Written and directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (the pair won an Oscar last year for their adaptation of The Descendents), The Way, Way Back is the coming of age story of Duncan, a 14-year-old boy who is forced to go with his mother Pam (Toni Collette) and her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carrell) to the Massachusetts shore for the summer. What starts out as an awful time soon improves when Duncan gets a job at the local water park and meets the enigmatic and hilarious Owen (Sam Rockwell), who serves as his mentor.
Already familiar to television fans as Jack Linden on "The Killing," Liam James makes his leading man debut in this film. We recently got the chance to talk with him about summer vacations, break dancing and his love of Dazed and Confused.
Tribeca: You don’t see coming of age movies like The Way, Way Back anymore. Can you talk about the audition process?
Liam James: I actually put my audition on tape before I read the script. They sent me the script once they asked me to come down to Los Angeles to read for them in person. It was honestly one of the most fun casting sessions I’ve ever had. Nat [Faxon] and Jim [Rash] were there, and we just had a great time, with the material. After I was finished, they asked me to wait an hour until Toni Collette could come in and read with me. I got some additional material and studied it while I waited. I met with her, and she was so lovely. We read together, and it was great. They called me a couple days later and told me I had the part.
Tribeca: While you’ve appeared in films like 2012, The Way, Way Back is your first leading role. Were you nervous at all? How did you handle the pressures of playing the main character?
LJ: I probably was nervous when we first started, but looking back on it, I was fine. Nat and Jim and I just formed an immediate bond from our first meeting. Everything after that was easy. Everyone was very supportive.
Tribeca: Did you find it easier to work with two directors instead of one?
LJ: Yeah, in a way. I could look to both of them for advice on how to play a scene. They’re both such great guys. If they had anything they wanted to tell me, either one of them would come up and say something. I thought of them more as my friends than anything, and we just kind of hung out.
Tribeca: And they come from such a heavy comedy and improv background. Was that fun for you to dive into?
LJ: Yeah. I would sit back and watch them go. I would try to throw in some of my terrible jokes sometimes and they just failed miserably. Since almost everyone on set had experience with The Groundlings – they all just went with it and it was amazing.
Tribeca: "The Killing" is obviously a dark drama. Was it a bit of a relief do something comedic?
LJ: In some ways, yeah. The big scenes that are supposed to be funny, like anything involving Allison Janney, were so much fun to film. Off-screen on "The Killing," everyone was just as kind and funny as the cast of this movie, but on-screen [in The Way, Way Back], there are way more laughs [laughs]. The film has a very “summer” feeling.
Tribeca: You work with a great ensemble cast in this film: Steve Carell, Toni Collette, Sam Rockwell, Allison Janney, Toni Collette and AnnaSophia Robb. Can you talk about what it means to have such experienced fellow actors?
LJ: We started off the shoot at the water park, so all my scenes with Sam were first. We formed a really great bond and understood each other. He’s so funny that we’d be having a great time off-screen and that would carry over into the scenes we were filming. Around the middle of the production when the scenes at the water park were finished, Sam left and Toni and Steve and everyone else arrived.
I was a little bit nervous after having made such a great friend in Sam and was also worried about meeting and working with all these new people. But it was so seamless; I moved right in with Toni and Steve and Zoe [Levin] and everyone. AnnaSophia was there for both parts so it was a really nice transition with everyone.
Tribeca: Was there any rehearsal time?
LJ: Yeah, we had rehearsals before most of the scenes. On the last day we were pressed for time and did not get to rehearse for one scene – AnnaSophia’s big monologue about the ghostfrogs – so we just had to jump in. Under pressure, she just performed amazingly. We always had time to rehearse, but it was tight sometimes.
Tribeca: Obviously, you and the character you play are very close in age. Did you see any parallels between your own life and Duncan’s?
LJ: Yeah, definitely. I think everyone goes through many of the things Duncan was going through. It was really interesting that I got the role in this movie at the beginning of my summer vacation, and Igot to go to the other side of the continent to this whole new place. It was kind of like life was mimicking the movie except, of course, no one treated me terribly [laughs]. I think, in the movie, Duncan learns a lot from going through adversity, and I certainly learned a lot on set.
Tribeca: As a young actor, is there one lesson you took away from one of the established actors you worked with?
LJ: I think to be generous with your fellow actors. I remember in one scene I had to have this smile on my face, so I said to Steve, who was off-camera, “can you do your funny laugh and make me laugh?” We were all cracking up a storm. I think if I were to take away something it would be that I would do that for anyone who needed it. If someone needed something from me for a scene so that they could give the best performance possible, I would try to do that for them.
Tribeca: Was there a particularly challenging scene in the film for you?
LJ: The first scene in the movie. I really wanted to do justice to it because it portrays something that actually happened to Jim when he was just a young boy. His stepfather actually called him a “three” out of “ten.” I just internalized that and thought of [Jim] when Steve and I were filming the scene.
Tribeca: One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when you pop-n-lock at the water park for the very first time. Can you talk about your preparation? How did the actual shooting process work?
LJ: Oh my goodness. I’d done a tiny bit of break-dancing once and I didn’t really love it. It was very funny when I arrived that day and I realized we were going to be filming that scene. I was like, “Alright, where are the professional dancers who are going to be teaching me how to dance and not look like a fool?” And they said, “You’re going to teach yourself, Liam!” So that awkward dancing was very authentic.
Tribeca: What are some of your favorite summer movies?
LJ: One movie – I think it is a summer movie but I watch it throughout the year– is Dazed and Confused. It’s just a feel-good movie to me.
Tribeca: So what are you doing next?
LJ: Uh…enjoying my summer vacation! I just got off school and I’m looking forward to that, but I’d love to continue acting. Just playing it by ear.
Tribeca: It must have been nice to film The Way, Way Back when you didn’t have to worry about schoolwork.
LJ: Yes. I have no idea how it would have worked otherwise because you can only have 3 or 4 hours a day when you’re filming during the school year. We were quite time-crunched to get things done becauseit was only a six-week shoot. And it was the best six weeks of my life.
Tribeca: So far.
LJ: [Laughing] Yeah, so far.
The Way, Way Back is now playing in select cities. Check here for showtimes.