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Jake Ryan first met Wes Anderson when he was only seven years old and was cast as one of the protagonist’s little brothers Kingdom of the moonrisethe director’s 2012 feature set in a summer camp — and the two’s work together has come a long way since.
They have kept in touch with Anderson over the years directing a 2012 stop-motion commercial for Sony that a young Ryan wrote, inviting him to participate in the conversations for the Criterion Collection editions of his films, and giving Ryan a small part in the animated film Isle of Dogs. But now, at 19, Ryan has his biggest role in an Anderson film to date.
In City of Asteroids, Ryan plays Woodrow Steenbeck, an awkward teenager and award-winning “Junior Stargazer”, who arrives in the desert town of the same name with his brooding father Augie (Jason Schwartzman) and three incorrigible little sisters. Woodrow, who recently lost his mother, is pulled out of his shell by his fellow Stargazers, geniuses who while away their time playing a memory game in which they name famous people. To make matters more complicated, given the structure of Anderson’s film, Ryan also plays an understudy actor who plays Woodrow in the comedy titled “Asteroid City,” which is the subject of a television show in Anderson’s universe.
“I guess he saw something in me, and we’ve kept in touch ever since,” says Ryan The Hollywood Reporter know Anderson for the last ten years.
During a recent phone interview, Ryan talks about his long relationship with Anderson, learning from Schwartzman and bonding with his fellow Stargazers on set.
How has your relationship with Wes developed over time?
I always remember how it made me feel, that is, it made me feel at home. She made me feel at ease. I guess that’s the way it is with most of the other actors, with most of the other people that he works with. There’s almost this gravitational force surrounding him that he can use to bring people together. We kept in touch mostly by email I guess. I wish him happy birthday every year or so. It was nice.
What was the audition process like, knowing this was going to be the biggest role you’d ever have with him?
At first, it started as a standard audition process. They gave us dummy lines to read, and eventually you would work towards getting snippets of the actual script. Toward the end of the process, he actually sent all of Woodrow’s dialogue throughout the entire film and asked me to deliver it in one take, really keeping the pace of someone from 1955.
How did you figure out the rhythm of someone from 1955? Was it something you had to figure out on your own through research?
Wes likes his relatively quick dialogue, especially for this film as well. It was just another way to help figure out the rhythm on my own. At that point in that process, I would send him voice clips, reciting lines of something I thought was fast enough, but he said, “Faster. More, more, give me more. I think there were clips on YouTube that I searched, just from people talking about 1955 or clips from a 1955 movie. I finally got it, so it was fun.
What was your initial interpretation of Woodrow and how did it change as you worked on the character?
Of course, something that hasn’t really changed is that I knew that he’s a very smart individual, much smarter than I’ll ever be. Obviously he’s going through a lot right now in the film. He is very shy. After I ended up getting the role, Wes, Jason Schwartzman and I ended up basically doing bi-weekly Zoom sessions, just rehearsing and discussing the relationships between the characters and the meat of the actual film. Something that really stuck with me was, it goes for all the Stargazers as well, they are all very lonely people because of their intelligence. They have strangers from their usual groups. Once they really met and realized that they’re pretty much the same, there’s now so much more to life that they’ve found each other, that they’ve become peers. It was that angle that really stuck with me. Another thing that has given me something to hold on to, Woodrow is very ambitious and he wants to leave something for future generations, whether it’s a scientific theory or an invention of some sort. I’m pretty much the same. As an actor, I want to leave something behind.
Tell me more about those Zoom sessions. You interacted with Jason on Lunar dawn?
I made a promotional video for Kingdom of the moonrise. He played Cousin Ben. I didn’t end up reprising my role, I ended up playing a new character. We met then. My initial first impression was that he was eating a bunch of Milk Duds or something. I even had to eat some Milk Duds for the actual video, I think, and I was like, “Man, these suck. These are sticky. He was like, “Right on the guy” and spit one out. I was like, “Man, this guy is so handsome.” It was the first time I met him.
On the Zoom call, Wes and Jason have been working together for so many years now, they obviously have a relationship, and it was really nice to sit there and hear some of the stories that they would tell, how they got started, stuff like that. How they connected with the actual scripts, some of the similarities between them. Really, I was so impressed with Jason and the dedication he put into making Augie, the character he plays, perfect. Watching development on Zoom, and then working alongside him, and then rewatching the film, just to see how far we’ve come, has been a fantastic experience.
In the film you also play an actor who plays Woodrow, and like that character, you have a scene with Scarlett Johansson on a train. How was that scene?
Of course I was nervous, but it felt really good, because the last couple of days before that scene, I was getting little to no sleep, and the night of that scene, I ended up having a full seven to eight hours, and I was feeling amazing. Because I’ve been practicing and preparing for that scene for the past three days, but obviously I was very nervous. There was also training for the actual ride along the train. They had a treadmill set up so I’ve been working out for the last few days. I’m not the most athletic person, so I had to compensate with attitude, of course. Maybe there was something in the water, because I felt really good that day and I think it went great.
What was it like working with the other young actors who played the Stargazers?
I don’t want to speak for any of the other astronomers, but I had a great time getting to know them. We actually set the chemistry to read Zoom calls in the year before filming, and compared to me, they were so put together. They definitely got the roles by then and I remember having the worst first impression, because my mic was muted. I was picking stuff up off the floor. I was very excited to meet them and work with them.
We also ate dinner pretty much every night, just getting to know them, build rapport with them. We used to play a lot of games just to pass the time. We would play chess, we would play UNO. We had actually created our own name game. He was a little leaner, unlike some of the more obscure names in the film. It was a big part of working on that film.
What was it like being on set in Spain?
We shot in Chinchón and Wes and his team built an entire desert city on top of this watermelon patch. You really had to be there, because to me it was probably the most authentic set I’ve ever been on, in a film sense. Again, as you mentioned earlier, there’s that aspect where it takes place within a play, so there’s this weird valley feel. Overall, most of it was real. The cribs ended up being green rooms they kept us in, they were very cozy. The dinner was practically real. They had real gas for gas stations. It made it very easy to get into character.
City of Asteroids is in limited release in theaters before airing June 23.