People are pretty screwed up in Don Roos’ world. They lie, cheat, extort — and in his new film Happy Endings, even sleep with their siblings.
Though his characters are embroiled in the complicated dark sides of life — think of his 1998 indie hit Opposite of Sex — Roos considers himself “rather boring,” finding excitement in trips to Target. Truth is, he’d never heard of the titular variety of massage until Ben Affleck told him about it a few years ago. (And, no, he’s never had one, but he’s not sure he would admit if he had.)
Roos is out in Hollywood, but doesn’t call himself political. (“Not in the sense that my vote for Kerry was my most political act last year.”) He does insist on living an openly gay life, having gay characters in his movies, and filming in Los Angeles instead of fleeing to Canada to lower production costs.
Happy Endings‘ characters include a father/son-seducing nightclub singer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a woman who has sex with her half-brother (Lisa Kudrow), a wannabe indie-film director cum blackmailer (Jesse Bradford), a lesbian mom (Laura Dern), a closeted gay man (Jason Ritter), a man who thinks his boyfriend’s sperm has been appropriated (Steve Coogan), a would-be erotic masseur (Bobby Cannavale), and — in a performance that will surprise you — Tom Arnold.
It’s the humanity that surfaces through the awkward and ugly moments of life that interests Roos. He spoke with Nerve about lying, intimacy and why gay actors should stay in the closet. — Harriette Yahr After the screening at Sundance, one of my gay male friends was thrilled he finally got a chance to see Jesse Bradford wearing only his skivvies.
Yeah, he’s beautiful. Do you think about sex appeal when casting?
Yes, absolutely. When Jesse walked in, he gave a wonderful reading. And he’s an entire package. First of all, his character is so immediately unlikable that I needed somebody beautiful to carry that part — because the characters who are the blackmailers or the official bad guys at the beginning of the film have to be beautiful. Otherwise the audience will turn off to them. You don’t seem to fear unlikable characters.
I think that’s a mistake a lot of Hollywood movies make — thinking the audience should love the character as soon as they come onscreen. So if it’s a girl character, she’s kind of fumbling up the stairs with a bag of groceries and she comes into her apartment, and the cat squeals and she dumps her groceries and she misses the phone call that’s ringing, and her sweater is buttoned badly. And then suddenly the audience is like, oh, okay, I like her. I don’t do it that way. It’s kind of a boring paradigm.
And if you blow that character in the beginning, and she’s likable and cute and funny, where do you go with that? You can’t get the audience to feel a more complicated way about her. You just instantly dismiss that character. And I want the audience to care at the end of the film about 180 degrees how they felt about the character in the beginning. Typically in your films intimacy flourishes within the darker experiences of life — like in Happy Endings, there’s manipulation and blackmail.
Well, everybody’s a liar in one sense or another. And everybody manipulates in one sense or another. Blackmail is the ultimate manipulation. Of course, it’s also a great plot device, because it instantly creates suspense. I also think, in negotiating our way through the world full of other people, many of us are not too many steps behind blackmail in our lives. How so?
Oh, all those sorts of little blackmails that couples get into. If you buy me a lovely Christmas present, we will have a nice day. If you don’t buy me a good present and don’t surprise me, I will punish you. It’s implied. That’s how people are with each other. Or maybe I just have a blackmailer’s personality. What’s the connection between deceit and love?
I can only answer about my own nature — I am so aware of the many lies I tell on a given day. I am always trying to hide how I feel, and present a different self. It’s impossible to be completely honest, or very rare. And it’s part of love — knowing that the person that you’re with will not always be telling you the exact truth about everything, nor do you want them to. So would you say you’re a risk taker?
I’m very square and very middle-class, and I couldn’t be more ordinary. As much as I hate Wal-Mart Nation, I love Wal-Mart myself. I’m just very middle-of-the-road. But, to be out is a risk, to acknowledge your own sexuality even though everybody in the world is opposed to you is a risk. To be in this business of show business is a risk. All of that stuff. Were you always out in Hollywood?
Always, yeah. I’ve been out since I was twenty-five. Hollywood was going to be the antidote to my regular life, where I had grown up closeted and not taking chances, and trying to be the best little boy in the world. And so when I came to Hollywood, I said, “I’m going to tell everybody that I’m gay.” Do you think being out has helped or hurt you as a director?
