'Goat' Star Ben Schnetzer on Punching James Franco and What 'Drunk History' Can Teach You About Acting
By John Boone
Ben Schnetzer has played an NSA hacker (Snowden), one of the most powerful wizards in Stormwind Kingdom (Warcraft) and a fraternity pledge enduring the various hells of Hell Week in Goat -- and that was this year alone. Only the latter gave him the chance full-on punch James Franco in the stomach, though.
In Goat, out Sept. 23, the 26-year-old actor plays a college freshman navigating the world of cocaine, threesomes and gentlemanliness to prove he's worthy of joining his big bro's (Nick Jonas) house. As for the "Based on Actual Events" hazing at the center of the film, it's likely exactly as you'd imagine -- though that does little in the way of making it easier to stomach. "It's definitely pretty relentless and uncompromising. But that's the movie we all set out to make," Schnetzer excitedly explains during a conversation with ET. "We knew it was going to be--" He pauses a moment, choosing his words carefully. "Fierce."
ET: This is a movie really sticks with you. Some of those scenes are just so tough to watch. Is there one scene that you remember being particularly intense to film?
Ben Schnetzer: The first hazing sequence, where they bring us down into the basement, that was really intense to film. Because there were two big hazing sequences: there's one out in the woods and then there's one where we get brought to the basement. We shot the one in the woods first, which was weird and it was very challenging, but we got through it and at the end of the day, we felt like, "Oh man, we just accomplished something!" There's a scene at the end of it too, where the brothers all break into the room and they cheer for us, so it felt like, triumphant once we finally got through it.
But shooting that basement hazing sequence was one of the last days of filming and I think maybe there was just something about being underground and feeling claustrophobic, but it was just psychologically really difficult. It wasn't the physical stuff. It wasn't the yelling. It was... There are just certain moments when you feel humiliated, and that was the toughest part to get through.
The whole time I was watching, I kept thinking, "I know you're filming a movie and you're on set, but you're still kind of getting hazed! You're still getting stuff poured on you, you're still getting screamed at."
Yeah, it's really interesting to hear [director] Andrew [Neel] talk about it. But looking back, it was kind of like performance art. Our director of photography on the film, Ethan Palmer, was really in the trenches with us from the beginning. They did a lot of handheld work, so we'd do 25-minute takes and it was shot kind of documentary-style. Andrew would call "action" and we would freeform and improvise for 25 minutes during these sequences, with Ethan just roaming and filming. After the first 45 seconds, you forget that the camera is there and it really gives you time to give over and let your self-consciousness go. You get out of your own way, and it's a really lovely feeling as an actor. Even if you are getting, you know, non-alcoholic beer shoved down your throat.
With those harder-to-shoot scenes, do you try to break the tension between takes or do you keep that vibe going?
I think on Goat, because it was such a short shoot, we wanted to keep the engines burning. We didn't really want to take it out of gear. On some films, it is very, very useful to break up the tension and to just air things out and loosen up. But on Goat, we kind of all stayed in it.
Especially those hazing days, Andrew kept us separated. As soon as we'd show up for work in the morning, he would separate the pledges from the brothers. And he wasn't dictatorial about it, but he requested that we leave each other alone between takes-- don't talk to each other. So he would sustain the tension between all of us on set and the mystery, because he wouldn't tell us what they were going to do to us! He would take us into different rooms and give us each an individual chat, so we didn't know what they were going to do to us when we shot the hazing scenes. [Laughs] So, that was fun!
On a more positive note, you and Nick seem to have really developed a brotherly bond in this. What kind of talks or bonding do you have ahead of time to establish that?
That's really cool of you to say. That means a lot, man. We shot this in Ohio and Nick and I got out there about a week before the rest of the cast, and I think we both showed up very game. There was no time to really feel uncomfortable or really feel each other out. We had to just dive into it. And having that week out there, just the two of us, gave us a chance to establish a relationship and a rapport. And I think whenever you have a common goal with someone, you're going to bond. It's really hard to get two people together and be like, "Hey guys, why don't you just bond!" But if you say, "Listen, I need you guys to build this house, or I need you to do this or I need you to make this movie," you'll get to work and you'll get close.
