In light of television's fascination with the lives of others, especially those of different economic orders either up or down the scale, the recently released Twelve fit right into the general zeitgeist. Though veteran director Joel Schumacher's film didn't exactly charm the critics or audiences when it came out, one bright spot in the film was the face time from actor Billy Magnussen.
His very non-hero of a character (not a bad guy but a pained, tortured one), older brother Claude to Rory Culkin's younger bro Chris provided great fodder for anyone who's ever had a gripe with the offsprings of the rich and privileged. Having lived on the Upper East Side, deejayed in preppie clubs (such as the long-shuttered Surf Club) and gone to the area waterholes, I have an informed knowledge of these spoil brats. These are the kids who people such series as Gossip Girl or NYC Prep and provided material for 17 year-old author Nick McDonell, whose book inspired this film.
Through an ensemble of characters, a morality tale plays out as drug dealer White Mike finds his predatory, detached life disassembling after his cousin is murdered by his supplier, his best friend is arrested for the crime and various mates or loves spiral down into one life-shattering hell of a party. Though Magnussen's character wasn't the focal point of this tale of a tragic night in UES, he provides much of the action to its dramatic, tragic conclusion.
Of course, to inform the character, it was good the 25-year-old actor didn't grow up as one of them. Originally a Queens resident until he was 10, he moved to Miami, stayed there for a year, and moved to Georgia, where he went to middle school and high school. Then the buff actor to college in North Carolina before marking time as both an actor and front man for a rock band.
Though he got his start in a soap (As The World Turns) he started making it in indies including Happy Tears and Twelve -- something we discussed in this exclusive interview.
Q: I've had friends that came out the prep school experience and were pretty hoity toity, high falutin, yet there's this conflict -- on the one hand they love privilege and sometimes lose touch, then there's other moments when they have stabs of reality and feel the angst of too much cushion. One minute you have all this and with the next it could all be gone.
Q: Did you interview them in a way to get some background?
BM: I hung out with them and just observed.
Q: Did you meet your counterpart, the person that your character was based on in the book?
BM: I did not, unfortunately.
Q: I assume he didn't really die in the real world.
BM: He did not die in the real world, no. He's still alive and kicking.
Q: Does he seem like a damaged individual? How did someone that the character is based on perceives himself.
BM: I didn't meet the character of Claude. I did talk to Nick McDonnell about it and it's loosely based on two people he knew growing up. One was an older guy he knew went to his school who was just intimating young people, and there were all these legends. He clearly was crazy.
Q: Even though your screen time is limited, you showed a lot of different colors and shades in those moments. Though your character seem fucked up, you made him sympathetic, somebody that wants and needs love who is at the same time a real asshole. How do you psych yourself up into that state?
BM: I had so much fun with this character. You've got to remember, this guy doesn't think he's a bad guy. This is his reflection of the world on him; he was shit on a lot. He doesn't think he was wrong; this is how he sees the world.
Q: He's frustrated; he doesn't know how to communicate his hurt and anger.
BM: You've got to remember, he's grown up without getting hugged. So how do you show affection if you don't know that? All you know is the anger. He probably got yelled at a lot growing up. He was in boot camps; he probably got the shit kicked out of him. So he's always had physical aggression put on to him and that's all he knows. But he doesn't think he's wrong.
Q: What do you think about the idea that you get to kill 50 Cent? When you did that scene was there a little pleasure in knocking him off?
BM: Of course; how many people get to say they actually shot 50 Cent? There's like nine other people. And I actually get to kill him. No, he's a gentleman, he was a pleasure to work with and he's a true actor, honestly.
Q: He seemed like a gentleman, actually, a much nicer guy than you'd think.
BM: Oh, he really is a nice guy.
Q: How many people did you end up killing in that scene? I never got a final tally. There were at least two; you killed him and then you killed the girl who thought she was a star. Did you get a final tally?
BM: I would say eight, maybe 10. I think I got one or two on the steps, and then I got some other people. I got a cop too; I shot a cop.
Q: You commit suicide by cop.
BM: Yeah there's a cop lying down next to me.
Q: It was a quick scene when you see it on the screen. Was there more footage, or more elements shot when those scenes were made?
BM: No, actually I think this was the brilliance of Joel. In keeping it focused on my brother, played by Rory Culkin, it gives the audience the imagination to actually think of what's going on. I think it's scarier that way because you have to make it up and all you hear is the noise and you're painting the picture yourself. So I think that adds to the sense of terror really.
Q: Of the characters in the film, you're the one who obviously is not going to be redeemed. How many of them do you think will eventually learn from this and be redeemed? Do you think that the character of your brother -- played by Rory -- will come out of it damaged or will he learn from it? Do you think he has potential?
BM: I don't think Rory's character was totally damaged per se. I think he's probably more now. It's honestly just going to be gossip; I don't think anyone's redeemed because... It was already planted in them when they are growing up. Maybe, of anyone it would probably be Philip Ettinger's character [Hunter]. He's the one they think killed Nana [a guy inadvertently murdered when he witnesses the first shooting].
