Male bonding in Richard Linklater's 'Everybody Wants Some!!,' on- and off-screen

Populated by a library, swimming pool, several donkeys and a pig, the compound of Oscar-nominated director Richard Linklater isn't your typical filmmaker retreat.

And when it comes to helping actors unwind, not many places on the property can compare to its game room.

So on a recent Saturday, over the reassuring din of a classic-rock soundtrack, several dozen people — actors and other guests — hunkered down in said room. There was a bowling alley, a skee-ball machine, a pool table, a pingpong table and, maybe most important, a foosball table.

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"Vickery passes the ball ahead to Powell, who passes across to himself for his usual shot," actor Will Brittain (outgoing, fast-talking) was saying, employing a sportscaster's cadence. He was referring to the team of Glen Powell (charismatic alpha) and Forrest Vickery (mild of manner), hunched in foosy concentration across from their opponents — actor and former baseball star Tyler Hoechlin (cerebral) and actor and spawn-of-Hollywood-royalty Wyatt Russell (sweet, stoner-y. Also barefoot.)

"It's now a game where next goal wins," Brittain continued. On cue, Hoechlin took a side-wall shot that squirted into the goal, prompting a loud high-five with Russell. Powell in turn smacked his hand on the table and jumped up and chest-bumped a wall, knocking askew a large vintage photo. Looking around furtively to make sure no one outside the table had seen it (they hadn't), he fixed the photo, bearing an oh-whoops grin.

The men were part of the dozen or so young actors who call themselves the Cherokees, after the fictional team they depict in Linklater's new college-set, 1980-era hangout comedy "Everybody Wants Some!!" The movie, based on Linklater's own experience as a freshman outfielder on the Sam Houston State baseball team, serves as a spiritual sequel of sorts to his high school-set, 1976-era hangout comedy "Dazed and Confused."

A film about bonding takes some bonding to make. So last year, before shooting, the group spent nearly three weeks on "the ranch" — as they call the Linklater property 35 miles into the rural Austin darkness — to workshop the movie. Now they were back for a reunion on the weekend their film opened the SXSW Film Festival, slipping into their old stories and dynamics.

"I still can't believe the time Guzman pulled that move," Blake Jenner (quietly confident) said as a group formed a spontaneous semicircle around Linklater.

"To pretend that you're injured ...," said Juston Street (intense, a former star college pitcher).

"We felt bad for you, dude," said Temple Baker (gravelly voiced, prone to using words like dude).

Ryan Guzman was enjoying the attention. During a game of touch football during that prep period, the actor faked a pulled hamstring midroute. When defenders gathered to see if he was OK, he sprang up, sprinted wide open to the end zone and caught a touchdown pass.

"Whatever it takes to win," said Guzman (mischievous, obviously).

Linklater (patient, coach-like, 55) laughed. "It was a little 'Bad News Bears.' The actors didn't seem to respond to the director's reference to his own 2005 movie, perhaps because many were still in elementary school when his version came out.

It had been like this during rehearsal more than a year before, the group working out character threads and bits of dialogue during hours of recreational activities on Linklater's property — the kind of activities that mirrored those they would perform in the film. "Everybody Wants Some!!" may go down as containing the film world's first rehearsal that centers on bar sports.

It also may go down as the world's first post-production party that feels pretty much like the making of the movie.

Live the story

Filmmakers use various tricks to attain that loose, hang-out feel — improvised dialogue, theater exercises, cameras that never shut off. Terrence Malick, Linklater's comrade in Austin auteurship, is known for “torpedoing” an actor into a scene at unexpected moments.But few mainstream directors do what "Everybody Wants Some!!" did, which is to take a group of strangers and have them mirror the events of the movie as closely as possible.

Inspired by his injury-abbreviated college career, Linklater had been working on the "Everybody" script for years — at one point, he had nearly 200 pages, almost enough for two movies. Thanks to the cachet of "Boyhood" and the investment of Megan Ellison, he was able to get it made in late 2014. (Paramount released the film in L.A. and several other cities Wednesday and will widen it to more theaters in coming weeks.)

