Sunday, February 08, 2015

HUNKS IN HORROR: BLOOD RIDERS: THE DEVIL RIDES WITH US (2014)—The Evening Class Interview With Joel Ballanger

Photo: Steph Martyniuk
It's been a while since I've added an entry to this sidebar on The Evening Class, wherein we celebrate the horror genre as an entryway for many young actors to kick off their careers. Steve McQueen battled the Blob; Michael Landon was a teenage werewolf; Jack Nicholson whacked out for Roger Corman; Johnny Depp had his big screen debut in the original Nightmare on Elm Street (1984); and, of course, the Twilight Saga has furthered the careers of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, among others.

My previous conversations with Chris DiVecchio (Wolf Moon, 2009) and Kerem Bürsin (Sharktopus, 2010) ended up being two of my most trafficked entries on The Evening Class, with thousands of hits each, trailing behind the site's all-time queen interview with Cassandra Peterson (Elvira), convincing me once and for all that art cinema is swell, but genre sells!

So this go-round I'd like to introduce you to Toronto-based Joel Ballanger, who came to my attention in the role of Kyle in Lari Teräs's first feature Blood Riders: The Devil Rides With Us (2014), which screened both in Boise at last Fall's Idaho Horror Film Festival and this Spring at San Francisco's Another Hole in the Head Film Festival: a bloody tale for two cities. As I stated in my review, Joel Ballanger as Kyle is as dreamy as a bad boy gets. I predict Ballanger will need a secretary for his future fan club.

My thanks to Teräs for putting Joel and I in touch and to Joel for being amenable to being profiled as the most recent Hunk of Horror on The Evening Class.

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Michael Guillén: Winning performance in Blood Riders, Joel. Let's start off by getting a sense of your background, education in film, and how you came to the Blood Riders project?

Joel Ballanger: I grew up in the Niagara area, where Blood Riders was filmed, which incidentally was how I got involved with the project. I grew up attending church as a result of my parents and this was how I was introduced to acting. Throughout my childhood I regularly starred in church productions, which piqued my interest in the craft of acting. In high school my interest waned as I became involved in sports. I was a regular starter for my high school's rugby team and this took a lot of time and effort. At that time I was hounded by my drama teacher to try out for the school's production of A Misdsummer's Night Dream and repeatedly told her I couldn't because of my commitment to rugby. However, through a funny turn of events, I was involved in an accident and severed my achilles tendon—ending my sports activity but kicking off my love for acting. Long story short, I was cast in the play and fell in love with acting.

After school I travelled Europe then headed to Toronto for university. Technically, I've had no education in acting. I attended the University of Toronto and studied cinema studies and philosophy. Though my film education wasn't centered on acting, it was incredibly informative. I spent my days studying film technique and immersing myself in the study of the industry. It was an education in cinema and the rich history of film, while I spent my free time studying the craft of acting.

During university I spent my summers in Vineland, my hometown, and it was during that summer vacation that I became involved with Blood Riders. Corey Lof, who plays Janek in the film, became one of my closest friends as a result of shooting Blood Riders. At the time, I knew Corey through his brother Curtis, one of my best friends. Corey lived one street over from me. He thought of me when Lari and his team were casting Blood Riders and he asked if I'd be interested. I had no experience and—despite being incredibly nervous—I'd been auditioning in Toronto and thought I could do it. Obviously, I got the part and because of Lari got to act in my first feature film. I'd moved away to get my shot at acting in films and pursuing my dreams and ironically it was the small town I grew up in that delivered my first chance at that dream.

Guillén: With an education in cinema and film, were you planning to make films? What was your intention?

Ballanger: In all honesty, I had no idea what I wanted to do when I started my education. It wasn't that I was aimless, but I'd just returned from a year abroad, and had deferred my acceptance into an international relations program at university. During my year travelling I realized the thing I missed most was acting, etc., so I enrolled instead in the cinema program. I gradually came to the realization that first and foremost I wanted to act, secondly I loved to write, and thirdly I wanted to make films. Thus far, I've pursued acting pretty exclusively; however, I've penned some screenplays on the side and am in the midst of working to get one made. So in a roundabout way to answer the question, what I always wanted to do was act, though I do have an interest in making films.

Guillén: My research shows that you worked with Ontario's Suitcase in Point Theater Company, so you've clearly had some training in, at least, theatrical acting. Tell me about that experience.

Ballanger: I worked with Suitcase in Point during high school in a workshop that later segued into being involved in their creative process for a small amount of time. It was a great experience and the person that had the largest impact on me was Cole Lewis, one of the founding members. She really introduced me to and opened up the idea of acting and a career in the arts. It was phenomenal being involved and watching these older, creatively inspiring people work and develop their projects.

Guillén: I watched your short film For Now (2013), where you also co-starred with Corey Lof, and was impressed with its low-stated delivery and universal theme of growing up and away. It was directed by Bryan Chambers, which has now given you the opportunity to work with two filmmakers. What have you learned from both filmmakers?

