The quiet boy sits in a library all by himself. His eyes dart across a pile of books while appearing to absorb every last ounce of their content. Like a prized racehorse, he spends his days training in order to rake in the dough for his owners. He’s a quiz kid who knows all the answers, yet he’s also a human being with real needs. And on one extraordinarily ordinary day, he forces the adults in his life to provide him with some answers of their own.
His name is Stanley Spector, and he’s played by Jeremy Blackman in Paul Thomas Anderson’s third feature film, “Magnolia” (which I recently named as the best picture of 1999). I had always found Blackman’s performance heartbreaking and wholly authentic, and upon seeing the film again, I wondered what the promising talent was up to these days. Then I saw him in Eugene Kotlyarenko’s visionary indie, “0s &1s,” in which he plays Sam, the self-involved friend of James (Morgan Krantz), a neurotic young man who embarks on a desperate search for his laptop. I later discovered that one of the film’s songs was written by Blackman, who’s currently a part of the superb electronic band, Pink Drink.
The accomplished actor and musician spoke with Indie Outlook about his memories of PTA, his musical ambitions and his return to acting in “0s & 1s.”
Q: What first got you interested in performing?
A: My parents are both actors, and my dad [Ian] is still working. He’s been mainly involved in theatre throughout his life, but he started doing some film recently. He was in “The Bourne Legacy” and “Men in Black 3.” My parents met while they were working on a show together in New York. I never really had any acting training, and they were both good teachers. When you’re not yet a full person, it’s difficult to determine who’s actually making the decisions, but I enjoyed acting. Whenever any sort of performance came up, I was interested. I always liked Halloween as a kid. So acting just made sense. It’s not antithetical to who I am now, I’m just currently working on different stuff.
Q: How old were you when you made “Magnolia”?
A: I was 11. I remember more about that [project] than everything else from that time just because I had a lot of new and fun and crazy experiences.
Q: How did you relate to your character of Stanley Spector?
A: When I was a student, I was always very good in school. I obviously wasn’t a child prodigy or anything, but I identified with Stanley in general and the intellectual aspect of the character. I pictured that part of my personality blown up in a way. I actually watched the movie recently with a friend for the first time in a long time, so what I just said is a reflection of looking back on the experience rather than a memory. But I’m pretty sure that’s what I was thinking. Besides the fact that Stanley has preternatural abilities, it wasn’t a stretch for me to put my 11-year-old self in those situations. In terms of what he goes through, it’s not about his intellect. It’s just a f–ked-up situation.
Q: What were your impressions of Paul Thomas Anderson?
A: I remember his personality, which at that point was a little manic and strung-out, to put it lightly. [laughs] I remember the work that I did during the auditions. It was a really long audition process that focused a lot on the game show breakdown. I remember his direction being much clearer and calmer and better, in a way, than in the moment [onset]. I think he’s a great director and a great writer. I do feel like I would be able to understand him better now than I did back then.
Q: Your music skills were apparent in the scene where you sing an excerpt from the opera “Carmen.” Was that part of the audition process?
A: I don’t remember singing in the auditions. They might’ve asked me if I could sing and I was like, “Yeah, I can get a pitch.” But it’s funny–I had a girlfriend in high school who was a violinist and she actually told me that I got one of the cadences wrong [laughs].
Q: How extensive do you recall the number of takes being?
A: Oh there was a very, very extensive amount of takes. I remember someone onset saying that Tom Cruise was the only one who did more takes for his breakdown scene at Jason Robards’s [deathbed] than I did for the game show. It was about 40 takes for both of those. The only scene that had a particularly low number of takes was at the end when I tell my father, “You need to be nicer to me.” That was pretty quick.
Q: Was Michael Bowen, the actor that played your father, a frightening presence onset?
A: My perception was that he liked to stay in character. I wasn’t afraid of him, but he never snapped in and out of character. [laughs]
Q: While all of the other characters are bewildered by the climactic storm, it’s a moment of clarity to Stanley as he sits in the library. Do you have any recollection of how Paul directed you in that scene?
