SXSW Interview: Anton Yelchin Talks Building Porter For ‘The Beaver’

By  · Published on April 5th, 2011

The Beaver is just as much Anton Yelchin’s film as it is Mel Gibson’s. Jodie Foster’s film is an ensemble piece, and all the leads ‐ not just Walter Black (Mel Gibson) ‐ are suffering from some form of depression. The greatest fear of Yelchin’s character, Porter, is becoming just like his father. He doesn’t understand Walter, and Porter doesn’t understand himself as well. The character is so uncomfortable in his own voice that he makes a living off other people’s voices; Porter writes school papers for others.

Small character devices similar to that truly add a lot to the film. Being so afraid of becoming his father, Porter even has 5o-something post-its planted on his wall filled with their similarities, so he can avoid doing them.

Here’s what Anton Yelchin had to say about the SXSW reaction to the film, the notecards, and his character’s relationship with Norah (Jennifer Lawrence):

I hadn’t seen the movie. I had never seen the movie with an audience, obviously because I hadn’t seen it. It was cool I got to see it with an audience.

The film got a very interesting and, somewhat, of a polarizing reaction.

You know, listening to the audience yesterday, I feel like people seemed to enjoy it. Honestly, for me, it’s going to be polarizing film. It’s on a very serious subject. People are going to feel however they feel about it after the movie. One thing that I hope isn’t polarizing: people see how great Mel’s performance is. It’s such a great performance, and I hope that people can see that. Nothing should really should stand in the way of appreciating just how good a performance is.

And it’s one of those invisible type of performances, too.

Oh yeah, totally. Personally, when I think about Mel Gibson, I think of Mad Max, Road Warrior, and then the Lethal Weapon’s and the all action movies he did. It’s definitely not the Mel Gibson you think about. It’s Walter Black, this broken, broken man. I really am a big fan of what he did in the film. I saw a lot of beautiful moments on set, but when you see it cut together and the scenes you didn’t get to see, it’s pretty great.

It’s such a subtle performance. My favorite is when he says ‘bye’ to his son, and just the heartbreak of it. You can hear his voice crack when it’s partially the beaver and partially Walter, and there’s just these little special moments in there. The dinner scene where he is having that panic attack and how furious he gets is pretty brilliant. It’s the one thing I hope people walkout with… I mean, who cares about anything else? His job is to act. He does it beautifully.

When it comes to Porter’s note cards, how much detail was put into those and did you and Mel actually perform a lot of those similarities in the film?

A lot of them were ones that I did, but then they rewrote them because my handwriting just sucks. There were ones ‐ like rubbing their eyes ‐ but there ones that Mel and I agreed with. We made lists for it. I kept in close touch with the prop department, because it’s not really something you see in the film, but Porter has that little notebook. Originally, the post-its were suppose to be in there and you’d see him write in it.

It doesn’t really factor in the movie, but I’m glad I had it, because it really helped. I wrote a lot in that journal. I think a lot of those were similar that we just picked up with. There are probably 30 or so that were real, and then they added 10 or something. There were a lot. The fundamental ones are the story points cards, especially the father card. They have a mutual anxiety over their fathers.

Can you recall one of the similarity cards that we don’t clearly see in the film, but were played out?

Yeah, I’m trying to think. There were things I wrote down that were things that Mel did, but I don’t remember how I described them. There’s a whistle. I cant remember if Mel whistled, but I whistled and that was in the script. We both do a whistle under our breaths. There was something that he would do with his eyes, but I cant remember how I described it. There was a thing that he’d do with his eyes where they get bigger, do you know what I mean? I noticed it when he’s talking, because they light up. They light up really intensely, and it’s bizarre.

There’s a lot of things, because I remember studying him through the monitor. We both did the biting of our lips, touching our hair, and the rubbing of our eyebrows was just a shot transition thing. There were a bunch of places where we’re both just biting our lips. I’m trying to think, and I’m sorry if I’m not answering your question.

It’s funny, you work, and then you just kinda let it go. It’s a burden you carry and carry, and then it’s funny how something so intense, just turns into scattered memories that you have. Basically, I would watch the monitor and pickup on little things that Mel did and incorporate them in the performance. If I couldn’t necessarily incorporate them in the performance or if they didn’t fit, I would just write the stickies.

Are devices like that helpful when it comes to creating a fully fleshed out character? I’d imagine getting 50 character traits would be beneficial.

Yeah, completely. I mean, there are other things. Porter wears a rubber band, and there’s a thing in the script with Porter snapping the rubber band. All those devices he uses to control his similarities with his father and the way he punishes himself with his idea of punishment and self-loathing… Mel and I talked about the way self-loathing and self-pity are like two sides of the same coin. You’re so full of self-loathing and simultaneously pity for yourself. The loathing builds because you’re pitying yourself. And the pity builds… it’s like a vicious circle. Definitely all these little physical things they wrote in help you build an outline for the character. It’s like connecting the dots for why he does all these things.

There’s a lot of symbolic devices that Kyle uses in the script like that. It’s interesting how Porter tries to understand people, because he cant understand his own father —

For me, it’s more that he doesn’t try to understand people, but that he understands everyone but himself. He’s willing to take on everyone else’s voice, except his own. That’s the thing: he wants to lose everything about himself. He’s just running away from something that’s getting bigger and bigger and it’s just chasing him. If you imagine someone running and things opening underneath beneath him, the faster he runs, the more things open up and he finally falls through by the end.

He just can’t avoid facing the biggest fear that he has. He can’t avoid it by punishing himself, physically. He can’t avoid it by trying to note the differences, and trying to never do them again. He can’t avoid it by writing other people’s papers. He can’t avoid what is going on, even though he tries. Everything leads to that cycle of pity, loathing, and anger. It’s just this chamber of pain that gets stronger and more unbearable to a point that doesn’t make sense to him, because he’s turning into his father.

Would you say that a part of Porter’s attraction for Norah is wanting to help someone because he can’t find a way to help Walter?

Yeah, it’s funny. I didn’t think about it that way, but that could be very valid. At the time, I had thought more about it as this subconscious desire to do something for someone that… Once again, he’ll point out to Norah what she needs to face, but he won’t face his own things. He’s not willing to face the most fundamental thing in his life. He is running away. He does this insensitive thing, and it comes from a good place. It’s naïve, not malicious, with how he wants to help her. He sees pain in her, and that’s what attracts him to Norah. She’s attractive and intelligent, and suddenly she’s in a lot of pain. Being a person consumed by pain, he’s attracted to it. Simultaneously, though, he’s unwilling to acknowledge his own pain. It’s a poignant thing that she brings him out of that.

[Spoiler Alert]

My final question: Do you consider the ending to be a happy one?

I think it is a happy ending. I think, ultimately, what’s good is that the family is brought back together. The guy is still missing an arm and they’ve still suffered through these things, but ultimately, is it happier than losing their loved one? Is it happier than what you saw in the rest of the film? Sure. What happened is Walter has finally adjusted to being the man that he is, and so has Porter. That’s the danger zone he was in that he did not want to face what was going on. Things didn’t seem like they were going to be okay for him, but suddenly through this awful experience, it’s a new beginning. The ending, really, is a beginning… Now that I think about it, not to say he wont have bumps on the road, but at least it’s starting to pickup a little.

The Beaver opens in limited release on May 6th.

Related Topics:

Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.