“To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” – Oscar Wilde
Melrose Avenue, 2016. Graffiti murals set the stage for this trending hipster-themed fashion district in Los Angeles. Shoppers dressed like escaped 80’s background dancers from a hip-hop video wander the street, as a street artist pastes flashy posters to street lamps.
As I walk down the avenue past boutiques to my intended destination of a popular cafe for this interview, I see the subject of my inquiry materialize inside the cafe, sitting at a table. Garrett Clayton is one of the better-known Disney personalities. A shy, yet extremely intellectual lad who is sporting the white t-shirt from the photo shoot we just did together. Besides being an individual one can’t quickly forget after meeting, Garrett recently has come to fame for his work with James Franco and Christian Slater in the new film, King Cobra. King Cobra is an intense film about the tragic experience of one young man’s quest to find himself while working in the world of gay porn.
During our conversation about his own personal journey to find himself, his quest to establish himself in LA and the inner struggle he went through during the filming of King Cobra, I found it hard to connect this charming young man who was just showing me how to catch Pokemon with the aggressive porn montage at the opening of the film. It might be mark of a great actor that the person they are in reality is not the character they play on film. But it does lead to interesting chats as you try to separate the individual from the roles they play. It begs the question, as Oscar Wilde put it so elegantly, “Does art imitate life or does life imitate art?”
Garrett Clayton – King Cobra
Juatin Howard for Black Chalk – I watched your film…
Garrett Clayton – Oh, you watched it? What part? The whole thing or just the beginning of the film?
Black Chalk – Just the intro … I was a little uncomfortable to say the least. Especially now that we are having a real conversation, like normal intellectual people do.
Garrett Clayton – Did you get to the part where we…
Black Chalk – I think I had just enough time to see you and your co-star get into things. The opening sequence.
Garrett Clayton – The porn montage?
Black Chalk – Yes, and I’m not used to seeing those kinds of images and then immediately having to do a personal in-depth Q&A with the person afterwards. But let’s get on with it… King Cobra, first thoughts?
Garrett Clayton – Aggressive, wild, exciting.
Black Chalk – How did you grow as a person doing this film?
Garrett Clayton – When I first read it, I thought to myself, I am not doing this. As an actor to me it doesn’t matter if you are gay, straight or transgender. The only thing that matters, is can you do the character justice.
I don’t care about sexual orientation of the character. That has nothing to do with it. It is the role, how interesting it is, how many layers does it have. What is their journey, what experiences have they been through? I found after I have read this script, coming from Disney, this was a ‘make it or break it’ kind of thing. People will love it or hate it. It will be my showgirls or it will be my breakout hit, there is no middle ground here. I understood that. I had to take myself out of the fear and accept the opportunity. I thought about it, called my reps and said “Can I see any of the director’s past work?” They sent me the link for ‘I am Michael.’
That was when I realized the director, Justin Kelly, had a very fair hand. He could have demonized either character, he could have demonized anyone in the film. Yet he took an observer’s point of view. He gave the character a fullness, there are positives to this person and there are negatives to them. This is just their story. I really respected that. I thought he has a really good eye and he seems really smart. I called my reps and said, “I want to meet the director.” So they set up a meeting and we chatted about the characters. My big thing was that I understood about the sexuality, the nudity and the aggression that comes out during the film. Aggression might be the wrong word, I think it should be the exploration that comes out. That word has less of a negative connotation to it.
My thing is if there are nudity and sexual acts, these have to be there to serve the film, and I trusted that because I knew James Franco and Christian Slater were attached to the project. With me and Christian, we are having sex in this scene. It’s important for me to portray that he is trying to dominate me, trying to have control because I just did something with so-and-so that made him feel like he had no control over me. So he dominates me.
Black Chalk – You are talking about following the emotional reality of the story.
Garrett Clayton – Yes. There is a section we do, when I am in the shower and it’s right after the beginning. He says “Discover your sexuality right now.” So we are filming and there is an opaque shower door, I was really thinking to myself, “Oh, for the first time I feel free in my skin.” This is my body and I am kinda proud of it right now. It was something to discover. So for me, if that was justified, I won’t fight it. But I don’t believe in nudity for the sake of nudity. We have enough films like that.
