December 23, 2019 Interview – Jackson Rathbone
Sometimes when actors get a big break early in their careers, they immediately allow themselves to be pigeonholed into endless similar roles within that genre. But Jackson Rathbone, he doesn’t play that way! After taking on the role of Jasper Hale in the blockbuster Twilight series, he would go on to tackle a myriad of eclectic roles. From a young man undergoing Dissociative Identity Disorder on an episode of Criminal Minds to portraying Sokka in M. Night Shyamalan’s 2010 film The Last Airbender, to pretty much everything in between, Rathbone has more than proven his love for his craft.
Now, his latest role finds him exploring even further new territory in the cautionary Horror tale Do Not Reply. Making the festival circuit throughout the end of 2019, the film premiered on December 6th at the New York City Horror Film Fest, where Rathbone took home the award for Best Actor, then on December 13th at San Francisco’s Another Hole In the Head Festival. With a wider release of the film looming in early 2020, Rathbone sat down discussing everything from his humble beginnings in acting to playing a villain in Do Not Reply, plus much, much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in acting for nearly 15 years now. What has kept you inspired to continue acting for all these years?
Jackson Rathbone – I’ve always been a storyteller since I was a kid. I remember when Home Alone 2 (1992) came out, and Kevin McCallister had the Talkboy—and you could record your voice. I used to hide in my room and make up radio plays just off the top of my head, because I loved the idea of telling stories. My mother used to tell me bedtime stories every night before we went to bed, and I just got the bug for it at that young age.
Then I started doing theater when I was about 13, and when I was on stage I got to see how you can transport an audience into an alternate world, and how an audience loved escaping their lives and being enraptured with a story. It became an addiction, really. (Laughs)
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) Alright, we’re here to discuss Do Not Reply, which has just premiered in New York and San Francisco. You have always seemed like a light-hearted and easygoing person, but in this film your character Brad is very much the opposite of that and a twisted villain. What drew you to the character?
Jackson Rathbone – You know, when I first read the script I was nervous about the character and the kind of Slasher element of the film. I didn’t want to make a movie that was glorifying violence and there’s always a fine line when you’re making a Horror film. But when I met with Daniel and Walt, the directors, they made it clear to me that this was much more than just a Slasher flick. This was social commentary for the modern age; for the young teenagers that get swept up into these apps and kind of get carried away in a fantasy world, and how dangerous that can be. Once we hit that on the head I was like, okay, let’s make this movie.
Throughout the course of pre-production, the directors and I really wanted to make this character a bit more three-dimensional than your average Slasher film. I tried to add certain sympathetic elements to Brad, which isn’t to make him sympathetic necessarily, but to make him justify himself in his actions. Which, I think everything he does is awful and terrible—he’s a terrible person. (Laughs) Spoiler alert: He gets his comeuppance in the film. As an actor, I need my characters to be three-dimensional and be able to tell an arcing storyline.
It was Christmas before we started filming and I was at my parents’ and they were like, “Oh, so what’s this movie about?” And I was like, “Something you don’t want to watch!” (Laughs) It’s probably one of the most evil characters that I’ve ever played.
Cryptic Rock – (Laughs) It will be really interesting to see how people react to you after they see the film at the premieres.
Jackson Rathbone – (Laughs) I am a very light-hearted guy; in person you’d think that I would only be acting in comedies. (Laughs) I’ve just been a character actor since I was a kid. I did theater and when I did Shakespeare I was always playing the fool or a very big character—in musical theater I’d be King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar. I’ve always liked to push the boundaries and expectations as to what people think of me as an actor.
Cryptic Rock – It’s wonderful that you do that and you’ve never really done the same role twice. Some people find their comfort zone and choose the same roles over and over, but it’s a credit to you that you’ve never gone that route.
Jackson Rathbone – Thank you so much! Honestly, that is something I really try to do within my work, so I really appreciate you saying that. Thank you.
Cryptic Rock – You are very welcome. This segues perfectly into the fact that roughly ten years ago you appeared on an episode of Criminal Minds and played an intriguing character named Adam. It feels like there are some elements of Adam in Brad. Am I insane or do you feel the same way?