A: I’m not entirely sure what the direction was. It was all about getting that one strange, very specific thing that he wants for the moment. He can definitely get the words together to describe it, and as a writer, he has that ability. I remember being involved with the books and how they were all supposed to be focused around that idea [of the storm]. At some point, the prop guy might have even put some meteorological stuff in there. Beyond the biblical passages, there were some scientific or historical phenomena that Paul had mentioned [as his inspiration]. At that time, it just made me feel like this storm was a matter-of-fact event. This is something that happens in the world that has happened before. It was about playing that specific thing rather than getting caught up in the possible meanings of the line.
Q: What was your reaction to the film upon seeing it all these years later?
A: I think it’s a satisfying film. To me, it actually feels more dated than “Boogie Nights” [laughs]. I enjoy that movie more and I think that it has a lot of similarities. I can’t wait for “The Master.”
Q: Tell me about your interest in electronic music and your collaborations with Joey Alvarado.
A: Joey and I performed experimental electronic music in college. Our mutual friend, Abbott Segel, who is my drummer now, had a sampler, and we ended up working together as well. As far as what attracted me to music, I played the flute for twelve years, including the time when I was making “Magnolia.” Eventually, I taught myself base and guitar and drums and piano. Throughout high school, I played with my friends in different bands. In college, we had a band called Pink Drink, and the drummer and I recently started playing again.
With [my music], I want to do something within the avenue of what I would’ve wanted to critique as an art historian, in a way. I was interested in sampling and appropriation techniques in music and in the other arts as well. I like listening to recent bands like Animal Collective that use those technologies but try to think about them in a slightly more critical way. I’m interested in where music made for entertainment purposes can negotiate its critical practice in the realm of spectacle and work on both sides of the fence. I don’t know where the audience is for it. It’s kind of a weird niche, but No Shame has been helping me. They’re a really cool new label. Our engineer, Jake Wagner, is a Pro Tools whiz, and I’ve really enjoyed working with him.
Q: How did Eugene Kotlyarenko inspire you to take a role in “0s & 1s”?
A: I first met him when I was a freshman. He was a few years older than me, and at first, I remember thinking that he was a really terrible hipster [laughs]. I kind of envied him because I thought he had a really cool style, but I also thought he was loud and goofy. He seemed like he was just trying to attract attention, which he is in a certain way, but it’s one side of his personality. The other side is emotionally and spiritually open with his heart on his sleeve. He’s very good with people, but in a strange way. He attracts people really well because he’s so open, but it’s offset by his wild goofiness.
Q: Eugene said he intended to cast you against type in his film. Was the role a refreshing change of pace?
A: Yeah, yeah. It was weird because I was a little bit out of my element going back to LA. I don’t have a driver’s license. I feel very much at home in New York, so I was a little bit uncomfortable. Everyone was a little older and I was either still in school or had just gotten out. So I felt younger and uncomfortable, though my character was supposed to be a hotshot egomaniac. It was refreshing to be acting again and it was definitely a stretch. For the scene in the car, I remember drinking Red Bull, which is something that I never do [laughs].
Q: You also wrote some music for the film.
A: I think I was writing on acoustic guitar while I was there. The song was kind of crazy and aggressive. Eugene wanted something for the scene when James breaks the window, so Joey and I just came up with something crazy.
Q: Do you share Eugene’s concerns regarding our generation’s addiction to technology?
A: It’s funny because I use technology like a prosthetic when I create my music. But I was in Maine last week and all I had was a piano. I wrote a few songs on the piano and it felt really good. I definitely can feel where Eugene is coming from. There’s a bunch of really great articles in the new artforum on technology in art and computers in the last 50 years. It starts with a letter that a professor wrote to Philip Leider, the editor of artforum, in 1967, asking him if he would consider doing an issue on computers in art. Leider’s response was, “I can’t imagine artforum ever doing a special issue on electronics or computers in art, but one never knows.” Eugene has a really interesting perspective. The depth of critical thought we have about human culture is focused to a large extent on an entirely different paradigm. That’s how shockingly extreme the exponential growth of the role of technology in our lives has become. We’re at a loss, at this point, for words and for art especially.
Jeremy Blackman will be performing at New York City’s Ding Dong Lounge, 929 Columbus Ave., on Saturday, September 22nd, around 11pm. To purchase tickets for the Pink Drink concert at Santos Party House on Friday, November 2nd, click here. Pink Drink can also be found on Facebook.
“0s & 1s” will screen at The Los Feliz 3 in Los Angeles on Thursday, September 20th at 9:40pm. For info, click here.