max records: where the wild things went
We first met Max Records as the wide-eyed child star of Spike Jonze’s beloved 'Where the Wild Things Are.' Seven years on and back with a new film, 'I Am Not a Serial Killer,' we sit down with the now 19-year-old to talk acting, ambition and his...
Max Records is not your typical former child actor. Sitting shoeless and cross-legged on a sofa in the lobby of a West London hotel, a travel-worn mandolin beside him, the star of Spike Jonze's wildly popular Where The Wild Things Are has, it appears, reached the ripe-old age of 19-years as a seemingly well adjusted member of society. There've been no paparazzi-documented breakdowns. No ill-advised reality TV shows. Hell, not even a pet monkey in sight. Of course, his first film role in five years is playing a sociopathic, would-be killer named John Wayne Cleaver, but, hey, we all went through difficult stages as teens. In fact, that film, the Billy O'Brien-directed I Am Not A Serial Killer, really is excellent: a dark and funny adaptation of Dan Wells's 2009 YA bestseller, in which Records attempts to piece together the, well, pieces of a bloody murder-spree in small town middle America. It stars Back to the Future legend Christopher Lloyd as Record's elderly neighbor and will undoubtedly find an audience among fans of watercooler smash Stranger Things (as well as the recent re-release of Donnie Darko). With Records in town on its accompanying promo trail, we sat down with the young actor to talk acting, ambition and just how one goes about playing a sociopathic teen. Let the wild rumpus start!
Hello Max. This is your first film in five years. What on earth have you been doing with your time?
Just living, you know? Living, going to school, getting done with school.
Did you ever worry, "Hang on, what if I've forgotten how to act"?
I didn't really think about it until the first day or two shooting then I was like, "What the fuck am I doing here?" For the first couple of days the learning curve was pretty steep again.
How does one even go about preparing to play a sociopath? Presumably it wasn't method acting.
I kind of feel like there is no such thing as acting that isn't method to some degree because if you're not actually experiencing it, then you're a fucking liar. I was talking with Billy [O'Brien, director] about it and — I forget the word that he keeps using — but it's an intuitive process. You just kind of feel it out, you know? I was pretty miserable while we were shooting, just because you're in a super dark brain space all day. Especially living in a place like Minnesota where we were shooting, six days a week. You don't get the opportunity to turn it off, you know? And that's great as far as the actual creative process goes but it sucks as far as trying to be a person.
Have you ever done a psychopath test?
I don't think so.
Would you like to do one?
Yeah, let's do it! Is it legit or is it some Facebook nonsense?
Oh, Facebook nonsense probably.
So you're not licensed?
We're not unlicensed.
I'm pretty sure it's an either or thing.
So there are eight statements. You either agree or disagree. First one: "You rarely catch me making any plans. I'm far too spontaneous."
"If I got a better offer, I wouldn't mind canceling longstanding plans."
Yeah, that's probably true.
"It would be fun to drive fast cars, ride rollercoasters, or go skydiving."
I've been skydiving. Fast cars are fun. I don't get the appeal of rollercoasters. I guess I haven't really done a true roller coaster. It feels artificial.
Shall we disagree?
No, let's agree.
Alright. "I think it's okay to step over other people to achieve my ambitions".
I don't know. I don't think you necessarily need to do it. I can't think of many situations that I've been in where that's necessary, where there isn't some other course of action you could take. Let's disagree.
Do you have an ambition?
In the broader context of my life, I just want to gain skills. Recently I was doing an outdoor program back in the States through this thing called NOLS [National Outdoor Leadership School], so I was off doing that for a couple of months. Getting better at being outdoors and learning how the natural world works. And I love playing music so getting better at that. Just learning to be a better, more competent person. Trying to not be a dick.
It's a good motto. Okay: "I'm very persuasive and getting people to get what I want is a real talent of mine."
Agree! I think I'm pretty good at that. I've been manipulating my parents for years.
The perks of being a child star... What was that whole experience like?
Really awful! Especially for children, the film world is just terrible. You can't grow up in that world and still have a connection to reality. At least if you're, like, really in it. Especially the poor folks out there who have stage parents. It's just so sheltered. The creative aspect of acting is one of the more amazing things that I've gotten to experience but everything outside of that is pretty bizarre.