Black Chalk – Real porn is an 80 billion dollar industry worldwide. There is plenty of access to those films if you want to see that.
Garrett Clayton – Even in regular films, but I am not mentioning any titles to avoid throwing people under the bus. But there are films I have seen that show so much flesh. They want to show a butt shot, they want to show a girl’s breast and it has no context in the story.
Black Chalk – You are saying it has to add to the narrative.
Garrett Clayton – You have to ask “What is this doing for the plot?” That is very important to me. You don’t need a shot of me getting up from the bed, going to piss in the middle of the night, just because you want to show a shot of my butt to sell more tickets. If the movie needs it, if it makes sense, only then is it going to happen.
Black Chalk – What are some things you learned as an individual doing this film? It is such an intense film. Whether it is about telling the story of a person who is struggling to come to terms with their sexual identity, or the story of his relationships to other individuals, this film speaks to our generation today, which doesn’t embrace sexual labels or boundaries. That being said, when you are an actor, you are a vessel, you are breathing life into a character. What were some things you learned from the experiences of doing this film?
Garrett Clayton – I don’t say this about every job, but I believe Justin made me a better actor. I always express myself in a big manner by the very way I move. I never realized that about myself before this job. There would be times when Justin would just say “Stop what you are doing and just be. You are here and the camera is there. You are fine.” I didn’t realize that I am someone that always tends to emote. I emote a lot more, I am very physical in the way I speak. It breathed a lot more into me and I learned about holding things internally. He really taught me how to do that without having to do anything. I thought that was a very interesting way to learn that.
Black Chalk – It sounds like the experience really connected you with your body. It built an awareness around each gesture in a sense.
Garrett Clayton – When I was in the Disney films, I was a very big character. I did a movie called ‘Don’t Hang Up.’ It was a thriller, slasher, kind of a take on 90s slasher films. Which is really fun. That character is a boisterous jock dude.
Black Chalk – They were all very physical.
Garrett Clayton – It was understandable that this was a tool I wasn’t used to using. I am naturally an expressive human being and that wasn’t what we were portraying in this film. I learned a lot of about that.
Black Chalk – What is an emotional lesson you gleaned from King Cobra?
Garrett Clayton – It made me a lot more aware of the way I speak. I think because it is such a touchy subject. You want to be proud of the film and you want to tell people to go see it. But you don’t want to over-saturate people with those things because it can look like you aren’t respecting that fact that this is a true story. It is a horrible thing that happened to these people. So it is a really big balance talking about it that I haven’t had to do with other movies. They were all either made up or fantastic light-hearted topics that you don’t have to watch about saying ‘Go watch it!’ This film is very intense and very real. A lot of people won’t expect me to have done something like this.
Black Chalk – You are a custodian of this story since it is a real story.
Garrett Clayton – I don’t know if this is another thing I learned about myself. Yes, I became aware of where my body was on camera, but I also learned not to muck up people’s perception of what we are doing. A lot of people can see this and be like ‘this is gross’ and say that we aren’t respecting the fact that someone has died.
Black Chalk – Let’s talk characters you’d like to play…
Garrett Clayton – Everyone wants to be in a Marvel movie!
Black Chalk – So you want to be a superhero?
Garrett Clayton – Or a super villain. I will take either.
Black Chalk – Tell me about your process. When you read a script, how do you connect with your character to breathe life into it?
Garrett Clayton – Sometimes you use substitution. It depends on the circumstance, it might be a family member. But it speaks to me because I went through something similar with a friend. Maybe you are with someone that doesn’t love you. I have a friend. I see they are with someone who doesn’t love them. I say “You are with someone who doesn’t love you the way you need to be loved.” Then that transfers.
Black Chalk – So you find an emotional resonance within yourself?
Garrett Clayton – Yes! I find similar situations that have happened in my life, or if it is hard to connect with a character I have to build up backstories for them. I go through the script. I do my beats. Thoughts between sentences. I do a bunch of ‘I am this, this and this.’ I like what my acting coach has done in the past, and I love using it. If the person is very aware of their surroundings, then ‘eyes like a hawk.’ You find yourself darting your eyes around.
