IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Paul Blackthorne Talks 'This American Journey' and 'Arrow'

Tuesday, 03 December 2013 14:32 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Paul Blackthorne Talks 'This American Journey' and 'Arrow'

Actor Paul Blackthorne can now add documentary filmmaker to his impressive list of credits!

Until now, Blackthorne was best known as a TV actor having appeared on such successful shows as ER, 24, and the cult hit The Dresden Files. More recently, he can be seen each week playing Detective Quentin Lance on the extremely popular CW series Arrow, which is based on the DC Comics character Green Arrow and is now in its second season. However, now the British actor has made his directorial debut with the brilliant new documentary This American Journey, which is currently available on DVD, Hulu On Demand, Vimeo On Demand, and Amazon On Demand. 

This American Journey, which personally I think is one of the best documentaries of the year, follows Blackthorne's travels across the country interviewing random people and asking them how they feel about the American dream. Along with Australian photographer Mister Basquali, they drive across America from ghettos to gun shows, courthouses to cattle yards, and are forever changed by the wisdom and insight the learn from the people they meet. What begins as a film about America; actually ends up dealing with themes of race, religion and guns, which after all is in some ways is what this country is all about. 

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with actor turned documentary filmmaker Paul Blackthorne about his work on This American Journey, as well as his series ArrowBlackthorne talked candidly about This American Journey, why he wanted to make it, his journey across America, meeting Mister Basquali, the dog they adopted along the way, the production, his favorite moment of the trip, what he learned from the experience, being recognized, Arrow, the success of the show, not being familiar with DC Comics, how his character has changed from the first season, the writing staff’s overall plan, and introducing new DC characters into the series. 

Here is what Paul Blackthorne had to say about This American Journey and Arrow:

IAR: To begin with, can you talk about the genesis of this project and how you came up with the idea to make This American Journey?

Paul Blackthorne: It wasn’t long after the economic downturn that occurred in this country. I was not sure how I was feeling about America given the state of the country and where the American dream seemed to have ended up flat on its face. So I wasn’t sure how I was feeling. I’ve always loved America since I was a kid. I’ve been in and out of America for a long, long time. But I was questioning those feelings, and I thought the best way to have a fully informed opinion about America was to actually go travel across the country as much as I could and interview as many Americans as I could outside of the bubble that I tend to exist in, which is New York and Los Angeles. In order to work out how I felt about America I wanted to see how Americans felt about the country and what they were feeling, then I could form my own opinion more fully. So that’s what I did. I was mulling over the idea and then I just got to know this guy at this coffee shop for about a month beforehand and he said he would come along with me, which I wasn’t really expecting, but he dove in with me. So this trip took place in the most unexpected fashion and I’m glad it did. It was a very uplifting experience within itself as well as the journey of making the film. Now that I’m hearing the reactions to it such as your own, and hearing that people definitely are uplifted and inspired by it, it’s been great!

So you did not really know your traveling companion, Mister Basquali, previously to making the film and going on this journey, is that correct?

Blackthorne: Yes. I had just moved back to a neighborhood in Brooklyn that I used to live in years ago and there was a coffee shop that was open. I was going in there for a little while and then I met this like coffee shop guy. We sort of got on well, and he seemed like a nice guy. I sort of mentioned to him that I’d like to go across America and interview people as to how they felt about the state of America, and he just said, “Oh, I’ll come with you mate.” I said, okay, I guess you’re coming. So off we went two weeks later.

Can you talk about the actual production? What size crew did you bring with you and what type of cameras were you using? 

Blackthorne: Yeah, it was a very small production. It was myself, and Basquali, and he was shooting the Super 8 camera that we picked up for $200 on the way out of New York. He was shooting photos on his old school Canon as well. I was shooting on a Canon G10 at that time, digital. Then in the back we had John Tanzer, our director of photography. He was shooting on a Sony XA10 I think it was, a digital camera and Yahel Dooley, our sound recorder who held the boom for us. It was just the four of us, and then Bodi, the dog that we picked up at the end of the trip. 

How’s the dog? Does Mister Basquali still have Bodi? 

Blackthorne: Mister Basquali has Bodi. She is just the most fantastic dog you can possibly imagine. She sits outside the cafe in Brooklyn and whenever I get a chance to see Bodi it’s a happy day for me. I love that dog and she’s very happy with Mister Basquali in Brooklyn.

You say in the movie that you decided where to go on your journey based on diner recommendations. Is that really how you chose your route across America?

