ARRIVALS: A Breakout Role — And A Bright Future — For Noah Segan, Looper's Kid Blue
In the cinematic world of Rian Johnson, where friends are collaborators and cast and crew a part of a close-knit filmmaking "family," actor Noah Segan is a constant. But after appearing in Johnson's debut film Brick and his follow-up, The Brothers Bloom, Segan received what he calls a "gift" from Johnson — one of the smartest rising writer-directors of his generation — in the form of what's sure to be his breakout role: The finely-tuned, gun-obsessed futuristic cowboy Kid Blue in Looper, a "gat man" eagerly hunting down rival Joe (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who's so fraught with seriocomic human frailty he only grows more sympathetic as he becomes increasingly unhinged.
To Segan's credit, he shines in the role Johnson tailored for him, inspired by Segan's own offscreen cinephilia and the actor's favorite movie — the obscure Dennis Hopper-Warren Oates Western Kid Blue, his signature on Twitter, Tumblr and the film community for years. As Gordon-Levitt's steely Joe attempts to change his fate by confronting his future self (Bruce Willis), Segan's eager-to-please Kid Blue illustrates a pained parallel course of desperate self-determination gone wrong. For the actor, who considers Brick the start of his bona fide career and also appeared in Deadgirl, What We Do Is Secret, and Cabin Fever 2, Looper could and should be the catalyst for Hollywood to take note.
As he and the Looper crew took Fantastic Fest by storm, Segan spoke with Movieline about his uniquely personal relationship with Looper and director Johnson, the compelling complexities of Kid Blue, that one time he was on Dawson's Creek, and why no industry honor could match the feeling of being welcomed as family at the best movie theater in Los Angeles.
You and Rian Johnson go back all the way to the Brick days. How did he first describe Looper to you?
I had read his short story called Looper before we made Brick, and it was two pages long and it was really the hook — like getting the chorus to a song in your head if you were writing a tune. It was the chase between the older version and the younger version of the same guy. He tucked it away into the archives and went about his business, made Brick, and [Brothers] Bloom, and then he mentioned he was revisiting it a few years ago. Sent me a draft about three years ago, and that was that.
And he wrote Kid Blue specifically with you in mind?
He did. Kid Blue is my nickname; it’s been my nickname for about ten years, since I was a teenager. It’s a reference to a pretty obscure 1970s comedic Western starring Dennis Hopper and Warren Oates, and a buddy of mine who’s a screenwriter back in New York turned me onto some great movies, the movies that I now love, counterculture ‘60s, ‘70s American New Wave — the Dennis Hoppers and the Sam Peckinpahs and the Monte Hellmans, the guys who now I consider my favorite filmmakers. One day he said, “There’s this movie, and you’re gonna dig it — it’s going to be your story. It’s called Kid Blue, and good luck trying to find it.”
I go down to this place we had in the Village called Kim’s, which is this famous archive of cinema, bootlegs, and at the time, VHS tapes, of stuff you could never find anywhere else, and you didn’t know how it got there, and maybe it’s not supposed to be there, but if it existed it might as well be at Kim’s. I found Kid Blue there, a pan-and-scan VHS of a dub of a dub from Spanish television with subtitles, and I watched it — it’s the story of a Kid, like Billy the Kid, played by Dennis Hopper, trying to go straight. He realizes he’s getting a little long in the tooth for his lifestyle so he tries to go straight in this town at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution; hilarity ensues. There was something about it that just clicked with me so I stuck with it, and it became my nickname.
It’s a pretty good nickname, I must say — long before I had even heard about Looper it was your Twitter handle, so I knew there must have been a history there.
It surprised me as much as anybody, because, listen — you happen to be lucky enough to be friends with one of your favorite filmmakers, that’s kind of enough. You don’t expect anybody to write you a part. And then he writes me a part, and he writes me my part. He wrote a part that I think, not dissimilarly from Brick, has a lot of the sort of vulnerability and pathos and yet diligence that I guess Rian sees in me. It’s a great honor to be saddled with these big emotions and still be able to have fun with it.
