Last summer, we saw Justin Bartha covered in a wicked sunburn after being left on the roof by his drunken friends in The Hangover. This summer, he’s quietly storming the box office as a Hasidic Jew that has lost his faith and discovers the splendors of the drug trade in Holy Rollers.
I was lucky enough to speak with Bartha about the difficulties of creating a rounded character, his goals for the future, and the isolation that can come from being singled out from any tight knit community. Especially one that demands you grow your sideburns into curls.
I actually talked to your co-star Jesse Eisenberg on Tuesday, and got a question from him that I’d like to start with.
A question from him for me? [Laughs] Okay.
Considering you were a bad seed in the movie, was it important for you or for the character to offset the villainous side and give him an organic reason for doing what he’s doing?
Well, good question, Jesse.
For me, everything has to feel organic. The goal is to try to make a three-dimensional character and try not to make him seem like a cliche. Obviously I was able to work off of Jesse mostly – who was able to do the same exact thing. Not make a one-dimensional, nice, good-guy-gone-bad type character. So if you’re working off someone as wonderful as he, it’s fairly easy to create this three-dimensional guy.
That being said, obviously anyone who is as “bad,” for lack of a better word, as Yosef is, to create the character, you want to know where that came from. How he got to that point. If he was always like that. All that back story informs how he acts now.
Since you mentioned how great Jesse is to work with, what does that feel like in the moment?
He’s an honest and completely non-superficial actor, so there’s a lack of self consciousness in his performance, and that’s something that I try to do too. So since we have similar ways of working, it’s easier to explore a lot of different avenues.
Is there a correlation between that style when applied to drama and to comedy?
I approach every character the same way no matter what the genre is. I think that any drama is usually lacking if it doesn’t have some kind of humor in it, and the opposite is to be said about comedy. In a comedy, the situations have to feel real so the humor is escalated.
There has to be something at stake for both.
With that in mind, could you talk a bit about isolation in Holy Rollers?
Isolation is a huge theme when you’re talking about the Hasidic community or any kind of orthodox version of a religion. Not only with religion, but also with family – which is the biggest theme in our movie. Even more so than religion. Whereas you have the juxtaposition, literally, of the neighbors – you have Sam not only in this isolated Hasidic community but also a tight knit family, and next door you have Yosef who comes from a broken family which is the opposite. He sort of lost his faith a long time ago because of the religion and reactions to religion and reactions to the family breaking up.
It’s interesting to me because your career is so balanced. Indies, tent poles, comedy, drama. What are you looking forward to doing in the next decade?
It’s really the only goal I have. Trying to play as many varied characters as possible, to work with interesting, talented people, and to create a fully-realized, fascinating character. That’s kind of all I look for. Obviously when you’re an actor, you’re always a kind of slave to other people in a sense, so I try to make my choices fairly rigorously. That’s it. I don’t have a set goal, but I feel very lucky to be where I am and have a job and keep working.
You’ve been working for a decade now. Is there still any fear when the cameras start rolling?
Of course. For me, you try to conquer that fear once you get on set, and hopefully you have some prep time. I wouldn’t really take a role if there wasn’t a fear involved. That exploring of the unknown and characters that are different from yourself and trying to put something out there that’s unfamiliar is always sort of scary. But you try to put in as much work as possible before you start something, and that fear turns into excitement. Just like with anything else in life I’d say.
Regarding Holy Rollers, how much of that prep work did you do?
I’ve been living around the Hasidic community for a long time. I moved to New York in 1996, and there are a lot of Hasidic neighborhoods here. I lived in Los Angeles for a little while, and I actually lived above a Hasidic family in an apartment. So the idea for this character actually came a long time ago when I was living above this family, and the family was a bit tumultuous.
They had a son who was not far off from Yosef’s age, and he fought a lot with his family and kept me up at night. You couldn’t help but be fascinated by, on the outside, a family seeming to be following the rules of the Hasidic culture and being a strict group, and on the inside you get a listen to the inner turmoil trying to raise this teenage son who was struggling with behavioral issues, and, I’m sure, his faith while living in Los Angeles in the Hasidic culture.
Plus, Jesse and I got a lot of time to research because, as with a lot of independent movies, it took a while to get the financing together. We would constantly be working on the script and going to Brooklyn trying to observe the Hasidic community and learning as much about them as possible.
This may seem weird, but how do you react to the fact that one summer you’ll have a hellacious sunburn and the next, you’ll be wearing Hasidic curls?
Right. [Laughs] Is it weird?
Yeah. Weird, surprising?
To try to display as many varied performances and differences and characters as possible is the goal. Obviously those two characters are very different [Laughs], but that’s what I’m trying to go for. Hollywood people like to look to the last successful thing you did, and sometimes it’s hard to break out of specific stereotypes, but that’s something you have to deal with. It’s not the worst problem in the world to have.
What did you learn from playing Yosef that you can carry on in life or in your next project?
Working on this movie was quite an amazing experience first of all. You get to work with such wonderful actors, and the dedication everyone had to have; we shot in 18 days in the winter in New York, and you have to stay so completely dedicated to the character and the story. That dedication was an unbelievable amount of hard work that I think everyone feels paid off because we love this movie so much. It’s something I’ll bring with me always: that you have to stay dedicated, and it will come through.