Justin Rice of Bishop Allen stars in Harmony And Me—but don’t mistake him for an actor

Justin Rice of Bishop Allen stars in Harmony And Me—but don’t mistake him for an actor

The indie-pop-playing frontman isn’t making a career out of movie-making

Musicians that try to act (or actors that try to make music) are almost never taken seriously. Not every Marky Mark can become a Mark Wahlberg, and most crossover attempts—30 Seconds To MarsMariah Carey’s Glitter—usually end up as a punchline. Justin Rice, though, is certainly one of the anomalies, far removed from any megastar aspirations: The Bishop Allen frontman is a musician who sometimes acts, and that’s enough for him. The roles he’s taken on—including the lead in the indie film Harmony And Me, which opens this weekend at the Starz FilmCenter—have been less about seeking out posh career choices than about doing favors and saying yes to creative opportunity. “Any time I get to work on a project for a friend, that’s a good idea to do it,” he says. (Hanging out at craft services with Michael Cera isn’t too bad of a deal either.) Rice talked with The A.V. Club about falling into acting, the growing middle ground of indie-rock, and being on the set of Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist.

The A.V. Club: How did you get into acting?

Justin Rice: I had a roommate [Andrew Bujalski] who was making movies. The way that he makes his movies is that he writes parts for his friends, and he puts them into his movies. So, he wrote a part for me in Mutual Appreciation, which was his second feature. It slowly percolated out into the world, and once people started to see it—people who were making similar kinds of movies—they would ask me to be in their movie, and it’s just grown from that. It’s not something that I initially had in mind as something I wanted to do, but I enjoy it.

AVC: Having been in a few features now, have you developed more of an interest in acting?

JR: There’s something that’s nice about it, as opposed to being in Bishop Allen, which is that I get to show up for a few weeks and I’m totally immersed in someone else’s project. I get the joy of realizing somebody else’s idea, but I don’t have the burden of living with it full-time. That’s really nice. I’ve also found that it’s a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. You spend a month—or however long—shooting and every day you’re constantly on the spot and you’re forced to really believe what you’re doing; sometimes that’s really the hardest thing. I appreciate what actors do more now that I’ve tried to do it a few times, just the vulnerability of being exposed and immersed. For me as a songwriter, it’s interesting to think from a particular perspective—like if you’re a character, you’re supposed to behave like that character—and I feel like that’s a good approach to songwriting, too. To imagine who is speaking and then write from that vantage point and sing from that vantage point—it’s been informative for me.

AVC: The characters you’ve played have all been fairly similar: the twenty- to thirtysomething musician/artist, emotionally stunted, always in the middle of a struggle. Are you starting to feel typecast?

JR: Yeah, I feel typecasted. It’s a real downer. [Laughs.] I mean, I’m not an actor, and though I’ve never tried it, I think it would be very hard for me to play someone who was French or autistic or a World War II soldier. I don’t know if I could do any of those things. I think all of those movies I’ve been in are less about taking on roles—I mean, they are to a certain extent—but they’re also about naturally reacting to a set-up situation. I wouldn’t say the characters that I play are exactly me, because I do feel that I buy into a slightly different worldview. But I don’t know what my range is. Maybe I don’t have any range. So maybe it’s fine that I’m typecast, you know? Like would I feel ridiculous if I had to pretend to be something really far away from what I am? Maybe. But maybe I’d enjoy it—I don’t know.

AVC: How much of yourself do you see in Harmony & Me?

JR: In that specific instance, it’s Harmony. A lot of that was [writer-director Bob Byington]. The language was really funny and it was all written in this sort of deadpan, sort of curt, very direct and very sort of sparse language. So my goal in trying to act in that movie was to try to maintain the language that Bob had used in the script. I would react the way I normally would—the mannerisms, the body movements, things like that were honest reactions—but then I would try to tailor my language so it sounded like Bob. His language rolled off my tongue really easily.

AVC: The tagline for the movie is “A physical comedy about yearning.” Is that pretty accurate?

JR: It’s a movie about heartbreak, but not in a normal way. It’s a movie about dysfunction and obsession. I don’t know that you get any sense of the relationship that Harmony lost; it doesn’t really feel that he’s heartbroken to me as much as that he’s fixated on the idea of it. He’s fetishized this relationship, and he’s so fixated on trying to get something back. He’s going through these obsessive motions and then encountering all these people that have all different ranges of odd advice and strange input. More than anything, it’s about a certain kind of humor.

AVC: Harmony was fairly low-budget. How did that experience differ from Bishop Allen being in Nick And Norah’s Infinite Playlist?