That must be an interesting experience in itself, to have a friend write a character for you knowing what you’re capable of and shades of what he sees in you — and it turn out to be a character like this. Kid Blue is not the hero but he and Joe come from very similar backgrounds. It’s very Oliver Twist.
Yes! Joe is Oliver and I’m the Artful Dodger and Abe [Jeff Daniels] is Fagin, you know? The three of us, Joe [Gordon-Levitt], Rian, and I, are very good friends — we spend a lot of time together along with the other members of the family, whether it’s Ram [Bergman] his producer, Steve [Yedlin] his cameraman, or Nathan [Johnson] his composer. We all live in the same neighborhood, pretty much, and have keys to each others’ houses and BBQ all the time. I think first impressions make a big impact whether we’re aware of them or not, and the first impression of our relationship was obviously Brick. Dode in that movie is a foil for Brendan, for Joe’s character, and I think a lot of the dynamic that the three of us have is that we are foils for one another. So I imagine, whether consciously or not, Rian read into that. He read into the dynamic between me and Joe probably by watching us, just like I watch him and Joe. There are a lot of parallels between the Kid and Dode from Brick as well — the idea that here’s a guy who will stop at nothing to do what he thinks is the right thing, even if it’s absolutely not the right thing.
You've floated the idea that Kid Blue could be Dode’s grandson if the Brick and Looper universes overlapped…
I’m rolling with that so hard! I kind of rolled that one out and now I’m going to kick it into gear. What I would love is somebody to do some fanfic that’s like Dode had an illegitimate son and that’s his great-grandson. I think they start early in that family. [Laughs] They’re very similar guys, guys who have a duty and a purpose. I think that’s where the vulnerability and the pathos comes from — someone trying to do a dignified act in a very undignified way. Therein you get sympathy too, right, because we’ve all tried to do the right thing and realized we have absolutely no idea how to do the right thing.
The great thing about Kid Blue is that we can still understand where he’s coming from, even as he’s not the best equipped to handle the situation, and perhaps isn’t completely all there. You still feel for him.
I hope so. I think everyone’s in the gray here. No one in this movie is absolutely doing the right thing. So you cut the Kid more slack. It also helps that he’s goofy, he’s funny, and in a movie that doesn’t have a lot of comic relief a little bit goes a long way.
Kid Blue is the most colorful character in a movie that’s populated with very straightfaced people.
Yes, and I think that’s something that Rian gave to me — this Western character, this cowboy, in this post-manufacturing era dystopian society, here’s a cowboy who’s earned his stripes to be as silly as he wants to be.
He is the character who brings that Western element to the film, in many ways — he’s basically a gunslinger, he has his signature gat, and he even rides the futuristic equivalent of a horse in the form of the slat bike.
I get to ride that, I get to spin my gun, I get to talk with a drawl… I got to really play the points of a Western, which again is a great gift from Rian because he knows how much I love that stuff.
The guns in Looper provide a lot of interesting analytical dissection, but from your perspective how much is Kid Blue’s obsession with his gat perhaps a phallic psychological extension?
[Laughs] Not mine, right? The Kid’s… that’s a bigger conversation to have, no pun intended. I do not have the biggest gun in the movie, as you know — I think Emily [Blunt] actually has the biggest gun in the movie, and she’s also kind of the most bad ass, so maybe that explains the answer to your question right there. I hadn’t thought about that but it’s such an obvious question: What do these guns represent? Rian explains it in the movie as the idea behind the gat is it’s this precision instrument, a perfect device that has withstood the test of time. It’s a side-loading revolver, a single action gun — the same thing that cowboys used to use, so it’s proven itself as a worthy tool. The blunderbuss, the thing that the loopers use and that Joe uses, is this modern distillation of a shotgun, this new school version of a very brutal weapon that just needs to be vaguely pointed in a direction and it’ll get rid of everything in front of it. I think that explains where the characters are coming from; the Kid really wants to be viewed as skilled, as worthy, and I think Joe doesn’t care — Joe’s just thinking, “How am I going to get out of here?”
Has The Kid watched a few too many Westerns himself?
