Pat Healy is “that guy,” only now you might be recognizing him more than you did in the past. A veteran character actor with over 100 credits to his name and an avowed cinephile and writer, he has popped up in blink-or-you’ll-miss-him roles in films like Pearl Harbor, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Rescue Dawn, and Snow Angels, just to name a small handful. He has an equally lengthy number of TV credits.
But in the past few years, Healy has hit the trifecta, delivering extremely memorable and high profile performances as a ghost hunter in Ti West’s The Innkeepers, a psychopath in Craig Zobel’s Compliance, and now as a down on his luck family man driven to extremes in Cheap Thrills (out on Blu-Ray and DVD today). Here he stars as Craig, a mild mannered, very recently unemployed father and husband who meets up – purely by chance – with an estranged acquaintance named Vince (Ethan Embry) over drinks. As they get their drunk on, they’re approached by a rich eccentric (David Koechner) and his aloof wife (Sara Paxton) to commit to doing dares for cash. As the proper night on the town turns into the afterparty from hell, Vince and Craig will commit the same kind of one-upmanship that dismantled their friendship in the first place on a much larger, grosser, and far more painful scale.
It caps off a huge winning run of small appearances in big, high profile studio films that comes mixed with higher profile roles in small films. Cheap Thrills began making the festival circuit over a year ago now, and the buzz hasn’t let up, only getting stronger and stronger thanks to the cast, crew, and fans of the film working overtime to create a grassroots buzz and awareness of the film that now carries over to its home entertainment release.
We called Healy last week to talk about being a part of so many memorable filmgoing experiences, what appeals to him about characters who can never do the right thing, and why the uncomfortable shoot for Cheap Thrills made the film’s tension far more palpable.
Dork Shelf: First of all, I have to thank you for taking the time out to talk to me, especially since I’ve really loved the film since I saw it almost a year ago now.
Pat Healy: Aw, thanks man, it’s people like you who have helped this movie have a really great life.
DS: And that’s one of the first things I wanted to talk to you about. It seems like recently as opposed to a lot of the bigger films that you have tiny roles in, you’ve really been blessed lately with films like The Innkeepers, Compliance, and now Cheap Thrills to be involved with projects where you have bigger roles that have really long life spans where people still keep discovering. So what’s it like to be involved with smaller projects that maybe don’t necessarily take off the second that they hit, but that tend to grow in appreciation and audience over time?
PH: Well, I’m a cinephile. I love all kinds of movies and I always wanted to be involved with movies that were good. I realize that I won’t always have control over that happening, but the most control I have is finding a script that’s good and working with a director that seems to know what he or she is doing.
That’s the case with all three of those films. I had the good fortune of working with Craig Zobel before Compliance, and we had been good friends. I knew that Compliance would be good. With Ti West (on The Innkeepers), I was a huge fan of his films and I was just lucky enough to be asked for him. And this script for Cheap Thrills was one of the best scripts that I had ever been given to read, and certainly the best part that I’ve ever been offered, so it was a no brainer.
I have a pretty long career acting primarily as a guest star on network television shows and smaller parts in bigger movies, and it was just my feeling that I was never really breaking out. They were all sort of lateral moves that weren’t doing anything financially for me. So I have this kind of sliding career where I can do a little screenwriting. It got to a point where screenwriting was doing enough for me that I could kind of stop auditioning and doing these gigs that paid well, and instead go for some of these gigs that don’t necessarily pay well, but that can advance my career well like those three films. I was really happy to be a part of them, and it’s helped me to grow a lot as both a person and as an actor.
And I think that my love of film my whole life just tended to guide my taste towards things that were good, and you know that a lot of the films that we love as cinephiles are these cult movies that maybe don’t pop right away, but they have a really long, strong life. That’s great as a fan and as an artist and actor. Right now, I really couldn’t be happier. Even the bigger films that I’ve done like Magnolia, Ghost World, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford didn’t pop when they came out, but they’re all really popular now. That’s the power of those kinds of films.
