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|You know Brendan Sexton. Most likely as the lost 14- year- old hardass in Todd Solondz' s Welcome to the Dollhouse, or Ed Furlong' s kleptomaniacal buddy Matt in John Waters' Pecker. Less probably you' ve watched one of his smearily pissed- off antiheroes in teen message films like Empire Records or Hurricane Streets. Because evidently the word' s been out for a while if you want ruff cinemagenic melancholy for your youth indie, lure Brendan in somehow. Like a far cooler Brad Renfro, his every move seems to radiate the mannered gestural slang of ' 90s kids and then some. That there' s considerably more to his talent than this has, for some reason, escaped casting directors until recently. But with the release of Boys Don' t Cry, Kim Pierce' s new feature based on Nebraska' s infamous Brandon Teena murder case, one senses his reputation shifting.
With a cast that includes Peter Sarsgaard, Chloe Sevigny, and 90210' s Hilary Swank in a pretty astonishing career turn as cross- dressing Teena herself, Boys Don' t Cry already brims with great performances. But it might be Brendan Sexton' s quiet take on killer Tom Nissen that most sticks in your head for days after. Like Gena Rowlands, Brendan has a face barely rippling with every internally repressed spike, to devastating effect. It' s a performance that sneaks up on an audience, charming and hateful in one little pill.
Talking to Brendan, you get the same feeling, like a sleight- of- hand is being played. Straightforward in the manner usually described as " affable" by journalists, you nonetheless come away realizing how much more he' s guarding than giving up. " Unintensely private" might be a good term.
I caught up with Brendan on a cell phone as he was wandering, by my guess, through Washington Square Park.
STEVE: Where are you right now?
BRENDAN: I' m in Manhattan. I wanted to try and be on an office phone, but I didn' t get it together in time so I guess I' m just going to have to choose this park bench right here. I got my legs crossed, watching the people go by.
STEVE: So if you need a hot dog ...
BRENDAN:Actually, I' m gonna walk over to the deli.
STEVE: I saw on Page Six last year where you joined a strike for workers on the set of Hurricane Streets.
BRENDAN:No, I was just cheering them on. They were construction workers from East Harlem, trying to get union recognition, and I was chanting with them. All the AD' s came outside to see what the hell the noise was. It' s a picket line with chants, and there' s Brendan.
STEVE: Where did you grow up?
BRENDAN:In Staten Island, but I didn' t live in the South Shore where there' s huge mansions. I grew up in a dynamic area where there' s lots of ... there' s mansions and then there' s projects within a few block radius. So I got to see all different contradictions. And all my friends were intelligent and really bright, they just never had it nurtured, basically. I guess you could say that I grew up with a lot of privileges, but then I also went to schools where there weren' t enough desks and books and chairs for everyone.
STEVE: I don' t get how you fit making movies in.
BRENDAN:Because I don' t really have a social life. I don' t have that many friends. I' m always on the move, doing something. Not to say my friends are staying in one place, but ...
STEVE: You maintain relationships with them.
BRENDAN:I do, but it' s mostly in the heart.
STEVE: That fascinates me. You' re sought out as an actor for how authentically you portray teenagers, yet your career precludes you actually being one.
BRENDAN:Yeah. We were talking last night about everything between ten and five years ago, and what it was like growing up. It was bugged for me to think about all my friends. I was talking to one of my roommates, and he and I had a similar childhood. He had an older sister who he really looked up to. I did also. And culturally they shaped our lives, you know? We grew up liking the same music, and stuff like that.
STEVE: What do you mostly listen to?
BRENDAN:That' s a good question. I' ve been thinking about that for the last few days, like, damn, I don' t really have any new music. Right now I' m trying to find some jungle music, and I' m kind of like an anti- jungle music person. I just bought an album by this group called 4 Hero. I' ve only listened to a few tracks, but the reason for that is I' ve been listening to those tracks repeatedly. At first I thought it was going to be cheesy, wannabe shit. But then I was thinking about growing up in Europe, kids my age growing up listening to hip- hop, but also listening to jungle, and what it' s like being in the urban dwellings of Europe. So I get into it in that way.
STEVE: A lot of good stuff right now is unclassifiable.
BRENDAN:That' s the thing, I don' t even know what that music is, what it' s called. I know it' s like some kind of thank- god- stepped- away- from- techno ...
STEVE: [laughs] You' re not a techno fan.
