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From Art School Confidential to Spiral, Max Minghella Looks Back on a Life in Movies
Max Minghella spent his formative years in the heart of the film industry. The son of the late Academy Award-winning director Anthony Minghella, the actor spent his school holidays on the sets of seminal films such as The English Patient, The Talented Mr. Ripley, and Cold Mountain before plunging into acting with weightier roles in movies like Art School Confidential and The Social Network. Since 2017, he has appeared opposite Elisabeth Moss as Nick Blaine, a surly commander in Hulu’s dystopian drama series A Handmaid’s Tale, and in 2018 made his directorial debut with the musical Teen Spirit. This year, he took his taste for the dark side a step further as the duplicitous Detective Schenk opposite Chris Rock in the horror flick Spiral, the twisty reboot of the Saw saga. The mark the occasion, Minghella hopped on the phone to discuss his unexpected turn in the Saw franchise, his uncredited acting beginnings, and some his most memorable experiences on set.
SANDBERG: Congratulations on Spiral. Weird time to have the number one movie in America, but it’s the number one movie in America.
MINGHELLA: True that.
SANDBERG: Are you happy with how it’s all going?
MINGHELLA: Absolutely. I’m so relieved that the movie is getting a theatrical moment. It’s a film that really thrives in that environment. I certainly was neurotic as the pandemic continued that they might understandably decide to go a different route with it. So I’m ultimately so relieved and grateful that I’ve gotten to go and sit and watch it with an audience of people and see them have fun with it, because that’s what it’s designed for.
SANDBERG: Did you guys have a premiere and everything? It’s such a dumb question.
MINGHELLA: No, it’s actually a very funny question, because we didn’t have a premiere. But Lionsgate very kindly rented out the IMAX at City Walk so that the filmmakers and myself could invite our friends and family, and it was a really fun way to see it.
SANDBERG: How were you approached about this movie? It was actually the first Saw movie that I ever watched. I had never even seen any of the Saw movies. I don’t know why. I thought it would be too gory or something.
MINGHELLA: It’s a unique experience, right?
SANDBERG: Yeah. So when someone hit you up about a Saw movie, what went through your mind?
MINGHELLA: Well, it was funny, because I’d met Chris [Rock] at a party, and we had this interaction where I was convinced he thought I was somebody else, because at the end of the interaction, he said, “And we’re working together soon.” And I thought, well, we’re not working together soon. And he’s been very nice, which I’m not used to. So I just left this exchange thinking, well, that was a funny thing, where Chris Rock came up to me and thought I was somebody else. And then I got a call a month later to say, “They’re doing a Saw movie, and they think there might be something in it for you.” So I didn’t get the script for a while after that and had no idea what to expect. I assumed I’d be playing a pizza delivery boy or something.
SANDBERG: The one who gets killed in the first scene.
MINGHELLA: Yeah, sure. I had no idea what the plot of the movie might be like. I’d seen the first couple of Saw movies when they came out, but I knew this was a new approach. The very honest answer is that it felt a little serendipitous when I finally got the script because I’m somebody who grew up unhealthily fanatical about Beverly Hills Cop and there was a moment in my adulthood, I had been buying all these VHS tapes and exclusively watching VHS tapes and movies from a certain period of time. And a lot of them in this detective cop buddy, cop genre space they don’t make anymore. And I’d been yearning for something like that, just as an audience member. I was craving for somebody to make something in this space. So when I got the script and saw that it at least had one foot in that idea and that I was going to get to be part of it in such a meaningful way was so exciting and felt very fortunate.
SANDBERG: For this story, they want me to talk to you about some of your past movies. Is that okay with you? You ready to go back in time?
MINGHELLA: Yeah, I heard you might be doing this.
SANDBERG: As a fan of your father’s, it’s interesting for me to now go look and see that you made little appearances in The Talented Mr. Ripley and Cold Mountain. What do you remember from those very early childhood experiences being on a set? And did you foresee yourself following in his footsteps and making a career in movies?
MINGHELLA: Well, calling them appearances was very, very generous.
SANDBERG: I’ve never seen the character credited. Like in Cold Mountain, it’s a young Confederate soldier yelling, “Hold your fire.”
MINGHELLA: Yeah, they left that off camera. I’m not sure why there’s a credit, but it’s there, nevertheless. But no, look. It was fun. That’s the honest answer. I didn’t get to spend that much time on my dad’s sets, because my parents were pretty fierce academics and weren’t of the mind that they wanted to pull me out of school, no matter what else was going on in their lives. So I only got to go to sets if it coincided with a break, and that often resulted in very short visits. But the one thing that I was very privy to as a kid was post-production. My memory of my youth is watching Walter Murch edit movies and watching multiple cuts of films and being in ADR sessions and all of that. I’m lucky in the fact that the two movies that I was most cognizant of were The English Patient and Ripley, which are objectively two of my favorite films of all time. So if you have to watch 50 cuts of a movie, I’m glad that they were those movies.
