Lou Taylor Pucci had only recently turned twenty when he sat down for our interview, his first on the Thumbsucker personal appearance tour. Regardless, his credits include an extensive Broadway run in The Sound of Music, a film debut opposite Fairuza Balk in Rebecca Miller's Personal Velocity: Three Portraits, and the role of John Voss in the high-profile HBO miniseries Empire Falls (castmates included Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Helen Hunt, and Paul Newman). Pucci won top acting honors at the Sundance and Berlin film festivals for his second feature film, Mike Mills' Thumbsucker. We spoke at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel, first thing on the morning of August 8, 2005.
Groucho: So it seems like you've always had a desire to perform. Which came first for you: acting or magic?
Lou Taylor Pucci: I guess—you know something? I can't even answer that one. That's an interesting one, 'cause I don't know if I consider what I did at the beginning acting. It was one very different form of it than I do right now. But I mean I did music, like musical theatre, just kinda like theater shows, singing and dancing for a couple of years, and then, during that time, when I did Sound of Music, I was always going in to New York and out of New York on the bus. I had maybe two and a half hours out of the day where I wasn't doing anything. So I practiced magic on the bus. One of the ladies from Sound of Music got me into magic—showed me a magic shop. And I started buying books from there, and I kind of took the ball and ran with it. I became sort of a magician, but at the same time that I was doing theatre on Broadway, so it was pretty interesting.
G: How did you develop that interest in acting, and when were you aware that it was more than a hobby, but a vocation?
LTP: Uh, I think it was maybe—when I realized that...it could be a job—[was] during Sound of Music, when, for some reason, I got paid for it, and I was like, "Strange," you know? I met this little girl in one of the theatre shows that I was in, in New Jersey, and she said, "You should audition for my manager." And I said, "Okay". And my Mom got it all together, and I auditioned over the phone for this manager—I sang into the phone and stuff. And then we met in New York, and I got a manager. And I got an agent. It was kind of just an amazing thing that happened. Three months later I was in Sound of Music for a year and a half. And I was making money, sort of. You know what I mean? It was strange. I didn't get to keep any of the money, really. It all went to transportation and other crap, but it was fun. And I got paid for it, and I could kind of buy what I wanted. I was amazed by that, so it kind of made me stay with it, I think.
G: Outside of the salary, I imagine a Broadway show as being a major change of pace from community theatre.
LTP: It was pretty interesting. I think every Wednesday I didn't go to school. Every Thursday I made up all the work. And I think I had Monday off. That was the only day off that I had. But that was a pretty interesting way of doing it. Because I'd go to school every day, and then I had two hours until I got on the bus and did the Broadway show until midnight. And then I'd get home at like 1:00 AM and wake up at 6 AM. Everyday for a year and a half, at twelve years old.
G: If you hadn't outgrown that part, do you think you'd still be playing it?
LTP: I would love to keep doing theatre. I would really love to do that. And I just can't find the time somehow. I think that is the key to maybe being a successful actor is finding the time to do exactly what you want—even though you have to do some things. There are things you have to do. You still have to keep the things that you want to do going. Because, and I think that's such a hard part, because you have to be—you have to yell at people sometimes—you gotta say "No, I'm not doing that—I have to do what I want for a little while. I have to do a theatre show." I think that's almost where I am because I really, really want to do some theatre again. And I haven't done it in maybe two years since Thumbsucker. Before Thumbsucker I had done it for like seven years.
G:Since we're on that subject, what kind of advice are you getting from your agent and manager about what kinds of projects and roles you should choose?
LTP: I have a great manager and agent, and they are just—they're really all for what I want to do. You know what I mean? And they're not making me do anything, you know, like just for the money, or something like that. So that's great. And it's something that I don't think a lot of people have, to tell you the truth. They're not pushing me to do any certain thing. They just want me to do—if I'm going to keep doing independent films, they want me to the best independent film right now. Because of all the press that I'm getting, a lot of offers have been coming in. And that's great. And it's amazing. A year ago I would have taken any of them that came by. But now, it's kind of something that if I don't choose wisely, then I'm stupid—I'm just blowing my chances because I have a chance to use anything that I've learned in the last two years and put it to use and see which one I want to do. Instead of just getting lucky with Thumbsucker, because to tell you the truth, I didn't expect it to do this well. You know what I mean? I just expected it to be an independent film. It just came to be something a lot bigger, I think.
G: After Sound of Music you made the leap to independent film with Personal Velocity. Do you have an opinion as to why Rebecca Miller cast you—what she saw?