Absolutely. There’s a line that Abe says where he says, “You’re just emulating these movies.” These movie-movies. I almost see that as a response as much to the Kid as it is to Joe, in that poor Abe is saddled with this guy who, unlike Joe who he also raised and reared, the Kid is a company man. He’s hanging around and he’s pretty good at his job even though he’s kind of a goofball and a screw-up, they keep him around. He’s diligent and a good kid, but poor Abe’s thinking, he’s got the skills so I’ll let him wear his blue jeans and his cowboy boots and let him use his special Western revolver, but how annoying is it that he can’t be contemporary here in the future?
You mentioned the filmmaking “family” built around Rian’s films, but what was it like to have folks like Jeff Daniels and Bruce Willis come into that from the outside?
We thought about that a lot, specifically with Bruce. What was it going to be like, every step of the way, to have this guy who represents the modern movie star hanging around with us? Everyone was really excited when he became part of the family, but you’re in awe of this guy who is an icon coming in saying, “Let me join in on the fun.” My guess is he vibed that, that this was an opportunity to join the family, and as a great actor and collaborator who has done so much I imagine his reaction was the same as ours, which was that this was fantastic, this was a beautiful thing. With Jeff, the best analogy I could use was it was like having a family reunion and meeting an uncle you never knew you had. They were onboard the minute they saw what we were up to.
You and Jeff Daniels share some heavy moments; The Kid aims to please Abe, but he never quite seems to get it right. What were your impressions from working together?
Jeff’s a very stoic guy and about as pro as you’ll ever find; he runs a theater company and he comes correct. He’d sit back with his guitar between takes and do his regal thing, but when we got into our really emotional stuff and he saw that I was not really holding back, because I had prepared for so long to do it and didn’t know any other way, and frankly I’m not trained like he and a lot of people are — I just figured, be ready to just wallow for a while and have a tough day then have dinner with your friends and take a deep breath. He was very kind to me and saw that on that day and said, “When the camera’s on me you don’t have to go whole hog, you don’t have to drive yourself nuts.” And I said, “I’m ready for this and I’m doing it, and there’s only one way I know how to do it.” We did the scene and stayed with it and that night he was leaving the set with his fedora and scarf on, looking extremely gentlemanly, and he turned back and saw me smoking a cigarette outside my trailer trying to shake off the day, and he said, “You did a good job, Kid — we’re in a good one.” He knows how to deliver that line on set and off, you know what I mean?
And it wasn’t dissimilar from Bloom — I had a tiny part in Bloom and flew out to Serbia to visit my buddies making this movie and do one scene of schtick and it was the same thing. There were these great actors, Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody, and it was like my dad had a secret family and they were the half-brothers I never knew about. It’s just something that Rian and his crew really engender, an inexplicable comfort.
Looking at your career to date —
I have a career? I sort of feel like my career’s about to start, I hope.
You’ve been a working actor for so long, and have done a number of indie films but you seem to have done things you really were passionate about. What has your approach been in terms of balancing indie and mainstream and where you’d like to go?
My experience working in the movie business — I was a camera assistant before I was an actor — began when I was a little kid, acting in New York. It was something that I did because I was not into doing team sports. I was a little kid who could read and look in the same place for more than two seconds at a time, so I think my folks figured, “He might as well do something with his time, why not have him do commercials?” It was the exact opposite of what you hear when you hear of stage parents, I either did it or I didn’t depending on if I wanted to, and it was an after school hobby sort of thing. But I think it was the seed of loving movies and loving sets. As I came of age I thought I wanted to be a cameraman, a cinematographer — that was sort of the family business, my grandfather was a photographer and my mother is a photographer, among other things, and I have a very close family friend who was a cameraman so I started working for him. I did that for a couple of years very seriously and thought I was going to do that until I met an actor who said, “You should think about acting.” It being show business, you introduce somebody and introduce somebody and introduce somebody and the fifth guy you’re introduced to sends you out on an audition and it’s for Brick.
So my first experience working in a movie was working with the people who are now my best friends in the world, who I love dearly, and I think for better or for worse that’s what I want every time now. I got spoiled really, really early. That’s sort of what I’m looking for, people who have that kind of mentality and that collaborative vibe, with an evangelical, pure vision of a script — which is usually people who’ve written their own scripts, so I tend to like to work on stuff that’s being directed by the guy or girl who wrote it. I’ve always thought that it’s such a weird thing to not have to shovel shit in order to pay my rent, which is really the only thing that I’m qualified to do — I have a 9th grade education. I am not capable. I have no skills!
