Interview: Craig Roberts – ‘I was a boring teenager'
credit: Dean Rogers
Just Jim director's come a long way since his turn in Richard Ayoade's Submarine
Craig Roberts made a seriously good impression in his breakthrough performance as odd kid Oliver Tate in Richard Ayoade’s first feature film Submarine back in 2010. Five years later and he’s clocked up an impressive CV working with the likes of Mia Wasikowska, Robert De Niro, Timothy Spall, Zac Efron, Channing Tatum and numerous notable filmmakers.
This year sees the release of Roberts’ directorial debut, which he has also written and stars in with Emile Hirsch. Just Jim is a dark, cool, striking and strangely moving coming-of-age film about a loner set in Roberts’ hometown in Wales. He cites fellow filmmakers Ayoade and David Gordon Green as people who have been particularly generous with their time and advice.
‘Richard gave me the role that kick-started my career,' says Roberts, 'and he’s definitely someone I would go to for guidance. David Gordon Green is actually the reason Emile is in the film. He got the script to Emile and he’s someone I’m constantly talking to about film. I’m very fortunate that that’s the case.’
The character of Jim is loosely based on Roberts and his time growing up. ‘I was a boring teenager. I wasn’t that much fun to be around. I just played computer games and went to the cinema. I wanted to tell a story about a kid who didn’t really know who he was or where he slotted into the social status.’ At one point in the film, Jim throws a birthday party that no one comes to and Roberts confides that ‘the party actually happened’ and he was drawing from real life experience.
Roberts has been acting for 14 years now, starting off in TV shows and gradually making his way into film. ‘The Mask made me want to get into acting. I love that movie. I’ve watched it so many times.’ He can’t pinpoint one particular film that made him want to direct, though the filmmakers who have inspired him are ‘Kubrick, Hitchcock and Scorsese. Kubrick is like a scientist,’ Roberts exclaims. Paul Thomas Anderson is the director he would most like to work with because ‘[he] seems like such a normal guy but he’s a genius. His movies are just so well thought out. That much dedication shows just how much he loves film.’
There are elements of one of his favourite films, Billy Liar, in Just Jim in the sense that ‘it’s about being content in your skin,’ he says. ‘Throughout the whole movie [Billy Liar] he’s constantly lying and he fantasises. At the end you want him to get on the train and go to London but he never does. People have said that’s such a bad ending but there’s happiness in that he’s content with staying in that town. I think that’s more powerful. Being content is a very hard thing to find.’
There’s also a Lynchian vibe to his debut feature, which starts with the appearance of Emile Hirsch’s chain-smoking, trouble-making, leather jacket-wearing American neighbour, Dean, who befriends Jim and tries to make him cool. Roberts says, ‘James Dean was definitely the main reference [for the character]. Dean was so far ahead of his time as a performer.’ On Hirsch’s performance, he adds, ‘He channelled some craziness. We’ve had so many different comparisons. Some people have said he’s like Frank Booth from Blue Velvet.’
Just Jim premiered in the Visions strand at SXSW in March of this year to a good response and Roberts says he ‘stupidly decided to sit in the audience but people laughed and people liked it and it was bizarre. I go in expecting people to hate it. I don’t know why but I just do.’
Considering Roberts has made such an impressive feature, you might expect that he studied filmmaking. He did, but not in the traditional sense. ‘Every set I’ve been on, I’ve been watching and seeing what I can learn,' he explains. 'I was looking at it from every different angle, talking to the DPs and talking to the gaffers and so forth. It’s probably wise to go to film school but you can learn so much from just watching films. I don’t have to show up on set and know about every single lens. I just need to know what I want and what my voice is as a filmmaker.’
Reflecting on how to keep grounded after five years of a prolific acting career, and making his own film, Roberts says, ‘I don’t really listen to too much. I avoid that. I’ve been acting for 14 years and I’m not Daniel Day-Lewis. I don’t change who I am every performance.’ And, he slyly quips, ‘I surround myself with people who think I’m terrible.’
Just Jim is on general release from Fri 25 Sep.