MICHELLE TRACHTENBERG Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
May 24, 2005
Mysterious Skin tells the story of Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and Brian (Brady Corbet), a pair of teenagers whose lives are tragically altered by an experience they shared when they were eight years old. The incident imprints itself differently upon each of them, and their paths take divergent downward spirals: Neil ends up turning tricks as a local hustler living in denial, while Brian becomes obsessed with the notion that he was abducted by aliens.
Though the subject matter is unsettling, the movie is beautifully shot and the story is told in a compelling fashion that never resorts to cheap sensationalism. The entire cast turns in strong performances--especially Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Brady Corbet in the lead roles. Based upon the novel by Scott Heim, Mysterious Skin is directed by Gregg Araki (The Doom Generation) and also stars Elisabeth Shue and Michelle Trachtenberg.
In this interview, Michelle Trachtenberg, who plays Neil's close friend Wendy, discusses the making of the movie.
MEDIA: What attracted you to doing a film like Mysterious Skin?
MICHELLE: I just loved the script. I had been looking at independent scripts for a long time. I had been offered some really cool roles, but nothing that I ever really connected with. And then Mysterious Skin came along, and I thought, "Well, this is a sweet way to just sort of slide into the world." And it's very shocking, but it just read so well and it felt so beautiful on the page, and I immediately wanted to do it.
Having done films for all different types of audiences, in what direction do you see your career headed?
I guess I'm a little schizophrenic in my choices. I feel that in order to truly be an actor, you have to differentiate yourself and your roles, and you have to constantly challenge yourself. I'm not interested in just doing glitzy movie after glitzy movie and being on the cover of Us Weekly every day (or every week--whatever, right?). That's not something that's appealing to me. I think anyone can make the choice to do that, but I always have strived for longevity, and so I feel as though, when I read different scripts, I will never play the same character again. Each of my characters have been very different. Although some people might find great similarities in certain characters, I don't, and that's the point that I always try to go for. I don't ever want to get pegged into a particular spot. It's boring.
What is your take on Wendy's relationship with Neil?
It's actually a lot like my own relationship [with Joseph Gordon-Levitt]. We're not as screwed up, thankfully. [laughs] But Joe and I are sort of like an old married couple. We have great conversations, we love each other, we're very, very comfortable just being around. It's all very organic. And I think the world of his acting abilities. And in the movie, Neil and Wendy are very, very close. She's the only one that knows all of his secrets. She is really just his cornerstone, his rock. And she's everything to him, and that is very special to me. And it was just sort of miraculous kismet that Joe and I just got along so famously. Actually, everyone...this morning, when we all saw each other, we're all like running over to hug and everything. It's really hard to find that on the set, where every single person just likes seeing the other every day.
You've been excited about Mysterious Skin for a while. Is it because of the subject matter being so "in your face"?
I had been a fan of Gregg Araki's for a long time, and I think the world of him. It was absolutely divine working with him. So I knew that he wouldn't make a pointless movie just to make one of those "I want to do an independent movie now, and I'm going to have naked people, and there's going to be a rape scene!" It was going to be respectful to Scott Heim's novel. I think Gregg and Scott really blended their worlds together seamlessly. I actually don't think the movie is in your face. I mean, to each their own opinion, which is cool, but to me, it's actually quite beautiful and very melodic. We don't sugar coat anything, but it's not harsh. It really isn't. It's just all the way it was filmed, the cameras that they chose, the angles and everything. It all just sort of flows, and there's never any like, [dictatorial yelling] "Now you do this!" It's not as jarring. It's shocking, completely, and you don't expect things to happen. But I hope that everyone walks away feeling something.
What sort of research did you do for your character's accent?
Joe went to Kansas to visit some of the people where the story is sort of based and brought us all back CDs, which was awesome. We got to hear the dialects, and I can pretty much pick that up. I have a pretty good ear for dialect, and we all just read the script and started talking like that without really noticing that we were doing it, which was great. Very organic. And I'd read Scott's book, but not in great detail--I didn't want to have everything spelled out perfectly. So I sort of just combined it with everything.
Did you maintain the accent even between takes?
I'm so not method. I think it's probably in the Eurotrip outtakes...we're doing one scene where we're eating brownies and we're all laughing and they're like, "Cut!" I'm like [feigns exhaustion]. I was really tired that day. I'm like a light switch. Method doesn't really work for me.
While reading Mysterious Skin, did you form a vivid mental image of the characters' appearance? Could you see yourself as Wendy?
