Struggling to find your place in the world and the best way to convey your identity so that people truly understand and appreciate you can be a challenging task. Australian actor Angus Sampson, who’s known to American audiences for his portrayal of Tucker in the ‘Insidious’ film trilogy, powerfully showcased his full versatility and personality with his debut feature film writing, directing and producing effort, the crime drama ‘The Mule.’ The filmmaker and actor, who co-wrote and co-starred with one of his fellow ‘Insidious’ performers, Leigh Whannell, in ‘The Mule’ proved that naturally incorporating humor and relatability into a serious subject such as drug smuggling can help audiences truly comprehend the dire circumstances of a terrible situation. Contending with those conditions can enthrallingly explain why people make the rash decisions they do, which is intriguingly the case with Sampson’s title character in the film, which was co-helmed by Tony Mahony.
Set in Melbourne in 1983, ‘The Mule’ chronicles the life of the hapless title character, Ray Jenkins (Sampson), an outsider who lives with his devoted mother (Noni Hazlehurst) and stepfather (Geoff Morrell), a small-time criminal who owes money to the Mob. While Ray’s main talent is fixing electrical appliances at the local repair shop, he begins to feel pressured to make extra money to help repay his stepfather’s debt. After winning the Clubman of the Year award from his local football team for his loyalty, endurance and resilience, Ray strives to prove to the group’s leader, ruthless drug dealer Pat Sheperd (John Noble), that he really is capable of doing something.
So Ray reunites with his estranged best friend, Gavin (Whannell), who delivers Thai drugs for Pat, persuades him to join their next smuggling trip. While Ray is initially hesitant to swallow 20 condoms full of heroin, he eventually agrees, in order to protect his mother from Pat’s retribution against his stepfather. But once he arrives back in Australia, Ray begins to have doubts again, and raises the suspicions of airport security.
After refusing an X-ray and claiming he’s allergic to laxatives, Ray is taken into police custody by detectives, including the cunning Paris (Ewan Leslie) and the sly Croft (Hugo Weaving). The officers bring the suspect to a hotel for a week-and-a-half, and try to encourage him to make a confession about his involvement in the crime, as well as collect the evidence. Pat also sets out after Ray when he learns Gavin double-crossed him and he isn’t able to collect the drugs. With both the police and mob boss intent on making Ray pay for his crime and eager to retrieve the heroin, the unsuspecting first-time mule must find a way to protect not only himself, but also his parents.
Sampson generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing, co-directing, producing and starring in ‘The Mule’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he and Whannell optioned the script from their co-writer, Jaime Brown, who first came up with the story’s idea, and changed some details to make the story more applicable to Australian law; how it was surreal to take part in so many aspects of filming the movie, but it helped him better understand all the tasks he had to complete, and how to best approach bringing the script to life; and how they wanted to follow a disparaged group of individuals who were all connected to Ray, and whose actions lead to everlasting, tragic events for everyone involved.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the new thriller, ‘The Mule,’ with Leigh Whannell and Jaime Browne. How did you all decide to pen the film together, and what was the process of working with them on the script?
Angus Sampson (AS): Well, I first met Jaime when we were working on a television program. I was working as a writer, and he came in as another writer. He gave me a script to act in, and it was called ‘The Mule.’ Years later, Leigh and I, being friends, and having worked in music television in Australia together, said, “Why don’t we commission someone to write a film for us?” Then I was like, “Actually, my friend Jaime Browne has a script here called ‘The Mule.’ It’s a story about a guy who gets arrested while transporting drugs, and he refuses to go to the toilet.” So we read the script, and it was a more modern day film at the time, as it was set in 2003.
We liked the idea of it, but we wanted to change it a little bit. So Leigh and I optioned it off Jaime, and took his premise of a first-time drug mule who wouldn’t go to the bathroom. We pushed it back 20 years, and set it in 1983. That was a time when the police couldn’t just solve these cases with a simple phone call. The law hadn’t yet found a way to deal with a person not going to the bathroom. Nowadays, they can say, “Okay, we don’t have to leave; you’re staying here under house arrest, until you empty bowels twice.” But back in the day, that wasn’t the case.
With Leigh and I being great friends, having met on a music show, ended up living together for awhile. It was a lot of great fun, with both of us being actors and best mates, to write together; it was a very social process.
SY: Besides co-writing the script for ‘The Mule’ with Leigh, he also stars as Gavin, the drug dealer who convinces your character, Ray, to smuggle heroin into Australia from Bangkok for him. What was the process of starring with him this film?
AS: It was a great experience, given how much ownership we have over the material. When you write and develop the screenplay, you spend a lot more time working on it than you normally would (if you were just starring in the film). The nervous energy you have as performers when you enter a set, and you try to figure out what the director’s looking for, wasn’t as high for us on this movie. So we were able to concentrate on what we had intended on doing when we wrote the script.
It was obviously a little strange and surreal to juggle all the sides of filming this movie, including also producing and directing, but it helped us know the tasks we had to complete. The trust was there, so we didn’t have to tell people what to do too much; it was more about discussing the technical aspects of the filmmaking that we were called to address. Like with anything, when you’ve lived with it for so long, it almost becomes second nature. We’ve been writing and developing ‘The Mule’ since about 2008, so we knew a lot about it.
