Exclusive Interview with Robert Sheehan and Ari Gold on The Song of Sway Lake

The Song of Sway lake follows a young jazz collector who plots to rob his wealthy grandmother of a rare ’78 record, but his plan is derailed when his accomplice falls for the glamorous matriarch. Robert Sheehan plays the accomplice, Nikolai, and he does so beautifully. You can check out the full review here.

Robert Sheehan is currently in New Zealand working on a Peter Jackson film, Mortal Engines, so I had the chance to speak with both director/writer Ari Gold and Robert Sheehan, who plays a very robust Nikolai in the movie, over the phone. From talking to the two of them, having seen the movies’ general beauty, and their great back and forth rapport, I can say that I definitely need the two to team up for another movie sometime in the future.

Robert: Ari, it’s so lovely to hear your droll voice.

 Ari: Lovely to hear yours as well, if only I could see your feet, then this would really be complete.

R: It would; if you want I can send you a picture.

Sorry, am I intruding on anything?

A: Yes of course, this has been going on for a very long time. [Laughs]

Well if you need me to step out at any time let me know! Robert, nice to finally speak to you. I spoke with Ari at the festival. I’ve heard you called a lot of names; what should I call you: Robert, Robbie, or Rob?

R: All three, all at once

Okay. [failed attempt]

R: You actually did that perfect, love.

Okay, that’s a lie, but now we can get started. My name’s Christian. I’m from Talk Nerdy with Us, and actually my first question is for Ari. I watched the film a few days ago, and it was like nothing I’ve seen at the festival so far. I noticed that the water in the film represents a lot of different things for each character; what made you want to create a film with such levels?

A: Well I have to admit that I started with a location, and instead of characters who intrigued me I had this idea of old music and old memories and this beautiful lake; but the deeper I got into it it was more about things that I personally dealt with too. I don’t think I realized how personal it was until I was deep into the process. This idea of frozen versus flowing water and frozen memory and nostalgia versus being present in life is something that I deal with every day, and I think for a long time in my life I was stuck in nostalgia and what if’s and moments of happiness come when a person is present. So the three central characters, Nikolai, who’s fixated on the perfect past that he’s missed by several decades, Ollie (Rory Culkin), who wants to erase the past because it causes him pain, and Charlie Sway, the matriarch who maybe had a wonderful past but she’s stuck in it because she’s also frozen. So all of this imagery circling around water and ice and the vinyl record became very personal for me, so the slush imagery is beautiful to look at and it has a spiritual and emotional resonance that was important to me as well. I wanted to communicate that to an audience in terms of three characters attempting to liberate themselves from that.

And Robbie, aside from Ari’s charm and everything, what made you come on to this project?

R: Funnily enough, I came on despite that. [Laughs] I came onto the role because I was twenty four, and they said do you want to go make a movie in upstate New York. I said “Fuck yeah, I do,” and that was my first reaction. Then I met Ari over Skype and just immediately had second thoughts, [Laughs] No, but really it seemed like a very exciting prospect at the time.

A: He called it his practice movie when he was working. He used it as a way of torturing us because he knew that we were lucky to have the meteor that is Sheehan gracing us with his light.

Ari, what made you go with Robert instead of a Russian actor for the role?

A: I talked about this during the Q and A at the premiere. I auditioned a lot of people for the role, including Russians and Americans, but Robbie was the only person that naturally had the spirit of the character who Nikoli was based on: my Russian director friend Sergei, who agreed when he saw Robbie that every other Russian guy that we found was just not as good as Robbie, and maybe there’s some kind of spiritual connection between Ireland and Russia, I don’t know. But Robbie has this bombastic flare that is so essential to counterpoint the Ollie Sway (Rory Culkin) character. No one else had even close a molecule of it, and Robbie had a supernova effect of that energy that I think even you can tell he has.

R: Yeah, sorry I’ve been so flaky getting me on the phone. Peter Jackson is a very demanding man and sometimes demands foot rubs early in the morning, and I’m the one with the most supple hands so he always asks for me. He just dips my hands in warm butter so sometimes I get caught up doing that.

A: But honestly, I think when Robbie used to joke about The Song of Sway Lake being his practice movie I think now being in a God-knows-how-many-millions-of-dollars Peter Jackson epic is proof that maybe it’s true; maybe he was practicing for his superstardom.

R: [Laughs]

Yeah so now you can say you had something to do with that.

A: I created him.

R: Yeah he did. He did. He made me more Russian than I’d ever planned to be. You know, I did a film last year where I played a Russian again.

A: Did I get credit for that?

