Seth Green Interview: Talking With the ‘Sexy Evil Genius’
In ‘Sexy Evil Genius,’ Seth Green leads a group of jilted lovers who have gathered at a local bar to commiserate over the same woman – Nikki (Katee Sackhoff), a likely-crazy young woman who’s now engaged to the lawyer who helped her secure release from a mental institution. If this doesn’t sound like the most light-hearted, uplifting story you’ve ever heard, consider the context in which it was made: screenwriter Scott Lew managed to score an all-star cast and crew to bring it to life, even as ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) ravaged his body. And on the just-released DVD, Lew gets to explain how he conceived the film – with a little help from Green and company.
We spoke with Seth Green and director Shawn Piller earlier this week about Sexy Evil Genius. Both collaborators talked about why they first took on the film as an acting challenge, and then explained how it became personally important to get Scott Lew’s story told – not just the one in the screenplay, but the one unfolding in his real life.
What initially got you involved in Sexy Evil Genius?
Shawn Piller: Two words: Scott Lew. And I guess two more words: the script. It was something that as a favor for a friend, you know, you get a lot of scripts to read just to give notes. I got this script and really liked it, and I had a bunch of thoughts and notes for it, and I wrote them up, and had no inclination I was going to direct this. Next thing I know, [my partners] said, “why don’t you direct this? We love your take, and love your ideas.” So then they set up a meeting with Scott and I, which was interesting – it was my first feature, and I was meeting someone who I’d known for years, but I hadn’t seen him in a bit, and hadn’t seen him since he lost his voice. So the meeting was pretty one-sided, and I talked about my look for the film and how I thought it needed to escalate, what I liked about all of the characters, and all of my script notes. Scott really liked it, and by the time I got home, I’d gotten an email from Scott, who said “we’d like you to direct this film.” And then he said, “I’d like for you to direct it like it’s your first film, and your last film, because it will be my last film.” After I picked myself up off the floor, I thought, what a manipulative son of a bitch. But I knew his sense of humor and I knew he meant that joking and serious, because you always want to do something like it’s your last thing, and for Scott, he’s in a world where it literally could be his last project. I hope it’s not the case, and I’m looking for him to rewrite another movie for me that we just got the rights to. But anyway, that’s how it all came to be.
As an actor, what appealed to you about this story?
Seth Green: I really liked the script. I was familiar with Scott Lew from another project that he’d written and directed that I didn’t get cast in, but I really liked. And then Katee Sackhoff called me about this project that she’d been developing and she was starring in. I read it with her in mind, which made it infinitely more appealing – she was so well-suited to play this character. And then Shawn and I talked about a bunch of movies that we liked – everything from Rope to The Last Supper – and so for me it was a lot of different things. It was a great character, great dialogue, and it would be a movie that I thought would be incredibly watchable.
How much can you relate to that impulse to revisit a past relationship or to stay curious about a person once you’ve stopped dating them?
Green: I’m really self-reflective in the moment, and I tend to be pretty candidly observational about myself. So I haven’t looked back too often with regret, especially when it comes to relationships. Every relationship I’ve been in has been time well spent and experience well gained whether or not it worked out or we stayed friends or what have you.
Your character seems pretty different from the guy that people see in your other work, or in public.
Green: I love acting, and one of my favorite things is trying to figure out why a person has made or continues to make the choices they do. This character is not all that fantastic – he’s just a person who when he was a teenager was full of life and infinite opportunities, and when he entered the work force and went to college, he had all of that creativity, all of that risk-taking, all of that daredevil beaten out of him to the point where he just didn’t want to resist. It becomes so much easier just to clock in and clock out, and make that concession that maybe we’re all just destined to be unhappy. And that’s a very relatable submission. And they need something to wake them up and remind them what it’s like to actually be alive.
Scott’s script was obviously sacrosanct, not the least of which because you knew it might be his last to be produced. Did that make you less inclined to improvise than you might have on another film?
Green: Yeah, where it’s appropriate – I’ll suggest what I think might be happening, based on the information I’ve received and what I’ve put together in my head as far as who this person is and how they might react. But I usually ask – I’ll ask the writer or director what they think about it – “does this make sense? It feels like because of these things, I might say this.” I’ll never come and be like, “my guy feels this way” – you know, tell the guy who wrote it he’s wrong. You just try to find out what their point of view was and understand it.
Piller: Being the son of a screenwriter, I was raised with a deep respect for storytelling and scripts and the writer’s word — and being a writer myself, I feel the same way. So I try to do all of the rewrites and polishes and dialogue changes before we get to set, and we basically had almost six months of correspondence between Scott and I where we would collaborate back and forth. And he was really fantastic – he put my other writer colleagues to shame on how fast he read the notes and responded but how fast he did the rewrites, and that was just an incredible experience. So I got the script 90 to 95 percent there and then I spent time with each of the actors individually going through their dialogue and writing down another set of notes. And then we did one table read, and it was the first time I got to hear it really out loud, with real actors, and Scott was there. And there were lines that I thought wouldn’t make the cut, but I wanted to try them, and Scott wanted me to try them, and then it was really just about the actors trying to remember their ten pages of dialogue a day.
Talk a bit about “Ju-Jitsuing Reality,” which chronicles Scott Lew’s illness. How much did its production coincide with that of the film?
Green: I knew that they were shooting a documentary just so we would have an actual document of this getting done. Scott had become more and more incapacitated, prior to us even doing the film, and it was getting more and more important for us to have him witness the realization of his creation. My uncle had debilitating [multiple sclerosis] and it got me very familiar with the idea of a person’s mind and body being separated so completely. And so when I met Scott, I was very comfortable and receptive to the idea that he’s in there and he’s still receiving information correctly, even if he can’t respond. It just became something that was important to me, to make sure that he was participating in the experience. And Scott’s just such an inspiring personality, the way he’s adapted to what could easily be a life-ending or career-ending or even just a hope-ending condition, and he’s flipped it and made it something that is funny and okay and tolerable.
You do a great job of presenting his words very matter-of-factly. How tough was that tone to negotiate, since you want it to be humorous but meaningful?
Green: There’s a balance. It was directed, so I got some construction, but for the most part I tried to come from where he came from. There’s a couple of clips in the doc where he’s actually speaking, and he’s already in the chair, and he’s got a smile on his face and he’s making jokes about people getting better access to his bald spot. And that’s what I wanted to preserve; that’s what I think everybody wanted to showcase – Scott’s improbable spirit. The way he’s contended with the hand he’s been dealt is so fucking inspiring. It humbled all of us complaining about a nine-hour day (laughs).
This movie’s such a captivating mystery. Do you feel like there’s a larger truth beneath that mystery?
Green: I think there’s plenty of life lessons wrapped up in this incredibly outrageous – well, it’s not quite farcical, but it’s very high concept. But at its core, we’re all playing it very straight, like we’re people deeply in love and needed some kind of re-awakening or some introspection.
Do you feel like this story has specific significance in Scott’s life? Or is the accomplishment of getting his screenplay made into a film is the significant part of it?
Piller: I think it’s both. Making it is a triumph in and of itself, and the fact that Scott got to be there and was so creatively involved, it was a truly wonderful experience to be a part of. But really for me, every single person at the table represented different aspects of Scott, the writer’s personality. I think when you write what you know, you can’t help but make it autobiographical, and even though it’s a woman who’s crazy, who has been lost in this prison, I felt like in some ways these characters were corralled there to learn this message of “seize the day.” And really to me, what Nikki’s message was to the other characters was Scott’s message and how he chose to live his life. And I absolutely loved that there were a bunch of little sub-scenes for me, like inviting everyone you’ve ever dated to dinner. And Katee and I talked about, as I learned, a lot of times girls change who they are depending on who they’re dating, but as they get older, they don’t do that. They find themselves. And I thought, what an interesting way to invite your entire life, Scott’s life, and all of our lives to dinner, and see how much we’ve changed, and how much we’ve lost.