In “Night Owls,” actors Adam Pally (TV’s “The Mindy Project” and “Happy Endings”) and Rosa Salazar (TV’s “Parenthood”) are presented with unique acting challenges. In each of their first leading roles in feature films, Adam’s character Kevin must keep Rosa’s character Madeline from falling asleep after she has downed an entire bottle of Xanax in a suicide attempt. In an interview during the SXSW Film Festival in Austin, TX, Adam and Rosa sat down with me to discuss the shift to leading roles, balancing comedy and serious subject matter, what it was like to beat up on each other and Adam’s epic one-night stint as guest host of “The Late Late Show.”
If I am not mistaken, this is the first lead role in a feature film for either of you. What was that experience like and how do you compare it to the roles that you’ve done in the past?
Adam Pally: I think for me it was nice be given the chance to do something that wasn’t what I’m standardly given, which is the wacky friend. It was nice to be able to play the romantic dude.
Rosa Salazar: I’m really excited for people to see this movie because Adam is almost funny to a fault because he’s funny and everyone wants him to be funny in their projects. He’s such a good dramatic actor. He studied at The Actors Studio. He has chops that he’s never got to show anyone.
AP: She’s not lying.
RS: I’m not! I’m really not. He’s being self deprecating but he knows it’s true. I want more people to see the film so they can see Adam do these really different extraordinary things.
AP: That’s very eloquently put.
RS: And this movie is really just a stepping stone for me. (laughs)
AP: Rosa’s career is in such a good place she really doesn’t need this.
RS: I’m just kidding!
AP: Daddy needs this.
RS: This is probably the most important film for me as an artist and a person. Madeline was such a caustic character to play and it really comes from my younger self. So that’s really what informed that performance. It was very cathartic. Again, I never got to do a leading role. To carry a movie with someone and be the only two people in a movie is pretty damn cool and a tall order.
AP: People don’t give me that opportunity on a small or big movie so it was really nice to be able to do it.
RS: A lot of the time when you’re doing more of this stuff it’s because you have your champions in this business. 3 of my biggest ones are sitting there and the 4th is sitting right here (points to Adam).
AP: And my team left. (laughs)
But you have them, right? You have your champions.
AP: I used to. I’m looking for new ones now.
RS: I feel like I switched a paradigm.
AP: I’d definitely take a meeting.
RS: This movie is important for me because Adam is someone that I’ve always wanted to work with. I worked on “Search Party” and that’s where I met him. I was like if I got to work with this guy it would be a dream come true. And then I did and it was miserable. No! I did and it totally came to fruition and the one of the good parts of being an actor is you do make these connections with people that are like minded and they have similar taste and they just want to make good art together with you. That’s been something I’m learning more and more and it’s very important to me. This movie was one of those major blossomings.
AP: A lot of it is luck. You sign on for a movie like this that is just two actors and it could go horribly wrong or it could go really well. We just kind of clicked when we first met and we were able to keep clicking. I think it shows on screen.
RS: Two people talking in a house over the course of a night…it only works if it works. There was this big pressure there, but there (also) wasn’t. We never felt that.
AP: It just felt like a good script that we were lucky enough to be cast in.
The script is, like you were saying, kind of minimalistic in a sense that it’s just you two in a house talking to each other. Is that something that attracted you to the part…just to be able to have these conversations and build that relationship?
RS: Absolutely. I’m such a big fan of the “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight” movies that I really like when two people are actually exchanging emotions and ideas and it’s real. We’ve all had that experience where we are like “I just stayed up all night with this guy talking and it was mind blowing because we were really exchanging human to human.” And I love that. These two characters evolve so much over the course of a night. That’s why it’s so interesting to watch.
AP: I think that I was really attracted to, when I read the script, the fact that even though its two people, it felt like a thriller. Information was being trickled out at a very slow rate. When you don’t have all the information up front about two characters and they are learning it with the audience, I felt like it was really smartly and well done and I was interested in doing something like that.
RS: And I was just interested in working with Adam. There’s no other person that I could have done this movie with.
AP: And our first choice was Casey Affleck. He said “no.” So then we were like “Rosa’s got it.” But he’s a talent. Casey’s a talent.
RS: (laughs) Casey’s a talent. You don’t know him!
