Tribeca 2014 Interview: In Your Eyes with Nikki Reed and Michael Stahl-David

This year, at the 2014 Tribeca Film Festival, I had the opportunity to interview the ever-charming Nikki Reed and Michael Stahl-David for their upcoming feature, In Your Eyeswritten by Joss Whedon and directed by Brin Hill. Before the interview, I spent much of my time reverently researching each of the actors’ bios, memorizing their IMDb pages, and searching for previous interviews, in order to fully prepare for the big day (aka the thirty-minute, casual, round-table interview). I walked into the room, a bundle of nerves, only to be greeted with a smile, a handshake, and the question: “Do you mind if I eat some soup?” Turns out, all that worry was for nothing, as I was soon in conversation with two of the most welcoming actors around.

The room consisted of the chicken-soup-eating Michael Stahl-David (Cloverfield, The Black Donnellys) and the stunning Nikki Reed (Thirteen, The Twilight Saga), as well as two fellow interviewers: Danny Peary of the Sag Harbor Express (online) and Kelsey Cortez of the Daily Quirk (online). Described by Zoe Kazan as “Joss Whedon does Nicholas Sparks,” In Your Eyes is a romantic/sci-fi/comedy/drama that has recently become available to rent for a measly $5 right here, on Vimo, thanks to Whedon’s decision for a digital release.

KC: Michael, you’re character does some pretty dramatic things for love, especially towards the end of the film. Can you tell me what’s the craziest thing you’ve ever done in the name of love in real life?
Stahl-David: Oh gosh, well, there’s been a lot of last-minute plane tickets. I haven’t stolen any cars though. I will get on the plane at the last second; I’ve done that a lot. Yeah . . . that doesn’t sound crazy or romantic. . . .
Reed: That sounded great to me! I would take that as a massive gesture!
KC: Nikki, what about you?
Reed: I’ve gotten on some planes [laughs]. Oh gosh, I don’t know. I mean, I believe in doing what you feel in the moment; it’s who I am and, that kind of defines me. One time when I was eighteen years old, I met someone that I fell madly in love with, who lived in another country, and I was there working, and I just didn’t come home! I just stayed, and a year later my dad was, “um, so babe, it’s probably time for you to enter your real life again!” But, you know, I’m just kind of a believer in it. I’m a believer in doing whatever you feel you should do for love.
DP: Brin (Director Brin Hill) seems to have the same vibe as you, Michael. Do you have the same temperament? Was that part of your working with him?
Stahl-David: Yeah, that’s interesting. I think we did have a similar vibe. I think Brin’s calmer than I am, but, yeah, I think there was certainly a language we had together. We’re both big hip-hop fans, so I don’t know if that’s a part of it [laughs], but, yeah, I do think we both felt that we could communicate. It got to a point where it would just be a couple of words [that] would be the direction, a couple of little code words, like maybe. . .
DP: Like “Action”? 
Stahl-David: [laughs] Yeah, yeah, it got to a point where it was a language that only he and I would ever use. He would say “Action,” and I would say, “You mean, ‘Start.'”

SF: I read that Brin wanted an intimacy within the film, but your love interests couldn’t be more different in many ways. How do you make an intimate connection with a character so different to yours?
Stahl-David: Right. There is a lot that’s very different, but they share a sense of wanting more out of their lives, and feeling trapped. And there’s this outlet that they suddenly have, which is each other, and just in conversation . . . just in a fun, interesting person who they feel understands them, and I feel that . . . that opens them up in ways that they had been trapped.
KC: I know your characters spent a lot of time apart, but was there a scene that both of you found really memorable?
Stahl-David: I loved the scenes with all three of us. Where it was me and Donna with her [Rebecca] there. . .in my head only.
Reed: She was there by the way! She was at the monitor yelling out things like “Whore!,” “Wench!”
Stahl-David: And it was hard for you, because you had to act as if you couldn’t hear her!
