NOTE: This interview contains some spoilers for People Like Us and may be best read after seeing the movie.
Dreamworks premiered People Like Us at the Seattle Film Festival back at the beginning of June. The film comes from director and co-writer Alex Kurtzman (Star Trek, Transformers) and stars Chris Pine alongside Elizabeth Banks, Michelle Pfieffer, Olivia Wilde and Michael D’Addario and centers on the story of Sam (Pine), a fast-talking salesman whose father, whom he hasn’t spoken to in years, dies suddenly. As a result, Sam is called home to put his father’s estate in order and receives a shock when he learns he has a sister (Banks) he didn’t even know existed.
I had a chance to sit down for 25 minutes with both Kurtzman and Pine the day after the film screened and I originally planned on presenting the interview as one piece until Pine gave a passionate response to my very last question, which I have transcribed but also included the complete audio at the bottom of this post.
Most of the questions I directed at Pine had to do with his character. I started off asking him about the rehearsal process, which he tells me was the first time he’d even been offered the chance to rehearse on a film. Being an actor that has also done a lot of stage work where rehearsals are essential, he said, “I appreciated it, and for me it works well, but it is always dependent upon the the participation and enthusiasm of the people you’re involved with.”
He also expressed an interest in digging into his character adding, “I do love talking about it — probably ad nauseam — beforehand, because I think that by the time you get to set, now you’ve truncated the amount of time you have to spend intellectualizing stuff, which you shouldn’t be doing on set.”
To this point most of the film-going public knows Pine as one thing… Captain Kirk from J.J. Abrams‘ Star Trek. He was also recently seen in This Means War opposite Tom Hardy and Reese Witherspoon and I told him my first memory of him was as one of the Tremor brothers in Joe Carnahan‘s Smokin’ Aces.
He’s had films outside the popular features and when I asked him about his rising notoriety he still seems a little shocked at the idea. “Life rolls on and you find yourself taking a chance at this thing and it snowballs into something bigger and then all of a sudden you’re known as a guy that does these kinds of films,” he said after noting how he had originally auditioned for Star Trek and was rejected only to be called back later.
“[They] asked me to come back when I was not really looking to work, and on a Monday I auditioned, and it’s like — it’s been only five years since I was doing movies like Bottle Shock and Blind Dating. And I’m not trying to say that my oeuvre is like some artistic powerhouse, but that’s where I am now and hopefully [People Like Us] — in the way Star Trek allowed me to do action films — I hope this one will give me the opportunity to do more films that are on this scale.”
So apart from that, what was it that intrigued him about Sam? A character I described in our interview as something of a “prick”, but to leave it at that is to diminish the layers built into this character, layers Pine had obviously considered and admits Sam is representative of a character he often finds himself drawn to.
“Clearly I have an affinity for these characters because I’ve now kind of played a version of them in many of the things I’ve done,” he said. “But what resonated for me was this kind of acerbic, seemingly self-assured guy who’s actually really scared. I like that and I like [that] the Sam you see in the beginning, trying to sell this guy rubber, is the guy that’s not in a suit, his hair’s screwed up and he hasn’t shaved and probably hasn’t slept all that much, [compared to the guy you see later in the film] baring his faults to this woman that’s his sister. I kind of like the raw simplicity of [that] matched with this salesman, BS’er, ball-juggler in the beginning.”
Talking about that character transformation is where Pine got a bit more excited. Coming up on twenty minutes in my interview session the publicist leaned in and told me I had time for one more question. I don’t think she expected Pine to take four minutes to answer it.
It was here I relayed a story to Chris and Alex mentioning a specific moment in the film where, during my screening, a woman audibly gasped, “Oh my god,” thinking Sam was going to be badly injured. I found her reaction fascinating and a testament to the performance and the storytelling because throughout much of this film Sam is, as I already said, a bit of a prick and yet Pine was able to endure himself with the audience.
After telling this story to Chris I asked him how he viewed Sam? Did he see him as unlikable? Did he see him as likable but flawed? I have transcribed the answer below, but I’ve also included the audio where he spends four minutes replying to the question and goes through something of a performance himself, leaning in close to my recorder, at times hitting the coffee table it was on for emphasis, clearly showing how much he liked this character.
I urge you to give it a listen, it’s much better than reading it.
“I am very, very protective of Sam. I don’t take anything away from the fact that Sam makes mistakes throughout the whole film, the primary one being that he violates the trust of Frankie. And this is not necessarily fair, because I also in life believe that as an adult you have to take responsibility for the choices you make and you can’t blame — ‘Well I grew up in a shitty circumstance’ — whatever you want to. I do choose, in this case, to call upon that scene with [Sam’s mother] Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer), which is this, no one ever took care of Sam. No one ever had Sam’s interests in mind. Lillian took care of [Sam’s father] Jerry, Jerry took care of Jerry, no one took care of Sam and unfortunately this leads to a man, who at 31, is really selfish and I think necessarily so because the only choice he had to make was to take care of number one because no one else was taking care of number one.
“It doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s a selfish prick in the beginning. It doesn’t take away from the fact that he should have probably been there for his father when he was dying. But I saw Sam as a poor schmuck. It was like, ‘God Sam, man really? Really Sam? Come on, come on.’ I was always rooting for Sam and heartbroken for Sam.
“And, Alex knows this very well, there’s this scene at the end where I finally come up to Frankie’s [Sam’s sister] house and, to me, that is Sam’s redemption. Sam finally, finally–and I think it makes Sam a more interesting and dynamic character that, having screwed up the whole time and multiplied and exacerbated that lie by not telling it soon enough — he finally comes to her doorstep and says, “Please accept me for who I am. Please accept me. Accept this. Accept me for all of my awfulness and shittiness and all of the mistakes I’ve made.” Sam never could have done that in the beginning.
“If Sam were perfect and had been more upright and forthright in the beginning I don’t think I would have believed that character because I think Sam, given who he was and the family he was born into, could never have been that man. The only that he can end up being in the end is the flawed schmuck who is at least admitting to his schmuckiness and saying, “Please love me.”
“I think what Frankie finds in that last scene–Frankie’s grace, all of these characters, their grace notes is that they’re able to open up and connect with another human being no matter their faults. And that’s what Sam does with Lillian in that scene on the sofa. He says, ‘I will never agree with you. We will never see eye-to-eye on that.’ And there’s no venom behind it. It’s almost complete empathy and with complete love he’s saying, ‘I don’t agree with you. I think you fucked up, and I’m really hurt and that really hurt me. I hope you can one day understand what that did to me. But, I am choosing,’ like fucking Viktor Frankl, like the only things we have choices over are not the circumstances but how we go at them and how we view them, ‘I will choose to love you.’
“And that makes Sam, to me, a beautiful — not me as Sam, Sam as written — he makes a beautiful, humane, human choice.”
People Like Us hits theaters this weekend, June 29. For more on the film click here and I have included the trailer directly below.