Jackson Rathbone – Honestly, to me, the only real similarity is the guy playing both characters. (Laughs) Adam is a very tragic figure. Adam is a guy who is dealing with past abuse, really heavy past abuse, and it caused a break in his psyche. Whereas Brad is a character who was broken from the beginning and he uses his past as an excuse to justify his behavior. That’s something that is very different between both characters: Adam was actually a victim, whereas Brad sees himself as a victim. Does that make sense?
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely, and that’s a good distinction between the two characters. Clearly what both characters do is very wrong, but there’s a certain element of sympathy to their stories; one that actually makes the viewer feel somewhat guilty and awkward for having that sympathy.
Jackson Rathbone – Yeah, and for Adam that you should feel sympathetic towards him and sad for him. The alternate character on Criminal Minds for me was Amanda, who you shouldn’t feel sympathy for. Once again, she felt like she was justified in what she was doing, whereas Adam was kind of like an unwilling host who didn’t really understand what was happening to him.
Brad understands exactly what he’s doing and he feels justified. However, there are moments where I tried to show that Brad is conflicted about what he’s doing. It’s another spoiler and I always feel bad doing interviews where I’m like, “Eh, I don’t want to spoil the plot of the movie.” So, I don’t want to go into too much of that one, but there’s a moment after a particularly gruesome scene where you see Brad kind of break down and cry.
I wanted to showcase that he is conflicted about what he’s doing but he feels justified doing it; it’s almost like a soldier in war. Whereas the soldier is generally doing something pretty noble, they have to do things that they feel bad about. Brad is just an awful person that feels bad about what he feels like he has to do, but he still feels like he has to do it. That creates this very three-dimensional character.
Cryptic Rock – Despite Brad being wretched, Do Not Reply is a cautionary tale and it has an ultimate redemption in its strong female lead character. We truly get to see Chelsea, played by Amanda Arcuri, come into her own as a young woman. What was it like working with Amanda and getting beat up by her? (Laughs)
Jackson Rathbone – (Laughs) Well, I had the pleasure of working with a cast of incredible young actresses; Amanda, Kerri [Medders], they’re both just a pleasure to work with. We had this incredible stuntwoman who was our coordinator and choreographer on the film—her name is America [Young]. America would make sure that no matter what we were doing in choreography while we were filming that everyone was always safe and felt safe.
As actors, we kept checking in with one another. Even though we’re doing some violent stuff, we’re still making a movie; we’re not making a documentary. We wanted to make sure that while we were doing this particularly violent scene—especially the male on female violence—that as actors we’re responding to one another and we’re connecting on a deeper level than just the characters. Between “action” and “cut,” we’re making sure that we’re being safe with one another. Thank god we had America there, because she’s incredible!
On your other question about working with Amanda and seeing her character develop, I thought that was really skillfully handled by her, as an actress. It’s kind of an easy thing to look at it and go, oh, she’s a weak woman who’s caught up in this thing, and it’s something that she should have been more careful about. At the same time that’s victim-blaming, you know?
This is a girl who is a young girl who, yeah, she believed a guy that she met over the internet, but at the end of the day just because there are predators out there it doesn’t mean that everyone should be suspecting everyone of being a predator. This is a girl who is, yeah, naive, as we all are when we’re young. She’s a sweet girl and she’s longing for a connection; her father is a soldier and he’s not home a lot. When she gets caught up in this dark world of Brad and the Sadies, she has to grow up very, very fast, and figure out a way to escape this terrifying web that Brad has woven.
Cryptic Rock – It was handled very well. As a woman who loves Horror and films with a Horror bent to them, it seems that for many, many years female characters were either completely the victim or completely the heroine. Amanda’s character encompasses a little of both: she starts out a victim, but she uses that as a catalyst to become a hero.
