As a hopelessly romantic New York dirt bag, I can attest to the success of the film Asthma in that it hits painfully close to home. The story of Gus, a downtown junkie who romanticizes the city’s bygone days as much as he romanticizes his relationship with a local tattoo artist (played effortlessly by megababe Krysten Ritter), Asthma mirrors every electric, doomed-to-fail New York relationship I’ve ever had. Only difference is my failed relationships involved less heroin.
It’s hard to believe this infectious film is director/writer/producer Jake Hoffman’s first feature (though showbiz is in his blood – his dad is Dustin after all and he’s been acting since he was 7), but what’s harder to believe is that its breakout star, Aussie actor Benedict Samuel, had yet to set foot in New York City when he was offered the leading role (he’s since scored parts in The Walk and The Walking Dead).
Irritatingly devil-may-care and impossibly attractive (he bares a resemblance to Mick Jagger, which would be a hyperbolic compliment if it weren’t true. It’s even pointed out in the film), Samuel’s Gus is the sort of devastatingly charming nightmare you shouldn’t date but are going to anyway. The poster boy for all those New York artists and musicians that have broken our hearts.
I meet Hoffman and Samuel for lunch at The Smile on Bond Street a few days ahead of the film’s New York premiere. Samuel orders a Bloody Mary, which makes me wonder how much of Gus is acting and how much is just him. Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” plays in the background.
Tell me about the first time you two met.
JAKE HOFFMAN: We had never met and I hadn’t seen his work – he was doing a lot of theatre in Australia. One of the producers showed me a picture and said, “This is a young actor I think is really good. Should he self-tape from Australia?”
BENEDICT SAMUEL: It was two or three scenes, filmed in my outdoor laundry room.
JH: I didn’t know that part. I was blown away by the tape and cast him before I ever met him. It was funny because I didn’t know him, so I didn’t know if I’d found the guy who is the character or if I found an incredible actor who was playing the character.
Which did he end up being?
JH: You can’t be that character and come to work on time and prepared every day, and Benedict was a true professional in that sense. But there’s too much heart in it to not have drawn from himself.
Benedict, what about the character did you relate to?
BS: First of all, I was just immensely attracted to the script. And I think the main thing about it that attracted me was this notion of how do you be better, or, how do you be a good person? That discovery of yourself.
JH: Side note – I really like that “Let’s Get it On” is playing in the background. You’re just going to be grooving while you write this article.
Was Krysten Ritter already cast when you found Benedict? How did you know the chemistry would be there?
JH: I’m trying to remember who I cast first and I think it was Krysten. She has a great career and I was never going to ask her to audition – I was lucky that she wanted to do the movie. But I know what she’s like as a person and an actress. She has a great wit and great rhythm and I just imagined that with Benedict’s audition tape. That’s all I really had. It was a gamble.
It definitely paid off.
JH: Yeah. The first time they met at the table reading they had a really special rapport and I was just like, “Thank God.” It’s almost like playing matchmaker, but that makes it sound unprofessional.
And it’s especially tough when one of the characters is a junkie, because he needs to be lovable enough for the romance to work.
JH: Benedict beautifully balanced that filthy, cocky charisma with sincere vulnerability.
Now Benedict, I’m going to hope and assume that you’ve never actually shot up heroin…
BS: No, I’ve never done heroin.
Well you’re a very convincing junkie. How did you go about achieving that?
BS: Addiction is a very serious and very real thing, and I wanted to be as respectful as I could be without making judgments about people who are in that situation. I watched a lot of documentaries about heroin – there was no character study. But I didn’t want to bullshit.
There are some dream cameos in this movie. How did you get Rene Ricard and Iggy Pop?
JH: Good question – that could almost be the answer. Rene I had met at a gallery show of his in LA and thought he was just this extraordinary, brilliant, flamboyant genius.
BS: I had so much fun with Rene.
JH: We exchanged numbers that night just like, “Let’s be friends,” and I was too intimidated to ever call him, so when I had the idea to cast him in the movie I called him out of the blue. I didn’t really know him until we had the experience of working together. It’s emotional because on the one hand I’m so grateful that I got to know him before he passed away and on the other hand I was so late to the party.
BS: He was fabulous in it.
JH: He plays a drug dealer named Juan and originally I imagined someone Spanish in the role – kind of a Miami, Spanish kind of guy. And he told me, “His name is Juan, you can’t change that.” And then Iggy Pop… I still don’t know how that happened. I e-mailed his agent and she forwarded it to him and he ended up saying yes. It was super surreal.
What was it like working with him?
BS: He was actually really quiet and focused. He walked in and everyone kind of like [sits up straighter]. But he was really down to earth and focused on the work.
JH: But I think if any of us would have crossed him, he would have put us in our place real fast. You don’t mess with Iggy Pop.
Were there any unforeseen mishaps or challenges on set?
BS: The cold water.
JH: Oh man. The scene where Benedict runs in the water in his underwear…
BS: …So you can pause that moment when it comes out on DVD.
JH: It was freezing that day, and it was freezing in the lake to the point where I told him, “Benedict, if you don’t want to do this no hard feelings.” And he was like, “Well no, it’s good for the movie, you want it, right?” So I was like, we’re just going to do it once and we had heat lamps and towels ready and he goes in like a champion and rocks it and he comes out and I’m like, “OK let’s move on,” and he goes, “You don’t need another take for coverage?” And I said, “I’m sure we do but I’m not going to ask you to do it twice.” And he says, “I’ve got one more in me.”
What a trooper. So Benedict, since you flew in for the premiere I assume you’re still living in Australia. Are you planning to move to LA or New York anytime soon?
BS: I never actually plan to do anything.