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Interview: Kodi Smit-McPhee Talks Young Ones (Exclusive)

While people often engage in gripping resistance when they’re faced with social and technological regressions in their communities, especially when their lifestyles are purposefully compromised by the government so that the rest of the country can advance, they can often times lead a revolution that can help fortify their existence. That gripping exploration into how that enthralling confrontation can truly help the repressed is enthralling chronicled in writer-director Jake Paltrow‘s sci-fi action western, ‘Young Ones,’ which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD. The drama’s diverse characters, notably actor Kodi Smit-McPhee’s sensitive teen, Jerome, have distinct motives for wanting to rebel against those who have wronged them, so that they can recapture the lives they once knew. As a result, their equally powerful motives and actions make the film intensely relatable and thought-provoking.

‘Young Ones,’ which is set in the near future, chronicles the devastating impact the dwindling supply of water has on American political policy, as well as interpersonal family and romantic relationships. The sci-fi action drama is structured into three acts, each of which is told from the distinct points-of-views from different characters. The first act showcases how Ernest Holm (Michael Shannon) is a recovering alcoholic who’s trying to quit his habit in order to provide a better life for his teenage children, Jerome (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and Mary (Elle Fanning), on their small rural piece of land.

Jerome tries to find solace in the fact that his father’s trying to provide a better life for them, particularly by delivering supplies to workers building a pipeline to irrigate corporate farms. However, Mary is constantly hostile towards him, as she perceives him to be overbearing and controlling of her life. She’s particularly angry about the fact that her father is trying to stop her from seeing Flem Lever (Nicholas Hoult), their ruthless neighbor who not only dreams of taking over Ernest’s land, but also marrying Mary.

The second act emphasizes how the tension between Jerome’s father and sister is dictating his thoughts on their lifestyle. Jerome must also contend with the fact that his mother, Katherine (Aimee Mullins), is a paraplegic, after Ernest drove drunk, crashed their car and paralyzed his wife. Katherine must live in a hospital and wear a computerized suit to move. Jerome believes a new robotic farm machine his father has bought to help with their job will help improve their economic situation and relationships, but it in fact only creates more tension amongst his family.

Jerome’s opinions about the struggles within his family then lead way into the film’s third act, which also highlight his ever-changing negative viewpoint of Flem. Being the son of an important local merchant has garnered Flem clout in the community. He utilizes his power to not only further his romantic relationship with Mary, but also to cultivate the Holm’s land in ways Ernest never could. But when Jerome uncovers a harrowing secret his older sister’s significant other is hiding, the dynamics within the family are tragically changed forever.

Smit-McPhee generously took the time to sit down for an exclusive interview to talk about making ‘Young Ones’ at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was drawn to the film, and notably to playing Jerome, because the social and natural elements of the characters’ environment are pushing the once innocent and naive protagonist into doing whatever is necessary to protect his family; how he respects writer-directors, as the dual jobs require a unique talent of the filmmaker to bring their vision into the real world, and how Paltrow exemplified that, as he was aware of every detail on the set; and how shooting in a secluded rural area of South Africa helped the cast bond, which helped build the authentic emotions between their characters, as well as their backstories and arcs.

ShockYa (SY): You play Jerome Holm in the sci-fi action drama, ‘Young Ones.’ What was it about the character, as well as the script, that convinced you to take on the role?

Kodi Smit-McPhee (KSM): After I had read the script, it immediately struck me that this was something that was very unique. It was also very clear in what it wanted to achieve, so I wanted to be a part of that.

Something that intrigued me about the character was that we look at him as a normal boy. But the values that change him are the elements to his environment, which is also such an important character in the movie. The story is set in a world where water is extremely hard to get, and other elements are dwindling, as well. Through that environment, there’s a pure story about family.

So that’s why I really liked the story and the character-there was a purity in the family’s protection. The story’s also driven by love, as well as its environment. The visuals also give the story a futuristic western feeling. It’s something I had never done before, which is part of the reason why I really loved it.

SY: Were you able to relate to Jerome’s struggles not only within his family, but also in society?

KSM: Yes, that’s why I also love it. Even though the story’s set in the future, it still relates to everyone today. We all have our own family problems, even if they don’t run as deep as his. We all go on journeys to fix those dramas. Fixing his family’s problems is something that’s deep in Jerome’s heart.

SY: Like you mentioned earlier, the film revolves around the struggles that arose from not having enough water, and how that impacted society. Do you think the difficulties shown in the film reflect the challenges society is facing today?

KSM: Yes, that’s what I also loved about the script. It shows that if we continue the momentum of abusing the world the way we do, it’s not going to end in a good place. Hopefully it will make people think, and maybe realize that within their own lives, they can do things that will lead to the change of our world’s future.

SY: The movie features a diverse cast, including Michael Shannon and Elle Fanning, who play Jerome’s father and sister. What was the experience of working with them, and what was the process of creating your on-screen bonds as you were filming?

KSM: It was awesome. The whole experience was great, since we filmed in such a vast, foreign place. It was a really foreign experience to all of us. But it felt like guerrilla filmmaking, as the weather was very unforgiving. We had to drink so much water all day, and work to maintain our personal health. I think that brought us closer together. Elle is such an amazing, beautiful actress. Nicholas and Michael also express so much, and embodied their characters in amazing ways.

SY: Speaking of working with Nicholas on the film, he played Elle’s character’s boyfriend, and the two later get married. Since there’s a growing tension between Jerome and Flem, what was the experience of working with Nicholas like on the set?

KSM: That was definitely a cool process. The arc of those two characters together is interesting, especially in the way that they cross each other. They’re almost enemies, but act like they like each other for most of the movie. That was a challenge for me as an actor to portray, but I love the arcs of those characters. Nicholas is an awesome guy, and off-screen, we were definitely far from being enemies; we were close friends.

SY: You shot the film in locations that were over eight hours away from Cape Town. What was the overall experience of filming the movie on location in South Africa?

KSM: It was crazy, but I think it brought us closer together. There was definitely an element of survival that we needed in order to get through it. But at the end of the day, it was very cool. The set was about an hour away from where we were staying, which was a tiny, secluded town in South Africa.

We were all staying in this big home, where we all had our own rooms. But at the end of the day, we would all eat dinner together. That was an experience I had never had before, but I liked that it gave a camp aspect to the film. I think we all grew a lot closer as a result, and helped bring a family aspect to the movie. Not only did that element help with the project, but it also needed to be there, because of the type of story we were making. I don’t think I’ll ever experience eating with the entire cast and crew again, but it was very cool.

SY: The movie was also made independently, over the course of 35 days. What was the experience of filming on a smaller budget, and over such a short period?

KSM: Yes, we only had the limited schedule while we made the film. One thing that struck me while I was reading the script was the fact that it was so unique, but like I said, it had a very clear view. When I met Jake, I saw that he had an extremely clear vision of what he wanted to make and portray for an audience.

So the short shooting schedule helped aid to the environment we were filming in. We were literally climbing up mountains some days, while waiting for dust storms to roll by. The natural part had a huge part in what we were doing. So that made it extremely challenging, but also interesting.

SY: Speaking of Jake, he both wrote and directed the film. What were your working experiences with him like before you began filming, and once you arrived on the set? Do you enjoy working with helmers who also penned the script?

KSM: I really respect writer-directors, as I think it’s such a unique talent. It seems like there’s a lot of pressure to bring your vision that you wrote and spent a lot of time working on, and then you have to bring it into the real world. You have to quickly get it out, and there are people all around you who look after that. It’s such an interesting idea, and it’s something that really intrigues me.

So it was great to observe Jake, and see how he did that. I don’t know what I’ll be in the future, so I love to take everything in. He had such a strong vision of what he wanted to do. There are so much small details that went into the film, and I can assure you that he was aware of every detail.

For the acting side, he would direct you on what he wanted from each scene. He would talk about the character’s physical and mental space. But he would then let you go off on your own tangent, which is something I think is really important in a director. That shows there’s trust between the two artists; there’s trust that he’s directing you the right way. You just have to run with the guidance he gives you. So I felt very free in the idea that we were clear on where we were going, but I was able to present it in the way that I wanted. So it was a very cool experience to watch him direct the film.

SY: Did Jake allow you to improv, or offer any suggestions about your character’s backstory and arc, while you were filming?

KSM: Yes. I think I was actually attached to the project about a year or two before it started production. I think at one point, we were going to shoot in Spain. While the location was being finalized, we were having Skype sessions about the story and character. Then I think they had trouble getting the film’s production started, but gratefully, it turned around. I was extremely happy, because this was a unique story I wanted to portray.

While we Skyped, we spoke a lot about the physicality and mental history of the character. While he had his clear view, he also let me work on my own things, and let me put in whatever I needed for my character. But he definitely put me on track for the ideas I needed, and help shape them to fit what he was imagining, as well. But I had a lot of say in creating the soul, past and future for this character.

SY: Speaking of the physicality aspect to your character, is performing the action sequences in your performances something you enjoy?

KSM: Yes, definitely. I always love a bit of a physical and mental challenge in my roles. This was definitely the most physically demanding role I’ve done in awhile, except for a job (he finished last fall) in Australia, which is a war film. It doesn’t get much worse than that. But with ‘Young Ones,’ the shooting was difficult, especially with the environment and time. But in the end, I think all odds were in our favor.

SY: One interesting aspect of the film is the robot that Michael’s character buys for his family, which increased the troubles within the family. Do you feel that serves as the turning point in the growing hostilities in the family?

KSM: Absolutely. Due to the environment the story is in, it forces us to turn to a harsh, Western survival strategy of living for everyone. There are bandits again, as well as makeshift cars and weapons. So to see the Western world merge with this Western environment seemed extremely foreign.

But it was cool to see the filmmakers bring in the ideas of robots, and how they evolved. I think the way Jake did it was extremely realistic. I have seen a lot of films where they tried to bring in the aspects of robots and make it look natural, but it doesn’t; it looks too futuristic.

But with this, and seeing this as something that could possibly happen, was great. These were machines that simply evolved, and almost grew a soul of their own. That process brought in problems of its own into real families.

So I do think that’s a huge aspect, as well-the idea that we’re not evolving without technology, and whether or not that’s a good thing or a bad thing is the real question. All technology wants to do is delete errors, and in the end, it’s probably going to delete us. (laughs) So I think that’s such an interesting aspect of the film.

SY: Do you think the film highlights the fact that technology is really pushing people apart, instead of bringing them together, as people are claiming it is?

KSM: Absolutely. As hard as it is to put down your iPhone and stop using Instagram, if we’re not using it to talk to our families, which I try to purely use it for, in addition to social media for my work, I think there’s nothing wrong with putting these things down. If we simply look at our history and the arc of where we come from, when we didn’t have this technology, we were in a world that was looking for something.

If you look at our generation (the Millennial Generation) now, we have all this technology that we think is helping us, but we’re still always looking for something. I think that process is going to be eternal through existence, and I don’t think any tool is going to help that. Anything you put in time is going to pass, just as time passes. So our generation is getting extremely attached to technology, and I see that as almost degenerating. I wish that we would evolve our souls and brains more than the technology. But it’s something you can’t control, and people are always going to want to see where technology can take us.

SY: The film had its world premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. What does it mean to you that the drama played at Sundance? What were your experiences at the festival like?

KSM: That was awesome. It was my first time at Sundance, and it went pretty quickly, but it was a really great experience. It was very cool to be in that environment, because it felt extremely pure, and it didn’t feel as though it was just publicity there. It also didn’t feel like we were putting the film in an envelope so that we could send it out to the real world; it felt like the real world was really there. There were people who truly loved movies there, which made me feel extremely comfortable. It felt like I was showing something to an audience of society. I also enjoyed venturing around, and finding good places to eat. It was a really cool experience, and I can’t wait to go back.

SY: Would you be interested in starring in more indie films in the future, since ‘Young Ones’ was made independently, and Sundance focuses on that form of filmmaking?

KSM: Oh, absolutely. I think Sundance, as well as the idea of indies as a whole, are going to be around for an extremely long time. I think there are a lot of quality and unique stories in independent films, and they do something different that maybe blockbuster films and studios fear. I’d obviously like to level out with those types of films, as well, and experience the big movies.

But in the end, I’ve realized the acting comes from the same source of creativity, expression and love for art. So as long as that stays relevant and alive within blockbuster and indie films, I’ll always be here making movies, whether it’s behind the camera, or in front of it. I just really love that fulfillment of expression, and being in that environment.

SY: Speaking of being behind the camera, are you interested in trying both writing and directing, since you’ve starred in films and on television?