Sweet, raunchy and purposefully plotless, "Everybody Wants Some" is a stealth study in group dynamics — an attempt to understand, over the first few days at a fictional Texas college, how young men of confidence grapple with their newfound freedom.

“Everybody Wants Some” is decidedly set in 1980. When they're not at the house, the groups hangs out a variety of local  country, disco and punk bars, with attire to match. But the the film’s rites are those of many males from any era--competing and cooperating, forging a team with the raw material of trash-talk.

Which is where real life helps.

"Did you try to look like Leonidas from '300'?" Powell, who plays the hyper-articulate philosophical type Finnegan, ribs a newly bearded Street, who plays the off-his-meds pitcher known as Raw Dog.

"I like the beard," Street said, looking momentarily perplexed.

Nearby, Jenner, whose chosen game-room specialty is pool, was bemoaning an ill-fated eight ball. "Not my night tonight, not my night." he said.

Baker overheard him, walked up and, in his Jack Nicholson rasp, offered reassurance. "It'll be all right, boss-man." Baker is also prone to saying "boss-man." One might be tempted to take offense until one realizes he basically calls everyone "boss-man," including Linklater.

The director curated this group carefully. He faced a tricky balance — how to make a giant ensemble movie that leaves room for distinct personalities.

He also had athletic considerations, which motivated his choice of Hoechlin, a former star hitter at Arizona State, and Street, the brother of Angels reliever Huston Street.

Then Linklater spent days talking to and quietly observing them around the ranch — in the game room, at the swimming pool, in pickup football and basketball games, in a screening room.

"The amazing thing about Rick in those situations," said Ethan Hawke, the director's frequent collaborator and a man who's done his share of workshopping at Bastrop, "is that these men think they're just playing foosball. But Rick is working."

The approach suggests, almost casually, an interesting new experiment in Method acting. Rather than take a performer and have him try to live the life of another person, one could carefully observe who he is and craft a role around him. Instead of bringing the actor to the performance, why not bring the performance to them?

So Jenner's Jake, a freshman pitcher and the putative lead, draws from his own self-assurance, Powell's Finnegan from his analytical eloquence, Baker's Temple from his dudeishness.

During rehearsals, Linklater would often chat up the young actors and ask them what they might do in a given situation, much the way he asked Ellar Coltrane how he'd react to a situation before the pair shot a scene in "Boyhood." At one point during "Everybody" rehearsals, for a scene between Jenner and Zoey Deutch (hyper-gregarious, theatrical, holding her own with the boys), he handed his laptop to Jenner and told him to write his thoughts directly into the script.

"You don't see many directors give you the sacred machine," said Jenner.

Added Deutch. "It takes a lot of work to make it look like it's not a lot of work."

They're your teammates

But Linklater created a kind of Texas Millennial Camelot not just as a way to peer in on the actors. He needed to ensure they all became friends. The movie is in many ways about machismo, but it takes place in a team setting, and requires organized sports' strange combination of ego and communal thinking.

"On 'Dazed' I felt like some factions formed on set. And that worked for that movie because it was about high school," Linklater said. "But this movie was about a team, and I really needed all the actors to get along." Early on, he went up privately to several actors and asked if there were any jerks in the group, Powell recalled, “just trying to make sure no piece of rotten fruit ruined the whole bowl.”

Shortly after the foosball game, Powell explained, with the kind of charm and thoughtfulness that makes him a standout in the film, why the games mattered in this regard too.

