If there’s any doubt that Charlie Plummer is going to be a big star someday, then watching the then-16-year-old actor in LEAN ON PETE, the latest film from 45 Years director Andrew Haigh, should confirm that this kid can, indeed, act. He also made a strong impression in Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, which was Plummer’s first major studio film.
In the new film from Haigh, the acclaimed British filmmaker who made 45 Years and Weekend, Charlie plays Charley Thompson, a young man who gets a job working for a cranky horse trainer, played by Steve Buscemi, while also bonding with his racehorse named Lean on Pete. A few events lead to Charley running off with the horse, finding himself alone and struggling to survive in the world without having any money or way to make a living.
Lean on Pete also stars Chloë Sevigny as a jockey who befriends Charley and Steve Zahn as a homeless guy Charley encounters who isn’t quite as friendly.
The Tracking Board sat down with Haigh and Plummer a few weeks back, the interview starting with Haigh before being joined a couple minutes in by Plummer.
What was your proclivity towards horseracing and horses that got you started on this, because it is so different from your previous two films?
Andrew Haigh: I suppose I didn’t have anything to do with horses, horseracing even. I wasn’t even really a horseracing fan or anything like that, so that wasn’t so much what drew me to the story. It was just more about Charley and what he was going through, and what he needed from life, and the heartbreaking nature of that story. The stuff about horses was interesting to me as part of that story but not the motivating factor to make the story.
This is adapted from a book, so how did you get your hands on that book?
My partner actually gave it to me, and I fell in love with it the minute I read it. This is like six years ago, so it was just after Weekend had come out. I read the book then and got the rights pretty soon after I first read it. For me, it’s always a gut-level thing. I read a lot of things, looking to see if it’s something I can make, and most things, even it was a novel, I’m like, “Nah, doesn’t make sense to me,” but this just did. It really just kind of hit me.
As you’re writing it, are you thinking about what kind of budget you might need to make it or where you can shoot it? Is that kind of stuff going through your head, or do you just focus on the writing and not worry about that stuff?
Yeah, I focus on the writing. I’ve written scripts in the past that I haven’t made either, and it’s like I try not to think about a.) who I’m going to cast and b.) I don’t even think about whether it’s even possible to make. I’ll write it first—concentrate on that—and then put my writing side away and put my director’s hat on, and then see if someone wants to pay for it.
What was your process for finding the actor to play Charley? Was there a pretty big search before you found Charlie Plummer?
I was really nervous about it. The film wouldn’t work at all if the actor’s not good, and not only that, I knew the type of performance that I wanted it to have, subtle, kind of sensitive, not giving everything away, like making you as an audience member work a little bit to try and understand what this kid is feeling. I knew that I wanted it to feel slightly objective, more than subjective, as a movie. You need a certain type of actor to be able to do that, so I saw lots of tapes and met a bunch of kids, but Charlie was just, to me, was just the perfect choice. When the casting director and I saw his tape, we were like, “This is it. This is him.” There’s just something different about the way he approaches the material and approaches scenes that makes me as a director interested, like drawing me in to try and understand him. That, to me, is the kind of performances I like, rather than someone that gives me everything.
You can tell a performance like that just from him reading a couple scenes or do you still have to meet him and talk to him?
I think I could tell from that one scene. We got him to do another scene, just to double-check that it’s not just a fluke, but also I watched him a film he was in called King Jack, which had come out while we were casting, and he was fantastic in that, too. He wrote me a letter, which was this really smart, intelligent letter about understanding the character and that desire he had for some kind of security and some kind of stability, so I was like, “Yeah, that’s good. He understands it. He knows what he’s doing.” [Charlie walks into the room at this point.] And he had great hair!
Had you read the book or anything when you got the script?
Charlie Plummer: No, I hadn’t even heard of the book at all or anything about the project before. I heard about Andrew before and 45 Years, but I really knew nothing and then I read the script, and I was totally blown out of the water, and so connected to the journey of Charley specifically. I also hadn’t read a script like that before, especially about a young person. I know Andrew has spoken about this a lot, but one that isn’t just a classic coming-of-age story, but is really just about a human being who also happens to be a young person, and then having to go through this experience and endure such suffering and pain. But really [he] is so driven by hope and love and compassion. I was just so excited by the idea of being part of a story like that, so I wrote a letter – I was so excited I couldn’t help myself. I ordered the book right after [reading] the script. I don’t think I even sent in an audition even. I was just, “This has to happen, and I have to be a part of this,” and I was fortunate that they did pick me.
