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Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor
for Radio Free Entertainment

May 24, 2005

Mysterious Skin tells the story of Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), a pair of teenagers whose lives are tragically altered by an experience they shared when they were eight years old. The incident imprints itself differently upon each of them, and their paths take divergent downward spirals: Neil ends up turning tricks as a local hustler living in denial, while Brian becomes obsessed with the notion that he was abducted by aliens.

Though the subject matter is unsettling, the movie is beautifully shot and the story is told in a compelling fashion that never resorts to cheap sensationalism. The entire cast turns in strong performances--especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet in the lead roles. Based upon the novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin is directed by Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation) and also stars Elisabeth Shue and Michelle Trachtenberg.

In this interview, actors Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet talk about their experience with this intriguing drama.

The Interview

MEDIA: Do you think your characters in the film ended up being accurate depictions of what was written in the novel?

BRADY: I read the book a couple years previous to having read the script (it was just a coincidence), and I don't think that I pictured Brian Lackey being anything like me particularly. But things change and evolve, and even Scott was saying that now when he thinks of the characters in the book, he sees us, which I'm sure, when he was writing it ten years ago, wasn't really the case.

JOSEPH: I didn't read the book till after I read the script, but probably more than any other movie I've ever been a part of, the movie turned out the way I thought it should look based on the script and the book.

Joseph, having been so readily identified with your character from TV's Third Rock from the Sun, were you specifically looking for a different role like this to play?

JOSEPH: No, I was really just looking to do something good, which sounds obvious, but there's a lot of stuff that's not made with the goal of being good--it's made with the goal of making money or doing what other people tell you to do. When I first read the script, I just said, "My God, whoever wrote this really cares about, loves, and believes in what they're writing." It's so rare. But you're right, it is a different role for me, and I'll always be really grateful to Gregg for believing that I could do a role like this. I've played the nice kid, the smart one, the funny one, or even the angry one, but Gregg was the first one to call me sexy, and I'll always be really grateful for that. But what I think is really special about this character is he is sexy on the outside, but underneath that, he's really having a lot of problems. And I think a lot of movies show someone who's attractive on the outside, and they never really go beneath that. And you're just expected to sit there and be attracted to this attractive character and feel inferior sitting there in your seat. And this movie's not about that, it's about "Where did his callous front come from?" and "What are the consequences of it?"

Was it clear from the beginning just how daunting the lead roles in this film could be?

BRADY: It was pretty clear from both the script and from Gregg, who I [immediately] realized was a guy who cared about his story, cared about his characters, and was going to treat them with a delicate touch, and with respect and care.

JOSEPH: A lot of people ask me, "Do you have qualms of doing such a sexual role?" To me, the sex scenes in this movie...they're not sex scenes. A sex scene to me is "we have our two lead actors and we want to see them naked, so we bring in the soft lighting and the slow motion and the music and we'll have a sex scene." But it has nothing to do with anything. Whereas these scenes that have strong sexuality are the story. That's where the story gets told, and they're based in emotion. They further the plot. It could be dialogue, but it's physicality and sexuality instead. And I didn't have any qualms about that at all. It's just a really interesting and exciting way to tell the story.

How do you feel about the violence depicted in the film?

JOSEPH: All that violence is there to tell a story that comes from an honest and genuine place, and that's what's important.

Joseph, you went to Kansas to immerse yourself in the environment where the story is based. Besides pinning down the local dialect, what else did you take from that experience?

JOSEPH: Well, I had never been to Kansas before. I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I lived in New York. So I've never really spent much time in places other than a metropolis. And certainly, especially nowadays, there's a lot of stereotypes floating around...a lot of judgement coming from metropolitan cities against smaller, less populated cities. And my experience ran so contrary to those stereotypes. I found such friendly, smart, cool people everywhere I went--Kansas City, Lawrence, Hutchinson, Inman, Little River, the tiny little places. Lawrence,'s like Berkeley. People are really pushing the envelope on every level, whether it be the music they're listening to or the food they're eating. I think the most important thing I took from that trip, though, was just spending time with Scott, who wrote the novel. The story was born out of him, and he's such a good guy, and it inspired me to want to do justice to what he had come up with.

Mysterious Skin had a pretty tight shooting schedule. How much time did you have to rehearse?

JOSEPH: Like a day.

BRADY: Yeah, we really didn't rehearse much.

JOSEPH: It wasn't like that. The preparation wasn't about repetition or immersing yourself in rehearsal and text. It was more moody and more like I was I went to Kansas and spent time with Scott and listening to good music and stuff like that. Gregg was very much about not overthinking it, not overanalyzing it, and letting your first instinct not be inhibited by self-consciousness.

What do you hope audiences take from the experiencing of watching this movie?

BRADY: I just hope that they're moved, in any fashion or any way that a human being can be moved, enraged, upset, inspired. I think it's the reason that we make films. I think that's the reason all people make films.

JOSEPH: [to Brady] It's not the reason all people make films.

