Gabriel Basso Makes it Look Easy
Published June 10, 2011
GABRIEL BASSO (FAR LEFT) WITH HIS CO-STARS IN SUPER 8. IMAGE COURTESY OF FRANCOIS DUHAMEL/PARAMOUNT PICTURES
In Super 8, 16-year-old Gabriel Basso plays Martin, a well-meaning but none-too-bright nerd whose plans for the summer of 1979 are to write and star in a zombie movie with his best friends (Joel Courtney, Riley Griffiths, Ryan Lee, and Zach Mills), as well as one interloping girl from school (Elle Fanning). Their plans go awry when they witness a train crash at the abandoned depot where they’re filming—and then mysterious things start to happen in their small Ohio town. We can’t say much more—it’s best to see the film knowing next to nothing about it—but one thing we feel perfectly comfortable sharing is that Basso’s lovable-doofus performance in Super 8, as well as his turn as Laura Linney’s son on Showtime’s The Big C, mark him as an actor worth watching. We caught up with Basso this week to discuss working with J.J. Abrams, his own home movies, what to expect from The Big C this season, and which of his Super 8 co-stars he could take in a fight.
ALEXANDRIA SYMONDS: Hey Gabriel, how are you doing?
GABRIEL BASSO: Good, how are you?
SYMONDS: I’m good, thanks! So your character in Super 8 is, to put it kindly, not the sharpest of his friends. I’m curious how you got into that character—you’re obviously more intelligent than he is.
BASSO: [laughs] It was a real stretch to play Martin; I really had to try to be ignorant. [laughs] No, but J.J. helped me with it; the script supervisor helped me. It was all really chill. It was kind of easy.SYMONDS: What was it like to audition for J.J.? Were you terrified?
BASSO: At the time, I didn’t know J.J. was involved in it, because he sent out a fake script. And I didn’t know it was a fake script, and I was actually at my grandmother’s wake in Detroit when I sent in the tape. And then when I landed, I went to Bad Robot Studios and I was like, “What the heck? Where am I?” And I went in and they handed me the script, and they said, “J.J. Abrams will be here in 30 minutes to read with you,” and I was like, “What?!” And it was kind of freaky, but it all turned out well.
SYMONDS: So they didn’t really give you time to be nervous.
BASSO: No, I was kind of in shock, when I was in the room. And I think that came across as stupidity, and that’s why they cast me as Martin.
SYMONDS: [laughs] I’m glad it turned out well for you. What was the fake script about? I’m so curious.
BASSO: I don’t—honestly, Alex, it was so stupid that I don’t even remember. It was about a little teen love that was going on, and there was a scene where the stage directions were, “And they started dancing the most melancholy dance in the history of melancholy dances.” And I was like, “What?” I didn’t even want to audition for it, originally! But my older sister talked me into it.
SYMONDS: Wow, you owe her a drink, when you’re old enough.
BASSO: I know, right?
SYMONDS: Did J.J. or Steven give you any memorable advice on set?
BASSO: Not directly, he didn’t give me advice, but things I pulled from what he said, and things I pulled from what he helped people with, were memorable to me. He didn’t just come up to me and say, “Do this and you will be successful.” I wish.
SYMONDS: Yeah, like the secret to acting is…
BASSO: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. I wish he would’ve done that.
SYMONDS: So, you and the rest of the kids, did you all get along? Was it like summer camp?
BASSO: Oh yeah, it was like getting paid to hang out with your best friends and blow stuff up. That’s what it was like.
SYMONDS: [laughs] Was it pretty much immediate that you all got close?
BASSO: They were cast a long time before I was, so when I walked into the audition and they were all in there, they all already had their inside jokes and everything that I was kind of left on the outside of for a while. But then I caught on, and we all became really good friends.
SYMONDS: J.J. said in the press notes that he sort of left the story of the movie within the movie, the zombie movie, up to you guys. How involved were you in coming up with that?
BASSO: I was one of the main writers of the film inside the film—I mean, whoever I was talking with in the scene, we wrote the script. I mean, most of it, some of it was improvised.
SYMONDS: What was it like to be creating something new as, yourself, as a created character?
BASSO: It was kind of Inception-y!
SYMONDS: [laughs] Did you ever do that kind of thing when you were younger? Did you make home videos?
BASSO: Yeah. Me and my best friend, Nathan, we made some movies as kids. Actually, we were deathly afraid of dolls. And we’d make movies with my little sister’s creepy dolls. remember one time we actually were filming in my basement, and it was pitch-black, we were filming with night vision on the camera. And I put the doll on a table, and it must have fallen off or something, because when we went back to film it, it was gone. And we actually started screaming and running upstairs. It was really awesome.