Jackson Rathbone — Yeah, that’s a great way to put it! I think we’re seeing the Horror genre grow, especially over the last five years as its become a bit more mainstream, and we’re seeing a lot more three-dimensional characters. I think that’s important to show that characters can be more than just victim or hero; there is a middle ground. There is imperfection. That’s what makes an interesting character and an interesting performance: it’s not showing someone who’s perfect and making all the right decisions, but someone who’s trying to figure it out. That allows the audience to figure it out with the actor or with the character, and hopefully that makes the film more exciting.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely! Now, aside from entertainment, what do you hope moviegoers take away from Do Not Reply?
Jackson Rathbone – Well, this is a film that is meant, as most films are, to entertain one, to transport somebody out of their daily life to be enthralled in a story. But there is obviously a very deep social commentary within the film. I have children—they’re not old enough to have social media apps, and god knows what social media apps are going to look like when they’re of age to have them—but I think the message is to proceed with caution through the internet.
It’s a beautiful thing where we can connect with one another, but at the same time there’s dangerous people. It’s kind of like how we used to say, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, “Be careful hitchhiking!” (Laughs) Nowadays we’re like, “Don’t ever hitchhike! What are you thinking?” I feel like there’s a certain element to that now where we’re like, “Hey, be careful out there on those social media apps and dating apps.” I think there’s going to be some next-level technological achievements that are going to make what we do now seem insane.
Cryptic Rock – Agreed. Now, to totally shift gears away from film, you are also a musician.
Jackson Rathbone — I’m actually working on my next album right now! It’s a little bit more into the psychedelic—it has roots in Blues, but I wanted to go more into Psychedelic Folk. I’ve always been a big Devendra Banhart fan—he serves as a lot of inspiration for my new record. And I’ve always stayed away from synth and drum beats and all that, but I think this record is the first time that I’m going to really explore alternate, not quote-unquote real instruments, and delve into the world of MIDI for the first time.
I have this weird songwriting sensibility where I don’t know if I’ll ever have a song breaking the Top 40. (Laughs) And I don’t necessarily want to! To me, music is a pure application: something that I can’t not do; I have to make music. When I make music, it’s music that I want to listen to, not so much that I’m trying to reach a broad audience. (Laughs) Which is terrible for any record label. They’re always like, “So, are we going to reach out to these people?” I’m like, “No, I just want to make something that I think sounds interesting and weird and unique.” It’s like whenever I want to watch a Sci-Fi show, I have to search for the right thing; it has to be just weird enough to fit my sensibilities.
Cryptic Rock – Speaking of Sci-Fi, we’ve reached the last question. At Cryptic Rock, we cover music and films, particularly Horror and Sci-Fi films. Presumably you are a fan of Horror, and now we know that you are also a fan of Sci-Fi, so what are some of your favorite films or series in either genre?
Jackson Rathbone – Damn, that’s a good question! Honestly? That’s one of the things where when I’m in bed at night with my wife trying to figure out what to watch, we’re both big into Sci-Fi—that’s probably our preferred genre to watch as a couple. She’s not really into Horror. I love Horror, but she’s not an actor or a filmmaker, so she doesn’t see the behind-the-scenes elements that I can see when I’m watching it. So, it’s a little bit harder for her to separate fact from fiction.
When it comes to Sci-Fi, we both just love it! Anything that comes out, especially series-oriented, we dive straight into. We binged that whole Netflix show Another Life within a week when it came out. (Laughs) We’re currently enthralled with Damon Lindelof and what he’s doing with Watchmen. They’ve created something so important at the moment—talking about social commentary and entertainment intertwined. What they’ve done with Watchmen so far has been just amazing! I think Watchmen, right now, is probably my favorite show.
When it comes to film, shit, there’s just too many! (Laughs) It’s a great time to be a fan, because there’s always something new and exciting and interesting coming out.
Cryptic Rock – Absolutely. This has been a really great year for film and TV.
Jackson Rathbone – It has and I think it’s only going to get better. Oh! Another Horror show—I’ve been watching a lot of shows lately. I started watching it on Shudder, it’s called Channel Zero and it’s an anthology series. It’s the Horror genre, but there’s certain Sci-Fi elements, as well. I love that show! It’s incredibly written and I would love to work with those filmmakers at some point.
Feature photo by Leonidas Jaramillo