Interviewed by Lesley Coffin
Based on Mark Kemble’s own play, his new film Bad Hurt is a powerful story of a struggling American Family. Full of intense performances from an ensemble of veteran character actors (Karen Allen, Michael Harney, Iris Gilad, Johnny Whitworth and Theo Rossi), the film provides an intimate look at how a family copes with unbearable burdens. Mother Elaine (Allen) spends all day caring her developmentally handicapped adult daughter (Gilad) and disable war veteran son (Whitworth), while working class husband keeps the family afloat (Harney), himself a veteran with the mental scars to prove it. Only their son Todd, a bus driver, seems to be doing alright on his own. Rossi, who has been a familiar face in film and TV for years, is remarkable as youngest child Todd. But it wasn’t the opportunity to play this rare leading role that drew Rossi and Kemble together. Rossi was first and foremost interested in producing. I spoke with the two men about bringing their new film Bad Hurt to theatrical screens.
You produced the film. Were you involved in the original play?
Theo Rossi: Not at all. I didn’t even see the play. The story of how I got involved is short and sweet. I love to go to movies and used to make a point of going at least once a week. But there came a point where I stopped going because there didn’t seem to be any movies for me. But rather than complain, I decided I needed to do something about that and start making my own movies, the kind of movies I wanted to see in the theater. So I formed my own production company and said to everyone, “Please send your scripts that I can realistically get made to my agents and managers.” And in that first batch of scripts was the script for Bad Hurt. And after I read the script, I wanted to make it. Especially knowing he was a writer-director, which I think is the most seamless way to make independent movies. I love the idea that you can go to the director on set and he has the knowledge and authority to explain or change the script then and there. And the knowing this story was so personal for him meant a lot to me.
Mark Kemble: The most heartening thing I’ve heard during these interviews was learning your mother told you to make the film. Hearing that made me think this whole thing was kismet because this is the story of my parents and my family, and his mother loved it as much as he did.
Rossi: What no one knows is, at the time I was involved in a TV show so I didn’t have a lot of time to read the scripts I had asked for. And I was glancing through them, and when Bad Hurt came up, I sent it to my mom to read. Because my mom reads all my scripts for me. And she said, that is the one. That is the one you have to produce.
Because you pursued this film as the first film for your production company, when did you decide to take the role of Todd?
Rossi: It was funny because there was a miscommunication. I honestly had no intention of being in the movie, I honestly just wanted to produce the movie and for it to be my company’s first film. But we had this beautiful misunderstanding, because at some point he just said “no, you’re playing Todd.” And that confidence that I was the right person for the role made me want to take that on too.
Kemble: We met at The Stand and I had such a great feeling about him that he could get this film made. Which is funny because I’d had a number of meetings before that and everyone has good intentions, but not everyone can get things going and follow through. But the first thing I said to my partner after Theo left the restaurant was, “he should play Todd.” And my partner said, he had been thinking the exact same thing.
Rossi: It was crazy because the second I said I would do it, I was committed. I have two things, my word and my balls, and I’ll never break them. And once I said I wanted to make the movie, I started planning immediately. And I kept thinking and stressing about who’s going to play Todd? And I never thought about myself for the role of Todd, or the role of Ted (Johnny Whitworth’s role).
Kemble: And I should say, I never got the intention that you were planning to take the role or angling for it or using your position as a producer to get a role. But after the meeting, I just thought he was the perfect person to play Todd. Todd is the kind of guy who always thinks 5 minutes from now, things are going to be great. “If I could just last 5 more minutes, I’ll be okay.” And Theo had the perfect personality to play the role. That core optimism and drive.
I understand that the story is very personal. Your mother took care of your sister and your brother before he died?
Kemble: Yes, he died upstairs in the house in fact.
Were you casting Theo as Todd to be a version of yourself?
Kemble: No, Todd isn’t based on me at all in fact. There isn’t a character based on me in the movie. My older brother is the character who died, and my younger brother is based on Todd.
