I learned something about RED DAWN star Josh Peck that I did not know, even thought we'd spoken a few years back when he was making the publicity rounds as the lead in THE WACKNESS. Several hours after our interview, he and I did a Q&A following a screening of RED DAWN, a screening populated by a disproportionate number of young women, who occasionally screamed when Peck spoke. The ladies love Josh Peck; there's no denying it.
I'm guessing this is somehow connected to these women having spent a portion of their formative years watching Peck on the Nickelodeon series "Drake & Josh," a 2004-2007 show that featured him considerably heavier than he is today at 26. During the Q&A, Peck relayed a very funny story about meeting Tom Cruise while making RED DAWN, in which the action superstar's son, Connor Cruise, has a role. He was so excited about meeting one of his idols that at the end of the day's work, he went to celebrate by going to Dairy Queen to eat ice cream. He said as a former heavyset kid, he made a habit (that continues until today) of always eating ice cream alone. So he sat in his car in the DQ parking lot, and at his ice cream. Then a knock came on his car window, which he then rolled down to discover that Tom Cruise was standing there wondering why the kid was eating ice cream alone in his car. As any solid citizen would do, he invited Peck to join him and his family inside the DQ to eat; Peck politely declined, still too ashamed to eat ice cream in front of other human beings--even Tom Cruise. As Peck is telling this story, the young ladies are eating it up with a mixture of laughter and screaming. The man is kind of a genius in front of a crowd.
I was a big fan of THE WACKNESS, with its great classic hip-hop soundtrack and the lead character of a drug dealer who has no skills with women. Since then, Peck has done some voice acting on a couple of the ICE AGE films, worked in DRILLBIT TAYLOR opposite Owen Wilson, starred in the small-budget thriller ATM, and in September 2013, will be a part of BATTLE OF THE YEAR: THE DREAM TEAM about an American b-boy crew competing in an international dance competition. The stakes have never been hire, people.
Not surprisingly, Peck is an easy guy to talk to, and our talk flowed more conversationally than many other interviews. We primarily focused on RED DAWN, a remake of the 1984 classic that played on America's fear of having the Russians take over the world. Peck essentially is playing the same role as Charlie Sheen did in the original movie, the younger brother character to Chris Hemsworth. The film was made several years ago, but held up from being released due to MGM's bankruptcy (in the same way the CABIN IN THE WOODS was). RED DAWN is directed by master stunt coordinator Dan Bradley, and you can't help but be impressed by the action sequences of the new film, regardless of what you think of the movie, which I happen to think is a solid war movie, with a few interesting twists, starting with the nationality of the invading force. When they filmed it, they were Chinese; now, thanks to the miracle of CG technology, they are from North Korea. Beware!
Peck and spoke at length about RED DAWN and a few other project he has coming down the pike, including one film shot in Dracula's territory in the Carpathian Mountains. Please enjoy my chat with Josh Peck…
Capone: Hi, how are you? It’s good to see you.
JP: It’s good to see you. You write under “Capone," right?
Capone: I do.
Capone: I think I missed you by just a few hours down in Austin during Fantastic Fest, because I left the morning of the RED DAWN premiere.
JP: Oh really? Too bad.
Capone: But I had seen the movie. They screened it for press the day before, so I had actually gotten out of there having seen the movie. This is one of those wonderful stories that came out of the MGM circus of financial depression. But a lot of the people in the film are more famous now than they would have been three years ago. People who might be THOR, AVENGERS, or HUNGER GAMES fans might be drawn into see this, who might not have a couple years back. Do you think the delay might actually help the film in the end?
JP: Without question. The fact that Chris has sort of become this superstar in the interim and Josh [Hutcherson] as well, and they have been part of these huge film franchises I think will only benefit the movie and put more eyes on the film. So it benefits from that and weirdly makes all of this time divinely okay. But in the moment, being randomly in the middle of April 2011, we’re like, “Oh my god, is this thing ever going to come out?” I don’t know if I was exactly thinking that then, but the fact that we are sitting here, and they’ve made posters, and it’s actually happening, I find that it’s all happened in perfect order.
