When we last sat down with Mark O’Brien, the Canadian actor known for his roles in Marriage Story, Ready or Not, City on a Hill, and Halt and Catch Fire (among many other projects) was preparing for the release of his film Goalie (you can find that interview here). Now, several months later, O’Brien has won the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television Award for Best Actor for Goalie and is preparing for the release of his newest film, Hammer. Hammer is a thriller shot in real time that is written and directed by award-winning Canadian filmmaker Christian Sparkes (Cast No Shadow). Hammer traces the relationship between a father and son, as stated in the synopsis for the film:
In a quiet border town Stephen Davis (Will Patton) is waiting at a stop light when his estranged son Chris (O’Brien) speeds past on a dirt bike. Tracking him down Stephen discovers that Chris is on the run from a botched drug deal. He agrees to help him in an attempt to mend their relationship, but things quickly spiral out of control as a friend of Chris’ goes missing and the vengeful drug dealer kidnaps someone they love. As the truth of Chris’ activities comes to light, Stephen is forced to face his own failings as a father and must decide how far he is willing to go to protect a son he no longer recognizes.
I was lucky enough to screen Hammer before talking to O’Brien, and I was struck by the strength of the family drama amidst the adrenaline rush of the story. Both O’Brien and Patton give grounded performances that emphasize their strained relationship, leading to the unforgettable conclusion. Read on to hear O’Brien’s thoughts on working with Sparkes and Patton, as well as some information about his other upcoming projects.
Nerds and Beyond: First, I just want to say congratulations because you just won Best Actor at the Canadian Screen Awards yesterday [for the film Goalie]. I’m sure it was a little strange for you moving to the virtual ceremony and all, but well-deserved, nonetheless. How did it feel to have the film and your performance recognized by the Academy?
Mark O’Brien: Really cool. Very, very surprising. I mean, everyone always says that, but you have a 20% chance, I guess, since there’s five people nominated. I just really didn’t expect it. It was really cool and it was nice. It would have been great to be there in person and everything, but at the same time, we’re all going through something right now, so to have that little ray of positivity was really needed, I think. It was a nice little celebration I had here with my wife and my daughter, and I’m very proud of that movie, so it’s great to see it recognized, too.
Nerds and Beyond: Yes, absolutely. Turning a little bit towards Hammer, what first drew you to the film and to the character of Chris in particular?
Mark O’Brien: Christian Sparkes, the writer/director, is a good friend of mine. We’ve been friends for 15 years. He reached out to me a few years ago and he said, “I’m working on this thing. I think it would be cool for you to be in it.” And I said, “Yeah, absolutely.” I read it. It’s changed quite a bit since then, but I already saw that it was something really special. What I really liked about it was that he was like, “I want to do something in real time.” And I was like, oh yeah, that’s cool. It just keeps that pulse, that energy. What I liked about the character was that he’s someone who’s done criminal things and is continuing to do that, but what Christian and I talked about was, I want him to be a regular kind of guy though. Because there are people in life who do these wrong things that are regular people. I didn’t want to make him too hard-edged or anything like that. That was important to me.
I’ve done those kinds of things before, like I did a show called City on a Hill where it’s a very different type thing [his character is a career criminal]. But I was like, “I don’t want to do that,” and I don’t think Christian wanted that either. I wanted it to be that this is a guy who could easily be in university right now, or he could easily be working and have a family and be law abiding and just doing great in life. He has a potential for that, but he’s not doing it. That, to me, is more interesting than just seeing some gritty, tough criminal guy who could handle his own in these situations. It’s not about that.
I grew up in a certain way where I was friends with a lot of different types of people. There were guys who were like, “man, this guy’s brilliant, he’s on the honor roll, and yet, he sells weed.” It’s so bizarre, and I love that dichotomy.
Nerds and Beyond: Speaking of building that character, Chris’s relationship with his father is really a very complex relationship. I thought you and Will Patton both did a great job in the film grounding their relationship, because it can be a thriller-type film, but those two together really make it more of a family drama. What was it like working with him to develop that bond?