Reed: I know, and that was really interesting too, because I’m such a reactive person, so I would hear her yell, and I think there was a scene where she yelled out “Wench” or something, and I remember going, like, [looking around] who is that yelling and screaming?! Is there a woman here?! I don’t know, I’ve had more fun shooting this film than I have in a very long time. I keep saying that, but it’s so truthful. I did, I think, six films last year and a half.
DP: Three of them are here.
Reed: Three of them are here, but this was one of my favorite characters; whether Donna was in one scene or a hundred scenes, I would do this a million times again. I love Donna, and I love Dylan and Donna. I had an absolute blast working with this one [Michael], and, I mean, this in the most innocent of ways, but I had never seen his work before, so I approached this in a very kind of open, blank canvas: Who’s this going to be? What are we going to do together?
Stahl-David: And maybe even a little, like, “uh-oh,” I hope he’s good!
Reed: No, I didn’t feel that!
Stahl-David:  I would!
Reed: I knew you were going to be good! I just didn’t know what the chemistry was going to be, and what we were going to have together, because, you know, Donna is so, like, innocently happy and excited about Dylan and the world . . . and so dumb, God bless her. But we immediately had this thing that we totally got, and it wasn’t necessarily written in the script—that when Dylan said something, Donna has it kind of go right over her head. I mean, she really appreciates all of it, but she makes a joke and is smiling at something. and he’s, like, “oh, like, that didn’t hit me.” And we had that, and I loved that—we just both knew that about our characters.
Stahl-David: It was a lot of fun to play. We found a lot of little moments.

DP: I didn’t think she was dumb. I thought she was the one person who was actually smart enough to realize there was something in him.
Reed: That’s interesting! You know, I generally play, as a rule, I’m attracted to really intelligent characters, really intelligent women; and I made a conscious decision in this, for the first time, to play—I don’t know if “dumb” is the right word—I don’t know if “uneducated” is the right word—I don’t know exactly what word to use to define her, but there’s a . . . she’s very simple, and her brain doesn’t function on the same level that most female characters function.
Stahl-David: It’s a complete obliviousness.
Reed: Yeah, and I wanted to play someone who was happy with not needing answers, and not knowing. And it goes against everything I am as a person! I want to know everything, and I want answers, and Donna didn’t! I liked that
DP: That was actually a good quality I thought; she was a good person.
Stahl-David: Yeah, and she sees the goodness in him. She’s, like, the only one in his area who sees that he’s a good guy.
Reed: And we said this in an interview, earlier, about that moment where Dylan is, like, “I have voices in my head! Right, Donna?!” And she’s just, like, “Oh yeah, he does!”
Stahl-David: Because she’s not judging him in any way! And that’s so funny actually.
Reed: Yeah, it could have been written as being so judgmental, and I played it as how I wanted Donna to be, like, “Yeah, he does! And I love that about him!”
SF: Whedon writes such amazing female characters, and I just loved that part of her—that she was so nice in the end. She sees him hitting himself, but she still comes back to be say, “Lets play some pool!”
Reed: Yeah, like, she finds that interesting about him!
SF: Both of you have had darker roles in the past. Michael, you were in The Black Donnelly’s, which I’m in the middle of, and a little obsessed with.
Stahl-David: Oh really? Cool!
SF: Yeah, Netflix! And, Nikki, you’ve also had darker roles in Thirteen.Are you both going towards lighter roles, or is that why you chose Joss Whedon’s kind of romance, because they aren’t all that light, and they tend to have darker pasts? 
Stahl-David: My favorite kind of movies are serious comedies. Stuff that uses the lens of comedy, but keeps having people miss each other (and finds humor in that), but also shows the pain. I love both, and I’d like to keep doing both. I just did a half-hour comedy pilot, which is very much comedy, but I also did a play in L.A. that was by a comedy writer, but was about someone who had lost a partner to cancer. So it was funny, it had a lot of humor in it, but . . . you know, 50/50, like that kind of movie.