BRENDAN:Not at all. That music is torturous. Generally I listen to hip- hop, it' s what I' ve grown up on. But there' s hardly any good hip- hop being played on the radio right now, it' s all about coming out with the same formulaic shit.
STEVE: There' s some good stuff. You listen to Timbaland?
BRENDAN:He' s funny. I like him and Aaliyah. He does her stuff. Check it out, I' ll tell you about three people who I could listen to ninety percent of the time Roy Ayers, Bob Marley, Al Green. I also definitely love some women soul singers and r&b jazz singers, like Aretha and Nina. You know what it is? I like people who paint a picture for me. I get that from people like Raekwon the Chef, with Wu- Tang. But I also like shit like the Pixies. You ever listen to the Pixies?
STEVE: Sure. But Al Green is metaphysics.
BRENDAN:Yeah. My parents saw Al Green once. It was wild. They said he got up onstage and sang three words, then let the audience sing the whole rest of the song. Damn!
STEVE: What' s wrong?
BRENDAN:Man, I left something. I bought something to drink, then I left it on a bench.
STEVE: That' s the kind of stuff I do.
BRENDAN:I' m totally absent- minded.
STEVE: Maybe it' s still back there.
BRENDAN:It' s alright.
STEVE: Okay, well, I just want to tell you that Boys Don' t Cry has some of the toughest ensemble work I' ve watched in years.
BRENDAN:That' s awesome.
STEVE: You haven' t seen it?
BRENDAN:No, I haven' t. I' ve seen rushes and some dailies, but I didn' t see any with me in them.
STEVE: You avoided the early edits.
BRENDAN:I don' t want to see it and have them re- edit it, and mess up my expectations for having the story go a certain way. I' m just waiting till they lock the picture.
STEVE: Hilary Swank blew up everything I knew about her. And Chloe Sevigny finally lived up to her billing. She reminded me of Jody Foster, circa Foxes.
BRENDAN:Wow. When I saw documentary footage of Lana [Chloe' s character], I thought she looked exactly like Jody Foster.
STEVE: And the cherry on top is Jeanetta Arnette ...
BRENDAN:Jeanetta is amazing!
STEVE: One of the made- for- TV- movie priestesses.
BRENDAN:No doubt. She was crazy. She would always talk to herself before we' d start shooting, in her character' s voice, like, " All right honey, here' s the deal, baby." She' d be smoking and drinking her fake whiskey. The way she prepared herself, she just elevated everyone else. Like, oh wow, Jeanetta' s there. I need to catch up with her.
STEVE: I was thinking that ever since River' s Edge, alienated- youth movies have given us their characters in an ironic- slash- condescending way. This wasn' t like that.
BRENDAN:Exactly. You listen to some of the dreams these people have, and it can be like, whoa, what aspirations. You know, kind of sardonically. But their dreams are according to their expectations.
STEVE: Too much so. Your character, Tom, initially seems easy to figure but really in the end is the most ungraspable.
BRENDAN:Tom in particular was always thinking about the next steps. He' s plotting the whole time. Being a friend of John, he gets a certain social status. Brandon comes into town and John accepts Brandon as a friend. That removes Tom' s social status, so he has it out for Brandon in some respects. And then also he feels that Brandon betrays him. So he seeks revenge, but he knows he' s not going to get away scott- clean.
STEVE: It took a while to realize how masochistic he is. It comes as a surprise.
BRENDAN:He didn' t know how to deal with his emotions or his thoughts, he was afraid of them. When he expressed them, he did it with pain and anger. And usually he took it out on himself.
STEVE: When Tom and John rape Brandon, afterward your manner is so solicitous toward her, and so cold. I think you might be cornering the market on a certain stripe of self- confusion.
BRENDAN:But you see, the real person my character is based on, Thomas Nissen, used to torture himself, put out cigarettes on himself, cut himself. Brandon was someone he could actually extrovert his anger onto. He was able to express it externally. But after we shot the rape scene I probably had the biggest bout of crying I ever had since I was eight or something. And Kim, the director, was like, " This is good that you' re doing this because Tom didn' t cry."
STEVE: Maybe that' s what I' m wondering about. In Welcome to the Dollhouse you were a passive/aggressive 14- year- old sadist. These guys are you?
BRENDAN:Definitely the characters I' ve played throughout my career, I guess you could say, I' ve identified with who they are, or at least understood their actions and what they were going through. Even if they weren' t justified. Like why Tom has all this anger, and why he chooses to express it in this manner. I believe generally we all have the same capacities, and different people have different things nurtured throughout their lives. Some people, it' s violence.
