The Reeler


August 24, 2007

Mark Webber's Hottest State

State star on Hawke, hard work and the route from street kid to leading man

Candy everybody wants: Mark Webber in The Hottest State (Photo: ThinkFilm)

Mark Webber went to the open window 22 stories over 16th Street. "Do you mind?" he asked, lifting a cigarette to eye level. His guest shook his head. "I have to ask," the actor said. "You never know with these things."

One deep breath and a few seconds later, he was in work mode. Not his conventional work mode, mind you -- the one that entices filmgoers and grips the attention of directors from Todd Solondz to Jim Jarmusch to Woody Allen to Ethan Hawke, the latter of whom cast him as the lead in the adaptation of his semi-autobiographical novel The Hottest State (opening today in New York). This was the Webber who puts his trajectory to indie leading man -- one who's carried four films since 2006 -- in perspective upon request, for the record.

"I'm looking for the next rush," said Webber, 27. "And for me, that's being different. And part of that is being really selective. I wanna be doing this until I'm at least 85 years old, and I don't want my mystique to wear off. I don't want people to go see a Mark Webber movie to see what Mark Webber does. I want people to go see a movie I'm in because they like how I do things differently."

The Hottest State refracts that ambition through his decidedly prismatic style; his character, the Texas-born, tightly coiled aspiring actor William Harding, stalks toward his dream in New York with little but a chip on his shoulder and his heart on his sleeve. A nightclub encounter with the exotic chanteuse Sarah (Catalina Sandino Moreno) sparks an affair swerving from chaste courtship in Williamsburg to a bedward business-and-pleasure getaway in Mexico before finally closing the round trip at the dank terminal of Breakup Hell.

It's the role of Webber's young career for any number of reasons: the chemistry with his formidably gifted co-stars (Hawke, Michelle Williams and Laura Linney also among them); his moody physical presence against everything from the Sonoran Desert to Connecticut winter; his shuddering, un-self-conscious denial. Moreover, he compels sympathy for William against what feel like the longest of odds; even critics who've urged William to get over it tend to acknowledge the authenticity beneath all that loud, scenery-chomping melancholy.

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"He's not full of a lot of bullshit," Hawke told The Reeler. "I'm not sure exactly what this word means, and people use it a lot: What is 'soul'? He's a soulful young man. And it's hard to get an audience to care about a white guy in his early 20s, you know? Men inherently aren't that interesting until they get older, but there's something about Mark. He has a real compassion inside of him, and he looks like he's been through something."

Try fatherlessness and transience for starters. Webber was born and raised principally in Minneapolis, relocating to Philadelphia when he was 11. His father, a drug addict, had left years earlier. Webber and his mother finally settled in the blasted-out Badlands section of North Philadelphia. There was squatting, living in cars. He had little to his name but his imagination. "I grew up in not the best environment," he said. "Spent a lot of time dreaming of being a movie star. It was a lot better than being a poor kid out on the streets. At some point, a natural ability started coming out; whether it would come from just me being by myself and having to play by myself and imagining and conjure up all these different characters and all these things."

Within a few years he entered the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts; and not long after that he was on buses to auditions in New York. His first film, Edge City, claimed the Hamptons Film Festival's Golden Starfish Award in 1998. Roles followed in Jesus' Son and as the youngest of the hapless, hopeless Iowa hip-hop wanna-bes in Marc Levin's baffling curio Whiteboyz. In 2001, Solondz cast him as Paul Giamatti's doomed high-school documentary subject in Storytelling; soon afterward he portrayed Allen's estranged son in Hollywood Ending. Webber was 21.

Webber's following film, the graffiti saga Bomb the System, was his first leading role as well as his first project with writer-director Adam Bhala Lough, whom he would rejoin in 2006 for the shattering Sundance entry Weapons. (Webber also co-produced both films.) Lough's rippling urban fatalism almost seems mined from Webber's DNA; while hardly the existential wrecks he portrays in each film -- breathlessly tap dancing on tipping point between nature and nurture -- Webber indeed wields a creative intensity that is neither cultivated nor overbearing. Rather, it sporadically whips his spine and pushes his words through the air in meandering clusters until he lands on a point -- the point, usually emphasized with a half-fist and a little cigarette ash tumbling over his knee.

"There's really no tricks up his sleeve," he said of Lough. "He's kind of just trying to show this world, and he's really interested in making films that leave it open. And I love making movies with friends because that level of trust is there. It's ALL open -- you're really making art. And fuck people who think that sounds stupid, because we really are. We're making art. And not just an art film, but something we want the masses to see. Weapons, I think, is going to have a really crazy effect on people. It's really unique. I'm curious."

As is After Dark Films, the controversial distributor that last spring picked Weapons up for distribution. Webber's indelible exposure over the last few years can't hurt, particularly his turn as willful, wild-eyed Pete in Josh Sternfeld's otherwise unremarkable montage-a-thon Winter Solstice and his virtual cameo as the kid who may be Bill Murray's son in Broken Flowers. There was Thomas Vinterburg and Lars Von Trier's underrated pistol opera Dear Wendy and the haunted Nebraska outsider of The Good Life, another Sundance '07 alum that has yet to find a buyer.

Webber and Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers (Photo: Focus Features)

Hawke said he had Webber in mind for The Hottest State since casting him in his 2001 directorial debut Chelsea Walls. In their lone scene together in the new film, Hawke, as William's father, defuses outrage with humility; the metaphors simmer with implication. "The movie is as personal to him as it is to me, and I think that's why he's so good for the part," Hawke told me. "All the good new young actors know how to do that. River Phoenix knew how to do that. You make everything personal. I think that's why we're friends: We understand each other. Our mothers are similar, our fathers. It's fascinating."

The scene wrecked Webber, whose actual father recently reached out to him for the first time in two decades. "I had a lot of weird anxieties and feelings," he said. "Am I ever going to reach out to my Dad? Do I need to do that? Do I need to resolve this? Because I'm doing it in the film. It's really interesting for me -- that scene in particular. It was like I kind of wasn't talking to Ethan at that point; I was talking to my Dad."

So to what degree is Mark Webber a part of William Harding? Or vice versa?

"A lot," he replied, nodding. "Here's a character where..." Webber paused, extinguished the cigarette. "I'm a young actor. I've had my heart broken. I have these aspirations to be well-known, with integrity and all these kinds of things and all these things that Mark Webber has and that William Harding has. That represented and brought up a whole new set of challenges. In some ways it's harder than I realized to play something closer to home. You kind of feel like, 'Oh, I can just be myself.' But you can't. There was a lot to work from and a lot for me to try and change in a lot of weird ways to go outside myself and still feel inspired. On a certain level, at some point I self-consciously started taking on mannerisms of Ethan and certain kind of things on this really weird level."

Like what?

"There's a certain way he talks, and a look," Webber said. "I don't know. You just spend so much time with somebody and he just kind of rubbed off on me that way -- that inspiration. Whether or not that's so apparent in the film, I don't know. But for me, I felt it. I felt some kind of shift. Something inside me that was outside of myself but still rooted in myself -- that duality, the stuff that was going on that was so fascinating to me."

This month Webber was set to direct his first film, Explicit Ills, in Philadelphia. Jarmusch is executive producing. A self-admitted control freak, Webber said his screenplay stuck to what he knew -- in his words, "love and drugs and poverty and organizing in my hometown."

"It's so inspiring," he said. "I just can't wait. All this stuff has brought me to this point, and I feel like I'm finally ready. I'm ready to do it. It's been, like, 27 movies. Here I go."

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