Determinedly trying to find your rightful place in the world, particularly amongst people who truly appreciate you for who you really are, has become challenging in recent years, with society becoming increasingly dependent on technology to make their lives more convenient. But there are still those who acknowledge the real essence of humanity, and understand that artificial intelligence can’t improve every aspect of life, even if that value means that they have to disagree with the decisions of the boss they have so longingly respected.
Actor Johnathon Schaech embodied that meaningful message in his role of Chris in his action sci-fi adventure film, ‘Vice.’ The character in the movie, which was directed by Brian A Miller and is now playing on VOD, empathetically begins to question the decisions of his superior, who immorally encourages people to become dependent on technology to fulfill their every desire, even if their indulgences pose extremely harmful risks to those around them.
‘Vice’ follows Kelly (Ambyr Childers), an advanced robot who’s known an artificial, who works as a bartender the ultimate title resort. Julian Michaels (Bruce Willis) has designed Vice, which doesn’t enforce American laws, and allows its customers to pay to carry out their wildest fantasies with the artificial, who look, think and feel like humans. Kelly and her friend Melissa (Charlotte Kirk), who’s also an artificial who works at the resort, are celebrating the fact that Kelly has finally quit her job, in order to travel and follow her true dreams. However, when the two are violently murdered by one of the resort’s customers, it’s revealed the two are artificials whose memories are detailed daily. They continuously live the same day, in an attempt to repeatedly satisfy their clients.
However, after Kelly’s “murder,” she begins remembering her past, as both an artificial and a human, so one of Julian’s engineers, Reiner (Colin Egglesfield), attempts to reboot her. But she’s able to escape him and leave the resort, and sets out through the city in an attempt to start her life over, separate from Julian and his science team. But the resort’s owner sends out his initially reluctant assistant, Chris, and his mercenaries to track down Kelly and bring her back to Vice.
While Chris is hunting Kelly down, Detective Roy is determined to utilize the situation to his advantage, and finally shut down Vice and stop the violence Julian happily endorses. The officer disagrees with the resort owner’s claim that allowing the public to fulfill their fantasies in a controlled environment will improve society, as people won’t feel the need to carry out their frustrations on humans. As Kelly and Roy embark on their respective journeys to finally stop Julian, they find surprising help from one of Vice’s customers, Evan (Bryan Greenberg), who has his own reasoning for wanting to prove how harmful the resort truly is to humanity.
Schaech generously took the time to talk about filming ‘Vice’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the actor discussed how he was not only drawn to the role of Chris because he embraced the chance to work with Willis on the sci-fi action adventure movie, but also how he appreciates that the story showcases the direction society is taking in its pursuit of creating more elaborate technology; how Chris initially voiced his concern to Julian about bringing Kelly back to Vice, as he has become apprehensive about his boss’ ideas of allowing people to live out their fantasies with the artificial residents; and how he does extensive research, as well perform his own stunt sequences for the characters in every project he performs in, in an effort to help make his portrayals as authentic as possible.
ShockYa (SY): You play Chris in the new sci-fi action adventure film, ‘Vice.’ What was it about the character, as well as the script and project overall, that convicted you to take on the role?
Johnathon Schaech (JS): Well, I was offered the role, and it was opposite Bruce Willis. First off, I was very excited to work with him, and play his character’s right-hand man. I also found their world to be really interesting. It shows that in the future, in places like Vegas, we’re going to have futuristic robots that can actually do the things that are in the film. Video games are really going to allow people to feel like they’re doing these horrendous things to other people.
SY: Speaking of Bruce, what was your working relationship with him like as you were filming? Were you able to have any rehearsal time with the rest of the cast while you were shooting the movie?
JS: Bruce and I actually have a lot in common. We both, especially him in a bigger sense, have to live our lives in Hollywood. So we understood each other, especially since we go out in the Hollywood lifestyle. But we were both starting new aspects of our lives while we were making the film-our wives actually both just had babies. So with all of the film’s sci-fi exposition, we knew we had to get everything right quickly, so we could get home to our kids. (laughs)
SY: Chris works for the owner of the resort, Julian, who’s played by Bruce, who follows his boss’ instructions to bring Kelly, who’s one of Vice’s artificial residents, back after she escapes. While Chris listens to Julian’s orders, he initially voices his concern about doing so. Do you think your character has become apprehensive about Julian’s ideas that allowing people to live out their fantasies with the artificial residents in the resort betters society?
JS: Exactly-in this part of the screenplay, I saw that Chris knew what was right and wrong. He had a better understanding of the artificals, and identified with them more. He could see when things were going wrong, so it was his job to take care of Julian. He wanted to make sure that Julian realizes the significance of what was going on.
SY: Besides Julian, Chris mainly interacts with Kelly, who’s portrayed by Ambyr Childers, throughout the film. What was the process of working with Ambyr on the set?
JS: Well, Ambyr and I had actually both previously worked on ‘Ray Donovan,’ but we never really had any scenes together. I knew her from being on the show’s set together, but we never worked together on the series.
