Interview: Hollywood’s Jason Biggs and Stephen Gyllenhaal

28 November 2012

Jason Biggs and Stephen Gyllenhaal talk to Nicholas Tufnell about Grassroots, 9/11 and Nando’s…

I’m greeted at the Mayfair Hotel by two bespectacled and begloved men in bowler hats and waistcoats. They usher me inside and up to the 7th floor, where I’m directed to wait in a small, but rather extravagantly adorned room. After 20 minutes, Biggs and Gyllenhaal stride in, “Hey!” says Biggs, “you look very smart.” I like him already. They sit down, have a momentary struggle with the “burpy water” and begin to talk about their new film ‘Grassroots’, directed by Gyllenhaal and starring Biggs.

“I really wanted to work with him” Begins Gyllenhaal begins , pointing at Biggs, “the whole thing was about trying to get Jason in a movie and I thought how wonderful it would be if I could just capture his imagination, because I knew how much he cared about politics and Bill Campbell….”

Biggs is struggling to keep a straight face; he laughs, “He’s like, really? I guess I’ll write this down but it doesn’t sound right…”

Both actor and director clearly have a close friendship, they’re joking and teasing each other. “Seriously though, I just love the idea of two white slacker dudes utterly inappropriately deciding to run a campaign against the only African American city council member in Seattle – Seattle being a very white city. So there’s nothing right about what they were doing which is great for comedy and great for a conversation about democracy. Also the story itself had some wonderful elements that resolved all of that, and that’s what appealed to me.”

The film, which is based on a true story, was set 10 years ago… “I found that between 2001 and 2010, there was no other interesting story about politics… no, I’m just kidding. It’s actually based on a book that came out, I guess a few years after and the book was really interesting to me. I only read so much, so I wasn’t going to read all the other books about politics and grassroots campaigns so I decided to make that one.”

Gyllenhaal and Biggs burst into laughter again. Whilst the rapport is nice, it’s getting difficult to tell what’s fact and what’s fiction. I hesitantly broach a more serious subject. The film is set during the attacks on the world trade centre, does Gyllenhaal believe his was a post 9/11 film, or does he believe in the notion of there being a ‘post 9/11′ anything?

“I do think there is post 9/11 world. In my own opinion I think the United States did exactly what Osama Bin Laden wanted them to do, which was to go in and expend the treasury and basically get mired in the Middle East. I think grassroots has been around for as long as democracy has been around. There was a documentary on the WTO riots, where there was a much larger grassroots presence in the states in the 90s and then when 9/11 hit, there was a real shutting down of everything. With George Bush there was a real shutting down of grassroots movement – now they’ve come back up again with Occupy Wall Street and everything that’s surrounding that. There are a lot of things around post 9/11 that are really interesting, the Arab Spring, which is also another example of the rise of grassroots democracy and its impact. But yeah, I think 9/11 does play a really important part in the film.”

We’ve been talking mainly about politics and I can’t help notice that Biggs has said surprisingly little. “Stephen’s very cerebral, very smart, very political and it’s something I’ve always been interested in, but I’ve always been very shy talking about politics because I either think I don’t know enough or just felt like it was maybe a topic that was meant to be off limits. I think, especially after becoming friends with Stephen and working on this movie, it’s the exact opposite. You need to talk about it, politics is what dictates our lives. So if anything I think the movie has made me more apt to discuss issues and it has made me more aware of what’s going on around my home locally.”

Isn’t it a bit odd that a man who is shy about politics wants to shoot a film about grassroots campaigning? “At first I read the script and I thought the story was great; I thought these characters were really funny and sweet and I loved the David vs. Goliath aspect. But really for me it felt like it was this underdog story, it was incredibly well written and it was a role that I knew would be different for me and I felt like it could be an opportunity to exercise some muscles that I hadn’t exercised in a while. I’m starting to get fat in those areas. Starting to put on a few.”

I’d heard that, as the film was based on the lives of real individuals, some of the characters came on set to see parts of the production. “In terms of telling the story, Stephen wanted to capture the energy and the spirit of Phil and his story as much as he could, but also allow me to, with his help – to create, to, ummm…” the lights in the room dim. “Did someone just get romantic? Are we going to start making out? Is it spin the bottle time? What’s going on?!”

Biggs looks confused, collects his thoughts and carries on- “Yeah, so anyway, he allowed us to create our own thing as well…” The lights come up again, Biggs realises it was the sun going behind a cloud. “Oh! That was literally the sun? I thought someone dimmed the lights in the room. That’s crazy… So, anyway, I digress – when Phil first came to set, he watched a scene that I was doing and afterwards was like ‘wow, I’ve got to say I really feel like you’ve captured me’ and I was like, wow, thanks, I guess. But there was no intent on my behalf to do that, I’d never met the guy and didn’t really have any source material to work from apart from the book. But I was like, oh yeah of course, that’s absolutely right, I’ve been studying you and following you around for years.”

My 20 minutes are up and before I can say anything, Biggs and Gyllnhaal’s PA starts ushering them out of the room. I heard you like Nando’s?! Is my rather anticlimactic final question as Biggs gets up to leave “I LOVE Nando’s” What do you order? “I order the chicken livers and I order the half chicken, uh, leg and thigh… oh no, the quarter leg and thigh and the half chicken – and I order it HOT. It’s one of my favourite meals in London and I hear there’s a black card? You hear about this thing? So anyway, I gotta get myself one.”

Biggs leaves the room, he’s out of sight, but, rather bizarrely, I can still hear him shouting “I fuckin’ love Nando’s, I’m gonna get me a fuckin’ black card”.