Haigh: If people really do want to do something, they should write a letter, because it is very nice, and Charlie was the only one to write me a letter.
Plummer: Oh, that’s good. (laughs)
Haigh: So I was like, “Why not?”
You’re going to get thousands of letters for your next movie, because that’s now on the record.
Haigh: Oh, I know… No, don’t write me letters.
Had you seen any of Andrew’s movies at that point?
Plummer: Up until that point, I hadn’t seen any. I heard of 45 Years, and immediately after I read the script I watched 45 Years and Weekend, and that too just really confirmed what I initially thought when I read the script. For him as a filmmaker, the way he puts together a film, it’s in such a way, you need so much patience, and you have to be such a balanced filmmaker and such a confident filmmaker, and I was so excited. Chloe [Sevigny] and I were just talking about this, there aren’t that many filmmakers nowadays making movies like that where they have so much confidence in their performers and also in their audience, to be able to just sit with these characters and just be a part of this environment in the way that he lets his audience be a part of it. So I was so excited when I got the part.
How old are you?
Plummer: I’m 18.
Holy crap. When I talk to actors your age, I immediately realize what a f*ck up I was when I was 18.
Andrew: That’s what I think! Charlie is so… he knows what he wants, he’s confident, not cocky. I was a mess when I was 18.
Let’s talk about some of your co-stars, and let’s start with the horse, because he is very much your co-lead. Obviously, when you were writing this, you knew you’d have to have real horses in the movie and a horse racing track. Where do you go from there?
Haigh: Well, the producer found some horse people, if that’s what they’re called. We used a company called Talented Animals, who have a lot of film animals, and we had an audition for the horse. We were in Portland, and I met—I’m not sure if that’s the right word—but yes, I met three horses, and it’s really interesting, because I remember now that instantly, I knew who the horse should be when I met these three horses, and it was actually the one that was in the background, didn’t come to the front and turned his head away from me.
But he wrote a letter to you…
Haigh: He did write a letter to me. But there was something… I wanted the horse and Charley to feel like they’re similar, so I didn’t want the horse that’s standing proudly at the front, saying, “Employ me, employ me…” I wanted the one that was sensitive in the background, and that was Starsky, the horse that we picked. It was a really good experience working with him. Charlie bonded very nicely with the horse and spent a couple weeks working with him before we started shooting, and it was really a good experience.
Did you have any experiences with horses before? Did you ride or anything?
Plummer: No, I had ridden a horse once before and then when I found out they wanted me to do it, I visited some stables in New York ‘cause that’s where I live, upstate, and my grandmother used to keep horses and ride and my aunt used to ride competitively. I was able to talk to them a little bit, and then as soon as I got out there, that was really when I was thrown into it. I just learned how to clean the stalls and bathe Starsky and take him for walks. I even rode him a little bit, but I was pretty nervous about that. It was just that kind of process, especially with the horse. They’re beautiful, and they’re so sweet and kind, but they’re also really smart, so if they know they can push you around, they will. So I think those couple weeks were about kind of gaining my own confidence with them, so that when we were in these locations, you know, the trainers were there, but couldn’t be right there with me, then I could really hold my own with them. There’s a couple scenes where that’s the case. There’s this one scene when I’m driving with him, and I go to the back and he’s freaking out and everything. I remember that day, because there was a trainer in there, but he was kicking and he was really getting crazy. Looking back—because they were like, “I don’t know if you should go in”—but I went in and tried to calm him down, and he did calm down a little bit, but they’re dangerous. You gotta be really careful with them, and I think if I hadn’t had those weeks of prep with him, I would have just been so lost, and it would have really shown, I think.
How did you find the race track and those locations where you have the horses racing?
