From TROMEO To BELKO: Two Decades Under The Gunn

BELKO EXPERIMENT co-star Valentine Miele catches up with Phil about the acting life, angry genre films, and spending 20+ years in the James Gunn Repertory Company.

The Belko Experiment comes out tomorrow! Buy your tickets here!

Back in high school I knew a guy named Val Miele. He was smart and funny and charismatic and we ran in the same geeky circles. After high school I was unsurprised to learn that Val had gotten into acting, and I went to see him in a performance of Lanford Wilson's Burn This. He was great in it. Shortly after that we lost touch. A couple years later I heard he’d landed a role in a Troma film, and it was a hoot seeing him in 1996’s Tromeo & Juliet.

Cut to me sitting in a theater in 2010, watching James Gunn’s Super. (It’s an amazing film; watch it.) At one point Rainn Wilson’s delusional protagonist brains a man with a giant wrench for cutting in line at the movies. I almost yelled out loud in the theater - it was Val! Oh, that’s right – he met Gunn on Tromeo & Juliet! I took to the internet to learn that Val had eventually headed to Chicago, then to California, and had continued to work with Gunn over the years.

I recently got back in touch with Valentine on social media, and when I saw him turn up in the trailer for The Belko Experiment, it seemed like a good opportunity to catch up with him and get his thoughts on Belko, riding shotgun on Gunn’s journey, and two decades as a working actor.

Birth.Movies.Death.: Talk to me about being sent James Gunn’s script to Belko, and your first thoughts on reading it.

Valentine Miele: It was Lord of the Flies in a corporate setting, having a welcome (to me) cynicism about the ultimate value or even utility of companies that seem to be glorified money laundering operations with frictionless, forgettable-by-design made up names. Nobody knows why they’re there or what purpose they serve but they get paid and they get to go home at the end of the day. And they have their identities forged in response to and in the service of their jobs and it’s all good. Until the goalposts are moved and the landscape shifts and we see just how fluid “identity” and “self” are when heat and hate and pressure are applied. But funny!

No, there are funny bits but it’s mostly a bleak, not-so-nice POV of human nature. The biggest take away upon reading it was, “This script has big balls and a big body count.”

BMD: The Belko Experiment traps an office full of people in a building and forces them to murder one another, under threat of execution. Without spoiling the movie, would you fare better or worse than your character in the same situation?

VM: Well, without spoiling, you’ve isolated a genuine existential crisis. For simplicity’s sake, I’d say that I’m likely to do a little better than Ross (my character) does, which is cold comfort at best when you’re seized inside of a corporate abattoir.

BMD: This strikes me as very much an actor's movie. What's the process for getting the whole cast on the same emotional page as the situation spirals? Talk to me about how that was prepped and executed on set.

VM: One very unique thing about this whole trip was the amount of experience much of the ensemble already shared IRL. I just took a glance at the cast list and there are 10 actors on there who I’ve known for 10+ years. I met Sean Gunn at college orientation in August of 1992. I met Dave Dastmalchian not much later. I’ve known James Gunn and Stephen Blackehart for almost 22 years. I met Rusty Schwimmer and Abe Benrubi and Brent Sexton in 2001. And so on. And that constitutes a large portion of the ensemble whose characters are subject to the whims of the (marginally) more empowered characters in the movie’s universe. I guess I’m saying that the illusion of “day-to-day office camaraderie” that needs to be established was already present because so many “staff” had been living, drinking, working and playing together for a very long time. And I think that that really set the tone, in a positive way, because we were all in Bogota for 5+ weeks and it was great to have a core of warmth and experience to draw from. Because the movie really is dark and extreme and that kind of work can do a number on a person.

It seemed that (director) Greg McLean, who is a very sensitive, very intuitive guy, got the sense of that straight away and sort of guided the group as a whole. Like a shepherd with sheep, but in a breezy, pleasant, Aussie kind of way.

BMD: From the trailers alone, The Belko Experiment feels like part of this new wave of "angry", subtext-heavy genre films - everything from the Purge movies to Fury Road to Get Out. Is it fair to say Belko falls into that category? How would you characterize it?

VM: A strange thing about this movie is that the script has been around for about a decade, if I’m remembering - maybe from like 2008. Which is a little shocking when you see how relevant the story feels in 2017. There is an arbitrary nature to the decision making process and a questioning of the nature of the information that the characters are given that is way too familiar to an adult American right now. Obviously, you can find subtext anywhere if you root around for it but I do think these movies you mention reflect an understandable fear and dread and sadness regarding how far into ruthlessness we might be forced to go to survive. How much more like animals without privacy or security or interior life will we be forced to become?

The Purge and Belko both have an element in which the chaos and inhumanity sort of flow out of a faucet that is opened and closed by the “state." And that is fucking chilling.

BMD: Knowing James Gunn for as long as you have, what insight do you have as to what his script is going for?

