Is the American dream dead? Or is it just an illusion? Is there happiness behind a white picket fence? Or is that life a lie? Is cheating an option if your marriage is miserable? Or is suffering in silence the only solution?
Those are just some of the questions that Revolutionary Road poses.
However, that’s the brilliance of director Sam Mendes’s adaptation of the Richard Yates novel of the same name. Revolutionary Road makes audiences think, and it’s a searing Oscar-worthy portrait of 1950’s s uburban dysfunction — easily one of the best films of 2008.
Actor David Harbour still ponders some of Revolutionary Road’s central themes himself. “I think the film is like a prism. You can interpret it in many different ways, and you can see whatever you want to see. At this time in my life, I latch onto the broad social themes less and more onto the relationship elements. Those themes feel very germane even today. I find the film to be like a puzzle.
There are all of these little mysteries that aren’t expressed fully, but they come across quietly. The idea of truth in a relationship is central to the plot. The movie explores how, as you go through time with people, the truth changes — it gets forgotten and brought back in again. That’s what really fascinates me a bout it.” The subtle nuances of David’s star-making role are even more fascinating. David plays Shep Campbell, a seemingly content denizen of the titular neighborhood. Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet are Shep’s neighbors, the doomed couple, Frank and April Wheeler. Their relationship is more atomic than the bombs the movie’s Post-WWII America has just dropped. Shep has fallen for April, and she begins to reciprocate. It’s a volatile love triangle that’s h ypnotic and harrowing.
David’s gone from being a well-respected Tony nominated stage actor to a growing presence in film and television. From stints on Law & Order to parts in Brokeback Mountain and Quantum of Solace, David’s stood out in each project. He’s certainly a masterful actor, however, he also happens to be one of the most affable and down-to-earth g uys you could meet.
Sitting in Le Montrose’s Privato restaurant in West Hollywood, David offers a firm, friendly handshake. The restaurant’s chic yet classy décor has a strange warmth to it, and David looks comfortable. He’s got on a dark gray polo shirt and jeans. Stylish glasses sit atop his sandy brown hair. His light eyes widen at the talk of his craft, and it’s instantly apparent he’s not just an actor: he’s an artist.
He literally became Shep for this role. “Shep is a very interesting character. He goes through a lot with his wife Milly in the back-story of the book that you don’t really see in the film,” he continues.
“There are some remnants of it in the movie. Shep freaked out about the horribleness of his life and just went crazy. Milly sticks with him as he has his breakdown. As a result of that, he vows to always stay with her. Once April arrives, his heart is longing to do something else, but he’s trying to firmly plant himself in that reality. It’s an interesting dynamic.” It’s an extremely relatable dynamic as well. As anyone in a relationship will tell you, the temptation to pursue something better always looms in the background. Shep remains confused and conflicted, and David portrays that in a poignant fashion. “That’s not difficult for me. I’m often confused, so I just used my own life for inspiration,” he laughs with a smile, as cheeseburgers are delivered t o the table.
David displays Shep’s inner conflict through his facial expressions, and that constant emotional push-and-pull is there in his every interaction.
David’s method instantly captivated Sam Mendes who cast David after seeing him perform in a Broadway production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf? “Sam is one of the best directors that I’ve ever worked with because he’ll always ask questions,” says David. “For him, the actors possess the keys to the characters. He also understood one of the stories that I bring with me in my life. That story has remnants of Shep in it. I was a suburban kid. I grew up in a family with various degrees of illusion and conventionality. I struggled against that to be an actor. I tried to do something that no one else around me was doing. That dichotomy has played through my life in a lot of ways. As I read the book, I deeply felt it. It comes alive in this really organic and s imple way.” With Sam’s help, David was easily able to immerse himself in the ‘50s. “Sam showed us this video that a real estate company had put together about life in the suburbs during that time. They shot it on this really fast super 16mm camera. The video showed people at barbecues. Everyone is either flipping burgers or playing Frisbee.
It was all sepia-ed out, and the colors were really weird. Babies were screaming. It was like a vision of hell. It really was like Dante’s I nferno,” laughs David.
Shep is aware of the dire nature of suburban confines, and David imbues that awareness into the character. “One of the key points that I wanted to come across is that Shep’s a really smart guy. He was an Ivy Leaguer who threw away that education because he didn’t want to be a snob. He wanted to be a man of the people, but he has this deep intellect. He’s also in love with April, but he can’t express it.
I love being creative with complex characters like this.” David will get his chance to be creative on stage once more with a starring role in Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Don Margulies’ latest work, Time Stands Still. Alongside Alicia Silverstone, David will be performing at The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood during February and March. “The play follows this couple who are photo-journalists in the Iraq war. My character freaks out and comes back to the States because he can’t handle it anymore. Time Stands Still is about how to live your life with this chaos. He wants to get out of this lifestyle and have a family, but his girl thrives on this adrenaline rush. That’s the q uestion that the play deals with. It’s beautiful.” David also recently had the chance to be a bad guy in a Bond movie.
“Quantum of Solace was great. That was super fun, and Marc Forster’s a great director. I was so honored to be in a James Bond movie. We g ot to shoot in London and Panama, and it was crazy.” Next up is another thriller, this time David’s working with Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck in State of Play. He explains, “It’s a political thriller based on a British miniseries of the same name. It was a really good script, and it was fun to make. I did a lot of my stuff with Russell Crowe, and he was a wesome.” In addition to working alongside the Gladiator, David’s taken on some other dark, unconventional roles. He paints a vivid picture with his characters, especially Shep. “I think I’m best when I embrace the ordinariness of myself. There’s an ordinary evil that I want to be a mirror of.
That ‘evil’ involves our basic desires. Revolutionary Road is an adult themed movie, not because of violence and sex, but because it’s like Five Easy Pieces. I’m very interested in the complexities of what it is to be a man, especially in our modern culture. I don’t know that a lot of films are exploring that.” However, David’s not afraid to confront that theme head on, a nd he does.
He’s also excited about the prospect of switching between screen and stage and dividing his time between New York and L.A. “I’m thinking of doing the whole bi-coastal thing — spending some time out here and maybe being in New York the rest of the time. I’d love to do a balance of maybe two movies and a play per year. That’d be ideal for me. It’s a dream.” Given his immense talent, there’s no question that all of David’s dreams will continue to come true.