To many longtime observers of the Sundance Film Festival — which is going on now in Park City, Utah — the inclusion of Andrew Neel’s Goat in the US dramatic competition was met with justified skepticism.
The US dramatic competition is traditionally more daring than some of the festival's other contests. But since Sundance usually makes sure its premiere schedule is almost universally full of familiar faces to keep up attendance — it's dependent on sponsors and the disposable income of Real Housewives of Salt Lake City types for a good chunk of ticket sales — there are usually a few titles in the category with a Kristen Stewart, Mariah Carey, Daniel Radcliffe, or Ryan Gosling to also keep the passholders happy. This year, Goat fits that bill, as it features the big-screen acting debut of none other than Nick Jonas (sorry, but 2009’s Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience doesn’t count in our book).
The 23-year-old musician has built quite a solo career since the Jonas Brothers disbanded in 2013, releasing two multiplatinum hit singles over the past two years: "Jealous" and "Chains." Of course, Jonas’s legion of fans know he’s paid particular attention to his acting career, most recently appearing on DirecTV’s MMA drama Kingdom and Fox’s slasher comedy Scream Queens. Compared with those roles, however, the psychological drama Goat is a completely different endeavor.
Loosely based on the 2015 memoir of the same name, Goat centers on Brad (Ben Schnetzer), a college freshman who decides to rush the fraternity that his older brother Brett (Jonas) is a member of. The twist is that months earlier, Brad was viciously attacked by a pair of thugs who were likely more interested in beating him up than in stealing his ATM card. When Brad begins the fraternity’s hell week, he’s still dealing with the psychological scars from his attack.
As the initiation rites intensify, Brett is the only one of Brad's friends or family members to slowly realize that Brad pledging isn't a good idea. In one particular scene, an older alumni member — played by Goat producer James Franco – gets into a drunken game of "you slap me, I’ll slap you" with Brad. And while Brad is taken aback, it's Brett who appears most concerned over an incident the rest of the fraternity finds hilarious.
Neel (New World Order) is most effective when Goat depicts the humiliating practices many fraternities use to initiate their new members. Even as a fictional narrative, it’s admittedly uncomfortable to watch; the rituals may shock many moviegoers, despite the fact that Neel and screenwriter David Gordon Green could easily have included more disturbing hazing rites.
Schnetzer, who was superb in 2013's The Book Thief and 2014's Pride, gives the film's best performance, emphasizing Brad’s belief that he can prove he’s a real man by enduring the hazing. And when the movie is dramatically compelling it’s largely thanks to his efforts.
Jonas, meanwhile, is simply there. He’s not terrible, but his efforts pale next to Schnetzer’s, and he lacks some of the charisma he’s shown in his television work. Still, Goat is the sort of indie drama that will signal to both independent and Hollywood filmmakers that Jonas is willing to get down and dirty for a role, and that he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed by his pop star roots. (Justin Timberlake used the same approach to kick-start his acting career when Alpha Dog premiered at Sundance in 2006.) And considering the positive reviews the film has received since its Friday premiere, appearing in Goat will likely benefit him in the long term.
Still smiling from those reviews, Jonas and Schnetzer sat down for a quick interview to discuss Goat as well as a certain winter storm with an unexpected connection. Before our chat could begin, though, Jonas spent a few minutes on an unscheduled photo op. Some of his hardcore fans had learned where interviews for Goat were being held and lined up for a chance to gawk at the Billboard hitmaker. Jonas posed for some photos and selfies, admitting that the whole thing was "bizarre" but also that "it’s good to feel the love."
And then the two onscreen brothers were ready to begin.
Gregory Ellwood: Many actors insist they don’t read reviews, but at a festival like Sundance you can get instant reaction by scanning Twitter or Facebook. Were either of you checking out what people thought of the movie?
Nick Jonas: I was, he wasn’t.
Ben Schnetzer: I was like, "I can’t go near reviews." The place where we were at for the afterparty, though, had this screen up that said what was trending on Twitter. And to see Goat up there was a nice cherry on top.
GE: But Nick, you went and checked?
NJ: Right away. And I’ve been looking today. It’s been an amazing response, really, really positive. It’s great to think of, but that’s not what it’s really about. You should approach your work just for the art, but it does feel good to see the positive reaction.
GE: Numerous producers and directors tried to make this movie for years. How did you get involved?
BS: Got the script. Read it. It was so tight. There was no kind of loose ends floating around. So I met with [producers Christine Vachon and David Hinojosa] at Killer Films and then had a meeting with Andrew about it. Then he came and saw me in a play I was doing in New York, and I auditioned for it. And then a couple of weeks later I got the phone call.
GE: Nick, how did you get approached?
