IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Mark Pellegrino Talks 'Bad Turn Worse,' the Craft of Acting, Learning from David Mamet, and the Legacy of 'The Big Lebowski'

Sunday, 16 November 2014 22:04 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Mark Pellegrino Talks 'Bad Turn Worse,' the Craft of Acting, Learning from David Mamet, and the Legacy of 'The Big Lebowski'

Professional actor and acting teacher Mark Pellegrino definitely practices what he preaches!

Pellegrino has been a working actor for over 25 years, and has an impressive resume of television and film credits to his name. He has appeared on such popular TV shows as Dexter, Prison Break, Supernatural, Being Human, The Closer, Revolution, and The Tomorrow People. While his film work includes No Holds Barred, Lethal Weapon 3, Mulholland Drive, Spartan, National Treasure, The Number 23, and the Oscar-nominated Capote. However, Pellegrino is probably best known to audiences for his role as Jackie Treehorn’s blond thug in The Big Lebowski, and as the mysterious Jacob on Lost. In addition to acting professionally, he has also spent over 15 years as an acting teacher at the famed Playhouse West School and Repertory Theater in North Hollywood, where I was actually once his student. Now Pellegrino can be seen in the new film Bad Turn Worse, which is earning the actor rave reviews and opens in theaters on November 14th. 

Chase Whale of Film Threat called Mark Pellegrino’s performance in Bad Turn Worse, “The best villain I’ve seen on screen since Heath Ledger’s Joker.” That’s high praise! The film follows three Texas teens (Jeremy Allen White, Logan Huffman, and Mackenzie Davis) that hope to make a break for it and escape their dead-end existence in a cotton-mill town. However, they get sucked into the seedy underbelly of organized crime when one of them steals from a crime boss named Giff (Pellegrino). The film also includes performances from Jon Gries (Taken 2) and William Devane (Interstellar), and was directed by first time feature filmmakers Zeke and Simon Hawkins

I recently had the absolute pleasure of speaking with the great Mark Pellegrino about his work on Bad Turn Worse. My former acting teacher discussed his new film, how he got involved with the project, getting to play such a great role, how he uses the acting technique that he teaches in his professional work, collaborating with first time filmmakers Zeke and Simon Hawkins, what he learned from director David Mamet on Spartan, and the legacy of The Big Lebowski

Here is what Mark Pellegrino had to say about Bad Turn Worse, the craft of acting, learning from David Mamet, and the legacy of The Big Lebowski:

IAR: To begin with, I have to tell you that you were actually my acting teacher when I attended Playhouse West over fifteen years ago. 

Mark Pellegrino: Get out of here! I will be damned. That is great. I think anybody who is going to be around actors, producers, writers and directors, like a journalist who covers the entertainment world, should take a damn acting class and see what it is all about.

I agree! I think everything I learned from you about acting informs my work now as an entertainment journalist. Now that we got that out of the way, how did you get involved with Bad Turn Worse?

Pellegrino: It this just kind of an unusual project in that I got a call from my agent, and he told me that Bennett Miller had called and wanted me to call him back. I worked with Bennett on Capote. I called him because he is a great guy, and I was curious to know what the heck he wanted to talk about. He asked me if I remembered Zeke Hawkins, because Zeke was his assistant on Capote. I know I had met him on the set, but I was preoccupied with a million other things on my mind. The meeting went in and out of my consciousness. It did not stick there, but I remembered it. Bennett said, “Zeke is doing a movie with his brother. It is good. They want you to read it. If you like it, I think you should do it.” I read the script and liked it. The character of Giff was one of those bad guys that I think anybody who plays bad guys mostly for a living would like because he had charisma. He was really bad but there was something about him that did not make you not like him. I liked that about it so I got together with the guys and said yes.

This is a great role for you in particular. When you initially read the script did you recognize that this would be a really good character for you to play?

Pellegrino: Well I was actually a little bit nervous because the part had a lot of dialogue, and normally I am allergic to a lot of dialogue in movies and TV even though I often times have to do. In TV they tend to make you do a lot of expositional stuff. You have to make that real, and that is quite a challenge. In cinema I like to cut as much as I can, but I did not see that there was anything really to cut. I thought I was going to need to make all of this dialogue more palatable to an audience so I decided on a couple of internal character quirks that Giff had. Zeke works in a way that I thought was really communicative. Plus, the guys just let me be free with how I moved around. It was not about blocking something rigidly. It was about finding the movement in the scene and allowing that to determine a lot of the action, which I thought helped move things along as well. The freedom they gave me to move was great. There were some internal questions I think that helped quite a bit to still the nerves about saying a lot of dialogue in the film.

