During his senior year at the University of Iowa, theatre major Sam Summer faced a tough choice: continue with his education, which had become catastrophically unaffordable, or move to Portland, Oregon and work for his family’s business. Ultimately, Summer realized that he needed to, in his words, “stop the bleeding” and withdraw from the University of Iowa. Though Summer was born in Portland, he’d been living in Iowa since age ten and thought of Cedar Rapids as his home. The move would save him money but it also meant leaving behind a close-knit group of friends, a number of inspirational instructors and the opportunity to perform in campus theatrical productions.
After moving, Summer began the arduous process of auditioning for the scarce acting roles available in commercials, film and television produced in the Portland area. In the end, it took two years of struggle before things finally paid off. During the fall of 2014, his agent booked him an audition for an unknown film. Summer auditioned, fittingly, to play Sam, a member of a punk rock four-piece, The Ain’t Rights, trapped in a locked room and surrounded by violent Neo-Nazi skinheads. He found out later that the film was titled Green Room.
Unfortunately for Sam Summer, the role of Sam ended up being rewritten as a female character when Arrested Development alum Alia Shawkat expressed interest in the film. Despite losing out on his namesake role, Summer was called back to audition for another part in Green Room, playing a young skinhead named Jonathan. It was at this midpoint in the auditioning process when Summer decided to watch Blue Ruin, the previous film by Jeremy Saulnier, Green Room’s director. He was blown away by what he saw.
“I remember thinking, ‘Wow, this movie is right up my alley! I could only be so lucky to work with someone like that’,” said Summer.
It wasn’t until Summer was cast to play Jonathan that he began to realize just what he’d gotten himself into. Going in for a wardrobe fitting, he noticed a corkboard mounted on one wall with photos of the cast. He saw images of Anton Yelchin, Imogen Poots, Alia Shawkat and even Kai Lennox, who Summer knew from the Mighty Ducks franchise. Everyone’s headshot was new and glossy. What caught Summer’s eye though was an image at the very top of the board not like the rest, of Sir Patrick Stewart — it was a lower quality image and led Summer to wonder if maybe they were merely seeking a Patrick Stewart-type to play the leader of the skinheads.
“I wondered if the photo was just for inspiration because, how could they get Patrick Stewart? It just didn’t make sense to me. And then I asked Jeremy [Saulnier], ‘Is that just inspiration that you wanted to have for the character?’ and he said ‘No, we’ve got Patrick Stewart!’ And we both just stood there geeking out about Patrick Stewart being in this film,” said Summer.
The production schedule for Green Room was a tight 30 days and, to further complicate matters, Stewart’s availability was limited. He only had a couple weeks, which necessitated the film being shot out of sequence to accommodate his schedule. According to Summer, the tight deadline fit well with the intensity of the film and only served to focus everyone around the common goal of making the best film possible. According to Summer, Saulnier mitigated this pressure by complimenting his cast. Whenever he was satisfied with a take, Saulnier would play air guitar and, smiling big, he would say: “That’s so metal!”
“He is precious about things, in that he cares about how they look, but he is all about letting things occur organically and naturally,” said Summer, regarding his impression of Saulnier’s directorial style.
In high school, Summer became obsessed with a 1980s BBC series available on Netflix called Playing Shakespeare. Though the cast included internationally renowned members of The Royal Shakespeare Company like Sir Ian McKellen, Dame Judi Dench and Sir Ben Kingsley, but Summer’s favorite episodes featured Sir Patrick Stewart. Summer watched the Stewart episodes countless times and considered him both a personal and a professional hero. Though he initially tried to avoid “geeking out” in front of his idol, Summer quickly found Stewart to be both down to earth and great fun to work with on set.
“I remember being in line with him at craft services. He went up to get some more cookies and when he came back I saw he’d lined his pants pockets with napkins and then put some cookies in his pocket … It’s interesting to see your heroes in those very human moments.”
Another interesting aspect of Green Room is it’s cast of non-human actors. The neo-Nazis in the film have a number of vicious dogs that they unleash on The Ain’t Rights to disastrous results. Working with the canine actors was a unique and wonderful experience for Summer.
“The dogs were so cool — consummate professionals. They were probably the most talented living things on that set … They just know how to play. Human actors should strive to play so well. Also, in some of the scenes in which I have to struggle with a dog, and I’m holding a chain, well when you’re not seeing a dog on screen I’m actually pulling a chain with a human on the other end of it. That way I could really yank without worrying that the dog would bite my face off,” said Summer.
Though Green Room deals with a number of Neo-Nazi characters, the film never attempts to turn them into faceless monsters to be killed. Most of the cast have names and character development and while they are often following orders they don’t do so blindly or without fear. Summer’s character in particular hesitates and even trembles as he commits horrific violence. The cast of Green Room researched similar neo-Nazi groups and found that a sense of belonging is the central motivator for youth who get caught up in white supremacist movements.
“Many Neo-Nazis are looking for solace with like-minded individuals and looking to find acceptance with like-minded individuals. The acceptance is intoxicating and though you don’t always agree [with the politics] the acceptance is addictive. Darcy [Stewart’s character] is an intoxicating figure who is accepting. He takes care of all these people … In a speech he says ‘Remember folks: this is not a party, this is a movement,’ and that’s something you can get behind, a cause. A cause is for you, maybe at the expense of other people, but something that is very human to get behind,” said Summer.
Summer’s time at the University of Iowa’s Theatre Department helped to give him the range needed to portray a character as emotionally complex as Jonathan. At Iowa, Summer learned how to check his ego and the importance of “being OK with being himself”. One of his favorite instructors told him bluntly that “it takes 25 years to become an actor” and that working on oneself is required if one ever hopes to improve their acting. When asked about the difference between theatrical acting and cinematic acting, Summer noted the importance of knowing when and how to project.
“Theatrical productions involve terror. You have to do it right, all the way through, the first time. And you must fix any problems in real time too … In film the sequence is out of order and subtlety is required. You can’t use your theatre voice and your gestures need to be smaller … My advice for anyone wishing to break into film is to film yourself all the time. Study the videos to become comfortable … to help critique your performance. Practice all the time.”
One method for getting comfortable on film would be to do what Summer and his college friends, Mark, Phil and Ben, did — they made short films constantly during their time at Iowa. They also spent a lot of time at The Mill, which Summer misses dearly, along with The Tobacco Bowl, an Iowa City fixture he’s sad to hear has now closed.
In Green Room, there’s a running joke about “desert island picks”. A person must decide on a single album or artist whose music they wouldn’t mind being stranded with on a desert island for the rest of their lives. Responses in the film vary from classic punk albums, to obscure indie albums to Prince. After a moment’s thought, Summer closed the interview with his own desert island pick:
“My first instinct is to pick Weezer’s Blue Album. Yeah, that one has stood the test of time for me. I mean I’d probably get sick of it but I’d still have to take it on principle.”