Australian-born, Seattle-based actor Paul Eenhoorn has appeared in low-budget indie films for years, but he came to national attention last year for his performance in Chad Hartigan’s This Is Martin Bonner. As the title character. Eenhoorn played a non-believer who works for a faith-based charity that helps prisoners adjust to freedom upon release from jail. The film has a low-key vibe reminiscent of ‘70s greats like Monte Hellman and Jerry Schatzberg, more than contemporary indie films, and Eenhoorn’s performance makes an impact without any showiness. He makes an equally strong impression in Martha Stephens and Aaron Katz’s Land Ho!, a road movie about two sixtysomething friends who take a vacation in Iceland. Much lighter in tone than This Is Martin Bonner, it contrasts the acting styles of Eenhoorn and Earl Lynn Nelson, a real-life doctor who’s essentially playing his extroverted self. Eenhoorn has had an unusual career trajectory, coming to prominence only in his 60s after starting out as a musician in Perth, Australia. He discussed that path with me frankly.
Steven Erickson: How did you meet Chad Hartigan and get cast in This Is Martin Bonner?
Paul Eenhoorn: I saw an ad on Actor’s Access. It’s a small casting site that runs shoots going on in L.A. Vancouver and New York. I read a one-line breakdown and flew down to L.A. to audition for him. I thought “This sounds perfect.” It was my age group. I read for Chad, and then I went down a second time and read with Richmond Arquette. It was serendipity, being prepared. It was a nice confluence of events. It’s been a good two years.
SE: That was sort of your breakthrough in the U.S., I guess.
PE: At my age! Usually, breakout actors are 18. Actually, one of the comments from Sundance was, “This guy is a very good actor and he’s in his 60s.”
SE: How do you feel about that?
PE: I had all the talent when I was in my 20s. I didn’t have that many opportunities, but I probably wasn’t the person I am now. I probably would’ve ended up dying of a cocaine overdose or choking myself to death in a hotel room. Everything comes in the right order in life, I think. If you keep repeating the mistakes you’ve made...what’s the definition of insanity? Doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. I’ve always felt I had the talent. I’ve done a lot in my life. I’ve written, been in bands, done live TV for a network in Perth. I’m well-trained when it comes to being on a set, which gives you freedom.
SE: Did you start performing as a rock musician?
PE: I did some stage when I was a kid, around 16 or so. I was living in Melbourne and had a band. I was quite young. We weren’t very good. Then I found a band in Perth. We played around for three years. We’re in the “History of Rock’N’Roll,” a book about Perth music. It’s a thick publication because Perth was a lot like Seattle. It kept producing great musicians, but I missed the boat on that. It was fun. I still miss music and singing. One day, I’m going to sing with a big band. My band played covers and some originals.
SE: Whose decision was it to use their music in This Is Martin Bonner?
PE: Chad. I had just got an MP3 off my old bassist. We just reconnected after 30 years. He had an acetate, not even vinyl, track of a song we recorded. Chad said, “Send it to me!” Sure enough, he put it in. It’s the one scene I can’t watch. I don’t know why. Maybe because it’s 40 years since it was recorded, and it fucks with my brain.
SE: Do you still like the music you made then?
PE: Hell yeah! I know all the words still. I’ve been writing music since I was a teenager. I play keyboards. I’m not much of a player, but I can write. That will come along. I’d like to do a musical.
SE: To write one?
PE: I’ve got 200 songs that I’ve written, although not all recorded, going back to the ‘70s. I’ve kept them all. A lot of stuff.
SE: Do you think living in Seattle gives you an advantage over living in New York or L.A.?
PE: New York is too big. L.A. is just not me. I need water around me. Washington State is soft and green. L.A. is hard and brown. You know what I mean?
SE: I’ve actually never been there.
PE: When you fly out of L.A., it’s desert. When you fly into Seattle, it’s water and forest. It’s a totally different environment. L.A., to me, feels a lot like Reno. Whenever I talk to people in L.A., they’re all looking for a dream and have given up on it because life takes you in other directions. It’s not a good game trying to fit into this society, especially if you’re a fruitcake. You’ve got to find your own space. If you’re lucky, you can.
SE: At what point did you emigrate to the U.S.?
PE: 15 years ago. I met my wife in Sydney, before she was my wife. She was flying for United. We had a relationship for about three years. Then I came here and got my green card. That wasn’t as hard as people make out. I had to get married within a certain time.
SE: How did your short Room 13 come about?
