If you’ve seen an independent film over the last decade, then you know Josh Pais. He’s been in everything from “Teeth” to “The Station Agent.” And now he’s back in Lynn Shelton’s “Touchy Feely,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. In it, he plays an uptight dentist who suddenly has the gift of healing any patient’s pain with his touch. We spoke to Pais in the middle of the mad crush of the festival about creating and maintaining connections, his acting course Committed Impulse, and being a good collaborator.
How did “Touchy Feely” come your way?
Josh Pais: I had a movie called “Please Give” at Tribeca Film Festival, and I was walking out and this very attractive blonde woman [Lynn Shelton] came up to me and was going, “I’m such a fan of your work!” And I was very flattered, didn’t quite know what to say. We walked for a couple blocks and then I said, “What brought you to the festival?” and she said, “I directed Humpday’.” And I was like, “What?!” A week before that my friend Bobby Cannavale said, “You’ve got to watch this movie because it’s so in alignment with how you work.” So for the next couple of blocks it was me going on and on about her work. And we talked and said we really want to work together. In these kinds of environments there might be a conversation about that and nothing really comes of it, but I didn’t want to let this slide. And I stayed in touch with her. And Lynn called me when I was in L.A. last year and said, “Are you free in May? Here’s the story.” And I got a pen and she was just telling me the whole story of the film. And then slowly she started sending me versions of the script and it was just a dream come true.
This was the first of her films to have a script, right?
She said a lot of her stuff has been about 80 percent improvised and 20 percent scripted. But we had about a 70 page scriptment, as she calls it, and then there were some scenes where it was just a description of what was happening. As we got closer and closer, she would write things out. My process is I try to learn my lines so they’re so solid I don’t have to think about them or how I’m going to say them. And Lynn said, “Read the scene the night before and then come in.” For me, that is a dream. Because so many movies I do, even very scripted films, I’ll throw something in and the director will see that I have strength in that area, they’ll say do whatever you want. So to have a director at the get-go working that way is just a dream.
Are you a big collaborator?
I love to collaborate! That’s totally my preference. And I feel like everything I do ends up being that way. I don’t give them a choice! I think it’s also a matter of feeling the environment you’re working in, to know when it is right to do that. Sometimes you have to make those steps to say, “Hey, the scene could possibly be this way, too.” Some actors do it to prove something, but if you genuinely have an idea you feel would enhance the entire story, give it a shot.
You’re not showing up on the first day with a sheaf of notes.
[Laughs] I’ve been on set when another actor has done that, and it’s horrible. And some of them are famous actors, and so people have to listen! And then every now and then, in a few situations, the actor was really demanding but they were right. So it’s a very fine balance.
You’re doing Showtime’s new series “Roy Donovan” now. Do you ever take a vacation?
When I’m working, it’s like a vacation. And then I also created a way of working called Committed Impulse. So I’ve been teaching on and off while I’ve been working for about 15, 20 years. It’s a lot about teaching how to do that kind of physical work where you create the character physically going from your intellectual interpretation. I created an online program that has audio lessons and PDF worksheets and two hours of video. So it’s like a course you can do at home. And people are loving it and getting jobs from it. If you go to the website there’s a free 27-minute lesson about how to stay present when you’re acting, auditioning, creating, and that’s free on the site. So jump on it!
So you’re never not busy. But how do you choose your projects? You’ve worked with some amazing indie directors over the years.
For years, I would just pick a project that I’d get hired for! But now I’m getting offers for things, so I feel like I’m starting to get the luxury to do something I feel is creatively challenging and that has an arc, a journey. Because that’s really most exciting to me. That’s one thing about “Touchy Feely”—just starting out with the most uptight guy and his journey of really becoming alive in his own life. The message of that is so in alignment with me. It’s like what I teach in Committed Impulse and just how I live my life and the challenge and the bravery to be as alive as you are, not to hide and to let yourself feel and see and breathe. Things that I feel make the planet a better place. If that can happen and it’s an engaging character, I don’t say no to that. So it’s choosing things that challenge me. And on some level I really look at acting as almost a spiritual practice in staying present on a film set. And not going on automatic and letting things truly unfold in the moment.
And finally, what’s your best worst audition story?
Somehow I got an audition for a musical. I think it might have even been a Broadway musical. I’m not particularly a singer but I got this appointment and it had to be something in the Cole Porter vein. So I chose “Let’s Do It” and I got a coach for an hour and he was playing and I was like, “Yeah, I’m killing this!” So I go into the audition, and it was at a really big studio. A row of 10 people. And I came in—it was my first and last musical! I’m standing there and there’s a guy at the piano but he didn’t play it full out that I could get lost in it. He was kind of indicating. And I started out big and it was like, literally the table got farther and father away. And everything was moving back and I was getting smaller. I felt like I was about two feet tall—and squeaking! And everybody in the room was painfully uncomfortable. I think I had to stop and start a couple times. And I walked out with my tail so between my legs. It was hopeless. I’m sure they had a good giggle. So painful. So painful. No more musicals! I’m not a singer. I’ve sung in character, but it’s just not my thing. And I’m OK with that!