Download: Independent Spirit Award Nominee Jonathan Tucker on Playing a Patient Predator in the Devastating 'Palm Trees and Power Lines'
Jonathan Tucker has been acting on film and TV since the age of twelve. He showed great promise as a young actor in films like Sleepers, The Virgin Suicides, and The Deep End. Tucker would go on to fulfill that potential as an adult with remarkable performances in Justified, In the Valley of Elah, and Kingdom.
That experience of being a successful young actor who maintains that success into adulthood gave Tucker a great amount of insight while working with the astonishing young newcomer Lily McInerney on Palm Trees and Power Lines, a dark and disturbing film about an older man grooming a teenage girl for increasingly nefarious purposes. Written, produced, and directed in her feature debut by Jamie Dack, Palm Trees and Power Lines is a remarkably artful film that doesn’t just illuminate a social ill, but makes you feel the full weight of the personal devastation suffered by a young woman who realizes far too late that she is in over her head.
In bringing Palm Trees and Power Lines to the big screen, Jamie, Jonathan, and Lily have delivered the first great film of 2023, one that has been nominated for four Independent Spirit awards in the categories of Best First Feature, Best First Screenplay, Best Breakthrough Performance (McInerney), and Best Supporting Performance (Tucker). In our conversation, Jonathan and I discuss the sensitivity and patience required to tell this painful and all too common story.
Awards Daily: Palm Trees and Power Lines was completely off my radar. My editor got the pitch and said “Hey, did you talk to Jonathan before?” It was four and a half years ago for Westworld, although we ended up speaking a lot about Kingdom. I quickly said “yes,” and asked for a screener, so I could be properly prepared.
Jonathan Tucker: Oh, great. So you got to see it?
Awards Daily: I did. It would be bad form to chat you up without having seen it.
Jonathan Tucker: Yeah. What else do you even talk about? It’s tough sometimes when you do the red carpet for instance and there’s twenty five people lined up and they’re just asking you very generic questions and you’re confident that they haven’t seen the reason why you’re there in the first place. I get it, you can’t see everything. For something like this in particular, what’s so exciting to me about doing the movie was supporting this director, Jamie Dack and the star of the movie, Lily McInerny. You want people to see it because you want people to recognize how talented these people are.
Awards Daily: My wife, who is more attractive than I deserve…
Jonathan Tucker: Oh, we’re in the same boat.
Awards Daily: We’re in the club! [Laughs.] She, like so many women, has experienced someone coming around whose intentions are less than pure.
Jonathan Tucker: Well, I wish her story was unique. It seems like every woman I speak to feels like they’ve had something relatable to this movie. It’s a real condemnation of society. There’s probably some societal things that we could change structurally that might help make this a less common experience as you and I have both discovered it is.
Awards Daily: I’ve never experienced anything like what Lily’s character goes through and men typically don’t at the rate that women do. The film really illuminates the stealthy maneuvers of a person grooming a young woman.
Jonathan Tucker: The easy pill to swallow is the one of just strictly good and evil where it’s binary, and it’s not always binary. All of these terms that we use to talk about acts of violations, particularly as you said about women, tend to be very binary. But these women aren’t falling into this trap where the rug is pulled out from under them, they’re being led to believe something that’s not true. That’s kind of the power. The real evil is how all of this can be layered and how complex it can be so that you don’t even know you’re falling down the hill until it’s far too late. I’m not saying that there aren’t things that happen out of nowhere, but the real evil is when you’re led to believe that something is one thing when it turns out to be another. That revelation usually happens slowly over a period of time, and with methods that make it feel like all of a sudden they’re in quicksand.
Awards Daily: In the case of Lily’s character, Lea, she basically doesn’t know where the line is until she’s crossed it. I think that’s true of a lot of us in life, that you don’t know when you’ve gone too far until you realize where too far is. Was it at all challenging for you to play this character because of who he is? What was it like sinking into this guy’s skin?
Jonathan Tucker: It was challenging at first because I was so worried about the process of making this movie during the height of the #MeToo movement and wanting to make sure that my intentions were always going to be clear with Lily and with the rest of the team that was putting the film together. Once you rip that ticket, you’re off and all the work that you’ve done has got to find itself organically. You often end up on sets with people that you’ve only known for a brief period of time and you’re doing intimate scenes that really demand a much more significant amount of time in real life. I was very concerned about that. When we started, it hadn’t occurred to me how vulnerable I would feel as a man on this project because I want this work to soar. In order for it to soar, it’s going to be dangerous, and it might feel dangerous, but I never want my teammates to ever feel endangered.
