Off Camera is a podcast hosted by photographer/director Sam Jones, who created the show out of his passion for the long form conversational interview, and as a way to share his conversations with a myriad of artists, actors, musicians, directors, skateboarders, photographers, and writers that pique his interest. Because the best conversations happen Off Camera.
Ep 52.5. Sam Jones 1
1:03:07Producer Chris Moore puts Sam Jones in the hot seat!
Ep 5. Robert Downey Jr - 1
1:14:38“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant, in this field as in all others. His culture is based on ‘I am not too sure.’” -H.L. Mencken Henry Louis Mencken and Robert Downey Jr. did not cross paths in life (though it’s fun to imagine that conversation), but the essayist’s quote is an apt description of the actor’s approach to life. Downey’s restless intelligence is reflected in his ability to express several contradictory points of view simultaneously, making sense all the while. He can be direct one moment and elusive the next, often spinning off on seemingly unrelated tangents. But like watching a juggler on a wire, being in Downey’s presence is a riveting experience. For someone who almost from the outset was deemed “the greatest actor of his generation”, the majority of Robert Downey, Jr.’s career has been filled with big commercial flops, “critically acclaimed” flops, very public struggles with drugs and more than a little jail time – all of which have landed him squarely in some of the biggest blockbuster films in recent history. It’s an unlikely hero story, but then Robert Downey Jr. is an unlikely hero. With the release of the final film in the Iron Man trilogy, it’s ironic to contemplate that the studios also didn’t see him as a hero, least of all an action hero. Downey disagreed. At once supremely convinced of his own talent and extremely humble, he fought hard for the role of Tony Stark when the studio flatly refused to even let him audition. He prepped intensely, though for other roles he admits he’s just as likely to wing it. Downey is an enviably comfortable resident of the gray area we all inhabit. He is (somewhat) remorseful about his jail time but without resentment towards the upbringing that arguably introduced him to the lifestyle that led him there (“I choose to see it in a positive light.”) His years in the industry have left him clear-eyed and cynical about the business; yet he remains full of enthusiasm and curiosity about his art, and he’s deadly serious about bringing the best of himself to the set every day. He’s an obsessive analytic who’s inclined to let his gut make most of his decisions. On any multiple-choice personality test, Robert Downey Jr. is ‘all of the above.’ Maybe that’s what keeps us watching.
Ep 133. Danai Gurira
1:05:27The talented and worldly Danai Gurira has been bridging the gap between disparate worlds ever since her family moved from Grinnell, IA to Africa when she was a toddler. In school, the self-described Zimerican (Zimbabwean-American) was the “African kid with a twangy American accent” who got along with everybody regardless of race and class. That ability to cross borders both artistic and geographic has defined Danai’s career. On the blockbuster side, Danai inhabits the character of Okoye in the highly anticipated Marvel film Black Panther and the character of Michonne, the butt-kicking zombie killer in AMC’s hit series The Walking Dead. On the literary side, she’s a playwright with Broadway success who mingles with the high-brow theatre crowd. But don’t get caught up in Western delineations between actor and writer because at her core, Danai is a storyteller—a woman who uses her unique perspective and artistic talent to reveal the shared humanity between seemingly different worlds of Africa and America. Danai points out that talent must be nurtured and distractions must be set aside because “the whole goal of storytelling is to became a worthy enough vessel for the story to come through you.” Danai joins Sam Jones to discuss the nuanced world of Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther, auditioning for The Walking Dead, overcoming grad school breakdowns, and discovering her artistic mandate.