JR: Nick And Norah, while it wasn’t a huge Hollywood movie, it was definitely tens of millions of dollars, and the difference is really drastic. A movie with no budget, you’re really just working with what you know and you’re very close to everyone. It feels more like you’re off without permission, making trouble with your friends. But like Nick And Norah, there’s a crew of 75 people and it’s very Hollywood. Everyone has a very specific job and a very specific purpose. It feels like this huge organization; it feels very official. There are different rigorous protocols for dealing with that group of people that are highly regulated, whereas when you’re doing one of these tiny movies, you’re inventing everything all over again. You end up with something that’s played in the same way, but I don’t think that the processes could be more different.

AVC: Bishop Allen’s involvement with Nick And Norah is pretty telling of the trend of smaller bands getting more exposure through soundtracks and commercials. What do you think of this shift in the industry?

JR: Music has been used in commercials and movies for a really long time, and I feel like soundtracks have always been a really important part of motion pictures. It’s not a new thing. You can take any generation, from Scott Joplin songs being in The Jazz Singer, to The Breakfast Club and Simple Minds, for instance. The way that people are listening to music is changing obviously, but in other ways. People aren’t buying records. Music is free—it’s something that you can get everywhere. All of those changes are pretty drastic, but the use of music for soundtracks and commercials is kind of the same. When you write music—in spite of all of those changes—you have to sort of ignore the fact that anyone is ever going to listen to it and just write and make something that you enjoy writing and making. I think there’s a firewall between the actual writing and the part where you try to figure out what to do with it.

AVC: But don’t you think that smaller indie bands have a better chance these days of getting on a soundtrack or a commercial than they did 20 years ago? 

JR: That is true. The world of indie-rock bands is now sort of a burgeoning middle ground of music. A long time ago, there were a few artists that sold lots and lots of records and got tons of exposure; other than that, it was just this underground scene. Now, there are all these indie bands that have a much wider audience, not as big as the huge pop stars and not as small as the underground scene—somewhere in between. That in between region is getting bigger and bigger and bigger, and the top, where all the pop stars are, is getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Like no one is selling 40 million records, but there are a lot of people selling 100,000 records. And so that means that a lot of the soundtracks and stuff aren’t dominated by those same pop stars anymore.

But, at the same time, I don’t know how often being in a commercial really changes your fate. Sure, Phoenix was in a car commercial and that probably helped them, but I feel like that was part of what helped them. They were also in every store that you went to, and they also won a Grammy. To isolate the commercial and say that’s the only reason—no. The reason was that they made a record that was extremely listenable and that appealed to a lot of people. And as a result of that they ended up in a car commercial and then all this other stuff happened.

There are few examples [of bands breaking out], maybe, but in general, I feel that that’s all part of a change that’s already happening. Advertising—they’re not in the vanguard. People who work at advertising agencies aren’t the people who are like, “This is fucking awesome and this is groundbreaking!” They’re not a bellwether. They follow after tastes have already changed, after something is already accepted, like star-fucking, you know? They’re taking something that’s cool, and then attaching that thing that’s already perceived as cool to their campaign in order to make their campaign cooler.

AVC: Co-opting youth subcultures?

JR: Oh, I don’t want to sound like it’s some sort of horrible, evil entity because a lot of those youth subcultures are out hoping to get co-opted, you know? It’s not like there are innocent kids out there who are getting exploited by these evil advertisers. I feel like the people who are making something interesting don’t mind, or even want, to have it used in some way that legitimizes it.

AVC: Are you speaking from experience? You had some interesting turns with Look Back, Don’t Look Back, a Bob Dylan documentary you co-directed.

JR: That was in college. I made that movie with a friend of mine. Our teacher at that time was Ross McElwee—he made Sherman’s March and Six O’Clock News and these amazingly funny and weird personal documentaries. He was the real innovator in the world of personal documentaries. So under his tutelage and watching those kinds of movies, we wanted to make a movie about Dont Look Back, the D.A. Pennebaker movie, that was about us trying to meet Bob Dylan, but where we would take all the aesthetic and narrative cues from Dont Look Back.

We made that, and it played a bunch of festivals and it was fun, and it’s definitely played a lot more than I thought it would. But we also can never really do anything with it because we couldn’t get the rights for the footage. In part because we ended up finding the guy that you talk to [in order] to talk to Bob Dylan, and we kept calling him on the phone without his knowledge and recording all the phone calls. He’s sort of like the enemy in the movie—and he’s the guy who could possibly give us the rights and there’s no way that he would. I wouldn’t if I were him. So we vilified the guy that would possibly give us the go-ahead to show that movie in any larger way—and that’s that.

AVC: So you made a really interesting movie about shooting yourself in the foot?

JR: It’s the way you got to do things most of the time: Shoot yourself in the foot and ask questions later.