“There's an energy and intimacy around a foosball table that nothing else compares to,” Powell, an apparent Zenmaster of the spinning plastic figurine, said, adding reflectively: Then, growing reflective, “The game room is where the mind of the young man rests, and Rick fundamentally understood that. Male bonding is the idea of having the confidence to say 'I'm going to take you down.'“

Indeed, there's an old-school vibe to the Linklater game room. These are mechanical games, not the video kind. It's a sly nod to Linklater's own college days, when pingpong, pool and foos served as the ancient corollary of XBox and PlayStation. But these contests offered another benefit--more direct face-to-face interaction than a few people couch-potato-ing in front of a screen.)

The actors got a boost in this regard --the men they were playing.

The Sam Houston State Bearkats had been at the ranch for much of this day. They were Linklater's teammates 35 years ago, and that earned them a certain status. About 10 Bearkats — prolific of both beer cans and baseball war stories — formed a circle on a stone patio in front of the house.

"Link, tell the one about Skeeters," said one to the director.

"He was our coach," explained a second to a visitor, before Linklater could jump in.

"And he did this thing once where he hurt his pinkie in a van door."

"'That hurt so bad, it hurt the one next to it,'" two of them exclaimed nearly in unison

"The rest of the season, any time we wanted to give Skeeters a hard time, someone would make a joke about hurting the one next to it," Linklater explained.

The group then grew incredulous talking about the apparently sad fate that met the pitcher who inspired the movie's unstable Raw Dog character. And they got silent, momentarily, when recalling one of their bunch who played years in the majors but had supposedly been victimized by a minor stroke.

Then the stories started up again.

"Remember the time we told that guy that number was for a girl but it was Skeeters' house?"

"Because there was no caller ID."

"And he hung up right away. But he was so drunk we convinced him it was a wrong number" — the words were barely coming through now through the collective laugher — "and ... he … called … again."

 

At a dinner table shortly after, Vickery was sitting across from several of the Bearkats.
“That's my guy, that's the real-life Coma,” he said to a reporter, referring to his character’s nickname.

The real-life player, Billy Johnson, said, “He's much better looking.”

Later, a Bearkat began a story for at least the third time that evening, telling actor Tanner Kalina (quiet of demeanor, wispy of mustache): "I was the distributor for Lone Star beer in college. That was my job. Which meant we got a lot of free Lone Star. And this was the good stuff. Not Schlitz."

"What's Schlitz?" Kalina said. "I don't think they have that anymore."

Life after college

If you spent a part of the filmgoing early '90s wondering how McConaughey, Affleck, Wiggins and the rest of the Lee High gang from "Dazed" would develop, you'll have similar sport watching "Everybody." It's not entirely clear which of the group of Hoechlin, Powell, Russell, Jenner or the others you'll see soaring into other big roles. But it's a safe bet some of them will.

Some might put money on Jenner, already a star from "Glee." Hoechlin, thanks to his key role in "Teen Wolf," makes a case too. (He also has an interest in directing.)

Powell might be the odds-on favorite, with a tricky role as the silver-tongued skewerer/mentor Finnegan. At one point on this night he and Deutch are sitting off to the side and talking about their careers.

"We're all going to make some bombs," Powell said soberly of future roles.

"Hopefully we get to make them," Deutch replied.

Much of the night, though, wasn't about work. The group was so focused on the male kick-back that Melissa Benoist, the star of TV's "Supergirl" who is married to Jenner, introduced herself simply as "Blake's wife." In the game room, the Cherokees are king.

“We all have our specialties,” Brittain said. “And I can also rap,” he offered helpfully.

Kalina, knowing he had a kind of superiority in one realm — pingpong — walked up to Linklater. "Rick, ready?" he asked the director, known for his table-tennis dominance.

Linklater held off for the moment. His partner, Tina, and their twin daughters were also around, and there was socializing to do. The time for some sizzling spins was not yet nigh. So he continued making small talk with a few guests about one of the great hitters he once played with.

Noticing Linklater's more low-key posture, Baker sidled up.

"You doing OK, boss-man?" he asked.

steve.zeitchik@latimes.com

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on April 05, 2016, in the Arts + Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "Team chemistry - How director Richard Linklater helps bring actors together" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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