STEVE: Okay, I know you were involved in the protests here in New York over the Amadou Diallo police shooting. Could you ever be one of those cops in a film? Or let' s say Justin Volpe, who just admitted to torturing Abner Louima?
BRENDAN:The question is whether someone like Tom was born homophobic. Or was John Lotter born violent, or did society create him that way? I think regular people, like Tom and John, their fears come from insecurity and instability. The racism and homophobia come from that, and I think you can change that. But the type of racism you see come from police officers, even black and Latino police officers, where they shoot at someone 41 times, I don' t think can be changed. That' s the difference in how I would approach playing those characters.
STEVE: What about Justin Volpe?
BRENDAN:Volpe, maybe he grew up as an idealistic young man, and was really trying to change society by becoming part of the NYPD. But once you become part of the NYPD, that' s it. You' re trained to see black and Latino people as committing the worst crimes in society, and especially to see poor black and Latino people as the enemy. It' s not a coincidence that the most horrible acts of police brutality happen in poor neighborhoods, like where Diallo was from, Soundview. You' re out there not to stop crime, but to make arrests. Truthfully, I don' t see police officers as stopping crime. But anyway ... [incredibly goofy laugh]
STEVE: Even The Post is being critical of the NYPD lately.
BRENDAN:They have to sell their newspapers, and they' re going to at least attempt to reflect the people' s moods and sentiments in everyday life. So they are being a little bit anti- cop right now. But you read all this shit on one page ... it' s isolated from the rest of the stuff in the newspaper. There' s no connection between the horrors on page one and the horrors on pages three, seven and twelve. Like, " Isn' t it odd that this sixteen- year- old girl commits suicide, and this country gets bombed, and this cop sodomizes someone against their will." You know? That' s not the truth.
STEVE: I won' t argue with that. I' d like to see you play Volpe though, with ... I don' t know, who would direct it?
BRENDAN:Oh, man, you' re asking the wrong person. I haven' t seen a movie since February. Movies are expensive. You go to the movies and you buy one for your date, and it' s a twenty dollar date already.
STEVE: Amen, but then how do you get to know who' s doing what? I know you just came back from South by Southwest in Austin, where they premiered Desert Blue ...
BRENDAN:Mm- hmm. It was so funny because I got down there, and I thought it was just a screening of our film and Morgan wanted us all to be there for a Q&A. I had no idea that we were the premiere film of the entire festival. I didn' t find out till later, at the after- party. It' s weird. Some people get taken to Paris and London and Dublin and all these different countries. I get taken to, like, Texas and New Jersey.
STEVE: Don' t forget Baltimore. For Pecker.
BRENDAN:Yep. That was nutty. That was fun.
STEVE: Your go- go boy scene was great.
BRENDAN:[laughing] I didn' t know what to expect. John has an anecdote for everything. Like, " Shoplifting? Let me tell you. One time me and Divine went into a hardware store. Divine was all dressed up and just walked out with a chainsaw in one hand and a TV in the other, and no one stopped him." I was like, " Wow!" And it' s all true.
STEVE: Believe that. You have something coming up on your schedule?
BRENDAN:I' m unemployed right now, but I want to do something soon. I finished my first semester of college in the spring. That was fun. I went part- time, so I got good grades. And I want to go back. So maybe that' s what I' ll be doing. But I' m actually trying to land an acting job so I can go to school full- time. I' ll feel safe. Like look, I already did a job, I have money, I did something challenging, I got some exposure. There' s no need for me to go and do another film right away.
STEVE: Or take something weak.
BRENDAN:I don' t want to have to be forced into a situation where I have to compromise myself to do a film to make money. Which thousands of people have to do all the time.
STEVE: I usually hate this question they ask actors, but do you take acting lessons?
BRENDAN:I haven' t taken classes in a while. In like a year. Longer.
STEVE: You' re pretty natural on screen then.
BRENDAN:I' ve been doing this acting thing for six years now.
STEVE: And you still enjoy it?
BRENDAN:That' s a tough question. [pause] Basically, I' ve been doing it for almost a third of my life, you know? And I' ve definitely learned a lot about the business. I mean, I like it when I feel connected to it. But it' s rare that I feel connected. Like, I did this photo shoot the other day. It was a huge drag, and I should have walked out of it before it even started.
STEVE: Well, a photo shoot ...