SYMONDS: [laughs] It sounds like there’s kind of a parallel between that and Super 8—making a movie about what scares you, in order to…
BASSO: Yeah, something went wrong—in this case, not a train wreck, but the doll falling off the table.
SYMONDS: Slightly smaller stakes, maybe.
BASSO: I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s a smaller scale. I think it’s scarier.
SYMONDS: [laughs] And of course it’s a lot easier to do that kind of thing now than it was in 1979 when the film was set. Did you do anything special to get into that time period?
BASSO: It was actually kind of easy, because once we got into the wardrobe and surrounded by all these old clothes and cars and everything, it was kind of just, “Act like you’re Martin.” It wasn’t really like I had to get into the moment. But I bet it was easier for the adults in the film, because they actually grew up in that time, so they knew what to do. Apparently we portrayed kids in 1979 really well, so.
SYMONDS: Yeah! I mean, I wasn’t there, but it seemed that way to me. Was it hard not to slip into current-day mannerisms or vernacular?
BASSO: Yeah. You would say, “What’s up, dude” or “What’s up, man” and start using “like” a lot, and they didn’t use it in 1979. So they’d have to cut and say, “You can’t say ‘like’ or ‘um’!”
SYMONDS: I don’t want to ask you specifics, because I don’t want there to be spoilers in this interview. But with the special effects of the film, how much of it was pretty real and how much were you reacting to a green screen?
BASSO: Well, for the train wreck, they filmed everything with a green screen. But then post-train wreck, they had scattered this huge field with all this metal scrap and actual, huge trains.
SYMONDS: Oh, that was all real?
BASSO: Yeah. Ninety percent of the stuff you saw was all real, post-train wreck. But the trains actually crashing around weren’t, thank God. They’re filming, they’re like, “We’re going to crash a huge freight train, guys, and we’ll leave it up to you to survive.”
SYMONDS: What about the scene on the bus? Not to get too specific about it, but how much of that was you guys getting…
BASSO: It was actually pretty freaky! They had gunshots going on, and they put the bus on hydraulics, so we were shaking up and down and we actually had to crawl out.
SYMONDS: Oh, wow.
BASSO: Yeah. It was really freaky—there was a green screen for obvious reasons. But everything else was pretty much there.
SYMONDS: I read that you’re a third-degree black belt. Are there any of your fellow co-stars that you’d be afraid to fight? Or do you think you could just take them all?
BASSO: [laughs] In Super 8, we’d always have big battles in the pool. We would all say whoever goes under last wins, and of course me, Riley, and Joel would be the last ones to stay up, usually. But I would pretty much dominate, otherwise.
SYMONDS: What about Noah Emmerich—do you think you could take down Noah Emmerich?
BASSO: No, I don’t think so. Yeah, I think he’d destroy me.
BASSO IN THE BIG C. IMAGE COURTESY OF SHOWTIME
SYMONDS: [laughs] You also have the second season of The Big C premiering on Showtime this summer—you’ve been really busy. Your character on the show is very different from your character in Super 8—is there anything you can tell me about we can expect to see from him this season?
BASSO: Um, in the first season he was kind of dismissive. He kind of dismissed the fact that his mom had cancer until the very end of the season, when he finally found out and had to accept it. And now he’s kind of doing what Cathy did in the first season, he’s kind of acting out in anger and denial and looking for other ways to cope with the situation he’s in. So he meets a couple of interesting people. Parker Posey’s on the show.
SYMONDS: Oh, amazing.
BASSO: Yeah, he meets her on a kids-of-parents-with-cancer site and they sort of strike up an interesting relationship there.
SYMONDS: So just to talk about your future a little bit, are you sure that acting is what you want to do forever? Do you think you want to go to college?
BASSO: I’m an artist. So if acting doesn’t work out, which I hope it does, I’m probably going to go into graphic design or something like that.
SYMONDS: Oh, cool.
BASSO: And I’ve always been into music; I’ve played violin for nine years. I love sports—if I’m not acting, I’m probably doing sports. I wish I could play the World Cup, that’s one of my dreams. But if acting doesn’t work out, I guess I have a lot of things going for me that I’d have to go to college for.
SYMONDS: Well, that’s good—definitely better to have too many choices than not enough.
BASSO: Yeah. It’s a good problem to have.
SYMONDS: Is there anything else that you want to get out there?
BASSO: Just a shout-out to Joplin, because that’s where my mom’s from. It’s rough for them right now. My mom’s friends are there.
SUPER 8 IS OUT TODAY. THE SECOND SEASON OF THE BIG C PREMIERES JUNE 27.