Read our roundtable interview with actors Chris Kerson and Will Blagrove, who portray Tommy Donahue and DD Davis, respectively, in the new independent crime drama ‘Cost of a Soul.’ The movie follows the two soldiers who have recently returned home to North Philadelphia after serving in Iraq. Tommy and DD must not only readjust to civilian life, but learn how to cope with the crime, violence and drugs that are plaguing the streets of their slum neighborhood. Rogue will release ‘Cost of a Soul’ into 50 theaters across the country on May 20, 2011, as part of the AMC Independent program. Kerson and Blagrove discuss, among other things, how they prepared for their roles and what characteristics they feel make a good soldier.

Question (Q): Can you give us your background?

Will Blagrove (WB): I went to Benjamin Cardozo High School in Douglaston (New York). I went to St. John’s University in Queens. I was born in Jamaica, A lot of the film work you see on Queens.

Q: Do your parents still live in Queens?

WB: Yes, both of my parents are still in Queens. They’re actually from Jamaica Jamaica. Yay mon! But yeah, they still live in Jamaica, Queens.

Q: When you’re in New York, do you still spend time with them?

WB: Yes, I just got a good home cooked meal!

Chris Kerson (CK): I was born in Manhattan, I went to high school in Westchester, NY, where I currently reside for the last 10 years. I lived in Los Angeles where I was working
in films and TV for 3 years as well.

Q: Will, did you study acting at St. John’s?

WB: No. I studied at the William Esper Studio (in New York). I studied with William Esper.

Q: So what did you study at St. John’s then?

WB: Law. I was going to be a lawyer! I did this United Negro College Fund spot with Spike Lee. I said, “Maybe I should try the acting!” You gotta go where life takes you. Sometimes life tells you to go left. sometimes we go right for some reason.

CK: I was a psychology major at William and Mary. I had a job as an investment banker,in corporate finance. I was hired by DLJ (investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette). My family was so excited because they thought I was going to make all this money coming out of college. Then I got an acting class my last semester of college. My teacher at the time, John Goodlan, said “You’ve done some of the best work I’ve ever seen here.” We had some good people come out of there, like Glenn Close. He said “I really think you should reconsider what you’re doing.” I came to New York and studied with Al Pacino’s mentor, Charlie Laughton. That’s one of the reasons why I went to L.A. to study one-on-one with him. I jumped in, and didn’t look back with the investment banking.

Q: Was that a downside?

CK: That was one of the downsides. My father was a poor Jewish kid from Brooklyn and the Bronx who wanted to see his son have his finances secure. That was very important to him. I was going into a profession where only half of a percent of people we hear about. It was a tough situation. If it’s what I’m supposed to do, so be it.

Q: How does your father feel now?

CK: Well, let’s see what happens with ‘Cost of a Soul!’

WB: Same thing with my parents! They were born in Jamaica, grew up struggling immigrants, moved to America. Naturally, they wanted me to do well. They only want what’s best for their child. They wanted me to have better opportunities. There is no other actor in the family. There is no Uncle Spielberg!

CK: I relate! It’s us coming up from the street background, no connect(ion)s, and here you go. That’s one thing I’ve been saying. You have these actors who have these great starts. They come out of league schools or they have connections through family and such. I didn’t have that. I built myself playing all these different characters and became known in certain artistic circles as this changing character who could play parts that needed transformation. But I didn’t have any strong connections when I got in the business.

Q: Do you consider yourself a character actor?

CK: Very much a character actor.

Q: What about you Will? Do you have a plan?

WB: Do I have a plan? I kind of go wherever. I think I’m more of that straight, clean-cut, conservative type. I was kind of raised that way also. But then there’s that side of me that you kind of see in the film that when I gotta go straight, I go straight. But that’s where I think I’m leaning more towards. I just like it, I’m comfortable.

