Shiloh Fernandez plays Phil in the coming of age thriller “White Bird In A Blizzard,” out today.
We spoke with Shiloh about his latest film. Read our exclusive interview below.
Q: What originally drew you to “White Bird in a Blizzard” and how did you become involved with the film?
A: Really I think as a young actor I’ve seen Gregg Araki’s movies and there’s something about being drawn to his male characters and sort of the complexities of those characters and I had some to desire that I would fit in one of his films, that there was some kind of like-mindedness or kinship. I read ‘Kaboom’ and met with him for that movie, and a lot of my friends did that movie and I think that this one was one of those things where it’s sort of a duality where it was such challenge to play this younger version that’s really not me, and take someone dopey and a stoner and almost could be a cliché, in a way. But then that second half … this act of this tragedy happens … that gets put on him and how old he gets, to me that’s so fast. That really drew me to it. It’s just sort of playing two characters in one and trying to bind that gap. And then basically it was just one of those processes where I had to go in and meet with Gregg and then I had to have a screen test and with Shailene. And it was so funny because Gregg, knows what he wants and that’s the beautiful thing about the movie is that he casted it correctly. So he wanted people to wear a wife-beater to the screen test. These boys were screen testing and I just couldn’t do that. I was like, “I can’t. It can’t wear a wife-beater.” You know I was a little bit exposed in that and I’m glad he saw through that. I think it was just when I’d seen that innate quality that I had hoped to represent in his movie was ultimately what it was about.
Q: We see your character, Phil, deal with some heavy emotional struggles in the film. How did you prepare yourself to play this role?
A: You know I think it’s really evolved for me since I first started out. I feel like I’ve acted for a little bit of time now and am only starting to get better. So at some point because I never took classes and I’m not a trained actor, I don’t know what most people do. I don’t know what that formula is or what I’m sort of left out of. But at first, I wasn’t super connected to the character because I would be like “Oh, I let me consider playing baseball with my father when I was four.” How sweet and sad that I’ll never have that and that makes me emotional. But that’s kind of bullsh*t. Like you can’t say that and be a good actor. You can’t play your part and excel at your role, you can be satisfactory and display an emotion that’s supposed to be that but that doesn’t really connect. That’s what has been missing for me as an actor is like yeah you’re fine, you did a good job, but what makes the character interesting is connecting on a human level or on a personal level and then playing your character. And so with this it’s a little bit different considering all the factors of Phil’s life, all the sad facts that I know about my life … his mother who doesn’t get to live a full life, the pressure that he must put on her from not being super responsible, maybe, about harboring a secret, about shaming, as Kat and as herself and being such a great person and not wanting to hurt her because she doesn’t deserve to be hurt. And then he’s disgusted at his own actions and I think anyone can relate to that. We’ve all done things, whether or not it’s true or not, that we feel shameful. And so that’s sort of the culmination of that emotion, that guilt.
Q: What was your inspiration for the development of Phil?
A: It really is the imagination game I think. I feel like, without getting super personal, there’s something about where I grew up and it being sort of a place where not a lot of people leave and they act out based on the fact that they feel trapped and I think that was sort of it. And as somebody who can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel and then has to make up his own world and his own games to entertain himself. Inspiration that way? Or inspiration like the fact that I love Gregg Araki and I can say forever that I did one of his movies? It is both. It’s one of the things about what I enjoyed about the begging part of Phil was that his unabashed sort of nature, whether he was ignorant of the fact that people thought he was trashy or just in ignorant bliss or didn’t care because he had a secret, and his secret was that he can talk up a family and speak to people and he can use whatever he has in every way to gain some thrill from playing people and I think that’s really what he did. And then in the second half trying to still sort of ride that wave and it sort of crashing in on him, more and more and more until finally he couldn’t necessarily reconcile and turn in the right direction, which is a step in the right direction toward becoming a whole person.
Q: Do you have a usual creative process that you follow when developing the characters that you play?
A: No I don’t think I do yet. I think that’s something that I need to strive to do more of. I think I always said, “Oh, I can relate to this character and when this happens here’s how I can relate it to my life,” and so on and so forth. And it ended up being not that it didn’t really sparkle or shine, as someone who’s a little bit uptight, I didn’t feel like it had that extra factor, ya know. I think that making it all personal, it’s like I’m not that interesting of a person and I think that I would try to make things relatable to my own life and that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting. It just means that you relate to something. Now it’s more of what you said, which is taking it, understanding how it relates to you, and then really digging into the character and using obviously the screenplay to roadmap a performance in terms of he does this and this and this and relying on your character to sort of make it fully formed.
Q: What was your biggest challenge and greatest reward in working on this film?
A: The challenge really was for me accepting that first half of the character cause I really didn’t like him and I didn’t like that he wasn’t super intelligent. I did pretty well in school but I sort of took the easy way out a lot of the time and kind of maybe copied homework once in a while and what not and I think I’ve worked really hard to educate myself because I don’t like feeling ignorant and I think to step back into that part of myself was really a challenge. It was like I don’t want to do this, I don’t want to be seen this way, I hate feeling like that person, you know. Because there were times in my life when I kind of felt like Phil, when I kind of just felt ignorant and, I don’t know, trashy or whatever and that was a challenge. I didn’t know why, I didn’t really want to do it, but I think looking back that’s probably why.
And then the reward was really looking up to a filmmaker. I do movies and I’m an actor because when I watched movies when I was younger, I felt like these people were speaking to me and they knew me more than people I was growing up with knew me. And I think the reward is to be considered valuable by somebody who you respect. And not only that, but in the end getting to work with and share time with Shailene, with Chris Meloni, with Eva Green, and with all the actors, and to be in a room with them, and to watch them work and to learn from them is just a fantastic reward.
Q: What was it like working with Shailene Woodley?
A: I think this has been a really fascinating process. We just did a press conference and we did this movie. I probably got this job two years ago and it was before she had done “Divergent” or the other movies, or whatever they are. And so she was just this really accepting, compassionate girl. And screen tests are difficult and I think the way that she was so open and welcoming was really sort of the beginning of a friendship and then that friendship develops into a really easy work space because there’s no ego. So you both go into each scene together sort of holding hands and encouraging each other. And just to see her development of last years and how she is still the same amazing woman but has really handled this with such grace, it’s sort of inspirational I guess.
Q: What upcoming projects can you share?
A: You know what I’m actually tired now and I’m going to just build lamps from here on out. No, I finished a movie called ‘We Are Your Friends’ with Zac Efron and the director Max Joseph and it was just a blast. I had the best time. I played sort of a really different character for me and it was just fun. I think Zac is really going to excel in the movie and I think Max is a new voice for a new generation. He’s on that ‘Catfish’ the TV show. So where as I don’t know anything about Twitter or the internet, he has all that on lock, and so to be around that and kind of gap that bridge between great film making and what’s happening with technology that was sort of a really exciting thing. And so I’m thrilled for that movie.