featured Interview

Violence, Humanity and the Class Divide: Actor Aaron Poole on 'The Scent of Rain and Lightning'

April 21, 2018Ben MK

Making a compelling mystery-thriller can be likened to piecing together a puzzle: not only must the parts all fall into place seamlessly, each part, from the story to the score, plays a vital role in the movie as a whole. Perhaps most importantly, however, it requires a great cast — something that The Scent of Rain and Lightning has in spades.

Directed by Blake Robbins and based on the bestselling book of the same name by mystery novelist Nancy Pickard, the film follows a young woman named Jody Linder (Maika Monroe). When she was a young girl, Jody's parents (Maggie Grace and Justin Chatwin) were found murdered, but now the man convicted in their deaths (Brad Carter) is scheduled to be released from prison, prompting Jody to revisit the mysterious circumstances of that fateful night so many years ago. But is she prepared to learn the truth, which could potentially tear her family apart?

Starring alongside Monroe, Aaron Poole plays Meryl, Jody's uncle. I sat down with the Toronto actor to discuss his role, which proves key to unlocking the film's central mystery, and to chat about Canadian Film Day and the Hot Docs film festival, as well as to learn more about his upcoming projects, including a film he'll be co-directing, called Dada, and his role in the upcoming adaptation of the graphic novel, The Empty Man.

(A friendly word of warning: the following contains some spoilers for The Scent of Rain and Lightning)

The Scent of Rain and Lightning really highlights how things are best characterized in shades of grey, rather than in black and white. Was that a key aspect of what drew you to this project?

Poole: Definitely. I mean, apart from getting to work with a whole new team — it being my first American film — the moral content, the thematic content that really investigated [how] humanity interacts with violence was what I found interesting. To me, the most interesting bad guy roles are the ones where we can sort of empathize with maybe some of the motivations of the violence.

Were you familiar with the book, or with author Nancy Pickard's work, prior to taking on the role?

Poole: No, I read the book once I got the role. But I had never even heard of it, even though it had been on the New York Times' bestseller [list]. And actually, it was neat shooting in Oklahoma, because she's from Kansas, and the proximity really is her fan base. There's a lot of people that were really excited that her stuff was being adapted.

You're part of a great ensemble cast that includes Maika Monroe, Will Patton, Maggie Grace, Justin Chatwin, Bonnie Bedelia, Brad Carter, Logan Miller and Mark Webber. Can you tell me more about the collaboration with the other actors?

Poole: For me, I was coming on as a ringer. Nobody knew who I was, nobody talked to me until after my first day on set. I think there was probably some fear that I wouldn't be any good. [laughs] And so I think that that just unconsciously comes out in a competitive industry like the States' film industry. But it was great to be part of the club after they established that I could act. [laughs] And Will Patton, in particular, was a fantastic mentor. We were able to take some side trips together, talk about his craft over the years, in the decades that he's been in the industry. He's done blockbusters and really interesting indie stuff, so I really learned a lot from him.

So, it sounds like you pretty much flew in under the radar. What was the audition process like?

Poole: I'm lucky that I can stay here — I'm a single father — I can raise my child in Toronto, and send tapes to the world. So I have representation in LA, they send me audition notices, and I did, I think just one audition — one tape. I prepared with my friend, Joanne Boland, in a casting studio, and then in a few months they had cast the other roles and gave me a call and offered this one.

And what was it like filming in the States, this being your first American production there?

Poole: I think at that point I had done a couple Canadian productions that had stolen shots in the States. But this was the first time shooting in the States. And Oklahoma's fascinating. Politically, it was before Trump had been elected, and there's strong Conservatism in that state. As you know, the teachers strikes are happening there, because they have all these fracking dollars, and the teachers are buying paper and pencils out of their own pockets. So the effects of Conservatism exist there, and shooting in that environment as a lefty Canadian was fascinating. There were definitely a couple times I had to sidestep escalating arguments that had just occurred and erupted casually with locals and stuff like that.

That being the case, I absolutely loved it. The people that we were collaborating with that were from Oklahoma were fascinating, smart, talented people. Part of the time we shot in Oklahoma City, and other times we were shooting in this frontier town — like [a] Colonial, low-level, Western town — called Guthrie, which used to be the capital. The world's largest Scottish Rite Masonic temple has been built there, as like an outpost of European foundational hegemonic education to the new world. And now they run tours, cuz they're broke.

A lot of these Westerns that shoot in Oklahoma will go to Guthrie. American Gods shot there, I think. It's a quintessential, low-rise, red brick frontier town. It's beautifully preserved, and culturally fascinating. It's like a standing set; it's amazing. The diners, the restaurants — it was just incredible.

The film is very much a slow burn, and everyone in the cast, including yourself, seems to have invested a lot — emotionally speaking — into their roles. With that in mind, was there a scene that was especially challenging to shoot? Perhaps in terms of externalizing your internal emotions and so forth?

Poole: I think probably when Maggie and I are driving in the rain, and it's basically a silent scene except she's trying to make a laundry list of the things we have to do to make it alright, and I realize that the class divide will protect her, but I'll be completely thrown under the bus if we're caught. And I have to make the decision to either run away together and eventually get caught, or to cover my tracks.

And that was fascinating, because it was inside the car and then outside in the rain. And we had rain machines, and we're just soaked to the bone, and it's freezing cold. Yeah, it was a lot of fun, but tricky. [laughs]

I don't worry too much about externalizing. If I'm worried about externalizing, then I'm not doing good work. The great thing about good directors and good camera work is if they put it in the right place then you see what the thoughts and the emotions are. And I don't have to worry about anything.