SY: In addition to co-writing and starring in the movie, it also marks your feature film directorial debut, like you mentioned. Why did you decide to make the transition into feature film helming with ‘The Mule?’
AS: I worked on the film (adaptation of) ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ and I became friends with the people from that project. I really responded to their work, including their work flow and methods. After that movie, I really became curious about whether or not I could direct and write a film. You quickly realize that you don’t have to know every single thing about about filmmaking. You don’t have to know how to be a brilliant actor or fantastic writer; you can approach people who are brilliant at those things, and learn from them. After working on ‘Where the Wild Things Are,’ I was really inspired and motivated to try to do something like what those guys do.
So I then ended up approaching Leigh, and he was very encouraging about it. I then said, “Here are the actors I really love.” We ended up working with Nikki Barrett, and she’s a brilliant casting agent. I spoke to her at length, as we were pushing for the community of this piece. We really wanted to show how much the community plays in the film.
So we then went to various actors, but we didn’t give them the script; we sent them a slideshow that featured some music. We then asked if they found it intriguing, and what it invoked in them. From there, we signed John Noble from ‘Fringe,’ ‘Sleepy Hollow’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ after we met him in L.A. at Cafe Figaro.
We didn’t have to test him; we said, “We love your work, and would love for you to do something this bad-ass.” We wanted him for the role of Pat Sheperd after he played this lovable, eccentric gentleman on ‘Fringe.’ For us, we saw something really sinister in this film, that you wouldn’t have necessarily have seen in his portrayal of Denethor in ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ either.
SY: Speaking of finding the other actors for the film, how did you build your working relationships with them once they were cast, and before you began filming?
AS: You see there are three distinct groups in the film. We likened it Ray, the mule, being the center of a spiderweb. Around him were these three different demographics. There were the police officers, led by Hugo Weaving and Ewen Leslie. In Australia, (Ewen’s) deemed as the Hugo Weaving of our generation. So we were really anxious to pair those two up. It was Leigh’s idea to pair them, even though Ewen’s character was written to be much older. So that was inspired casting from Leigh.
Then we have the bad guys, who were led by John Noble. He was the employer of Leigh’s character, Gavin. John’s character, Pat, is the older archetype, and he has these two henchmen, and is also linked to the Thai criminals. Then you also have Ray and his mom and dad, who represent another aspect of the community.
So during the rehearsals, we separated the cast into those social demographics. I told the cast that what we anted to do with the script was tell a story about a group of people who all thought they were smarter than everybody else in the room. We also wanted to tell a story where everyone is lying to one another, but the audience doesn’t know that they’re lying.
The only rehearsal we had was held a week before we started shooting, due to the budget and people’s availabilities. Georgina Haig was filming a show for CBS (‘Reckless’) at the time. Hugo was shooting another film, ‘Healing,’ so he wasn’t available. Leigh and I had just finished ‘Insidious 2.’ So everyone was coming from different parts of the world. I also had to do some pick-ups for ‘Mad Max: Fury Road,’ so we weren’t able to get together to rehearse for ‘The Mule’ until the last minute.
When we sent out the invitations to the cast, we asked, “What is it that your character’s concealing?” You don’t need to know the answer to that, and neither does the audience. But we invite you to step into that. It’s your choice of what it is you’re concealing. We realized very quickly that was a great offer for our cast, as we didn’t need to know what it is they’re concealing. But it added such lovely textures to their performances.
We were really inspired by the Coen Brothers and ‘The Sopranos.’ We love those stories where there’s a disparaged group of individuals. We wanted to include these very small domestic situations that lead to everlasting, tragic events. In this instance, a gentleman not going to the toilet, led us to be very perversely amused. We were also intrigued about whether we could tell a serious story about a person not going to the toilet, as opposed to having a ‘Harold and Kumar’ kind of take on it.
We were happy that we were able to rehearse at all. There was one scene where Gavin and Ray reconcile in the hotel. We workshopped that the night before we filmed it, as we weren’t happy with the way the scene was originally. Leigh and I agreed it wasn’t quite right. When we got to the set, we asked the gaffers if we could put a light on, and we ended up blocking the scene out ourselves the night before. That was one particular highlight for me.
SY: Speaking of the fact that you also produced ‘The Mule,’ which you mentioned earlier, and that it was filmed on a short shooting schedule, what was the process of making the movie independently?
AS: It’s been incredibly rewarding, but also incredibly stressful. But fundamentally, it’s been a privilege. We haven’t done all of these jobs this before, but we’ve previously done some of them. So we’re quickly learning why the systems are what they are, and it’s been incredible. We’ve been around the world with the film three times in seven weeks; we’ve played in such places as Korea, England, Singapore and Australia, and it’s been phenomenal. We never thought this little film we made in Australia would make such a connection with everybody.
We’re doing a live Twitter feed showing where Leigh, myself and the rest of the cast and crew are going to watch the film at the same time. It’s going to be on Saturday, December 6 at 9pm PST. We’ll be using the hashtag, #TheMuleLive. We’d love for people to watch the film with us; all they have to do is press play at the same time. It’s almost like a virtual premiere.
Written by: Karen Benardello