The Welsh actor opens up about his new film, The Fundamentals of Caring.
We like Craig Roberts at i-D. Not only is he a very good actor and director, he is also, officially, Not A Dick™: polite, self-deprecating, humble to a T. Craig Roberts might have gone to Hollywood for the Zac Efron flick Neighbors in 2014, but he has not gone Hollywood. Getting his teenage break in the Richard Ayoade film Submarine, the 25-year old actor has since turned his hand to directing (last year's sharp and funny Just Jim), and now stars alongside Paul Rudd and Selena Gomez in Rob Burnett's upcoming Netflix film The Fundamentals of Caring. Not bad for the boy from Maesycwmmer, South Wales (pop. 2,242). Ahead of the film's release tomorrow, we had a nice chat with Craig about all things cinema, growing up in a small town and never, ever coming of age.
Hello Craig Roberts. For the benefit of anyone that doesn't know about The Fundamentals of Caring could you briefly summarize the premise of the film and your role in it please?
Yes. It's about a guy played by Paul Rudd who is kind of down on his luck and not having the best time and has decided to become a caregiver. He's sent to look after this kid called Trevor, who I play, and has Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It's basically like a buddy movie where they go on a road trip and he gets this kid out of his house and they both learn a lot from each other. It's a real feel-good movie.
How do you begin to play someone with muscular dystrophy?
Rob [Burnett] the director was really, really on it and and gave me as much to read as possible. He set up an interview with a kid called Sam and I went to see his daily routine of how he operates. I just wanted to get comfortable with being in a wheelchair and it not look like I was acting like I was in a wheelchair. I wanted to be comfortable with maneuvering around the house I was in and stuff like that. But each case with Duchenne muscular dystrophy is different, so we kind of decided on a point where he would be during it and went with that.
And what's apparent is that you didn't want the movie to be this very worthy portrayal of disability that you often see on film. It's a lot more nuanced and more interesting than that.
Yeah, absolutely. Obviously he's suffering with this terrible thing but at the same time there's a lot of funny stuff in the movie and it's mainly about these two people discovering a lot from each other and coming of age, really, via this road trip. So, yeah, it was more about just finding the humor in everything, I think.
It's interesting that you describe it as a coming of age film because I feel like that's the term used to describe so many of the projects you've been involved in.
Yeah, I'm never going to come of age.
Never. But this is the thing, I find it very interesting the whole genre of coming of age movies. Technically, every movie is a coming of age movie! Nobody ever completely comes of age because nobody every goes, "Oh, I know everything, now I can retire from life." You're always discovering stuff and discovering stuff about yourself and learning new things, so it's a constant. No matter what age you are, you're coming of age.
Have you learned anything interesting in the last week or so?
Recently, maybe to not care about things as much. I'm somebody that probably runs through things a lot in my mind and, you know, kind of gets obsessed with things and neurotic. So yeah, just to be less worried about things probably. And, to put it politely, not give a fuck too many things.
You've already done so many things so young, but do you feel as though you're still learning your craft?
Yeah, absolutely. As an actor, I'm obviously of an age to play a certain role and a lot of the actors I look up to are a lot older than I am and have experienced a lot more of life. I think life will probably teach you how to act, you know? Experiencing things. So yeah, I've got so much to learn. I don't really know anything on the whole scale of acting.
What about making your directorial debut so young with Just Jim? Were you at all worried that people might say you haven't experienced enough to be able to direct?
Not so much worried... I knew that people would probably have an opinion of it. Luckily Xavier Dolan, he's kind of paved the way for anybody that's young and he's made so many films and they're all bloody good, so nobody can really criticize his age. But I suppose, me directing a film is pretty much down to my knowledge of film and specifically how, if you've seen enough movies and know how you want to see a movie then I suppose that's it. I've spent so much bloody time watching films, I just thought maybe I can give it a crack.
Does that grow out of growing up in a provincial town, do you think? Cinema acting as this sort of window to something more exciting than what's happening on your doorstep?
Abso-bloody-lutely. I love the place that I'm from now because when I was younger I thought it was so boring and I wanted to get out of it. And then when I got out of it and saw how, when you go to a place where there's so many things going on, there's so many more worries... I can see how people can get very content living in small towns. But, yeah, watching movies was just complete escapism. It just felt so good to just forget about life for an hour and a half or two and a half hours or whatever film you're watching.
