I saw Roadie when it premiered at Tribeca (here is my review), and fell in love with its brutal eye, and its quiet observational power. Starring Lois Smith, Bobby Cannavale, Jill Hennessy and Ron Eldard, Roadie is a small ensemble piece, intersecting character studies, filmed with sensitivity by director Michael Cuesta.
I’ve always loved Ron Eldard and so I was thrilled to chat with him on the phone earlier this week about Roadie and his performance as Jimmy Testagross, the messed-up well-meaning former roadie for the Blue Oyster Cult. It’s a fantastic performance: not to be missed.
This interview originally appeared on Capital New York.
Roadie, directed by Michael Cuesta, is a bittersweet, funny, and contemplative look at a day-in-the-life of Jimmy Testagross, a recently-fired roadie for the Blue Oyster Cult, played by Ron Eldard. Written by brothers Michael and Gerald Cuesta, Roadie takes place entirely in Queens, and the film wears that neighborhood like a well-worn sweater.
Also starring Lois Smith, Bobby Cannavale and Jill Hennessy, Roadie is a small gem, a movie that dares to allow spaces for silences, pauses, ambivalence, and yet is also completely specific to this group of people in this particular neighborhood. Jimmy Testagross is a beautiful creation by Eldard, with flashy rock and roll sideburns, a bloated belly (Eldard gained weight for the role), and an aura of muted sadness about him, coming from 26 years of hotel life, overindulgence, and escape from reality. After being fired from the Blue Oyster Cult, he is forced to return home to Queens to crash with his mother (the great Lois Smith), and over the course of his first day back, he runs into his high school sweetheart (Jill Hennessy), now married to Testagross’ high school nemesis Randy (Bobby Cannavale), a used car salesman. A strictly four-character movie, Roadie‘s plot is full of unexpected pathways. You may think it is going to be a love triangle. It is not. Or, it is, but it’s also not. It’s about how people listen to each other, and how they misunderstand one another. It’s about the private dramas we all have, ghosts of our past running alongside our present day, affecting us, limiting us, inhibiting us.
Jimmy Testagross is like a mole who has been living underground for 26 years, blinking in the cold brutal light of day. He finds normal social interaction difficult. He is baffled by his mother, she seems to be slipping into dementia, and all he wants to do is go back on the road as soon as possible. Eldard is riveting as Testagross, spontaneous and sad, repressed and funny, flawed and ridiculous. Watching him work is one of the greatest pleasures of Roadie.
Eldard has been working steadily in film, television and theatre since his film debut in 1989’s True Love, and in Roadie he gives one of the best performances of his career.
Eldard was generous enough to speak with me over the phone about Roadie (which opens today in New York at the Cinema Village), and to talk about his experience making the film.
Eldard’s agent sent him the script and after only “15 pages in”, Eldard called his agent and said he wanted to do it.
“This is without question one of the best scripts I’d ever read,” says Eldard. “I had seen Michael’s other two films [L.I.E. and Twelve and Holding] before and I loved them both. You could tell that the two guys who wrote it knew how to make it. It was made for very very little money. We shot it in 19 days. [Reading the script], I could see that there were basically four characters, and over half the script takes place in that one house, in his home, and the neighborhood.” Independent low-budget films often try to do too much. Roadie kept it simple. “There is no fat on this script,” Eldard says.
Actors go where the jobs are, and there are many reasons to take a part. But once in a while, a movie comes along that makes an actor remember why he wanted to act, why he wanted to enter the career in the first place, and Roadie was that kind of movie for Eldard. “This is the kind of thing that makes me want to act, that makes me love movies… and I wouldn’t say that normally.”
Eldard was so in love with the script that when he finally met Michael Cuesta, he said to him, “’If you’re not gonna hire me, just tell me soon. This one’s gonna hurt if I don’t get it. But I’ll still come see it because I think it’s gonna be beautiful.’ This would have been one that I would have been very sad if I hadn’t been in it.”
Another appealing factor about Roadie for Eldard was he grew up in that neighborhood. He knew the area well, and felt Cuesta’s script captured the environment without cliche or condescension. Eldard says, “I grew up working-class. More often than not, we were poor. I really do not like movies where – whether it’s being Southern or working-class – most indies do not show respect for working-class people. They’re either ridiculous saints or the joke is on them or at the end, they’re just some lovable quirky character, and you don’t really look at them like they’re real people. Here, with my character – this guy is a fuck-up, but he is not stupid. He is not a dumb guy. I loved that these people have dignity, they’re not stupid.”