R: Yes, you should at least get a special thanks, or perhaps someone should point their finger at you and go, “It’s his fault.” But no, I did that thing with Dennis Quaid.

A: That’s right. I didn’t realize you were playing a Russian.

R: A sort of semi-Russian from Siberia/northern Finland.

So do you have any difficulty now doing a Russian accent?

R: Well the second time around, Christian, I went a lot lighter with it, a lot more neutral. Because with this one everyone was doing something very light, but with Sway Lake we went full throttle, didn’t we Ari? For the Russian accent.

A: Because the man Nikolai is based off of, Sergei, he’s the kind of person who’s over the top with the general presentation of himself, and that’s one of the things he uses to have an effect on people. I don’t know if it’s intentional or not, but I certainly thought that for the character of Nikolai I thought that having someone who exaggerates his own, everything to get attention was right for the character. A nice thing that happens in the movie–maybe this has to do with the way we shot–Robbie settles into the Nikolai character over the course of the movie so that by the time we see him [as Nikolai] dancing this very intimate dance with the matriarch Charlie Sway, his pretense has left him. And I think that’s one of the things that makes this scene so moving is seeing his character go from someone that’s almost comic and unrooted, and by the end when he’s confessing that he’s playacting and doesn’t really know who he is in the world his guard is completely down. And I know that Mary Beth (Charlie Sway) felt that it was so lovely bringing the cast to that final dance is how intimate it became. She talked about how it felt like shooting the movie was the only thing she’s ever shot that’s had cameras that felt like a play, you know, the intimacy of  a cast getting deeper and deeper over rehearsing the course of a play. And that process sort of happened during the whole time we shot, and it really landed in those couple of days of the dance between the two.

Did you feel the same way Robbie?

R: Yeah, that scene was lovely because Mary Beth just danced me around the barn, and I completely surrendered to her and she just took charge as a matriarch would. It was beautiful, and I was completely lost in it; and then she kissed me and my legs turned into complete jelly. I thought I was going to fall over.

Yeah, the honesty came across on the screen. I told Ari I had to Google if Sway Lake was a real place or not.

R: That’s interesting! In fact, Ari, do you want to talk about how the script started out?

A: Yeah, a little secret that’s not a secret now but the original script did not have Sway Lake as a place yet. The Sway Family was there, but the lake was not. When we shot we hadn’t decided on what the name of the lake was going to be, and the song we thought we were going to use was a very well known song called “Begin the Beguine,” which now opens the movie. We had this idea that maybe it would be an obscure recording of a famous song that they find, and it was my brother Ethan who said, “What if you made the song unique to the lake and the film. That would make it all the more special.” I really was for quite a long time stressed that I made the wrong decision deciding to go for that because I didn’t know how it would be perceived, and actually I didn’t know until that screening a few nights ago. But the song and everything was performed so well that I had a lot of people, after the screening, asking about a place called Sway Lake and asking how I got access to this song from 1942. And they were so convinced in the reality of this place and the music that they thought it was a real place too. This costume designer I worked with one time called it “the blink,” where you have to see it one time and just know whether it’s real or not, and I just wasn’t sure whether a song recorded in the present day could sound like something from that era. Based on the audience reaction to the music we succeed on that, and that was very gratifying. I wasn’t sure if it was going to work. I was glad that the song that was in my mind when I wrote the movie, “Begin the Beguine” by Hutch, was able to open the movie so I was able to keep it in there.

Nice! I thought it played out well. Robbie, have you seen the finished product yet?

R: I have, or actually I don’t know if I have because you see the thing is, Christian, Ari has re-edited this movie about 900 times, so I saw a version about a year and a half ago, so I think it’s probably changed.

A: Yeah, it has changed a little bit.

R: That’s really cool that people believed that the song was real though. I would have thought that they would have heard it and then went, “Okay, so this is in a fictional world where they’ve created a song and the family and everything”.

A: That’s what I thought, and that was my fear; I wanted it to feel real, like as if you’re stumbling on a piece of history, and it’s been very gratifying that people are asking where it is. They’re asking me about this place.

R: You should just lie and say it’s real. Say that it’s up there, man, just go, “Yeah, we shot on this lake.”

A: I should be like ,“Yeah, you gotta know the Sways in order to get in. Sorry.”

R: You could build a whole history, like say it was renamed back in 1951 during the Cold War, after Hank Sway. [Laughs]

You could have fooled me! And then the film ultimately revolves around one record/album. What’s one record that both of you hold near and dear to yourselves?

A: Um, well the Hutch version of “Begin the Beguine,” which I’ve mentioned already and it opens the film, was one of the major inspirations for the move, and that music is still very dear to me. I was happy that I could still tie it into the movie.

