Chris Kerson talks Cost of a Soul

Cost of a Soul star Chris Kerson talks about this powerful indie project, shooting in Philadelphia, working with director Sean Kirkpatrick, and much more.

Cost of a Soul is a movie most have likely not heard of, unless you were a regular on the festival circuit over the past few years. This drama, which centers on two Iraq War veterans who return to their hometown of North Philadelphia, and who both fall into troubling circumstances, played at the 2010 Hollywood Film Festival, 2010 Cinequest, 2011 Philadelphia Cinefest, where it won the Audience Award, and many others. Yet, despite all these rounds on the festival circuit, Cost of a Soul still hadn't been picked up by a distributor, until a unique opportunity came along. The AMC Theater chain announced The Big Break Movie Contest, which granted the winner distribution in 50 AMC theaters across the country. Cost of a Soul, which is the directorial debut of Sean Kirkpatrick, won that unique contest and will be released in theaters on May 20.

I recently had the chance to speak with one of the stars of Cost of a Soul, Chris Kerson, who plays Tommy Donahue in this gripping drama, who comes home from war to a daughter he has never met, and a wife still mad that he abandoned her. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Take a look at what Chris Kerson had to say below.

Had you known (director) Sean (Kirkpatrick) before coming onto this project?

Chris Kerson: No. A mutual friend of ours recommended me to Sean to play Jake in the film, the Irish gangster. Sean had seen a reel of mine on Facebook and wanted me to play that part, because he saw me as this transformational character that could become Jake. When I got the script, I was blown away by it. Just blown away. It happened over Facebook, so I was so floored that I was handed this script through Facebook. I got about as far as the hypoberic chamber scene between Tommy and his daughter, and fell in love with the character Tommy, and wanted to play Tommy. I thought it was one of the best roles I had ever seen written for an actor. Sean was very insistent that I play Jake, so I screen tested for Jake. When I screen tested for Jake, doing that monologue in a bar, he said, 'I saw more humanity come across from you than anybody I've seen. How do you feel about playing Tommy?' I said, 'Well, that's what I've been saying all along' (Laughs). He came to New York and screen tested me in some key scenes with Judy Jerome, who plays my wife in the film, who I know from a working relationship, she auditioned with me. Sean let me know, right there on the spot, that I was cast, and all I needed to do was to gain weight. He said that I looked like a yoga instructor. I had to gain 25 pounds in three weeks to play Tommy.

We've seen a lot of these post-war movies, where people freak out when they get home. What struck me about this movie is that it's actually their home environment that messes them up, and not the post-war thing. It's weird because it's almost like going back home is worse than being at war.

Chris Kerson: That's very accurate. Your perception is very accurate. Tommy Donahue was a criminal before he gets into the Marines. He thinks its his way out and then, realizes because of his background and having such a bad upbringing, that he can't be a father to his new daughter and he can't be husband to his wife. He kind of stays there in this homicidal/suicidal state. When he gets home, home represents everything good in Tommy, and everything that allowed him to escape from this world that he got into, but through the actions of his wife, he can't escape from it. Philadelphia is not a great homecoming for him, except for the relationship he has with (his daughter) Hope, which I think is the most important relationship in the film.

Aside from bulking up, can you talk about the other kinds of things to get into the mindset of Tommy's character?

Chris Kerson: I talked to Iraq vets who were very generous and willing to talk to me. There were only three weeks, so I couldn't really do what I wanted to do, which is go to boot camp or something. The relayed their experiences, they told me some films to watch which they felt were very accurate to their situation, at the time, in Iraq. I had talked a lot with Sean about what he had written and what his background was, then everything just sort of moved in. I started taking on Tommy's emotional life before we even got to set. I think it was important to me, to be as accurate as I could as a vet, but Sean's concern for me, initially, was the emotional strength the character has in the film. Charles Laughton, one of Al Pacino's mentors, is also my mentor. He used to say, 'An actor is an emotional athlete.' I wasn't really concerned about how I would get to that emotional place, moment to moment, in the film, because I have a technique which allows me to do that. What happened was, all of Tommy's stuff, prior to filming, I started taking on. Therefore, as a result, a lot of what you're seeing is Sean just rolling camera and me being Tommy, getting his reactions right there.

When I think of Philly in movies, I think of either M. Night Shyamalan or Rocky. It's cool to see this very different side to Philadelphia, and that you shot there. Can you talk about experiencing this very different side to the city?

Chris Kerson: (Actor) Mark Borkowski, who plays Jake in the film, the Irish gangster, he is from Philadelphia and he's one of my best friends. We've developed a working relationship because he's a great writer at the Actor's Studio. He introduced me to all his friends and people from Kensington and Fish Town.They were so happy that people were telling their story, and they were just generous people in general, that they just took me in like I was one of theirs. They just allowed me to take on the whole environment. Mark also took me to places where you could see guys who had been through a lot of violence, and talking about their experiences with that. It was one of the most violent, aggressive areas, although it could have been my perception as Tommy going on at the same time, that I had ever encountered. I was at places where people were telling me that they had been in jail and shot people, wanted to shoot people, had been shot. It was important for me to see that, because I wanted to know that Sean's story was not an embellishment.

Has this screened in Philadelphia yet?

Chris Kerson: Yeah, they loved it.

There have been times when movies set in certain cities have been frowned upon because they don't want to be seen in that light.

Chris Kerson: I think people felt that it was a really important story to be told about what was going on. When Sean wrote the script, Philadelphia was the murder capital of the United States in 2007. He really wanted to drive home that this is how people can conduct themselves, including the racism that's depicted in the film too.

Is there anything you would like to say to people who might be curious about Cost of a Soul about why they should go see it on May 20?

Chris Kerson: I hope audiences go see it because, up to this point, it's the most personal experience depicting a role on film. I loved and cared about that character, maybe more than my own self. He taught me a lot about myself, playing that character, so to have what Relativity Media is giving us, the opportunity for such a wide audience to be able to see what I was going through at that time, and maybe validating it, or getting an emotional experience from it. That would be the greatest gift. Hopefully the level of commitment I gave to it and Sean gave to it will really shine through. It's a really rare opportunity that a low-budget film at this level, with no stars, no names, but people all bringing their best work to it, gets to be seen in such a wide way. This might be one of the first times this has ever happened.

That's my time. Thanks so much for talking to me and best of luck with anything else you have coming up.

Chris Kerson: OK. Thank you so much.

You can watch Chris Kerson deliver a powerful performance when Cost of a Soul is released in 50 AMC theaters nationwide on May 20. For more information about the AMC Theaters' Big Break Contest, you can CLICK HERE.