It's funny, if I really, truly like the script, then I can see pretty much every part of it. I can see the sets, I can see the situations, everything. But I never see any face in my character. With this one, I think the person that I saw first and foremost was Joe, because he's just beyond perfect, and just brilliant in the movie. And that's due in large part to Gregg's level of skill as a director.
Were any scenes between Wendy and Neil cut? Sometimes it seems as though there is something deeper between them that we don't get to see.
I think that was mostly intentional. I mean, there might have been like one or two lines here and there just because of time, but it wasn't very much of anything. I think the whole point between Wendy and Neil's relationship is that you don't want to see it all because there's something beautifully unspoken about their love, and we just wanted to have each individual person in the audience connect their own feelings to that as well.
Is there a certain common bond between you and your co-stars who also started off in show business as child actors (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Brady Corbet, Jeffrey Licon)?
I'm sure a lot of people like to think so. I think that each actor is an individual. I think because we've all been acting so long, we each have a respect of the material and the project. And there's a professionalism there, so we all knew we had like 21 days to shoot the movie, and we all had to be on our game constantly, every second, because you never know what could happen. We didn't have the luxury of doing a bunch of takes because we couldn't afford the film. So I think just the fact that all four of us had so much experience beforehand really helped the movie.
Have you ever been in a position as an actress where you're competing with friends for a role, and how did that affect those friendships?
I don't have a lot of actress friends because that is hard to find--solid people in Hollywood to be friends with. But there are a lot of the roles that everyone's interested in, because there's so few good roles. Pretty much the same mix of people are always up for it. But at the end of the day, I'm a huge believer of "if it's meant to be, it'll be." So sometimes it is stupid sheer luck. I mean, I've had experiences before where a director is like, "Yeah, I wanted a blonde." Have you heard of hair dye? Some casting directors and directors can't see past what you present on an image--like exactly what's sitting here. But Gregg, in particular, saw all past that, because obviously at that point, I hadn't done anything that was as crazy. But I know a lot of my friends did read for Wendy. They were pissed when I met with Gregg at a coffee house, but we just connected.
What was that meeting with Gregg like?
I was actually running like an hour late, which I never do. I always run late because I just clearly have no concept of time, but I never run that late. There was a small plane crash in LA when Gregg and I were meeting, and I was literally an hour late and I felt so awful. And he's like, "I have five minutes." And we ended up talking for like an hour and a half. I was 17 and I wasn't driving at that point. I hadn't gotten my license yet, so my sister dropped me off and was waiting in the parking lot for like two hours. And it was just amazing. Gregg and I had tons to talk about. But, actually, as I left the meeting, even though I liked him a lot, I was convinced that he thought I was terrible for the role just because I'm a pessimist. I used to be an optimist, and then I was a realist, and now I'm just going all out. But it ends up that he's just quiet that way. And I guess he liked me!
You played a character on Six Feet Under who could be pretty nasty...
[jokes] Oh, I'm just a dirty b*tch.
Did the show's creators want you to base that character on anyone in particular?
Yeah, they did. It was a mix of every pop diva you see out there. You know, there's a little bit of Britney, a little Christina, a little Jessica...it was literally everyone. And they had sent me some DVDs to watch of some of these popsters. But she's just sort of a fantastic character in the larger sense of the word. Everything about her is so big and out and obnoxious, but what I wanted to do was give her a heart. There's also, I like to think, an actual character there--someone who cares about her situation as opposed to just demanding hair and makeup. And I actually think the two characters that I've loved playing most in my life are Six Feet Under (Celeste) and Mysterious Skin (Wendy). Those are the two projects that I've ever been able to watch more than once. Everything else is cool and good, but I had a blast specifically on those.
What are you working on next?
I haven't really decided yet. I have a couple of weeks off. I just finished another movie up in Canada. It's a television movie. (Here I'm going off on never doing TV again, and I decided why the hell not one last time?) And that's based on a book that I actually love, which is the reason why I did it. It's being produced by Icon [Productions] and Fox and Lifetime. It's called The Dive from Clausen's Pier. And that's another one of those adult roles everyone's so, uh...annoyed that I'm doing. And after that, I'm thinking of doing a play in New York.
Have you done theatre before?
I've never done any theatre before, but I've been offered this really cool play. I always have such respect for actors when they break away from the norm and go out on stage. I'm just scared. You're live in front of an audience, all the time, there, and you screw up a line...there's no cut, there's no safety net. So it's scary, but why not?
What's the name of the play?
Well, I can't really talk about it too much. It's an ensemble play, and it's more like a satirical comedy, and I play a character that's a little bit of all my characters--just sort of cynical and drunken and fabulous.