As a person, that’s a bit more difficult to deal with, though. The career momentum that you build if a film doesn’t become a hit right away or doesn’t get critical acclaim right away isn’t very tangible. Then it could become about getting money and more money and you can really get confused. It’s a little more challenging as a person to have to deal with that kind of a wait for something to take off. But now with that wait between a theatrical and a DVD, Netflix, and Video on Demand being so short, it’s a lot less time.
I’m really not as worried anymore. I’m certainly proud to be a part of things that I have no problem continuing to do interview after interview about because I actually believe in them and think that people will like these things. All these films are great films that I would love to see myself and I really like them, so I feel good about that. As a result, I didn’t make a lot of money making these films, but my writing has afforded me the chance to do them, and because of their life spans that means more work and more attention for me, so I must be doing something right.
DS: I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier in a screening with only press and the press there got a kick out of seeing you show up and they popped a bit to see you because they know who you are, but I think the coolest moment of the year was when I went to a public screening of Draft Day, a film that has a ton of cameos for a lot of big stars bigger than you, but when you popped up, the crowd actually cheered! No one else got that reaction.
PH: (laughs) That’s so nice! That was a really good script, as well. I was always a huge fan of Ivan Reitman’s, and his films were such a big part of my life growing up. I saw Ghostbusters in the theatres nine times, and my dad took me to go see Stripes for my tenth birthday, so Ivan was always really important to me, and it was just a great script.
And it was also a really great part even though I’m only in one scene of the movie, and it’s a great scene because it’s the part of the film where everything is really starting to come together. You know, I don’t know how that translates for me into anything else, but it really is nice enough to know that people enjoyed seeing me. I really like that movie a lot. It’s always great to be a great part of something that’s really good even if I don’t get singled out. Even Ivan has been really kind to me personally and in the press, and it’s great to be in a film alongside people like Ellen Burstyn, Denis Leary, Kevin Costner, and all these great people. Even Jim Brown! That was the most exciting thing for me to be in a room even once with Jim Brown, even though we didn’t work together on a scene, that was a huge deal for me. It’s awesome to be singled out like that.
DS: Getting back to Cheap Thrills, you kind of made the joke yourself that people would watch Cheap Thrills just because you were such an asshole in Compliance and people would want to see bad things happen to you. But there’s a similarity to the two films that fascinates me, which is that both films focus on people who think they are establishing some sort of control over their lives that makes them feel good only for a short period of time. As an actor and as a writer is that something that you find interesting to play with?
PH: Well, what you’re getting at is kind of at the heart of great film noir and what works really well in both of these movies. That has always fascinated me about that genre and that style. It’s also the basis for the best Greek tragedies. There’s something really entertaining to watch people who are trying to make things better for themselves, but they end up making it worse and worse. I always use the analogy often that it’s like that episode of The Simpsons where Homer gets stuck in quicksand and he says he’s going to pull his feet out with his hands and he’s going to pull his hands out with his face. (laughs) It makes sense in the moment, and once you’re down in that hole, you’ll do anything you can to survive. There’s a well known actor, and I can’t think of his name right now, but he acted in a lot of noir films and he said that noir was sort of defined by people who under no circumstances will do the right thing. No matter what situation it is that they’re trying to get themselves out of, they are incapable of “right things.”
And that’s not just fascinating to me because I’ve always been fascinated by the Greeks and noir, but because that’s really the story of drama, tension, and despair. It’s to watch someone who doesn’t know what’s happening to them from the beginning go further down. Will they pull themselves out or will they descend into hell? The latter is usually the case.
A lot of people had difficulty with Compliance when it came to believing the story or understanding why these people do the things they do, which is crazy because it’s based on a true story that actually did happen. Similarly there are things that happen in Cheap Thrills where it would be easy for people to say “Oh, I would never do that,” but under the right, desperate circumstances, who’s to say someone wouldn’t do some of these things?
I think for me and for a lot of people, they will draw the line on harming themselves and harming others. Someone might harm themselves for a hundred grand or more, because everyone really has a price, but in terms of murdering someone or harassing them for a full day, I’m sure most people draw the line at that. But there’s more things that people would do in Cheap Thrills that would make people question what they could do. You really don’t know what you would or could bring yourself to do in this situation.