SF: Dark comedy?
Stahl-David: Yeah, I really like stuff like that. Both.
Reed: I don’t know where I’m going! All the films that I have here are kind of on the funny side. I’m just in a place in my life where I want to do stuff that feels good for me, but that challenges me, and makes me feel like I’m growing, not just as an actress, but as a person. And so I have this and Intramural, which is super-broad comedy, and then Murder of a Cat, which Sam Raimi produced, and I’m working with Fran Kranz, who is by far one of the most inspiring actors I’ve ever worked opposite. I just want to feel a little scared, I want to feel taken out of my comfort zone for a second, and I mean I want to experiment with lighter material, because it’s not necessarily one of my strengths. I’ve been doing a lot of writing, and I just directed something, actually, that hasn’t been announced, so I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but we’re in post right now.
DP: When you write for yourself, what are you writing?
Reed: I’m always writing “me,” and I need to stop writing “me.” I do! My dad says this to me. He tells me that the kind of gift that I have is for people to see and feel what I see and feel, which is really, I think, that’s a great thing. I can kind of paint a picture, somehow, for someday, somewhere, that makes them feel that they can relate, but one of the things my grandfather was always pushing me to do, and one of the last books he gave me, was on creative writing, and using my imagination, and writing fiction! And creating a world that doesn’t exist, and that’s definitely not something that I feel comfortable doing. I love to live in reality and give people my reality. So I’m working on that!
KC: That’s wonderful! I have a question, going on with the theme of the film. If you could have a telepathic connection with [someone] on the planet, who would it be?
Reed: Him. [Points to Michael Stahl-David.]
KC: How did I know you were going to say that? [Laughs.]
Reed: And we do sort of have that, we do. See how we color co-ordinated our outfits, because of that telepathic connection?!

Stahl-David: [Laughs.] We do, yes, browns and reds! I mean, I would probably choose some kind of, like, deep spiritual leader, like the Dalai Lama, who could just be, like, “Let it go, Michael. . .” And I’d be, like, “Oh, right, yeah!” I mean, imagine being able to see through his eyes for, like, an hour.
Reed:  Imagine you did, and it was bad.
Stahl-David: [Laughs.] He’s just bumming, watching infomercials. . .
Reed:  Imagine the one person you ever looked up to, and believed in, and you saw through their eyes, and it was bad. Oh man! I don’t know who I would pick. I could give a super cliché answer—like, how cool would it be if Michael Jackson was singing in my ear all day? But I don’t know. I could come up with something better later.
SF: The way Joss Whedon writes. I love his work, because he doesn’t give you all the answers, and it was never fully explained why they got this connection. And, I’m wondering, were there any theories when you were going though the script? Was there an answer that they took out?
Reed: Great question.
Stahl-David: You know, he wasn’t really interested in one. Dylan says, “I think I figured it out why we got this,” and she [Rebecca] says, “Why?,” and he says, “Why not?” And, I think, that’s it for him. It’s almost one of those things where—If I think too much about this, it will go away. What if this is—since it’s a focus trick, and we basically know we can block each other out—like—a gift?  You’ve got something, and you don’t want to touch it, ‘cus it feels so good, you know? So, I think, he doesn’t want to. . . . They don’t necessarily want to understand it. Which is a little bit strange. It’s one of the strange things that they do as characters—is that they stop questioning, just because they feel so comforted by it. And to question it would be to undermine it, and to question their sanity. Which is, like, when you’re falling in love—sometimes you don’t want to analyze it. . . . It’s kind of like that.
DP: Donna writes off Dylan after that first date. Were you surprised that she leaves him?
Reed: Well, we kind of had a different ending. It just was cut out.
DP: Well, at the part of the date where she runs out to her car. . .
