Matt Ross is a familiar face. He’s appeared in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator,” Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco” and George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.” He’s been on “American Horror Story” and currently plays Gavin Belson on “Silicon Valley.” But over his two decades as an actor, Ross has been hoping to make that old cliche a reality: What he really (or also) wanted to do was direct. (A graduate of Juilliard’s theater program, Ross attended NYU film school briefly, but dropped out, he says, because he ran out of money.)
With “Captain Fantastic,” he follows up his tiny 2012 indie “28 Hotel Rooms” with a bigger project: It tells of a man (Viggo Mortensen) who has raised his six kids deep in the woods. When they go on a road trip, their ideals are threatened, most menacingly by the father (Frank Langella) of his newly late wife. But Ross didn’t want it to be a simple paean to alternative living, just as he didn’t want to condemn it either.
You’ve worked with some great directors. Were you an actor who would bug them so you could learn their secrets?
No, I made a concerted effort not to be that guy. When they hired me as an actor they were hiring me to fulfill a particular job. I would spend all my creative energy trying not to suck and doing my best to fulfill their vision. On longer shoots, like “The Aviator,” there were times I would go to set if I wasn’t working that day and observe and watch. Martin Scorsese is a lovely man, and there were a couple of occasions when I would sit next to him at the monitor. I was watching what his process was like as a director. We wound up talking Russian cinema, and the next day, in my trailer, there were a bunch of films he had mentioned that he had his assistant bring to me. But I have never been on a set where I’m an actor and think, ‘How would I cover this and how are they covering it?’ I’m completely there to do that job.
You made films since you were a kid, and you’ve made two short films before “28 Hotel Rooms.” Were you hesitant to both direct features and be an actor before?
When I was younger I felt I had nothing to add to the conversation. I realized later that you can reflect on your life even then. When you’re 18 you can write about what it’s like to be 18. I should have been doing that rather than comparing myself to the great artists. A lot of that had to do with feeling inadequate and not being brave enough.