Thanks to particularly successful productions like Easy A and Cougar Town, Dan Byrd is really making a name for himself in the comedy genre. However, that certainly doesn’t mean he shies away from more dramatic projects. In fact, he’s got no problem at all getting serious for a role and his latest film, Norman, really proves it.
Byrd is Norman, a high school kid with some serious issues. Not only is he perpetually worried about his ailing father (Richard Jenkins) who’s dying of cancer and refuses treatment, but his mother passed away in a car accident and, at school, he’s got a mere friend to lean on. Even though he’s smitten by the new girl, Emily, (Emily VanCamp) and she surprisingly takes a liking to him, Norman reaches the point where everything just boils over and he blurts out that he’s got cancer.
See? Not your typical fare for Byrd, but, boy, does he seize the opportunity. In honor of Norman’s October 21st release, Byrd took the time to talk about his entire process from preparing for the role to bringing him to life on set, even under the pressure of a quick shoot. Read all about that and more in the interview below.
How’d you get involved? Is this something you auditioned for?
Dan Byrd: Yes, it’s been kind of a long arduous process at this point; we shot this movie in 2008 and I probably auditioned for it about a year before that. It’s sort of been in my life for a long time. We’re very excited that it’s finally found a home and found a way to get out there and for people to be able to see it.
Had anyone else been cast when you auditioned?
I was the first one cast and then they auditioned for the Emily character, the girl, and they found her and then as things were sort of gearing up and getting ready to go, I found out that this pilot that I had done probably a year prior got picked up all of a sudden and so I thought that, ‘I don’t know. Does this mean I’m gonna miss out on this opportunity? Are they going to have to replace me?’ But John [Segal], the director, was cool and nice enough to just kind of put everything on hold and wait. So once that got canceled, which was six months later, things started gearing up again. It happened in June of 2008 I guess is when we shot it.
What was it about the script that made you want to hold onto this?
It was just a really unique opportunity for somebody my age, my look, etc. to audition for a real character, like a role as opposed to a part. I guess the distinction there is that I’m used to fulfilling a certain part in a movie, like the son or the nerd or the nerdy son, but this was an actual character, fully dimensionalized and fleshed out, multifaceted. It was just a whole different thing than I had ever had the opportunity to do before so I was very anxious and adamant to pursue this as much as possible and knew that it was worth the time and energy and effort just because these opportunities are few and far between.
This also feels like a very different genre for you. I know you best from The Hills Have Eyes and Easy A, both of which are so different. I almost want to classify this as a coming-of-age story, but not the way the industry’s labeled the genre.
Yeah, no, I think coming-of-age is a fair description. I guess most of my experience has been in commercial comedy type stuff and, yeah, this was definitely something different from that, another reason that it was appealing, to be able to kind of flex a different muscle. You know, when I was younger I did a lot of dramatic stuff and then I think I got to this age where there’s just more opportunity in comedy and it’s something that comes somewhat natural to me, so it’s just what I’ve fallen into, but when I started acting, I didn’t think of myself as a comedic actor at all. It was cool to tap back into the drama. Although this has a lot of comedic elements, too. If anything I think it’s a dark comedy in a lot of ways. But the comedy isn’t jokes; it comes out of real elements that hopefully are visible enough for people to relate to and see themselves in and it become funny because of that as opposed to set up punch line type of stuff.
Yeah, you can see your comedic talent come through in this one and, as dark as the material is, it helps to keep Norman quite likable.
Oh, thanks. I guess I went in with that perspective of knowing that I couldn’t just be Debbie Downer the whole movie because that just gets exhausting and tedious to watch. There’s got to be a lightness to it all, otherwise it’s just too heavy and nobody wants to sit through that for an hour and half so I tried to work the comedic elements in wherever it seemed appropriate. Hopefully that redeems him in some way or at least makes him a little more likable for people watching.
Backtracking a bit, what’s your first step when preparing to go into a shoot?
Well, it was a little bit of a process for this. I mean, that was what was cool; I got to pretend I was a real actor all of a sudden. [Laughs] I get to come up with all this back story and Jonathan, the director, was super cool and open about making this a collaborative effort. He knew how much I was going to have to invest of myself over the four weeks that we shot. About a month before we started shooting, I went up to Spokane while they were prepping location and just went over the script with him a bunch. What was cool was that it’s a small independently financed movie, you don’t have a lot of cooks in the kitchen and so it was basically just me and Jonathan sitting there with the script and if we wanted to change something we could or if something seemed like it needed tweaking we could maneuver stuff as we went along. So we went over the script a bunch and then I went up about a week before we started shooting and just tried to start getting focused and preparing myself because I knew once we started we weren’t going to have time to refine stuff on the day. With such a tight shooting schedule you just have to be as prepared as possible and show up and hope everything else falls into place. So, yeah, I did all the normal actor-y stuff that people do to make yourself feel as comfortable as possible going into a situation like this. And the fact that the movie’s called Norman and I play Norman, it’s a responsibility that I tried to take as seriously as possible and tried to have a really clear guideline for myself going into the shooting process.
