Director Philip Noyce’s The Giver is out in theaters this week – and our own Brian Walton had the opportunity to speak with its star, Brenton Thwaites, about adapting the beloved dystopian novel.
The Australian actor has appeared in numerous television and film roles, most recently starring in The Signal for director William Eubank, and playing Prince Philip in Disney’s Maleficent.
In the film, Thwaites plays Jonas, a young man living in a future where all emotion and feeling has been chemically removed from the population – it’s a concept that allows this futuristic society to achieve at the expense of all of the other things that makes us human. In our interview, Thwaites discusses finding emotion in an emotionless world, learning from co-star Jeff Bridges, and what the sci-fi allegory can tell us about what’s going on in our own backyards.
Nerdist: The Giver features a very complex set of morals. It’s a very complicated thing that this book is trying to help explain to a younger audience. What did being a part of this movie mean to you, and how did you feel about trying to approach such weighty material for an audience that is definitely at an age where they are receptive to it and need that kind of an influence?
Brenton Thwaites: Well, it was an opportunity to teach young people that they should do the right thing. Our world is changing. We have so much access now to knowledge and to the truth, and this community, in a way, doesn’t. So I guess it’s nice for them to wonder what would it be like without that knowledge and that access, and also the power that they have, in order to be free, to search for the truth. They just need to realize it. I think this film helps them with that.
N: So an interesting thing has happened between me seeing this movie and this movie coming out, and that’s some of the things that are happening in Ferguson, Missouri, where you can see that The Giver isn’t actually some fable from some far-flung future – it’s dealing with some things that are currently starting to really bubble to the surface. How do you feel about making a movie that, in light of some of the things going on, is very much going to be a touchstone for some of these conversations?
BT: Well, it’s a universal film, you know? In some countries, they’re not as lucky as us, in America and Australia. I’m the worst person in the world to talk about politics with, but I just know that I was very lucky in my upbringing, and some others weren’t. I’m kind of proud that this film relates to all races, all kinds of people. It’s human. It’s a film that asks the question, “What makes us human?” The right to be free, and I feel like everyone can relate to that.
N: One of the things I’m very interested in is – and it didn’t really get discussed much at the press conference, but I really wanted to talk about your scenes with your family in the film.
BT: Well, in my scenes with my mother and father, we have to give off a sense of comfort and love without giving away too much of what love is. It was a challenge, in a way, for Katie [Holmes] and Alex [Skarsgård] because as parents, they need to nurture us. However, they don’t know what love is at this point. So it was a fine line between loving too much and loving too little to make it cold.
There’s a point in the film where Jonas realizes what his family does — that they don’t choose their children – they’re assigned children. They’re assigned names. Everything is structured. Everything has a time where we can talk about our feelings, and there’s a moment where Jonas realizes that, ultimately, his father is a murderer. In the book he says – they’re still killing them, it’s just called a different thing. Lois really wanted to see the impact of that at the end of the story, where the characters that we know and that we’ve felt warm with, like the mother, the father, Fiona, the Giver – that’s not in the book, but I think that has a greater impact in letting us see the consequences of what happened.
N: One thing I’m very curious about… there’s so much in the movie where it’s you, Jeff Bridges and that beautiful set with the books, and there is such camaraderie there. How did you guys find that familial relationship with the director? How did those scenes work between the three of you? What was that dynamic like?
BT: It was a place where all ideas were welcome. It was almost theatrical. The first week of rehearsals was almost like rehearsing a play, in a way, because that set was like a stage. It had an open front, which we saw as the fourth wall, almost, because beyond, into elsewhere, was something that I hadn’t seen before.
So when you see me going to the Giver’s quarters, I see the tree at the edge of the cliff – something I had never seen before. It was a place where Jeff would offer ideas and I would offer ideas and Phil would listen to our ideas, while also trying to keep true to the story and visually create an interesting dynamic between all of the memories that were given to me. Were they all going to be given on the chair? Or were they all going to be given in a space where it was assigned to be given memories? Or could he give me a memory in the downstairs compartment, where the piano is? That was all something we kind of played with and thought of very intently. That was great – it was a great environment.
N: That’s interesting to hear that, because during the press conference, it sounded like there was a lot of respect and love between you guys. It was very interesting. I’ve got to imagine that coming out of that, you’ve got a really strong bond with two role models at this point.
BT: Well, I had to prove myself with my ideas, I have to say. I would give an idea, and the next day Phil would say, “I didn’t listen to you last night, but you were right.” I’d say, “Oh, thanks for listening to my idea a day after I gave the idea.” [chuckling]
N: I love at the beginning how visually, the director found a way to show that you had an aptitude for the emotion. He found very dynamic way of bringing everything together, and I know it was in the book, but at the same time, to see it visualized in that way, to see the color palette really bringing out this kind of closed-off society, you do a great job of providing that humanity throughout the whole thing. When you’re dealing with complicated things like that, of feeling emotions that you don’t understand, what is that extra hurdle like in the scene? I’m sure it’s probably very easy to play an emotion, but it’s got to be way more difficult to play an emotion and have to play that you don’t understand what you’re feeling.
BT: Oh yeah, but for some reason, the first time, I didn’t understand what I was feeling anyway. And that’s kind of – I was confused in what they wanted, I was confused in what Phil was telling me. The whole thing, to me, was a little confusing, and that shows, and that’s right. The parallel was luckily similar.
N: That’s interesting, because that shows through in such an innocent way. It’s really great. I really do enjoy the film – I’m sorry if I’m going on a little bit.
BT: That’s great, thanks, man! You know, as an actor, you want to just jump out of your skin and feel things, right? But this was a challenge for me because Phil would always tell me keep it smaller, less is more, don’t do so much, don’t do anything! I would try and not do anything but always, something would come through. So for me it was a challenge to lessen my performance, as opposed to give more.
N: That’s interesting to learn that type of an acting lesson so early in your career. You’ve worked a film where you got to work with some grand masters – some people who really know the craft. What’s something that you look forward to taking onto your next project, and what might that project be?
BT: I have no idea what’s around the corner. That’s a lie – there’s a good coffee place down on 7th. [chuckles] You know, it’s a series of things that I feel. I don’t know how to describe them. It’s a confidence in front of the camera now. It’s a respect for my ideas. And it’s also a self-respect. What I mean by that is that it’s self-belief. The main things actors have to do, I think, is to relax and to trust themselves. With that, you can kind of do anything. And I learnt that off Jeff and Phil and Meryl and Katie, and even Odeya and Cameron. So I’ll take that feeling with me everywhere I go.
N: That’s a very awesome parallel to the point of The Giver, of people being able to trust themselves.
The Giver is in theaters now.