Reed: Well, I think there’s a fine line between being kind of understanding and then being with a sociopath [laughs]. I mean, I think she looked in and saw that, and was, like, “Wow, I just need to go home and have a beer and think about this for a second.” I think she kind of, like, lets things go; she can just sort of write it off. I think she just went home and thought, “I’m going to take a second [Seconal?],” and then she’s, like, “Hey, what’s Dylan doing tonight?” But there was actually more of a connection there; and there was a moment where I did feel sort of bad for Donna, that she didn’t end up with Dylan, because we had some other scenes together, where it kind of continued and went further, but then, obviously, because the film had to cater to them, Dylan and Rebecca, they had to cut it out. It didn’t end so abruptly though.
DP: Well let me do one quick follow up. What is the role of her character? What is her importance in the movie? I mean, I think she is important.
Reed: Well, first of all, after seeing the film as a whole, which I didn’t necessarily realize in shooting and filming, I think Donna is [a] much needed comic relief. I think there’s something really uplifting about seeing people just be, and there’s nothing complicated about Dylan and Donna. So I think that’s her role in a film where, you know, your brain is just trying to figure it all out! It’s so stressful with Rebecca and Dylan, and their relationship, that when Donna comes in, you’re kind of, like, “This is nice,” and everyone can kind of just, you know, exhale for a second. But I also feel that Donna very much represents a big part of Dylan’s life that needs to be explained. She is that town. Donna’s never going to leave that town.
Stahl-David: She’s, like, the best of that town. This is the best girl in that town—who is sweet, who is kind, who is beautiful, but she doesn’t get it. You know, even though she accepts him, she doesn’t get it. And I think that’s the hard part.
Reed: Right. I think that explains why they can’t be together and why he does need more.
DP: The sad part is that there’s nobody else like him in that town.
Reed: I know, and there’s nobody else like her in that town. . . Should we have just been together?!
Stahl-David: Yep.
Reed: Wait, let me call Joss real quick, I think he made a mistake [laughs].
Stahl-David: Alternative ending!

SF: That’s what I thought when I was watching the film—that if it wasn’t for the supernatural element, she would be the main love interest. In another movie they’d be together!
Reed: Right. He would learn to cook a steak.
SF: With ketchup?
Reed: [laughs] Yeah, “Burnt black, tons of ketchup!”
KC: I love that line, and Rebecca’s reaction
Reed: [laughs] Yeah! “Burnt black? Tons of ketchup?! You picked a good one there”.
KC: And she’s behind the monitor while this is going on? She’s part of that scene?
Reed: Yeah, she was a part of all my scenes! I’m kind of pissed about it [laughs]. Get out of my scene!
Stahl-David: Well, if you think its hard to, like, react to someone who’s not there, who you’re just hearing, I think it’s harder to not react to someone who you are hearing and is there. Like someone who’s constantly interrupting, and you have to pretend, like, that’s not happening.
Reed: Well, especially as an actor, we’re very reactive, you [Michael] do a lot of improv, so it’s, like, you hear, and you want to do things. It reminds me of any time I do a scene where I’m on the phone, and I insist, I need somebody else to be on the cell phone, in my ear, on the phone. If I hear your voice anywhere else, the phone suddenly goes away, and I’m listening and talking to you over there [points away]. I need it to be where it’s supposed to be, and I need sets to be really quiet too, like, if I hear noises, I react instantly. We were shooting that scene in the bedroom, by the way, do you remember that scene? Where I could hear someone in the corner, and I was, like, “Listen. I just can’t do this right now with you in the corner [laughs].”
Stahl-David: Yeah, and he’s, like, “Oh, sorry, I have to get off the phone; they’re shooting a movie right now! [laughs].”
Reed: So it was a little like that with Zoe on set, because I could hear her everywhere!
SF: And was she with you in your scenes, Michael? I always thought it must be like green screen, when you’re really trying to be in love with a person, and there’s no one in front of you.