Kelly was a very physically challenging role for Ambyr. But she’s an athlete, and you can tell, as she moves very easily. She has a physical aspect to her that not many actresses have. Chris was trying to bring Kelly back to the resort, and finesse her into giving up. He was trying to bring her back, so that she, and everyone else, would be safe. It was fun to play those games with Ambyr. She was vulnerable to all the moments in her scenes.
SY: With ‘Vice’ being a sci-fi action adventure film, how involved were you in the action sequences while you were filming? Do you prefer performing stunts in your films whenever possible?
JS: Yes, absolutely-that’s been my mantra throughout my entire career. I want to be the one who performs the action and stunts my characters do in every project. Like in ‘That Thing You Do!,’ I actually played the guitar. I didn’t do it very well, but I played it. When I played Harry Houdini (in the 1998 TV movie, ‘Houdini’), I studied magic for most of the shooting schedule.
It was the same way with ‘Vice’-I’m very adequate with guns, but I trained more with my weapons. When my gun got locked, I found myself able to get it free, and continue on with the scene. I didn’t need any assistance with the weapons, as I knew how to do everything. I’ve been trained for many movies, so it’s definitely a lot easier when you know what you’re doing. That helps make it a better film.
SY: What was your experience of filming on location in Alabama? Do you prefer working on location, as opposed a soundstage for the bigger studio films you’ve starred in?
JS: I actually had this conversation about 15 years ago with George Lucas. He said that eventually, everything will be filmed in front of a green screen. He also said that everything will have stylistic acting on a stage, and we would no longer have locations. I said, “There’s something beneficial about being put in the middle of nowhere, and having to deal with living and eating with everyone else who’s involved with the film all the time. You’re talking about the characters, and coming up with ideas and discovering things and trying different things out.”
You get to do those things on a stage, too, but on location, you’re taking an intimacy, and adding a natural element to be part of something. For independent films, it makes the bond strong. I think there are a lot of benefits to bringing people out in the middle of nowhere, and taking them out of their element and comfort zones, and pushing them to new limits.
SY: Speaking of filming ‘Vice’ independently, did that influence the way you approached playing Chris, particularly the physicality and action-driven sequences?
JS: Well, films should be a director’s medium. You can see that this year with all the Oscar nominations. The Academy’s previously successful directors are part of the nominations, because they were given the power.
Since films should be the director’s medium, one of the best parts about shooting independently is that it really becomes the director’s movie. The director can really take over the script and everything. Brian A Miller is very successful with that-he made a low-budget film look much bigger, because he was given that freedom and ability.
SY: How closely did you also work with Brian, who’s also an actor, to develop the character of Chris and his role in the story? Did he fact that he has acting experience influence the way you worked with him to create your character’s arc?
JS: Yes, absolutely-we started the film conversations way prior (to when we began filming). We discussed where he thought the character was. Then it was my job to bring the truth, as well as creativity and discovery, to the role. All the way throughout filming, Brian was very open to me trying things with Bruce, to give him something to play off of in our scenes together.
When you see my character, he has all these layers, because Brian and I were trying to layer him throughout the piece. He becomes poetic when he’s chasing Kelly down. We also made discovers in the moment on the set that weren’t on the (script) pages. We found them through emotions we were trying to bring out in the characters, as well as when we were trying to understand what Kelly was going through. There was one scene in which I started reciting a Maya Angelou poem, and that wasn’t in the script-it just came to me in the moment! (laughs)
SY: Speaking of working in the moment, did you and your co-stars improv at all while you were shooting ‘Vice?’ Does improvising help add to the authenticity of the story and characters?
JS: Oh, absolutely. Just because Brian and I worked together on the story and the character before we began filming, and we made sure we got what was written, we also tried additional things on the set. That way we would have additional takes and choices while the film was being edited.
While we were filming the whole bit where I was chasing Kelly down and offered her a chance to come out of hiding, I remembered the poem about the caged bird from when I was younger. So I recited the poem, which has stuck with me throughout my whole career and life. In that moment, I understood why the caged bird sings, when it beats its bars and would be free.
SY: Since you’re known for your acting and writing, is directing something you’re also interesting in pursuing?
JS: I’ll hopefully be directing something later this year. I’ve been in the industry a long time, so I like to think I know a lot about making movies. I’ve made movies that have cost very little to make, and I have also made films that have had bigger budgets. I’ve worked with some great directors and actors throughout my career. Most of the actors I’ve worked with have also directed, so I’m ready to direct something myself.
I’ve been a writer for the last 15 years. So I’ve always thought, if I became successful as a writer, then I’d obviously be given the power to one day direct something I had written. I never became powerful as a writer, as I never really had support in that avenue. But I think I’ll go along the independent route and possibly direct a project I’m writing now.
SY: Speaking of the fact that you’re a writer, would you want to pen the scripts for any films you direct? As an actor, do you prefer working with writer-directors?
JS: Well, I’ve written a lot of scripts for television, as well as a couple movies. But I really believe in the writer-director, and the passion that inspires that process. Filmmakers like Richard Linklater, who have been nominated for Oscars for writing and directing movies, created and thought about the material since its origin. Film really is a director’s medium, so it’s a beautiful thing when the words are theirs. That was the case when I worked with Tom Hanks on ‘That Thing You Do!’ Overall, I’ve worked with a lot of writer-directors throughout my career.