Capone: I think it really helped CABIN IN THE WOODS in a way, because Chris was more famous, it doesn't prepare us for certain plot turns that people might not suspect because it’s him in both movies.
Capone: People might not realize going in that it's your character with the full arc; you’re the one that has to go through the biggest personal changes. Can you talk about that?
JP: Right. I think, especially from the beginning, I saw Matt as this self-centered hot shot, and in that respect, I didn’t exactly grow up similarly to him, being the quarterback cool guy. I was more like the theater average guy, but it was important I thought to illustrate that journey for Matt, especially because Chris’s character is a Marine, and so he's so well trained and so prepared for a situation.
Capone: He’s a natural leader.
JP: Totally. Whereas Matt is forced to abandon any preconceptions he might have or habits in which to insulate himself from life and is forced to be completely reactive to what’s going on around him. I think that’s something about this movie that all people can identify with, “What if you were forced to deal with something that was completely unimaginable? That you never thought you’d have to face?” So I think there are definitely times where you're like, “Matt, get it together, bro.”
Capone: And he screws up a lot too. It's great having a hero with all of those flaws.
Capone: He really does put the group in danger more than once. When you first met Chris and you realized you guys would be playing brothers, did you say to each other “Okay, which one of us was adopted?”
JP: Oh my god, totally. We don’t look anything alike. Agreed. There would be random scenes where I’d be like “Bro, you’re adopted. That’s why dad doesn’t love you.”
Capone: Well you do look more like the actor that plays the dad, I think.
JP: I do? Maybe, yeah.
Capone: Or maybe he’s sort of in the middle.
JP: We were lucky. We had to figure that the mom either had to be darker completion with darker hair, but I don’t know. We all have light eyes, so that was a big deal and a through point that we had.
Capone: But maybe the differences were part of the point of the story--you're so different that you actually are like physically different too on top of all of the personality differences that the two of you have. How long ago did you actually shoot this?
JP: I started training in June of 2009, and then we shot from September to December of 2009.
Capone: Okay, and it was supposed to come out originally like what, that summer?
JP: Thanksgiving of 2010.
Capone: Talk a little bit about the training you did. I’m sure you get asked this all of the time, but I’m curious about the weapons and physical training.
JP: Sure. I did six weeks of Navy Seal training.
Capone: With Navy Seals?
JP: Exactly. Unless they were lying. They could be accountants in really great shape. Yeah, it was Navy Seals, and they would say things like “All right, we want you to pull this tire for a mile,” and I would say “What for?” They would be like “We’re Navy Seals, bro. Don’t question us.” I would be like “Yes, sir.” So I did that, and then we did two weeks of boot camp with Marines, which was sort of like the cast bonding experience, whereas the Navy Seals training was purely physical, getting in shape, the Marines was more strategy based and war behavior. Then I had a week of football camp, too. So I was firing on all testosterone cylinders. I was as butch as I’m ever going to be in those months.
Capone: It’s so different than what you had done up to that point. Were you looking for something like that that was so much more physical than what you had done before?
JP: I couldn’t believe they were letting me. I was like, “Let me just keep this going before anyone pulls the plug.” I think for most actors you want to continue to do things that you haven’t done and that you’re challenged by, and secretly I don’t know any actor that doesn’t have a fantasy about being in a movie like this, a big action blockbuster.
Capone: Was that a fantasy? Was that something you really wanted to do?
JP: Yeah, for sure. I mean I love these types of films, and these were the types of movies that I fell in love with first and then as I learned more about acting and recognizing what I loved, then I fell in love with independent films, and I became the cinephile and I was like, “I only want to watch Jim Jarmusch movies.” But originally, I was totally like that guy, opening night there always.
Capone: When you were growing up, what were the films like that you fell in love with?
