The actor who portrays Ray in the alien invasion movie takes us inside the innovative creative process of The Strause Brothers' movie
Neil Hopkins is an actor that most hardcore fans of Lost will surely recognize. He portrayed Liam Pace, the rockstar, drug-addled brother of Dominic Monaghan's character Charlie on the hit ABC series. And he was featured on the seminal sci-fi show's finale back in May. Post-Lost has been good for Hopkins, as the actor has two new movies in post-production and a role in the upcoming alien-invasion thriller Skyline, which opens in theaters nationwide on November 12.
I recently had the chance to speak with Hopkins over the phone about Skyline, as well as a pilot he recently wrote, and several other projects he currently has on the horizon. Here's what Neil had to say:
I was actually invited down to Hydraulx about a month and a half ago, and I was amazed how they put this whole movie together in such a quick fashion. They said they wrote the script in November, were casting in December and started shooting in January. Can you talk about how this process came about for you?
Neil Hopkins: For me, I just went in and auditioned. It was just a regular audition and there was very little information about the project, just that it was top-secret. I think there was something about how it was in the vein of Cloverfield, or something like that. I went in and, I guess it was in early December. I just went into Hydraulx and read for (co-writer) Liam O'Donnell and I think it was Colin Strause. I just read for them and that was it. I read for the lead role, actually, which Eric Balfour plays. That was it and I heard they were interested in me and I didn't hear anything until January. They said they had this other role they wanted me to play, Ray, and I didn't have to read for it or anything. Next thing I know, I was shooting it. I didn't work on it for very long, but before we shot, they showed up with this reel and the whole cast sat down in this screening room. They showed this thing they had shot over Thanksgiving weekend at the apartment building in Marina del Ray where we ended up shooting at, Greg Strause's apartment. They shot, basically, the teaser and they added all the CGI to it and it was incredible. They put this together in a month and a half and we were just blown away. That got us all pumped because, doing CGI-type movies is difficult for actors because you don't know what you're looking at and you don't know what to react to, etc. So being able to see that trailer got us all pumped because we knew it was going to be super-cool and they weren't going to be cheesy special effects, they were going to be incredible. From there we just started shooting in either January or February and we finished in March. It was all a very quick process, which is extremely unusual.
The Strause Brothers were talking before about how they wanted to do this to free themselves from the studio process. Was it cool to be on a project like this where it's just those guys and their main people, as opposed to a few hundred people
Neil Hopkins: Oh, yeah. It was like night and day. From the casting process on through to the production, it was so much more personable and so much more fun. I've never been on a huge, big-budget movie, but I have a lot of friends that have and I know what it would feel like. Just from my work in television, you get notes from the network and notes from the studio, going through the screen-testing process, things are done rather inefficiently in Hollywood, from the top down. To get to work on a project that will be in contention with any big-budget movie, but was shot like a small type of film, it was a really refreshing experience. Even from a casting aspect, for a movie like that, a lot of times, you need to go back three or four times, this person needs approval, that person needs approval. With this movie, it was like, 'Yeah, I like this guy. Let's use him.' It was as simple as that. Being able to work on that level, in that simple and fun fashion, was really great.
Your character, Ray, is kind of the comic relief for this movie.
Neil Hopkins: I guess you could call me that, yeah. I play a guy who works in visual effects for Donald Faison's character. He's kind of this goofball and would-be womanizer, I guess, but doesn't really get what he wants. They say write what you know and all these people were somewhat based on the people they had known and had worked with. Ray was based on this guy, who I had never met and I don't know his name, but he was just a relentless womanizer. It was a fun character to play. It gave me a lot of leeway and I didn't have to get that serious. A lot of my TV parts are serious roles so it was fun to come in and play this goofball. He's a little bit of a scumbag with the women, but he's someone that I think people will find amusing. It was fun to get to work on a movie like that and add a humorous aspect to it. I mean, you can't take these alien movies all that seriously. I don't think this movie takes itself seriously, so that's one of the other things I like about it. It takes itself seriously to a degree that it has to, but it's not trying to be a social, political allegory. It's just a fun movie.
It was funny when we did the event at Hydraulx. Donald Faison, David Zayas, Brittany Daniel and Eric Balfour were there. When Donald Faison was asked to describe his character, he said he was playing Colin and Greg Strause. We didn't know he was playing a visual effects guy so it was funny how he framed that.
Neil Hopkins: Yeah. It was fun for them to see themselves reflected in that way and make a movie that was very visual-effects heavy and have it in the world of visual effects. I think that was a nod to how not super-serious they're trying to be with this movie and how it's about a kick-ass story and a great alien invasion, but not trying to take itself too seriously.