I don’t compare being an actor to being a soldier in combat, but I do compare what my character in this movie goes through to being like a soldier going through combat. When you get into a situation like this where your back’s against the wall, you might do something horribly damaging. I don’t want to ruin the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but you never know what you are capable of doing until you are in that moment without time to think about it and react on anything more than instinct and emotion, and that’s a real comparison point between my characters in Cheap Thrills and Compliance, except one is a real life situation. You only have access to the information that you have at that time, and that information is often tainted by your own emotional state, which, let’s face it, isn’t good. And in Cheap Thrills the physical state isn’t good, either, with the inebriation and exhaustion not being conducive to good decision making. It has all the ingredients of all the things you shouldn’t do just to help the direction of your family.
DS: It’s a really fine line in Cheap Thrills that you guys have to walk as performers for the film to work, because you have to fall in line with this kind of carnival vibe that David is giving off. You and Ethan have to create characters who at the start of this would never have dreamed their night would never have gone this way, and over the course of a few hours change someone’s entire life as an actor.
PH: The film starts off as a party, and we want to invite the audience to the party, but it’s not going to turn out that way, and David is the Roast Master and the host. It’s fun and you think we’re going to go to a great party. At worst my character thinks he’s going to go home and everything will be fine except the hangover the next morning, but we never know what lies ahead. It’s like Homer Simpson in the quicksand, again. Once you’re in it, then you have to get out of it however you can, and it might be the dumbest things ever, but you gotta do what you gotta do.
I think one of the things that works really well in the movie is that it does invite people in in a very fun way, so that when things get bad, they’re right there with us.
DS: And for a film where there’s such a small cast it helps that you guys all have completely different styles and methods and ways of reacting to things going bad, and that gives the film its unique tone and intense dark comedy. What was it like being a part of a puzzle where the pieces are all really different?
PH: Well, I think that what you’re talking about still really speaks to the nature and creation of tension and drama in the movie; to put people who are in direct conflict with each other and have them all vie for a goal.
I think that we all meshed really well together with the exception of Ethan and I. And Ethan and I have become quite good friends now, but during the filming we really couldn’t have been more different people and different actors. We just didn’t vibe, which works great for the movie! There’s a lot of very real tension in it.
Sara and I have been friends for a long time now, and we like to make each other laugh. David and I have been good friend, too, and he certainly makes me laugh a lot. So that sort of provided a lot of the levity in moments when we aren’t only dealing with really heavy material, but also with this shoot that was challenging physically and emotionally.
A lot of it was fun, but in a lot of it when you have that clash in personalities when you’re doing scenes it’s just such a treat because you can feel it working. You can feel the electricity and the excitement between the performers. You can feel it all coming to life, and that’s the most rewarding thing you can do as an actor is to be a part of an experience like that. You could be working off other people who are at the top of their game who are constantly keeping you on your toes and making you do better. I think that’s one of the reasons why the movie works so well.
DS: When I talked to your director about the shoot, he also told me that a lot of the film’s physical discomfort also came from the fact that the shoot was apparently really hot in terms of sheer temperature. Do you think that added to it?
PH: Well, when we shot the film in September of 2012, it was 105 degrees in L.A., so without air conditioning in the house it was more like 120 degrees in there. On top of that, we only had ten days to complete the film and we lost half a day due to rolling blackouts due to the temperature. So there was a real palpable and urgent madness to what we’re trying to pull off that lends itself to the film well. It made that feeling of putting you in that room with us even stronger, and the way it’s shot is very verite. It makes you feel like you’re a fly on the wall or you’re peering around the corner to see what’s going on. So it’s like you’re unable to go home, yourself. I think it did everything for the shoot.
You know, people can look at not having enough money and enough time as a disadvantage, and it actually is (laughs), but sometimes it can work to your advantage on a film like this where everything hinges on desperation and madness is the name of the game. As miserable as it might make you feel on any given day, at the end of it all, it all makes it into the film.