JP: LETHAL WEAPON. What else did I love? INDEPENDENCE DAY. Those were big movies as I grew up. They're not really action movies, but MIGHTY DUCKS has a very special place in my heart.
Capone: It’s very much a physical movie, to a degree.
JP: Nail biting, yeah.
Capone: You weren’t even born when this original movie came out, but I read somewhere that you refused to watch the original until you were done filming.
Capone: Why did you want to avoid it?
JP: Because I felt as though it would almost be impossible not to try to copy or imitate some of the things I knew I would love about the original and the performances, and you’ve got this cast that still to this day are such powerful actors. So it’s a natural thing, and I know musicians do it, you hear something and you’re just like, “Oh, I want to do something just like that,” and so I figured, “Let me approach this fresh.” And then the day we finish shooting, I watched the movie and I was like, “I get it. I get why people are so enamored with this.”
Capone: When you watched it, did you think, “Oh man, I wish we had tried that,” or “I wish I had done a little more like that”? Did you immediately start second guessing all of your decisions?
JP: I don’t need an excuse to be critical. Sure, there’s always a couple of things where you’re like, “That would have been great,” but unfortunately we couldn’t satisfy everything, but I think we did a pretty good job.
Capone: And you’ve got this director who is one of the great stunt coordinators working today. Did he encourage you or discourage you from doing your own stunts?
JP: I don’t even know if “encourage” was the word. It was more like “insisted,” yeah. We were surrounded by the stunt teams and stunt coordinators that were at the highest level, and I remember this one scene there’s a paratrooper crashes through the windshield of the car, and we're on a green screen in this pretty controlled environment, but they are like, “Alright, this is really going to happen,” and the stunt coordinator said, “If the windshield comes down on you guys, just stay in the scene.” I’m like “Get Dan over here!” Dan comes over, and I’m like, “What are we doing?” He’s like, “There’s laminate across the windshield; you’ll be fine.” If you didn’t have a director that knew that, they’d be like, “Let’s bring in a double. We’ll shoot it in a wide. He was like, “No, we’re keeping the camera in the back, stay in the scene, trust me you will be alright.” And we were.
Capone: Do you have any battle scars from the experience?
JP: I have one [points to his forearm] here from when I put my arm through a board during reshoots, and then two stitches in my head. I got some scars for sure, battle wounds.
Capone: One of the big things that happened in this delay, or maybe it was already decided on before the delay, was changing the nationality of the invaders. Can you talk about that a little bit? What was the thinking there?
JP: To be honest, the actors weren’t a part of the decisions making for the original. The original enemy being the Chinese and then the inevitable change to North Korea, but I think the feeling was the filmmakers decided to be more sensitive to one of our world partners. So in that respect, we needed a villain, and the movie has always walked a fine line in that way, which was it’s so fantastic in nature and the circumstances are so beyond this hyper reality, but they wanted to root it in some real stakes and some reality, which is why I think it was a real enemy instead of something completely fictionalized.
Capone: At any point when you heard it was North Korea, did you think “Really? That little country is going to come over here and take over the United States?”
JP: If I did, I didn’t tell anyone. I was just like, “Wait, so the movie will come out if it’s this? Alright, let’s do it. I’m in.”
Capone: That’s all that matters. Having Conner Cruise a part of your cast, was it slightly intimidating to be acting next to this guy whose dad is like the king of the action heroes right now?
JP: Oh my god. And then to meet Tom and to see the way…
Capone: You got to?
JP: I got to meet him, and he was just completely gracious and everything you would want from someone who's that talented and really just such a star, but absolutely. No matter what, you immediately get a dad complex where you’re like, “I want to make you proud; I swear I’ll make you proud.” What was cool about Conner was that he’s had such a different life than most kids his age, but what was refreshing about him is that he was very much a 14-year-old kid, and it was his first film, so getting to watch it through his eyes and how excited he would get about certain things that we were like “Eh, no big deal.” But he really just loved being there and I thought he did a great job. I think he’s really talented and now he’s being like a cool kid DJ, so I can’t wait to see what he does next.