KSM: Definitely-I’ve always been extremely fond of not just being the visual guidance of a story, but also literally being the source of it behind the camera. I think there’s a lot dwelling inside of me that I want to show people, who could enjoy it as art. So I really can’t wait, no matter how it turns out, to make that transition behind the camera. I think I’ll do that purely for me first, primarily by writing scripts and making short films. Having started acting at such a young age, I hope that process into working behind the camera naturally evolves. So I can’t wait to see what that world holds for me.

SY: What’s the process like of getting into your characters’ mindsets, whether you’re filming a big blockbuster like ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,’ or an indie like ‘Young Ones?’ Do you take a different approach to your different projects?

KSM: That’s the thing that I love-it’s absolutely the same engine for both types, but they have different structures around the engine. So that makes me feel good that I can go into any character with the same mindset, even if building it is a little different. I approach all my characters with the same structure of breaking down the script, and take everything I can from the other characters around me. From that process, as well as speaking with the director, I have to build my character myself.

SY: After you finish shooting emotionally-driven film like ‘Young Ones,’ what’s the process of getting out of the mindset of your characters, like Jerome?

KSM: The feeling of jumping in and out of characters is always relativity the same. I think that process comes from the safety of knowing your character as well as you know yourself. I think that’s actually the goal at the end of the day-not to be affected by the actual emotional draft of the story, after you’re able to immerse yourself in the actual emotions of that character. Gratefully, it’s always been the same process of jumping in and out of every character I play.

SY: Besides films, you have also starred on such television shows as ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Monarch Cove.’ Is acting on television something you’d be interested in pursuing more of in the future?

KSM: I think if the right quality and genuine stories come to me, I would be interested. There have been a few projects that have been passed to me every now and then, but they just weren’t the right time or age. I think by being humble and subtle with my steps, it would be amazing to keep pursuing the movies I’m doing, as I’m so used to the way movies shoot. But I’m definitely not afraid to also jump into a quality, genuine TV show.

SY: Besides ‘Young Ones,’ do you have any other upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?

KSM: I have an indie film called ‘Slow West,’ which is a story set in the 1800s. It’s about a boy who grew up in a royal Irish family, and he falls in love with a woman who works on his land as a slave. My character’s mother owns the land that the woman works on. She ends up having to flee to Colorado, because there’s a bounty on her name for something she didn’t do.

Since my character’s in love with her, and he has the ability to do what he wants, he takes it upon himself to find her. So he also ends up fleeing to Colorado, which is considered to be the Western civilization at that time. So there’s a cool aspect of this royal Irish boy going on this rugged adventure to find his true love. His sidekick through that process, who helps him get to her, is a mysterious cowboy. Through the whole story, you’re not sure if he’s really helping my character, or is just trying to get to the girl for the bounty, which is the scary part. That character’s played by Michael Fassbender. That was a very cool character to portray, and I’m excited for the film to be released.

I’m also the face of ‘Gallipoli,’ which is a big series (that’s currently airing) in Australia, but I’m not sure if it will air in America. It’s about the tragedies of a big war we had about 100 years ago, which helped build the face of how we know Australia to look now. The show depicts the war from start to finish, through the eyes of a youthful teenager. So like I said, there are a lot of quality and genuine stories that resonate to me, that I hope audiences can see.

Interview  Kodi Smit-McPhee Talks Young Ones (Exclusive)

(l-r) Actress Elle Fanning and actors Kodi Smit-McPhee and Nicholas Hoult star in writer-director Jake Paltrow’s sci-fi action drama, ‘Young Ones.’

Written by: Karen Benardello

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As a life-long fan of entertainment, particularly films, television and music, and an endless passion for writing, Karen Benardello decided to combine the two for a career. She graduated from New York's LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic. While still attending college, Karen began writing for Shockya during the summer of 2007, when she began writing horror movie reviews. Since she began writing for Shockya, Karen has been promoted to the position of Senior Movies & Television Editor. Some of her duties in the position include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, producing posts on celebrity news and contributing reviews on albums and concerts. Some of her highlights include attending such festivals and conventions as the Tribeca Film Festival, the New York Film Festival, SXSW, Toronto After Dark, the Boston Film Festival and New York Comic-Con.

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