The shoot was actually wonderful. Jamie Dack, our writer/producer/director is a real visionary and leader. Her producing partner, Leah Chen Baker was equally outstanding. And then there was just this magnificent kind of force with Lily McInerny. You realize when you go back to look at the movie with a critical eye, that there’s only a scene or two that are really painful to watch. And it’s only painful because you’ve built so many wonderful scenes together. In many ways Jamie Dack, the director, is grooming the audience themselves because all these red flags come up. They came up for me when I was reading the script and I was saying, oh, this doesn’t sound right. This doesn’t feel right. And then immediately my concerns are ameliorated or addressed by the writing. And so, maybe this is a love story, or maybe he is a good guy, or maybe he is just looking after the vulnerable. In retrospect, there’s only a few scenes that were problematic for me to shoot and those were very challenging. I was most surprised by my response to watching the movie, I don’t really have the words to describe how painful, distraught, and angry I was.
Awards Daily: You can’t half-ass this, right? You have to be that guy. Just to set the scene here, you’re playing a man in his mid thirties who’s grooming a young high school girl. Like you said, there are scenes of intimacy, which are handled incredibly tastefully, but if they’re not disturbing, they aren’t being done right, right? Did it help to have a female director on this project to help you know where the lines were drawn?
Jonathan Tucker: I don’t think so, and I don’t want to believe so because I want to believe that we all have an opportunity to tell these stories without having to fully experience them. Not that there aren’t certain stories that should or can be most fully told by certain people. But I think Jamie is so talented. She could tell this story and then could end up telling a story where she wouldn’t have had this personal connection to it as a woman. I think that’s true in this case.
Awards Daily: There isn’t a so-called “big scene” in the film. That was one of the things that I found fascinating. There’s not that one moment where you sit there and go, oh, that’s somebody going for an award. Did you get that sense when you were filming this that you were doing something that had a level of integrity and realism that was a cut above?
Jonathan Tucker: I realized that really on my first conversation with Jamie. This is my 30th year now, paying dues to the SAG-AFTRA union. I tell my kid, “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.” We say that and we say “We do hard things.” I feel like this film coincided with those phrases that I teach my kids. The very first conversation I had with Jamie, I knew she was very special and that her sense of authenticity and her filmmaking talent would end up making the movie successful. Not just for this story, but for any kind of story that she would tell. It’s very nice to have your intuition be able to match up with the final product. That she was telling such a hard story made it all the more important.
There’s always this sort of magic that has to happen regardless of how talented the director is, or the team is, or the script is. There’s no question that that’s not always dependent on the quality of the director. Directors can have misses. Actors can have big misses. And actors can try to take big risks and they might not work. There is also a lot of responsibility or credit due to a filmmaker who gets it right consistently and it was clear that Jamie was going to get it right. I was hopeful that it would be on this project, but I knew that it would be correct in the aggregate. I’m thrilled that she pulled it off on this. Every day of the shoot, you could feel the sense of intimacy that was required for telling this story.
Awards Daily: The first time I ever saw you in something that I can for sure recall was The Deep End, which I think is just a great movie and I wish more people would have seen it. There’s actually some similarities between what your character goes through in The Deep End as a young man and what Lily’s character goes through in Palm Trees and Power Lines. Did that part in The Deep End inform your work on this film at all?
Jonathan Tucker: It’s funny because we did talk about that movie and the experience, but for whatever reason, I didn’t connect the same totally correct correlation between the vulnerability of youth and being taken advantage of. So it probably was there in the veins, but we weren’t putting it in our head. That’s a great connection. I hadn’t intellectualized it, but talking about your wife connecting to it and women relating to this, there is an inherent understanding of power dynamics that play out here that don’t always also have to be sexual. I know I worked with the sexual dynamic there in The Deep End, but there was also the sense of where power lies. I certainly have been interested in that as an actor for quite some time.
Awards Daily: I think that the key word that kept coming to mind while I was watching your performance was patience. The “meet cute,” which in this case is probably a terrible phrase, where you are rolling up on her and you start walking her home while you’re driving your big truck and you’re charming her and you seem sweet. That first sequence—that has to land right. You have to, as an audience member, cock your eye at it a little bit, but also go “Well maybe it’s okay.” How did you kind of modulate that?
Jonathan Tucker: It’s funny because the speed of the film, and then of course the speed of the seduction is also one of physical space. We’re talking about power dynamics. When you feel like you have an ability to escape you can often be more vulnerable and there’s a number of ways in which we modulated that physicality so that it was never overbearing. The same way that if you try to move something forward too fast, it feels uncomfortable for the person who’s going to be entrapped. You want that bird to feel comfortable walking into the cage, and they should have some time in the cage to really get deeper in there before you pull the latch shut. Going back to the idea that Jamie tactically groomed the audience, that “meet cute” had played on both levels.
