James Ransone is not the type of interview subject you grill with questions. The actor (“Generation Kill,” “Sinister,” “Tangerine”) is a talker. Sitting at an outdoor cafe in the East Village, we talk a little bit about his role in the new Western “In a Valley of Violence.” Ransone admits the role was fun — he gets to square off against Ethan Hawke and bicker with his screen father, played by John Travolta. But it was also a little too like his most famous role: Ziggy on “The Wire” — “a schmuck with daddy issues,” as he puts it. “I think I’m just over those types of characters. I just got bored.”
But the conversation quickly veers to bigger subjects: how we’re all angry all the time, how we may need to think outside of republics and democracies, how we think we’re free but really conditioned by society to fulfil certain needs.
I’m really happy there are Westerns again, because I love the genre. But I can’t help but think it’s also not a good sign. Because the Western is about loners fighting to survive in an inhospitable world. Maybe these films, like "The Hateful Eight," "The Magnificent Seven" and "In a Valley of Violence," are tapping into something about how miserable the world is right now.
It’s probably a couple of things. I think it’s clear that we are peaking in terms of our relationship to the ideals of ourselves as being autonomous individuals thrust into this chaotic world. That makes no sense to us anymore. You see people looking to an old form of American mythology to make sense of why we all feel so isolated in this chaotic world. What better mythological totem than the solitary man on a horse?
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Or the solitary man, like Leonard DiCaprio in “The Revenant,” crawling his way back to society, but only so he can kill a man.
I heard they shoe-horned in the half-breed revenge story as a studio note. [Ed. This is true. It is not in the original story.] The movie would have been so much better if it was “my friends left me for dead, so now I’m going to kill them all.” That would actually feel shockingly relevant. [Laughs] Tom Hardy’s like, “Look, f— him, we’ve gotta move on or else we’re all going to die.” And Leo’s like, “But it’s ME.” And that’s how everyone drives in L.A.: “But it’s me.” Until you can let go of that mentality and realize your own consciousness is intimately connected with everything else, that you are just one bee in a hive, we’re f—ed. It’s just going to keep going the way it is.
Instead we’re all angry at each other, or we form these militant tribes that fight everyone else.
That’s what really scares me: There’s this undercurrent of anger people have with one another. They’re so steadfast in their convictions that they stop listening to one another. That troubles me more than anything else. It’s the day-to-day level of how much aggression there is between people at all times. I live in Los Angeles and you’d think it’d be more mellow than New York. But it’s the same.
Really? Even Los Angelinos are angry?
You see it more on people’s cars. People are like, “I’m here, f— you.” But you can’t run a society if everyone thinks they’re the main character in the movie of their mind. At a certain point you have to say we’re all in this together.
But we don’t. We’re all at each other’s throats, ignoring that many parts of society are on the brink of collapse, or are held together by bubble gum and Scotch tape.
This is where I’ve got to: I had to accept the fact that this is no longer a republic or a democracy. It’s something else now. It’s some sort of corporate-fascist state. And my participation in it in some ways was like holding onto an old idea of colonialism that needs to die anyway. When I find myself accepting that this is an Orwellian hellscape nightmare, by accepting the death of that and moving past fear, I found myself being able to imagine different forms of society. What if we got smaller? What if we create localized, micro-economies?
Look at Iceland. It’s a country of 300,000 people. They decided to jail all the bankers, then let all the big banks collapse. They put all the money in social welfare. And now the economy is doing better than it was pre-collapse. But the reason Iceland works is it’s an island where everyone knows each other. There’s some personal accountability. In my mind, I think what if we were able to scale back and reframe our understanding of economics on a local level? Then there might be a chance for some real change. The only reason we won’t allow that to happen is we keep participating in this joke that’s happening right now.
What we have now — especially when we’re more connected to and aware of parts of the globe where people have it really rough, in part because of those of us who have it good — is not working.
We’ve been conditioned for the last hundred years in this Ayn Rand-Objectivist philosophy that comes from Freudian psychoanalysis, which is to subvert people’s base desire into making them consumers that are trying to fulfil their pleasure centers. There’s other ways to run society. And it doesn’t have to be typical; you can come up with new ideas. People are still scared of words like communism, socialism, even libertarianism. What if there’s something else that’s new? It’s OK! It’s OK to let this go! You’re never going to be able to come to that place if you’re acting under this conditioned precipice of both fear and anger. Fear and anger are nothing but tools that keep you participating in a broken system.
I’ve been saying that social media and people like Trump have activated our worst, most feral and tribal instincts. But that admittedly might be simplistic.
The idea that it’s deep within our makeup and our core — I don’t believe that either. Because human beings are very complex. There’s been a lot of developments since Freud came up with the idea that we’re animals. We’re far more complex. There is that element in us. But that’s not all we are.
And being angry at people doesn’t make things better. These days I try not to yell at strangers who piss me off. I’ve found being nice and patient with them actually makes things better.
It’s cognitive psychology. It’s impossible for us to not mirror one another. Any time you come with aggression, you’ll always be met with aggression. This is not some hippy-dippy s—; this is part of developmental psychology. Any time you can show up to a situation where you’re not afraid and you’re being nice, everything comes down.
Even when you’re righteously angry, it’s better to take the high road.
There’s no such thing as “righteously angry” in the United States. I once watched a nine-year-old boy pass out in shock in Aleppo, Syria holding his 13-year-old dead brother in his hands. I don’t have any problems. That’s happening all day long. I’m not saying your suffering isn’t real, but Jesus Christ, have some perspective.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge