Justin Bartha’s character, one of moody intrigue and gaudy affluence, is a brash menace in director Kevin Asch’s “Holy Rollers.” Playing the role of a seedy, unapologetic man named Yosef, who has veered so far from his faith that the traditional Hasidic attire he dresses in serves only a reminder of his former virtuousness. Yosef is earmarked as the film’s stray cat, a blemish on his righteous community. He is a marred version of the pied piper, fitted with a jack-o-lantern smile and a tongue full of false promises. His neighbor, the naïve and morally sound Sam Gold (Jesse Eisenberg), is plucked up by the lecherous hands of Yosef and sent into a Vertigo-like spin of violence and ubiquitous upheaval. Cinema Spartan spent some time with the multi-talented actor, whose films include the “National Treasure” series, to speak about the venomous drug-dealer he portrays in “Holy Rollers.”
Robert Patrick: Holy Rollers is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. What has been the reaction from the Hasidic communities after the release of the film?
Justin Bartha: There hasn’t been too much of a reaction from the Hasidic communities. Because they don’t watch secular movies, I don’t think anyone has really seen it. But if they were to see it, I think the reaction would be fairly positive. I think the religion is looked upon in a respectful light. And, really, in the film the religion is a backdrop; there are other things that play a more prominent role.
I heard that you lived above a Hasidic family in the mid nineties. How much did you take from that experience and put into the film?
They had a son in the family that was a troubled young man. And I took a little bit of anxiety from what that guy was going through. He would go through problems everyday at his home, which I imagine was hard, since he lived with a tight-knit, overbearing family in a place like L.A.
You lived in New York when you attended NYU. Did it help the natural fabric of the film, in any way, that you had such a personal background in that city?
New York itself, you hear all the time in movies or television, plays a bit of a character in these pieces. I’ve been here since 1996, and New York, even in the conception of the film, inspired us. New York movies, whether it be 1970s Scorsese movies or anything of the era’s character based dramas, are really affected by the backdrop. So this city absolutely played a big part in the film as a character.
What was the most difficult thing about preparing for your role in the film?
The main challenge was that this was an independent film. We shot it in eighteen-days in New York City during the middle of winter. The elements became the hardest part of the film. Luckily we had quite a long time to prepare for our roles, because, as most people know, it takes awhile to raise money for these [independent] movies.
Aside from the budget, what’s the difference between working with a first time director like Kevin Asch and a seasoned director such as Jon Turtletaub from the National Treasure franchise?
Since Jesse [Eisenberg] and I were brought on fairly early, we really helped in developing and shaping the project throughout. There’s much more of a collaborative effort when we’re talking about this kind of movie. It’s more of a group environment, where a group of people have a passion to tell this story. Everyone has to be in it together and do it by any means necessary. So when it comes to this movie, everyone pulls together. One of my closest friends was a cinematographer, and Jesse hired actors that he worked in the New York theater with. The whole project was a family experience.
Eisenberg introduced you to this script, and, because you two wanted to work with each other so long, you have a noticeable chemistry in the film. Do you see yourself working together in the future, this time on a project of your choice? And, conversely, what kind of role would you want to see him play?
Jesse is one of my favorite actors – one of my favorite human beings, really. I would definitely work with him on every movie. The one thing that Jesse and I connect on is how meticulous we are on the choices that we make. I could never recommend anything to have him play. He is one of those actors that it doesn’t matter what role he plays, he approaches it with the same professionalism. I feel very lucky to work opposite of someone like that.
You began your professional career as a production assistant. What made you want to go back into acting after you graduated from NYU?
I started acting when I was a teenager in theater. When I was a PA mostly to pay bills and to learn more about movies. Because I’m from the Midwest I didn’t really know too much about films.
You’ve done some writing in your film career; is that something that you would want to get back into in the near future?
I’m not sure. You always want to keep creative, so I’m always doing something, but I never know if it’s going to come into fruition when writing a movie.
2009, on paper, was your most active year in the film industry. You balanced a good amount of mainstream and independent pictures during that period of time. But in 2010, you began your Broadway career; is that something you had planned on pursuing for some time?
Yeah, I wanted to do a play for quite awhile. Luckily the perfect opportunity came up. It was definitely a dream come true.
We already talked about the various hands you’ve played in the film industry. Would you ever want to add full length feature film director to your resume?
We’ll see. I’m interested in every aspect of the film industry. I love making movies and doing a lot of what comes my way. If I come across a story that I thought I could tell, and tell well as a director, of course I would take the opportunity.
When you attended the very first public screening of “Holy Rollers” did anything memorable transpire?
When we went to the Sundance film festival it was a dream come true. We worked so hard on this movie, and to have it play at this film festival, to have people love it was all you could ask for.
We talked about all of the immense preparation you did for the movie. When you approached the Hasidic community, knowing that they wouldn’t see the film, were they weary about disclosing information to a secular group of individuals?
We didn’t really approach the community and tell them that we were making a movie because they probably wouldn’t help us. There are certain sects of the community that are more open to teaching secular Jews about the Hasidic ways, but there is only so far you can go with that. It’s more about studying and observing.
Because you had so much time to prepare for the character you were portraying, while funds were being raised for the film, did you feel comfortable knowing that you had an extended timetable for molding your part in the picture than, say, a blockbuster feature would allow?
I don’t know if comfortable is the word, but it definitely is a luxury to have the time to prepare and figure out who the character is. Movies like “Holy Rollers” are definitely what actors like Jesse and I aspire to be apart of. It’s an interesting film that has depth and fully drawn characters. To work in this kind of climate is any artist’s dream. Studio films are great for their own reasons, but these kind of independent movies are why I do it.
Is there any particular director that you would want to work with in the next couple of years?
Oh man, the list is endless. I could probably name you fifty directors that I would kill to work with. Woody Allen and Martin Scorse are up there. I’m a huge fan, as most people are, of seventies cinema. I love all of those directors. But I would also like to work with Paul Thomas Anderson and Spike Jonze. All of these guys. I probably have the same list everyone else does.
How much did you, personally, bring to the script?
The script itself was a process of invention between Jesse, myself and Kevin [Asch]. The script was originally a thriller, but over the years we sat for hours on end and re-wrote the entire thing. The script was really great to begin with, but, for the money we were able to raise for this movie, there was no way we would’ve gotten it done. The film would’ve cost somewhere between ten, twenty, maybe thirty-million dollars. We really had to make it into a character piece based upon Jesse and myself, their characters. Every actor brought tons of ideas, so it was a real collaborative effort.
Holy Rollers is now playing at Landmark’s Ken Cinema.