Ep 7. Dave Grohl
1:01:21Being a bona fide badass is the price of entry for a career in rock and roll; and if you ask Dave Grohl, it’s the key ingredient for just about anything worth doing. His approach to life has fueled the Foo Fighters’ 20 year,11 album career and garnered him a following of very stoked rock fans, many of who gathered at this year’s SXSW music conference to hear Grohl’s keynote address. The hipsters, rockers, start-uppers and next-big-thing developers packing the room were no doubt curious to hear how one goes about dropping out of high school, rising to fame as the drummer in Nirvana (a small Northwest act you may have heard of), and then go on to lead one today’s few remaining true rock bands? For Grohl, the answer’s pretty simple: figure out who you are and what inspires you and don’t look back – develop that individuality by working as hard as you can at what you love. That clarity of approach drove not only his Nirvana/Foo Fighters trajectory, but numerous musical side projects like Queens of the Stone Age, and Them Crooked Vultures. And most recently, a new artistic title: documentarian. He didn’t know anything about the film making process except what he needed to know most: Passion for your subject is sine qua non; and not one to do anything without it, Grohl didn’t question himself. Nor apparently did Rick Springfield, Neil Young, Stevie Nicks, Paul McCartney, and Tom Petty, all subjects of Sound City, his fascinating documentary about the people behind the studio that launched an amazing roster of legendary music acts. For a guy who admits to still feeling like a 13 year old and dressing like a 17 year old, Grohl has something to teach all of us…and shares it with Off Camera in one of our most inspiring interviews to date.
Ep 156. Awkwafina
1:03:25Awkwafina (also known as Nora Lum) is having quite a moment. She’s a part of the impressive cast of female icons (Sandra Bullock, Rihanna, Cate Blanchett, and more) in Ocean’s 8, and she’s so hilarious in Crazy Rich Asians that you’ll barely hear her next line over the sound of your own laughter. What does this moment in the spotlight feel like? Awkwafina likens it to this: “I compare it to a wall opening up and transporting you to an alternate dimension where there is no gravity, and everything is weird.” Her initial shock isn’t so strange when you consider the fact that she never allowed herself to dream of a career in the arts, and there weren’t exactly any female Asian-American actress/rapper hybrids to pave the road to possibility. Awkwafina tried to follow the path that her friends took after college, but living the buttoned-up office life of a publicity assistant in Manhattan wasn’t really her thing. When her boss made her choose between her music and her unfulfilling job, it wasn’t much of a contest—not only because she got fired, but especially because her identity was at stake. As she explains, “If I didn’t have my music, then I didn’t have an identity.” With nothing to lose, she decided to post her “My Vag” music video on Youtube, in which she hilariously raps about the superiority of her genitalia. After the push of a “Publish” button, Awkwafina became a viral success—and the rest is herstory. As the first Asian-American actress/rapper of any consequence, Awkwafina acknowledges, “Being the first sucks, but I found what I love. I found what I always dreamt of as a kid that would connect with adulthood. It’s so powerful for me. I finally feel like I can walk and know what I’m doing. I know why I’m there.” Awkwafina joins Off Camera to talk about embracing the responsibility that comes with being an Asian-American actor in Hollywood, discovering her comedic talents post personal tragedy, and why Margaret Cho is her spirit animal.
Ep 140. John Goodman
1:00:37John Goodman wasn’t always the imposing presence he is today, but he’s always had his charisma. As an eighth grader in Missouri, John charmed the “hard guys” in school with a spot-on Gomer Pyle impression so they would protect him. As he explains, “I was a little fat kid. I had the glasses with the tape in the middle. I was nerdy, man.” Heavily influenced by Marlon Brando and captivated by the language of Shakespeare, John discovered his dream to become an actor and left the Midwest to make it happen. After a stint as Thomas Jefferson in a dinner theater rendition of 1776, John found commercial success in New York City, but his career really took off when Roseanne came along in the late ‘80s. He’s also been a fixture in Coen brothers’ movies (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, The Big Lebowski, and more), bringing his characteristic physicality to roles that simmer with an explosive energy. Exhibit A—screaming obscenities and beating the bejesus out of a Corvette with a crow bar in The Big Lebowski. That on-screen volatility was also present in John’s off-screen life. Decades of heavy drinking forced John to confront his demons, and as a self-described “egomaniac with an inferiority complex,” he has come out the other side with humility, grace, and an endearingly self-deprecating sense of humor. His perspective on his life and career is downright fascinating. John brings candor and wit to our Off Camera conversation. We discuss why “everything is on the page” with the Coen brothers, how Roseanne came back after a 21-year hiatus, why John looked for trouble in Central Park, and how the movie Animal House was a terrible influence on him.