Haigh: I always love filming on real locations. It makes everything so much easier, and harder, at the same time. But they were great. The main Portland Meadows, we had the race day there. It was a complicated set-up we were doing with the racing. When you’re making a film that isn’t $50 million budget, you’re limited. We could only race the horses once, twice maximum if we were lucky. Really, we only got one go at getting the shots that we need, because horses can’t keep racing, and we’d have to get another set of horses, and we couldn’t afford them. There’s a complicated shot, for example, when Charley runs out onto the race track when Pete loses the race. It’s a very complex shot, and we had one chance to get it right with the horses racing and you getting to the thing at the right time and 200 extras being in the right place. It technically gets complicated, but I like that feeling. I love that tension that exists on set when you know that everybody is just willing something to work. It’s a lovely sense of community from the film, and you don’t always get that when you shoot things in a different way.
Let’s talk about some of your other co-stars—Steve Buscemi, Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn for a little bit. I’m sure Steve isn’t as cranky as the character he plays in the movie.
Haigh: He’s one of the sweetest guys. I had a vision that he’d be like this fast-talking, cranky whatever, and he’s just so…
Plummer: Gentle and quiet. I’m always just blown away whenever I get to talk to him, because I’ve been watching him probably since the day I was born and watching the films he’s done, and throughout my life, whether I was two years old and watching Monsters Inc. or when I was probably 11 and saw The Big Lebowsky or Farbo, I just think he is such a part of film history at this point and the directors he’s worked with and the films he’s been part of and the experiences he’s had, just to be around that, especially for a young person like myself, is just so valuable. Same goes with Chloë and Steve Zahn. I think what’s interesting is that they’re all some of the best character actors working today I think, but they’re all so different and their backgrounds are so different. The way they got started in the business is so different, and their experiences, etc. that for me, as a young person, I really feel so lucky, because I’m getting to draw on and listen to so many stories about their own experiences that not a lot of people would ever get to hear. I felt very lucky to be on that set working with them, and I also think what they give to the film is immense. The performances are so wonderful in such specific ways, like with Steve [Buscemi], I think, that’s such a difficult character to play, because in a lot of ways, it could be such a cliché — father figure slash really awful, grumpy mentor – but he plays it in a way that I can’t even properly put into words. I think he does a beautiful job with it, and so does Chloë and Steve Zahn.
I actually wondered if you as a young actor felt like you could approach them to ask them about stuff or do they offer stuff voluntarily?
Plummer: I certainly feel like I need that stuff, because acting is a weird thing, and this business is a weird business, so I’m always searching for that, whenever I have an opportunity. I certainly always want to learn but especially from actors who have been doing this for a long time. I really would like to learn as much as I can from them, and likewise, actors that I really respect. I think with these guys, they’re not the kind who just dole out advice, because they feel like it or because they think they’re smart or anything. I think what most of what I learned really came from just being in a room with them and just seeing the way they interact with people and having genuine conversations about life – my experiences in life and their experience in life – and I think that’s where most of the lessons that I’ll really take came from. Not so much “This is what you should do” and “This is when you do this” and “Make sure you do that.”
Haigh: Also, what’s really interesting is that how much the actors have been on other sets and done other films and has won awards and is very successful, every time they start a film, they’re still trying to work out the character that they’ve got to do. I think that’s the thing. Everybody is a little bit nervous. I’ve never worked with an actor that isn’t a bit nervous when they get on the first day of set. Just because you’ve been in a lot of films, I don’t think that ever goes away. I remember Tom Courtenay on 45 Years was terrified on the first day, and I was like, “You’re Tom Courtenay, you’ve been around for years. Why are you nervous?” and he said, “Because I’m trying to work out how to do this character. Every character you do is different.” I think it’s good to know that everybody’s scared.
Plummer: Yeah, and everybody’s on that level no matter how old they are or how many people they’ve worked with, and especially with these guys. They’ve worked with just about everyone you can even imagine, so to see that they also feel that way, it’s comforting in a weird way, especially for someone like me who hasn’t had that much experience.
But you got to work with Ridley Scott which I’m sure many actors would be jealous of…
Plummer: Yeah! I mean, that was very cool, and he might be the one person who doesn’t get very nervous. He’s not a nervous guy. It’s almost like I’m learning from my experiences. It’s almost kind of the actor’s job to be freaking out and nervous and the director has to be confident.