LTP: Maybe after talking to Mike about it, I sort of understand maybe a little bit more what Rebecca saw in me. Because I really didn't understand it. But at the same time, I said, you know, that was the first time on camera that I was ever like completely truthful at the same time that I wasn't me. And that was really strange. That was the key to auditioning on camera—to doing anything on camera—acting on camera, on film: I didn't understand that before. Everything before that was exaggerated. Everything was like singing and dancing—you don't have that in film. It's whoever you are. It's like me talking to you right now—except whatever character he is, whatever experiences he happens to have gone through that shaped his personality in life.
G: In going before the camera, you were learning on the job—you were picking up how to read on camera, I assume. What was that process like, and what were the steps you recall in realizing "I get this"?
LTP: To tell you the truth, I think that there was maybe only one step. I think I just couldn't get that step, though. I think there's just this level that I had to get to where I kind of let go or something like that, or used my energy to good use. Because you'd get so nervous in an audition and so—just kind of like pent-up energy, like "Oh, God what am I going to do?" The first thing for Rebecca—that kid was so nervous and energetic and everything that it was very easy to put that energy into kind of the same thing in a different way. And use all that energy that I already had and just put it to good use. And I think that's what I learned to do.
G: And that's a similarity to the stage—
LTP: That, and since I took that away—since I took that nervousness away from me and put it into the character—I was more truthful. I could just do whatever I wanted and be that character—be nervous. And that was the first time I kind of learned how to control something on camera.
G: I was just thinking, it's not too dissimilar to what you have to do on stage in terms of harnessing that nervous energy, I imagine.
LTP: Yeah. I mean, oh man, on stage—well here's the thing. Before you get on stage, that's when you're nervous. That's when I'm nervous.
G: You need to run to the bathroom.
LTP: When you get onto that stage, it's like home. It's just this place where nothing can go wrong. You know what I mean? Nothing. Even if you flub a line, this is my home; this is the place to be. I had a dream last night where I was on stage—very strange. I don't know how that makes any sense. It was—Mike Mills was putting on a theatre show. And he was improving everything. He was telling me that he wanted me to be in this theatre show. I would come on at certain times, and we'd just do—we'd improv stories—tell the audience funny stories. That's really the whole thing, but he was—I was getting nervous because I was like, "I don't remember what I did last time. Last time it went really well. The whole audience loved it. And I can't remember what I did." And he was just like, "Oh, that's better that you don't remember. Just do something else." That's who he is. He'll never put a negative spin on anything.
G: Well, I want to talk about Thumbsucker. In the novel, Justin says, "I'd learned that the trick was to never relax". Were there certain ideas like that, that you tried to keep in mind to always stay on track with the character?
LTP: Who says?
G: Justin says that in the novel.
LTP: Oh, in the novel.
G: "I learned that the trick was never to relax." I wondered if there were certain ideas that you were latching on to, or if it was—
LTP: Well, I'll give you—the truth is, I didn't read the novel before I did the movie. I read it afterward because I didn't want to take anything from the novel that maybe wasn't there.
LTP: Because I mean a person is shaped by his experiences. And so if he's experienced something in the novel, and I feel that he's experienced this, like, devastating thing, he's gonna be a different character—because he's gone through that already. So I just wanted to see what Mike had in it. And I just wanted to keep whatever he had in it. And Mike said the same thing. Mike told me to do that. I said, "Should I read the book?" He said, "It's better that you don't. Do what's written on the page because the book's a little bit different."
G: Yeah. The emotional beats would be different because the construction is different—
LTP: "Just make a character out of the story that I created." Because the story that he created is a little bit different. Because you have to tell it a different way.
G:Thumbsucker started with a lot of rehearsal and improvisation. What do you think you got out of that period that served the film?
LTP: The whole movie. And the whole character. There was nothing before that. I mean, there was only certain little feelings that I couldn't kind of put together before that. And my relationship with Mike and with Tilda and Vincent just grew beyond because we became a family where Mike was the God character almost, or the doctor or something that you could go to if you needed questions—you know, therapist or something like that. He had an answer if you needed answers to anything. And he would keep you on the same path—on the right path that he needed you on. He would stop you if something was going completely off track. But otherwise, it was about looking for the things that we hadn't yet found in what was already written there. And so we just went through some of the scenes and we made them completely different. Sometimes the first thing we'd do when we read the scene is we would read it and then backed it up completely wrong—completely opposite what it should be. And sometimes that "completely wrong" was what we used on camera because it was better. For some reason, that "completely wrong" was more right than anything else. You know what I mean? It was strange. When you're improv-ing, it's just completely new things like that. It became a documentary. It became not having to act on the camera—just be with your family.