Capone: Was it weird having Jeffrey Dean Morgan come into this youthful cast? Did he play the dad for the time he was there and play up the old-guy persona? How did that work with him?
JP: Great actor.
Capone: He’s really good in this movie. Somehow it all solidifies when he comes into the picture. Tell me about working with him.
JP: He’s great. He's a super-talented guy, and it’s funny you say with respect to him that he was taking care of us, because Chris and I and another actor in the movie Julian, who plays “Greg,” became really close while we were shooting, and Chris was getting in shape for THOR and I was staying in shape for RED DAWN. So we became these gym-rat muscle heads and were eating--the fanciest meal we would have would be like Benihanas on a Saturday night--and just being dudes living a college life a little bit with dorm rooms and eating in food courts or protein shakes.
Then as soon as Jeffrey got there, I remember he took us out for this steak dinner at this nice restaurant, and it’s like when your parents come into town when you’re in college, not that I've had any college experience. I remember we were eating well, and “Daddy’s taking care of it,” so it was cool to be around his energy. Otherwise, pretty much everyone was under 26 in the cast, so he definitely brought some maturity to the set.
Capone: The couple of times I’ve met him have been early in the morning, and he’s been recovering from the evening before.
JP: Smoking cigarettes?
Capone: He wasn’t smoking in front of me, but this was post an evening of drinking. He once said, “I got to my hotel last night, and there was a bottle of tequila waiting for me, so I had to deal with it.”
JP: He’s such a guy’s guy.
Capone: He is, definitely. I’ve met Adrienne a couple of times, and she's such a funny person. It’s weird seeing her in a movie like this, because most of the films I’ve seen her in are comedies. What kind of vibe did she bring when you were working with her?
JP: She too has a little bit of a maternal energy to her and definitely wanted to take care of us in some respect. She’s really committed to the work. If someone is really committed to just coming in and working their ass off, I am immediately attracted to them, because it’s all about the work and giving it your all. She’s a cool tough chick, and there have definitely been actresses I’ve worked with where I thought, “I’m cool with never seeing you again,” but she is not one of them.
Capone: Wow! We need to go through your filmography and pull some names out.
JP: You know what? Actors too. I mean look, people might feel that way about me, but she’s just a real woman and it was cool energy to be around.
Capone: I’m still bummed that "Wonder Woman thing didn’t happen.
JP: Yeah, right? She would have killed it.
Capone: You’ve been acting since you were veryy young. Do you still feel like you’re learning from other people, especially when you work with someone like Ben Kingsley [his co-star in THE WACKNESS] or Jeffrey.
JP: God, I hope to never stop learning and I think that’s the most important thing. I was lucky enough to become really close with Chris, and he has just this innate ability to lead and carry himself, this subtlety and this confidence with who he is, and I think it frees him in his performances. so I really took a lot away from that, seeing his commitment to the work. With this movie especially, with the training, I saw how important physicality is with your acting, because for me, it’s easy to think that it’s a completely cerebral thing and it only has to do with your thoughts and emoting.
But it’s one of those rare creative things where you are the instrument, so it’s all connected down to your toes to your hands, the way you move, and how much preparation can benefit you in the long run, especially physically, because if you lose weight for a role, if you gain weight, if you get into amazing shape, or you completely neglect yourself, it can really reflect on your overall performance. And all your preparation allows you to not have to act it on the day, and it’s one less thing you have to worry about, which is nice.
Capone: Have you ever had to physically prepare for something the way you did for this?
JP: No way, never. I’ve done things that have been similarly demanding as far as the environment was insane and what not, but no. This has been the most extreme.
Capone: When you look at yourself in the mirror in the morning, is that part of the preparations just going, “Ah, there he is.” You might not even recognize yourself to a degree because of your physical changes.