PE: I was shooting a pilot for The Divine Marigolds, which was shot in Seattle. It never aired, like most pilots. I thought “What if a soldier got caught up in a sting with an undercover cop? He thinks he’s seeing a hooker, but they’re actually arresting johns soliciting prostitution.” There’s 22 minutes. There’s actually another few minutes I would like back in the film. I had some input from Will Chase, who’s a line producer in Seattle. It’s not easy. I learned everything from filmmaking, as a director/writer/part-producer. I can be proud of it as a first film. I learned what not to do.
SE: What was that?
PE: Don’t let your producer on the set. Apart from that, don’t have a gambling habit while you’re trying to raise money. Those sorts of things.
SE: Was the gambling habit yours or your producer’s?
PE: It was mine. I was really hooked. It was like a drug. That was about four years ago. I went and saw a counselor and sorted that mess out. I’ve been to some dark places.
SE: Both Martin Bonner and Land Ho! are buddy movies of a sort. Are you attracted to that kind of narrative?
PE: Yes, in different ways. Love, Actually, Notting Hill, Field of Dreams, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Marigold Hotel is probably the closest. It’s about real people. They don’t blow things up or have car chases. They actually sit down and talk. The narrative is there, and if it’s good enough, people don’t need all the extraneous crap that the tentpoles include. I actually watched Wolverine the other night and I did enjoy it. But I don’t seek out action films. I seek out non-action films.
SE: I thought it was interesting that in Land Ho!, the characters have fairly mainstream taste in film. They would probably never go see a film like Land Ho!
PE: They might. I would see Philomena before I’d see the sixth version of Transformers, if that was my chance. Let’s see who wants to see Land Ho! I’ll be on-line checking.
SE: You made the unusual step of prospecting for investors for new films starring yourself on Facebook. How did that work out?
PE: I got what I wanted in a week. I have not found a script. I was disappointed in one script I received. I’ve got one person who’s writing a script now. So I haven’t tapped that yet. When it’s time, I’ll set up LLCs. It was not difficult at all. With Indieogogo, it took me a month and a half to raise eight grand. Having a little bit of success helps you raise money, but at the same time, I want something that’s got bona fides and possible commercial success. I’m not an artist. You make Kentucky Fried Chicken. You don’t go out and make something you don’t want to, but you have to have a handle on the fact that you’re doing this with other people’s money.
SE: Well, This Is Martin Bonner was relatively marginal. I’ve seen Chad Hartigan’s tweet where he said he only made $1,500 from filmmaking.
PE: Bonner got distribution, so the executive producer got his money. It was a critical success. The Cassavetes award at the Indie Spirits came with some cash. I think he’s got a little bit more in his pocket since then. I’ve seen the tweet you’re talking about, and I think it was posted before then.
SE: Did you have as much chemistry with Earl Lynn Nelson off-screen as your character did with him in Land Ho!?
PE: No. Because I needed alone time. I needed time to recuperate and get back in my head. When I’m shooting, I’m not there to party. I’m there to work. Part of that working is getting somewhere where it’s quiet and where your distractions are just normal, everyday ones. Earl Lynn is just that way all the time. I have a tendency to withdraw from everyone, so I have time to recoup. We got to know each other better after the film wrapped.
SE: I was curious about that, because other people have told me he’s pretty much playing himself and his real-life personality is very similar to what you see on-screen.
PE: It is. The good thing with him is that if you put a camera on him, he doesn’t change. A lot of people change when you do. I’m always reminded of a scene in For the Love of the Game where Kevin Costner’s pitching a perfect baseball game. There’s a scene where he shuts everything out except the batter and the catcher. I tell people “When you can shut everything out and the twenty people standing in the room are no longer there, you will experience magic.” If you’re really there as an actor, you know when you’ve got the scene down. You don’t need to wait to hear “cut.” You have to forget that it’s cold and windy or that you’re standing in Seattle for eight hours in the rain to get a scene. Iceland is beautiful and rugged, but it’s better in the summer, and we were there in the fall.
SE: How has your minimalist approach to acting developed?
Training, practice, letting go. You’ve seen selfies on Facebook. Your boobs are
in the profile, you’ve got a big smile. What
you’re trying to do as an actor is the opposite of that. Acting for film is not caring
that the camera’s there. You strip it down and go for truth and the
heart. You find that connection with the other people you’re working
with. Personally, I’m always where I need to be when I shoot film, so I
trust that. If I’m hyperactive and I’m in a great mood, then I trust
that, since the film obviously requires it. Colin [his character in Land Ho!] is rather subdued. You can’t have two Earl Lynns on one set, so you need a positive and negative interaction.
Steven Erickson is a writer and filmmaker based in New York. He has published in newspapers and websites across America, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, The Atlantic, Salon, indieWIRE, The Nashville Scene, Studio Daily and many others. His most recent film is the 2009 short Squawk.