Keeping along those lines... There's also two parallel timelines going on in the narrative, so for your character and most of the others (aside from Maika's character, who's played by another actress for her younger self), you obviously had to communicate to viewers in ways other than your appearance that several years had passed, in which time they've been trying to heal from this traumatic event in their lives. How did you approach putting yourself in the headspace of those two different versions of your character?

Poole: That's such a cool question. Apart from the physicality? Well, we worked outside in first. When we shot what I guess is the present day stuff, where I'm older, we considered what a man who might have something to hide would have consciously or unconsciously done to his appearance. And, considering that I had something to hide, from an internal perspective there wasn't really much more I needed to approach the older version. Constantly attempting to integrate with the family, knowing what I knew, was really the primary motivation.

And then, in the past, there was this approach to the possibility of being a part of the upper class of the town. Really, it's a story about class more than anything. It manifests in, you know, violence and murder, but the stratification is due to class, purely. And there's not a lot of reference made to that, but my character, Meryl, and Brad Carter's character grew up together and are very much outsiders. And I've managed to find a way in through this family marriage. And that's what I focused on for the past, was the possibility of being integrated with that upper class.

So, of all the themes present in this movie, which one spoke to you the most?

Poole: The idea of class. I feel like there's so much necessary dialogue right now around race and gender, and I love that that's occurring and shaking up sort of our structural perspective. The one thing, growing up in a family that didn't have a lot of money, that I feel is always shared across gender, race boundaries is what it's like to be poor. And I don't feel like that's discussed, because that destabilizes the dream more than anything. The fact that there is a problem in the stratified culture around money destabilizes the dream, hugely. Anyways, I loved that the story started to sort of drill down on that.

A lighter question: Did you keep the bumblebee-patterned shirt you wear in the movie?

Poole: [laughs] I didn't keep the shirt, I kept the bolo tie! And I had to give back his rings — the turquoise rings — because they were on loan from an antique shop. But I kept the bolo tie, and I think that they're still gonna ship me my hat, cuz that hat was made for me. I had a beard made out of my own hair at one point, and when we had to do some additional scenes, I had already shaved, so I used my fake beard. They have my fake beard and my hat, so at one point I'm going to receive from the producers in Oklahoma a Purolator package with a fake beard and a cowboy hat. And it'll be the weirdest piece of mail I'll ever receive. [laughs]

Of course, you're Canadian, and you work on a lot of Canadian films — and Canadian Film Day was just recently. Are there any Canadian films or shows that are on your list of must-watch titles right now?

Poole: Yeah, I've actually never seen Léolo, a French film that I think was made in the early nineties that is on a lot of people's top ten lists. Somebody recently described it as if Terry Gilliam did a coming-of-age [film] with maybe some queer themes in it. But I'm going to co-direct a film this year with a Quebec documentarian named J.F. Martel called Dada — it's basically about a nonsense game that a father and daughter begin to play that ruins their relationship, and then transforms it. It's pretty simple, very easy, but it deals with silliness and the role of silliness and sort of deeper emotional issues. And J.F.'s favorite Canadian film is Léolo.

Also, the Hot Docs film festival is coming up. Are you a fan of documentaries?

Poole: I just finished Wild Wild Country, the documentary that the Duplass brothers produced about the commune in Oregon in the eighties and nineties that was really actually interesting in terms of xenophobia and sort of how the political structures in modern day America think that they're doing right, but just serve to push new ideas and new concepts out of the fabric of the American experience. In the name of the American dream, you alter and limit the American experience. And that's a fascinating dichotomy. I don't know what's right or what's wrong, but it explores it really well, I think.

You're also in the upcoming supernatural thriller The Empty Man, which is based on the graphic novel. Can you tell me more about that one?

Poole: Yeah, so that's based on a Boom! [Studios] graphic novel called The Empty Man, by Cullen Bunn. And the adaptation is loose; it's based on the cosmology and not the story. David Prior is the writer/director, and David, for over a decade, was the documentarian/behind-the-scenes director/producer for [David] Fincher, the Coen Brothers... he's basically the film geek that had access to Warner Bros.' library. He did the color collection on Big Trouble in Little China... he did the award-winning stuff for Fight Club, when they realized that extras can actually be produced at a cinematic quality. Anyways, he got a kick at the can making his own movie... [which] concerns an investigation into the death of a daughter and the uncovering of a cult. And it's one of the best film experiences I've ever had.

For a month, we were in Capetown, South Africa, before this brutal water crisis, and shooting like a page and a half, two pages a day. I'm used to operating at five to seven pages a day, so this pace was so beautiful. Everyone had enough time to prepare, to execute on what we'd prepared, and then to collaborate. There was never any real rush. I'm sure David felt pressure, but for us it was just like amazing.

It is one of the most faithful stories [in terms of] H.P. Lovecraft thematic content that I've come across. Have you heard of this word that [David] Lynch coined called Garmonbozia? It refers to the dread that was born at the splitting of the atom. For the first time in humanity, the experience of an individual human stopped to matter. Total devastation could occur, without the possibility of individual valor on the field of war, anything like that. Humanity would be reduced to hair and teeth, and we would only be counted by those things.

And so that consciously or unconsciously infected our experience of humanity. Garmonbozia was nameless; it infected our consumption… basically, it was what we'd been running away from since the mid-twentieth century, people posit. The word was given by Lynch in the Twin Peaks cosmology, but the existential dread of that level of violence and total devastation was something that Lovecraft really teased at. He talked about the dawning fear over the Pacific... he talked a lot about that in Cthulhu and such, and this film totally drills down to H.P. Lovecraft and also a twenty-first century experience of that. It's gonna be scary!

The Scent of Rain and Lightning is now playing in select theatres.

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