ABOVE: NOLAN GERARD FUNK. PHOTO COURTESY OF STEPHEN BUSKEN.
With a resume that includes a recurring part on Glee, a stint in Bye, Bye Birdie on Broadway, and the made-for-TV musical Spectacular!, Nolan Gerard Funk has played his fair share of singing, dancing, strictly PG teenagers.
Offsetting these clean-cut roles, however, are the gritty film projects the 27-year-old Canadian actor has taken on as of late. This summer, Funk starred in Evidence, an independent found-footage-style horror film with Stephen Moyer. In September, he’ll play a gun-wielding religious mercenary alongside Vin Diesel in the latest Riddick installment.
But his most mature turn comes with The Canyons, the much-discussed film that co-stars Lindsay Lohan and porn’s It Boy James Deen, and features a cameo by Gus Van Sant. Directed by Paul Schrader, best known as the scribe of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and written by Bret Easton Ellis (American Psycho), The Canyons presents a group of young and apathetic Los Angeles denizens lying and manipulating one another, culminating in lethal consequences. In the erotic thriller, Funk plays Ryan, the struggling actor who gets entangled in an affair with actress Tara (Lohan). Tara’s current boyfriend Christian, a ruthless movie producer by way of a trust fund, sets off into a violent pursuit of revenge upon learning of her infidelity.
Before attending the New York premiere of The Canyons last Monday, Funk visited Interview’s offices to talk about his experience on set, being a real-life underdog, and his aspirations as an actor.
JAVY RODRIGUEZ: What about the script made this a project you wanted to pursue?
NOLAN GERARD FUNK: I knew who the writer was. I knew that this was a script that I felt was for a generation of 20-somethings. Essentially, this film is distilling a very specific side of Los Angeles. The movie is fashion. It’s style. It’s its own thing, and you get that by the rhythm of the way that Bret writes. I just knew that it would be something that would be talked about. I didn’t realize that it was going to end up in tabloids, and that’s the least interesting part of this film to me.
RODRIGUEZ: What were your initial thoughts on your character, Ryan?
FUNK: When I first read the script, my initial instinct gravitated towards the role of Christian because I like playing bad guys. But when I read the script, it was actually Bret who pointed out to me that my character is the one that has the real arc in the film. That first frame of the film is the wholesome guy and then you kind of see him go into the depths of his own obsessions and his own moral ambiguity: How far is this character willing to go to get this girl? How far is he willing to get the career he wants? I think he likes to play with fire. He keeps taking pieces of who he thought he was and just changes. This character, though I think he starts out with a strong moral compass, ends up negotiating who he is throughout the film. It would have been a lot easier for me to play the authoritative Christian. But to be Ryan, the one who isn’t winning, is more challenging for me because I like to be a boss.
RODRIGUEZ: Looking at you in contrast to Tara and Christian, I thought Ryan was going to be the good guy, but he also does some morally questionable things. Were you nonetheless able to relate to Ryan?
FUNK: [laughs] It was one of those things where I just got him. I know what it’s like to pine for someone. I know what it’s like to want a career as an actor. Like Ryan, I was the one who I felt like I had to prove myself. Nobody on the team was really familiar with any of my prior work, and that became evident in the way I was treated throughout the experience. That fed the sort of outcast, vulnerable side of me, but also the part of me that wanted to prove myself. There’s a hunger to Ryan, and I had that throughout the experience.
RODRIGUEZ: Were you treated differently than the other actors?
FUNK: Yeah. I did feel like a bit of an outsider. There were the cool kids, and I was sort of the outcast. I certainly didn’t get a lot of validation from Paul during shooting, which sometimes you get from directors and sometimes you don’t. I was so invested in the character that I didn’t necessarily need it, but with all the tabloid [articles] that came out after and the way that it’s [been] promoted, I felt a little bit on the outside. But again, that only helped me fuel my performance. Some of the experience felt a little method to me—it felt like life is really imitating art right now.
RODRIGUEZ: Did you have to shake off what happened during the day when you went home every night?
FUNK: There were a few specific days where I ate a lot of cake after work. [laughs] Take that however you want.
RODRIGUEZ: Was there a point during production, which was documented in the New York Times Magazine piece, or when you found out that you’d be working with James Deen and Lindsay Lohan, who are both controversial people, that you got nervous? Did you ever think to yourself, “What did I get myself into?”