They shot in just that one building and we were told that they essentially wrote around the limitations of that building. What was that experience like to shoot in a singular location like that?
Neil Hopkins: Yeah, the writers, Liam O'Donnell and Joshua Cordes, who were really great and funny guys, had those limitations and I think that limitations are a good thing with any kind of art. There's also the perspective of what can we create and what cool effects can we create with the landscape that we're working with, etc. I feel that freed them up in a way. These guys just had everything blocked out and figured out and it was really impressive. You felt like you were in good hands because they knew exactly what they wanted.
They wouldn't say what their actual budget figure was, but we talked about how shocked people would be if they actually knew how much this movie cost, since it looks like such a big-budget movie. It will be interesting to see how people react to that.
Neil Hopkins: Yeah. I don't know what it will be with the marketing and everything like that. What we were told at the time was that it was a very low-budget film and, because they could do the special effects so expertly, they knew they could do it on such a low budget. I think, in a lot of ways, it's going to change movies, in that regard. Hopefully, if it does as well as I think it will do, it will show a lot of people in Hollywood that you don't necessarily need to spend $100 million to make a really convincing, special-effects-heavy movie.
I read that you wrote a TV pilot awhile back as well. Are you still trying to shop that around or is there anything happening with that?
Neil Hopkins: My writing partner and I wrote a pilot called Hit Factor. It's kind of an action-comedy. We actually ended up shooting a 22-minute version of the pilot. James Cromwell produced it and starred in it and my friend Sherwin directed it. That turned out really well and we took it to the New York Television Festival and we won Best Drama there. We've had a lot of meetings and the script itself has been in a lot of competitions. There was one for Ion Television where they were looking to make a series and we were in the finals of that. We've been really close on a lot of things, but it's a pretty out-there concept. We know it's going to find a home eventually, but someone is going to have to take a little bit of a risk on it. It's one of those things that we always have on the back burner and we're always getting out there, but we haven't connected the dots quite yet.
It seems like something you really do have to wait on, if the concept is that intriguing, instead of going the other way and altering it for network needs. It sounds like your way is probably the best way to go.
Neil Hopkins: Yeah. It has also worked really well for us as a writing sample because it's very flashy and catchy. Like I said, it's out there and it shows people, 'Hey, these guys can write.' Eventually, it'll find a home, especially with cable television expanding how it is, with all these different networks with original programming. There's just so much more room, so I feel that in the next couple of years we'll find a home for it. It's been a long process. Just to bring it back, it's so rare for something like Skyline, where they write the script in November and shoot it in the winter and by the following November, I guess it was a year turnaround when it hits theaters. It's so rare when that happens. So often, things get tied up for years and years and years. Big things like The Sopranos and Mad Men, these things were around for years before they were finally made. That's typically how it works, so it's refreshing to work on a project that comes full-circle in such a short span of time. As an actor, sometimes if you shoot a movie, it could be two or three years before you finally get to see it. You don't get a whole lot of fulfillment, in terms of seeing it actually completed, but with something like this, it's mind-boggling how quickly they turned it around. I'm really excited it's coming out this week.
Is there anything else that you're working on, either with acting or writing, that you can talk about?
Neil Hopkins: Yeah. I just shot a feature over the summer called Detour. I play an advertising exec who lives up in the mountains and he's driving to work and he gets caught in a mudslide in his Jeep Cherokee. The whole movie is my character trying to figure a way out of this situation. He's buried about 10 or 15 feet under mud. It's a script that a friend of mine, Will Dickerson, wrote about three years ago. He's very, very talented. We shot it on a shoestring budget this summer on the Red camera and it just looks amazing. We'll be finished completely by December. He entered it into Sundance so we're going to do the festival thing and I think it has a pretty good chance. Of any of the movies I've done, I'd say this has one of the best chances of getting distribution. It's a really solid, exciting and nerve-racking film, but also inspiring. It was a great role for me and I'm really looking forward to that coming out. I also did a comedy coming out called Losing Control. I play a completely different character in that. I've got a lot of different projects that will hopefully be coming out in the next year. With the business being the way it is, you just never know. Other than that, I've shot a few television guest-stars on a few different shows, so I'm just constantly plugging away, waiting for that next big thing.
Just to wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who might be on the fence about Skyline, about why they should check it out in theaters on November 12?
Neil Hopkins: Oh, you've just got to see it. You can't judge a movie until you see it and I really think it's going to surprise a lot of people, in terms of how entertaining and exciting and how nerve-racking it is as a film. I think it's going to be a real crowd-pleaser. Just go check it out. You should never judge a movie before you see it. That's my message for the day.
Excellent. That's about all I have for you, Neil. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with anything else you might have coming up in the future.
Neil Hopkins: All right. Thank you. I appreciate it.