In the film industry, there’s a notion that actors must carefully navigate between small passion projects and big-budget blockbusters based on IP. It’s the “one for me, one for them” theory. Despite not having complete control (his words, not mine) over his choice of projects, Thomas Mann is successfully carving out a filmography made up of both independent films and commercial pictures.
Over the course of his 12-year career, Mann’s versatility continues to be on full display. He’s appeared in a Sundance hit with Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, a Disney musical in Lady and the Tramp, and an epic monster film in Kong: Skull Island. In his latest film, Chariot, Mann stars in a sci-fi thriller that tackles the idea of reincarnation and if love can transcend time in both the past and future. In conversation with Digital Trends, Mann spoke about the uniqueness of Chariot, working alongside John Malkovich, Project X’s legacy, and a potential future as a director.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: How did Chariot come on your radar, and what made you want to take on this role?
Thomas Mann: Well, this came in a really interesting time because it was at the very beginning of 2021, and I had just been inside for a whole year like everyone. The script was just so unique and so bizarre that even after I read it, I was like, “I don’t fully know what this is about, but I kind of like that.” I think there are so many ideas here that I want to see brought to life, and I think I’m right enough for this character that I know I could help do that. So, yeah, it’s just a very unique story and I couldn’t say no.
In the movie, you play Harrison. To me, Harrison is this regular guy who has to react to all of the craziness and confusion around him. It really plays with your character’s emotions. How did you prepare for a role like this, knowing that it’s not so much what you say, but how you react to all of the stuff around you?
Well, Harrison is very much a character where things are happening to him, and he is just sort of being pummeled by his life a little bit, especially where we meet him. He’s just very lost. He’s not sleeping because of these dreams, and they’re driving him crazy as he tries to make sense of them. I think he’s very depressed, and it’s affected his relationships and his ability to hold down a job. So when we meet him, he’s just sort of really struggling.
That’s why he finally decides to go talk to someone about it, and that’s John Malkovich as Dr. Karn. In the meantime, he moves into this apartment building and meets all of these eccentric characters that … are also much larger than life. He’s like this sort of very insular character. But I knew that I could get away with that because the other characters were so much more extravagant.
You mentioned John Malkovich is in the film. What was it like working alongside him?
It was a dream. I mean, when Adam first told me that he was being cast, I was like, “Wait, John Malkovich, Malkovich? Like, not some other guy with the same name, you know?” And he’s like “No, the real John Malkovich.” And I was like that’s insane. I remember just getting to Little Rock, Arkansas, where we shot this, and getting to sit down with John for the first time. We started rehearsing the scenes and reading through them.
I knew instantly that I didn’t really have to worry too much. He wasn’t going to be a hard-ass, you know. I could just relax, and we had a good time. He was a very playful actor and is constantly thinking of new ideas. By the third day, we were just trying to make each other laugh, and that was a really nice place to get to. We had a ball.
The film has a lot to say about death and reincarnation. However, I think what really grounds the film is the romance between Harrison and Maria. What do you think this film is trying to say about love and death?
Well, I think it brings up an interesting question of what happens. What happened in our past lives, and what are those implications for our present lives and our future lives? Can love transcend our current bodies in our current forms? Are we able to find those other souls out there somewhere? You know, it’s a lot to unpack, but I think that’s what this movie really is. It’s just told in a much more compact way, but there are definitely some big topics that are at play.
Adam Sigal is very hands-on in this project because he wrote the script and directed it. As an actor, do you feel it’s easier to work when someone who wrote the script is also calling all of the shots behind the camera?
I mean, it’s interesting because sometimes you feel like you have to respect what they’ve written a little bit more because they’re right there in the room watching you. So you try to just trust what they’ve written, and if it’s not working, then it’s pretty evident to both parties, you know? As long as the director or the writer is not too precious about it, then they’re willing to meet you halfway and find something that works if something’s not sounding right. Adam was great about that.
There were definitely times when I was just like, “I don’t know what I’m saying here. It doesn’t make sense.” He’s like, “All right, let’s just change it or we’ll do something else.” It was never an issue. Adam’s very collaborative in that way and wants everyone to feel like they are putting their best foot forward and not forcing themselves to do anything that doesn’t feel right or natural.
In regards to your filmography, you have a good balance between bigger studio blockbusters and smaller indies. Is this something you set out to do? Do you have a “one for me, one for you attitude” when choosing your next project?
I wish I had that much control [laughing]. It ebbs and flows, and you take what seems like the most interesting thing for you at that point in time. As long as you’re not repeating yourself too many times, then you really have the freedom to do whatever you want. And I don’t have some master plan where I’m like, “Oh no, I’ve only been doing indie movies. Now I have to go do a big-budget movie.”
I’m really just taking what is offered to me, and saying no occasionally, if I feel like it’s redundant or if I just don’t think that I have an interesting take on whatever it is. But, you know, I would love to star in a big blockbuster movie, but those opportunities aren’t always there. You just try to take whatever the most interesting thing is available to you at the time. I’ve just been really lucky, and I’m really proud of the work that I have been able to do. I just hope that I can keep doing it.
I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t mention one of my favorite comedies, Project X. I believe it celebrated its 10th-anniversary last month. I think it’s one of the most underrated comedies of the 2010s. Did you ever think that a movie like that would be such a hit 10 years later?
You know, yes and no. It’s weird because when we were shooting it, I was just like, “This feels so epic and so raw and authentic to what a party feels like.” Since then, I don’t think I’ve seen a movie that has created that genuine of an atmosphere. I think it stands alone as a really gritty, raw party movie. I’m really just thrilled that I was able to be a part of something that, I don’t know, stood the test of time, even for 10 years. That’s a dream.
I still quote it all the time with my friends and roommate.
It’s the one movie that I get recognized for the most out of anything I’ve ever done. It’s the airport movie. When I’m at the airport, people come up to me for it.
Do you ever see yourself writing or directing a film?
Yeah. Writing is really hard, and I’m not calling myself a writer at all, but I have ideas and things that I’ve toyed with. I’ve written things like a short story that may become something someday, but more than writing, I’d … really like to direct at some point. It just has to be the right thing. I’m really enjoying acting right now. So maybe when I get older, I’ll direct a little bit more unless some opportunity comes my way or if I have some brilliant idea, you know? But in the meantime, I’m really enjoying being an actor, and I’m just lucky that I can still do this after 10 or 12 years, however long I’ve been out here.