What are your thoughts on Toronto?
“I didn’t do a lot of research because I don’t want to be disappointed. But I can speak Canadian: Let’s go play some hockey, ay?”
What’s the buzz about your movie?
“Joe is about a man with a troublesome past. He sees a part of himself in this kid. He can steer the kid the right way — or let the kid go down the wrong path and end up like himself.”
Describe your character in one sentence.
“He’s a fearless young man looking for a father figure — he’s never had a real home, and that’s what his search is all about.”
Our photo shoot at L.A.’s Griffith Park Observatory was inspired by your adoration of James Dean. What do you like about him as an actor?
“He’s the only actor who has truly inspired me. "Rebel Without a Cause" is one of my favorite films. His character has never done anything right and he wants to figure out why he’s bad. Even though it’s an old movie, I feel like every teen can relate to it. Everybody has a rebellious side.”
You have a rebellious side?
“Sure. I mean, I do what my parents tell me, but if there’s something I want to do, I’ll do it and I won’t let anybody tell me anything different.”
Unless that person happens to be Terrence Malick, who directed you in "The Tree of Life" when you were eleven.
“Right, I’ll do what he says. At the time, I had no idea who Terrence or Brad Pitt or Jessica Chastain were. We were shooting for like five months, so going to work with those guys became a part of my life. If you get the opportunity to work with Terrence Malick, you should take it! Myself, I randomly fell into that film. I was the first kid cast and I was chosen out of 10,000 boys.”
Was it a tough audition?
“I went on at least ten auditions. Terrence’s process was unlike anything I’ve ever done before or since. He got like fifteen boys together and let us play football for hours. I remember it felt like we were just playing all day. I was so young that I didn’t realize what was happening. This turned out to be one of the biggest opportunities of my entire life.”
What did you learn from the experience?
“That I love to improvise. That’s how you can go deep down in a character and get stuff that’s not in the script.”
Have you found that other directors are receptive to that?
“Some. I remember working with [director] David Gordon Green on "Joe", and he was really open to my ideas. But not ["Mud"’s director] Jeff Nichols. In his work, everything is based on the script. His script.”
What do you consider your big break?
“Maybe "Mud". It was a good showcase for my versatility. But maybe my big break hasn’t happened yet. I like to try new things — and I love a challenge.”
Did you ever have a normal job that didn’t involve going to work with the likes of Brad Pitt and Nic Cage?
“I have a friend whose dad is in the hay-baling business, and I used to drive their truck through a field. I was thirteen at the time.”
Any plans for higher education?
“I do want to go to college even if it means setting my film career aside because I think college is one thing you need to experience. At least that’s what my aunt says!”