For Now - Short Film (2013) from bryan chambers on Vimeo.

Ballanger: For Now was great. It was an incredibly small crew, just a few people, and the goal was to film it as naturalistically as possible—an attempt to mirror those simple conversations that exist between everyday people at the most important and pivotal times of their lives.

Working with Bryan was (and is) great. He comes to the shoot knowing what he wants, and being sure of how to get it. This inspires confidence and builds faith in your director. He's also incredibly open to improvisation and toying with the script, which in the case of For Now was important to achieve that natural, believable rapport between Corey and I. The ethos of the film in that manner—natural and steeped in realism—has fueled an interest in the Mumblecore movement and has sparked discussions and work between Bryan, Corey and I about filming a similar film (unscripted, skeleton script, natural dialogue) which is in the works at the moment.

Working with both Bryan and Lari has been different, in a good way. As I said, Bryan knows what he wants and tells you how he wants it and wants to go about it, which is great. Lari has a different approach in that he'll tell you how he wants the scene to unfold and gives good direction but tends to be more laid back and will let you take the wheel as an actor. As an actor, it gives you the onus to take your own approach and try things out, which is freeing and allows you to explore. Both these experiences, being so different, inspired confidence in me as I've gone on to film commercials and TV in the past few years. I've come to those assignments with the experience of how different directors work and how it is to work with them.

Guillén: With regard to Blood Riders, are you a fan of the genre or was this just more an opportunity that came your way?

Photo: Steph Martyniuk
Ballanger: I've never been a big fan of the horror genre, if I'm being honest. I think it stems from being a softy at heart. I hate being scared and, as a young boy, I couldn't watch horror films without getting nightmares. But working on Blood Riders was an opportunity that came my way that made me realize how creative of a genre horror can be and how much work is involved. I'm incredibly thankful for the opportunity to be involved with the film because it's certainly opened some doors for me. Though I may not enjoy watching the films, I do enjoy working on them!

Guillén: What types of roles do you hope to play?

Ballanger: There's no role I won't play at this point. I want to be open to everything and feel that doing so will allow me some amazing experiences and opportunity to grow as an actor. However, I'd really love to play an anti-hero or an unlikeable protagonist. That's something I've wanted for a while and hope will come my way. A character like Casey Affleck as Robert Ford in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) or Ray Liotta in Goodfellas (1990). To play a character who at the heart of it are unlikeable (the coward Robert Ford) and bring a humanity and depth to the portrayal is compelling and something I'd love to attempt.

Guillén: Who are the actors whose work you most admire?

Ballanger: An actor who I admire incredibly is Mads Mikkelson. I've followed him for a while, stumbling upon him when I watched Nic Winding Refn's Pusher (1996). He's such an underrated actor and every time I watch him I'm astounded by his performances, most notably his semi-recent film The Hunt (2012), which I absolutely loved.

Tom Hardy is another actor who has a career which I'd love to emulate (in an ideal world). He's done some incredible work, most of which were his lower key films—Bronson (2008), another film by Refn (can you tell I'm a fan?), Lawless (2012) and most recently Locke (2013). Locke blew me away and was very similar to what we attempted to do in For Now, a film about the everyday.

Finally there's Paul Newman. I was introduced to him as a kid and have watched all of his films over and over. His career spanned across an astounding array of films and it's so admirable. If I could emulate or achieve a career that's even a fraction of what these men achieved, I'd be satisfied the world over.

Guillén: So final question. As a young actor breaking into the business, what's your strategy? Have you hired an agent or signed on with a talent agency? I noticed you had a couple of listings online. Will you accept stage work to supplement film work? Many young actors I know rely on regional and local film projects to further their experience while waiting for a choice script. Are there bulletin boards you check for listings? What advice can you give to an actor even younger than yourself on how to find roles? How do you subsidize the dream?

Photo: Steph Martyniuk
Ballanger: I was signed following Blood Riders and was represented until about a month ago before my agent left for the states. At the moment I've got meetings lined up to secure a new agent. Blood Riders opened doors. Having a feature on your resume early on always helps. I use and usually leave the rest up to the agent. I'm open to most things, stage work included, but have found that it pays to be discerning. Doing things just for the sake of doing things tends not to help. I like to take on roles that I'm interested in and projects I'm proud to be a part of. Finding roles tends to start with a website like Mandy. Getting in the room even without booking them, the experience of auditioning itself is incredibly helpful. Getting confidence and familiarity when auditioning helps to ease nerves and let's me be who I want to in front of others. I've also found that developing my own projects and collaborating with others in the same position is great, allowing me to play parts I want, while understanding what it takes to write a script.

Subsidy-wise, I work as a project manager for a construction company. I'm able to do my work but leave for auditions when I need to, which is great and allows me to be flexible. It's hard though, finding something that allows you to chase that dream, while being able to make enough to live. But, it is possible.