Ep 50. Aubrey Plaza
1:04:51When the notoriously poker-faced Aubrey Plaza says that she’s wanted to be an actor since she was 13 and thus isn’t surprised it’s happening, or that perhaps the universe responded to her acting daydreams, you have to wonder, does she really mean that? Understandably, Aubrey Plaza used to hate the word “deadpan,” as associated as it’s become with the detached, almost unreadable delivery she’s cultivated as characters like Julie Powers in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Darius in Safety Not Guaranteed and perhaps most famously, Parks and Recreation’s wryly impassive April Ludgate. Then her Ned Rifle director Hal Hartley cast the term in a different light: maybe it occasionally serves a character to drop lines with a certain lack of personal involvement. Though no one expects much from a zombie in the way of emoting, The Guardian said of Life After Beth, “…Plaza steals the show with one foot in the grave, her rotting heroine ricocheting between adolescent snarkiness and cadaverous rage…” When you think about it, it takes a certain amount of equanimity to put a line out there and let it sit without telegraphing what we’re supposed to think about it or how we’re supposed to react. If that means viewers remain a bit off balance, all the better to hold our attention while we supply our own context. But back to those comments. She was (we’re pretty sure) quite sincere, though Plaza herself likely had more to do with moving her career along than the universe. Philosophically, she seems to fall somewhere between fatalism and determinism. When her mom introduced her to Saturday Night Live, young Aubrey decided it was her dream job. When she looked up cast member bios and saw standup comedy as the common thread among her idols, she went promptly into improv, and later actually interned at SNL. Shortly after, she started growing the career she’s still building today with drolly arresting roles in films like Funny People and About Alex and The To Do List, often playing younger, still-at-that-awkward-stage characters. Perceptive viewers of her arc on the recently-ended Parks and Recreation might have noticed Plaza’s very intentional efforts to add layers and different choices to April Ludgate, without any overreaching departures from the essence of her character. Now able to poke her head up take a look around after six seasons on Parks, Plaza plans to continue her attempt “…to be considered a well-rounded actor, not a weirdo.” That starts next year with Dirty Grandpa and Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates. Given her peppy, workmanlike embrace of masturbation (The To Do List), doll parts (Playing It Cool), and, um, quirky guest appearances (any number of talk shows), she’s demonstrated she’s unafraid to attempt almost anything, including being herself – no small feat in her line of work. If part of the outrageousness allows her to remain a bit of an enigma, we can live with that. What we most want to see is what Plaza does next, because if there’s one thing that’s obvious, the woman’s capable of almost anything.
Ep 134. Common
59:39Common is a man who is anything but, and he’s been evolving as an artist since the start of his three-decade-and-counting career when he was a young musician rapping about his love for hip-hop. These days, in addition to being a Grammy-winning artist, Common is an established actor, known for his work on AMC’s Hell on Wheels and films like American Gangster, Selma, and Just Wright. Common is what you’d call a conscious artist—someone who uses his platform to encourage social and political change. He believes it’s the responsibility of an artist to say, “I see what you’re going through, and I’m going to stand up and use my voice, my talents, and my energy towards making your world better.” In his song “Black America Again,” he uses the power of music to show us the problems that arise from systemic racism and what we can do to resolve them. Despite his success, he’s not living a life disassociated from the, er, common people. You might even catch him writing a new song in his car if you find yourself in traffic on the 405. Ultimately, Common is an artist who cherishes the opportunity to grow and evolve, so if he has it his way, he’ll be freestyling into his seventies. Common joins Off Camera to discuss the responsibility of an artist, the socio-economic underpinnings of hip-hop braggadocio, and why he loves to feel nervous when he’s starting a new project.