AP: Never once met him.
RS: But he is a talent.
There’s some darker themes in the film but there’s also a lot of comedic moments. How do you find the balance between tackling these darker themes and staying comedic?
RS: Well, first of all every comedian is the most depressed person.
AP: I think we’re both pretty dark comedic personalities. But also, I think it’s pretty true to life. Any time you’re devastated in life and you’re crushed in life or something horrible happens, inevitably, there’s that moment where someone does something or you feel a certain way. Something makes you laugh through it and things kind of change. This script had all that within an hour and a half.
RS: My grandfather’s funeral was a riot to me. It really was. It was something you can’t explain. It’s this weird line of emotions that is this grey area that sways back and forth. They’re burying my grandfather and I was cracking up. It was the funniest thing to me, for no reason. That’s a more extreme level of this. But I feel like if you’re in a fight with your boyfriend and you’re like “You know what? You’re a piece of shit!” and you stub your toe, you both want to laugh. You’re both so charged that it’s right there. You could.
AP: This movie had a lot of those moments so it was easy to do.
RS: Like when I was mad at you and I threw a spoon at you.
AP: Was that a spoon?
RS: It was a spatula or something.
AP: It felt bigger than a spoon. I don’t think a spoon leaves that kind of mark.
RS: I ruined Adam Pally’s body on this movie.
AP: I am now like 70-year-old Chevy Chase. I’ve got real coke dementia and I need two knee replacements.
RS: (laughs) It’s really hard for me to work for a cardboard cutout of a human.
You guys beat up on each other constantly throughout this movie. Did it ever get to a point where it got…
RS: Sexy? No I’m just kidding.
Too far? Or sexy.
AP: No, I don’t think so.
RS: Even when he broke my rib it didn’t.
AP: There was one moment that wasn’t when I broke your rib, but when I did get nervous was when we were doing the scene where I first find her and she’s overdosed and Charles (Hood, the director) was like “You really have to wake her up and slap her in the face. You can’t movie slap her.” We did like, 3 takes and I really slapped you like 3 times and by the third take…
RS: I had like a hand on my face.
AP: …her face was kind of swollen and I had beat her up. It felt really bad.
RS: I was just like “give it to me!” And he was like, “No!”
AP: She was into it and I was like, “This is not how I thought this was gonna go.”
RS: I’m in my panties and a hoodie and I’m having the time of my life. And Adam is…he always wants to be very protective of me. He’s so supportive and he’s so protective. The first scene out of the gate, he’s slapping me in the face and manhandling me and showing everyone my ass in panties and stuff. It’s actually kudos to him for staying it cause he could have easily been like “No, I don’t want to beat her up anymore.”
AP: Well, it felt hard. It felt hard to beat someone up like that.
RS: I got my dues. I beat the shit out of you.
AP: Totally. I would come home fucked up. Black and blue all over my back.
RS: I think the scene that almost got close to going too far wasn’t a physical scene at all. It’s when we’re breaking up, basically. We’re yelling at each other in the kitchen. It felt so awful. I can’t explain to you because it was one of those things where we shot that movie in an incubator and it felt like one long night. That moment where it’s daytime finally and it’s the light of day and we had changed as real people and our characters were changing so it was life imitating art. I’m yelling at his face and spitting at him.
AP: We had gotten close. We didn’t know each other that well and then you get really close when you’re in a house working like that. That was the 2nd or last day of the movie. It is, in a sense, a break up because you’re going back to your regular life and the movie is over and all of those emotions were thrown into this really hard scene. I remember leaving work that day kind of nauseous. We really just hurt each other.
RS: You know when you’re crying and it’s really hard to talk and every…line…(fake sobbing). That happened to me and that’s the first time that’s happened. I’ve done explosive scenes and crying scenes and stuff like that but this was the first time that it was so visceral that I was nauseous that day.
AP: I think it was because of the way we shot it and that Rosa and now have a special bond that we don’t find that much.
Rosa, your performance is especially impressive because you’re having this intimate relationship with him but also, you are under the influence almost the entire movie. Talk about that as an acting challenge. Having to remember that you’ve taken a bunch of Xanax.
