'Cougar Town' Star Dan Byrd On Playing 'Norman,' Taking On The Indie Film And Teen Typecasting
From his breakout film role as the lovable loser Brandon in "Easy A" to playing the dry-witted, insanely tolerant Travis Cobb on ABC's "Cougar Town," Dan Byrd has got the witty, sarcastic teen thing down pat.
So it's not surprising that Byrd, 26, jumped at the chance to play someone a bit different than his usual fare in the coming-of-age indie "Norman."
The story, in which Byrd stars as the title character, follows a high school senior who perpetuates a lie that he is terminally ill with cancer to gain sympathy from his peers. Academy Award nominee Richard Jenkins plays his father, who actually is the one with cancer. A pre-"Revenge" Emily VanCamp also stars as Emily, a new classmate who takes a liking to Norman. Byrd manages to capture the emotions of teen simultaneously experiencing the best and worst moments in his young life.
Byrd chatted with The Huffington Post about the challenging role, stepping out of his comfort zone and getting typecast as the funny kid in Hollywood.
The role of Norman is definitely a departure from comedy for you. It's somewhat dark. Was that something that interested you when you signed on for the project?
Well, the movie was made a few years ago. It takes a long time for these independent movies to find a home and to get out there, but I'm really happy that it finally is. But, yeah, that was the thing that attracted me most to the film. It felt like it was the first real acting opportunity that I've ever had. Usually, with most jobs, they only require you to exercise a certain muscle, like comedy or drama or goofiness, but this was the first opportunity I had to play an actual character in a fully dimensional, fleshed-out way. It's very rare that opportunities like this actually come along for somebody like me, with my age and my look, so when it did, it was something that I was very passionate about.
What do you mean by somebody with your age and your look?
I don't think that I'm necessarily traditional leading man material. Also, for younger people, you're playing the kid in a high school or college comedy, along the same lines as "Easy A," which can be great, but rarely ones give you character opportunities like this. It was just a role that I wasn't used to seeing or auditioning for, so I tried to put a little bit more effort into it than normal.
What was it about the script that pulled you in to Norman's story?
It was one of those things that I read that wasn't relatable, but I instantly understood it. I feel like the only parts that I get are the ones that I read and I automatically hear the voice in my head and I know what to do right away. I definitely haven't dealt with anywhere near the type of adversity that he's gone through in the movie, but the character and the story still felt so relatable to me. I just felt like I knew what to do.
How did you prepare for the role?
I did the best I could to come up with the character in my head. I didn't want to play myself. Like I said, you're only exercising a certain muscle and you can get away easily with relying on your natural instincts and impulses, and I didn't want to wing it like that. I wanted to create something, so there was a lot of actor-y nonsense that I did beforehand, like I made a journal, and I started to develop this entire backstory until I felt as informed as possible when we were actually shooting. I wanted to feel as comfortable and confident with the decisions that I was making.
What sort of stuff did you write in the journal?
It was really just me trying to inform myself on how he got to the place that he was at in the story, so I just started making up past experiences that he shared with his parents and then other things that he had gone through in school. They were just little tidbits here and there, so that I could feel like I had created a character. With a small, low-budget movie like this, we only had 21 actual shooting days, and I'm in every scene, so there's really no time to sit on the day and talk things through and get any particular scene to a place where everyone is comfortable with it. You kind of have to do your homework beforehand and come in as prepared as possible.
Do you think that it put more pressure on you as an actor when you only have 21 days and you're in every take?
It was definitely something that I was super nervous about going into it because there were a lot of really emotional scenes in this film. It's stuff that doesn't necessarily come right when you want it to, but I think the pressure of our time restraints actually helped me in a way because it was like put-up-or-shut-up time. You're also able to stay focused and in it as much as possible because it's not being dragged out over a long period of time. It's like being shot out of a cannon. It helped me disappear into the role in a way that I might not have been if it was a longer, more drawn out process.
How did you justify Norman's actions in the film?
I think that it's definitely a bizarre coping mechanism to have, and if it were a real-life circumstance, I'm sure people would think that it crosses some sort of line, but I don't think that we ever really know how we're going to react to certain things until we're actually confronted with whatever the scenario is. It does seem like a weird way to act out and deal with the hand that he's been given, but it also felt kind of real in a way. There is this kind of ambiguity of him not knowing why he's doing what he's doing, but he just needs some sort of release -- something to make him feel better and distract himself from what his actual reality is -- and this is what his body actually ends up coming up with. I think that it's a very real thing. At challenging times, most people do look for an escape.
Watch the trailer for "Norman" below. The DVD release date has not yet been set.