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.”
Cohen speaks very seriously about his craft, even as he makes fun of himself for elaborating, at one point, about the evolution of Method acting from the Lee Strasberg years to the bastardized version it is now. He says his own style is sometimes Method but sometimes just “doing my job.” On “Detour” he’d carry his prop gun around at all times, and he really smoked the cigarettes his character smoked. (On “Place Beyond the Pines,” his brand was Newports, which he confesses was also his gateway into smoking.) But there are lines to be respected.
“I don’t believe in taking your process to the point where it affects other people,” Cohen says. “I’ve gone there at times, in my youth, when I didn’t realize the boundaries that needed to be kept. But I’ve gone there. I’ve had a meltdown before almost every pre-production. I take a day to just cry or see people or call up a girl. The ‘method’ for me is ‘Do your job.’”
Cohen has already graduated to bigger projects in addition to smaller ones like “Detour.” Later this year he’ll be seen in “War Machine,” a satire starring Brad Pitt and Ben Kingsley, directed by “Animal Kingdom”’s David Michod. He spent three months largely sitting around and, often, shooting reaction shots.
“I would be standing around and they’d put a camera on me. I had to figure out something to do out of nothing,” he remembers. “It’s a really good exercise in creating moments. If you’re going to put a camera on me I’m going to make it interesting.”
As for “Brooklyn,” he says he’s glad it showed he could be more than a bad boy. “I play those parts well. I got my intensity thing going on. But I’m a big softie at heart — just walking around, talking about my old lady and my mom,” Cohen explains.
Still, it hasn’t resulted in instant success — just more slightly open doors. “Everyone wants to call you an overnight success,” Cohen says. “For the public it is, because they haven’t seen the films I did as a kid or the films in which I was an extra or the student films I did. But it’s slower than you think. I’m just trying to run my business and remain an artist and do good work.”
"Detour" plays this week at the Tribeca Film Festival. Visit the site for tickets and showtimes.