Nick's just genuinely a really great guy, and he's a very easy person to get along with, which is fortunate. Because it would have been a lot tougher of a shoot if he'd been an asshole! We just hit it off. We met and we had a mutual respect for each, and we knew that this film was going to demand a lot from both of us. Neither of us was afraid to ask the other one for help. That's a really lovely position to be in when you're working on something, particularly with another guy your age, to feel supported.
Is James Franco as intense as he seems to be?
You know... [Laughs] I have no idea! Talk about improv, that whole scene with him was totally improvised. I had no idea he was going to slap me in the face! It's so wild, because we just saw him last night at the premiere and he's like, totally docile, totally chill, like the sweetest guy ever. But he was only on set shooting for one day and it was shooting that scene and, yeah, he just totally went off and slapped me. And he's like, "Hit me back!" And I just remember thinking in my head, "Should I hit James Franco right now? Like, is this for real? I don't want to hit him and then get in trouble." But I loved it. I will never forget that day of filming. That was one of the most exhilarating days of filming I've ever had.
Doing a lot of this stuff for real and feeling hungry -- it's really special atmosphere on a set where you have a lot of young guys and none had done a lot of work in the past. I think we were all ready to let it all hang out. I wanted Andrew to have to rein us back. I didn't want him to ever feel like he had to push us further. And Franco really set the bar for that, coming in and just smacking the s**t out of me. [Laugh]
When you say "for real," you actually punched James Franco in the stomach?
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah! Franco's like, "Punch me in the stomach!" and all this stuff and my character is supposed to kind of hem and haw about it. And then he pulled his shirt off and he just slapped me in the face, and I didn't want to slap him back, because there's another scene in the film where I go slap for slap with a guy. But he just kept slapping me in the face until I punched him in the stomach. And then Andrew took me aside after the take and he's like, "Hey man, you OK? Is your face OK?" He's like, "OK, so James said you should hit him back and between you and me, hit him back hard and hit him soon, because the longer you wait, the more he's going to hit you." I was like, "Oh, OK... Thanks."
But that's one of the most memorable scenes of the film and I have to say, James' character is this legacy frat brother who we all admire, who we all look up to, who there are all these stories about and it was a natural fit, because James Franco is a guy we grew up idolizing. He was a big deal for me when I was a teenager, when I first started getting into acting and I saw City by the Sea and I saw him play James Dean and I watched Freaks and Geeks. He was one of my heroes when I was a kid. So, it was completely surreal getting to work with him.
And now you've punched him!
And now I've punched him!
One of the things I'm always curious about is convincingly playing drunk. And all of the guys are very good at it, but you're especially good at playing drunk.
Aww! That's so cool of you to say! We did so much work on playing drunk. Gus Halper, the actor who plays [fraternity president] Chance, he and I have been best friends since we were like five years old. We grew up together. We totally randomly, independently got cast in the film together. But he and I, we tried to put work into playing drunk. You know what was actually a really good resource? You ever watch the show Drunk History? We would just sit down and watch Drunk History together and mimic it. Because he's got that great drunk scene as well, where we're in the legacy room and we've got the cigars and he's like, talking about his dad and it's really uncomfortable. That was also all improvised.
Do you come away from shooting a movie like this with a different opinion on frats?
Yeah, I think so. The fact that it's set in the context of a fraternity is obviously ultra relevant, but for me, I think I came away more with a different perspective on brotherhood and on the relationship between brothers growing into themselves and accepting one another as adults. I grew up with an older brother and the bond between siblings is unlike anything else, and it can be a real journey to accept what that bond is once you both mature into it. Because it's not always what you want, it's not always what you expect, it's not always what you imagined or hoped. But it's one of the most important things in the world. My relationship with my brother is one of the most important relationships in my life. For me, it was more about that than it was about the fraternity.
That said, it's weird, because I spoke to a lot of guys who were in frats in research for the film. Despite all of the horror stories they told me, at the end of every pseudo interview I would do with them, where they would talk to me about all this crazy s**t they would have to do, I'd ask him if he could go back and do it again, would you? And every single one said, "Yeah. In a heartbeat." So, I think the desire to undergo a right of passage is a very natural thing for young men and young women, but I think whenever you start playing with power dynamics and you add booze to the equation and you throw in pack mentality and you take away consequences, that's when you really start playing with fire. And if you have a pledge master who is like, an honest, moral, good person, I think fraternities can be great nine times out of 10. But they can be dangerous. But you don't need me or Nick Jonas to tell you that.