Ep 25. Jessica Chastain
1:01:14What does it take to feel confident that you’ve made it in Hollywood? “Coming from nowhere with no connections” and going almost overnight to A-list status with leads in a string of the most highly acclaimed films in recent history would do the trick. So would a modest but steely belief that acting is what you’re meant to do, and always will do. Jessica Chastain wasn’t always certain of her path, but she never questioned her destination. That helps when you find yourself going to audition after audition with zero film work to show casting directors. Though daunting, it allowed her the rare opportunity to enter wide public and industry consciousness with a series of performances as revelatory as they were different in Jolene, Tree of Life, The Help and Zero Dark Thirty. While deeply appreciative of the experiences those films earned her to work with some of the most innovative and talented directors and cinematographers in the business, Chastain says she still feels the need to eventually take her roles away from the writers and directors with whom she collaborates. Call it an overdeveloped sense of ownership; but it’s the kind of ownership that creates characters whose inner life is so transparent that we’re along for the ride from first frame. But perhaps the most admirable and inspiring aspect of her position in Hollywood is how she’s using it to advocate for a much-needed increase in female presence, perspective and opportunities in the industry she loves. She knows bringing Off Camera votes Jessica Chastain for Best Actress…and maybe for President.
Ep 46. Joseph Gordon-Levitt
1:01:22One of best ways to enter and appreciate the original, prolific brain of Joseph Gordon-Levitt is through the lens of hitRECord, the open, collaborative production company he founded in 2005, and one of the most creative and inspiring uses of the Internet ever. Its nearly 100,000 members submit projects – films, stories, songs, drawings, you name it – for other members to edit, build on and evolve. Gordon-Levitt credits directing short films on hitRECord with teaching him what he needed to know to make Don Jon, his first feature film as a writer, director and star. It was a darkly comic but ultimately hopeful tale about what happens when we become too connected to our devices, consuming people as things and communicating at versus with each other. His effort was rewarded with critical acclaim rare for actors who have the audacity to become auteurs; more importantly, audiences dug it. A lot of artists might find hitting it out of the park on their first time at bat daunting, but it just made him want to do more, and on a more collaborative level. That’s because Gordon-Levitt has never been fond of one-way streets – not for communication, not for critiques, not for creating, and especially not for careers. He could’ve ambled down his own pretty easy and lucrative path after early childhood success in commercials, films and most famously, NBC’s hit sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. Instead, he went to Columbia University, largely out of a desire to reclaim the feeling of “not knowing what I was going to be” – an open question for many college freshmen, but few actors who’ve worked steadily from the age of four. When he found himself roaming the streets of New York with a video camera, he knew a return to acting was inevitable, but he knew it would have to be in unexpected roles – not to make an artistic statement, but to prove to the business (and himself) that he didn’t have to be just one thing. When such roles weren’t immediately forthcoming, his restless creativity found an outlet in hitRECord. The roles he was seeking eventually surfaced in films like 500 Days of Summer, Brick, Inception and Mysterious Skin; and hitRECord projects began to take on momentum. Good times for someone who “gets off on the stuff I never anticipated would happen.” He believes we should welcome versus dread the unexpected, that change is the most natural state, that good becomes great when we all participate and, as poignantly demonstrated by his late brother Dan, that “people can be whatever the hell they want to be.” All of which posits that the best artists are collaborators, and the best collaborators tend to have a stubborn optimistic streak. Maybe it’s that enthusiasm (and a certain degree of DIY showmanship) that invests his performance as funambulist Philippe Petit in Robert Zemekis’ The Walk with such verve and authenticity. That, and his superior make-believe skills – a blank green screen is no match for a fertile imagination. In this issue, we talk to him about that film, the role of technology in modern life, what he’s learned from being on both sides of the camera, and his hopes for future of hitRECord. For those still unclear on that concept, tune in to our broadcast episode for Gordon-Levitt’s demonstration – and the musical results. Thanks, well,…everyone.