Interview: Andrew Polk on ‘Armageddon Time’, Character Research and Self-Tapes
“I do a lot of preparation, an enormous amount of preparation for each self-tape… I only do one or two takes usually… My experience is that the more takes you do, if you try to get it perfect, it ends up kind of sucking the life out of it.” – Andrew Polk
In our last interview with Andrew Polk, he was on Broadway in the fantastic show, The Band’s Visit. Since then his calendar has been full with roles in both television and film, including his latest role in James Gray‘s Armageddon Time.
The film, based on Gray’s childhood, is a coming-of-age story about two boys (one black, the other white) and the friendship they forge. With a fantastic cast (Jeremy Strong, Anne Hathaway and Anthony Hopkins), Polk, who plays the boys teacher, is in some great company.
In this interview, Polk talks about the film, working with James Gray and the research he did for his role. He also talks about why he likes self-tapes, and if he has any plans to return to the stage. These are edited excerpts from that conversation. For the full interview, check out the video below or watch it on YouTube.
This cast and director… nice company to be in.
Andrew Polk: I mean, James Gray. First of all, James Gray is a dream to work with. It was such a great experience on all levels and, yes, a great cast; Anthony Hopkins, Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong. I’d never heard of them, but I hear they’re very good. No, they’re great. They’re amazing.
Your character was, or is, a real person?
Andrew Polk: Yes. I play Mr. Turkeltaub and it sounds like a made up name, but it’s not. It actually was a real guy. He was a teacher in a public school around 1980, and he taught like 42 sixth grade kids all by himself with no assistance. And he taught every subject.
A lot of the movie and what I had to do takes place in PS 173 in Queens. And I have a very dear friend, Amy Ryan, who I know went to school in Queens. So, I just called her out of the blue, just off chance. I said, “Listen, in the script it says PS 173. Is there any chance you went to this school?” She said, “Yeah, that’s my school.” And I went, “Okay, this is really a shot in the dark, but did you happen to have a teacher named Mr. Turkeltaub?” She said, “Yeah, that was my teacher.” And, then she sent me a picture of her with a lot of children, and Mr. Turkeltaub standing there with a tie all put together and looking a little tense. That was amazing.
I did a little deeper dive and sort of asked a lot of questions of her and who she knew that knew him, and it really helped me understand him and sort of mesh him with what I was seeing with the role.
I would imagine playing somebody real, it gives you a certain sense of responsibility to get things right.
Andrew Polk: Yes and no. I mean, yes, I wanted to honor that he was a real person. But you know, I had lot conversations with James Gray about it, and he was less interested in me, like doing some kind of imitation of him and more interested in the general feeling of him and what he had written about him, which in my mind was a person ready to retire, but doing the best he could in a really tough situation where you’re being asked to teach 42 kids. Integration is just newly happening in that school, and you’re having to deal with that. I empathize with him, trying to do as best he possibly could in that situation, which isn’t very good, it turns out.
When you start doing your research, because he was a real person, did you do anything differently in your preparation?
Andrew Polk: I asked the questions, I found out what I could find out about him, and I was… You know, it’s based on James Gray’s life, this movie, and I had the best resource available, which was James Gray himself. And I would ask him questions and that really was a great part of my preparation.
A lot of crazy things happen in this movie, and you are really trying to get behind the situation. I remember asking, “Seriously, did this happen?” He’s like, “This happened to me. Okay, this isn’t made up.” He’s like, “This is my life.”
So, to have that resource right there was invaluable.
You worked with a pair of talented kids, Banks Repeta and Jaylin Webb. Being a father, did that help you in any way to maybe relate to them as an authority figure?
Andrew Polk: Well, you know absolutely. First of all, those kids, Jaylin and Banks, are absolutely brilliant young actors. They were unbelievable professionals and they also had to deal with something quite hard, and so did we. But yes, I did. I did feel like they were my kids by the end of the shoot, they were like very similar to my kids. We would joke around and I would get annoyed with them… Sometimes I had to keep discipline on the set, not just with them, but with the other 40 kids.
Were there actually 42 kids on set?
Andrew Polk: Yeah. People are like, “Wow, you’re in a movie with Anthony Hopkins and Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, what’s that like?” I’m like, “Well, I spent a month with 42 kids, is what happened.” I’m sure working with Anthony Hopkins is great. I just didn’t do it this time, although we are in the same movie.
