Featured in Indignation is Logan Lerman, 24, as a working-class Jew from New Jersey, who heads off to college in Ohio, where his studies are interrupted by an unstable, but sexually liberated Gentile blonde, played by Sarah Gadon, 29.
From their ages alone, they can be excused for being unfamiliar with Goodbye, Columbus — another coming-of-age tale between a Jewish boy and a shiksa goddess — but they are well aware that the earlier film rocketed Richard Benjamin and Ali McGraw to stardom.
Stopping in Miami Beach to promote Indignation, Lerman and Gadon spoke with The ArtsPaper’s Hap Erstein about the film, director James Schamus and Roth’s characters.
Erstein: On your résumé are supporting roles in Noah and Fury, as well as the title role in the two Percy Jackson movies, nothing even close to your part in Indignation.
Lerman: I think that if I was the obvious choice, this wouldn’t be as fresh or interesting. If this was something I’d ever done before, then why would that be interesting for me, James or the audience?
But there are similar themes as characters I’ve portrayed in the past. Young men trying to figure out who they are. It’s a universal theme for people my age, something young men go through.
Anyway, the script arrived one day, I read it and I just has a visceral reaction to the material. I met with James Schamus the next day and just started working on it, about six months before we started filming.
Erstein: Sarah, it didn’t go as smoothly for you, did it?
Gadon: I auditioned for the part and James said it was a real struggle to get me cast. I think he had wanted me for the part, but had to convince a lot of people that I would be the right person. So he went to battle for me.
I think I’ve had a history of doing a lot of kind of indie think films (Belle, A Dangerous Method, Charlie Barlett), so maybe that’s why, because I come from that world, that he had thought of me.
Erstein: What spoke to you two personally about these roles?
Gadon: I think what I really liked most about Olivia is that she kind of appears to be this perfect, beautiful, complete woman, but then underneath she’s quite broken and very complex. And so she is kind of playing against type.
Lerman: The strength of the script. I read it as an audience member, I read it just as a whole, not really just looking at Marcus. I had to re-read it many, many times to focus in on my own character. The first time I read it, I was focused on what the movie could be and I was caught up in this fantastic dialogue.
Look, there aren’t many opportunities like this for me where you can have such delicious dialogue and complicated obstacles for actors like me to execute. It was a challenge. I didn’t know I could do it, but I knew that I wanted to try.
Erstein: What was the main challenge for you?
Lerman: The whole thing, but there’s a specific scene that was the most challenging, the between the dean (Tony Award-winning actor and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts) and Marcus. It’s a crazy scene and when you’re reading it, you’re going, “Holy (expletive)! This is insane.”And I don’t come from a theater background where you have to memorize pages and pages of dialogue, where Tracy definitely does. I’ve never had that much dialogue to have to work through. It seemed like a challenge and I wanted to be challenged. It was stressful.
Gadon: For me, it was the pressure of just wanting to do right by the novel and Philip Roth and James, I think that was probably the major obstacle for me. Just wanting to really embody the character.
Erstein: Did you find similarities between yourself and your character?
Gadon: I think that a lot of women probably go through a lot of shame and embarrassment, especially surrounding their sexual burgeoning. I think that’s a very common thing that a lot of women can relate to. I feel that is depicted very honestly in the novel and in the film. And her thirst for literature and knowledge and poetry is something I really related to, as somebody who studied and wanted to go to university and those kinds of things.
Lerman: I’m pretty similar to Marcus, I’d say, funny enough. But there’s a lot that I couldn’t relate to. I think it mostly had to do with what was socially acceptable in the 1950s compared to today. I had to just ask questions and learn, and go to museums and read books, just to try to understand the perspective of what it was like at that age and that period of time.
Gadon: We listened to a lot of Perry Como. All day long, it was Perry Como music. And I read a lot of Sylvia Plath, because James felt that Olivia was kind of inspired by Sylvia Plath. I read her journals, which were really insightful, especially when she’s in her college years. There’s just so much about her everyday life that she was so meticulous about recording that was really helpful.
Erstein: Did you ever meet Philip Roth?
Lerman: No, he never showed up on set. I think he wanted to give us our freedom. I think he was comfortable with James Schamus adapting his book. He’s been through this before many times, maybe he’s been disappointed, some of them have been good, but mostly bad, right? I haven’t seen all the adaptations of his work.
He was curious to see what James was going to do and he just let James do his thing. I believe his response was, “Just let me know when I can see it,” when James asked him if he wanted any involvement.
Supposedly he really loves the film and is really happy with this adaptation of one of his works. He gave us good praise over it, but I can’t quote him word for word, because he emailed our producer, Anthony Bregman. So I don’t know exactly what the wording was, but he was very happy.Erstein: This is James Schamus’s first feature directing job, after writing screenplays from The Ice Storm to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, producing dozens of films and running Focus Features. What was he like as a director?
Lerman: He’s the most experienced first-time director. There was such mutual respect and trust on the set. It was a great work environment. He did not torture people. He knew what he wanted, he didn’t play games and he knew when he got what he wanted and he knew how to convey when he wasn’t getting what he wanted. We wouldn’t do many takes on this film.
Erstein: Tell me about the first time you saw the film.
Gadon: Actually, the first time I saw the film alone — completely alone — was in a screening room.
Lerman: You got a screening room?
Gadon: Yeah. I watched it in an edit suite and James was like, “OK, goodbye,” and he closed the door and I realized no one was going to watch this with me, which is terrifying. Watching yourself, it’s a terrible, awful experience that you don’t want to go through alone. I did, though.
I think I was really pleased with all the interactions that Olivia and Marcus had. My response to the viewing was extremely emotional, especially at the end of the film.
Lerman: James told me he’d bring the movie, if I wanted to see it. I was kind of nervous about it, but he took me into an office where there was this little screen — a little TV – that’s what I watched it on, alone in somebody’s office.
Erstein: Have you seen it with an audience?
Lerman: Yeah, then we saw it at Sundance.
Gadon: Seeing it at Sundance is kind of a wonderful way to see a film like this with someone like James, who is so beloved by that festival. It felt like we were watching it in a room full of friends.
Lerman: It would really have sucked if people didn’t like it but people seemed to, so that was good.