BRENDAN:But I' m like, this is not why I got into acting. I' m over here selling some Paul Smith, or whatever. Some designer clothes. Selling somebody' s product with my body, as myself. And so I was thinking, now I know what a lot of models go through.
STEVE: You felt exploited.
BRENDAN:Yeah. The whole thing about exploitation is just feeling disconnected from your work. I love acting, man, it' s great. It' s fun, it' s exhilarating, it provides relief and a release. And then sometimes there' s just all this bullshit that gets in the way of it. Whatever I get paid for, I want to enjoy doing it.
STEVE: [laughing] Now, you know those producers are only trying to help you do that.
BRENDAN:That' s the frustrating thing, when you' re the artist and you think you know what' s best for art' s sake. The powers- that- be keep on reminding you that it' s a commodity you' re making, to be bought and sold, and you have to be more " universal." I think art can be highly universal, but it' s prevented from being such. It' s in the hands of a few people, many of them actively isolated from art, and wouldn' t know it if it slapped them in the face.
STEVE: That' s an old refrain.
BRENDAN:It' s like a teacher who says, " I' m going to change the world. I' m going to teach children and make a difference." And then they get into teaching and it' s all about discipline. There' s forty kids in the class and they' re all hyper.
STEVE: But you must get something out of the experience of acting. You described Boys Don' t Cry with some fervor.
BRENDAN:I think what I got out of it was ... well, I got to cry. There you go, there' s one thing. Whoooooo! Yeah! But I don' t know. I don' t know how to answer that.
STEVE: You' re disappointed.
BRENDAN:Yeah! I have a feeling that pretty much I' m going to go find something else to do with my life besides acting. Maybe I' ll come back to it when I' m 35. Or 21.
STEVE: I keep forgetting you' re 19. You seem older.
BRENDAN:Oh no! [laughs] Actually, when I tell people I was born in 1980, they' re like, " What? I can' t even fathom that."
STEVE: You were just defining the pleasure of acting in such pure terms there a second ago. Do you ever compare old Hollywood to now?
BRENDAN:It' s kind of incomparable. What people were doing then was groundbreaking, in the sense that the style of acting was still very much from the stage. It kind of had to be, because sound equipment wasn' t as advanced, things like that. So some of it was more classical, and much more obvious.
STEVE: Not so long ago, there was more creative freedom in the mainstream, in Hollywood.
BRENDAN:I think about, if I had been a young kid in the ' 70s would I have been in any films? Would I have been in any Scorsese films? In the early ' 80s would I have been in Wild Style or, like, Beat Street? But when I think about the ' 50s, all I think about are the Hollywood Ten, who got blacklisted. That' s the only relation I have to the ' 50s, really.
STEVE: What about the clichˇd rebels of that era, though, like Brando and Montgomery Clift. Do they have any resonance?
BRENDAN:It was a different era. That' s why Marlon Brando was able to become such a superstar, because he was providing something new. And it was a medium they were still perfecting. The things that are new now are things like digital animation and shooting films on digital video.
STEVE: So, the naturalistic style of acting of the ' 60s and ' 70s is pretty matter- of- course now.
BRENDAN:I grew up in acting class, and my teachers talked about behaving as truthfully as possible. Immersing yourself in the moment, whatever it may be, and attempting to lose all consciousness so that you can participate in the events that are unravelling all around you.
STEVE: I could carp about that. But to me what' s more pertinent is, are there still stories to tell? Someone said they were all used up.
BRENDAN:Well, I feel like the type of tension that' s in the air is different than it was thirty years ago. And the movies have to reflect this time period. You see a lot more movies of kids on the edge. Right now people have lower expectations, in terms of what they should get out of life. And the thing is, you can' t talk over people' s heads. I think art should be somewhat on the level of where people are at. Like, although a lot of people maybe won' t see Boys Don' t Cry, I think a whole lot of people could relate to it.
STEVE: I think it could become a big renter down the line. A word- of- mouth cult thing.
BRENDAN:I would be perfectly happy with that.
STEVE: Do you feel uncomfortable in Hollywood?
BRENDAN:It depends. I come across some people and I' m like, okay, I am an outsider. I appreciate them, they can do what they do, but I can' t. Which is fine. I' ll be myself, and yeah, I kind of see myself outside. But then there' s some people that I meet and I' m just completely inspired by them, and those are the kind of people who make me want to quit acting. Considering their talent, I don' t even deserve to be in the art.