Hot off a recent festival circuit run, David Gordon Green's dark Southern drama, "Joe," is winning raves. Hailed as a return to form for both the director and his star, Nicolas Cage, "Joe" is nothing if not a hot comeback vehicle — it even got a standing ovation at the Deauville American Film Festival.
It's not just a showcase for Cage and Green, though. One of Cage's co-stars is getting a lot of strong notices: Gary Poulter, a homeless man who was living on the streets of Austin when he was cast in the production. Unfortunately, Poulter passed away earlier this year, shortly after filming wrapped.
Green, who's known for engaging in unorthodox methods to capture truly raw authenticity from his actors, charged "Joe" casting director John Williams with visiting Austin's bus stops and street corners and interviewing as many colorful characters as possible. According to Entertainment Weekly, Poulter was called in to audition for a small part in the film ... and ended up getting a much bigger one.
"I sat down with him and I said, 'Listen, I can give you this role where you come in for half a day and we have some fun and you’ll knock it out of the park," explained Green. "Or I can give you the third lead in the movie alongside Nicolas Cage, a role that you have to keep clean, and we're going to need you to commit, memorize lines, and be on time every day, and we're not going to f--- around. And he said, 'Sign me up.'"
Poulter played the role of Wade, the degenerate alcoholic father of Gary (Tye Sheridan of "Mud"), a teenager who befriends Cage's troubled but well-meaning ex-con. Wade makes an already dark film even darker as he beats his son for his day's wages and pimps out his daughter for booze money.
Poulter, who had actually always wanted to be an actor, wowed everyone on the production with his eccentric, dangerous performance — especially his director. "He just had this personality and charisma that you can't find, that you can't access with an actor who hasn't lived it," said Green. "There's a look in his eye and a texture of his skin, and he's missing half an ear. There's just some beautiful qualities in him that for our purposes, brought out an authenticity of the role."
While some members of the production had some reservations with Poulter's casting, Cage did not and in fact was inspired by his co-star's lack of acting experience. "To me, that just made my job more exciting," said Cage. "I’m not a trained actor. I'm just someone who grew up watching movies and found my own way, my own style, my own craft. And in very much the same way, so was Gary Poulter. He was a street performer. He found his own way."
Tragically, Poulter couldn't find a way to overcome his real-life demons. He had struggled with substance abuse since he was a teenager — a struggle that finally ended when he was found on February 19, two months after filming ended, submerged in three feet of water after a night of heavy drinking near Austin's Lady Bird Lake. The medical examiner ruled his death was a result of drowning with acute ethanol intoxication.
As sad as his story ended, Poulter left quite the legacy with his performance in "Joe."
"One of the most unique aspects of 'Joe' is Green's use of Gary Poulter, a non-professional actor in the key role as Gary's dad," writes Chris Bumbray of JoBlo. "He plays a bum, with long scraggly hair, a ear that looks like half of it was chewed off, and a mouthful of rotten teeth. He's drunk to the point of imbecility, and only rouses himself to beat his kids every now and then. He's a despicable person, but it's a testament to Green's gifts that even he has a few moments that suggest he may have one time been something more than the monster he's become."
"Wade is rivetingly portrayed by the non-professional actor Gary Poulter," wrote Robbie Collin of The Telegraph, and Richard Corliss of Time said, "Poulter, a non-actor who died earlier this year, reveals a surly charisma as Wade, a coot so wily and dreadful that he might have spawned 'Child of God's' Lester Ballard on a drunken toot with a grizzly." Jordan Hoffman of Film.com was especially taken with Poulter's screen presence, saying he puts "a unique spin on the brutal monster [he plays]. He's never shown in anything other than the most wretched light and he's fascinating to watch."
And Green has dedicated the film to Poulter's memory. "It was a very pivotal turning point in his life," he said. "He was ready to get back in gear and put his life together and was an inspiration to us every day on the production. He had cleaned up and was ready to be the next Civil War general in a great movie or a saloon keeper in a great western."
"Joe" will next be seen at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival later this month. No U.S. release date has been announced.