As with some of the rest of the cast, twenty-year-old actor Connor Paolo is not the kind of actor you might expect to be appearing in a low-budget Apocalyptic movie like Stake Land, let alone as the main protagonist, especially with his regular stint being on the CW show “Gossip Girl,” but when we talked to him on set, he relished the prospects of being a vampire-hunter-in-training with Nick Amici. (Note: Conner talks a bit about the arc of his character which may be somewhat spoilerish, so be warned.)
ShockTillYouDrop.com: Can you talk a little bit about Martin? Who is he?
Conner Paolo: “Stake Land” is essentially Martin’s recounting of the year and a half he’s spent with Mister, which is Damici’s character. Martin narrates the story; otherwise, he barely speaks throughout the film. Mister and me are never without each other. We’re in shot number 1, and we don’t get separated, ever. Pretty much every scene is accompanied by–and we’ll do a lot of this in post-productionâis what Martin is thinking at the time, how he looks at things in retrospect. The cool thing to me is, I get to play, essentially, two different characters â the boy that you see in the film, and the older, kind-of seasoned vampire hunter who is grown up by the end of the movie, and looking back as to how he got to that place. The film opens with us, Mister and Martin, already having been on the road some time. Before the credit sequence, we flash back to how they met â Mister saves Martin from a rather nasty fellow, who kills his family. Under the presumption that once you save a life, you’re responsible for it â Mister kind of feels that because he just protected Martin that it’s his responsibility not to just feed him to the dogs. So he sticks with him.
Shock: You guys have been shooting this throughout the course of the year?
Paolo:: Yeah, my character ages so much over the course of the film. He is really quite young when you meet him. By the end of it, he’s a man. That can be tough in shooting, jumping back and forth, as to “what mental state am I in now?” but yeah, it’s given us a span. Really this is only a 30-day shoot, but it’s taken just over a half a year, almost. From just pre-production into now.
Shock: Over what span of time does the film actually take place?
Paolo:: It’s never really defined. We kind of meet Mister and Martin in the summer. When we meet Kelly McGillis’ character, it’s getting into the fall, and then when Danielle Harris gets with us, we’re more into winter. When Sean Nelson is with us, it’s somewhere into the spring. Chronologically and location wise, it’s all over the place. I’d say it’s about a year â but the seasons go back and forth â because we start in West Virginia, and by the end we’re in Canada.
Shock: Given that this is a story that reflects off the growth of these characters over time, how much input were you allowed by the director to adjust or add things when you thought it was relevant to Martin? Or was the character set in stone?
Paolo:: We make it very clear that what Nick and I do, every night. We talk about it. We look for these things and we hunt them. We do a lot with wardrobe, actually, in relation to what you’re asking. Wardrobe has been a big part â we pick up different things â kind of start adding different, customized items. Nick has made all types of different things. He’ll just throw something at me one day and be like, “Try this on.” We just added things as we moved along, and that’s the great thing about working with your co-stars and also the writers. We had so much freedom to just move things around. When you consider that any story in film, or especially stage, is “a moment” when something happens. Basically every stage you see in this movie is “a day” when something happens for them, because so much time is flying by.
Shock: Can you talk a bit more about how you got involved with this? I assume you’re doing all this in the off-season of “Gossip Girl”?
Paolo:: No, I worked it out with the producers, and they gave me the two weeks in the summer, and two weeks here that I needed. Each episode of “Gossip Girl” is eight days to shoot. So â this only translates to about an episode and a half, so it’s not a huge deal. I’d known the casting director Sig De Miguel for years. He put me in touch with Jim Mickle, when they were casting the role of Martin, and we had a nice little two-hour discussion, and that was that. We got off on a good foot, I read the script, and then I went to the producers and said, “I gotta do this movie. I think it’s brilliant.”
Shock: Are you fan of horror films?
Paolo:: You know, I’m not as knowledgeable as one might assume, compared to the people that I’m working with. I wasn’t familiar with the fan base. Id actually heard about “Mulberry Street” before even caring about this project, or meeting Jim or Nick. Just out of recommendation â I try to see as much as I can. I was looking for a film that I hadn’t seen in theaters but had gotten a lot of nice press, and I popped in “Mulberry Street” and I loved it. So when I found out that they were in production of “Stake Land,” that sort of sealed the deal.
Shock: Going from “Gossip Girl” to this, how different was this script or the work expected from you in “Stake Land”, as opposed to “Gossip Girl”?