Blackthorne: Yes, honestly there was not much more to it than that. We would get to a place and someone would recommend a diner or a destination of some sort in a nearby town heading vaguely west so we’d be like, great, let’s go there then. One of the reasons for that is that I always find that the most interesting things happen when you don’t have plans. I wanted it to be as unplanned and spontaneous as possible. Some of the most interesting things are bound to happen and so that’s what we did. We kind of just headed west according to places that people suggested we might want to go visit. 

Obviously the movie is about America, but really the themes that you end up exploring in the film are race, religion and guns. If you think about it, that’s really what America is, isn’t it? Is that what you ended up discovering while making this project?      

Blackthorne: Obviously there are certain subjects that are prevalent in the matter of the country. I felt as we started off it was very much about the state of America, but I felt by the end of the trip itself, and also reflected in this movie, it’s really more about the state of our minds. Because when we feel certain things make us happy, material things if we consume lots of this and lots of that, we’ve been given the idea by various parties that that’s the thing that will make us happy, lots of this and lots of that. One of the things we discovered as we made the trip is that it’s not necessarily lots of this and lots of that in terms of material and consumption, it’s each other, and it’s community. Just basically treat people like you want to be treated yourself. We’re all in this together. We’ve got more in common than we have different. There’s some tough times going on at the moment, but if we focus on the positive then we’ve got everything we need. In the meantime let’s just get on with it together. I don’t know if that’s ideological, but if you put yourself in a more positive state of mind, you’ve got a better chance at having a positive thing happen as opposed to sitting there and dwelling on all the negative stuff. I think this film shows us a way in that sense. We’ve got more in common than we have different. If you divide everybody up they can be more easily controlled, and there’s some good people out there and they’re talking a lot of sense. Anything I might be talking about now is not anything I’m particularly saying. It’s what I learned listening to the people of America on this trip. They were very educational to us. 

Did you have a favorite moment of the journey or a favorite person that you met along the way?

Blackthorne: Yeah, I loved Kyle, the NRA member at the gun show because it was one of those classic examples where it shines a light on your own thinking. You see an NRA guy with a gun on his hip outside a gun show and immediately you form all these opinions and presumptions about him. But then you sit there and you actually listen to him and you’re like, hang on a second. He’s talking about the environment. He’s talking about sitting down and talking to people as opposed to shooting them. He’s talking about being open minded, and whatever the views are of what he’s saying it clearly wasn’t what we were expecting. It is very easy to form opinions about people according to where they are, what they’re wearing and what they sound like. We really do ourselves a disservice when we do that because we miss the opportunity to learn so much about other people. He was the greatest example of that. He taught me the biggest lesson from that point of view. Never presume!

I’m a big fan of the series Arrow, and I remember watching you on The Dresden Files, 24, and other various TV series over the years. To me, you are a very recognizable actor. While you were traveling across the country doing interviews did anyone ever stop you and say, “Hey, aren’t you that guy from TV?”

Blackthorne: There were a couple of times when that happened, but it’s a funny thing that happens with that recognition. People did not expect a Hollywood actor to be in Little Rock, Arkansas, or somewhere in the middle of Tennessee, or in a little town in Mississippi. Often people would look at me and I could see something turning in their brain. They’re thinking, I kind of know that face from somewhere. I think the next thought they had was, that guys not going to be around here so it can’t be him. It happened quite surprisingly a few times. To be honest, on the occasions that it did happen I was just like, yeah, anyway what’s life like around here? I want to talk to you about life around here. That’s much more interesting. 

As a successful Hollywood actor, did you ever have a conflict of conscious about asking people in poor areas to discuss their economic situations?

Blackthorne: No, not at all, I went in there with an open mind. I wanted to educate myself through the people of America as to how I felt about America. To me it’s just an opportunity to sit there in the freezing cold and listen to people and to learn from their lives. For people who tell stories, whether it’s through films or television shows, I think the more time you spend with actual people outside of Hollywood or the entertainment industry, the more experience you could have to grow as a human. I find it great to get out there, get into the unknown places and really meet some people that are much different from the people you tend to meet in the entertainment world. I just enjoy that and learn from them. I wanted to listen to people out there and they didn’t have a problem with that. They seemed happy to chat.

Do you feel like you are a stronger actor now that you have had this life experience?

