Since his turn as lovelorn teenager Oliver Tate in Richard Ayoade’s Submarine, 24-year-old Craig Roberts has become the poster boy for awkward youth. He’s now taken his first turn behind the camera with Just Jim, which covers similar ground to Submarine and is partly based on his own struggles as a teen.
Self-authored, Roberts’ new film is set and filmed in his real-life hometown of Maesycwmmer, Wales. It follows Jim, a teenager whose monotonous life and status as uncool render him an outsider among his peers. Colour is injected into his life when a mysterious yet cool American called Dean (played by Emile Hirsch) moves in next door. Dean guides Jim in his quest for acceptance, though things then take a turn for the weird.
Roberts has been acting on screen since he was nine, and fame clearly hasn’t got to him, despite starring in a string of big Hollywood movies such as 22 Jump Street and Bad Neighbours since he hit the big time with Submarine. He admits that he’s an oddball in real life, unsurprisingly. His feature directorial debut at the tender age of 24 is both odd and very engrossing, bringing in an array of influences from a string of eccentric filmmakers such as David Lynch and Jonathan Glazer. It may also be the start of an illustrious career behind the camera.
Huck had a chat with Wales’ brightest young actor/director since… err, we’ll get back to you… about growing up and why British cinema needs to take more risks – and get weird.
How did you first get into the industry, and what dreams did you have?
It was by luck essentially. I’m definitely not one of these people that was like “I’m born to be an actor” and didn’t really know much about the industry. I remember when I was young following this girl – not like stalking or anything! I knew that she was going to this comedy workshop, so I went there and they happened to be casting a TV show. I didn’t even know this, but they cast me in it. So it then kind of snowballed into this thing I could not remove myself from. So it’s just been one ride of ‘I don’t know what I’m doing’.
What was it like stepping behind the camera as an actor?
It was strange in that I just expected nobody to listen to me or take me seriously because I look about 14. So it was very strange that people actually acknowledged my existence. It’s hard to describe – directing is like pretending you know what you’re doing. You definitely carry some form of confidence in your vision and you’re essentially saying that what you’re doing is good, otherwise you wouldn’t be doing it. Acting, you’re for hire and you come in to tell somebody else’s story.
Did you take a lot from director’s you’d worked with before?
Yeah. Richard [Ayoade] is such a good filmmaker and is a good friend. I definitely like his films. David Gordon Green as well, I like how strange his movies are, and he gets strange performances out of people.
Most directors don’t get to make their first film before they’re 30, let alone at 24. How did you find your vision at such a young age?
I like weird stuff. I’m a really weird person. I like movies that are slightly left-field and heightened. There is a lot of social realism over here and we definitely tell those stories very well. But I just wanted to make a British movie that played with your perceptions and took you to a different place where the guy doesn’t get the girl and everything is slightly nightmarish.
Has this project been in the pipeline for a while?
Yeah, I’d been thinking about ideas and stuff. I suppose I wanted to make a coming of age movie because I find it fascinating that nobody really comes of age, nobody ever knows everything. In school I just didn’t know who I really was and that being myself was the best possible way to go about it. I just thought that, you know, I’d try to be cool, which is the complete opposite of what you should do, and that’s why the American is there. The American is a mirror of what he wants to be and all that is bad – like the Eminem and Dr. Dre song ‘Guilty Conscience’… weird reference!
Are we perpetual teenagers then?
Yeah, pretty much! The only scene that remains from the first draft of the movie now is the underwater scene where the dialogue is subtitled, and Jim’s not able to actually speak. This kid is so downtrodden and not really able to express himself, and even in his fantasy we don’t hear his voice. He’s not even allowed to speak. I just wanted to treat this kid like shit, and give him the hardest challenge to get out of because that’s what I thought the world was like with me.
When I was a teenager I felt like the world was against me and I was completely wrong. Everything’s heightened in your head, and I think that’s where the tone of it came from. Because we’re with Jim, it felt right to have this slightly bizarre tone where something just doesn’t feel right throughout the whole film. He’s definitely symbolic of wanting to be cool and rebel out. I think that’s why Rebel Without A Cause is definitely an influence – I mean, the main two characters are called Jim and Dean!
And the red jacket as well…
And the red jacket! Plus the parents call him Jimbo. There are a lot of references because it’s such a great film. James Dean’s performance was so ahead of its time. The world that Jim lives in is so stagnant and so monotonous and it felt good to have this very weird fable almost come in.
You shot the film back in your hometown of Maesycwmmer. Was that always the plan?
Absolutely. I wanted to write about what I know and because this was such a tall order, and directing was going to be out of my comfort zone. There was something comforting in having it in a town in which I know everyone and that I could go back to my nan’s house after shooting. I think Wales is a beautiful place and its identity is really unique and should be told more. There are not enough Welsh filmmakers.
How did growing up there fit into Just Jim?
I always thought my hometown of Maesycwmmer was very boring. There was nothing going on and it’s so dry, like a Roy Andersson film. I think that definitely gave me a voice in terms of comedy and a tone for the movie. It just felt slightly depressing, and Jim wants to get out. There’s no technology in the film, because there’s no way of him escaping. The only cinema that’s there plays one same old movie over and over again. So there’s nothing about the future, there’s nothing that’s relevant and new that would help him. It’s almost going backwards.
Do you feel that British cinema needs to tell more stories from the fringes?
I think it wouldn’t hurt. There are a lot of great social realist directors. Mike Leigh is phenomenal. Shane Meadows is phenomenal. I don’t think it’s laziness, but with British indie film we just need to be more experimental and not be afraid to do weird stuff. I think weird is cool.
With certain indie films it’s hard to draw the line between a BBC drama and a British independent film on the way they look. They’re all very grey and safe in their choices. An American filmmaker like Paul Thomas Anderson, on the other hand, isn’t being very safe with his choices. I just think we need to be more adventurous like that. British directors like Richard Ayoade and Ben Wheatley do that, and the bloody god – Jonathan Glazer. I also think its important to give young people a chance to make movies.
Why don’t you think Brits are not as prepared to take risks?
I don’t know. I think because we have a certain stamp which says ‘British film’, and that is usually working class people dealing with some sort of trauma, and it’s very good. We’re very good at doing it, and I think we’re the best at doing it. So it’s great that exists.
But at the same time, where’s our Tarantino films? Where’s our escapism? I think there needs to be a nice mixture of both. Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin is a perfect mixture of both – it felt like realism, but also it was so fucking crazy. It’s the same with Richard Ayoade. The Double is so bloody well made, it’s phenomenal. It feels new and it feels unique.
So do you like to bring in those engrossing elements like your idols?
I just want to pose questions. It’s like the Kubrick-Spielberg question: you go into a Spielberg movie if you want to feel good, because Spielberg will wrap everything up for you. Whereas Kubrick will make you question more than you knew before you went in.
Will you be directing more after this?
I hope so. I’m just working on my second project. We’ve written it and are attaching cast at the moment, so hopefully that will go ahead. It’s pretty dark and I think it will be shot in Wales. It’s a full feature – a true story on a paranoid schizophrenic. A nice light comedy!
Just Jim is out in cinemas now.