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Interview: James Gray on ‘Ad Astra’

by THN

James Gray first met his Ad Astra star Brad Pitt at the Sundance Film Festival in 1995. His debut feature, Little Odessa, had played there on a road that started at the Venice Film Festival in 1994, and Pitt responded instantly to it, setting up a meeting with Gray that, while it took more than 20 years to bear collaborative fruit, nevertheless resulted in a friendship that endures to this day.

Gray’s films have always dealt with the depth of human character, and he has been a magnet for acting talent like Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, Tim Roth, Vanessa Redgrave, Jeremy Renner, and Marion Cotillard.

Each of his films has premiered at prestigious international film festivals like Cannes and New York Film Festival, but Ad Astra is his first to return him to Venice, where his career began with that 1994 premiere of Little Odessa. Ad Astra is a project he had been developing for nearly a decade. The story follows an astronaut on a mission to find his lost father in the farthest reaches of our solar system.

Pitt plays Major Roy McBride, whose dreams of the stars come from the legendary astronaut his father (Tommy Lee Jones) represented. Missing in space since Roy was 16, and presumed dead, Roy receives word that, in fact, his father might be alive, and responsible for energy attacks that are crippling Earth’s infrastructure. He must journey through the solar system to learn the truth.

The movie was coming together as Gray was working to finish The Lost City Of Z, his previous film, which marked his first collaboration with Pitt, who produced it through his company Plan B. It was during the editing process on The Lost City Of Z, Gray says, speaking shortly before the Venice premiere of Ad Astra, that he and Pitt started to discuss a reteaming that would cast Pitt as the star of one of Gray’s movies for the first time.

What were the seeds of the idea for AD ASTRA?

In somewhere around 2011, I had read about the first splitting of the atom, which was under the grandstand at Stagg Field in Chicago. When they did the experiment, there was the announcement that there was a 99% chance that all known matter in the universe would not be destroyed. In other words, a 1% chance it would be destroyed. The same thing goes for the first test of the nuclear bomb in New Mexico, where Enrico Fermi announced that he had some concerns that there was a 90% chance, in that case, that the entire southwest of the United States would not be destroyed if they did it. Of course, they wind up doing these experiments anyway.

I thought that was horrifying. What does it mean if somebody goes out in deep space, all of a sudden stops caring about the Earth, and starts doing risky experiments? Now, that didn’t wind up, really, in the movie, but that was the beginning of me thinking about something like that.

The film also explores the loneliness of space. Where did those ideas come from?

I had read about the Mars mission that they’re planning for 2033. They had started to talk about how they need people who are going to be very comfortable sitting in close quarters with each other in a capsule for a year and a half. How they were seeking out people with a schizoid personality disorder as the perfect candidates. They asked for people who were comfortable with limited social interaction. They didn’t say, “We’re looking for people with mild Asperger’s syndrome,” but that’s basically what they’re saying.

You can understand why. Because a “normal” person – in quote marks – who’s in an area that’s considerably smaller than an average room for a year and a half? There are many people who believe that solitary confinement is a worse punishment than the death penalty. That, by yourself, you start to hear multiple voices. Your grasp of reality is tenuous at best. That’s really going to be the condition of that kind of space travel, which we try to depict in the film. This fact alone I thought was just incredible.

I went back, and I remember not too long after that looking at Neil Armstrong’s initial comments after he was released from quarantine when he arrived back from the Moon. It was a cold kind of language he used. “The system had a thrust of capability, which was commensurate with…” you know, this kind of language. This is a person who was the major participant in what I can say with fair confidence is both the greatest achievement in the history of human beings, but also the weirdest. I mean, he was walking on another celestial body, and he was totally incapable of digesting or elucidating upon its more metaphysical aspects.

I found that very paradoxical, and then I thought, Well, that’s a great subject for a movie. I wondered if Kubrick had thought about this, because he was always ahead of everybody anyway, in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY with Keir Dullea, but that’s not what that movie ultimately is about. It’s more of a myth of the gods movie, which is interesting in and of itself. I just thought this was kind of worth exploring. That the people who go furthest are the ones least able to process it emotionally and to process what it actually means.