G: Yeah. I think that's one of the great strengths of the finished product is that—there are scenes where you think, "Oh, I've seen this kind of situation before. It's gonna go this way." And it completely subverts your expectations.
G: I want to talk a little bit more about the improv. One thing that I wanted to ask you about was your "Fire Marshall Bill" moment and where that came from.
LTP: (Laughs.) That's because Kelly Garner—she wanted me to. And she always made me do that. She loved Fire Marshall Bill. I think I did that to her one time. I just went "Let me tell you something!" And she got a kick out of that, and Mike was telling me to do something funny. And Mike was saying (whispering) "Okay, make her laugh." And I'm not good like that on the spot. And so then I did that and we started laughing.
G: You said you're not good on the spot. But you worked with an improv group in New Jersey, right?
LTP: I've been doing that lately. After Thumbsucker. That's what I've been doing to try to keep some of that alive and maybe try to harness it a little bit more or see what that is. But I'm telling you, I am never good at it. It's fun and sometimes you hit the mark well—you just do it well. I did it for a comedy troupe this time. When we were doing improv, it was all dramatic—completely dramatic—everything was completely different. But with a comedy group, it was kind of about the joke, but it was also about making the character. If you had the character, the jokes came out easier. And so you just had to create this person in seconds and make up who it was and make the audience laugh. And that is an interesting thing to do. It's not as hard as being a comedian, but it's up there.
G: How did you feel about developing the thumbsucking habit for the movie, and did you have any trouble kicking it when you were done?
LTP: Uhh, no. You know, during the movie, though, I think I was always sucking my right thumb. And then, for some reason—I think it was a different camera angle or something—[Mike] was like, "Its better if you suck your thumb with your left hand." And I sucked my thumb with my left hand—all of a sudden, it was like bliss. It was like heaven again. And I was like, "Oh my God, I used to suck my thumb with my left—I used to suck my left thumb when I was little. I didn't know that. I just always thought it was the right because I'm right-handed. But it's like all of a sudden I kinda just—it was amazing because I was like, "Oh man, that's just weird" because I feel like a kid again—like really young again. And I almost just got the feeling of what Justin must feel when he puts his thumb in his mouth. And it was really good having that experience beforehand to put it into the movie. I think it made that part a little bit better maybe. But, naw, there's no trouble kicking it. (Laughs.) No, the thumb is nasty.
G: Did you and your screen parents agree upon what Justin's early upbringing was like? Was that part of the rehearsal?
LTP: Yeah. I think—what Justin's early upbringing kind of consisted of was maybe Vincent and Tilda's first meeting. Like their kind of first relationship was Justin's beginning. Because he was always watching them and trying to figure them out and hold them together. And so his whole beginning came from their relationship and how they treated each other and where they came from. Learning about their relationship, how they started and stories they made up about how they met and everything shaped how Justin was, I think. And how he grew up and what he saw in them. And so it's a very complicated and really complex way of making that character real because Tilda and Vincent—I kind of got to watch be...as if they were ten years younger. And that was pretty sick and made something different in the movie. And, I gotta say, Mike—he made us improv some strange ways sometimes. One time he made me be Tilda's father—me yelling at Tilda for going out with Vincent. Like "How could you go out with this biker douche-ass? Why would you do that?" And I had to be like her father and yelling at her. And that was really strange. Because I was a completely different character. But at the same time I was learning from that, and she was too. And we kind of took something out of that. One time I was sitting there being Justin—we were having a scene together, me and Tilda—and all of a sudden Mike just said, "You're her father." And so I was her father during that scene, and so I had to do that scene as her father. And, like, ten minutes later, he was like, "Okay, you're Justin again." And I got something out of it that wasn't there before.
G: Yeah. That's a weird dynamic because she sort of feels like a kid in the movie, and you're dealing with moving into adulthood, right?
G: Okay. So Vincent D'Onofrio—he's an amazing actor. Is it true that you told Bob Stevenson, "I think that guy is going to eat me alive"?
