool way of using genre to analyze that and feel that feeling.
Luke, I think in this film is trying to, at first, become an adult, and become a man and come into his own, but then eventually finds himself desperately trying to avoid the pratfalls of adulthood, the toxicity of the culture surrounding heteronormative male culture. To try to escape that is a complicated thing, especially when you don't have anyone who you can really share it with. He has this person who he can share things with, but it's somebody who is not the best influence.
Let's talk about that influence from your perspective, Patrick.
Patrick Schwarzenegger: Miles talked a lot about that in this idea of toxic masculinity. That was something that brought me into this project, was that I found it really interesting, the dynamic of their relationship, and the polar opposites of their personalities and personas and really what is it like to be a male? What is masculinity? What is all this stuff? Like Miles was saying, we have Luke, this one character, and it’s Daniel that is pressuring him to be more of a man, go and hit on this girl, all these different things. Daniel was a really fun character to play. I had a lot of fun with it.
And I think I was attracted to the movie specifically because of what we just talked about, but also because of the role of Daniel, I got to have so much fun playing with it. It's a complete opposite of anything I've ever gotten to do. It was a good way for me and Miles to work together, too, because we're friends, but we're not that similar. I think that helped our chemistry onscreen and throughout this relationship of the role that we got to really play opposite each other.
I was actually going to ask about that in terms of your back and forth, because there is that natural connection between you guys. Did you get a lot of time before you started shooting to work on that chemistry?
Miles Robbins: Yeah, we did a rehearsal before in which we found a lot of stuff that ended up being pretty essential to the film. I was really grateful that we had that time together with Adam, and with Sasha [Lane] and Hannah [Marks], too. I think the best stuff often comes about in collaboration and in spontaneity and to have some time beforehand to let some spontaneity happen when you're not on the clock for production. When you're on set, everything is expensive, every second is expensive. You don't want to waste any time, but at the same time, wasting time is probably how the best art is made. It's really a blessing that we got a chance to spend time together before.
I'm curious, too, because for as much as this film takes on these ideas of male identity in society these days, there's also a lot about mental illness, which is something that a lot of people are still having trouble talking about—men in particular. It feels like there's still this stigma of not being able to talk about these things. Was it conscientious to you guys that in a way, this film could end up helping somebody who may have otherwise felt like, "Well, I'm supposed to be this way because I'm a guy and this is what society expects with me"? It feels like this story is a really good way to start a conversation about these things.
Miles Robbins: I think that it's something that is very particular in each case. Everyone is different. Different kinds of mental illness are very different, but the important thing is being able to acknowledge and share that experience with other people and to get help if you need help. I do think that it has nothing to do with biological sex, but the way that culture treats boys and men with our society. To be a boy often, I think, is similar to being in prison, where if you show weakness or sensitivity or joy even sometimes, you are the topic of ridicule immediately. I’m not sure how accurate it is, but it does feel like if men show any kind of internal struggle, it can be seen as a weakness.
I don't think that it has anything to do with biological sex or inherent gender differences or anything like that, though. I think it's just societal pressure that boys don't feel like they can really share their emotions and that is something that needs to change. Because when you have boys who don't feel like they can share their emotions, then you have men who have suppressed emotions, and that leads to a lot of the pain and misery in the world, and men are often the perpetrators in such misery and violence and horrible things.
The more we can have empathy for men and teach men that they can share their experiences, especially when it comes to mental illness, the better we're prepared to deal with a lot of the violent atrocities in the world. The more that we can encourage people—not just boys, but people—to understand that everybody has something happening inside their head and everyone has something going on. Everyone's lonely. Everyone's anxious to a certain extent. We don’t take mental health seriously at all. If you call into work and say, "Hey, I have the flu," they're going to give you [the day] off work. If you call and say, "Hey, I'm depressed," it's a lot harder to get the time you need because they'll be like, "Well, just get over it," and that's a real problem in our culture.
Before we have to wrap up, Patrick, I’d like to talk about your approach to the character of Daniel. You have to walk a very fine line, because if you go too far with him, it almost becomes too much in a way. Can you discuss finding that balance with him as this story goes along?
Patrick Schwarzenegger: You know, I never really wanted to play him super dark. We had moments where there are outbursts towards Luke, or there are moments when I am scarier or darker. A lot of the times, I wanted to have him be a character that was having enjoyment and fun with this process of messing with Luke, and being a bad influence and stuff, because the first part of their relationship is when they're kids, then it's me luring him back in as a friend in a trusted voice. Then, it's us having a good time. Then, there's me trying to feel what he's going through.
Then, there's the other part where it is kind of a darker side, but I never really thought about making sure it wasn't too one way or the other. We would just do different scenes and also during rehearsals, I would do the lines in certain ways. Adam, our director, would say, "Change it this way or that way," or, "Hey, Patrick. Go and do whatever you want on this one. Have a full play. Take it here and bring whatever you want," and he let me do that and that's what I did. There were a bunch of times where different takes, we would completely change it up and there were different times when he would say, "Tone it this way or that way." It was great, because I felt like I had a lot of freedom.
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