Eldard’s transformation in the role is startling. He’s big and bulky, with pasty skin and pointy aggressive sideburns. I asked him about how he came up with the look. Apparently, in an early conversation with Cuesta, Cuesta asked Eldard to gain some weight for the role. Eldard says, “I was honest with him, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that, but once he got Lois [Smith] and he got Bobby [Cannavale] and Jill [Hennessy] – then I knew he was for real. I didn’t know him. I didn’t tell him I was gaining the weight, I just started gaining it.”
Lois Smith made her film debut in 1955 in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden and has never stopped working. She is an ensemble member at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company and has been nominated for numerous Tonys. Working with Lois Smith was one of the main appeals of the Roadie film for Eldard. “I had seen her in plays and we have some mutual friends from [Steppenwolf] but I had never met her. I think she is one of the great great actors on the planet earth and still, in many areas, an unknown. There’s no one like her. There’s no one who can do a performance like she does. She’s so honest and specific and straightforward. She’s also one of the coolest funniest hippest people you’ll ever want to meet.”
The scenes between Lois Smith and Eldard are riveting, the characters staring at one another through a mist of confusion and disappointment and also love, love that does not know how to express itself. Her son hasn’t been home in ten years. She doesn’t understand what a “roadie” is. She is proud of him, but she always thought he could do more. Jimmy, struggling with the guilt at having not stayed in touch with his mother, and struggling with the shame of being a man in his 40s who now has to crash at his mom’s house, has a difficult time even being in the same room with his mother. He keeps wanting to escape. Watching these two great actors interact, listen, try to connect, argue, retreat, is such a joy. Cuesta films it all in what feels like real time, so conversations have a chance to breathe, to be as awkward as they actually would be in real life. There are no easy answers, no big moment of revelation where everyone hugs at the end. Things are still left unsaid, unresolved.
Eldard said that he and Lois Smith, from the first table-reading, had a connection, and it was something that came so naturally that neither actor wanted to address it, or talk about it, for fear of ruining it. “Working with [Lois Smith] is one of the highlights of my career.”
While they were filming the movie, Blue Oyster Cult happened to be playing a show on Long Island, and so Eldard and Cuesta approached the band about allowing Eldard to work with the roadies for the night, so they could film it on a Bolex to grab some footage of Jimmy Testagross in his former glorious career, where he was needed and relevant as a roadie. The footage plays with a crackle of immediacy, and watching Eldard change guitar strings, carrying gear, and doing sound checks, gives us a good idea of how much he “fit” into that world, and how that world has completely unprepared him for dealing with regular life. The Blue Oyster Cult, at first, were hesitant about the film. hey weren’t sure if they were going to be made into a joke. But, of course, Roadie, in all its mess, celebrates Blue Oyster Cult, and celebrates their obsessive fans. Eldard says, “Roadie is a love letter to BOC. The joke is not on BOC.” The roadies who allowed Eldard to work with them for the night “were lovely, they couldn’t have been nicer,” and when he showed up with the crazy sideburns and the bloat, “they were like,’THAT is a roadie.’ They loved it. They thought it was dead-on.”
Alongside of the Blue Oyster Cult, another Long Island band, The Good Rats, is featured in Roadie (and lead singer, Peppi Marchello, shows up as a barfly in one scene). One Good Rats song, “Advertisement in the Voice” comes up during a lovely awkward scene when Jimmy and Nikki (Hennessy), his high school sweetheart, hang out in his boyhood bedroom (unchanged since he left). The song propels them backward in time, into a scene of awkward reminiscence and sexual tension. She is married now, to a man Jimmy despises. The two sit on his bed, listening to “Advertisement in the Voice”, looking at one another with loss and nostalgia.
Eldard says, “I knew of the Good Rats, growing up in Queens, these guys I worked with had all their stuff. It’s so specific to Michael and Gerald – who else is gonna write a movie and have the Good Rats [show up]. Everyone has something from their childhood like that and if you’re from Long Island, you had the Good Rats. Rolling Stones called them ‘the greatest band that nobody knows.’ All these great huge solo acts and bands all opened for the Good Rats. Peppi said, ‘They all passed us eventually.’ But from Bon Jovi to Billy Joel – every major rock artist opened for the Good Rats. That song is so beautiful… Just like my character says, “That is a great voice and that is a great song.”