CK: My first role, ‘Flesh Suitcase,’ I played a young religious fanatic. I went down to 145 pounds, I dyed my hair for the role. Everyone said, oh my God, look at how this guy works. Then some agency convinces me to sign with them. What happens is they say is stay like this, you’ll stay our skiddish guy who stands against the wall and is all weird and we’ll make some money off of you. They told me eventually CAA will come around and they’ll see that you played this skiddish, scared guy so well that they take you on and then you can take on Tommy Donahue or something else. That’s the nature of the business, and there was some real frustration from us, and the filmmakers see it. How did I get ‘Cost of a Soul?’ It didn’t come through a manager or agent. It was me hustling through Facebook, talking to people about what’s going on and what can I play. In the beginning, they wanted me to play Jake in the film. That’s the role I was originally being handed based on my prior work. They said (director) Sean (Kirkpatrick) wanted me to play Jake. I read the part of Tommy, and I said this is a part that when I first started out I would have loved to play. Would he consider me for this? I can transform and become this part. I put in a suggestion to him when he saw me screen test for Jake. He came back to me and said “How do feel about playing the lead?” I said “Yeah, that’s what I’ve been telling you all along.” He said “I need you to gain weight in your chest and arms I see the potential in you.” I said I’d gain the weight, I gained 25 pounds in three weeks.

Q: Did you go to McDonald’s?

CK: There were guys in the gym that probably said you looked like you scarfed down McDonald’s because relaxation doesn’t make me look pretty with my shirt comes off. I spent an hour kick-boxing, I had a gym in Mamaroneck called L.A. Boxing. I was so poor that I told them about the film, and they told me I could train here for a month basically for free. I had done martial arts when I was younger. About an hour every day lifting, then I would run for 45 minutes. So I spent two hours and 45 minutes to three hours in the gym. Then I went to some health food store and said take this or that.

Q: Did you guys meet with soldiers and have some sort of training with soldiers?

WB: Oh, yeah. I did as much research as I could. I was lucky enough to live next door to a kid who was deployed to Iraq on his 18th birthday. He was able to tell me as much as he could. Then I went on-line. There’s so much information out there. I had so much more compassion towards our troops after working on this project. Of course there’s the training aspect kicking in. Also there’s a certain sternness about me. I’m not as method as Chris, but naturally as an actor, you want to maintain it if you’re shooting over the course of a month and on location. Everything about the way I woke up and how I made my bed every morning, I just kind of felt enlived by it.

CK: You got me about the bed part.

WB: (laughs) My father actually served in ‘Nam. That probably answers about me and my whole path in this career and this conservatism about me. I grew up with a military father and I grew up with these Jamaican parents who are very strict. Doing this role was probably perfect for me, as far as my life and my upbringing. As an actor, I wanted to pay my homage to the troops and what they go through.

CK: For me, in that gym, L.A. Boxing, there were a couple of kickboxing instructors who had come back from Iraq. You don’t know what these guys are going through, if they’re going to be open to talking about what they’re coming back from. I had three weeks to become Tommy Donahue. That’s the length of time from when I was cast until I became that part. I joked with Sean, I said if I were Sean Penn, you would give me six months to do this movie. Daniel Day-Lewis would take three years to do this movie. But I had three weeks. I couldn’t go to boot camp, I had to take what he said and told me to do. So we talked and we talked on the weekends. I probably shouldn’t mention this, it would blow the whole mystique out of the water, but he told me to watch ‘Generation X.’

WB: I’ve seen that, and that’s intense.

CK: He said it was so real to him, and he’s like, watch it. That part developed the character. The Philadelphia aspect, Mark Borkowski, who plays Jake in the film, he’s from Kensington. So I was coming into town, hanging out with all these guys from Fishtown to get the whole Philadelphia aspect. As I was saying before, these guys rallied around us like you’ve never seen. I mean, they were inviting me in their homes, meeting their kids. I’m hearing about their problems with their kids. When we were filming 16 hours a day, we filmed for 16 days and filmed for like 12-16 hours a day, I was waking up on three hours of sleep, and they were taking me out to breakfast. They were paying, because I didn’t even have any money. They were buying breakfast for me, basically.

Q: So you’re psychology major was kicking in at that time?

CK: I learned more about psychology by becoming an actor than I ever did in a class at William and Mary. Well, what I think I excelled at at William and Mary was martial arts and being a frat guy, as shallow as that sounds. That was my mentality back then. I think that worked for DLJ, and that’s why they wanted to hire me.

Q: You mentioned before that agents wanted you to play the crazy guy, like Christopher Walken. Is that what they wanted to pigeon-hole you as?

CK: I’d love to be Christopher Walken. I did a lot my work for my craft and not for money to continue to gain experience acting and build this body of work of vastly different characters.

Q: Well, let’s say, Walken.