It’s hard to tell. You’re not really privy to the conversations where you’re passed over because you’re gay, so I don’t know. Maybe it has. But it’s hard to be a director and ask people to expose themselves on film if they know that you’re not being honest about your own life. At Sundance I heard you say something curious — that it’s okay to be out as a director in Hollywood, but actors should stay in the closet.
I always think actors should stay in the closet. Because they’re more useful to me if the public knows nothing about them. Right, because of the illusion.
Yeah, the illusion is gone. I like mystery. I don’t mean that they should be closeted in their personal lives, among their friends and even people in the business. But I don’t really like actors disclosing stuff to the public, because I think it’s distracting when you get into a movie. You give gay parenting screen time in Happy Endings.
My belief is that everybody can screw up a kid equally. [Laughs]. So we should have our shot at it as well. What interests you about sex? It’s obviously something you like to explore.
Well, sex connects you to people. I don’t think of it as simply a pleasurable activity like swimming or shopping. We become different people during sex. It’s a heightened state of being. And for straight people, for male and female sex, it can result in the birth of a new consciousness. I think that’s huge, a crazy big idea. I don’t know why more people aren’t amazed by the generative power of sex. I just think it’s an incredible thing, the birth of a consciousness. It’s just wild, and I’ve never been able to get over it. Does that limit gay sex?
No, not necessarily. It alters our own states but does not create a brand new consciousness. Therefore there must be something profoundly different in that experience. But I don’t know, because I’m not straight. I don’t know what making love is like with the possibility of creating a new life. For gays, our own consciousness can be radically changed by the fact we chose to sleep with the person we choose to sleep with. It’s always been that way for me. Why is sex so complicated in your films?
I’ve never been able to have sex with someone without feeling differently about them. And I think that’s really what sex does. You have a different, maybe it’s a mystical, maybe it’s a chemical, maybe it’s a biological, but you have a different relationship with someone that you had sex with. And it does change your life, or at least it has in my case. Jude, Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, surely gets surprised by sex.
She’s somebody who thinks she can have sex recreationally or casually without her feelings being engaged. And that’s why there’s that one title card that says, “The one in trouble here is Jude”. Because we think oh, Frank, Tom Arnold’s character, will be in trouble because he’s falling in love with this girl. But Frank is used to having his heart broken, and Jude has never had her heart broken in a way she would talk about. So she has sex and that’s an avenue for her to feel different feelings. And she falls in love. Sex completely changes her. With Lisa Kudrow’s character, Mamie, you explore the fine line between sexual and maternal love with her feelings for Nicky.
It’s all confused, isn’t it? In our own lives, we turn lovers into mothers and fathers and sons all the time. We turn children into lovers and partners all the time — it’s just part of the human repertoire of emotions. And you don’t seem to judge your characters — even with all their cruelty and lies.
That’s one of the things that I’m happiest about. They’re all full of small and unlovely parts, and I love them all. That’s the feeling that I’m left with at the end of the film — how much I care for these fucked-up people. I’m not better than they are. So even though the title brings to mind an erotic massage, the film is, of course, not about that at all.
Oh no, not at all. They are all earned, Happy Endings. And how happy are some of them? Some of the endings are really kind of sad — the characters mainly just survive with a bit more knowledge about who they are. Then happiness, maybe, is just about what’s real. And what’s real is sometimes messy and nothing so out of the ordinary.
That’s right, like that one line Steve [Coogan] says, “It’s better to know you than not to know you.” He says that to Lisa [Kudrow]. And that’s sort of how I feel about reality. It’s better to know reality than not know reality. And that’s sort of a fundamental kind of belief of mine. It’s better to know what the story is and what your limitations are and what your grey areas are, and what life is like, than to live in a cloud of denial about it. Do you think life usually works out happily in the end?
Well, the movie is very optimistic, because it takes two people who made a mistake or a decision, and their lives are completely thwarted by it and messed up by it, and somehow — not really through their own good intentions — all is forgiven and accepted by the end of the film. I tend to believe that life can work that way. I don’t know that it always does. You only have to look at tsunamis and the Holocaust and disease to realize that life ends very tragically in many, many, cases. Then there’s fate . . .
Yeah, luck, fate, things beyond your control. Happenstance. It’s a very big thing in everybody’s life. I mean, if you didn’t go to the party the night you met the person you’re with, your life would be amazingly different. So that’s part of life: the great unknown hand behind it all. n°