Disconnect, the new film from Henry-Alex Rubin, tells a series of interconnected stories of digital age alienation in a haunting, Bergman-esque style that leaves viewers to ponder the evolving human experience in the all-seeing cyber universe. A couple (Paula Patton, Alexander Skarsgård) in the midst of identity theft, a cyber-bullied teen (Jonah Bobo) and his otherwise occupied parents (Jason Bateman, Hope Davis), a cyber-crime investigator (Frank Grillo) and his ignored son (Colin Ford), and a reporter (Andrea Risenborough) investigating an underage, online peepshow that Kyle (Max Thieriot) “performs” in lay the ground work for the narrative. I caught up with Bay Area born Max Thieriot (a great-great-grandson of San Francisco Chronicle founder H.M. de Young) and talked to him about his work on Disconnect, his own relationship with technology and got a few words out of him on his other project, playing Norman Bates’ big brother on A&E’s Bates Motel.
What initially attracted you to the script?
For me initially it was the character of Kyle, I had never seen a character like that played anywhere. As a young actor, that’s really exciting when you get an opportunity to play a role that you’ve never seen. It’s really different from anything I’ve ever done. Jason Bateman and some of the other actors were already attached to the film. Just to see him do something he’s never done and work with him was exciting.
Had you previously seen your costar Andrea Risenborough’s (W.E.) work?
I didn’t. I became more familiar with it after. She’s crazy talented. In a lot of her films, she transforms her appearance so severely. She’s so impressive. All the aspects of the movie were exciting. I think Henry (director Henry Alex Rubin) was able to take it to the next level.
The film deals with our evolving relationships with each other through technology. How much has your view of our level of disconnect changed after this project?
It made me think about it a lot more. On one hand, the movie industry is constantly looking for new subject matter and new ways to create dramatic movies and, at the same time, I don’t think this is a movie about bashing the internet. It made me realize how much we are connected to technology: there are great aspects and bad sides. Social networking and how we communicate now are so much less personal and so much more personal than it used to be. You constantly get updates with pictures and you know what people look like instant to instant but there’s less face-to-face contact.
So, even though this isn’t your storyline, I was really concerned with the online identity theft victims (played by Alexander Skarsgård and Paula Patton). Did you or any of the other cast members get any kind of paranoia about that kind of cyber crime?
I’ve never been personally identity thefted, but I’ve had a credit card stolen and it’s funny, it was before I did the movie. When I read it, my case was so similar to their case. Someone stole my credit card number and spent thousands of dollars on it and I took it so personally. I wanted to know who did it; I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I went and called around to all the stores he bought stuff at and got them to give me this person’s number. I had his number and I was calling it. People kept telling me it wasn’t worth it, the credit card would be reimbursed, I just took it so personally. The idea of the credit card company writing it off as another loss and having this person not be prosecuted really pissed me off the most.
I was so brought into your storyline. You really captured something about this sex worker’s experience, if it’s fair to call Kyle a sex worker.
Yeah, he is, absolutely.
What was your process like? How much research did you do to capture that very specific experience?
I did more research for this film than any other I’ve ever done. It was because the role scared me: it made me want to do anything I possibly could to make it authentic as possible. I talked to webcamers, I talked to a guy who was in the industry. I wanted his perspective on everything and to understand him so I could apply it to Kyle. One thing that was so common, and I wanted Kyle to be like this, was the comfort that they have with their bodies and sexuality and the ability to speak to and be in control of an audience. As an actor, you’re not used to stripping down and getting naked so I wanted that to look as authentic as possible. I worked out not for myself in this movie but because I wanted to for the character. It wasn’t about looking good on camera either: I realized it was something Kyle would do for business. It was part of my physical and mental preparation. Building this character and coming up with his backstory was important since so much of that isn’t in the movie.
Speaking of backstory, I feel like Kyle’s actual age, whether he’s still a minor specifically, is left very ambiguous. Did you come to a decision about that?
Kyle was a minor; we talked about that a lot. I think the concern was that I would look over 18. I think they edited it ambiguously intentionally. He could be lying about being that old or lying to be younger to get more customers. Kyle doesn’t answer that question clearly on purpose, because of this mentality he’s in with his work. He grew up in a household with an abusive stepfather. Kyle is a survivor: he takes it upon himself to create a new life. He meets Harvey along the way and realizes there’s opportunities to do this (online cam shows) and he was comfortable with his sexuality and his body and he realizes he can make a thousand bucks a week working for two hours a day from his computer. The only education he has at that point is the education he’s given himself on the world and on people. He’s not stupid: he deals with so many people that he’s quick.
What was it like working with fashion designer Marc Jacobs on his first film as an actor? He plays a character (Harvey) that’s sort of a pimp for your character.
It was awesome: exciting to have someone come in from a different industry and be such an icon at what he does and then come into our world and be so green and so open about it. He was totally willing to say “I don’t know what I’m doing, tell me what to do.” He is a genuinely nice person.
Thank you for dispelling any rumors that people in the fashion industry are not nice to work with.
I really like him; he’s a lot of fun. He’s so funny with all his tattoos, all the cartoons. He has a tattoo of himself when he was on The Simpsons. We were talking about it and the same day he was saying he wished South Park would make him a character and literally that night South Park had him on as a character. It was one of those moments when you realized how genuine he was. It was almost like he would take that moment over any of the other major things he’d accomplished.
We’re almost out of time, Max, but I’d be in big trouble if I didn’t ask you a couple of quick questions about your work as Dylan on Bates Motel. Were you a fan of the original forms of Psycho?
I’m a huge Hitchcock fan in general because of what he’s done for the film industry and the genre. It’s exciting to be part of that but also a little nerve wracking because you’re worried about not doing the legacy justice. For me, there’s a little less pressure since I play a character that wasn’t in the original films. It gives myself more freedom and the writers a little more flexibility. You’re going to see a lot of change in Dylan throughout the season.
Any places where Dylan and Kyle intersect?
They’ve both got the drifty, wild dog thing going on, but they’re pretty different. Dylan is a little more hard than Kyle is. All I can say is it’s been awesome: the actors, producers and crew are great. What I’ve seen of Bates just keeps getting better and better.
Any other projects in the works?
I did a movie called Yellow for Nick Casavettes that hasn’t come out yet and working on Bates. It looks positive. I think a lot of people will like Disconnect. It’s a movie that not only makes you think a lot, but also makes you feel.
Disconnect opens in Bay Area Theaters this Friday, April 12, 2013.