Peacock's Paul Cram: A Midwestern Film Actor
by Locke Peterseim, RedBlog, June 15th 2010
A darkly lyrical indie film starring Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Red Eye, Sunshine), Susan Sarandon and Ellen Page (Juno), Peacock is set in ‘50s Nebraska (but filmed in my beloved Iowa). It’s a low-key psychological thriller about the secrets of identity and control that are unearthed when a runaway train barrels into the middle of a small town.
And today we have an exclusive redblog interview with one of the stars of Peacock! No, not Ms. Sarandon or Mr. Murphy or Ms. Page. Or Keith Carradine or Bill Pullman, both of who have supporting roles. No, we’re chatting with friend of redblog, indie-film actor Paul Cram, who has three lines in one scene as Kenny the General Store Clerk!
Horror fans and Drive-In readers might remember Paul as Craig Teller, the guy who dies violently, bloodily on the toilet in 13 Hours in a Warehouse. Paul got in contact with me after I kinda made fun of 13 Hours in a Drive-In review last year. (I wrote at the time that Cram’s character “sports a Mohawk that marks him as way too stupid-looking to live.”)
So we thought it’d be interesting to talk to a film actor who maybe isn’t on the top of the bill or splashed all over the gossip columns and red carpets, but instead is someone who makes a living month in, month out by hustling and auditioning to get whatever parts he can in films of all sizes. And in Paul’s case, impressively does it while still living in the Midwest (Minneapolis, MN), far from the movie (and casting) meccas of LA and New York.
Cram’s story is a great primer for anyone interested in getting into film acting from outside Hollywood—and also a cool look into what movie making is like for a day-to-day working actor.
Paul Cram: My brothers and I were all home-schooled, so my mom didn’t want us to have stage fright or be socially awkward from a lack of social interaction. When I turned 16, I told my mom I wanted to become an actor, and she asked how I would do it. So I went my local library and checked out every book on the topic I could get my hands on.
My first roles as a teen were as an extra on some of the movies that filmed in Minnesota, like Major League II and Drop Dead Gorgeous. As unglamorous as extra work is, it helped my career. On set all day with other working actors, I gleaned a lot of great information on which agents in town were good to work with and who to avoid.
Minneapolis has a good actors community, so I started contacting talent agents. I read in a book that student films were a good place to gain experience, so I began auditioning for as many as I could—those college films were the first movies I had speaking roles in. The great after-effect was that the film students graduated and took jobs around the city they started to call me in for work on bigger projects, like commercials. I still set aside time to work with students on their projects. Even though it can be grueling to work with someone very green to the process, students are always working with cutting edge style or technology and I can learn from them.
Paul Cram: My “ah-ha!” moment was when famed casting director Mali Finn did a nation-wide casting search for Eminem’s Eight Mile which was filming in Detroit. I sent in a picture of myself and waited… Two years later, I got a phone call from her office. She told me that she’d kept my photo and she wanted me to audition for a film with Val Kilmer–would I video myself and mail her the video? After that I began looking for more auditions by video in California. That’s how I got cast in my first California based film, Intermedio with Edward Furlong. So I am very grateful to Mali Finn.
These days I have an agent in Minneapolis who gets me good auditions for local work. In California, I still get a large part of my work on my own, so I always keep my ear to the ground. I can’t think of a week that’s gone by when I am not working on one or two film projects. The income side of things fluctuates drastically from year to year for me. I work locally in Minneapolis on commercials and have started doing some voice over work as well. I live a humble life. Not very high on the hog, though I wouldn’t trade it for a desk job.
Working on Big Films Versus Little Films
Paul Cram: The main difference for me as an actor between working in a small role on a big film, compared to working in a large role in a smaller film, is simple: You get a lot more of the director’s attention and time for the larger role. Other than that, my experiences have been similar. I used to think that I’d run into more divas and attitude on larger film sets. But find that they are really the same–the attitude and stuck-up people are on both.
The bulk of my work is in independent low-budget films, so most of the time there isn’t a trailer waiting for me when I arrive on the set, and I do a lot of stuff like wardrobe and make-up myself. There is so much down time on a film set, I have to bring books and stuff or I’d go nuts just sitting and staring at the wall waiting for the lighting to be set up.
13 Hours in a Warehouse
Paul Cram: I’ve found working on horror films is generally more physically taxing than other genres. A lot of running, screaming, and because I wind up getting cast in roles where I die, I am always on set covered in dirt and blood. Which doesn’t sound bad, until you realize you have to be that way for eight hour days for weeks.
Filming that spectacle of a death scene in 13 Hours in a Warehouse was unique because of the nudity involved–it’s the longest legal contract I’ve had for a movie yet. Though the scene didn’t go without a glitch. Because I had to be face down dead on the concrete floor for such a long time the pool of blood I was on dried, I got stuck to the floor–literally. They had to bring in buckets of hot water to pry me up off the floor. It was slow going, mostly because of the fact that in the scene my pants are down, so I am sure you can image what areas of my anatomy were glued to the floor.
Paul Cram: The work I’m most proud of was in Contract Killers–I was a neurotic computer technician. They had already filmed the role once with a different actor, and I was coming in as a replacement for the part in Florida. That made me very nervous, so I tried to use that nervousness in the role. And the fact that a gorgeous woman is pressing a gun to my head during the scene worked in my favor. My scene in Contract Killers is fairly quick, about 5 minutes of screen time, but I feel very good about my performance.
Paul Cram: I wish I could claim that I created 12 pages of back-story from the 3 lines my character says in the film, but I didn’t. I remember the film’s director Michael Landers (he’s the antithesis of a Hollywood movie director–he’s nice!) telling me, “Paul, your character Kenny just wants to go home after working all day, so do that.” And that was all I really needed.
My one day of filming on set was with Cillian Murphy. As quick as the scene in the general store is, it took us 12 hours to shoot. Cillian and I found ourselves trying on zip-up sweaters to pass the time and discovered we wear the same size. He bought a sweater for himself, and one for me. I told him I’d pay for mine but he just said, “It’s a gift.” Which was a small gesture on his part that spoke volumes about him.
I remember standing outside and there were some local townspeople who asked me, “Who’s starring in this movie?” and I said, “Cillian Murphy” so they said, “Wow, we love him, is he on set today?” I just smiled and didn’t say anything–he was standing right next to me.
Paul Cram: I just finished my role on a little film called Gehenna, which is a sort of Stephen King-esque horror film that was shot in the Twin Cities by first-time feature film makers Josh Bruening and Dave Bauer.