R: Ohhhh! That’s a tough one. I just rediscovered the great, you might not know but he’s Irish and predominately famous in Ireland. You know when an album just rings a great nostalgic bell, and you just remember exactly where you were the first time you heard it when you re-listen to it. There’s an album called “The Big Romance” by David Kitt, and that’s a real beautiful album. It’s his first album, and it makes me cry every time I listen to it.

Sorry; did I make you a bit emo right now?

A: Are you actually crying right now?

R: Yeah, actually, I’m sorta touching myself here. [Laughs]

So Ari, what did you like about working with Robbie?

A: One of the things that I liked working with Robbie is that, aside from the jokes and such, I sense such a fully rounded human. Some actors, all they think about is movies and casting, but with Robbie you can talk about poetry or anything. And that also reminded me of Sergei, who Nikolai was written based off of. And I will say that we needed someone with the wit and charm that Robbie has. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie are lines that Robbie made up on-set. We knew that the character had this dark energy underneath him, but for the funny stuff it was Robbie’s lines that really sold me. I’m very grateful for some of the lines that he wrote.

R: Nice! Remember I met Sergei with you in New York, Ari, and he launched into a lecture about American Fighter Jets or something of the sort from like the 1950s or ’60s, and he just like launched into this thing as though we would know what he was talking about. He was like [in Russian accent], “You know, it looks like a dragonfly.”

A: He’s always done that, and the character of Nikolai has some of these monologues. I know there’s one monologue where he’s talking to Charlie about how America is great because it doesn’t leave its soldiers dead in the mud, and Sergei was at the screening as your Russian representative, and he loved the movie but also had to comment afterward [in Russian accent], “It’s true, it’s true what you say, you don’t leave soldiers in the mud.”

R: That’s brilliant; he’s sort of become the character that’s based off of himself. That’s so meta.

So I took to Twitter and asked Twitter user @thesheehab if they had any questions, and one came from a follower, @arilynd (Twitter),  and it seems to be the question floating around now: Have you heard about the American remake of Misfits, and what’s your opinion on it?

R: You know, I heard about it recently because a young actor I’m working with here auditioned to play Nathan in the new remake. And he goes, “Oh, I just auditioned for the new Misfits,” and I was like, “Whaaaaaat?” So that’s really all I’ve heard about it. Who’s making it? Do you know who’s the overlord writer?

I’m not sure about the exact writer, but I know it’s going to be on Freeform, which was previously ABC Family, so I’m interested to see how that will translate.

R: Uh oh, they’re quite PG aren’t they. I guess you can’t make references to the inter sanctum of your own bumhole on a family-friendly channel. They should change the name of it to like Ne’er Do Wells and just have them all dressed like beach boys.

And what else can we expect from you in the future? The Sheehabs (of Twitter) want to know!

R: Ah the Sheehabs, suggesting that they’re suffering from the illness of addiction but a great support system. [Laughs] But you know actually I just watched a film–which I did in September because it’s opening at a film festival in August–and it’s a film by the great Ben Elton. He’s an English writer/comedian/novelist/filmmaker/musical writer/everything, and he wrote and directed a film called Three Summers, which stars a host of good Australian actors (Rebecca Breeds, Magda Szubanski, Michael Caton), and it’s really brilliant. I watched it yesterday with a few of the actors I’m working with now, and we were all screeching with laughter at the film. It was really funny. So you’ll be hearing tale of that one pretty soon. It’s a sort of political romantic comedy set in a folky music festival in rural Australia.

Sounds awesome. I look forward to it. One last question: I know you worked on the film a while ago, but if you were to describe The Song of Sway Lake in five words, what words would you use?

R: The Song of Sway Lake in five words … I’d say “Great knees up in Ari’s brain.” That’s six but one of them was an “in” so you can let me off with that one. A knees up means a party by the way.

A: Before you said: “Magical dreamscape that makes me cry.”

R: That too. But really the film is like a dream. That’s what I like about it.

A: Mary Beth said it made her feel like she was watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and I’m willing to accept a Shakespeare reference. Even if it’s not totally accurate, I’ll go with it.

R: Don’t alienate your fans, Ari, just accept the compliment and go! But it does have that dreamy quality, and I think the fact that Sway Lake isn’t a real place adds to the dreaminess of the whole thing.

Yeah, I really enjoyed it; it was definitely a stand-out at the festival. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me today. I really appreciate it!

R: Pleasure Christian. Nice to talk to you!

A: Thanks!

Make sure to stay updated about everything Sway Lake  here

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