Q: While Schumacher's had huge success in the Hollywood and lives the high life -- like the parents of some of these kids -- this movie offers the flip side of that experience. In many ways it's a flip side of Gossip Girl -- which glamorizes this world. Did you talk about that, or reflect on it? Was there a lot of philosophizing about this movie in the making of it.
BM: I don't think we want to relate it to anything. I think it is its own story and it stands alone. I think with Kiefer Sutherland narrating it we're in this journey. I don't want to relate it to anything. I think when you make that comparison it cheapens the work of the story.
Q: The movie engenders a lot of philosophizing about the effects of having too much money being too young, or not having been given enough responsibility. Did you reflect back on your high school days, people you knew who were like that or how fucked up high school is?
BM: Yes and no, because at the same time my character didn't deal with the school aspect of it a lot of times. He was always in boot camp. I don't know; I didn't.
Q: Because you were removed from the rest of them... In order to create a sense of the crowd or being a part of the crowd some of the other actors would hang out with each other. How was it? For some people if they're into a character and the character's not connected they don't hang out afterwards. Other people find they can step away from it. What was it like for you?
BM: Oh no, I hung out with everybody. We became all good friends. It's called acting, you know. I'm still Billy. I get to play a character but then when I walk away I'm my own story again.
Q: Of the people you've met through this, did you know anybody that you worked with before this film?
BM: No, I didn't know anyone.
Q: Did you establish bonding between you and Rory, did you talk much about the relationship between the two brothers?
BM: I truly respect Rory. He's a phenomenally talented actor. He was such a pleasure to work with and I really respect him. He's such a good guy.
Q: Even though he's younger than you and playing a character a lot younger than you, he's got more years of acting experience than most of this cast since he's been acting since he's so young.
BM: He's so talented.
Q: Do you like playing this antihero or non hero bad guy more than the good guy? You could be a Taylor Lautner with those abs, but you're playing an anti-Taylor type of guy.
BM: I guess, I don't know. It all culls from the story and the character. I think acting is fun either way; you can still make it fun no matter what.
Q: Did you learn much about using a samurai sword? Did you get any real lessons?
BM: Well when I was in the North Carolina School of the Arts I took all those combat classes.
Q: Do you work out a lot like your character was doing?
BM: Oh for that I put on a lot of weight. I work out a lot but don't work out to put on weight like I did for that role.
Q: When you're in your rock band persona are you skinnier and more haggard than your character here?
BM: I don't want to be big like that. When I was doing this film when I fell asleep my arms would go numb because I would cut off my own circulation.
Q: I imagine when you do a role like this it whets your appetite to play more anti-heroes or the bad guys and all because there's always so much more depth and conflict to the characters. Has that sort of turned you on to playing this kind of thing?
BM: Yeah, absolutely. I am so anxious to play more characters like that. It's just a fun character because I don't get to be that guy everyday.
Q: What did you learn about this guy? If you met him what would you say to help him? Could you reach him and help in some way? You see these kids that are totally weary of life at 15 in a way that you want to grab them by the shoulders and say, "Wake up."
BM: I think the best thing you can do to anyone with any situation is show them love. If you show love it will come back to you; that's all you can do.
Q: Did Joel talk to you a lot, give you direction or did he just say get into the character? Talk about the working process, I'm kind of.
BM: Joel Schumacher let me just play. He literally set up the shot and said this is the scene and said action, just go for it. There were times he'd let the camera role for 10 minutes and I'm just messing around, which was awesome. And then he would come over and be like listen, just think about this. Go again, go for it.
Q: When your character shoots at 50 Cent was he taking it out on everyone or initially he's trying to defend people? Did he start out a good guy and just goes crazy? What about the process that was in his head at that time?
BM: He was ready to snap. He was going to snap anyway, I think the gunshots just triggered him. I think he wanted to do it earlier. I think he was wanting to do it for a long time; it's just at that moment it really clicked.
Q: Were you sad you didn't get to use the samurai sword in that scene?
BM: Oh I wish I could, I really wish I could. I would have loved to cut some people.
Q: Before you did this movie were you a Gossip Girl fan?
BM: No, I still don't watch it.
Q: Chase obviously knew that this movie is like an anti-Gossip Girl. It's the antidote or commentary on Gossip Girl. You must have joked around about that show. BM: I really respect it. It's been going for a long time now and people like it.
Q: You could do a cameo on it and use the sword. Why don't you suggested that?
BM: Do you know how many times I've auditioned for that show?
Q: You did?
BM: Oh my god, so many times. I never get the character.
Q: Tell them to create a character for you.
BM: Okay, let me call them and tell them that. I'm not on the same level as Chase Crawford; I'm not a name like him. I still bust my balls; I go every day on auditions, I get rejected every day. But I'm nowhere on that pedestal.