Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
“I’ve been cornered into playing these roles that have been sort of introspective, conflicted people. I knew I could do that, but I started to get paranoid. Is that all people think I can do?”
Not only does director David Lowery’s PETE’S DRAGON herald a marked change in how remakes should be crafted, the film marks a necessary change in co-star Wes Bentley’s career. After playing characters like forlorn Ricky Fitts in AMERICAN BEAUTY and strategic mastermind Seneca Crane in THE HUNGER GAMES, the talented actor continues to grow, playing an environmentally conscientious logger in the epic and powerfully sentimental fantasy tale.
At the film’s recent press day in Los Angeles, I sat down with Bentley to chat about the film – from his experiences on set with his son and Robert Redford, to necessary career growth, to what part of Elliot was built to act against.
Did you originally go out for the part of Jack?
I was lucky enough to been offered the role without a meeting. I had met David before about something else but I guess he remembered me and thought of me for the role, thank god. He convinced them to put me in the movie and here I am. I’m so grateful too because it was something I was hoping to do – the direction I wanted to take in my career. And my 5-year-old son is going to get to go to the movie with me. This is the first time he’ll get to see me doing anything – except for a commercial.
Does he have any kind of concept of what his Dad does?
I tell him a bit about it. It’s hard to conceive of it – even at 6 – of what’s really going on. But he was on set a lot on PETE’S. He yelled out a line for me off camera once when the kids had to go home because of the rules. He thinks he has a credit in the movie, but I’m trying to tell him, ‘I’m sorry buddy. Your name is not gonna be in this.’ [laughs] He kind of worked as an AD on the film – help get actors out of their trailers and out of the makeup chair.
That must’ve been so adorable.
It was the best, yes.
So when you got the script, what made it pop off the page for you?
It was great writing. Even the parents, who can sometimes in these movies get lost – there was some great depth there and conflict between the characters that was interesting and different. I knew with David it would be beautiful. That was great from my selfish actor standpoint, but as a whole, I thought the stuff was just magical. It was immediately clear on the page that this is going to be a magical film about a boy and his best friend.
Your character is pretty much caught between two worlds – industry and environment. Was that a dichotomy you wanted to explore?
Yeah. They had it on the page – there wasn’t much I had to do to bring it out. Bryce [Dallas Howard], David and Toby [Halbrooks]were good about focusing on that when we were together. We saw great filmmaking – focusing on the kids where you can hear it all happening in the background as you do when you’re a kid. We really worked hard to be clear on that. I did some research on lumbering and attempts made on being better on the environment. I saw Jack as wanting to do better, but, like you said, the whole town depends on him and that company. But how do you do both? Those are the kinds of thinkers you want in the world, right?! Because both need to function but how do we get there? It was cool to research and see that people are actually doing that and making those efforts and there have been strides.
Since you’re playing her father, was there much time to bond Oona Laurence? Did David do any kind of bonding activities?
No. We didn’t do any of those.
She’s a powerhouse.
She truly is. She’s immediately present. I think he just hired the right kids. It’s like this with adult actors too. If you got people who know what they’re doing and bring that, there’s not a whole lot of stuff you have to do. It’s good to talk about it and have an idea of where we came from and all that. But when you’ve got all the actors carrying the room, I think you recognize they didn’t have to do a whole lot of that. Oona and I didn’t have to go off and have a day together or anything like that. We already clicked as actors and people. Those kids are just so amazing. It’s hard to carry all that childhood stuff over when the camera is there and all the crew is there and the marks are there. How do you still be a kid and natural – all those things we want from them. And they were able to do all those things.
David had mentioned trying to make the experience as real as possible. Obviously with a giant dragon, you can only do so much. Did they have you acting with tennis ball on a stick – or did they build any part of the dragon practically?
Yeah. Weta were really good about building these parts of the dragon. They had a dragon head; one guy would maybe hold it up to the height they wanted. Sometimes they did. Sometimes it was a little dot. I never had any problems with that. I mean, maybe I would if it was like ALICE IN WONDERLAND and the whole room is a green screen. But, you know, you’re supposed to use your imagination as an actor – especially if you come from stage. The way that they made this was really smart. With David everything else was so real – to the point setting it where it felt like it was in the eighties, or a time before technology was to the point it is now, really makes you be in the environment. And it’s all natural light. So when Elliot comes out he really pops out as something special and unique.
Tell me about shooting in New Zealand. You were able to bring your family which is great. Did you find yourself wanting to be on set on days you weren’t on call?
I did, yeah. I think we came to set a few days to bring my son to some of the cool locations. I loved it. New Zealand is almost perfect – it’s away from all the madness of the world in every direction. The people there are solid people – good people. There’s a sense of love on the islands. It’s stunning. And the light there is different – it sets differently. My son talks about it every day and my wife talks about it every day. It’s like, ‘Okay. How can we move there and me still have a career?’ [laughs] Karl Urban does it, but I don’t know how it’s gonna work. It’s the perfect location too because they have all these trees so we were able to fake the Pacific Northwest.
How was working with David? He’s super smart, magnetic and he’s got a gorgeous vision.
Yeah, he does. You just said it all. He’s got the gift. He created a very warm set. It starts from the top down. Even though we were dealing with the same conditions you deal with on any film, where other times you’re going to get agitation and defection and other things happen on set, none of that happened here. Everyone was fully in it because David was such a great guy and you loved him. Not only that, but he had a clear vision and he was able to convey it. You were never confused about what direction you were aiming for here in any department. For me, I’ve worked with legendary filmmakers and that’s what they have – David has it. The special feeling you’re getting from the film, it comes from David and Jim Whitaker and all that group.
Working with Robert Redford must’ve been incredible. Were you just like, ‘Tell me all about you?!’
Oh yeah. I wish I could. I get really shy when I’m around people I truly emulate. I’ve been around a lot of great actors, but the ones I wanna be like, I shut down. For a number of reasons I get shy, but I don’t want to hear the answer either. We talked about cricket, like I was trying to convince him that cricket was a great sport because I got into it when I was there. But really most of the time I spent was trying to watch his process in the day – how did he spend his energy – because that’s the kind of thing I’m interested in now. How do you conserve and use your energy the right way.
What did you learn about yourself making this film?
For so long, I’ve been cornered into playing these roles that have been sort of introspective, conflicted people a lot. I knew I could do that, but I started to get paranoid that is that all people think I can do? I knew I could do more before, but to get the opportunity to play a genuine person, a good person, a dad, things like that, I learned that it will work and that I’m not just stuck in that place.
PETE’S DRAGON opens on Friday, August 12.