JP: Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s a great quote, “You can’t even begin acting until you’ve taken your shoes off, and you’re in your character’s shoes,” quite literally. “Put on a new pair of shoes and just start there.” I love like when Denzel Washington talked about TRAINING DAY, and it wasn’t until every morning when he put on the jewelry and started smoking cigarettes, and all of a sudden the swagger would bring itself to life in that moment. It’s amazing, you never know what it’s going to be. It could be the smallest nuanced tic that you’ve given the character that roots you in it. You just have to find the one thing that will return you home to the character, and once you’ve found that, you’re usually pretty safe. But that’s the hard part. It’s like “Where does that live for you?”
Capone: Tell me about the weapons training. Even people who aren’t big on guns just get real excited just handling the weapons and shooting them.
JP: It was cool. I mean listen, these are deadly weapons regardless of whether you’re shooting blanks or not. There is that element of danger, you have to be so careful and between shooting an AK-47 or a replica 1911 .45 pistol that I was taking apart and putting back together, loading, reloading blindfolded. It was every boyhood fantasy fulfilled in that respect.
Capone: Tell me real quick about stuff you’ve got coming up.
JP: I have this movie BATTLE OF THE YEAR coming out.
Capone: I’ve seen the trailer for that. That’s the 3-D one with Josh Holloway, right? That trailer got a major reaction, because people weren’t sure if it was serious or a parody of dance movies. It seems funny.
JP: It’s crazy. I mean it’s based on a documentary called PLANET B BOY, which was about some of the best B-boy crews in the world and how they all come together in Montpellier, France every year for something called “The Battle of The Year.”
Capone: It’s dancing. It’s organized like synchronized dancing, yeah.
JP: B boy dancing. So they decided to make a theatrical version, and of course they thought “Josh Peck.”
Capone: I was about to say, what’s your history with dancing?
JP: “3-D dance = J. Peck!” My mistakes are going to be big and in 3-D. [Laughs] It was a really cool experience. I think people are going to love it. We have some of the best dancers in the world, and I’m there for comedic relief.
Capone: But you get to dance?
JP: A little bit. I bust out a couple of moves here and there. A few of the moves I cultivated in my bar mitzvah that I’ve kept along the way.
Capone: When does that come out? Next year, right?
JP: Yeah, September of next year.
Capone: And then there was another one, THE TIMBER?
JP: It’s not totally done yet, so I mean I could just speak about the experience. It’s basically about two brothers going to find their father in the Timber in Alaska during the late 1800s, and I worked with James Ransone, who’s a really talented actor. We shot for a month on the top of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania in negative 40 degrees.
Capone: That’s where Dracula lives, right.
JP: Exactly! Oh my god it was insane. I remember one day in particular where James and I are doing this scene probably on the coldest day, negative 50 or below, and the winds are whipping around, and we're doing this pretty emotional scene and we finish and they wrap and they say “Okay everyone, let’s go down.” James and I look at each other and I said to him “Think we should do one more?” James is like, “Yeah, let’s do one more.” We were like, “Can we have one more?” The director was like, “Alright, come on let’s get one more. We’ve got five minutes left of light, let’s knock it out.” It was in that moment where I was like “I love acting.”
Capone: So the Carpathian mountains substitute for Alaska? How does that work?
JP: [Laughs] Don’t ask me. It’s movie magic, bro. It’s hard to get movies financed nowadays.
Capone: Eastern Europe is the less expensive way to go I guess. That’s cool though. Does Dracula make a cameo?
JP: You never know!
Capone: That would really make it just perfect, I think. Was there anything else?
JP: I think that’s it honestly for now and we’ll see from there.
Capone: I think people know this, but the way RED DAWN ends, it doesn’t end. It leaves us in a very specific spot, but the war is not even close to done. Has there been any discussion of maybe following this up? Or do they like the idea of leaving it where it is?
JP: I think it’s up to the public. If people love it then I think everyone’s open to doing it again. But this time zombies are invading.
Capone: That movie’s already been made. But who knows if anyone’s actually going to put out WORLD WAR Z. Cool man, I’ll see you tonight.