Blackthorne: I think it benefits any person in any field to have perspective because we often sit there in our lives wherever we are and lose perspective extremely quickly. We dwell on the things we don’t have extremely quickly and therefore we are negative. I think when you go to places where there isn’t so much of what you’re accustomed to in your own life it gives you perspective on what you should be grateful for in your own world. I think whether it’s for acting, whether you’re an accountant, or no matter what you do, I think a good travel experience to see the world outside of the world that you exist in is good for the soul. It’s good for the perspective, and it’s good to make you realize how fortunate you are. 

As I mentioned earlier, I’m a big fan of Arrow and actually a huge fan of the Green Arrow character in general. Are you pleased with how well the series has been received by both mainstream audiences and hardcore comic book fans like myself?

Blackthorne: Yeah, it’s been great. The show is a lot of fun because there’s this comic book aspect to it, but the characters are so well developed and so well written amidst that comic book world. So there’s a lot of juicy stuff to get into from an acting point of view. The writers have created a great world, a great mythology, and great characters. It’s a real privilege to be a part of that because it’s quality stuff. 

Before working on the series, were you familiar with Green Arrow, DC Comics, or any of the DC characters that have been populating the show? Did you read any of the classic Green Arrow or DC comics as research for your role?

Blackthorne: No, I’m not very familiar with the comic book world to be honest. I don’t do an awful lot of research on the comic book world because what I’m concerned with is what we’re putting in front of the TV cameras and the scripts. There are characters that pop up in the scripts that make sense and I’m like, Oh, Bronze Tiger, I guess that’s a comic book character then. That’s all good fun, but it’s all about how those characters relate to the other characters in the context of the scripts that matters to me. I like discovering them all through our stories, through the Arrow scripts. 

This season we’ve seen your character working with Arrow as opposed to against him, as well as recently discovering that his daughter Sara, who he long thought was dead, is actually alive. How has that changed you character and how will it affect him throughout the rest of this season?

Blackthorne: Who knows what’s around the corner in this show. That’s what’s great about it. Every script is a treat to read for the first time. Because you’re going, oh, we’re going in this direction, and the development that the writers have made for the stories and the characters have been really great to discover. Who knows where it is all going? The one thing I find really interesting about this season from Lance’s point of view is that he’s in a much happier place this season from the first season because ultimately he’s doing the right thing. Within his heart he’s doing the right thing now. He may be working outside of the system of the law but he has come to realize from seeing what this guy did in season one, that it may be unorthodox the way he’s doing it, but it is for the greater good and he’s obviously a positive force for the greater good. Lance has had to step outside of the system of law that he was indoctrinated in. Having done that now the bigger picture for him is that he is able to do more good for the thing that matters most to him and that’s Starling City and the people of Starling City. That’s what’s in his blood. So he’s actually in a better place. He’s like, you know what, I’m getting more stuff done in this unorthodox way working with this Arrow guy and he’s a lot happier this season. It’s great to be around him. 

Will the secret that he is carrying that Sara is really alive start to affect his relationship with his other daughter, Laurel? 

Blackthorne: I’m sure it’ll pop up somewhere down the line. 

A lot of mythology driven shows have suffered in the past because the writers didn’t completely know where they wanted to go with the series. As a fan, I get the feeling that your writing staff really knows where they’re going with the overall arc of the show. Do you have that feeling as well from reading the scripts week to week?

Blackthorne: One does get the impression the writer’s room does really know where they’re going. It’s just strong. The mythology of this Arrow world that they’ve created is just so strong. It just seems they’re all together so well. The characters that come in from the rest of the comic book world seem to fit in beautifully. The bad guys that are coming, and the conflicts that are occurring between the families, the Lances and the Queens, they’ve just done it brilliantly. They seem to have a very strong grip on where it’s going and that’s really heartening, which is obviously much to do with the shows success because they know what they’re doing. 

Finally, the December 4th episode of Arrow will see the introduction of Barry Allen (The Flash), and there have been recent rumors that other popular DC characters like Nightwing (Dick Grayson), and Nyssa al Ghul (Daughter of Ra’s al Ghul) will soon be appearing on the show. Do you know if you will have scenes with any of those characters?

Blackthorne: I’m sure those characters will be popping into the Arrow universe. It’ll be interesting to see how that all plays out. 

This American Journey is currently available on DVD, Hulu On Demand, Vimeo On Demand, and Amazon On Demand. 

For more information, please go to the This American Journey website by clicking right here

 Photos of Paul Blackthorne courtesy of Jennifer Cawley

Arrow airs Wednesday nights on The CW. 

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