How come you didn’t include a version of yourself in this story about your family?
Kemble: I don’t know actually. I think I was always the listener and watcher in the house, observing all the chaos going on around me, but never getting involved. And eventually, I became the chronicler of it. But I never had any interest in having a character based on me in the movie. It never occurred to me. But my younger brother was a bus driver for 17 years but became the second oldest rookie police officer in the history of Providence Rhode Island. He finally got on the force at 41 years old.
Rossi: But I think what you said about being the observer and chronicler is the reason the movie feels intimate. It is written from the perspective of someone standing in that bedroom or kitchen, watching his family. And what resonated for me was how real and visceral the movie felt, just on the page. I felt everything happening, because it was written by an intimate bystander of that real situation, but not written about himself.
The movie is a tough watch, but one of the aspect that struck me as very sad about the film is, his parents are so consumed by the urgent needs of his siblings, Todd is kind of on his own. Did you have that feeling growing up that you were being ignored?
Kemble: I didn’t. My situation was completely different. Any attention that didn’t go to my older brother or sister, went to me. I was all state in baseball and got written up a lot. My older brother, who died upstairs, grew up getting hardly any attention. And my younger brother got even less. But you are right about that take on the story. My parents were great parents, they just didn’t have the time and resources necessary for all their children. I have another sister who also isn’t in the movie, and she got out of the house very early for that exact reason.
What was it about your life that made you, and your mom, connect so strongly to the script?
Rossi: Every single part of it. I’m from Staten Island, he grew up in Providence, and the culture of those areas are very similar; in the shadow of giant cities. What felt so real about the movie for me is, I grew up with two sisters, and it is true that the squeaky wheel get the grease. And that is the reason I left when I was really young. I went away to college at 17, and rarely came back home. But I know that it isn’t about bad parenting, it’s just the fact we only have so many minutes in the day. And I love that movies allow us to look behind the closed doors of the lives of people we see on the streets every day, and understand their lives a little better. We meet people every day, and we don’t know if they have a daughter with developmental disabilities they take care of, or if a woman goes home to a veteran husband with PTSD. And even if we see someone out and about and think, they have it tough, we still aren’t seeing their lives at home.
Kemble: That is so true. I would come in my house as a kid and say something nasty about the neighbors across the street, and my mother would say, “honey, you don’t know what goes on inside their home.” I just saw that documentary about Glen Campbell. He has Alzheimer and is wife is taking care of him. And it was a hard watch, but it was only an hour and forty minute documentary. I left that movie and just asked myself, “What the rest of her day is like?”
Rossi: And that is all I’m really interested in as an actor, producer, and a businessman. I want to go behind the doors and talk about the things we may know others go through, but we don’t investigate and experience.
Kemble: The interesting thing about this play and film have been, I always have complete strangers come up to me to talk about their daughter, their uncle, their husband, having similar situations in their own lives. And they tell me things they would probably never talk about in another situation. But because they experience my life by watching it, it gives them permission to open up and talk about the things they lived through. Everyone has something like this, but we live hidden lives. And that is what intrigues me. They bared witness to my story by watching the play or the movie, and that gave them permission to confess something they were embarrassed or ashamed of. The journey we go on in this film is from a place of shame to self-respect and pride. That is what my family went through. Norman Rockwell never came down my street, cops came down the street, and I was ashamed to walk out my front door. And I had to overcome a lot of feelings of shame in my life in order to make this movie.
Lesley Coffin: Is editor and founder of Movies, Film, Cinema. A writer with a masters degree from NYU’s Gallatin School in biographical studies and star theory. She wrote the biography on Lew Ayres (Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector) and Hitchcock’s Casting (Hitchcock’s Stars). Lesley currently freelances as a critic and interviewer for a number of sites, including regular contributions to The Interrobang, Pink Pen, and Young Folks, and previously wrote for The Mary Sue and Filmoria. (Twitter handle @filmbiographer, website lesleycoffin.com)