The scene is threatening at worst, inappropriate or somewhat strange at best. But then there’s a sort of charming quality about the character that helps to allay your fears. We did once have a whole society where you could get into a car and get a ride home from somebody and that was not some sort of forbidden gesture. The fact that he says, look, I’ll just play some tunes for you while you walk home to make sure you get home safe. In some respects, that’s the sort of ability—to drive with two feet, one on the pedal and one on the brake—that allows you to move from one scene to the next – feeling like you’re in safe hands.
Awards Daily: What we’re talking about here is your character’s effort to build trust. The first time you hang out with her, all you do is hang out with her. The first time you kiss her, all you do is kiss her. Because of the way this seduction is paced, even though it feels inappropriate, it doesn’t feel truly threatening at first. When we finally get there and we find out how bad it is, there’s no screaming, there’s no yelling, but it is incredibly unnerving.
Jonathan Tucker: Yeah, because we’ve made you complicit in it as an audience member, that’s the problem. I felt that way when reading this script.
Awards Daily: It’s that funny thing with anti-heroes where you get caught up in watching their story and you can find yourself rooting for them on some subconscious level. We don’t want you to be a bad guy in this movie because the character has charm and he is likable.
Jonathan Tucker: When we pulled up to the motel, that was where I really was like, Ooh, something’s not right here. But then again, you don’t want to believe that something bad could be happening. So you immediately, as an audience member, as a reader of the script, want to entertain the idea that there’s something here that can honorably justify why he lives in a motel. You have the same reaction when the woman is knocking on the door so violently, and he goes up to check in and make sure she’s okay, or so he says. And you’re like okay, at first I thought maybe he’s pimping her out, but no, no, no he’s looking out for her. He must be a good guy. That’s the complicity that Jamie, and the script, and Tom end up evoking out of the people who watched the movie, and that’s what makes it so devastating – when all the things you hoped weren’t true end up being true. We see that all the time with that teacher in the school who everybody loves and he or she just happens to be overly familiar with the students; or that priest who’s overly involved with the kids, and you think “No, that can’t be. I must be misreading it.” And they make you feel like you are. And then when you find out that no, your intuition was correct, it is a shot to the gut.
Awards Daily: I once heard somebody say that a squirrel would never get on an elevator with a mad dog, but human beings will talk themselves into dangerous situations because they tell themselves they are overreacting. I think Lily’s character is doing some of that. I also think that she’s very young and both of your characters live in what feels like the middle of nowhere. She’s not getting attention at home from her mother the way she should be. Her friends are somewhat sketchy and she doesn’t have anywhere to go. Then this seemingly cool guy drops in and all of a sudden she’ feels seen.
Jonathan Tucker: I don’t even think her friends are sketchy. They’re just immature. She is clearly more mature. And here’s this guy who says you have value, you have worth, you have something to offer, you entertain me. It sounds corny but you complete me. If you’re 17, and you “complete” a 32 year old, you have worth, you know? That’s the real hook here. That’s all we’re looking for, we’re trying to tie our self-worth to something that is meaningful. She keeps trying to hook in. She tries to hook in with her mom. She tries talking with her high school friends, and it’s not working. So, she’s completely vulnerable and then she’s made to feel special by Tom.
Awards Daily: Her character is 17 in the film. There’s something about being in that teenage space that everything that happens to you is more intensified. So therefore when you are, in her case, going through this drudgery of life and then you come along, all of a sudden that teenage intensity has a place to go.
Jonathan Tucker: I think that’s totally right. The manipulative quality here is that he’s able to identify it. Tom, he’s able to smell that she is ripe for that. This idea of dressing up in your grandmother’s clothes and being the wolf – “My what big eyes you have…,” is Tom understanding how to bring somebody in. At 17, when you’re searching for that validation and you want to be the best of who you can be, she couldn’t be more available to a wolf like Tom.
Awards Daily: Obviously, Lily has a thin resume at this point in her very young career. I had no familiarity with her before. I had no idea who she was. And now I’m thinking, I don’t know what people are doing in Hollywood, but if they’re not looking at her for all kinds of parts, they’re making a mistake.