LTP: (Laughs.) I don't know. Probably. He does. He looks like he's going to, man. He's a scary guy if he wants to be. He can be a scary guy—very, like, intimidating guy—because he's got a lot of power. You know, he's a very tall guy, number one. He's like 6'5'' or something. And he just like—one time—one of my favorite moments, I think, that there was—it's not in the movie anymore—it was a smaller scene, but he was cutting up a fish. He was scaling a fish or something. And I started yelling at him about him letting the mother leave. He was kind of like letting the mother go away. Like "Look at what you're doing right now. You're just screwing everything up. You're getting blood all over the floor from the fish." I was just kind of telling him that he was being a jerk. And when I was on camera, he did the most. When he was off camera, he was subtly—he was Mike. That was who he was. He was Mike the character And when he Mike Cobb, you know? And when he was off, he needed to make me scared. And he got in my face...and he scared the shit out of me. He got so up there, you know what I mean? He just scared me so bad that it just came through amazingly. I couldn't believe it. I was like, "Oh, man." He can do that though.
G: And then, how do you come down off a scene like that? Or does he?
LTP: I don't know. It just kind of went—I don't know if we even talk about it afterward. Just kind of like, "Wow, that was amazing." You kind of just go off there with almost a feeling of awe or just like happiness that something new came out of that, that you didn't even think was there.
G: You also have a moment on screen with a deer. How was that filmed? I'm curious.
LTP: Man, I could never kill a deer. Anybody who kills deers, I just want to beat them up, 'cause I mean, we were petting deers that day, they were licking out of our hands, it was amazing. They're like the most gentle freakin' creatures I have ever seen. And we had to get this deer—we had to fence in a piece of forest up in the mountains, and we had to bring like a couple deers—we chose the one we wanted, and we put the deer and we tried to get the deer into the middle. We put like a whole bunch of seed on the ground, and I had to kind of sneak over to it. I mean, the deer would run away and go freaking out, and so I ended up having to get into the middle, and they put the deer next to me and it ate the food out of my hand, but it was pretty interesting—working with a deer.
G: Well, they say never work with kids and animals.
LTP: Exactly. But it was pretty funny, and it was amazing, actually.
G: How fully do you commit your dialogue to memory? You like to keep it spontaneous, right?
LTP: Big time. I don't know why, and I don't know if that's the right thing to do. A lot of people would probably punch me in the face—a lot of actors—like probably Al Pacino. I heard that he—if you don't know your lines, he's like, "What're you doing? Why? Like what's the point?" I totally agree with what he's saying. But at the same time, for me, it feels better to know them only when I need them. Because if I know the words beforehand, it makes it so much harder on me to act them out as if they're fresh, as if they're just coming out for the first time. If I know them so much beforehand, it makes it so that "Oh, I knew I was going to say that, and you knew I was going to say that." There's nothing special about the scene at all. There's nothing new that we're going to get out of this at all. But if you don't put them to memory, maybe you have to make something up. Maybe you have to make a new line. And that happened a lot during the film too.
G: Well, as long as you know your intentions and are true to that.
LTP: I would never go in there not knowing my intentions. I think that's what I asked Mike every time before a scene. Because I didn't even know what scene we were going into each time. I wouldn't even ask. But then we'd get up there, and I'd say, "Okay, so what has happened before this?" And that's all I'd ask him and that's it. And he would say, "Well, Tilda just found a picture of Matt Schram, and you're just feeling like this, and Vince sits around here and this is happening"—he would give me an overall view of the entire film and I could see exactly where my environment was and kind of react to it from that and know my intention. And that was all I needed. And then to look over the lines real fast and hope that they came out when I needed them.
G: Did you have any expectation that you might bring a prize home from Sundance?
LTP: No. My God, I didn't even know they had that kind of award. I heard actually that they don't a lot of the times. They don't give it out a lot. And that was even more amazing. But I do not in the slightest way think that I deserve that at all, and I think that it is a very strange thing that they gave it to me. I think that they really saw something in the film that's amazing, but it should have been for Mike. It really shouldn't have been for me.
G: That's very humble of you.
LTP: But it's completely true...whatever happened on that screen was because Mike got me there. I'm not saying that I didn't do anything. But I'm saying that I don't know if I deserved the higher honor anyway. Actually, I know that I don't. Because it couldn't have been done without him and his complete focus and his complete keeping me on like track and everything. You know what I mean? I would have fell off-track a million times. It wouldn't have come out the same at all if it wasn't for Mike always keeping me there and answering all the questions that I had, even if he doesn't know the answers. So it was not something that I expected at all. Especially from Berlin. Berlin? I was like, "What the hell?" This is an international film festival now. This became something ridiculous, almost. I just couldn't believe it. But I just—at that point, I didn't even freak out. I was just, like, okay.
G: And when you hear you're winning a Silver Bear, who do you call first—your agent or your mother?