I truly can’t cop to any insight. I can say that Jimmy’s been saying that the whole script started when he dreamed the trailer one night and woke up seized by the idea and then wrote for like three weeks and in the process hurt his back from being hunched over writing so intensely. That sounds about right to me. He’s always been about a mix of high and low, if that’s not too annoying- a blend of '80s nerd and punk and pulp culture mixed with William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, stuff like that. But this one truly has a desperate, fever-dream quality. There is a literal and figurative claustrophobia to the movie that feels like night-sweats to me. Even the “fun,” corporate cubicle banter kind of grosses me out. Honestly, it may just be Jimmy’s nightmare of having a normal job.

BMD: You've been working with Gunn since the beginning - in Tromeo & Juliet in 1996. What were those early days like?

VM: Tromeo & Juliet was so incredibly fun. About March of 1995, I was 24; Sean and I were roommates and he was like, “My brother is making a movie in New York. Do you want to audition?” Absolutely. “It’s Troma.” No clue what those words mean. “They made The Toxic Avenger." Copy. (At that time I truly was as empty-headed as they come, living in an eternal, stony “now.” I had no idea what he was trying to tell me about Troma. It just seemed like actors were supposed to audition for movies in New York.) I remember we put on leather jackets and stuff and tried to look cool and taped each other on a roof in Chicago and sent the auditions. Then I remember going from Chicago to New York, it was like a $49 bus trip, to audition in person and being so excited when I found out I was going to be in it. It was gonna be this self-aware, transgressive, punk rock Shakespeare thing that Jimmy had cooked up and I was now a professional actor and somebody told me Kevin Costner got started at Troma and I was like fuck. Yes.

It was Sean’s and Jimmy’s and my first movie. Jimmy rehearsed all the actors before production. Kind of a lot, now that I think about it. My first day on that movie was the first time I’d ever seen filmmaking equipment. I so didn’t know shit. We’d shoot all day in all kinds of conditions (a non-union situation) and there was nowhere else I wanted to be. I was making a movie, partying and meeting girls in New York City and that was pretty much all I’d ever wanted. Another fucking Gunn brother, Matt, got me in a situation where I rented a place on 71st and Columbus, three minutes from Central Park on foot, for $500/month. God forgive me, I thought it was always going to be this way.

BMD: So you bonded with this whole crew early on.

VM: I broke Sean’s nose one day with a bad stage punch. (The noise it made was too gross, so they Foleyed something else in.) Somebody kicked Stevie in the face in another scene, sent him to the emergency room. Jimmy worked like a crazy maniac, which may be his defining character trait. (He really is flat-out brilliant, but he works even harder, if you can imagine.) I remember he reeeaally had to work Jane Jensen for this scene where rats and maggots and stuff crawled on her. She was freaked out, genuinely traumatized and was doing the shit all day, but they made up fast and never weren’t friends because of it. On the 4th of July me and Stevie and some other people from the movie got locked inside Mona’s on Avenue B when a bunch of squatters re-took some buildings on 13th Street. There was this huge militarized police presence and we couldn’t get out of the bar until the thing broke up. They let us keep drinking, which was kind of them. I burned my hand pretty bad with a flaming shot of Sambuca that night.

Mostly me and Sean hung out, going to bars and parties, but I’d spend time with Jimmy and Stephen too. I remember talking about Greil Marcus a lot with Jimmy- I was really into Lipstick Traces at the time. I remember him telling me that a Clash biopic was a really stupid idea and that I’d probably never play Joe Strummer. I very specifically remember him listing Rooker as one of his favorite actors - years before Slither, when no one with half a brain thought that Michael Rooker could act. Even a little.

BMD: Jumping ahead to the next time I saw you: sitting in a movie theater in 2010 and seeing you turn up (and get your head split open) in Super was quite a surprise.

VM: Well, it’s quite a surprise you saw Super in a movie theater.

BMD: Fair.

VM: I looooove that movie and I feel like it’s Jimmy’s best piece of writing and it’s like a representation of everything that sucks that that movie isn’t better known. Ellen Page is fantastic as Libby/Boltie in that. I did my one scene in that as a local hire, which means I bought my own ticket, flew from LA to Dallas, rented a car and drove 3 plus hours and 200 miles across East Texas to Shreveport and checked into a Motel 6 that literally had blood on the front desk that they were “dealing” with when I walked in. Ted Hope was producing that, which I thought was cool as shit. I very clearly remember being impressed by how impressed he was by Jimmy. I do probably the hackiest thing I’ve ever done in that, which is saying something: the hand gesture when I tell Rainn (Wilson) to fuck off. But I was like, “I’ve got this one little moment and goddamnit somebody’s going to remember it." And I gotta say it worked- those lucky or smart enough to have seen Super always do the hand thing at me.

BMD: You've obviously remained good friends, but talk to me about how you and Gunn channel that - or wall it off - when you're working together.

VM: The last time we actually worked more than a day together was when we shot Humanzee. It was a pilot for Xbox when they wanted to get into the original content business. They approached James, I think Rob Zombie and James Wan maybe, some other guys. It was a real good idea and they said, “Hey guys, do whatever you want” and then of course when you give those guys carte blanche they come back with some highly wacky shit. So Xbox rejected all of it and as far as I recall, that was that.

