Interview: The day we went for lunch with… Ryan O’Nan
Film: Stephanie Kelley
Words: Jade French
The little side-street café we find ourselves running to through the rain to in the Lower East Side could not be further from the bright lights of Hollywood. It’s called Teany and, as we are later informed, is owned by Moby (Bald Moby). As we sit down to talk with Ryan O’Nan, an actor/director/writer, it becomes apparent that his career is also contrasted to the image of the clichéd LA movie star, those strange fish. From the recently poached relationship of TomKat to speculate about to the stalwart, almost mythical species of Madonna (who swims in the fountain of youth and hardcore gymming) there is the tabloid gossip which accompanies that lifestyle. It’s a rare breed of Hollywood inhabitant whose talent manages to speak for itself and who can navigate under the radar to concentrate on independent films (and no, Michelle Williams does not count). We’re here to talk about the new film O’Nan has written, directed and starred in… This could come off as a precociously indulgent project but luckily a scoop of self-deprecation and a humbleness permeates both the character of Alex in the film and O’Nan himself.
After finding a seat within range of the air conditioning and ordering (and attempting to mimic accents) we get to talking about the film. Brooklyn Brother’s is a late blooming coming of age story. Although Alex has most definitely navigated the tricky teenage years of self-hatred/ spotty skin, he is now stuck in the early-thirties years of self-doubt. “The film deals with a guy whose wondering if it’s time to give it up or keep going, regardless of whatever people say. When I was living in London I went to acting school, a little older than everyone else there and there was all these 24 year olds who had the pervasive attitude that their time was over. It was almost as though they had their chance. But that’s not the case, I mean your 20s is surely the time when you’re finding out about yourself and your 30s you get to play all that out, with hopefully a bit more confidence”.
This is what BBBTB is about, not self-indulgence but rather taking on your shoulders your own creativeness. In an age where the internet has made the music industry concentrate more on ‘social media presence’ than talent and created what is hopelessly called ‘the Simon Cowell generation’, it is refreshing to see a project which champions getting up and doing it yourself. Self motivation is key.
“When I got out of school, even with all this great stuff- like winning a screenwriting competition, getting a great agent- it still took over six months to get my first job so you start to think, is this the right choice? And if that goes on for two years, five years I can see how you might start to question yourself. You need a lot of self-motivation to get through. That was the way it was for me and music I toured for a long time, made a bunch of records, had so much fun but after a while I started to realise I had to move into something I could have a career in. So I went into something much more stable- like acting! Very sensible…”
Having played in bands of his own O’Nan had a lot of material to draw on for the character of Alex. That sense of questioning ‘Is this the right decision?’ becomes a sort of mantra as the film begins. The film starts with him playing in a band with a wannabe sex guru who takes twelve minute guitar solos- slightly offset to Alex’s own jams about heartache and failure. He evenutally becomes part of a new band- one which hinges on heartfelt lyrics and children’s musical instruments. “The idea for the children’s instruments came from a time one of my bands were touring. It was a pretty hardcore punk atmosphere and these guys got on stage with a bunch of children’s toys and started playing. I couldn’t believe that no one was watching them, they were so good! And I decided that I had to be friends with them and we’ve been mates ever since. The instruments used are mostly theirs and they helped with some of the songs too so it’s kind of come full circle”.
The Brooklyn Brother’s have also been breaking the fourth wall at film festivals by performing a live set at the end of each screening. “Ah, we were awful when you guys saw us! We hadn’t had time to sound check. It’s funny, when I cast Michael I told him that he had to play these toys and it turns out he’s a great piano player. Not that he turns up for rehearsal”. Excuses, excuses. But no excuses are actually needed because the slightly gawky performance at the end of the screening only served to add another layer of endearment to the film’s aesthetic.
As well as endearment, there are moments of excruciating comedy in the film. One which springs to mind is the moment where Alex plays a show for children with learning difficulties. And ends up punching one. Whilst dressed as a moose. Is there a moment where you can push the wrong buttons? “In Toronto, when the film showed, as that scene happened there was a kind of painful ‘ahhh’ and then I laughed out loud at the collective sigh which then made everyone feel comfortable to laugh. It’s not to make fun of the kids, you’re supposed to be laughing at Alex. You know the kids are his only appreciative audience, they get up and are dancing but Alex is in a horrible place, which means he reacts to the situation in a way he ordinarily wouldn’t”.
As well as starring in the film O’Nan also directed and wrote the script. Either crazy talented or just crazy springs to mind. But how do you go about directing yourself? “Well, first of all myself is a total asshole so it was a bit of a nightmare. Overall though, all three [writing, acting and directing] are different things but when you work in that way the three kind of unite. Directing is different because you have to be a leader and make sure everyone is happy, but luckily I had a great team I could trust to point out bits that weren’t working.”
This might well turn out to be a marmite film, dividing critics between love and hate and the fine line in-between. But regardless, Brooklyn Brothers Beat the Best holds an important lesson; the urge to do something with yourself is alive even when you’re stuck on a park bench dressed as a moose (and defintely nothing as cheesy as ‘follow your dreams’).