LTP: My mom told me. I was sleeping in bed. I went to Berlin and I stayed there for a couple of—maybe a week, I stayed there. And I didn't have to. I only had to stay for like three days or something. But I left before the awards. I went home and then they called like twelve hours after I'd been home—in the morning when I had woken up. And I was like "Ahh, its good to be home." You know what I mean? You know, "Umm, could you come back?" Had we just knew—we were like, "Oh, man, that's amazing." And I found out that I had won that, and I was just like, "Oh my God, that's just ridiculous."
G: And, like Justin, you're in a phase in your life when you're experiencing a natural separation from your parents as you start to make your own way. Is that process a difficult one for you?
LTP: No. I mean it's interesting. And you learn a lot from it. But it's not hard. It's just something that takes time. Definitely takes time. Just little by little you kind of are getting out of the house. And I went to live in Los Angeles for the last three months. I was there for three months. I found out I didn't like it and came home. But it was something that I had to do. And they had to let me do. And it was the first time that I've been off on my own not having a job to do. I just had to go and be by my own. And that was strange. But I got through it. And I didn't kill myself, thank God. You know what I mean? I didn't do anything too stupid. So I lived through that one. But it's all about just having all those experiences that you can now on your own—now instead of having the director. You know, Dad telling you what to do. Instead of having that track, you should know your track by then. By the time you're 18, 19, you should sort of know what your path is. Not what you're going to do with the rest of your life, but just like what area you're gonna stay in. Where you think your morals should lie.
G:We're gonna do a quick lightning round here about some of your projects we're about to see. You play a bit of a thug in Chumscrubber. What was your experience on that movie like?
LTP: Way different. It was just—Arie is a completely different guy—the director—and he's a really amazing guy. He's definitely younger, and he has so much more of a visual eye for everything. And he was just all about the visual, and that's why he made a really cool movie. But I mean he had a great idea with Zac, the writer—well, both of them were the writers actually. But it was the coolest thing to be on that set because I met Camilla Belle and I met Justin Chatwin—you know what I mean? And Jamie Bell. And got to all kind of see who each other was. And just meeting friends on there—that was probably the best part of that movie. But being that character was really fun because he such a sick weirdo. I mean he just follows the power. That's all he does. And it was a different way of acting even. Because I wasn't—I was still being truthful, but I didn't have the weight on my shoulders to carry the movie. It was being carried and I was helping. And I was only like helping out like the whole film. And that was a lot different of an experience for me. But it was the same during Empire Falls.
G: What can you tell me about Southland Tales? How did you get involved in that? I know it's a very—
LTP: Richard Kelly, strangely enough, said that he saw the movie Thumbsucker, and he wanted me to be in his movie. That was it. And I said, "Hmm. Good." So that's awesome—that's amazing. "I would love to." I didn't tell him this, but Donnie Darko is my favorite movie ever. I was just amazed that this would happen. And the character is going to be ridiculously cool and funny just because he's so not me. It's gonna be very scary to do it.
G: Looking forward to that. I should ask you about 50 Pills, as well. That's a project you have in the can—
LTP: Well, 50 Pills is one that I did because of the fact—I mean I have to be scared to do anything, and I was scared because it was a comedy. And I was like, "Well, okay. How the hell am I going to pull this one off?" I'm not that funny on camera. I don't really do anything that funny. You know, I'm not Will Farrell in any way, or Vince Vaughn, you know? And so it was kind of a—it was a new thing to do. And that's why I did that film is because it really had something funny about it. When I read the script, I laughed out loud. So that just made me want to do it even more. And I hope it's good. I don't know where its going yet. Or what it's doing yet...
G: Yeah, it's good to stay on the tight wire, I guess.
G: Lastly, I would just ask as your career is heating up, what do you do to keep perspective or to kind of stay sane?
LTP: Live at home right now. I've been living at home. I've been script writing. So that's really what I've been trying to do is trying to write. Trying to read as much as I could. I've been trying to write scripts since I was in freshman year high school. And I never got through any of them. But now I think I have the potential enough with all the things that I've learned to kind of finish something. And I think that would be amazing.
G: And should that happen, or when it happens, what do you think you would want to do with it? Is this something you would want to find a director for, or act in, or direct yourself?
LTP: To tell you the truth, I think I would love to direct it, but I don't have enough confidence in myself to do that. And I think I would like to be in the movie. I'd love to play a part in it. Whatever part maybe even the director wanted me to be. But I think I'd put it in someone else's hands, someone that I really trusted beyond, you know? So I think I could sort of let go of it, but not that much. I couldn't just give it away. I couldn't just sell it. It would be impossible for me.
G: Well, thank you very much. Best of luck to you. Loved the film.
LTP: Thanks. Thanks, man.