Mark O’Brien: He’s wonderful. I think everybody’s a fan of Will Patton, and I’ve been a fan of his for so long. I was so excited when I found out he was going to be playing the part because he came in later than I did. Myself and Will and Christian just went through the whole script together for hours and just really figured out every beat and what it meant. Just his attention to detail was so great because I know that he has a grasp on what he’s doing so I could just do whatever I needed to do as well in a scene.
We talked about it before, but we didn’t rehearse too much. I’m not a big fan of rehearsal on set, so that worked out really well. I think that the relationship … When you have a movie like that where almost every scene is he and I together, it develops into something that you can’t really predict because it’s on the page and then you’re going to get there and different things are going to happen. Different things come out of that, that I was kind of surprised by myself. That’s what I found invigorating about it was that I didn’t really know what was going to happen. I don’t really know completely what Will’s going to do. We know what the stakes are of each scene and we had some background on us as characters, but then it was kind of like, let’s play it. Let’s see where we go with it. When you’re working with someone like that, you know you’re good hands.
Nerds and Beyond: On a similar note, you have this great relationship with Ben Cotton [who plays Adams, a friend turned foe of Chris] onscreen, yet a lot of the backstory between those characters is off-screen. Was it interesting working with him to show the two sides of that relationship? Because they were friends before the opening scene changes everything.
Mark O’Brien: Yeah. Yeah, they were. And that was, I think, it’s just Chris was stuck in a spot where he kind of didn’t have a choice and I don’t think he … I think he feels a lot of guilt about what he has to do, but Ben is wonderful. I mean, what Ben had to do with the movie was really difficult. The guy is like bleeding the whole movie and he was just so committed to it. He was so great and he’s such a generous performer and I really liked working with Ben a lot. But what I liked the most was that he can be very imposing and he’s not like that at all. I mean, he’s really different. He’s a gentle guy, he’s really sweet, he wears glasses. But then onscreen he has this kind of imposing feeling that I constantly kind of felt about him, which is great for the character. He’s able to turn that on really easily.
Nerds and Beyond: This film is marketed a bit more of a thriller and it certainly can feel that way. But it really is a family drama as well. The stakes might be high, but at its core, it’s really a family movie about the length that people will go to protect the people that they love. As an actor, were you focusing more on the crime drama/thriller aspect or more about the interpersonal relationships, or both?
Mark O’Brien: Well, you have to be aware of the pace of the film and everything, so you do think about it being a crime thriller, but really it’s all about the interpersonal relationships. It has to come from a place that’s honest and actually where there’s real human stakes. That’s a real great testament to Christian, and he and I spoke about it a lot. This is not just about “get the money, get the guns, whatever.” It’s not about that. It has to come from a place that there’s a real human emotional thing going on. That’s what I love about the movie. It’s only 82 minutes, but there’s so much happening. The stakes are higher than just someone’s going to kill someone. It’s that there’s a relationship happening too, and there’s a relationship that’s trying to reignite itself between a father and a son in the midst of this dire circumstance.
What I think is interesting too, is when you see these two characters together, you’re kind of filling in a backstory a little bit, just by the way they interact. You can kind of get a vibe of their relationship, which is great, because you’re letting the audience be a participant. That’s important to me in everything that I do. Sometimes you work on something, and a huge moment in the scene or in the backstory or whatever can be glazed over because…“it’s a movie,” and that always irks me. I know that you’ve got to pick up the pace sometimes too. But at the same time, you can’t. It’s like, this is a major thing that just happened in this scene or in this story, we have to give it the weight that’s needed. That doesn’t mean weight needs to be time. It doesn’t mean we’re going to spend 10 minutes on a closeup of someone crying, it’s just we need to acknowledge it.
That’s what I like about the movie so much. It acknowledges the relationship, it acknowledges the true stakes, but that’s what most great films do. I mean, you watch something like Jaws, it can make you cry. There are movies that are genre movies that you’re like, “wow, that really affected me in a way that I didn’t think it would. I thought it was just a straight up thriller.” My favorite movie is The Game, the David Fincher movie, but that makes you think about your life. It’s almost like It’s a Wonderful Life.
Nerds and Beyond: Speaking of that shooting style, is it more difficult to shoot a film when it’s meant to be in real time like this?