Haigh: We have to hide our anxiety.
Plummer: And Ridley told me a lot of stories about… like he told me how Joaquin Phoenix on Gladiator, he showed up the first day and walked up to Ridley and said, “I can’t do this. I’m sorry. I’m going to buy my plane ticket home. You have to find somebody else,” and Ridley had to put him on the horse and was like, “No, you’re going to do this and you’re going to do a great job,” but he was freaking out for like two weeks with his anxiety. I don’t know if it ever goes away, but I guess that’s why directors have to hide it. I was watching the Spielberg documentary and they were talking about that.
Haigh: Yeah, he talks about how every time he goes on set. I watched it on the plane over here, and I was like, “Oh, that’s so good to know.”
I want to ask about the second half of the movie without spoiling some of what happens, but it kind of turns into a road movie where Charley and Lean on Pete go off on their journey. What was that like because you were shooting in different locations?
Haigh: Yeah, we shot the film relatively in order, so that helped the whole process I think. What I really enjoyed in making this film was there were so many different environments they were in, so it was amazing to be in the horse world and then suddenly be out in the middle of nowhere, which completely matched Charley’s experiences in the story. Being out in the middle of the Oregon desert that’s pretty close to the Idaho border, it was great. It was an interesting environment to be in, and it’s not always easy physically with the weather and dust and dirt, that kind of thing. I loved it. I’ve spent a lot of my life going on road trips. I’ve probably done four or five, five months each time, road trips around the U.S. and traveled a lot around the world. I love doing [road trips] normally in my life, so to make a film while you’re doing it is great.
How was that experience for you, Charlie?
Plummer: I had never been out there before. I had never spent time in the desert like that or any real environment like that. It was an interesting experience. I was nervous, because – like Andrew said, we shot it almost entirely in sequence – so the last couple weeks of filming, I was the only actor on set, I think. I remember as Steve and Chloë were getting ready to leave, I was kind of going, “I don’t know what this is going to be like.” It felt like I was just out there, and my whole family was back in New York, and I don’t know what to expect. I just remember Steve saying, “This is such a beautiful environment, it’s a beautiful story, so really just try to enjoy and appreciate it as much as you can.” There were days where I would just look out at how gorgeous the landscape would be, and the sky and the desert and the animals. Just being in that place, I don’t know if I’ll ever get to go back, so I think it’s particularly cool…
Haigh: The sequel…
Plummer: Yeah, if there’s a sequel. (laughs) But to have a film now that just so beautifully captures that, and especially for me, that experience and that time in my life, to see that on screen is something else.
Haigh: What I love about making films is you capture a moment in the actor’s life as well, so it really be a special thing. I always like it now that we’ve caught Charlie as a person at a certain age. Even now, he’s older than when he was when we made it, and he’s different, but I think we captured something about the person. I really like that. It feels really special to me. I love actors. I think it’s amazing what they do, to be able to capture just a part of their lives on film is great.
Is there any message you’d like people to get out of this movie?
Haigh: Look, people take different things from it, and talking to people, who do take different things from it, which is why my films don’t have a singular message, because I don’t know what that would be. If anything, what drew me to the novel was understanding the importance of compassion and realizing that people have very difficult lives, especially if they have no money and they’ve fallen through certain cracks in society and they’re really struggling. The rest of us need to have some kind of kindness and compassion for that. If people get that from the film, that makes me happy.
Great… I’m pretty sure I ignored three panhandlers on the subway ride here.
Haigh: I think we also get compassion fatigue in the world, which is really sad. There’s so much that needs to be done, but we’re also wrapped up in our own struggles. Just because you may have a bit of money doesn’t mean you don’t have your own struggles that you’re constantly battling with every single day. We’re all suffering, to some degree.
Lean on Pete opens in select cities on Friday, April 6, and you can also see the younger Charlie in Joshua Leonard’s Behold My Heart, which is due out this summer.
(And if you love horses, look for my interview with Chloe Zhao, director of The Rider, a very different but equally lovely horse movie, sometime next week.)
Edward Douglas | East Coast Editor