Adaptations are nearly always a tricky prospect as the filmmaker needs to both balance a fealty to the prose and their own cinematic perspective, but few authors have had a more tumultuous history with adaptation than Philip Roth. One of the titans of 20th and 21st century, Roth’s singular voice is mired in layers of tonal and philosophical contradictions that have forced filmmakers to either smooth out his thorny narratives – or worse, overload the narrative in an attempt to capture all of the complexities.
One of two Roth adaptations this year, Indignation, is the rare adaptation that finds harmony between the spirit of the source material and its own directorial voice. Helmed with clarity and emotional directness by first-time director and long time industry professional, James Schamus, Indignation is the love story of two college age students in the 50s (Logan Lerman and Sarah Gadon) who bond together as cultural radicals, and subsequently, shape each others futures. It’s an intimate period piece of social commentary, but also a story that feels bracingly relevant as both of these characters run headlong into the absurdities of society like war, ideological facism, and an obsession with female purity.
As the existentially conflicted, passively passionate Marcus, Lerman gives one of the best performances of his career, while Gadon’s performance is nearly as strong and twice as difficult as Olivia, a young women who feels the world’s expectations crushing her will to live. In time for the film’s home video release, we had the opportunity to speak to Lerman and Gadon about the difficulties of portraying an honest relationship, playing an unlikable character, and that epic scene with the Dean.
The Film Stage: The Perks of Being A Wallflower often gets lumped as a coming-of-age film. Indignation gets lumped as a coming-of-age film. But without getting spoiler-y for the readers, both these films are also comparable as stories about characters that are haunted by the specter of death. How did you play that feeling, and these two roles differently – a contemporary high school student vs. a 1950s college student?
Logan Lerman: They’re very different to me. They’re very different characters and perspectives on the scenes. Their intentions and the way that they think are very different. But I guess that they are lumped together into that category, but I think that just has to do with my age and what’s available for people my age. There’s a lot of coming-of-age stories for young men, and I guess that’s just kind of a general brand for the time period and this life. It’s kind of always going to be a coming-of-age story when you’re playing someone around 18 or 19 years old.
The main character of Indignation, Marcus, especially, is a very different character from a mainstream film. True to Philip Roth’s authorial voice, he’s not entirely likable, or entirely accessible. Was that a challenge to portray?
Lerman: I love that he’s complicated. I love the fact that it can be a conversation whether or not you like him or dislike him. He’s a complex character, and I don’t need to like him as an audience member in order to find him interesting. The fact is that he’s fascinating to me as an audience member. I read a script, and I just imagine him sitting in a theater watching a movie, and I was interested in this guy. And I didn’t care if he was unlikable at moments. I kind of find that interesting than just the likable sweetheart.
There’s a real sense of authenticity and messiness to the relationship between your character and Sarah Gadon’s character, Olivia, in the film that feels both rooted in ’50s mores, but also deeply modern. How did you two find a balance between the complexities of that relationship and showing the time period?
Lerman: I don’t know. I think that I just try, and it sounds really pretentious to say it, but it’s just honest. I just try to understand their perspectives in every moment, every moment that they’re together, and just try to bring truth to it, and understand it. Therefore, it becomes honest, and maybe, you’ll believe it. I wasn’t really trying to make it relatable to a modern audience, or something like that. I was just trying to respect the material because it was so strong and beautifully written, but also just trying to understand Marcus’ perspective in those situations because it differs from what I could wrap my mind around, and how I would feel, so I just wanted to understand him.
Sarah Gadon: I think that’s the thing. I think that as complex and as shaped by the time that the story is, the actions and the writing are very clean, and that’s “first love.” And your first love is messy, and your first love is not perfect. And often you’re experiencing the intensity of all these feelings, but you don’t necessarily have the tools or the ability to express yourself properly. What I love about the added element of the ’50s is that there’s also this kind of silence. There’s so much in the script that I love that is unsaid. There’s so many things that are implicated that are never overtly said. And I think that’s kind of what makes their situation even that much more difficult.
Related to that, the narrative keeps you separated for a long period of time — it seems like weeks and months have gone by where the characters haven’t talked. Maybe you’ve sent letters or something like that, but I think there’s a really palpable sense of chemistry and evolution. Logistically, did you both film those major scenes together around the same time, and specifically, how did you two try to make that relationship feel like it was evolving in real-time?
Lerman: To answer the first part of your question: no. The schedule was dictated by availability and budgeting and all that. It’s not like we could shoot it in an order that would be best for us as actors. It was: what location is available, and what can we do for this period of time, and it worked like that pretty much. In terms of the other part of the question, I guess it’s just finding truth in the moments, and just trying to be honest about it all. It lives or dies in the writing, and it’s about respecting the scenes. I came onboard because I respected the script so much, and as long as I tried to bring truth to the perspective, and the words and the relationship, then I feel like hopefully it will work on screen. But at the same time, I never know what’s going to work. Therefore, you need to explore several different options or takes on moments because there’s not one way to interpret a moment, or to tackle a line, scene or an interaction. There’s going to be different ways or intentions you can come up with as an actor or a director. And I think it’s important to explore as many options as you can within the time period you have to shoot it so that when James [Schamus] is in the editing room, he can figure out which version of it works the best for the chemistry to feel real. I never really know what’s going to work, but I just want to explore as much as I can when working and respecting the material.