You kind of mentioned this a little bit, but how was it working with James Gray?
Andrew Polk: A dream. A dream in every sense of the word. I had never worked with anybody who gave me personally so much freedom. I felt so trusted by anybody. And he’s clearly a genius behind the camera.
I noticed he would come to the day and then he would see what we were doing and he would change shots right there and create absolutely new shots that weren’t planned, sort of based on what we were doing because he had such a technical grasp of his craft. It was just magical working with him.
I remember there was a time, early on when I asked if I could change a line, just one word. And he said, “Alright. Say what you want, I don’t care.” He was like, “I know the writer.” And I did. I was able to be loose and follow my instincts. And he seemed really happy with that. And we did it a million different ways and it was delightful really. He makes you a better actor, clearly.
And he’s always sort of pushing for: what is the truth? Not what is a funny line. He was really always pushing all of us for, “Let’s just, if we can get to the truth here, then I’m happy.” Which was really great.
I want to ask you about your audition. Was this in person or a self-tape?
Andrew Polk: Oh, it was all self-tape. And I don’t know if it was because I was mad at my kids that day, but something just opened up and I just had a really good self-tape, I have to say. Just because I very easily was able to relate to the character. And I felt like I wasn’t even acting, I felt like I was just being him. So, I’m glad that it was jiving with how James Gray saw it too.
How do you like doing self-tapes?
Andrew Polk: Well, there’s a lot of things to recommend about it. You have a lot of control over what you’re doing, and I think we’re all sort of learning about this new thing as we go along. I don’t miss having to be in a waiting room with a bunch of other nervous actors and all the neurosis that comes with that.
You know, I think there is a danger in living in your own bubble, when you are self-taping, where you are just acting for yourself and looking at yourself acting and it’s a little disconnected from other people. So, I do miss the contact with other people.
But in general, I enjoy it. I feel quite relaxed in front of the camera now at home. And it’s better than the other thing actually.
Are you the kind of person who tried to be a perfectionist and wants to do it a million times?
Andrew Polk: No, I’ve learned that for me that that’s not productive. I do a lot of preparation, an enormous amount of preparation for each self-tape. But when I tape, I only do one or two takes usually. And I know pretty much what feels right. My experience is that the more takes you do, if you try to get it perfect, it ends up kind of sucking the life out of it.
I think there’s an urge to try to make a perfect little, short film when you are self-taping. I think that I’ve stopped doing that, because I think of it as audition. I think it should look like an audition. You should be seen, you should be heard, but it should be alive. And hopefully that is working for me. I think it is. But I do a lot of preparation beforehand.
I’ve read something about Anthony Hopkins where he said something similar. When you see this movie, he’s so loose and he’s so grounded and present. I think he’s phenomenal. And he says he does a lot of preparation before he can get to that point. Which I found really interesting. I think that there’s something to that.
What you said about doing more than two takes sucks the life out of it, that kind of struck a chord with me.
Andrew Polk: Well, I mean, I’ve had experienced on certain sets of television where they… Certain productions love to shoot the hell out of their show. Like, they’ll do it from every angle. They’ll do four different kinds of close-ups. They’ll do all this coverage. And so, you’re doing a scene for 13 hours and by the end of the day, you don’t know what you’re saying.
It’s really a challenge to try to keep that fresh and I think it’s a bit of a microcosm of that experience, self-taping. If you’re trying to make it perfect, there is no perfect. Even when you mess up your words, I don’t think it matters as much as being present and bringing life and with something actually occurring in the scene. So yeah, that is sort of where I’m at with that.
Any chance you’re going to do anything on stage soon?
Andrew Polk: Wow. I would love to. It’s been so much film and TV stuff, but nothing really is in the works. Just movies that I’ve done are coming out and yeah, no, not at the moment.
Plus, with that, you’ve got to strike while that iron is hot.
Andrew Polk: I mean, yeah. I love the work I’m doing now but The Band’s Visit, really set the bar pretty high for an experience on the stage. It was so great and it was basically one of my first musicals ever. And I was on Broadway. It felt like doing a play when you would sing every once in a while. I would love to do something again soon if it’s right.