Paolo:: It’s constantly evolving; it’s a very “live” script. From the time that I read the initial draft, the content of the film has changed so much, who my character is, who he becomes, especially his relationship with Mister, which is pretty much from the start of the film. And especially because you’re dealing with characters that don’t speak. That’s always very interesting, because when you’re not speaking you’re listening. Which can be very difficult to enjoy sometimes, because you also have to keep in mind what the voiceover is â what you’re thinking about. During your section, you kind of have your subtext written for you, but most of the film, there might be 30 lines in this entire filmâ¦ it’s a very silent film. Very old-time, Western, Leone style.
Shock: Have you done your voiceover already?
Paolo:: No, that’s going to come later. We all kind of discussed that â whether we wanted to do it first, or later. We thought it would be better for me to see the action first, and then talk about it, to sort of uplift it.
Shock: Is Martin more of a witness or does he get involved?
Paolo:: He begins as a witness, and ends as a sort of pre-emptor. It goes from, when you meet him being in a situation where he sees these horrific things happening and he doesn’t have the where-with-all or the ability to do anything about it. Then after his time with these people â with Mister â he turns into somebody that can stop things from happening again.
Shock: Did you have to pull more emotion out of yourself than you’re maybe used to doing with “Gossip Girl”?
Paolo:: Sure, and there’s a hell of a lot more stuff coming. A lot of scenes we went into thinking they’d be really simple, turned into these big emotional deep scenes, which has been really cool. It wasn’t planned, and we just kind of got in there, and, again, when you don’t have any dialogue I guess, you’re just kind of trying to show emotion without saying anything. Weird stuff comes out. Great stuff, a lot of the time.
Shock: A lot these survival horror films can be very serious and need some sort of humor for levity. Is this film an all-out drama without mercy like it sounds so far?
Paolo:: Oh, no. There are moments where you can take a breath. I think all the three other characters, Kelly McGillis, Danielle Harris, and Sean Nelson, are not in the world that Mister and Martin are in. They’re kind of real people. Whereas Mister and Martin are totally on another level.
Shock: They kill vampires, and that’s all they doâ¦
Paolo:: That’s what they do. It’s a lot like â I don’t know if anyone saw the film “The Hurt Locker.” (Nick) plays a character that you get to a point where you cant make it work in the everyday world anymore, and they haven’t quite gotten to that place yet. The Kelly McGillis character is kind of fighting through the whole script, not to go to that place. So, there are moments of levity, but yeah, it’s pretty assaulting. In a nice way â not in a depressing way. It’s a nasty world. The end is rather light and nice, which is good.
Shock: Overall, for you as an actor, what has been the biggest challenge coming into this movie?
Paolo:: I think the fact that there’s really no preparation for anything. You just have to really know your character inside and out, which goes without saying for any film, but this especially. Where you’re involved so much, but not at the center of it. You’re just in it. I guess the biggest challenge for me has just beenâ¦ trying to, honestly, be involved. I’ve done a bit of work, but nothing this broad or outlandish, in terms of the situations. It’s not a B-movie interpretation of this. It’s something where it can be totally over the top â and at the same time we’re really trying to add some humanity to this. So to deal with these kind of outrageous situations, but really keep it real â it can be tough.
Shock: What the most extreme thing you’ve had to do thus far, and is there a lot of gore?
Paolo:: I think it’s pretty mitigated. There’s as much violence as you hear about. It’s not pretty. None of this is nice; no dance fights. These vampires are dangerous, but have no minds, really. They’re not organized. Not the romantic typeâ¦ Mister and Martin have a system, and Mister is training him to fight, but when you can’t really use gunsâ¦ There are only so many bullets. We say a couple of times in the script, we can only use guns on humans. The vamps feel things, but bullets only slow them down. It’s like they’re on PCP. You can take their legs, but they’ll keep crawling on the ground after you. I guess if you put it to the back of their head, that’s it, but if you imagine the world had fallen apart in a global epidemic, and it’s been a year since then â how many bullets are going to be around? How many people are still going to be making things? Everything is going to be with the military, and everything that isn’t is going to be horded by the people who have access to it. So if you’re walking around, you’re not going to find shotgun shells.
Shock: You and Damici shot together for about a month, and then took a break while other things were done, and then reconvened later. Did you two keep in touch during the break? Have you built any sort of real friendship during the course of filming?