RS: It was really helpful for Adam to be giving me illicit drugs all the time. No, it was helpful because Adam and Charles really helped me with the “How fucked up am I right now?” We shot basically in chronological order, but not really. We did the first, second and third parts of the movie in that order but not the first of these scenes and then the second part of those scenes in that order. So they helped me. Also, we were living there. We were inhabiting these roles so well that it sort of fell into place. The more fucked up was the easier part obviously cause you can be more out of it but at the same time, I had to be more in it even though you’re tricking your mind into thinking that you want to go to sleep. So every time we cut, I would be the one bouncing off the walls and I would be the one sleeping. It was a challenge and the part that got really hard was…when does that shift happen and what prompts the shift into more soberness? I think the first shift into soberness was when she’s trying to smoke a cigarette and he’s insulting her and taking her cigarette and pissing her off and he’s like “You took me home.” It’s such a jab that she’s like…you know when you get mad and you’re like “Now I’m sober.” Or something scares you and you’re like “Whoa, I’m completely sober now.” Or you’re high and your mom walks into your room and you’re like “I’m completely sober right now.”
AP: When you get the keys and drive away, that’s when you start to get more sober.
RS: It wasn’t just a gradual progression into soberness it was just a storied high and it was difficult but these guys…there’s no ego so I could just be like “How fucked up am I?”
At a certain point the film becomes not about her taking the medication, it becomes about these two people coming together. How did you feel about that taking a back seat in order to really see these two interact?
AP: I felt it to be natural. I felt that often times when you’re in a situation like that with someone…it may not be an exact mimic of an overdose of Xanax but when you’re in the shit with someone and something bad has happened and the two of you have to figure it out…usually, in the calm moments, you go deep and into it with them because you’re now bonded over something. I think it’s only natural in a situation like this while we’re both stuck in this house to get into it with each other. To really see what the other is about. Rosa was saying last night that it’s like a date in reverse. They come home and fuck and it’s kind of passionate and crazy. Then they get to know each other. There’s a certain level of comfortability that’s already there that is what makes it really interesting.
RS: It does move very naturally. It’s very seamless in the shifts and I think that’s a testament to our performances but mostly Charles’ writing and directing. He’s not one of those directors that’s like “My way or the highway!” He’s so collaborative, he has such a good bedside manner with actors. We’re his friend. He has the ability to give us notes without anything else being attached to it. It’s just a note from your friend who is the director. It’s really a testament to all 3 of us trying to make the best movie we can.
AP: I agree.
Last question doesn’t have anything to do with the film, but Adam I have to ask about your stint as host of The Late Late Show.
I think I’ve probably watched it 3 or 4 times.
AP: Oh no, no. Sorry.
RS: It’s so good, dude.
It’s so great. First of all, how much preparation went into what you wanted to try to accomplish with the show and also, your reaction to how people reacted to it and how it was picked up on comedy blogs and Reddit and became popular overnight.
RS: Everything you do, by the way, is like that.
AP: I was shocked that people watched it and liked it, because I was really doing it on a whim. I filled in last second and I realized that and took my shot and did whatever I wanted and this kind of worked out. I wish I could say there was a ton more thought that went to it and that there was a ton of planning but I basically was like…”If they’re giving me no money and no audience, I’m just going to do whatever I want.”
RS: You are obviously really good at…we stayed pretty close to the script of “Night Owls.” It wasn’t very improvised. You knocked it out of the park and I think that you could be given no information and do a way better job than if someone was like “Hey, let me plan out this comedy for you. Here’s what you’re gonna do.”
AP: Thank you, I think that’s what I was trying to do. I think that sometimes if I had planned a lot more bits and stuff it would have felt a little hamfisted and I wanted it to feel like a podcast.
RS: Your man on the street stuff is out of this world funny.
AP: Oh, thanks. That was my buddy that works for NBC Golf, Sam Goldberg, that I stole and made him do my comedy bits. But yeah, it was a blast and I’m so glad that I never have to do it again.
RS: When you went and got frozen yogurt with those people, I died.
AP: With that Jewish family?
RS: You were like “You wanna get frozen yogurt now?” And they were like “What?” and then it cuts to you with them getting froyo and you’re talking to them.
AP: I ate all that frozen yogurt. They were like, “You wanna go?” And I was like “I’ll be there in a second.”
For more coverage of SXSW 2015, click here.