You go to an extreme with Roy McBride, who we’re told doesn’t get fazed by pressure, and is totally calm and collected. Do you think it’s just an inevitability that people will unravel?

I kind of think that’s true. Unless you’re talking about someone who is so disconnected that it’s almost like having an automaton make the trip. And I mean, what’s the point if it’s somebody who can’t really make any sense of the journey they’ve been on?

You know, that wasn’t true with all of the astronauts that went to the Moon. The interesting thing is the difference between our perception of the Earth; if you’re orbiting 200 miles above the surface, where the Earth is still your primary form of reference, versus going to the Moon, where the Earth becomes a small globe.

And that’s only the Moon. If you go to Mars, what does that mean? If you go to Neptune, where the Earth becomes almost invisible and the sun looks almost like a star, that would be devastating.

Your relationship with Brad Pitt as a producer goes back a while. How long have you wanted to work with him as an actor?

After I’d done TWO LOVERS – so that would have been 2008 – Brad’s company Plan B sent me the galleys for THE LOST CITY OF Z, just before it was published. I read it and thought it was fantastic. I have absolutely no idea, by the way, why they sent me that book, though I’m eternally grateful that they sent it to me. That took a long time to get made, but I stayed in their orbit, and they stayed in mine.

I had long wanted to work with Brad. He had introduced himself to me after the Sundance Film Festival in 1995, so I’ve known him for a very long time. He saw Little Odessa there and loved it. He sought me out, which was wonderful. Really, I was very grateful for that.

When did you alight on the idea that this would be the project to work with him?

I had started on the movie in 2011, only I had just been picturing one of the Mercury astronauts. One of those Air Force guys like John Glenn, or Alan Shepard, one of those type of people. Ironically, I toyed with the idea of trying to get FIRST MAN, the James Hansen biography of Neil Armstrong, made. The rights had already been bought, and ultimately, I think that Damien Chazelle did a beautiful job with that movie. This became something very different, obviously, but as the basis, I had also read about Neil Armstrong, and I found him to be very interesting.

After I was finished with THE LOST CITY OF Z, I screened it for Brad, and he really loved the movie, and he said, “What do you want to do next?” I said, “Well, why don’t we do AD ASTRA?” He said, “Sure, let’s do it,” which was great. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t believe he’d actually do it until I was on the set with him the first day.

Why did you think it should be him?

The short way to put it would be… In order to attempt some kind of subversion, you have to start with the myth. You have to have something to subvert. I think he brings the assumption of the all-American masculinity. In some ways, that idea is very toxic, but the truth is, that’s not Brad. He does not hide his emotions or vulnerability.

I think those notions have had very harmful effects on our culture, and it’s been very bad for boys. I have two boys of my own, and it’s very hard to not see them, because of peer pressure, slip into what we might call these traditional roles of masculinity. That can be very damaging for their souls. I wanted to examine that a little bit.

The only way to do that is to actually have an iconic figure in the lead. Because then, if you’re exploring the toxic masculinity and you’re trying to do it where you know the star of your movie is all right, it becomes a very powerful choice. Brad got that. He understood that immediately.

What did you make of what he brought to the role?

He’s a superb actor. I mean, it’s strange, it’s not something that people think about when they think of him, because he’s such a movie star kind of guy, but he has tremendous capabilities. One of the things that he’s great at is a total willingness to be vulnerable, and he has no fear of that.

The only person he can really be honest with in this movie is a computer. With other people, he has the guard up. I suppose that with Ruth Negga, it’s the one time that he at least begins to open up. But even there, he’s still very guarded.

Of course, you never know what people are going to say about your movie, but I do not think that just because the character is supposed to be cold – or not cold, but fearful of intimacy – that it means the actor is cold, and it doesn’t mean the movie is cold either. REMAINS OF THE DAY, I think is a beautiful movie. I don’t think it’s a cold movie at all. He is incredibly repressed, but that doesn’t mean that the movie is not acknowledging that tremendous well of emotion under the surface. That’s really what we were trying to pursue.

AD ASTRA is available to own on 4K Ultra HD™, Blu-ray™, DVD & VOD now!

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