Interview: Sam Trammell discusses his role as Michael in ‘Fault In Our Stars’

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Sam Trammell and Laura Dern play Michael and Frannie, the devoted parents of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a 16 year-old girl who is falling in love.  Like any family, the Lancasters have their ups and downs, navigating the often tricky teenage years. But there is one big difference for this couple; they are doing their best to give their daughter a normal life, while she is battling cancer.

Born and raised in West Virginia, Sam Trammell currently stars in the critically acclaimed hit TV series, TRUE BLOOD. He started his career on stage after graduating from Brown University, displaying his talent in a series of plays that include DEALER’S CHOICE, MY NIGHT WITH REG, and KIT MARLOWE. He delivered a Tony-nominated performance in AH, WILDERNESS! His film credits include BEAT, FOLLOWERS, FEAR OF FICTION, AUTUMN IN NEW YORK, THE DETAILS, GUNS, GIRLS AND GAMBLING, LONG TIME GONE and WHITE RABBIT.  

Sam Trammell sat down in LA to discuss THE FAULT IN OUR STARS.

Q: How excited were you about this role?

A: “I read the screenplay before I read the book. It was beautifully written and I remember I was moved so deeply that I broke down in tears. I was extremely excited. It is an incredible story and the book is wonderful. I was also excited about working with Laura Dern; I’ve been a fan of her work forever. I consider Laura and Shailene to be the tops of the top in their own generations of actors.”

Q: What is the story all about in your view?

A: “It asks: what kind of life do you want to lead? How do you want to love, deeply or widely? Do you have the courage to fall in love when you know you are going to be hurt? Cancer is at the base of the story, but it is really a philosophical, complex movie and a beautiful love story that everyone can relate to. There’s sorrow and joy but there is also a lot of great humor in the story.  You will laugh and you will cry and you’ll be inspired by the characters. Hazel has so much deep wisdom.”

Q: How challenging was the role of Michael, Hazel’s dad?

A: “I was very nervous and scared about the part itself, because of the subject. I have twin boys who are two and a half years old. So there was a lot of trepidation in tackling the film.  I said to myself: ‘you’re going to have to inhabit this person who has a child with cancer.’  It’s something that you don’t want to imagine as a parent. I had to really look at the world of cancer that hits kids and how it affects families. I went online and I looked at blogs. What I took away from the film and the research is how important it is to appreciate what you have in life, when you have it, right now. So I don’t take a single day for granted with my kids.”

Q: Can you discuss the experience of making the movie?

A: “It was a great cast and we all bonded and became friends. Often, making movies, even when you are filming out of town, away from home, you just go back to your hotel when you have finished working for the day. But whenever Laura and I were in town at the same time, we had dinner together. So it was really good fun. We hung out together a lot in Pittsburgh where we were shooting the film, with Josh [Boone], the director, and Wyck [Godfrey], the producer. It was really like a family. That doesn’t happen very often. We’d see each other at night and we’d see each other during the day. Because of the story, it was important to get that close to each other because it was such an intimate world that we were creating. That was particularly true for me, Shailene and Laura. The more you know someone, the easier you are in a scene with them, and we needed to be comfortable with one another, because in the story there’s a lot of love in our family.”

Q: What was it like working with Shailene?

A: “Shailene is incredible and I knew that working with her was going to great, She is one of the best actresses of her generation.  I have tremendous respect for her. I knew she was going to have a great career when I saw her in THE DESCENDANTS (2011). There was something very real and natural about her. Working with her was exactly what I had expected. She doesn’t do anything that isn’t true and that translates on screen in a big way.  People want to see truth and that’s what she brings to her work. It’s not easy to be open in the way that she is and that’s what I see in her. She’s beautiful, she’s young and she’s extremely talented.”

Q: Can you discuss what it was like working with Ansel, who plays Gus, and the rest of the talented cast?

A: “Ansel is fantastic; I love that guy. He’s so cool and he is such a nice guy and very playful. Both Shailene and Ansel are really good people. They don’t have any hang-ups. They’re very open. Ansel is from New York and I used to live in New York, so we had a lot in common. I thought he did a phenomenal job and had great chemistry with Shailene. Nat Wolff who played Isaac is also extremely talented. I only got to work with Willem Dafoe in one scene, so we didn’t really talk very much. But he’s a classic actor, he is great.”

Q: There’s a lot of humor, even though the teenagers have cancer. What did you learn about families going through this experience?

A: “One of the things that struck me about the book, which translated well into the movie, is the irreverence and the wisdom that these kids possess. They talk about cancer openly and they are funny. I love that attitude; they are able to bring humor to what is going on for them in an amazing way. It is hard to imagine that would be possible.”

Q: What were the memorable moments for you making the film?

A: “There were many wonderful moments. I really loved getting to know the kids in the film [in the support group] who had cancer. One of the wonderful things that I got to do was to meet a real dad from Pennsylvania whose daughter had been diagnosed with cancer at age 12 and given six months to live.  But she had beaten the cancer and was then 18. It was a great story. We met at a restaurant and talked a lot. We discussed what happens to families and how life changes immediately when cancer is diagnosed. It was so great to listen to him and to absorb his emotions and his feelings and incorporate that in my character.”

Q: Can you elaborate on the theme of the film?