What happened in high school?
It wasn’t for me. I wasn’t a school guy. I had a big chip on my shoulder, listened to a lot of punk rock music and watched a lot of grownup movies. I remember being in school, right before I left, and they had us read Catcher in the Rye which is basically a guide on how to drop out of school. You’re supposed to read this in high school or junior high and appreciate it as a great work of American 21st century fiction but in reality it’s that, and it’s telling you, fuck ‘em. It’s sort of like, this guy did it — I guess I will too.
There are so many would be teenage Holden Caulfields who would love to follow suit, to grasp that sort of freedom for themselves.
I grasped it! Much to the chagrin of my folks and all the other adults around me, but at the end of the day I’m now sort of stuck acting in movies as my job.
Well, that did lead you to one of your greatest early acting credits, by which I mean that one very special episode of Dawson’s Creek where Joey and Pacey get locked in a store overnight.
I was! I think that was the second thing I did after Brick. Why was it very special?
Because I’m Team Pacey, of course.
[Laughs] I remember I had gotten that job and there was some talk that it would be a recurring character. I actually don’t know much about the show so you can tell me if I’m wrong, but it was late in the show and there was some talk of finding someone to spice it up, like Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch. I showed up and I only knew this one weird way to do my job and I had created this really weird guy who has like five lines, but is super weird and stoned, and I think it really went against what they envisioned for their show.
I just re-watched it and I think you were quite striking. Besides, you’re now part of television history.
Well, those two were always meant to end up together.
I’m glad it worked out for them. Joey is Katie Holmes, right? And Pacey is the tall guy?
Are you telling me you’re not up on your Dawson’s Creek lore? That’s fine. So — indie movies, mainstream movies — how do you view the two worlds and your place in them?
I’m really excited about potentially working on more mainstream movies. I look at a lot of the movies and big filmmakers we now take for granted; if you went back in time and went to Sundance and saw sex, lies, and videotape and then said, “That guy’s going to make three of the most charming, entertaining popcorn movies with the biggest movie stars in the world in it and they’re going to be good and everyone’s going to see and enjoy them,” nobody would believe you. If you went back in time and went to a four-walled midnight screening of Evil Dead and said, “That guy’s going to make Spider-Man movies and they’re really going to get people interested and excited,” nobody would believe you. Did anybody watch Memento and think, that guy’s going to make Batman movies? That’s a really cool thing to me, the potential to up the game. For me it’s even more luxurious because I can be a good actor in any movie; that’s my challenge. I’d better be whatever I need to be – sad, or funny, or believable, or not believable. I can do that in any kind of movie. I can do that for $5 on an iPhone or for $5 million on a big movie, or $500 million on the biggest movie. So it’s not really an argument for me. The argument is really for the filmmaker, and the producers. It’s nice, I’m a worker bee. I get to follow direction, literally.
You seem to just really love being a part of it all.
I’m really happy to be a part of something. That’s the thing, you have all these people, all these iconoclast and idiosyncratic people, and when it works all of a sudden these disparate things come together into a team sport. Everyone’s fighting to get on the team and to sort of get called off the bench a little bit here is really nice. I just want to do a good job.
Speaking of being a part of something, you refer to the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, my favorite theater, as "church."
When I first came to Los Angeles and wanted to do something in the movie business I started going to the New Beverly, because that’s where you go. Sherman Torgan, who originally ran it before he passed away, and his son Michael who took it over, have always been very kind to me, and within a couple years of being in L.A. I decided that I’m not really interested in how I’m going to feel if I make a bunch of money or win an award — that’s really fun stuff, that’s awesome, but I’m not really looking forward to that stuff as being watershed events. But if they ever know my name at the New Beverly, if they ever open the door and usher me in and say, “Noah, enjoy the show,” I’ll know that I’ve achieved some success. A couple of years ago Michael and Julia [Marchese] started doing that, and now I feel like a successful person. Now I feel like I belong.