SY: ‘Vice’ is currently playing on VOD. Are you personally a fan of watching films On Demand? Do you think the platform is beneficial for independent films like this one?
JS: Yes, absolutely. If independent films are playing against franchises like ‘The Lord of the Rings,’ which was made for over $275 million, obviously the smaller movies like ‘Vice’ aren’t going to be able to compete with that. But that doesn’t mean that the smaller films don’t have their audiences.
So I think when viewers can watch movies On Demand, and they can sit and watch them in their homes with their friends, and make popcorn in the microwave, there’s a benefit to that. Then they don’t have to spend all that money at the theater.
I have a baby, and when he grows up, we’ll be spending a lot of money to go to see movies in theaters. So instead we’ll be spending time watching movies at home. Nowadays, you can get a lot of movies online, such as on Netflix. So VOD gives people an excellent opportunity to see a new movie without having to go to the theater. ‘Vice’ is a perfect movie for that platform.
SY: With people becoming so reliant on technology in their everyday lives, do you think the film accurately reflects society’s growing dependency on electronics?
JS: Yes, that was one of the elements that I was really attracted to when I first read the script. That aspect is really moving forward to where the future lies. There are experiments in progress right now that are very much like the ones in ‘Vice.’ People are going to be able to go into these unreal worlds, and get to experience things they never thought they’d be able to do. Just look at the video games today-they’re so real.
SY: Besides films, you also have starred on several television series, including ‘Ray Donovan,’ which you mentioned earlier, and ‘Star-Crossed.’ What is it about acting on television that you also enjoy working on?
JS: Well, actors are able to work the long-form of performance in films. They have an arc and a change in their character, and they have to work that change from the beginning to the end. It’s very important for actors to know they need to have that change. If they don’t show that change and arc, then nothing happens in the movie.
In television, you have that change over a period of episodes. The characters have consistently changing arcs on TV, which can even sometimes happen on one episode. Sometimes I’ll only take a guest spot that’s offered to me if it does have that arc. So television gives you the opportunity to play one character over a period of time, and really go more into depth for that character than you would in film. With television, there’s consistent discovery into the characters as you work with the writers.
SY: Speaking of character arcs, how does working on TV shows compare and contrast to starring in movies, particularly since those arcs in a series are left open-ended, while films have a set beginning, middle and end?
JS: Well, if you’re the lead, you definitely have to look at the role differently. But I try to develop an arc for whatever character I play. Sometimes that arc won’t be written, but I try very hard to get it in there. That will make a difference for any character, who all deserve to have an arc, even if the writers don’t write one. So I always look for some kind of change in the character, and really work my material as hard as I can, so I can bring as much to it as I possibly can.
SY: Do you also find doing research before you get on the set to be beneficial to playing your characters once you start filming?
JS: Yes, I do. It was a gift in the beginning of my career to work with Tom Hanks (for ‘That Thing You Do!’). We studied everything that happened in 1964. We were given tapes of the commercials, the World Series and the shows that were on the air at the time, so that we could get the feel of that year. We studied how to play our instruments for eight weeks, and I also took singing lessons. That was all because of Tom, as that’s how he works.
I still continuously try to do that same process for every role I take on, even if I’m cast in a short amount of time before we begin filming. Doing that extensive research is the only way I can really function. But I’ve learned to shorten my process, but I still do the work before I get to the set.
SY: While you’re known for your roles in films and on TV, are you also interested in performing in theater?
JS: Yes, I actually just moved very close to the Eclectic Theater. When I was a part of the Eclectic Theater, we had moved from Hollywood to North Hollywood. I remember I helped put the seats in, and then got to do a bunch of plays there. The last play that I performed in was the most fulfilling thing I have ever done. I had lost all this weight for it.
I would love to perform in more plays, but it’s very hard to get back into theater. You don’t want to do just any play; you want to participate in one that will make a visceral impact for the audience. So I may go back to the theater in the future.
But I did make a commitment to do a stand-up routine later this year, just so I can try it. I have some fantastic people who are willing to help me. I also want to try to get on stage and sing one song this year. I’m making these small goals, so that once I accomplish them, I’ll have more confidence to get back out there and do a play. Hopefully I’ll be able to get to Broadway at some point, like Tom Hanks did-he starred in ‘Lucky Guy’ with Chris McDonald, which premiered in 2013.
SY: Besides Vice, do you have any upcoming projects that you can discuss? Are you interested in starring in more sci-fi and action films?
JS: Well, I have ‘Texas Rising’ coming out, which is going to be a big mini-series for The History Channel. It stars Bill Paxton as Sam Houston, and it’s about the Texas Revolution. It’s from the same producers who worked on ‘Hatfields & McCoys,’ and everyone’s so excited about it. It’s going to be the first made-for-television mini-series to ever premiere on the big screen. It’s going to be on 2,000 theatrical screens before it premieres on television on Memorial Day.
Written by: Karen Benardello