But out of that James had made Humanzee, where we played buddies named James and Val. “James" had sent his sperm to eastern Europe to create a human/chimp hybrid. Look it up on YouTube.

BMD: On it.

BMD: Okay. Wow.

VM: It's very dark and very cynical and very, very funny and it was the only time we’ve acted together. Sean was under heavy prosthetics as the Humanzee and in severe discomfort the entire time. So that was sad.

After that he did Super- I was only there a day and he had his hands full. The only note I remember getting from him was, “Um, more real? I guess?” Then around the time my son was born he signed onto Guardians and life got a lot more real.

One great thing about Belko was being able to hang out with Jimmy a bunch in Bogota because for the last four years we don’t see each other as much. It is definitely weird when your friend suddenly helms a project that is both a great piece of work and a box-office monster and part of the expanding MCU. And from weird-ass source material to boot. I still get actual chills thinking about the first time I saw it- it just blew my mind. The bottom line is that I trusted James completely in 1995 and it’s pretty much the same now.

BMD: You work often on independent projects with James and Sean Gunn, and with Judy Greer (whose upcoming directorial debut, A Happening of Monumental Proportions, you’re featured in) and other folks in that sphere. Can you characterize that scene at all? What's coming?

VM: Well, for over 20 years I've done stuff on and off with Sean and our friends Lee Kirk (Ordinary World) and John Cabrera (Seraphim), both of whom are writer/directors. Those relationships evolved naturally from being friends in college to doing theater in Chicago in the ‘90s. And it's still exciting every time, especially since these projects are legitimately independently produced. Lee has had three produced features, two of which he directed, John has a production company (Unboiled) and works in the digital space. And they've hired me for their stuff since I moved to LA 10 years ago. So in addition to acting I've done location sound for a feature, I've been a music supervisor, I've helped with story development and musical number concepts, etc. It's the absolute best, as far as I'm concerned. There's an enormous respect for each other's temperaments and talents and points of view and I'm acutely aware of how rare that is and how lucky I am.

Judy got a feature like the day she graduated and never looked back. Obviously she's got a rap sheet as long as your arm and has done everything you can imagine for two very full decades. So last year she wrote me an email asking if I'd do a little part in her directing debut- I was so psyched. I instantly thought, "She's going to be a very good director." Because in real life she's got tremendous grace and taste but it's leavened with this human and obscene sense of humor. The best sense of humor in the world. So those things combined with experience, great political skill, love of actors, I knew she'd be great. She had a super chill crew and producers, she assembled a great cast. I can't wait ‘til her movie comes out. I hope she directs and directs and directs and casts me every time.

Everything in my life has evolved from friendship. I still tend bar at Edendale on the weekend- owned by my friend Eddie Ebel, an actor/musician all of us have been working with since the late ‘90s. It's awesome.

BMD: After being blindsided by your appearance in Super, I kept looking for you buried under alien makeup in Guardians of the Galaxy.

VM: No, but you probably heard Guardians 2 got a perfect test score, which I guess never happens. I've seen it and I like it better than the first one (which I liked a lot). I think it is both more cosmic/celestial than the first one and more grounded in Jimmy's love of low cinema and low comedy. (Michael) Rooker's performance is going to be a big deal.

BMD: 20+ years into it, what still excites you about acting?

VM: I love acting more than ever now, for a variety of reasons, the most obvious being that I don’t get to do it as often as I’d like to or used to. My attention has been on raising my son for four years, but he goes to school full time this year so I’ll be getting back in the swing come fall and I can’t wait.

When I was in my 20s I was at school first and that was a full-time conservatory program, so you’re in movement class 8am Monday, Wednesday, Friday, then off to voice class, and then acting class all afternoon and, most of the time, rehearsal for something Mon-Fri form 7-10pm. Then on Tuesday and Thursday you’ve got dramatic literature and stage combat and make-up and musical theater etc, etc. You’re running on pure energy and just trying to do all that and squeeze in some parties and some sex. There’s not a lot of deep thought going on.

Then after that I was just drifting wherever I felt like going, doing music stuff and working with visual artists and doing experimental theater, learning about sound and video editing, and it was more about lifestyle and curiosity and following my nose. I’d have an agent here and there, do a gig here and there, but I never pressured myself to draw hard lines or identify a necessary objective. And it was a blast. But I spent my youth like a currency- the juice was the price I paid for letting “prime earning years” go by.

So now, when I get to act, my experience and lessons learned really do bring me closer to whatever I’m tasked to portray. I was more kinetic and bombastic 20 years ago for sure, but I’m more like the kind of actors I admire now. The performances have real autobiography in them and when I watch them I’m sincerely pleased. At the same time I’m (incongruously?) far more aware of the liberating sensation of pretending to be somebody else. I think my mind is waaaay more disciplined then it was, so I can trust me to go farther away from my actual self. Because now I have faith that I’ll be there for myself when I get back.

Buy your tickets here!