If I have a hard time connecting, I will literally build a timeline for this person right until the moment of the story. So I create a thread of time. Like at 5, this is the first memory I have. Then I mark out 9, 11, 15, 21. A few will have to do with family, a few will have to do with friends. I will go through the script again and will write down all the characters, what they do for me and what I do for them. Like I might build up someone’s ego and they feel like I am making them feel secure. Maybe they feel like I am trying to tear them down, so then I am trying to do the same to them. It becomes about one upping each other.
Black Chalk – You are finding the chemistry between them.
Garrett Clayton – It is important to find out all those things. It is not easy. We call it the ‘bible’ for our script.
Black Chalk – Who is the hardest character you have played to connect with, and the easiest?
Garrett Clayton – You know I read a lot of scripts that I see myself in, but I don’t get those roles. I have played everything from a 60s Frankie Avalon to a sketchy gay porn star. I think when I was on The Fosters, in the beginning the character was like me in the drama club. But then the character took a turn for the worse and became totally a big dick. Halfway through my storyline he became a creepy bedroom dude, that is totally not me. No, no.
Black Chalk – What is the hardest character to connect with?
Garrett Clayton – It was Cobra. The similarities, the stem of what I found I could use was that of a person fighting for what they want. A young kid who got into a precarious situation. He tried to make the best of it. I think we have that choice in life. We all start somewhere and we have to carve our way of it.
Black Chalk – Sometimes when you are in darkness, you have to bring in your own light.
Garrett Clayton – I think when you are younger, you are much more impressionable. He got started when he was 17. It is hard to know who you can trust.
Black Chalk – You don’t even know who you are yet.
Garrett Clayton – Exactly. It was interesting.
Black Chalk – Your character seems to be innocent yet emotionally damaged.
Garrett Clayton – Maybe. I don’t know. Never met him. Justin wanted to keep that a little bit separate to respect him. When I first got it, I really wanted to meet him. But then I talked to Justin because I was very insistent that I wanted to meet him and asked all these questions. To get his speech pattern down, to find out how he acts around new people. I wanted to learn all these things. But Justin said he wanted it to be the person, yet not him. It is a very fine line between being someone and mocking them. I agreed with that. Because the plot line is so heavy we don’t want to add insult to injury if he is insulted by the film. You never know someone’s reaction about seeing a film about their own life, they can love it or hate it. Who knows. I agreed with that. I tried to build a person who was this character yet different. I didn’t want him to watch and feel like we are mocking him.
Black Chalk – Time for the fun, silly questions. Favorite travel destination?
Garrett Clayton – This will sound lame. But it is called Sandy Pines, my parents own a cabin up there and everybody drives golf carts. There is a lake all around the whole place, full of beaches, an ice cream shop and a general store. During the 4th of July, my grandparents have a pontoon we would all go out on it. The whole lake would be full of boats, with a island in the middle, where a guy who makes fireworks would set off all the ones he hadn’t sold that year. It would be the most mesmerizing fireworks show, because they would shoot off in all these different directions and become things you have never seen before. You would jump in the water and start swimming. It is magical!
Black Chalk – What is your favorite cocktail?
Garrett Clayton – Kettle soda.
Black Chalk – Favorite piece of fashion you are never without?
Garrett Clayton – My back pack!
Black Chalk – The place you haven’t been to yet, that you are dying to go to?
Garrett Clayton – I haven’t been to Paris yet.
Black Chalk – One thing you are looking forward to that you haven’t done yet?
Garrett Clayton – It is scary, but I want to try skydiving.
Black Chalk – What is one thing you want to share with the world, that you haven’t shared yet?
Garrett Clayton – There is a wonderful line from a play I was in called “God Looked Away.” I think people can be very impatient and judgmental. But I love this line “Have more sympathy for the wreckage we have become.”
Black Chalk – That is deep!
Garrett Clayton – Yes, but I love that line. I love that line. It is one of the most beautiful pieces of work I have gotten to do. It is a really, really beautiful play.