On working with Jill Hennessy, Eldard says, “Obviously I’ve seen Jill’s work, but I’ve never seen her like this… The last scene was the only one that went through some serious rewrites…That scene is a walk of shame for her, and she came in with no makeup and she looked like shit (as much as she can look like shit) and she was willing to not be liked. I wasn’t sure if she would be willing to do that. I didn’t know. I had never worked with her. With actors, [wanting to be liked] is often typical but with actresses it’s harder, just because, socially, women from a very young age are taught to be liked, to be a good girl, and you are rewarded for that kind of behavior in a way that men aren’t. And so actresses very often, and this is often the way things are written – feel like they gotta be liked. Women don’t feel like they can be equally as shitty as a man. So in that scene, it’s like, ‘Wow, you’re really gonna give him that CD? You really have the balls to do that and look him in the eye?’ But she plays it like someone who knows that she has just done something shady, but she can’t help it, she wants what she wants, but there is something about it where you can tell that she knows that she has done something possibly irreparable. She will have to live with it. And Jill was willing to play it that way.”
The dynamic between Eldard, Hennessy, and Cannavale comes to an explosive head during a show-stopping scene in a cheesy motel room where the three characters go to “play rock star” before one of Nikki’s late-night music shows. They snort cocaine, blast Blue Oyster Cult, and things start to disintegrate, fast. The drug use is not apologized for and Eldard loved that about the script. “I’ve never done cocaine,” says Eldard (incredible when you see the scee). “I think it would be redundant for me to be on coke, but I’ve had friends who have done it who were like, ‘Wow. That scene brought me back to some very dark ugly times. I don’t ever want to go back there.'”
The motel scene was shot in two days in an actual motel. The room was cramped, and the camera crew crouched in the hot tub in the corner. Often, the three actors are caught in the same frame at the same time, giving an idea of the confidence Cuesta had in the event he was trying to capture. There are a few quiet moments in the midst of the drugged-out chaos, one beautiful section when Jimmy re-strings Nikki’s guitar, deftly and confidently. The purpose of a roadie is to support others, and we can see how good Jimmy was at his job. The motel scene, up to that point, was manic in a dangerous way, with a spontaneous jagged feeling, and then suddenly, in the middle of it … a pause where Jimmy changes the string, and Eldard loved that Roadie was the kind of film that would allow such a moment.
“It just gets quiet. People catching their breath. Michael felt the same way: he felt that that was a very revealing moment. Michael films it in real time, me changing the string. I change it very fast, very calm, and it’s something he’s done his whole life. So when I help her, the tone of that scene is very loving and sweet and I can see why Bobby’s character gets so uncomfortable there. He is not in this group. He cannot participate on that emotional level. I think that moment is exactly the way Michael wanted it and what he said he was going to do. You don’t get those moments in movies, ever, without there being some big wink on it, telling the people how to think about it, and I am so glad that so many people love that moment.”
Cannavale is a great actor, and he is terrifying and also charming in his role as Randy, the smooth-talking Queens boy, who has inherited his father’s used car business. Eldard says, of Cannavale’s performance, “He’s the king of Queens right there. He is the big shit in that little neighborhood. Everyone knows people like that. I just love that he’s genuinely ugly and unkind and the movie didn’t try to make it sweet. It’s ugly. But still there’s something charming about him, you can tell that he really loves his wife.”
Eldard says, “If you say what happens in this movie: what happens is a guy comes home, and he meets some friends, has a crazy night, but that’s not what happens at all. This is a life-altering moment for these people. And yet what really happens? And everyone can choose to not do a damn thing about it. I’d like to think that he gets his shit together but I have no idea what that would mean.”
After the various screenings of the film, the director and cast have done talk-backs and QAs with the audiences and Eldard loves the diversity of response, not only in interpretation, but in the demographic of the audience. Teenage girls have responded to it favorably, as well as elderly people. “Audiences personalize it. And so we’ve done our job.” Eldard says, “If you’ve ever been in love, if you’ve ever had parents, if you’ve ever had dreams, and not dreams that are gone – but dreams that you still want, dreams that are possible – the story is specific to these people but I felt these things when I was 10 years old.”
Eldard often doesn’t watch the things he has appeared in, for various reasons. “I am a brutal critic on myself,” he says, “and I don’t want to put that kind of energy onto something. There are certain things I’ve done where I think, ‘You know, I had such an amazing time doing it that I don’t want to see it because it’ll never live up to the memory of it.’ Nothing is ever as great or as bad as you think it’s gonna be. But when I finally saw Roadie, I had such a great time. I was really moved, and I was able to just see the character, and not myself. I love this movie. It’s my kind of movie. I’ll be happy to see this one again. And I’ve heard other people say that too which makes me happy. The movie is for real, it’ll stay with you.”