The trailer alone for Burn Country is startling and actor Dominic Rains is brilliant in it. We talk exclusively with the Iranian born actor who stars opposite Oscar winner, Melissa Leo and James Franco, playing an Afghan war journalist who resettles in a small Northern California town that will make you second guess which of his zip codes where more dangerous.
You’ve worked on quite a few short films; Is there any particular motivation to do these short stories?
I think it’s an opportunity as an actor. We’re really privileged with long story narratives where we can develop something. I think the same kind of challenges that a director or producer faces when creating short form narratives is having to explain a story in a very small amount of time and being able to make it three-dimensional. I’m curious how much I can tell by not doing too much and by not stretching something out. Getting to the heart or meat of it is what short films have provided me with – the grounds to do that. How do you pop up for a short amount of time and not be something one-dimensional coming in. That’s cool too, you have to move plot along, but for me the satisfaction is being able to find the most of what I can, in the least amount.
Did you find anything shocking or amazing during your research of this role, and what parts of your character were easy to grip on to?
No, not shocking. I received the part three days prior to principal photography. I didn’t do any crazy research on what it means to be a journalist; that wasn’t important to me. As a whole, we’re all pretty familiar with the way journalism works. I trusted that I didn’t need to do much research. For me, it was finding the common denominators in the character, an external hard drive so to speak. Yeah, he’s a journalist, or has a desire to be a journalist. That’s a part of his aspirations, but there’s something deeper rooted and I was just trying to get to the meat of that. That obviously was the existential aspect of it. (There is) this guy who’s trying to ultimately cross over from a place where he was so used to a certain type of lifestyle; escaping death. That is informing a certain type of ritualistic behavior, and then all of a sudden finding himself in this Northern California town. Sure, it has its own challenges, but he doesn’t have RPG’s and bullets flying at him. He’s not running from the Taliban. There’s a dark underbelly: what city or place doesn’t have that? The external world was more or less informing where he was at. I guess to answer your question, I wouldn’t say shocking, but it was this thing where I had this interesting realization. He was this guy who had spent the majority of his life in these situations, being the fixer for these journalists, always escaping death, and always being very alert to what was happening. That made it become his habit and way of life. Now he’s in this new town and trying to – we’re such creatures of habit- bring the same sort of idealism into this new area. It’s interesting because you realize it doesn’t really work. Where do you go, “Okay I no longer have to identify with that”? Where do you go that that is no longer necessary? He had a function and a purpose that is no longer necessary, and you can’t let it go. We identify with these parts of ourselves so much, because they give us this sense of purpose to the point where a lot of the times, human beings will hold on to their miseries and their past. We want to. If you’re an artist then you want it more because it gives you more to work off of. I don’t mean to go off on a tangent, but it’s so fascinating. This guy is trying to penetrate deeper and find a meaning. “All that stuff in Afghanistan, all that escaping death, it must have been for a reason. I have meaning, there’s a meaning to why I am. I can’t do this; I have meaning.” Realizing as deep as he’s going, there’s nothing there. He doesn’t have to be anything or anyone, and that is why I’m a fan of this film whether I’m in it or not. It’s interesting, the juxtaposition of that scene where that happens, and at the same time a baby comes into the world. It’s such a beautiful ironic juxtaposition where this new life was happening and was his new life. His realization isn’t needed; it doesn’t have to have a meaning. It was what it was. Then this baby is born, in some weird type of way. This optimistic melancholy that saturated/permeated the air and gave rise to slowly tell him, “I can let this thing go. I don’t have to be anything or anywhere.” They built the film to leave it to your interpretation. That was probably one of the most relieving aspects of the film. I didn’t have to really do much, but just stay very alert, aware, and receptive to what’s happening. (I had) to allow the elements and these variables around me to guide me. As far as the shock goes, that’s as much as I could tell you.
Do you think that in the past 10 years it’s become easier for international actors to get lead roles?
Absolutely. I think there are still strong challenges, but I think it has because we are so much more informed than we used to be. I grew up in Iran, I grew up in London, and I grew up in Dallas and LA now. I’ve done a small amount of travelling. Just being born in the east and growing up in the west, that was enough for me to know the world is a very big place. A lot of people aren’t privy to that. They don’t get to see that. They’re stuffed up in a bit of a bubble. If that’s all you know, then that’s all you know. I can’t fault you for that. It’s really unfortunate that certain dramatic moments in our history have happened. Also certain technological advancements have happened that have integrated humanity and forced us to go, “I cannot shy away from me, I cannot pretend you do not exist, therefore I need to know what it is”.