Was it enough to make you think you might not want to do it anymore?
I think, probably, yeah. Especially once Where the Wild Things Are came out. And that was my first real acting role too. Being thrown in the deep end as a young, pretty vulnerable person. And then you have an experience like that and there's all this stigma around it, back in the "real world." I went to the same school since I was in second grade, through most of high school, and I knew all these kids and they were my friends before and after but there was, coming back, this weird stigma, these weird assumptions that if you're in a film, you're an asshole and you don't exist in a grounded real world way.
What are your memories of working on that film?
It was really important to Spike that the set was conducive to a child. So we had a million kids on set. All the crew was kind of invited to bring their families. And as a way to kind of understand the vibe that Spike wanted to cultivate, there was always music on set. The Smiths, "Cemetery Gates" and "Big Mouth Strikes Again," all those songs. I have really wonderful nine year old memories of romping around on set and that music playing.
How does one move past an experience like that and into the world of adult acting?
I think you just grow up and learn to be a person. I think one of the biggest learning curves for me, as a result of those experiences and then applying that to the real world, was that it took me a long time to learn to take a compliment. From twelve through to however old, you just kind of shut down. There's this assumption of an agenda. But you grow up and you learn to be a person and you temper the experiences of working in the film world with what people are actually like and you balance that.
Is there one thing you know now that you wish you knew then?
No, I don't think so. I am the person I am as a result of a lot of those experiences and I love the people that I met and especially those people that I have experiences with. It is what it is. Can't change the past!
Okay: "My ability to make quick decisions means that I would suit a dangerous job."
[Takes long time to decide answer] I dunno... The idea of being a smokejumper appeals to me.
What's a smokejumper?
It's a term for the folks in the US that are forest firefighters and jump out of airplanes. That appeals to me.
What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't acting?
Working in outdoor education probably. Working with kids or being in the outdoors. Or both.
Do you have a desire to keep acting?
Yeah. I mean, I like doing it and I think creatively it's really cool and the people you get the opportunities to work with are often really wonderful people. It allows me to do other things in my own life. My parents have kind of helped me gain this perspective of it, but I think it's best for me to view it as a hobby. I like acting but I don't think it's healthy to do films back to back.
What was it about this script?
I love Billy and I love Nick Ryan, the producer. I love Robbie Ryan, our cinematographer and I think, aesthetically, just the, Midwest middle America vibe, that's really cool. And the humor of the script. It's genuine and it has real emotion embedded in it, but it's funny! That Fargo humor really appeals to me.
Do you have a favorite movie?
It changes periodically, of course. Birdman has been one of my favorite films ever. It came out a couple of years ago and I've watched it half a dozen times. The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover. I rewatched that pretty recently and remembered how good it was. People keep talking to me about Donnie Darko in relation to this film and I like that one quite a bit.
"When others are crumbling under pressure, I'm usually the one with a cool head." Agree or disagree?
Yes. I think so.
When was was the last time you lost your cool?
I've been working on that skill and I think I'm getting pretty good at it. It's been awhile since I've been genuinely, deeply upset about something. One of my favorite things in the world is this scar right here [shows us a fairly impressive scar on his knuckle]. I got it punching walls. It was like the perfect teenage angst motivation. The first time, I was really upset in my house because I had read something about the use of American drone warfare and just how upsetting it was and how a bunch of civilians had just been murdered somewhere in the world. And then the second time was me being upsetting at my parents.
Alright, last one: "I'm rarely to blame for things going wrong, it's usually the fault of the people around me."
I mean, yeah. But I'll disagree.
Okay, let's see your results… You're 61% psychopath! "Though your conscience is in the right place, you have a pragmatic streak and generally aren't afraid to do your own dirty work."
I'll take that.
There's more! "You're no shrinking violet but you're no daredevil either. You generally have a little trouble seeing things from other people's perspectives, but at the same time you're no pushover. Everything in moderation, including moderation, might sum up your approach to life".
I like that. I'll take it!
Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Matt Jones
The Flesh and Blood Issue, No. 304, Winter 2009.