Because you are an acting teacher, can you talk about how you apply the Sanford Meisner technique that you teach to your students, to your professional work as a film and television actor?

Pellegrino: The great thing about the Meisner work is that it makes you present. You have more trust in the moment and in your subconscious to be freed up to respond to the moment. In making deliberate choices that you impose on the moment, you are respective of it. When you really incorporate that moment to moment stuff in your acting, it just makes it more free and spontaneous. Even if you have made choices, you still have to give it up and see what the other person gives you because they are going to make it different. They are going to make you say something differently. I think the longer you do it, the more you start to trust those instincts. But you are required to do a lot of homework. You must know your script backwards and forwards so you can forget and just be present. You know, I have stolen from a lot of people at this point. There was a time in learning the technique that I was militant about the Meisner way of doing things. But a fine element in another approach can be very helpful to me. Other approaches focus on different aspects of the acting tools. Some approaches focus more on imagination, which I think is so helpful. There is value to that. But I am sorry, you are a rational human being, you have to think! There are scenes when that is necessary. You have to think when you are reading a script. You do not just feel your way through it. Your feelings are just as important as your thoughts. Sometimes you have to sit with the director, writer, and producer and say, this does not make sense to me. This does not make sense logically to me and here is why. So I steal from the thoughtful teachers, imagination teachers, and the moment-to-moment teachers at this point. I try to utilize all of them. It is hard to be spontaneous because not only are you doing it over and over again, but also you are stuck with certain movements when something gets set. You have this script that you have to say over and over again. You have obstacles with the camera, and people are in your face. You do not have a lot of time to get in the moment and you really have to work for that. 

At this point in your career you have worked with several legendary directors including the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, and David Mamet. What was your experience like working with first time filmmakers Zeke and Simon Hawkins on Bad Turn Worse?

Pellegrino: I found that they were very much about the individual process of the actor. All of us had our own unique approaches. They were very hands off, and it felt very collaborative. The camera did not feel intrusive, which was nice. I would imagine a lot of first time directors might not have that kind of savvy to keep their hands loosely on the wheel to make sure the story is being told. But at the same time let the actor have their process and make the camera a non-intrusive element to the human thing that is going on between the actors. I think that is advanced. That is not a first time director thing. I really felt like they had a craft, and they knew how to use it. For my money I think they were unique. Not many directors can talk to each actor in their own language, and I felt like they did that.

Of all the directors that you’ve worked with throughout your career, which one do you think you’ve learned from the most?

Pellegrino: I have learned something from everybody. I can tell you that the only director that gave me actable direction, like gave an action, was David Mamet. I thought that was profound.

Did you find that direction to be useful in your performance?

Pellegrino: I found it very useful because I had to say a lot of dialogue in that movie (Spartan). It was my first day on set, and I had to do three pages of dialogue. I was worried about feeling David wanted it word for word. In the end he just gave me a simple thought, and that thought animated everything. It was the doing of the scene. That punch line informed every single word that I said. I thought it was free and fun to do. All the other guys have taught me something in their own way as well. Mainly their visionary style and the way they tell the story. They trust in the casting process to have given them everything that they need. They have to say and do very little to make the moment happen.

Finally, I wanted to ask you about your involvement in The Big Lebowski, which has really taken on a life of its own to become a cult classic. How do you feel about the legacy of that film and being a part of something that is so beloved by its fans?

Pellegrino: I am very happy to be a part of something that has had that much of an impact on people and that has given them joy. It is great to be a part of a project that tells its story so well. I learned a lot from Joel and Ethan Coen. Just watching their process and watching how they made the page come to life. The script was great but then you watch what they had done to it visually, and you see how you make these moments happen. It is crazy to be a part of something like that; you are a little piece of history. As unintended as it was for me, not knowing what it was going to become, I am still in a little piece of something that is historical in a sense.

Bad Turn Worse opens in theaters on November 14th. 

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