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
After a few major studio films under his belt, actor Oakes Fegley’s star is still on the rise. From lifting the live-action version of PETE’S DRAGON to its great heights and delivering the striking emotional impact of WONDERSTRUCK, the affable young talent has proven himself a skilled performer. His insight and intelligence is just as sharp as it ever was, as demonstrated in director John Crowley’s THE GOLDFINCH, where he plays a 13-year-old struggling with the sudden death of his mom in a senseless terrorist bombing.
When you first got the role, did you read the book or did you solely stick to the script to start forming your character?
When I first got the call, it was for an audition. My mom freaked out because she read the book previously to even knowing I was going to be a part of it. She was immediately invested in this. All of that excitement was relayed to me. Once she received notice I was going to be portraying Theo, I immediately got out the book and got through most of it. I couldn’t get through all of it, because it was so incredibly dense and incredibly descriptive. I read all of my parts and made sure that I could take as much of the Theo that Donna Tartt meant to portray and make it my own. I looked into his relationships with Boris, Xandra and Larry, specifically. I couldn’t read through all of the older parts with Ansel’s Theo because of literal time constraints while filming.
If you only stuck to reading your parts to remain unaware of what’s going to happen to Theo as an adult, that makes sense. As kids we don’t know what will happen to us as adults.
Yeah. Definitely. At times, I’m sure it helped to not be too repetitive so that the audience could stay on their toes and not really know what would happen next. If I had known how my character was going to end up, it may have bent my performance around the things I was trying to portray. At the same time, I had read the script, so I had the knowledge of what was going to happen towards the end of the film. But I didn’t have the pleasure of looking at all of those details that Donna Tartt goes into for the character that Ansel portrays.
You and Ansel obviously play the same character at different times in his life. I noticed whenever adult Theo feels threatened, his body language becomes more like young Theo’s. Did you two get together in advance to discuss how you were approaching Theo or study each other?
When we were rehearsing, the first two weeks of pre-production on the film, I did rehearsals with Finn [Wolfhard], Nicole [Kidman] and the kids who played the Barbour family. The most helpful thing were those rehearsals with Ansel. Ansel would do the scenes he was in with John and then I would do the scenes I was in with John. And then we would see each other work and develop that character together. That definitely helped us portray the role together.
You’ve played a character who’s lost his mother before in WONDERSTRUCK. How did you want to portray this character’s sorrow differently?
Obviously the characters are going through very different things. Ben loses hearing and goes on a journey for his father after losing his mother. Theo has a different relationship with his father and with his mother even. His mother is his anchor to reality and when she passes and he feels its his fault and blames himself for her death, he does go through a lot of different things than Ben did. He’s a lot more tormented and deeply filled with guilt and resentment towards a lot of things and fear towards a lot of things than Ben ever did.
Where does your capacity as an actor to understand these nuances and different aspects of grief, torment and inner-conflict come from? Where do you tap into that empathy that you find towards your character?
That’s a very difficult question. Every actor and actress has their own process that they go through when developing a character. Obviously at my age it’s very difficult to connect with some of those things. As an actor, it’s our job to become things that we aren’t and portray things that we aren’t and be different people. A lot of it comes out of rehearsing, understanding the material and the character your portraying.
Young Theo is confronted with very adult situations – like drinking and doing drugs – all this acting as a band-aid over the guilt over his mom’s tragic death. Do you view this film as sort of a spring board to taking on more mature, or intellectually advanced roles?
I’m just interested in any material that interests me. If something jumps out at me or seems powerful enough to get my attention then I’m always going to put my all into it. I’d love to explore every kind of film – definitely more mature roles as I mature as a person as well. I’m not going to be able to play younger roles any more. That’s a difficulty I can’t really wrap my head around, but it’s something I’m going to have to deal with. I have to be ready to portray those kinds of role and mature themes. I’m excited for that and definitely interested.
Not that I want to sway you from acting, but you had mentioned in our chats for PETE’S DRAGON and WONDERSTRUCK that you were really curious about directing, setting up shots and lenses. Is that something you’re still into?
Very much so! Especially working with Roger Deakins and John Crowley. John is an incredible director and he can play with how you act. He can influence you without you even realizing, or without you even changing the performance too much. He pulls a lot of colors out of your acting and portrayal of the character. I’d definitely be interested in doing that one day. Also, to have a cinematographer there, like Roger, to visually represent the story sounds very interesting to me as well. I’m very interested in cameras still, as I was when I was younger – specifically film and looking at how the camera can capture certain things. How changing the angle a little bit can bring a different flavor and character to the scene.
You also get to work with titans of the acting community too – people like Jeffrey Wright, Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson. What was the collaborative process like there?
You always felt comfortable around everybody. You felt like you could open up and be vulnerable in your acting and explore everything you needed to. The collaboration between John, Roger and our sound team, all of those people working to make the story come together to make it a really special experience.
Your costumes tell a story and inform your character as well. Were there little things that you were able to bring to that aspect?
As an actor, you do certain things with the costume than you would your own clothes. Theo feels very uncomfortable at times and his costumes reflect that. He’s often clothes that are too big for him – that are hand-me-downs from the Barbour’s older son. He’s in over-sized clothing and clothes that don’t make sense as much throughout the film. You can see him go from a put together look in New York and, as he withers away, which is sad to say, he deteriorates and his put togetherness falls apart. He starts to wear more baggy clothes by choice and whatever laying around.
What did you learn about yourself making this movie?
I learned a lot from working with other people. Patience is something that I learned. On any film you have to be patient, but I’ve learned that slowly over multiple films. I have to do schooling on-set, so time management is also something I’m good at normally. I have to get schoolwork done in a certain time frame.
THE GOLDFINCH opens on September 13.