Was there one in particular that made you think, "I want to do that"?
Yeah, The Mask. I remember watching that and being like, 'What the hell is this?' I absolutely loved it. But I didn't really know how I wanted to act until probably around 19, 20. I was acting but I was just kind of doing it as a job. I was enjoying it but then I remember watching like, I dunno, There Will Be Blood and stuff like that, that just made me think bloody hell, you know, it's so incredible.
Did you ever go to drama school?
I didn't no. I wish I did but it was never really a choice. Things kind of started snowballing as far as work and it then reached a point where it was like, I didn't really know whether it was worth doing now. I don't know if I could fucking do it anyway, they're all so good, they're all so talented.
Presumably your experience on sets, and the opportunity you've had to watch people and ask questions and study, has been your education?
Yeah, absolutely. My first film was a movie called Submarine and the director Richard Ayoade was just, I mean, he had his shit together. He was so smart. And I remember just watching him and being like bloody hell. And you know, asking him questions as much as I could. Sets are the best experience, you know? I did a lot of kid's TV as a kid - it's not my greatest work by a million miles - but it kind of instilled the grammar of making TV and film into me. I kind of knew how to approach it from there on.
I remember reading something you had said about Submarine, that you kind of learned to act while making it… Do you still feel that way when you look back on it?
Hell yeah. I mean, the transition between doing kid's TV to Submarine... Kid's TV is very animated, it's almost like you're doing pantomime, you're really playing up to it. Then I sat down with Richard for Submarine and he was like, 'Stop acting completely.' And it felt so alien. I remember doing the movie and thinking, "I don't know what the fuck I'm doing, I'm going to be terrible in this." I just didn't know what was going on. Doing it probably changed my taste for comedy too. I became more acquainted with a dry sense of humor.
Has the way you approach roles changed at all since then or do you still try and approach them in that very intuitive way?
Yeah. It constantly keeps changing. Like, the process of learning lines constantly keeps changing. Back then, I probably learnt them weeks in advance and would run it and run it and run it and now it's kind of like, a muscle because you keep doing it. It becomes a thing where I probably learn the lines a day or two before and I'm comfortable with it. I find the adrenaline of being so close to filming and then learning lines kind of helps as well.
Have you figured out what actor you want to be yet?
No, not at all. I mean, probably, one of my favorite actors is Paddy Considine by five million miles. The guy is phenomenal. So funny but just so serious with it. But yeah, I don't know. I'd just like to keep working. If I'm able to keep working I'll be very happy. It's weird, I get asked the question, "Are there any actors you look up to?" but usually it's filmmakers I would love to be. To make movies anywhere near someone like Paul Thomas Anderson or something.
How do you think of yourself now? Are you a director who is still doing bits of acting? An actor who's doing bits of directing?
At the moment I'm just prepping my second film to direct, which I think we'll be doing early next year. Then in a couple of days I leave to act in a TV show in America called Red Oaks. So it's kind of both. But I've never really wanted or was aware of being an actor and then once I started acting I was never really aware that I wanted to be a director until I did it. I think it's just, I just wanted to create stuff and put stuff out and just have some kind of input.
And you're directing your next film, In My Oils, in Wales, right?
Yeah, I'm shooting in Wales.
How important is it that Wales features so much in your work?
I love being Welsh. I think it's really great. Interestingly, the next film, it's not actually set in Wales. It's not really set anywhere but I'm filming it in Wales. Mainly because it's 20 minutes from my home and I can play Xbox when I go home at night. But also because directing is such a schizophrenic process and you have to have so many answers. It kind of takes a lot of energy, it's so out of my comfort zone, that to be in Wales doing it would put me slightly more within my comfort zone.
What's your ultimate aim with acting and directing?
Acting I just hope that I remain likable, I think. Likable is such a big thing, I think, for actors. Mainly because, I think it's the most accessible quality to have as an actor. Even people that play bad guys. Heath Ledger played the Joker but he was so bloody likable and he was so accessible. Even guys that play bad guys still likable. So that, just being able to have that. And as a director, I suppose I just want to make stuff that people think about and pose questions and I hope that as I go on, it gets less and less self indulgent and I actually make movies for other people as opposed to myself.
The Fundamentals of Caring in on Netflix from tomorrow (June 24).
Text Matthew Whitehouse