How does that compare to the more commercial work you’ve done? Does your prep process change?
You want to try your best for everything, but there’s some things that just don’t require as much as other things. Like for Easy A, I still wanted to understand exactly who the character is so I can understand the choices I’m making or be able to play around with it on the day and be comfortable in what I’m doing, but when you’re in every scene of a movie it’s just different. It’s a much bigger responsibility and with Easy A I was able to just go over the scenes that I was in and get the character’s little arc, try and find the little moments I wanted to highlight and pinpoint those. But with this it’s really finding a character, you know? It’s really getting inside somebody else’s head. It’s a whole different process and there are moments where I felt really connected to it and moments where you’re kind of uncertain, but you just try to stay as focused and be as prepared as possible and hope for the best, I guess.
Is it tough to embody someone with such a dark side personally and emotionally? After you shot, were you able to shake it off?
Yeah, for sure. It was just exhausting more than anything. Because of the emotional side to this whole story, you kind of have to force yourself to stay in a certain headspace the whole time in order to be able to access those emotions when you need them. So there’s not a lot of goofing around or not a lot of comradery on set, or as much as there would be on Cougar Town or Easy A where you’re just kind of joking around with people all day and you can just slip in and slip out. With this, the whole idea was just to stay focused and stay in it as much as possible and sort of shun any misdirection.
How about your relationship with Emily because some of that is pretty fun loving?
Yeah, that’s definitely the lighter part of this story, so we tried to keep it as fun loving as possible. It was an interesting experience just because we didn’t get a whole lot of time to bond off set because she was really burning the candle at both ends because she was shooting Brothers and Sisters and this simultaneously, so there were days where she’d literally work on Brothers and Sisters and then fly in and do a couple of scenes of this at night and then fly back the next morning. So she was just back and forth and understandably very tired and fatigued from that type of schedule and at the end of each of these days I was pretty exhausted myself. But, fortunately, we have similar sensibilities acting-wise and I think had some type of chemistry on screen so we didn’t have to work very hard to get to; it was just sort of there.
And how about Richard Jenkins? That’s quite the actor to have playing your father.
Yes, I know. He’s so awesome, just a super grounded, nice, gentle man. Somebody in his position could have come onto a set of a really small movie like this and just really imposed his will on everything, but he was more or less just a wallflower. He came in the last week, we did all the dad scenes the last week of shooting, and just kind of quietly elevated the whole movie in a really cool way. Him just being in it automatically gives it this level of credibility that we wouldn’t have had without him in it and then just working with him as an actor, he just forces everybody to step their game up a little bit. I don’t know what that’s saying, but I guess you’re only as good as the people around you and so to have such a seasoned veteran and for him to be so kind, you just learn a lot just by watching him both on camera and off camera.
How is that kind of shooting schedule for you when you’re playing someone with such a big arc? I know most films don’t shoot in order, but is it tough to maintain where Norman is at each point in the film?
Yeah, that’s where the homework beforehand comes into play. That’s why you’ve got to map it out, the whole emotional evolution or metamorphosis that he makes and what points are important points to highlight and to change a little bit. So that’s why you have to know something like this going into it; you have to pick those moments and that’s where a lot of the work comes into play. Since you are shooting it out of order, you can still, in your head, know exactly where you’re supposed to be at that point.
And with just a month to shoot, how was the pacing for you? I’m sure the days were super tight.
Yes, they were. [Laughs] I think it’s a gift and a curse, to be honest, because when you’re on that tight a schedule, it’s like being shot out of a cannon. It forces this energy and momentum on everyone and everybody has to rise to the occasion and get things done, which can be good for an emotionally driven movie because if it gets too slow and stagnant, then you might lose some of that friction that’s created by just having the go, go, go type of thing. But at the same time, there are always scenes were you’re like, ‘Oh man, I wish we would have had a little more time to flush that out better or to explore that a little more,’ and you just don’t, unfortunately, so you’ve got to work with what you’ve got!
To wrap up, what are you working on next?
It’s just Cougar Town right now. We’re, I think, on our ninth episode and I’m actually doing an episode of this show called Suburgatory, which is a really funny new show on ABC next week, so that’s exciting. That’ll be something different and fun.
You should have Emily get you a guest appearance on Revenge!
[Laughs] I know! I gotta talk to Emily about that. Get her to pull some strings. Little crossover episode, Cougar Town/Revenge; that’d be cool.