Going along with that chemistry, Olivia’s character is so layered in the way that she reflects the inability to talk about things like mental illness, sexism, and gender expectations in the ’50s. She has this moment where she says, “all this calm, all this poise, is hiding all these emotions.” How did you approach bringing all these qualities into the performance?
Gadon: Well, it’s interesting because Olivia and Marcus are definitely the outsiders of this story, and they find each other. And they’re both kind of bumping up against the ideology of the time. They kind of, can’t assimilate, can’t fit in, and it proves fatal for both of them. So for them, it was going to war. If you couldn’t fit in, if you couldn’t make it in college, then you had to go to war. And ultimately, you might die. And I think for women, there was this same kind of pressure for conformity. And if you couldn’t cope with that, or you couldn’t assimilate to that, then you were institutionalized. I think that the outcome for men and women – the threat for conformity – was probably just as strong. I think James really felt that Olivia was kind of created with Sylvia Plath in mind. And you know, Plath’s poetry and writing remains so popular because I think she really speaks to this kind of aspect and this kind of insight into feminine psyche that women still connect with. And I certainly still connect with. And when I was reading her material, and growing up, you feel like an outsider, and you can’t fit in. These are things that you still kind of go through today. And James also says a lot when he talks about the film, how today in America, bright young people are asking the same questions and bumping up against the same fanatical power structure. And what will the outcome be for them? So, I think that as much as it is another time, there are things about that time that are not so dissimilar from where we’re at right now.
One of the most standout scenes in the film is the marathon dueling monologues scene between Marcus and the Dean [Tracy Letts]. How did you prepare and perform that scene? Was there any improv in that?
Lerman: There definitely was a little bit of improv, just because you can’t get it word for word, and the moments happen, and you just react. You’re just playing off of each other. Most of it was on the page. It’s not like I threw curveballs at Tracy and stuff like that [laughs], but sometimes they would pop up. It’s in the rhythm of the scene and the moment. You’re listening, and things are happening, and something feels right. It’s instinct and feeling. But it was a challenging scene to approach, and filming it was crazy because we would do the takes all the way through. We would do 20-minute takes each time, and it was just exhausting – emotionally exhausting, and trying to stay sharp and remembering all the specific references. There’s certain things I couldn’t improvise like when i’m quoting specific passages from Bertrand Russell’s “Why I Am Not A Christian.” You have to quote it precisely.
Gadon: Did you collapse after?
Lerman: What happened to me afterwards?
Gadon: Do you remember, do you have any memory?
Lerman: I do, I felt a great relief. And then I was like, oh shit, we have to do this next. The script is filled with challenging scenes. It’s not just that scene, and I think I went out with the guys – the camera dudes, the crew – and had a shot or two of whiskey, and went back home and started working again. And that was about it. Here’s the moment where I can reward myself for this. Now on to the next obstacle. Let’s figure out how to get through this one. It was a challenging moment, but everything feels a little bit easier now. It’s never going to be as dense and as hard to memorize as that.
I know every experience with a director is totally different, but the one thing about Schamus is that he comes from a kind of different perspective in the sense that he was previously a buyer and on the distribution side of the industry. Did you get a sense that he brought a different perspective or that he approaches the process in a significantly different way?
Lerman: No, he approaches it like a seasoned professional who really knows production through and through, and how to navigate through challenging decision making. He’s been through it many times with other filmmakers. The difference is that, and these are his own words: instead of asking someone else permission for what they want to do, he was the guy who made the decision. I think he really enjoyed being in that position. I didn’t know him before this movie personally, but he was having so much fun. He just loved directing and being on set and guiding these moments, and shooting these scenes. He was always the writer who was giving ideas to the filmmaker, or the studio executive. He was the collaborator, but never the painter. He was never the guy making the piece and guiding the project. I just think he had so much fun exploring these moments having these moments that he’s lived with for quite some time.
Gadon: Yeah, he’s really well-researched and extremely well-prepared.
Lerman: There’s just a smile on his face the whole time. I don’t know what he was like in his other jobs, or at other points in his life, but it seemed as though he was just happy, just really happy to be doing what he was doing.
Gadon: Didn’t he wear his bowtie on set?
Lerman: On occasion, he’d wear his bowtie. That’s his signature look. And his blue jacket.
Gadon: And his little cap. He’s adorable, what more do you want? [Laughs]
Lerman: He has his brand and he has his look.
Indignation is now available on Blu-ray and Digital HD.