SANDBERG: I feel like probably the biggest turning point for you, almost initiating you into acting in movies, was probably Art School Confidential, simply because you were playing the lead.
SANDBERG: So what do you recall from that experience, and how has that stayed with you?
MINGHELLA: I’d like to publicly apologize to Terry Zwigoff for not being ready to carry a movie. I really think of that film in the context of two others, because I did Bee Season, Syriana, and Art School Confidential back to back to back, and I had never acted before and had no idea how I came across on camera. I also never watched the monitor on any of those movies so it wasn’t until I saw them finished in theaters that I was like, “Oh, my god. That’s not what I was going for at all.” I felt terrible guilt and felt like I’d really let the team down. That was a hard and sharp learning curve, and what it led me to do was actually step away from a couple of projects I was supposed to do and go back to college. I went back to school for a couple of years, and then I did a movie called Elvis and Annabel with Blake Lively a couple of years later, and that was the first time I watched something back and was like, “Oh, okay. That was a little bit more of what I was trying to do. Maybe we can give this another go.”
SANDBERG: I want to fast forward to The Social Network. David Fincher’s my favorite filmmaker. I don’t know how you feel about him, because you’ve worked with him, but everyone seems to have a story or a substantial experience when it comes to working with him.
MINGHELLA: He’s an extraordinary filmmaker and Aaron Sorkin is a titan, so having gotten to be slightly privy to that process in any way was so glorious. It was a really wonderful atmosphere making that film. It was a young cast and a big ensemble. It’s something that’s a very specific kind of experience really, and a really fun one. And David is a genius and one of my favorite filmmakers and continues to make extraordinary movies. I think the one thing I would say about him, and maybe this was just my experience, but he has a reputation of being very specific as a director. I think he is specific, but I’ve also never felt more free on the set, because he resets. So whatever happens, you know you’re going to have another take. It was such a free experience to play.
SANDBERG: I want to jump to you directing and making Teen Spirit. When you were getting ready to direct your first movie, having worked with so many directors at that point, what was your approach?
MINGHELLA: First of all, acting is my thing. I’ve directed one movie and no way do I have the authority to speak about any of this. So with that context in mind, I would say each movie is very different. I had a very limited budget to make an extremely ambitious movie. I’m an ambitious person and I didn’t want to limit or restrain myself. I really just wanted to go for it. The way I approached that specific movie was basically to edit it before we shot it so there’s not a single moment on the cutting room floor of that film. I think there’s 13 seconds that we didn’t use. I’m very grateful for that experience, because the movie that’s out there, whether people like it or don’t like it, is almost an exact articulation of the movie that I was thinking about on my couch in Silver Lake.
SANDBERG: Did you think about what your father would be thinking of you directing a movie? Did you weirdly feel his advice?
MINGHELLA: In the particular instance of that movie, a lot of it’s about my mother. A lot of it’s about my father. A lot of it’s about my sister. It’s an immigrant story, and both of my parents were immigrants. Everything about them is filtered through that lens. The movie has that DNA. So yeah, I guess the influence of all of my family, I think, is in the movie in some shape or form.
SANDBERG: I feel like we have to talk about The Handmaid’s Tale, because that obviously must be a significant experience as an actor. How has it changed you?
MINGHELLA: It’s been a very lucky thing. When you sign onto a show, you don’t really know what the character is going to be, so the fact that it’s somebody I like playing is something I’m really grateful for. I pinch myself every time I go there. It’s a very unique working environment, because normally when you work on something, there’s somebody that everybody hates. There’s one person that’s a bad apple and makes every day a little bit more arduous than it needs to be. We never had that person, four seasons in. Maybe they’ll show up in season five, but everybody gets along really well and everyone’s there to work, and the material’s really good.
SANDBERG: That’s amazing. I mean, and that’s still a very stable experience, because I know that being in filmmaking, you’re going from one project to the next. I noticed you are producing a lot. In terms of things that are coming up, what seems like it’s coming next for you and what are you most excited about?
MINGHELLA: I’m excited about a lot of stuff we’re doing. We’re producing this Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie that Jamie Bell and Margaret Qualley are going to do. Jonathan Entwistle is directing it. It’s going to be a fun one. But we’re developing a bunch of stuff. I think the reality is that I’m just a big, fat, movie nerd and I like working in different capacities, because they all feel completely different and they all exercise completely different parts of your brain. I am a little bit of a workaholic, so I tend to like a lot on my plate. And we’re lucky right now that we have some stuff that’s actually happening.
SANDBERG: Lucky for us, too, because we get to watch it. Good luck with those, and I hope people keep going to the theater to see Spiral. It seems like a really fun reason to go back to the movie. It’s like having a nice old-fashioned flasher flick.
MINGHELLA: Hell, yeah. I’m with you, man.