BRADY: [to Joseph] It's the reason people should make films.

JOSEPH: The movie's out in New York, and so people have come up to me on the street already having seen it, and it's such a different thing. People look me in the eye and tell me what they think and feel about the movie. People don't look me in the eye and tell me what they think and feel about Third Rock from the Sun. Not that there's anything wrong with a casual and fun television show. I'm really proud of Third Rock from the Sun, but I don't think it's really, dearly important to anybody that watches it the same way that Mysterious Skin is. And I know how dear and important so many movies are to me, so I'm really proud to be a part of something that can stay with somebody like that.

Do you think you would do something like Third Rock again?

JOSEPH: Ummm...well, the only thing I want to do is stuff with people who care about what they're doing, which sounds obvious, but it's really not. [laughs] You know, most people who are working do it for money. And I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. It so happens I made a lot of money already, so I don't have to worry that much about it. I wouldn't fault anybody for doing it for the money, but it doesn't interest me right now.

Did films like Midnight Cowboy factor into your preparation for this role?

JOSEPH: I saw Midnight Cowboy so long ago, and then hadn't seen it again till after we made Mysterious Skin. And I was like, "Oh my God! They're very similar..." [laughs] I didn't realize that. I was such a big Dustin Hoffman fan when I was young. I saw that movie probably ten years before I made Mysterious Skin.

How were the child actors who play your younger selves in the film shielded from the controversial subject matter?

JOSEPH: I'm glad you brought them up. I was an actor, too, when I was that age, when I was 8 and 9. And it's something I like to tell everybody because it's something I'm sensitive about. The film so convincingly and so compellingly portrays such an awful situation for these boys to be in that you can't imagine them not being in that awful situation for real. But they weren't. Gregg went to extraordinary lengths to keep the boys absolutely ignorant of what the movie was. He wrote false scripts that told a totally different story that were just for them to read, that contrived situations for them to end up playing the same moment that he needed. And then he would cut that up with other stuff that he shot when they weren't there, so that it creates an illusion of child abuse. But the boys didn't think they were making a movie about child abuse, they thought they were making something totally else. And he's such a clever editor, he's such a competent filmmaker, that he was able to make it look like that. But it's not true. Those boys had a great time. Because I remember what it's like to be 8 years old and on a movie set--it's a blast. And they were having a blast. They were sad when it was done.

Brady, what's your take on Brian's friendship with Eric (played by Jeff Licon)?

BRADY: I think that Eric is just an unbelievably important part of the story and can be an occasionally overlooked one. He bridges Brian and Neil together. I think what's really interesting about Brian's relationship with Eric is that Eric is really the person responsible for bringing this introverted, awkward kid out of his shell, just enough for him to be able to open his eyes a little bit and deal with the coming information. But I think Jeff Licon is really special in the film. It's very rare that supporting roles are that memorable and lovely, and I am really proud of him. For that matter, proud of everybody in the cast, and proud of Gregg for making what I think is his best film.

And Joseph, what's your take on Neil's relationship with Wendy (played by Michelle Trachtenberg)?

JOSEPH: Ah, yes, Wendy. Well, the character I play...his whole thing is on the outside. He's very attractive, but on the inside, it's a very different matter. And the only way that you ever get to see that as an audience member is through his friendship with Wendy, who's the only one that knows his secrets, and who's the only one to whom he'll show a little warmth. And I love Michelle in this movie. She's so different from anything you've ever seen her do. She's so warm and kind and genuine.

Was your eye color changed with digital effects, or were you wearing colored contacts?

JOSEPH: They didn't have any money to do anything digitally. [laughs] I had blue eye contacts, yeah.

BRADY: And I had brown eye contacts. We swapped eyes for the duration of the shoot. Gregg's a funny guy like that. Anything you can change, he will change. "Joe, lose weight. Brady, put on a few pounds. Brady, I really need you to break out your skin as bad as you can." Which entailed me putting my face in grease...

JOSEPH: [to Brady] I didn't know you did that.

BRADY: [to Joseph] I put pizza on my face.

JOSEPH: [to Brady] No way!

How do you feel about the way the story explores both of the differing perspectives of Neil and Brian?

BRADY: I think that's what's so special about the film. I think that it is one of the most compassionate films that I've seen in a really long time. I think that there's something so special about both sides of an equation being represented. Brian and Neil, they need each other. They're the key to each other's salvation. And for this to be one of the first films in some time to explore that is something that I think is probably the most unique thing about the film. It's not something that I've seen recently, or maybe ever. At least, not like this. So it's special stuff.

JOSEPH: I agree. I remember when Gregg was composing shots on the set, he was always all about symmetry, wanting everything to meet up in the center and be equal on both sides. And not only is it like that aesthetically in the composition of the shots, but it's like that narratively in that it goes back and forth between two storylines, and it's like that in its cast of characters.

Related Material

Interviews with Michelle Trachtenberg
Interview with director Gregg Araki and writer Scott Heim
Movie Coverage: Mysterious Skin


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