Phil Hanley Interview: From Stand-Up to Sundowner

When Phil Hanley, a stand-up comedian living in New York with no previous acting experience, found himself in the lead role of a Canadian film shooting in Columbia last winter, it was like something out of a fever dream. Not just because most of the cast and crew were ill at some point during the shoot, but because, unlike many comedians, starring in a film was never on Hanley’s to-do list. How did he get there? In a word: Pavan.

Toronto filmmaker Pavan Moondi is the writer/director of Sundowners, his third and most ambitious feature film to date. Moondi has always favoured musicians and comedians over trained actors, most notably casting Leah Goldstein of July Talk fame in her first acting gig as the lead in Diamond Tongues. The role eventually garnered her a Canadian Screen Award nomination. I myself (not an actor) even had a small role in that film, but garnered no nominations. Hanley plays the role of Alex in Sundowners, another in a growing line of Moondi’s professionally frustrated protagonists.

The film is loosely based on Moondi’s own experiences as a wedding videographer prior to breaking into feature filmmaking. One gig in particular had Moondi and a friend with zero photography experience, sent to Mexico to record a destination wedding. While nothing seemed to go right, nothing really went that wrong either. It’s this slightly heightened but very grounded scenario that we see Alex and Justin (Born Ruffians’ Luke Lalonde) navigate following the vague assignment from Alex’s boss (Tim Heidecker). Columbia stands in for Mexico and the hectic shoot had the cast and crew shooting an average of fifteen pages a day, a feat made even more challenging by stomach bugs and bathroom breaks. It was trial by fire, but Hanley and company came through with a product that all involved can be proud of.

Sundowners is another thoughtful, relatable comedy from Moondi that incorporates influences ranging from John Cassavetes to John Hughes. As Moondi’s proxy, Hanley portrays the struggling, self-deprecating, unexceptional “artist” exceptionally well. Alex can be seen as a progression of Moondi’s protagonists from a guy who has no idea what he wants to do (Everyday Is Like Sunday), to a girl who knows what she wants but not how to get it (Diamond Tongues), to someone who is doing a crappier version of what they wish they were doing (Sundowners).

When Hanley’s not getting up every night at the Comedy Cellar in New York, he’s recording a podcast called Keeping Joe (which boasts guests like Amy Schumer and Dave Attell), or working on writing his next project with Moondi. We caught up with him to discuss getting into the role, wandering cows on set, his days as a teenage model in Europe, and what’s on his Dork Shelf.

On meeting Moondi and preparing for the role:

We filmed it last February, so maybe two and half years or three years before that, out of the blue I got an email through my website that said “Hey I’m writing a film and I want you to be the lead.” He had seen one of my late night sets on one of the late night shows and he thought I would good for the main character, Alex. I was like, oh okay. Sometimes I get random emails about stuff like that. Maybe like six months or a year would pass and he would reach out, he came to New York a couple times and we’d meet for a drink. He was still saying the project’s still happening, we’re just getting funding, getting everything lined up. And then finally about six weeks out or so, he was like yeah we got the dates and we’re planning on flying to Columbia to do it.

I’m very dyslexic so it takes me a long time to read things, but we went over it and over it. Talked about a lot, talked about the scenes over the phone. We did one day of rehearsals in New York. Luke spends part of his time in New York too so we met up there and did that. Then we flew to Columbia and rehearsed for about five days. That was downtown Santa Marta then we relocated to the resort where all the Columbia stuff was shot.

I think there’s a parallel between starting out as a filmmaker and starting out as a stand-up. I could instantly relate to some of the stuff. He was doing wedding videography, which is not a great gig. When I started as a stand-up I did lots of bad gigs too, so I could relate to that, where he was at and working towards these goals that when you first start seem so far away. 

On going from stand-up to acting:

Stand-up is what I’m most motivated to do. I get up and I like to write down some ideas and try them on stage that night. It’s my favourite thing to do. Living in New York and just getting to do spots every night, my home club is the Comedy Cellar, so I just know that I’ll have dinner with my friends and then just get up and do comedy. It’s my favourite thing to do, but with acting, I was open to it, I love films and admire people who act, but I never really pursued it. Within a few days of shooting this movie I was like ‘oh my god this is the best, this is so fun.’ I did really enjoy it. 