A: “It is about appreciating what you have in life. My character Michael says at one point: ‘I believe the universe wants to be noticed.’  The universe likes to be noticed, and it tends to reward intelligence, meaning it rewards the people who notice it. I just love that idea.  What I got from that thought is that there’s a great reward in noticing a leaf during the day and just taking it in, being in the present and noticing what is around you, as opposed to being in the future, or in the past. I’m so grateful having done this move that my kids, knock on wood, are healthy, because that’s not a given. We all take health for granted and we can’t help it. That’s okay we are human, and we have a lot of things on our minds. But it is good to step back and notice what you have and be grateful for everything.”

Q: It is a very philosophical story isn’t it?

A: “It is philosophical and one of the philosophical themes that I love in this story is the idea of some infinities being bigger than others. There’s an infinite number between zero and one, but there’s also an infinite number between zero and two, so that’s a bigger infinity. The book and the film talk about the idea that Gus and Hazel might get to live a shorter infinity, but it is infinity nonetheless. Love is infinite, and however long they have together it’s still an infinite amount of time to them. It is infinitely deep and beautiful.”

Q: You have done a lot of great work in the theater and television and you are starring in the TV series TRUE BLOOD. Does that continue to be interesting and exciting?

A: “It is great.  It is interesting that my character in TRUE BLOOD, (Sam Merlotte), is  somebody who is searching for family. He is a guy who was abandoned by his family because he was kind of an oddball, a shape-shifter. In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS I play Michael, who has a family, but he’s worried about losing his family, losing his daughter. So they’re really kind of opposites. It’s wonderful to do the show and to do something so different in this film.”

Q: Did you always dream of acting?  I believe you had dreams of becoming an astrophysicist?

A: “Yes that was before I realized I was going to be in the bottom half of my class at physics. I wasn’t as good at physics as I would have liked.  I realized it was all math, and I like math but not that much (laughs).”

Q: Did you do any acting in school?

A: “No, I grew up in West Virginia and I never thought about acting. I never went to the theater as a kid. It was crazy though, because Nick Nolte married a West Virginia girl and moved in next door to us. That was the first time I’d ever met an actor. He was really funny and we played a lot of golf and spent time together. But I still didn’t consider acting. Then I got into college and I was going to be a physics major, but switched to semiotics. I was interested in philosophy and I studied mostly French philosophy. I did my thesis on Gilles Deleuze. I was interested in Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes [all philosophers]. Those people really are incredible, they blow my mind and I love them.  But there was a big theater department at Brown [University] and I was curious about it, so I decided to try out for a play in my senior [final] year.  I got the part, enjoyed it and I decided to move to New York to pursue acting.”

Q: You obviously had an affinity for acting.

A: “I felt like I had some kind of talent or I wouldn’t have tried it. Acting was also so fascinating to me on many different levels and I found it spiritually fulfilling. I really wanted to see if I could do it, because it was very exciting to me and very physical. I had been in such a mental place in college, studying philosophy and criticism and all that kind of thing. For me acting was as much if not more about not thinking, as it was about being critical, so it was the opposite of what I had been doing at college.”

Q: How much do you enjoy acting?

A: “It is amazing because you are always trying to improve, to get better. That seems like an infinite process, I always feel like I can do better. I always see my shortcomings. But it is exciting. I love the job, I love the whole set up, I love watching actors—I love just about everything about it.”

Q: One of the themes of THE FAULT IN OUR STARS is the yearning for recognition that Gus has, he fears oblivion. As actors, being recognized is part of being successful. What are your views on that theme?

A: “Gus does not want oblivion. Hazel tells him everybody feels that way, but it is going to happen to all of us.  Eventually we are going to be gone and nobody is going to remember us. Hazel doesn’t want to be loved by many people; she wants to be loved deeply by one or two people. And that’s a great, interesting sentiment. What is good about being known for me is that it gets me more work, and it gives me more choices. Of course it means that you lose your privacy, but as actors we all know that going into the job, so I will never complain about it. That’s one of the prices you pay, that you lose a little privacy if you’re successful, and you want to be successful, so that’s just the way it is.”

Q: What projects do you have coming up?

A: “I’m excited about a movie I produced and also wrote and starred in last summer, the working title is THE AFTERMATH. We are just finishing editing the movie now and we’re going to try to get it into the Toronto Film Festival. I play the lead role. It is a really great love story about a guy who’s down and out on his luck, and he’s got into drugs. He’s a crack addict and he is trying to get a necklace to his estranged wife, but it gets stolen. He goes on a crazy adventure through a small town, trying to get the necklace back. It takes place over 24 hours, and you run into a lot of crazy characters. My leading lady is Missy Yager, who’s the mother of my children, so it’s been really incredible for me.  I think it’s the greatest part I’ve done on film. I did a lot of improvising with non-actors. We hired real people from the town where we were filming, so it has a very hyper-realistic feel to it. You feel like you’re watching a documentary. It is so cool and exciting.”

Q: Finally, returning to THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, what do you think audiences have in store?

A: “I think kids are going to fall in love with this movie, it’s going to be very memorable for their generation. I also see it as a love story that will affect everyone. It’s about two teens who are falling in love for the first time in their lives, but they have a life threatening disease, so they are especially appreciative and sensitive to how valuable that love is. It is just about cherishing the moment.”

Fault In Our Stars hits local cinemas Friday, 13 June 2014 

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