It’s our own monsters at the end of the day that we create in our head. There is no enemy outside of the one you’re creating. You view me differently than the way I view myself. I took a terrorism class in college and one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. There are a lot people we view as terrorists, and a lot of people view us as terrorists. There is never the hand up. We take a position outside of who we believe we are, which good people who love are and are compassionate, we just have a lot of dirt on our golden nuggets, so to speak. They need to be cleaned or brushed off. I feel like these moments in film, TV, narrative, and story. These great documentarians who are bridging this gap allowing us to realize how vast this world is. My mind is so much vaster than I realize. If I want to go to the depths of hell in my mind, I can. I don’t have to.
If I want to be segregated, I can, and if I want hatred it’s right there. However, if I want to go towards happiness, peace, and camaraderie and what I believe this whole thing is about; service to your fellow man. Yes, 100% it has given rise to international actors to do more work because it’s not them, it’s that we’re finally going, “We have to understand what’s going on in the world. We have to recognize there’s something far greater than what I expected.” There is/should never be an air of superiority or inferiority, some complex that we’ve created that other people have picked up on the way, or we’ve picked up on the way. We’ve created this kind of barrier, this conflict, this butting of heads. It’s not necessary. If that happens when you hire an actor, and all due respect to white actors who have been an inspiration to me, then if it means that, then great.
There’s nothing that makes me happier than when I lose my role to a woman, which has happened a number of times. Because I feel like there has been this idea that’s screwed men and boys. It’s this idea of how men should be and in turn has given men a completely skewed perspective of how a relationship should be, and how a woman should be treated. As much as we step into it, I feel like we’re stepping into this state of consciousness and are hindered by old habits. This (relates) to the story with Osman (played by Dominic Rains) who has settled into these old habits and old survival mechanisms. That’s what happens when an existential crisis happens. What you thought was real, doesn’t exist. What you actually thought was reality was a hallucination. That’s why we’re trying to break out of this hallucination that we all live in, because we do. We live in a hallucination. We think it’s real, and give it truth. It causes suffering and misery, and we are so certain that this is the way it is supposed to be. Yet millions of people continue to suffer.
What was it like working with Melissa Leo (plays Gloria) and James Franco (plays Lindsay)?
Everybody I’ve encountered as an actor has in some way shaped and taught me. Some give me more than others, but it ultimately comes to what I’m willing to receive and be receptive to. I was very fortunate with both of them. With Melissa, this is a very seasoned actor; this is someone who’s seen it all, whose experiences are so vast and who understands a great deal about story and narrative. I was very fortunate. There was this experience I had with her that not only made me a better actor, but made me a better man. There were things that I felt, like that ultimately when I came into this thing, I came into it with this mindset that I know nothing and I’m not here to be anything.
Me, Dom I’m coming to this new place with these people who are new to me and Osman was coming to this new place with people who are new to him, and just being receptive to that. Same thing with James, these two are seasoned. You run it a few times then the next thing you know, you’re in this rhythm and cadence and beautiful dance that’s happening, and you go, “Oh my god this is fantastic,” then, “ Oh my god, why did I just think that?” I just came out of that moment.
Working with both of them has been up to this point, the greatest point in my career because I didn’t have to do much. The same goes for Rachel Brosnahan (plays Sandra), Thomas Jay Ryan (plays Dmitri Sokurov), and Tim Kniffin (plays Carl). I know Melissa Leo is an Oscar winner, James Franco is an Oscar nominee, and both of them are very seasoned and have been doing this for a very long time. I was extremely fortunate that they were very open with me. Whether it was James in a scene, he was holding the matte box with the camera so it wouldn’t shake while we were riding down this rocky road.
There was a car mount and he held it so it would be clear on me and not bouncy. At the same time he stayed focused and delivered his lines to me and was receptive to Ian (Olds, director) and his direction. All I saw was a creative, not this thing, this looming figure that maybe comes with the package. Not that he asks for it, but it’s natural in the business and has done the kind of work he has. He’s not worried about what people think of him or his work. He just creates. He is creating all these platforms to express and opportunities for other artists to express (themselves).
Ian is extremely generous, and I’ve had the good fortune to work with him a couple other times. There was never a moment where I didn’t see a man who didn’t enjoy seeing me at my best. He was feeding off the best that I could do. It was as if he realized that it could make him better, and we could do something fresh and new. It created this beautiful rhythm. He’s really a special guy; I have the utmost respect for him. Mellissa as well, she had such an incredible depth to her that was actually kind of scary at times. It made me feel very vulnerable. It was great because I needed that. Staying receptive to that was essential.
Burn Country is available on YouTube and Google Play.
Interview by: Julian Blythe
Edited by: Jody Taylor – @RealJodyTaylor
Follow Us: What’s Up Hollywood at @WhatsUpHWood