Determinedly fighting against, and overcoming, the physical challenges in the surrounding environment is often an intriguing and inspiring conflict in many action-driven thrillers, as it’s satisfying to witness the troubled main characters overcome the instant challenges that they’re facing. But utilizing that process to also drive the characters, especially those who are strangers, to help each other fight back against fate and their own worst natures is an even more intriguing process. Sean Astin’s new independent thriller, ‘The Surface,’ which was released on VOD, Digital HD and DVD by Entertainment One Films on Tuesday, chronicles how its two main characters come to support each other during a difficult situation they’re inadvertently placed in. The actor generously took the time recently to talk about performing in a drama that powerfully emphasizes how two strangers can surprisingly encourage each other’s will to live during a harrowing situation, as well as collaborating with dedicated director Gil Cates Jr.
‘The Surface’ follows Mitch (Astin) as he sentimentally visits his mother, who’s confined to a nursing home, as she suffers from dementia. He then sets out on a solitary ride in his late father’s boat for a journey from his home in Milwaukee to the center of Lake Michigan. As he settles in for what he envisions as a solitary final ride, Mitch’s vessel collides with the wreckage of a small plane. The accident knocks off his propeller and strands him in the midst of the vast body of water. As the tiny boat drifts, Mitch discovers that Kelly (Chris Mulkey), the plane’s pilot, is still clinging to the debris, and pulls the severely injured man out of the water.
Instead of being grateful, Kelly is angry and suspicious, treating his rescuer like an adversary and aggressively protecting a mysterious backpack. Since the two are out of cell phone range, and Mitch’s boat begins taking on water, the two men begin to reveal their real reasons for being on the lake that day. As they confront the secrets and sorrows that brought them there, they find inspiration in one another’s struggle to survive.
Immediately starting the conversation with an explanation about why he was interested in playing Mitch, Astin noted that the first thing that excited him about ‘The Surface’ was “that it was going to be filmed entirely on Lake Michigan. Anyone who knows anything about making movies realizes that when you film on the water, it can be really challenging and quite an adventure. But I really liked the logistics of that process.”
The Academy Award-nominated actor then added that “From the character point-of-view, I really felt a lot of empathy for (Mitch) and the place that he’s at in his life. After much deliberation and consideration, he comes to the conclusion that he wants to commit suicide.”
Astin then emotionally reflected on his own experiences with suicide in his personal life. “When my own mother (actress Patty Duke), who is bipolar, attempted suicide when I was a kid, there was always screaming involved. There was always agony and drama,” he revealed.
The actor continued on the subject by revealing that he found it fascinating that Mitch wasn’t experiencing any of that anguish while he was contemplating his death. “There was a simplicity to him, which in a lot of ways is more terrifying,” Astin added. “It comes apparent that as human beings, we come to rely on each other to find out if a person has reached a point in their life that they don’t want to live anymore,” the performer also inspirationaly said.
Astin then noted that the thriller’s two main characters “are literally trapped on the boat and can’t go anywhere. Mitch isn’t very talkative, so it’s up to Kelly to start piecing together what’s going on. Then the characters’ conversation starts to move from the practicalities of their situation to the emotional and spiritual aspects of their lives.”
The performer then admitted that he liked that sensible aspect to his character, and wanted to celebrate and honor that part of Mitch’s life. The actor laughed as he added, “I liked that he said he was going to get a dog, as that’s his way of telling his friend that he wants to live.”
The Screen Actors Guild Award-winning actor then revealed that the most dramatic aspect of ‘The Surface’ isn’t what viewers will expect. “It’s not in emotionally connecting with (Mitch); it’s in trying to keep (the overall story) credible,” Astin admitted. He added that when making a low-budget independent film like this one, where they “constructed this plane crash and we’re in this little boat, there are certain things that are realistic about (the process that keep it credible).”
Astin also noted that a dramatic feat of the thriller is that “a survivor of a plane crash and a guy who’s going to kill himself run into each other in the middle of the lake. It’s an idea that forces a lot of other things to happen dramatically.” He added that “the hardest work as an actor is to survive the dramatic coincidences, and keep alive the drama and the emotional truth” of the story.
The actor then commented on his working relationship with Mulkey, as they were the main performers who are solely shown on screen for the majority of ‘The Surface.’ Astin called his co-star “one of the greats.” He also noted that “I’m a second-generation actor, and I was raised to respect and revere the craft, as performed by the generations before me. So for this guy, who’s had this great working career for 40 years, to show up, and see that he has such a sense of adventure, was great.” Astin added that he “hit it off” with his fellow performer.
“Every night, we’d go back to our hotel in Milwaukee after working for 12 hours on the lake, where we’d have the harsh lake shining in our eyes and be dehydrated, and order food. We’d go into a conference room and spread out all the pages, and start going through them,” Astin explained about his process working with Mulkey.
“We had nine pages (of the script) to shoot every day. If something didn’t work out the day before, we’d then have 14 pages to shoot the next day. So we had to make sure we were on point,” Astin further explained. “We had to understand where our characters were, and where they were going. The script was very lyrical in the way it was written.”
But the actors and the crew also had practical considerations, Astin also noted. “If there were flashbacks, dissolves or descriptions about nature, we’d come back (to the present afterward), and the characters would be in a different place (on the water), as it was two hours later,” Astin also revealed. “How do you get from one point to the next? We had to figure out if we were depicting real time or taking dramatic license.”
Astin also explained that he, Mulkey and the rest of the cast and crew didn’t have weeks of rehearsal before they began filming. “We only had a day of rehearsal. So our main rehearsal was in the moment.”
“We were on this little boat in the middle of Lake Michigan,” Astin also said. “We were trying to figure out the mechanics of filmmaking while also relating to each other…We had to get the language, rhythms and pacing right. It wasn’t always perfect, but we never lost our sense of mission or purpose. This is a story about suicide, survival, life and redemption. Even though it’s a little independent film, we wanted to honor and service those big ideas.”
The performer then chronicles his experiences working with Cates on ‘The Surface,’ noting that they played Little League together when they were kids. “He is one of the most thoughtful, sensitive people that I have ever met, which is a really great quality in a director,” Astin revealed. He also relished the fact that the helmer is also great at communicating. “When a director knows what they want, that’s the most important thing.”
Astin also explained that “It was a pleasure to watch somebody who has an effortless sensibility in a situation that required a great effort. He had such a calmness.” The actor also explained, “I’m a fast switch guy, so it’s hard for me to listen sometimes, because I’m rushing to get to the next idea. So he learned how I worked very quickly, and how to get what he wanted out of me.” Astin added that Cates “loved that we cared so much and tried so hard.”
The actor also revealed, “Sometimes I don’t even think of it as a regular movie, because we were all linked together for about a month (during the shoot). It’s a fantasy of what a movie can be. It’s physically an adventure to go out there on the water and be together.
“It’s the director’s job to make sure it all goes right. We were in good hands with (Cates), and we relied on him,” Astin explained. “When you’re down on a boat and doing 14 pages of dialogue, your head is in that. We didn’t really have to cut, because in the (current) digital age, you can just keep filming. But at a certain point, you lose your place,” the actor admitted.
Lastly, Astin revealed that when he and Mulkey would “look up and look across to the boat where (Cate had) been watching (the scene) with his headphones on the monitor, we’d pray that he got the shot. He’d always end up having a comment and piece of feedback that was just right for the moment.”
Written by: Karen Benardello