CK: Well, I don’t know if I played crazy. Sean, ironically, told me when he cast me that “You’re a cross between Gary Oldman and Christopher Walken.” That’s what he said to me, based on an old reel of me he’d seen. Chris Walken, for what he does, is phenomenal. His thinking, he thinks on films and goes away. It’s one of the most amazing things to watch. In L.A., I’d play the young religious fanatic, and I’d be 145 pounds. And now they’d say “You’re Crispin Clover, or maybe at best Dennis Hooper.” Then I’d play a guy robbing liquor stores and grocery stores in ‘Pacific Blue,’ and they’re like, “Now you’re Gary Oldman.” I was never Gary Oldman. If I was Gary Oldman, I would have been okay with it. It was like, “You’re a street thug, you’re a crazy guy, you’re a religious guy.” Certain business people always coming up with some formula. When I was put in the film ‘Cost of a Soul,’ I said “You guys are letting me be the most attractive I’ve ever been on film for this particular role.” I was making a living playing bad guys. I was always ratting myself out to play characters. I always had long hair and beards, getting uglier and uglier, basically. If someone comes to me now and says “Chris, your destiny is to be Chris Walken, I’m going to say, “I might put more of a emphases on transforming myself more than Chris Walken does in the later part of his career. He says he is comfortable playing himself.” But I’ll take the. But I’ll take the body of work and run with it. As much as I’m into this process of making these ultra-low budget films, and all my time on stage, Chris Walken makes what, $1 million a film doing what he’s doing. But my first ambition getting into acting was to emulate Al Pacino in his early career and Robert De Niro in his early career. Those were the guys who made me want to be actors. This is why I initially studied with Charlie Laughton. He mentored Al Pacino. Then Bob Borgose, who worked with Robert De Niro, became a friend of mine later on in my career. He gave me the best advice ever, which went into this part. He said “Chris, you’ve got a pretty good look, you’ve got a great energy about you, a great talent. If you want a great career, you’ve got to work so hard on the roles, like you wouldn’t believe. You got to bring everything you’ve got into every part you’re offered, a 24/7 kind of thing.” Guys like Pacino, guys like Robert De Niro, Charlie used to tell me these guys are workaholics. Bob Burgose said the amount of work that Robert De Niro does and goes into preparing for a role is incomprehensible. That’s why he’s so good. So when Sean gave me three weeks to do this, and while we were filming, like Will made a reference to method, Sean said I became the guy. He told me when I auditioned for it that
I looked like a yoga instructor. I came in with long hair, and I was skinny. I had the emotional life of the character quick, but I didn’t look right for it. There was a lot of changes that had to happen. So the idea was that I had to become Tommy. We had one, two, three takes, it was a $100,000 film. So everything you see Tommy Donahue go through in that film, all the emotional stuff that happens, that was it, we moved on. We covered like seven pages a day on that film. So maybe we get two takes. We had the fire, I look like I was in pain, and we move on. That was the amazing thing that Sean didn’t try to over-rehearse me or say, let me see what you’re going to do. He completely trusted, based on my background, that when he roled camera, I was going to be in the zone, that it just was going to happen. Everything you see in the film is pretty much that way. He trusted through the preparation that if he left me alone, when we rolled film, what we needed, without specifically demanding results, was going to happen, and that’s pretty much what you got.

Q: What was it like filming on location? On some of the locations where you shot, were there four actual murders? Was safety an issue?

WB: Our safety was the people in the community. Sean ahead of time befriended so many people in the community. He’s from Philly, so there’s a comradery that we had with the natives, and that was really our security. We didn’t have the budget for police barricades and all that. People just supported us in that respect. We’re a community. They welcome you in and supported your cause. This film is not just an average movie. This film really tackles issues that are true to life in North Philadelphia and people want to change that. They’re more supportive if they know that, that you’ve got those good intentions.

Q: Who are your inspirations?

WB: I try my best not to emulate anyone. I do my best. But I’ll definitely say Denzel Washington and Will Smith. My goal’s right in between.

Q: You want to be you?

WB: I want to be me. But I think there’s a part of me that people always tell me, “Oh, you’ve got that intensity like Denzel, which I don’t mind. But then I’ve got people tell me, “You’ve got that Will Smith look.” I see myself somewhere in the middle!

Q: You guys can be in a funny movie together. You have a good rapport, and you only have a few short scenes together.

CK: To tell you about the living situation, we were all living in a house on Richmond Ave., which was a converted crack house. They were taking viles out. We all lived together, even Sean.

WB: Everybody lived in the one house together.