Jonathan Tucker: I couldn’t agree more. I’ll say my faith in Jamie from the jump is what made Lily’s magnificence so unsurprising. Jamie said, “All these more well known folks have been put in front of me and it would be easier to get the movie financed but this is the girl.” I, without any hesitation, understood and knew that Jamie was right. So I wasn’t startled in the least by how extraordinary Lily was. Which isn’t to say that I didn’t recognize how remarkable she is. She’s technically a very good actress and she does completely understand the process of filmmaking and the camera and how all of this will be assembled. She’s also extraordinarily intuitive and has a sort of vulnerability about her and an emotional depth that people wish for, hope for, their whole lives to have. She also was able to take care of me.
Going back to that first point about feeling concerned around something being misconstrued in this very sensitive environment. The first day of production, she just reached over and grabbed my finger as they said “rolling” which gave me the nod that this would all be okay. As much reassurance as you can get on paper or in conversations before, just a little comforting touch before the director says “action” says, okay, you have permission to explore this story with me. Let’s rip the ticket and take a jump. She’s extraordinary. The fact that just last year she was battling for a guest star role on Law and Order, I’m thinking, you have no idea what resonance this young woman has and what an extraordinary talent she is. It speaks to the catch-up game I hope and expect will end up happening for her in this business.
Awards Daily: There’s a real beauty in what you said there. I can imagine being the older, more experienced actor in this piece that you probably wanted to make sure you were taking care of her. For her to turn the tables and make sure she was taking care of you speaks to a profound level of maturity and intuition.
Jonathan Tucker: It was a wonderful feeling. That’s absolutely right. When you’re working, you want everyone to take care of each other. and that’s important. What I think people don’t appreciate is the fact that you want everybody to hit as hard as they can and not hold back. That provides for a sense of equanimity that people don’t expect if they’re not working at a high level or with high level actors. If you’re going on set with a movie star, they’re not hoping that you are in awe of them or that you don’t take advantage of a slip or of a moment that arises that you didn’t expect and that you stick to exactly what’s on the page. They want to play. Like a great boxer wants you to come in. They want a sparring partner.
So it’s like you have a young boxer come into a fighting gym and they jump in there to the ring or the cage. You’re an equal, you know? The moment you try to be polite is the moment where things just aren’t as compelling. So it doesn’t matter how thin her resume is or who’s taking care of who, the moment the scene starts, you want this thing to rip, and Lily rips.
Awards Daily: The last scene in the film is you and her on the phone, and you are not on camera at all, or even heard. That scene has to be carried entirely by her visually, but also we have to think about what you might be saying on the other end of that phone. Because we’ve gotten to know you the way that we have over the film, I thought it was a bold way to close the film, to isolate her that way and just see her reactions to your responses.
Jonathan Tucker: I think so too. The story is really about a young woman who ends up coming of age and being completely devastated and broken and alone. So, to be outside of a temporary living space, a motel and this one in particular, where we know people probably just spend a night or two there in this sort of anonymous southern California landscape that is so connected to transients—on the second story trying to figure out how this all happened and how she feels and what she’s going to do moving forward, feels like it encapsulates the entirety of Jamie’s narrative.
Awards Daily: Awards to me are really like political polls. They’re a snapshot in time. They tell you how people feel at a given moment. I often think that if we really wanted to do awards right, we would wait ten years and then look back and see how those films aged. But one thing that I think awards do that I think is super valuable in the here and now is shine a light on films you may not otherwise have known about, With the multiple Spirit Award nominations that the film has received, I imagine it feels really good to have people take notice of this film and have it be given a real chance to get out there and be seen.
Jonathan Tucker: David, I could not underscore more enthusiastically the entirety of your statement. My dad spent 35 years teaching art history at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. I grew up knowing that there’s good art and there’s bad art and it primarily comes down to your point that these awards really should be given ten years from now because some things last and some don’t. I’ve never been a part of such a small crew and I haven’t been so fortunate as to have been on a production that was carried by women the way that this film was with Jamie and with Lily. So the recognition from Film Independent and from the other film festivals from Deauville and Torino and the British Film Institute and Sundance…You hear that these institutions and awards anecdotally are like platforms or beacons that shine a light on some of these smaller stories.
After you’ve been on that set with only sixteen people and your changing van is your Crown Victoria P 71 police interceptor which I’m pulling up to set on, until you really see how these people, the programmers, the voters and the juries that say we want to just put our finger here on this film and this story or this filmmaker, you don’t fully appreciate how important they are. It’s wonderful for me and I want to wring as much out of this as I can for myself because I love acting. I love being employed. I want to tell lots of stories, but I also am mature enough and have worked long enough to say that my greatest hope from this movie and from the recognition that it’s received is that somebody like Jamie will go on to tell many, many stories and make many, many movies, and that Lily will have the opportunity to grow in this business the way that I think you and I both know she will.