FUNK: My biggest fantasy as an actor is to be in situations that make me uncomfortable and force me out of my comfort zone. I didn’t know who was going to playing Tara or Christian when I was testing for this. I had no idea. I knew they were considering Lindsay and that I would potentially have to test with Lindsay. I just really focused on my character. Any shenanigans going off-screen, I just made it fuel my work. I felt like I was given the gift of uncomfortable circumstances that only activated more of this feeling of vulnerability in Ryan, while also needing to fight his way through it. We were shooting without permits. There were scenes where there’s a shopkeeper yelling at me off-camera and I’m pretending I don’t hear it as I’m putting my card into an ATM machine. There was a lot going on.
RODRIGUEZ: In other interviews, you’ve described it as guerilla filmmaking.
FUNK: Yeah, it’s definitely guerilla filmmaking with an iconic director.
RODRIGUEZ: What was the first scene that you shot?
FUNK: The very first thing we shot was the thong scene at the model casting. I felt like a merman. Paul was very insistent on it. I thought about it: Okay, the point of the scene is that he is so messed up about this girl that he’s numb—he doesn’t even notice what he’s wearing. That was sort of I think the satire that Paul was going for in that scene. Not only did he know I was uncomfortable with it, but he decided to make that the very first shot of the film, which will tell you a little bit of how he works. Halfway through shooting Paul was like, “Okay, so Nolan, we’re going to start on a shot of your package and we’re going to tilt up to your face.” He said it to me in his jovial, kind, really just sweet, fatherly manner. I’m like, “Yeah! Okay, sure! Richard Gere! American Gigolo! Why not?” You just can’t say no. Then afterwards you get home and you call your friend: “They just did a shot of my package today, but… at least it was covered.”
RODRIGUEZ: I loved one scene in particular where you’re begging Lindsay’s character to come back to you—your characters’ back and forth. I felt like there’s something at stake.
FUNK: Like it was a real couple.
RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, like you really wanted her. Can you describe your dynamic with Lindsay behind the scenes?
FUNK: I know the whole thing where Lindsay had crossed out my name on her script was documented. It was just my name. The reporter was wrong about James’ name. And it said “Nolan Gerard Funk,” it was crossed out, and it said “No” with a list of other actors. Had I not really believed in the way that I wanted to play this character, maybe I would’ve gotten upset. But to me, it just fueled the challenge of getting this girl.
RODRIGUEZ: Because then that was another parallel you had with Ryan.
FUNK: Exactly. I think there was a little bit of testing going on at that table read, and there was a moment where she challenged me a little bit, but I chose in that moment that I would be a man and stick up for myself, and I think she respected that. All I know is the next day, when we had rehearsal after the table read, her tune had completely changed with me. She was really excited, and we even talked about maybe even having more scenes together in the film. I think people change their minds all the time, so I don’t really take it personally that she didn’t want me initially in the film. Of course she’s going to want to work with her friends or work with actors whose work she’s more familiar with. She didn’t see me on Broadway, or she hasn’t read with me before for a film, so she really didn’t know what I was about as an actor. But I think throughout the table reads, hopefully she saw whatever value I would bring to the project and she just really changed her mind. I think her resistance to initially casting me based on whatever preconceived notions she had and me sort of having that initial experience of feeling as though she didn’t want me, both of those fueled the dynamics. Because her tune completely changed and then we ended up having a really strong chemistry onscreen between these two people. It was really important that there’d be something deeper going on than two narcissists in a relationship.
RODRIGUEZ: Did you learn anything on set?
FUNK: I learned that nothing means anything—just like how fast Lindsay’s tune changed with me, because we have a great rapport now. If you take anything on, or if anything becomes too personal to you, everything’s changing. One moment someone’s going to think you’re brilliant, and then the next moment someone’s going to think you’re shit. I feel like after that experience, I started letting stuff slide off me a little easier. At the time, when I was doing The Canyons, believe me: there was a lot going through my head and I was feeling a lot. But looking back on it now, it’s just hilarious to me. I just find it funny.
RODRIGUEZ: You play preppy teens on Glee and MTV’s Awkward, yet in movies you’re these rugged, tormented men. Is this divide deliberate?
FUNK: [laughs] I think it is deliberate. I think it would get really boring just playing one character all the time, and I think there’s obviously amazing movie stars out there that do it really well, but I’m grateful for the opportunities that I’ve had to stay under the radar enough that people will believe me in such contrasting characters. The actors that I admire are able to do that. I’m a huge fan of [Michael] Fassbender, how he does a great movie like Shame, but then he’ll also do a commercial film. I love the idea of renaissance. If my career is like painting a canvas, I want to have as many different colors in there as I can.
THE CANYONS IS AVAILABLE VIA VIDEO ON DEMAND AND IN SELECT THEATERS