NJ: I first read the script about two years ago. It might not have been that long ago, maybe a year and a half? I fell in love with it. I fell in love with the story and the message even though it’s not an answer to the questions the movie asks. It is asking a lot of questions, this movie.
I also met with the Killer Films team and then sat with Andrew in New York and immediately knew he was coming at it with a fresh feel. There was no bullshit. He really got into the story and saying we were going to have a limited time to shoot, a limited budget and we’re going to have to get it done. [Ben and I] spent some time with Andrew rehearsing, trying to build our bond pretty quickly. Overall, it was a great experience.
GE: When you got the script, was it always with the intention of you playing Brett? There are so many roles either of you could have played.
NJ: Yeah, as far as I know. I think Ben was already locked in by then…
BS: I think so; I’m not sure. When I initially read it and when I first met with Andrew, I didn’t know what part the meeting was about. It was more of a general, "Let’s talk about this project." Even my audition scenes were between Brad and Brett, and I ended up prepping both parts.
NJ: It was the one-man-show version.
BS: Yeah, I’m gonna take it to Broadway. It’s gonna be a musical. He’s gonna write the songs [laughs].
GE: I know neither of you guys were in fraternities or went to college…
BS: "Obviously neither of you went to college..." [laughs]
GE: Well, I know you went to Juilliard, Brad, and Nick, you didn’t go because you’ve been working since you were a kid, right?
NJ: I almost went to Northwestern, but I didn’t end up going.
GE: Did either of you have friends who were in fraternities who were willing to shed any light on their experiences?
NJ: Quite a bit. I had two friends who were in fraternities, and it was this interesting thing. We’ve experienced it now having done fraternity culture [for the movie], but they were only willing to tell us so much, even knowing I was going to be playing this role and wanting to help me in any way they could.
I just think there is this kind of understanding to not talk that much about it, which is a part of the culture I became very aware of in shooting it. And it probably stems from some of the stuff that happens during the dark side of the hazing rituals. But it’s pretty wild, and Andrew gave me a great movie to watch called Frat House that was unbelievable and gave the best look at the dark side of all of it. We kind of had to dive in and develop it quickly and develop a dynamic quickly, so that research was important.
GE: The book the movie is based on was written in 2005, and it seems like every few years something happens and this issue resurfaces. It never really goes away. Do you think this movie can have an impact so that these sorts of hazing rituals might really disappear?
BS: I think there’s a mystique and an allure about this culture, whether it’s a fraternity or a gang or whatever it is. I don’t think the film in any way is an indictment of fraternities. I think it provokes a discussion. It provokes a lot of questions in this context that we are working with, but I think it’s a grander issue of how men come into their masculinity, and rites of passage have been a staple of society for hundreds of years.
What does that mean in the 21st century? What is a healthy way of doing it? Once again, it stems beyond this sort of microcosm of culture. So hopefully that’s a discussion that begins to happen.
GE: I know you were acting, but for you, Ben, was there a specific hazing scene that just wasn’t fun?
BS: Yeah, there were some moments where you were like, "Yeah, I just want to wrap. I don’t want to do this shit."
GE: Was it the mud wrestling?
BS: The cabin [scene with the wrestling] actually wasn’t as bad as the basement.1 The basement was claustrophobic, and it was cold and dark and damp and a bit more psychologically twisted.
Spoiler alert: At one point, Brad and the other members of his pledge class are locked in a cabin and told they have to drink an entire keg of beer within three hours or will be forced to have sex with a goat.
To be honest, when James Franco came to shoot his scene, that was all unscripted. Like, he wasn’t supposed to slap me in the face, and he just did. And that was one of my fondest memories from the whole thing. Just going slap for slap with James Franco. It’s weird. The physical stuff wasn’t as bad as some of the humiliation stuff. I honestly, honestly think it was more taxing on the guys who had to dish it out.
GE: Nick, was there anything you had to watch take place that you weren’t thrilled about?
NJ: Yeah, there was one scene where we pulled [Ben’s character] out of his dorm room and we make him eat shit, and it turns out to be a banana. And that was hard.
We did some horrible things in the basement and the cabin, but I think it was isolated, just one person; it was focused energy, and it was dark, and it’s the start of the arc of me being uncomfortable with the whole thing. [My character wants] to protect [his brother], but that was the hardest thing to watch, and every time I watch it back I feel sick.
GE: Nick, before we go, I have to ask you: Did you laugh when you heard the big snowstorm hitting the Northeast was named Jonas?
NJ: Yeah, it’s very bizarre, along with the fact that it lands on this weekend in Sundance. The whole thing is funny. I hope everyone is safe and they are okay, but it’s really funny.