Anton Yelchin fills us in on this exciting throw back to the golden age of teen comedies
Charlie Bartlett is one of our favorite films. It is a very funny teen comedy that comes on like a lost John Hughes outing that somehow disappeared off his 80s filmography. It is a true throwback to that golden era of pubescent cinema, and could have easily come from that time period. Yet, it is a little bit more grounded in the reality that faces our teens today.
Anton Yelchin stars as Charlie Bartlett, a rich kid that has been kicked out of several private schools for being a little "too" popular. When he finds himself attending a local public school, he takes on the weight of the students around him by becoming their self-appointed psychiatrist and medication provider. This leads him to a mean butting of the heads with high school principle Gardner, played by Robert Downey Junior. Gardner comes at Bartlett like a refined version of Ed Rooney. In fact, Charlie Bartlett could very well be the lost sequel to Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Consider this his day "on". Both films are iconic in their own right, and rest at the top of the teen genre.
Last week, I obtained some exclusive video interviews with both Robert Downey Jr. and Anton Yelchin, which will be available here shortly. I was also able to chat a little more with Anton about his latest project. Here is that conversation:
When you were developing this character, did you look at him more as a grown-up rather than a kid tackling adolescence?
Anton Yelchin: Well, I didn't look at Charlie Bartlett as a teenager. I think it would be obnoxious of me to look at him and say, "He is a "teenage" character so I shall play him as a "teenage" character." He is seventeen. And I was seventeen when I shot it. I was the same age, so there were a lot of things about him that I could associate with by default. Also, Charlie is just so optimistic and honest. Weirdly, when you get a character that is driven by his desire to be popular, that is not a good thing. But in this case, just by virtue of who he is, he turns it around. He becomes popular by helping people. It becomes a totally positive thing. He does start off by selling Ritalin. Any businessman knows that you have to kick things off with something exciting before people begin paying attention to you. The great thing is that he uses this as a seque into helping other people. He gets his joy from helping his fellow students, and the popularity he gets from that is legitimate. In the film, he realizes that he has to sacrifice some of his popularity because he is not doing everything correctly. It is about him realizing that he is still just a kid. He doesn't make all of the right decisions, even though he does make an incredible amount of right decisions. They are not all correct. He still has some growing up to do. You can't be seventeen and be an adult, and have everything you want. You can't know everything that is going on. One of the most interesting relationships in the film is between Charlie and Principle Gardner. Both of them have to grow up in their own way. Gardner has to learn how to be more of an adult, and Charlie has to learn how to be less of an adult. But they balance each other out. Through each other, they see what they need. We talked about this a lot. They are very similar people. This is who Gardner would have been when he was younger. I would see these scenes between Gardner and Charlie like a duel. Or a chess game. It was interesting. Charlie would have a huge victory, and then Gardner would win a series of little battles. Then Charlie would have another huge victory. Figuratively speaking, they learn that there is no reason to be fighting any more. A lot of people grow up too fast and take themselves too seriously too quickly. The sad thing is that they don't do it in a benevolent way, the way that Charlie Bartlett does it. They are growing up way to fast for different reasons. And they are doing things that they don't realize they shouldn't be doing. The whole point of being a kid is that you only get to do it once. You don't need to get out any faster than you should. That is one of the great things that Charlie learns. That it is okay to just be his age. He learns that he doesn't need to take care of everyone. That he just needs to take care of himself. It is okay to be seventeen and not have the responsibilities of a thirty year old.
Did you ever speak with a psychiatrist to get a feeling for how Charlie might relate to his fellow studnets?
Anton Yelchin: No. I feel like that would have been counter productive. The whole point is that he is not a therapist. He operates on a level of honesty. He looks up what he needs to prescribe as the right medication. But then he operates on a very practical, human level. He judges it on his own experiences and his own understanding of the kids around him. And his own understating of what he is feeling at the time. I don't know if talking with a real psychiatrist would have been the correct group of people to go to in order to find an approach to the therapy sessions that Charlie holds. They had to have a lot more honesty. They didn't come from the same place as a psychiatric evaluation.
Charlie seems to learn that fame isn't all that it is cracked up to be. Do you share those sentiments?
Anton Yelchin: I don't really think about fame in any way. I don't think I have that much fame. I just really love doing what I do. I think it is the greatest thing on earth. I care about it so much. I think Charlie continues to relish what he has gotten himself into until about the forth act of the film. He has gotten himself so deep into it, and he enjoys both the popularity and the fact that he is helping people. In his case, one doesn't go without the other. I feel like, in this world, the filmmaking world, you can make choices and they can go either way. You can choose to be famous and be on a reality show where everyone knows who you are. Or you can choose to be Vincent Gallo. (Laughs) It could go either way. With Charlie, I don't know if he ever learns that popularity isn't all its cracked out to be...(Laughs) Um, I mean, cracked up to be. You see, he does stay popular. It's more about him being able to be a kid. Honestly, I don't see anything wrong with his form of popularity. It's that Mean Girls popularity that is the dangerous kind. Where as Charlie's is honest. Sure, he sells a little Ritalin, but at the end it helps so many kids out. I feel like at the end, not only has Charlie gotten where he wants to be as far as being popular, but he has also gotten where he needs to be as a person. It is very interesting how that is handled in the film. That you never really see the nasty side of popularity. The character doesn't allow for it. He is not an unpleasant person. I feel like he would have learned this lesson at any other school in any other situation. But this is how it works out. He learns it in this place. He is this guy that wouldn't become a suddenly nasty, awful person. He would never let his popularity go to his head. He is an inherently intelligent individual. A caring individual. That is what is incredible. You don't see that very often. Also, if you see that, they're not as weird. Charlie is an extraordinarily weird kid. I think that is great. He is such an odd guy, and he has everything figured out in the end without ever having to jeopardize who he is.
What was the give and take like between you and Robert Downey Junior on set?
Anton Yelchin: Really, just working with Robert in general is incredible. Watching him work is really amazing. He is an incredible actor to learn from. And the freedom he has both physically and mentally is great. It was like going to acting school every day watching him work. Those scenes between us are very much about who wins in that situation. It is always about who has the upper hand and at what point. I think those scenes are very well structured. When Gardner tells Charlie to stop hanging out with is daughter, you think he has the upper hand. But suddenly, he learns that his daughter is in love with this kid. And his daughter is the most important thing in his life. So, he thinks he is losing his daughter to this kid. With that comes all the complications of not only losing his daughter, but also losing his school, and all of these other things. One of the most important scenes is the protest. Gardner comes out with a megaphone and tells everyone to leave. Charlie looks at Susan, and tells her to leave. There is an important moment in that scene where you don't necessarily see Charlie being proud of the fact that he hurt Gardner. He just totally shot this person. It is not a moment of pride for him. Charlie is trying to help Gardner just as much as anything, because he cares about Susan. Because he is so closely related to this family now. He feels for them. He comes in at the end and says, "Look, you may want to see your daughter." That relationship between Principle Gardner and Charlie is one of the most intricate ones because both of the characters are similar. It is weird. It is like they are standing on a seesaw almost.
Charlie Bartlett opens this February 22nd, 2008.