Mark O’Brien: It depends on the movie, but honestly, it’s tougher logistically. Our first day of shooting, we didn’t shoot until after lunch because it rained the whole morning. When you’re shooting basically in real time, you need consistency, and the first day, day one, I couldn’t believe it. It was pouring, like pouring. Then we were like, “we can’t shoot this whole scene because it’s not supposed to be raining. Everything’s going to be soaking, it was raining heavily. Also is it going to match the rest of the day that this takes place?” I felt really bad for the producers and Christian and everything. And then we were able to shoot. We got our day in the afternoon. It’s hard in those ways.
I also found it was pretty exhausting because my character is kind of on 11 emotionally, the whole movie. There’s no reprieve because it’s really dire and he’s literally physically running and doing these things. Look, there are much more tiring things you can do in life manual-labor wise, but getting up that emotion for every scene … Not so much that it was difficult, because like I said, there were way more difficult things in life. It’s more of you catch yourself slipping sometimes and the energy really has to be up. It’s got to be huge. I can’t forget about that because I’ve never done it like that before where every single scene the stakes were at 11. That was an interesting kind of challenge that I really liked.
Nerds and Beyond: Turning a little bit to some other projects you have coming up … The last time we spoke, you had recently wrapped on The Righteous [O’Brien’s feature length directorial project] and you were heading into post-production. With this current situation have you been able to work on the film at all? Any updates there to share with us?
Mark O’Brien: We have … It’s had its own challenges. I mean, we’re in post. We’re mixing right now, basically. But we were delayed a couple of months just like everybody on the whole planet. It can be frustrating, but then you look at the world and you realize things could be worse.
Nerds and Beyond: Absolutely.
Mark O’Brien: I think, and once again, not to complain, I think the hardest is when you have something you care about so much to create that’s sitting there. It wasn’t so much sad or upsetting or just anxious, I’m just excited. I just want to go work on it, again. But then, you kind of fall into a routine, and I kind of just thought, the time will come when the time comes. Now we’re back at it. It’s really exciting. I’m very proud of it. I’m really excited to get it out there. We’ll see what happens.
Nerds and Beyond: Another project you have coming up that immediately jumped out is that you’re working on Blue Bayou with director Justin Chon [also starring Alicia Vikander and Chon]. Can you tease anything about that project for us?
Mark O’Brien: It’s a really beautiful story. It’s really beautiful. I saw some of it the other day and it’s a really beautiful human story that has to do a lot with things happening today in terms of immigration and stuff like that. Some of these filmmakers I’ve gotten to work with, I’m so lucky, like Adriana Maggs and Justin Chon and Christian Sparkes and Jason Reitman. These people, they get the human aspect of it. It’s so important to me that these are people and you can identify as a viewer when you’re watching someone that’s going through something that you can relate to being possible. That’s why I love working with Justin. And he’s an actor too, and he’s a very good actor. This guy knows the crew, he knows his place on set as a director and as an actor, and he knows what you need as well.
It’s funny, there was one day, where he was just like, “Just try it like this.” And I was like, “Okay.” And then he was like, “Hey, try like that.” And then I was like, “Just give me a line reading. I’m totally okay with that. You are a really good actor, just literally tell me what you want me to say it and I’d be more than happy to do that.” And I did it because I trust him, because he’s really good at what he does. It was a pleasure. I think that people will really be affected by that film.
Nerds and Beyond: My last question for you is what do you hope audiences take away when they watch Hammer for the first time?
Mark O’Brien: I guess it’s don’t leave something unsaid with people you love. That’s really what it comes down to. You’ve got to find a way to go through your differences when it’s someone that you love, unless that person’s evil. When it’s your family or it’s a friend and someone you love, it’s hard sometimes to just see their viewpoint and to see what kind of person they are and actually listen. I think it’s difficult sometimes because you know them so well and you’re so frustrated by their tendencies and you’re also so used to their tendencies that you just don’t want to deal with it. I think it’s so important to never leave something unsaid. Always communicate, always, always put it out there and try and make things right. Be the bigger person. I know it’s a crime thriller, but really I do think that’s what it’s about. It’s about trying to connect with the people you love.
Hammer will be released June 5 on demand. Check out the trailer below!