‘Armageddon Time’ Director James Gray on the Fundamental Role of an Actor

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Photo Source: Courtesy of Focus Feature

When filmmaker James Gray set about fictionalizing his childhood years, he wanted to avoid the comfort of nostalgia. That’s part of why he ended up with “Armageddon Time” as the title for his semi-autobiographical drama. He crafted a story with a brutally honest premise at its core: As he puts it, “There is no innocence to be lost.” 

Children—as the film’s protagonist Paul Graff (Banks Repeta) makes clear—can be cruel, whether intentionally or unintentionally. As a kid growing up in 1980s Queens, Paul is a daydreamer. He’s an artist in the making who has trouble living up to his working-class family’s standards. While attempting to forge his own path, he lashes out in all the wrong ways—often getting his friend Johnny (Jaylin Webb) in trouble. But Johnny, an affable Black kid with a penchant for mischief, is never afforded the same grace that’s given to the white Paul. One of the many quiet tragedies of “Armageddon Time” is Paul’s obliviousness to the motives that guide his actions—with disastrous consequences for Johnny.

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There are no rose-colored glasses here; Gray wanted to examine his own childhood with clear eyes.  

“That became the whole M.O. behind the film,” he says. “Not to say, ‘Look at how great we are or were,’ but to make, in a sense, the anti–virtue signaling movie. To say, ‘We were very imperfect. We are imperfect. We were and are awful in many ways, and cruel.’ And that’s OK, because that’s part of what it means to be a person.”

Yet the emotions he elicits from his ensemble—which includes Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, and Anthony Hopkins as Paul’s mom, dad, and grandfather, respectively—are wonderfully vulnerable. 

Armageddon Time

“It was my decision to make sure that the actors understood never to play a sentimental idea, never to play like everybody’s nice,” Gray explains. “Honestly, directly revealing what it is that we did, who we are, who we were: To me, that’s the pathway in art. It’s the function of the artist to be honest and to speak of the world as he, she, or they see it—not as we wish it were or that we pretend it was.”

The unvarnished sincerity of this family drama keeps it from feeling maudlin, as the Graffs grapple with an unruly kid, a fading patriarch, and a changing world. But Gray never spoke to his cast about the tone of the film; the director is adamant that this isn’t part of an actor’s purview.

“An actor only plays the moment. He never plays above the character,” he says. “There were a lot of times where Banks and Jaylin were playing the scene, but they had no idea what they were doing. And that’s fine. That’s OK. That’s why I’m there. The conductor hears the whole orchestra. It is not the first violinist’s job to do more than that.”

A performer should always be in the scene, not outside or above it. “The actor is not playing a global idea of a character or a global idea of the story. The actor is listening, reacting, and acting—playing the scene, understanding the person, understanding the character, and extending their sympathies toward that person.”

Therein lies the challenge for any actor, whether they’re playing a wayward kid struggling to be seen, a mother searching for her place in a shrinking world, or a doting grandfather. “Your job is to do something that is really difficult: to remind us what it means to be a person in the world, and how hard that is, no matter your lot in life,” Gray says.

This story originally appeared in the Oct. 13 issue of Backstage Magazine.

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