Emory Cohen went to a bad concert the other night. As he’s talking about being bored by the band — and being happy his girlfriend was bored, too, so he didn’t have to pretend — you can glean some out-of-the-way insight into what makes him tick as an actor.
“I guess it sounds terrible, but dong good work isn’t good enough,” Cohen says with a Cheshire grin. “It has to be exciting. It has to be fun. It has to be something you want to watch. You have those experiences when you see a play in the theater and you’re blown away. But they’re rare.”
Cohen jokes that people probably don’t get excited by his films, though his self-deprecation is laced with a gabby seriousness about his craft. At 26, the native New Yorker is a young “It” actor, thanks first to his role as Bradley Cooper’s no-good son in 2013’s “The Place Beyond the Pines” and, lately, for his turn as a painfully and endearingly shy Italian boy in love with Saoirse Ronan’s Irish immigrant in last year’s “Brooklyn.”
The latter was a rare case where Cohen wasn’t cast as tough and out-of-control. He’s just that in “Detour,” a neo-noir indie that just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. He plays Johnny, a neck tattooed no-good-nik who goes on the road with a young law student and a stripper, played by fellow “It” thespians Tye Sheridan and Bel Powley. As Johnny, Cohen swears a lot, waves around a gun, pushes around Sheridan, hits Powley and is generally a loose cannon. But the actor wanted to find his softer side.
“I saw him as a family man. I saw him as a man trying to keep his family together,” Cohen says. “I saw him as a paranoid king. I thought him like King Lear. Then I thought about Denzel Washington in ‘Training Day.’ Then I thought about Jack Nicholson in ‘Five Easy Pieces.’ If you look at those guys they’re both trying to keep their families together. Who doesn’t understand that? Who wouldn’t fight for that?”
At the same time he wanted Johnny to be performative, masking deep hurt. “My mother said something to me last night after watching it: She said, ‘This is the hardest film for me to watch you in.’ I thought it was because I hit women and did drugs. But she’d seen ‘The Place Beyond the Pines,’ where I basically did the same thing,” he recalls. “So I asked, ‘Is it because I’m so mean?’ She said, ‘No, it’s because you’re in so much pain.’ That was probably the greatest compliment I’ve gotten so far.”