CK: Will was in one bedroom, I was in the other bedroom. The crew guys didn’t even get their own bedrooms. They were sleeping in bunk beds, all doubled up.

WB: We became a family.

CK: There was a point early on, you were excited to see me, and I was not excited to see you, because I knew what was going to happen between you and I. He’s like, “Hey man, I’m so happy to see you! We’re doing this film together!” I’m like, get away from me. Then I start relaxing into this, and say okay, Tommy Donahue’s working out better than I hoped, because we shot the Iraq scene first. That’s when I’m interrogating and beating this guy up, and everyone said “Oh, Chris is going to do okay in this role.” That’s when they realized it was going to work. Then as we started working, you came up to me and said “Man, there’s so much waiting around and what do you do here?” I was like, I’ve done this a bunch, so I was like, you want my philosophy on that? You just keep prepping and keep at it and keep adding to it, and when they roll, you’ve got it.

WB: I love how Chris is saying it like it’s my first day on the job! This isn’t my first job! But naturally you want to know what everyone’s process is. I don’t know it all. I still love to learn. Every day I want to learn something new. This guy certainly has a different style and technique. I was just like, what do you do? You don’t know it all!

CK: How would you define a good soldier?

WB: A good soldier? That’s a tough question.

CK: I played a guy who came back and probably wouldn’t define a good soldier. We showed this film at Cinequest in San Jose. At Cinequest we showed it to small crowds for awhile. Then all of a sudden they get some advertisements in the newspaper. A high school class of kids came in to see this film on the last day that I was in San Jose to see it. The kids were great, they think I’m a movie star, I’m nobody. But they think I’m going to sign autographs. One of the kids friended me on Facebook, he e-mailed me on Facebook. He was writing on Youtube, this film’s going to blow up big time! I couldn’t have predicted what happened to the film. But he said the film was going to blow up, and these 18-year-old kids loved it. Well, that kid, because of ‘Cost of a Soul, joined the Marines. I even wrote him about this. He’s doing something way more honorable, way more courageous than anything I’ve ever done in my life. He got the idea that Tommy was a character, and he said “I don’t want to turn out like Tommy Donahue.” He said “I’m sure the power that character had, the assertiveness, and the effectiveness of what he did kind of enticed him a little bit.” But he said the background that all those kids from Philadelphia were coming from, the crime, see, that’s the world I’m from. Like the characters in the film, I wanted to escape from being some gang-banger in San Jose. Soldiers have the ultimate courage. You know, I’ve had some rough experiences in my life. I don’t know what it would be like going through life knowing your life could end suddenly on any given day.

WB: I don’t know what it’s like to be a soldier, I just played one. But my definition of a good soldier is someone who puts himself on the line for the sake of his country, for the lives of his country. Just a selfless act, a daily selfless act. I think a good soldier does that, keeps that in mind daily.

CK: For me, I haven’t walked as a soldier. I’ve played one, but I can’t judge anybody. I have a lot of admiration for soldiers. One of my best friends is a long-time narcotics detective, he looks over every criminal ‘Law & Order’ calls me into play, because that happens a lot, to audition for that stuff. We did karate together when we were younger, and I see what he does. He puts his life on the line. Those guys are heroes to me. I couldn’t say anything negative about anything they do. My hat’s off to them.

WB: Everyday they put their lives on the line for us.

CK: Then they come back, and this kid’s going to school for psychology. He works at the front desk of a gym. You say I might become somewhat of a known actor for taking his words, and giving it over to this particular part, but he’s going to come to a screening at New York Film Academy, and try to get a degree in psychology. But honestly, as much as we joke around about Christopher Walken like that, I had a real obligation to tell his story as best as I could, even if Tommy has a different spin on things. The guys in Fishtown, who were taking me out to breakfast and had blue-collar jobs, I had an obligation to tell their story. Tommy Donahue was a service to the people I was representing, to Sean’s story. I hope that these guys who drilled me in this stuff, I’m communicating their point of view that they gave me, because they did it for nothing. Especially for low-budget filmmaking, there were so many people who gave me all that type of information all the time. Like cops, I’m not paying them to tell me how to become a cop. They took time out of their lives, which was really selfless, and say, come on out, and we’ll do this type of thing. When I play this part, I hope I’m being of service to them. That’s what acting’s really supposed to be about.

Written by: Karen Benardello

Will Blagrove in Cost of a Soul
Will Blagrove in Cost of a Soul

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By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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