In Jeremy Saulnier’s brutal and intense Green Room, in which a punk band fights neo-Nazis in the remote Pacific Northwest, Sir Patrick Stewart goes where few beloved pop icons or esteemed thespians of his caliber have gone before: into the skin of a white supremacist overlord.
Saulnier’s follow-up to revenge drama Blue Ruin is another delightfully nasty little genre gem, about a broke East Coast punk outfit called The Ain’t Rights (Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole, and Callum Turner) who stumble into a paid gig they need as they play their way across Oregon. There’s just one catch: It’s out in the middle of nowhere at a concrete bunker of a neo-Nazi clubhouse crawling with skinheads.
They take the gig, trading barbs with an antagonistic crowd that doesn’t take too kindly when they unload a cover of the Dead Kennedys’ “Nazi Punks Fuck Off.” Everything’s relatively peachy, all things considered, until the sketched-out punks witness a murder backstage and find themselves hostage, with no way out and no cell reception, and at the mercy of the club’s icy paterfamilias: Patrick Stewart.
“Yes, there was a little part of me that was drawn to the extreme nature of this character,” Stewart told The Daily Beast, describing the pull of the cold and calculating Darcy Banker, whose off-putting calm belies a callously self-preserving agenda that can’t allow for any of his unwanted guests to leave alive.
“I think most actors would say there is a great deal of pleasure to be got out of playing someone who is so far away from what might be called the norm, or ordinary, or everyday,” Stewart continued. “And I like that, because I consider myself to be pretty normal and everyday, really.”
He remembers locking his doors at home in England while reading the script for the first time, having to pour himself a drink to calm his nerves. A week later he took the role, quite a 180 from the heroic figures he’s famous for in the Star Trek and X-Men franchises, and was on a plane to Portland, Oregon.
Stewart described the feeling of watching Green Room, which premiered to raucous applause at the Toronto Film Festival.
“It made me uneasy all over again, just like the first time I read it. And there were moments even in production when there was a quality to the performances, of Anton and Alia and Imogen and Joe, a quality about their desperation and their fear as the story became grimmer and grimmer,” he said. “It used to really upset me. I was moved by it. I mean, I had nothing in common with these musicians.”
“And I don’t especially care for their music,” he smiled.
Green Room’s antiheroes, led by Yelchin’s Pat—the bassist of the band, not the flashiest of the Ain’t Rights, but the most levelheaded—were partly inspired by Saulnier’s own youthful memories as a punk-loving teenager growing up in the ’90s outside of Washington, D.C., in suburban Alexandria, Virginia.
“When we started going to shows across the bridge in Washington, D.C., as a 15-, 16-year-old kid, just seeing Nazis in the light of day at matinee shows was unnerving,” remembered Saulnier. “This was back when D.C. was the murder capital of the United States, per capita. It was a grimy grungy, scary place, and I felt very unsure and out of my depth. That stayed with me.”
And yes, Saulnier sang in a hardcore band. They were called No Turn On Fred, he began explaining, “but you take that out of the city limits and you’ve got to spend five minutes explaining what it means. We went by NTOF in big letters so we wouldn’t have to explain it.”
Where Stewart came from, punk meant the Sex Pistols and Johnny Rotten—and the Shakespearean veteran of stage and screen readily admits he’s not the most well-versed in the punk-rock lifestyle. But “I believed in this world,” he said. “I was quite drawn to the colorful nature of [punk musicians] and that element of protest, of violent musical objection. It appealed to me because I’ve always been a socialist—and I’m way on the left, mostly. I don’t even get any more moderate as I get older.”
The kids of Green Room aren’t reminiscent of the punks of ’70s Britain, or even the (sub)urban punks Saulnier grew up with two decades later. But they do embody a defiant millennial echo of the eternal punk spirit. By the time they find themselves outgunned and outmanned, backed into the dark corners of their labyrinthine bunker prison, their ranks dwindling one squishy and stomach-turning kill at a time, they find that they do care quite a bit about something: staying alive.
The skinheads of Green Room also represent a modern kind of white supremacy and separatism, one that’s had a resurgence in America of late. They operate with military precision, obeying a chain of command that reaches, ultimately, back up to Stewart’s Darcy, who runs an illicit criminal empire beneath the floors of his clubhouse—equal parts ideologue, businessman, father figure, and cult leader.
“I didn’t choose skinheads because they were Nazis,” explained Saulnier. “I chose skinheads because within the hardcore punk movement there were so many different types of people and they’re all welcome—well, not so much the neo-Nazis—but I chose them because they’re the most like soldiers. They’re more apt to be associated with a certain ideology that lends itself to extremism.”
In researching real-life figures like Darcy, Saulnier says, he found himself pitying the true-believer youths who adopt such ideologies of hate, like Darcy’s second-in-command Gabe, played by Blue Ruin star Macon Blair.
“It’s about perverting people’s needs and their anger,” said Saulnier. “Punk rock is associated with white national socialist movements, but not because it’s inherently the same thing; there’s a gravitation to it. It attracts young people, and it’s used to recruit. These people come to [Darcy] not because he’s a nefarious bad guy with ill intentions and hatred, but because he offers them something very attractive, which is a place to be and a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and a cause. Now, whether that cause means something to him or not is not important. He’s feeding them something they need and that’s part of the really disturbing dynamic.”
“When I saw [white supremacists] a long time ago or in documentaries, I’d see these children spewing hate. My reaction wasn’t, ‘Fuck you, you’re wrong.’ It was oh, this is tragic,” Saulnier continued. “These guys are victims. The dynamic here with the Nazis in this movie, they’re doing terrible things and carrying out a brutal mission, but like Darcy they’re also reluctant. This is not by their choosing. They don’t want to do this, they don’t want to dispatch these kids one by one like a horror movie. This is a mop-up operation, and it’s about pragmatism and procedure and strategy and not so much bloodlust.”
Given the rural Oregon setting it’s tempting to draw parallels to Ammon Bundy, or look to white supremacist mass murderer Dylann Roof’s deadly attack on the black parishioners of a Charleston, South Carolina, church as easy parallels.
Stewart offered another take on how radicalized violence is fostered in the real world, with devastating consequences. “We are learning now from those who understand this, some of how the indoctrination of young Muslims work,” he said. “I don’t think for a moment they’re being told, ‘You’re going to go out there and massacre and murder and slaughter all these infidels.’ Not at all.”
“I think they’re given a role, an identity, a sense of belonging,” he continued. “In England, three young girls—three sisters—made their way into Syria only last year to fight. They would not have been won over by stories of horror, but of identity.”
Stewart, meanwhile, gracefully accepts that most filmgoers will always see him as Captain Picard or Professor X—and may be duly taken aback to see him siccing killer dogs on the defenseless punk kids of Green Room and ordering murders left and right.
“I hope it’ll broaden their imagination a little bit, certainly as to who Patrick Stewart is, because I’m not Jean-Luc Picard, and I’m not Charles Xavier,” he said, a subtle grin spreading across his face. “Nor am I Darcy Banker.”
He notes that Green Room is, understandably, an intense bit of cinema. “When we screened it in London some months ago, [wife Sunny Ozell] got upset and had to walk out twice. It wasn’t anything to do with me! It was the movie,” he said. “She’s used to it. Our first date was when she had seen me in a play, playing Macbeth.”
“The very last thing that happened in that production was that a man held up my bleeding severed head and the spotlight faded to black,” he laughed. “And she still went out with me.”