Onscreen and off, Sarah Gadon and Logan Lerman have great chemistry. In James Schamus’ adaptation of “Indignation,” based on Philip Roth’s 2008 novel, they play Marcus, a young Jewish collegiate, and Olivia, a troubled fellow student, who begin a turbulent relationship in Ohio during the Korean War. Paired together they’re more comfortable, giggly. Early into our chat, Logan — the 24-year-old former child star of the “Percy Jackson” movies and “Fury” — confesses he doesn’t trust doctors. Gadon — 29 and of “Belle,” “11.23.63” and David Cronenberg’s last three films — jokily chides him for not looking out for himself. Once we get to the film itself, we talk about how they work with other actors and making an unusual film about 1950s America.
Explain how you first met.
Sarah Gadon: He was sitting with a full cape around him, like a six-year-old, getting his hair permed.
Logan Lerman: I had to get my Jew-curls. I don’t have particularly Jewish features.
Gadon: People say, “You have such great chemistry. How did that come about?” I think when you see your leading man just completely emasculated, you think, “I can get vulnerable with this guy. We can do anything together.”
Lerman: I just don’t care.
Gadon: You looked like an old Jewish grandma.
Lerman: I’m comfortable being an idiot. I’m comfortable embarrassing myself.
Is emasculating yourself how you typically break the ice?
Lerman: There is a process to it. When I was really young and learning, I worked with someone who made a huge impression on me, who established the foundation for how I work. I learned to create an environment for everyone, especially if you’re the lead in the film. You set the tone onset for everyone to feel comfortable and free. I don’t care because nobody should care. Everyone should feel comfortable to embarrass themselves and make mistakes.
My knowledge of Philip Roth is comparatively limited, but sometimes his books can feel very male. But his female characters are subtly complex, and moreso when they’re made into films and you see strong actresses playing them onscreen.
Gadon: She’s extremely well-fleshed out on the page. I think James breathed life into her that wasn’t even in the novel. The way [Roth] writes about her is very symptomatic of the time period. I love in the book that she just disappears and there’s no explanation about why. It was very much a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of society and way of thinking. I love the mystery that surrounds her.
Lerman: She’s the most compelling character in the movie.
Gadon: That’s not true. [Laughs]
Lerman: It is for me. She’s a deeply felt person. That’s a gift. I think it’s a gift to feel. A lot of people are pretty numb. A big part of our job is to battle apathy — to make people empathize for characters they don’t know and don’t know they should empathize with. There are very few people I know personally who are as deeply felt as Olivia. It’s rare for someone to be so responsive to other people, to feel things so immediately and deeply.
When you first see Olivia it’s easy to imagine she’s very together. It’s surprising when she finally speaks that she’s so forthright and, eventually, damaged.
Gadon: She’s coded to be one way. She looks like she’s this perfect, unbreakable person. And yet she’s so broken and everything she does is so against type. Olivia was really inspired by Sylvia Path, and I loved reading her journals. Sylvia Plath is so funny and so observant, so together and so smart and so interesting. It was a real reminder for me to balance the character. The real unraveling happens behind closed doors.
Lerman: It’s easy to read that character on the page and make obvious choices: Be obviously a little unhinged.
Gadon: The same could be said of you. It would have been so much easier to make your character a cliche and on-those. Instead you’re very smart and don’t take the obvious routes, which would have ruined the movie.
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