Stahl-David: No, honestly, it was the weirdest evolution; at first it was really hard, because she was physically there. She would be, like, underneath the table or behind the bar, and it was tricky. But then, after a while, you kind of got used to it; then it was sort of—it became something where, in some ways, there was more intimacy, because you sort of felt alone in a way that you felt kind of free too. I mean, part of the hard things about acting is that you’re exaggerating an intimacy—where you might have the real comfort level, like we had the comfort level, but then we’re going to be playing something outside of what’s real, but I’m looking dead in your eyes while you’re doing it. So there’s something about just hearing Zoe, and just feeling her with me, that became Zoe and people from my life and my imagination, all in one, because her face wasn’t there.

Reed: [Turns to Michael] Let me ask you a question. Did you make a conscious decision of where she was in your mind when you could hear her? I ask, because I did this film where I played a schizophrenic girl, a year or two ago, and there was a lot of study done on where that voice comes from.
Stahl-David: No, I didn’t do that, because I didn’t want to have to, like, pretend she was somewhere else when I could hear her. She was just there, where she was.
DP: So, Nikki, having three films at Tribeca, have you had Q & As for all of them?
Reed: My third premiere is Thursday night, so I’ve done two film Q & As.
DP: I just wonder how it is to be at Tribeca with three films?
Reed: I am just beyond thrilled. I haven’t been here since I had a movie here, many years ago, called Minie’s First Time, with Alec Baldwin. Long time ago. And I love this festival, and I love New York City, and I love what this festival represents, and I, just, I don’t know, I’m just so excited! Its kind of like it’s too good to be true. I kept getting phone calls; first it was Intramural,actually. I got that, and I was just, like, “Wow, that’s so great that they’re embracing this, like, football comedy!” And then Murder of a Cat. And then, as it was unraveling, I was, like, “Get out of here! No way!” You know, it was just really exciting to be a part of this. I love it here. Yeah, but, you know, the nice thing is that I have different levels of involvement in each film, like, our movie [points to Michael and herself] is not my movie; this is his movie! I just get to be a tiny part of something I’m proud of.
Stahl-David: Not tiny!
Reed: Well, you know, I have a moment in something I’m proud of.
Stahl-David: Supporting.
Reed: Yeah, supporting, and so we do these Q & As between him and Zoe; and I love to stand there and support; and I’m, like, the biggest Zoe Kazan fan ever! And then with Intramural, obviously everyone wanted to hear everyone cracking jokes, and be funny and goofy. And then Fran just texted me that he’s arrived for Murder of a Cat, which is a film that I’m, I think, particularly proud of, because I had to really fight for that film and you [Michael] can say this as well as I can: when you audition for a movie there’s a certain validation that comes from it. There’s a real element of pain, I think, when you’re constantly auditioning and not getting things. It happens to all of us. I should probably represent myself in a different way, but I’ve done, I don’t know, twenty/thirty films in my career, and I audition, I audition, I audition, and it’s still no, no, no, and it’s the most defeating feeling in the world. So Murder of a Cat was one that I auditioned for that I really wanted, like, a year and a half ago, when I first went in, and again the conversation came down to, you know, it’s always political: money, this actress, this value; and I remember Gillian [Green] really fighting for me and saying, “I’m not making this movie without you.” And because of that, it was drawn out for six or seven months before I was given the part, which never happens; you usually know within a week. And there’s something so validating and rewarding about that. It’s an unforgettable moment in time for me.
DP: Well, you’ve had six movies, you say. That’s validation, right?
Reed: Sure! But there’s something different about auditioning for a film that you want and someone going, “You’re good enough, we want you.” [Looks to Michael.] Do you get that?
Stahl-David: So, OK, for instance, this one you didn’t audition for. You get offers, your agents always trying to get you offers.
DP: You didn’t audition for this?
Reed: For In Your Eyes? No.
Stahl-David: Right, and that’s always nice to get an offer.
Reed: Sure!
Stahl-David: But there’s something different when you have to go and prove yourself in the room, and you do it!
Reed: And your jumping through hoops, and somebody says, “We want you!” There’s a whole different kind of. . . I mean actors need validation anyway, continual validation [laughs], but I think it’s a really. . . I have no other word to describe it, but it’s the most rewarding feeling in the world. And it’s a test that we will constantly be put through as actors. You’re never just, well, who knows, I mean, obviously not Meryl Streep. I’m sure she’s not really tested anymore! I’m sure you hit a certain point, but, you know, it’s a very competitive industry; and you’re never good enough; you can always better yourself; you can always want more; you can always strive.
Stahl-David: And sometimes it’s not about “better”; it’s just about “right.” There’s a lot of great actors, but they just don’t fit the part. And that’s the hard thing, sometimes, because as an actor you did great, but they can be, like, “You were great, but. . .” And you don’t ever necessarily here the “great” part; you just hear what comes after [the] “but” part, you know?
DP: Well there’s always a reason to reject somebody.
SF: Michael, I was reading some of your past interviews, and you said you were shocked when you landed Cloverfield and how you’ve been continuously working your way up. So what do you have planned for the future?
Stahl-David: Oh yeah, well, I have a movie called Take Care that you [Nikki] have been hearing about all day!
Reed: I love it.
Stahl-David: Liz Tuccillo, who was a writer on Sex and The City, wrote it, and that’s with Leslie Bibb and Thomas Sadoski from The Newsroom, and that’s a comedy where I play a guy, like a workout guy, who’s always working out very loudly, and he’s kind of a dick; so that’s a kind of fun part.
Reed: Did you audition for that?
Stahl-David: I didn’t. I got offered it based on a Web series, which was amazing. They had seen this Web series that I had made called Michael Stahl-David: Behind the Star, which was a mockumentary, jokey thing, and they liked it! So that was really special.
Reed: I was only asking because I wanted to know what outfit you wore in the audition, what you wore to get that part [laughs].
Stahl-David: Right. A lot of sleeveless shirts [laughs]. And then I have a movie called Love & Air Sex that just came out. It’s on iTunes now, and I don’t know! Honestly, it’s going to be a summer of. . .
Reed: You also did the TV show!
Stahl-David: Yeah, I have the TV Show!
Reed: Did you know he did 2 to Go? Had I known he was doing 2 to Go, I would have been, like, “Drop the other thing that I didn’t even get, and please, dear God, obviously, I don’t want to harm anyone but. . .I want it [laughs].
DP: Yesterday, I asked Zoe about fan mail, and I’m curious about your fan mail, Nikki. Is it all Twilight? Any Thirteen?
Reed: A lot of Thirteen! Lot of Lords of Dogtown. Lot of O.C. fans! That still. . . The O.C.was a big one, even though I was only on there for, I don’t even know how long, a couple of months? I do all my fan mail, believe it or not; I mean, sorry, that sounded so. . .but, I mean, I know a lot of people who don’t. And my mom, God bless my mom, she sits there and reads every letter, and helps me with my fan mail. And I send it all in, and I’m going broke. I mean I buy all my stamps [laughs]. I send stuff all around the world.
DP: Is it mostly for Twilight?
Reed: Yeah, yeah, of course, like, 80%
DP: Have you got one piece of fan mail yet?
Stahl-David: [laughs] You know, that was such a sweet question. My mom wrote me a text. Does that count?
Reed: You didn’t get the letter I sent you?!
DP: No, I’m joking. Do you get some, though?
Stahl-David: No, I know. Yeah, I get stuff when I’m in a play; stuff comes to the theatre.
DP: Good!
Nikki: That’s also me.
Stahl-David: It’s all you!

And with that, the interview ended. The two lovely stars stood to shake our hands, their warm smiles and polite words never fading, despite the fact that it was the last interview of what I’m sure was a long and repetitive day. Mr. Stahl-David chatted briefly to me about his role on The Black Donnelly’s, therefore feeding my obsession for the short-lived series, while Ms. Reed was kind enough to RT my thanks to her on Twitter to her 237k fans. I’m not sure an interview gets much better than that.
—Sinann Fetherston

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