The most unexpected parts of the shoot:

What kind of surprised me was how much I enjoyed it. I think part of the reason I enjoyed it so much was that I immediately clicked with Pavan. As far as comedy’s concerned we have so many reference points, we both love Seinfeld, we both like a lot of the same films and comics. And Luke I immediately really liked too. And all the camera crew too. I’ve been in New York for about six years or so, I hadn’t really hung out with a large group of Canadians in a long time. It was such a blast to make this thing with them every single day. And the Columbia crew was great too. 

Once we started going we would shoot all day, and then we would rehearse at night. I don’t know if this is the most memorable but I do remember sometimes a random cow would just be on the beach where we were shooting, just walking around. One got loose and get into the pool of the resort somehow. It climbed the stairs and over the wall and all of  sudden was in the pool, so everybody was freaking out. You could hear kids yelling and parents yelling and this poor cow was struggling in the water. Everyone left to go see it and I remember I was so focussed on the next scene that I didn’t bother going see something that you’ll never ever see again. A cow in resort pool in Columbia. In retrospect I really had my game face on. 

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On working with Tim Heidecker: 

I thought I was good at not breaking or laughing in a scene where I’m not supposed to laugh. I can talk about something really ridiculous on stage with a straight face and I’m not even fighting laughter or anything like that. But doing scenes with Tim, he was so funny, it was such a challenge to not start laughing. And we were exhausted, we’d get up super early after five weeks of shooting, and we’re in this basement filming these scenes with Tim Heidecker. He was so so funny. Pavan was just letting him go, so we’d do these long scenes, he was killing me, it was so funny. 

On achieving his goals as a stand-up:

I love the Seinfeld documentary Comedian, when I started stand-up I would watch that constantly. That’s all shot at the clubs in New York, predominantly the Comedy Cellar, so my goal was to move to New York and basically work at the Cellar. I auditioned and I’ve been there for four and a half years now. 

That’s never happened before in my life. I’ve had many goals, stand-up’s the only thing where the more I put into the more I get out of it. People always talk about “practice, practice”, and that’s never been the case with me. Being dyslexic there were just certain things I couldn’t learn how to do, so stand-up felt like the only thing I could make a go of and accomplish something. That hasn’t been the case with anything else. 

On his uncomfortable (but successful) career as a teen model in Europe:

I went from that summer, swimming with a t-shirt on among friends and family, to a show for Giorgio Armani where you’re wearing these ridiculous short shorts and a mesh tank top. I was so uncomfortable the whole time. I knew it wasn’t for me, but in retrospect, if I’d known I was going to be a stand-up, I should have taken more in.  

What’s on his Dork Shelf:

I’m a huge Grateful Dead fan. I have a fair amount of memorabilia and I have a collage of shows that I’ve been to and things that I’ve collected. I’ll talk to people who are also Grateful Dead fans about it but if it comes up and I’m like, talking to a girl, I’m like oh god, I know this is the equivalent of talking about Star Wars or whatever. 

I was at a show with a friend, we were really young, I don’t even think my parents would have known where I was. We were at a Dead show and there was this woman behind us and she was selling photos that she had taken of Garcia earlier in the tour, she had them printed out. So I bought one from her, and my friend was talking to her and he was really nervous because we were young and she was this older, kind of spaced out Deadhead. I can see that he’s finally getting a little more comfortable, then he turns back around to say something again, I guess she had a wooden leg and she had taken it off, and he spun around and knocked over her wooden leg. He was a little out of it too, that added to how freaked out he was by knocking over this nice woman’s wooden leg. 

It’s just something that I’ve been into since I was a kid and continue to. Right now I’ll hang up the phone with you and put on a Dead show and cook a really late lunch. 

Sundowners opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on August 25th. The premiere screening will be followed by a Q&A with Moondi, Hanley and Luke Lalonde.