Paolo:: Nick and I built up a relationship, of course, working on these characters. You sort of naturally fall into the same off-set as you do on-set. Nick and I have been training every day off-set, because later on we have some very intense, physical things we get into. Nick himself is a black belt kickboxing teacher, so he knows what he’s doing, and I wanted to be as close to that as I could be in two months, so he just has been nice enough to take me on. We train together every day.
Shock: So, as in the movie itself, he’s been sort of a mentor.
Paolo:: Exactly. It’s less important to me to live out the character, as it is to live out the relationship. That’s what Nick and me have been doing. The first block, because it was warm, we opted not to stay in a hotel, and set up a tent, and slept out there for the two weeks. Made our own foodâ¦
Shock: That’s very method. Is that something you normally do?
Paolo:: No, I’ve never done anything like that, but Nick wanted to do it, and as I said, it was more about me and him developing a relationship and really solidifying that. What better way to do that than to live with somebody? And you know there’s a very different feel when you’re sleeping on the ground and haven’t really been able to shower. The two places we’ve been working at in Pennsylvania and up here, it’s kind of dead zone, cellphone wise. So we don’t really have any access to the day-to day bullsh*t that we normally have to deal with. And the rest of the cast sort of come in and out accordingly, which has been great, âcause that’s how it goes in the film.
Shock: What about Kelly McGillis? You’re a fairly young actor, and she’s done some amazing movies. Were you familiar with her work?
Paolo:: Oh, yeah! Of course! Of course â and what I didn’t know â I got familiar as fast as I could. She’s been wonderful, and she’s one hell of a seasoned professional. Every scene we have with her is a blast, and I don’t know if I ever speak to her in the film. We’re together quite a lot â her name is Sister in the film â and she and Martin have a very tight relationship. Martin loses his mother, early in the film, when he’s young, and when he meets Sister, he’s got another figure to look up to. She kind of butts heads with Mister. What Nick’s been saying, which I very much agree with, is Sister and Mister are essentially the same person, they’re just on opposite sides of the playing field. They have ultimately the same commitments, they’re just opposite values. So it’s really kind of a classic mother/father relationship â they both lift him up in different ways â as simple as pacifism and pre-emptive violence. Someone who turns the other cheek, and someone who doesn’t let anyone get near their face.
Shock: You’ve been shooting pretty much in sequence, haven’t you?
Paolo:: Not as much as we would like to. Just because of schedule conflicts, and even because of the general health of the crew. Everyone’s been sick at one point or another. As much as we can â definitely more than most shoots â which has been nice. It’s hard to do something like this out of sequence. I have long hair now â when we shoot earlier scenes now, we’re trying to hide my hair, etc. I mean, in “Stake Land”, I haven’t been cutting my hair since the apocalypse! And that’s one of the easiest ways to show age â come into the start with relatively short hair. It’s been three months since I’ve cut it. By the end of the film, it’s long.
Shock: Has anyone from “Gossip Girl” said anything about your hair change?
Paolo:: The producers have been really easy about it. They’ve always been pretty easy about my hair. We’re guys. Nobody’s too on us about our hairdos.
Shock: Is this one of your first films? What’s your background film-wise?
Paolo:: I’ve done a number of films. I just did “Favorite Son,” which is just getting into the festival circuit. My background is pretty diverse. This is my eighth film.
Shock: Any studio films or all indie films?
Paolo:: The last three have been indie films, the rest are all studio films.
Shock: Do you notice a huge difference? Do you prefer working with one as opposed to the other?
Paolo:: You know, not necessarily. When you’re working withâ¦ this crew is beyond exceptional. I guess the factors are when you have more time and money, you assume that a studio isn’t going to breathe down your neck, but that’s not necessarily the way it is. This is an indie film, but it does have a studio behind it. MPI is behind this â we do have superiors and stuff like that. As is the trend right now. A film I shot last year called “Camp Hope” was shot as an indie film, but kind of with studio backing in mind. Another film I shot called “The Winning Season” which only got picked up by Lionsgate â a film that was shot indie but kind of with the assumption that it would be picked up. That seems to be the trend right now in Hollywood, which is great. Ultimately, you can shoot the film for less money, and just kind of do the festival thing. The film will get released, but it keeps the filmmakers creative.
Shock: Has working on “Stake Land” whet your appetite to do more horror films, or do you generally choose what you do role by role?
Paolo:: I am addicted to working, so I look at what comes along and what I love. This is I guess, a horror film, but in the end, it’s a movie. It’s a real movie. So, no pull toward a particular genre. Ill do anything that moves me, and this did.