James Badge Dale chats with Awards Daily’s Megan McLachlan about playing a drug-addicted veteran being taken care of by his teenage daughter in Mickey and the Bear.
Writer-director Annabelle Attanasio makes a devastating feature-length debut with Mickey and the Bear. The film follows Montana teen Mickey (Camila Morrone), who’s charged with playing caretaker to her father Hank (James Badge Dale), a war veteran suffering from PTSD and opioid addiction.
The film has a lived-in, authentic quality about it, especially with its atypical Hollywood setting and genuine performances from Morrone and Dale, as well as an outstanding supporting cast.
I had a chance to chat with James Badge Dale about stepping into the role of Hank, how he was able to escape this dark story after the shoot, and what the film says about addiction.
Awards Daily: You play a drug-addicted veteran, and it’s so heartbreaking. What kind of research did you do for this role?
James Badge Dale: That’s the big question everyone asks. When I read this, it scared me so much because I related so much to the material. I’ve worked a lot with veterans over the last 10 years. If you look at the circumstances we’re playing with, with veteran issues and brain injuries and opioid abuse, this felt like a continuation of some of the stories of the people I’ve met along the way. I had a responsibility to these men and women that I’ve met. There are a lot of people that I know in my life that are in that character. On the same side of that, there’s a lot of my family in that character. My father grew up in a very violent, alcoholic household. I think it’s an interesting thing. You have to personalize everything. You have to relate to everything. You have to find those pathways to understand parts of it, for better or for worse. It was a very personal performance and experience for me.
AD: Camila Morrone plays your daughter, Mickey. What was it like working opposite her? I got to chat a little bit about it when I saw her at SCAD Savannah Film Festival.
JBD: I love Cami. I remember the day I met her, the moment I met her, and she was so game and ready to throw down. She’s a marathon runner. And she doesn’t literally run marathons, but I’m just saying as an actor, she comes so prepared for so much with vibrancy and attention to detail. I was so impressed by her. It’s not easy to be a lead of a film. I don’t think people understand what that actual responsibility is. And what that responsibility is is 60 hours a week, when you’re in every shot of a film. Your responsibility to not only yourself and to the director and material, but also to your cast members and to the crew. I was so impressed by her. She’s a leader, and she has a great attitude, and she’s tireless.
AD: That’s great. She’s relatively young as an actress, too, and it seems like a daunting performance. Speaking of which, how did you leave Hank at the end of the day? This seems like a part that would stick with an actor, especially since you talked about it being so personal to you.
JBD: Thank you for asking that. I wish I was one of those actors who just gets off work and shuts it off. I’ve just never been that guy. I knew beforehand that this one was going to take a piece of me. I like to take a few weeks off after working. I was out in Montana and drove out to Portland, Ore., and I had some good friends out there. They drew me a map of the Oregon and Northern California coast, with all these little surf spots. I brought a surfboard all the way from New York. So me and my dog, my one-eyed pit bull, we just drove all the way down the coast of Oregon and just explored and got in the water and tried not to get eaten by large 20-foot great white sharks.
AD: That sounds like a good way to pull back from the film. There’s a scene at the end where Hank thinks Mickey is his wife Vanessa, and he kind of gets aggressive. Do you think he was aggressive like that with Vanessa when she was alive? Or do you think it was his drug-addled state doing the aggression?
JBD: Oh wow. No one has asked that question. Excellent question.
JBD: At the end of the movie, Hank crosses a line that you can’t come back from. He breaks that bond, he breaks that trust. That was difficult to shoot. Do I think Hank has a history of aggression? Yes, I do. I don’t imagine his relationship with his wife was perfect by any means. But at the same time, we’re talking about a character that’s not in the film. She’s passed away. And I always imagined her memory, Vanessa, as someone as Hank’s equal, that probably could put Hank in his place verbally or physically. I always imagined Vanessa as this incredible, strong, powerful woman. Which I think makes it even harder for Hank to lose someone like that and lose someone that vibrant in his life.
JBD: Do you think his addiction is something that existed before his wife’s death? Do you think it was exacerbated after her death?
JBD: When you deal with addiction, a lot of that is genetic. You’re trying to fill a hole that was already there. A lot of these experiences just speed it up. The death of a loved one, trauma, head injury, time in combat. I don’t think Hank is sober one minute of the day, because he can’t handle life. He doesn’t have a drug problem; he has a living problem. It’s a happy talk we’re having. (Laughs)
AD: (Laughs) Right? What a happy chat!
JBD: We had so much fun on set because the material goes in such a dark direction. So in order to survive that, we had to have fun every day on set. Talking about it isn’t easy. We do these stories for the love of the game. This is because you believe in the art form. The best part is watching Annabelle and Cami’s careers blossom.
AD: This is a good showcase for you, too. Don’t belittle yourself! It’s also interesting to me that the film mentions Anaconda, MT being riddled with cancer deaths, hinting that that’s what killed Vanessa, and yet that’s not what’s killing Hank. What do you think the film is trying to say about that?
JBD: It’s the environment. Hank’s cancer is his toxic relationship to his daughter. Hank’s cancer is himself. You put him in this family, in this setting, with these circumstances. They are dealing with the air and water around them. They are dealing with the opioid crisis. They’re dealing with all of these things. Hank’s his own worst enemy. He would be lucky if he went fast from a disease I think. You learn about brain injuries, and they are irreversible. Emotions are just going to get more volatile. I was an amateur hockey player and got hit in the head as a kid. I was an amateur boxer in my 20s. You asked me about my research for this role. I know what it’s like to have so many concussions where I couldn’t open the drapes because the sunlight would literally burrow into my eyes and brain. My thing with Hank and the thing I could relate to, I needed him to be in a circumstance where he was in close-quartered combat. It rattles your brain. I just think it’s important to actually go out and vocalize the mental health aspect of all of this. I had a head injury 10 years ago, but I recovered, but it took a while.
AD: The movie takes its title from an ill-fated bear expedition in the film. What is it about this moment that serves as a turning point for Mickey and her father?
JBD: That was actually a hard scene to do. I have a really good relationship with Cami and Calvin Demba (who plays Wyatt). I think the world of Calvin. It’s basically a betrayal of trust. I wouldn’t say it’s the beginning, but it’s a piece of that. Once again he’s betraying trust. As an actor, you sometimes have to compartmentalize. My job is not to figure out what it means to the audience. That’s Annabelle’s job. My job is to live in that moment and provide her with the material to go back and edit it together and decide what story she’s gonna tell. I will say, that day of filming, we had a lot of fun.
AD: It looked like it. There’s that great scene where Wyatt is talking to Mickey, and behind them, you just see this orange flash that’s you that goes by into the water.
JBD: We actually had a bear show up that day, too!
AD: One last question: Mickey asks the VA psychiatrist played by Rebecca Henderson whether Hank will ever get better, and the psychiatrist tells her no. It’s a stunning moment. Do you think Hank knows he won’t get better?
JBD: There’s this thing where I cut off. (Laughs) On Page 120 when the script ends, it’s none of my business anymore to know what happens. I don’t know what happens to Hank when he wakes up the next morning [following the last scene]. You have to approach this stuff with love and empathy for the characters. In a lot of ways, I have to have hope for him. And I really hope he’s OK. He’s just really damaged. I hope people can relate to that—but not relate too much to that. You try to bring a little humanity to things so that an audience member can not only believe the story, but find the common threads in their own life.
Mickey and the Bear is now playing in select theaters.