Before young adults voraciously devoured seven consecutive tomes about a boy wizard, obsessively turned the pages of the Hunger Games trilogy, or debated friends over what factions they would be placed in, there was The Giver.
For a certain generation, Lois Lowry’s 1994 Newberry Medal-winning novel is the book. About a society where pain and suffering is eliminated—save for one boy chosen to receive it all—it was the book that illuminated the power of literature to stir the soul, to make you think. For many, it was the first novel that treated its young reader like an adult, refusing to shy away from topics of life, death, blame, guilt, and choosing your own path. It was the literary bridge between youth and adulthood meant for an audience just about to cross that bridge—though found just as affecting by anyone who had already made that journey before.
More than all of that, though, it was a book that made young people realize that they liked to read. And now, 20 years later, that book is being turned into a movie.
As we’ve learned in recent years with the casting of Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter or Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in film adaptations of wildly popular young adult books, hell hath no fury like an adolescent betrayed by Hollywood. As such, fans of The Giver were more than prepared to wield their 140-character pitchforks should the casting of the beloved central character, Jonas, defy their expectations.
You can imagine their reaction, then, when 25-year-old Aussie heartthrob Brenton Thwaites was hired to play 12-year-old Jonas. After a 20-year wait for a Giver film (poignantly, Jeff Bridges, who plays The Giver in the film, has been part of the development process for 18 of them), it was a bit jarring for fans to find out that young Jonas—the boy who is Everyman, a stand-in for all of us and the bravery it takes to question the status quo—would be played by someone so much older than we had imagined. And not just older, but hunkier, too.
How would the casting of the perfectly chiseled, grown man affect Jonas’s journey, as he discovers that the quarantined utopia he lives in—where everyone has a role and every emotion, impulse, and instinct is carefully regulated, if not restricted—is actually a byproduct of dystopia? In the film version, Jonas is aged to 16 (making Thwaites’ casting more understandable), but fans still wondered how the maturation changes the wonder and horror as Jonas receives all of the emotions, colors, and memories for the first time. Will the film still be as powerful as the book?
Thwaites, however, is quickly finding himself no stranger to intense scrutiny, and has already proven particularly graceful while handling it.
After a stint acting on Australian TV, the rising star has torpedoed his entrance into Hollywood—and with a necessary good sense of humor, too. This year he starred as Prince Phillip opposite Angelina Jolie in Maleficent (and came out of it with a killer story about meeting Brad Pitt for the first time while feeling high). He continued his string of working with the world’s most famous people on The Giver set, sharing scenes with Meryl Streep and Taylor Swift, with whom he’s predictably been forced to deny rumors of a relationship.
It’s telling, though, that one of his happiest memories from the shoot—a real one, not one of Jonas’ in the film—is showing up to set wearing the Big Lebowski T-shirt he had bought just before his audition, eliciting a hearty laugh from co-star Jeff Bridges. Brenton Thwaites is a pretty fun guy.
Ahead of The Giver’s highly anticipated theatrical release this Friday, Thwaites talked to The Daily Beast about working with The Dude, addressed all of the fears fans have about his casting as an older Jonas, and proved with frequent laughs and hearty enthusiasm why he may be one of Hollywood’s most refreshing—and promising—young stars.
Here in the States, as I’m sure you’ve found, every single kid has read this book. Is it as big in Australia?
It wasn’t, but I hope that this movie changes that around. I hope that it will become popular in schools, because it is a universal story. It’s not specific to any country or culture. On a human level, we can all learn from this book.
I remember reading this for the first time in grade school as a class assignment, and our teacher drilling into us how important its themes are. But I also know that it’s on the banned book list in a lot of places. Why do you think that is?
Well the idea of “release” and infanticide and suggestions of eliminating the imperfect is pretty gnarly, if you think about it. That’s basically the worst thing that can happen, killing an innocent child. But it’s not really at the forefront, so I feel like people forget about the other storyline, which is learning about life and the history of the world, and using that to escape and find the truth.
Back to Jeff Bridges. Were you a big Big Lebowski fan?
Yeah, man. Huge! A week before my audition I bought a “The Dude Abides” T-shirt. I hadn’t even heard about the film. I didn’t even know about The Giver or working with Jeff. I was in Venice Beach with friends and saw it. “Oh, ‘The Dude Abides’! I gotta get that shirt!” And then two months later I’m being sent to South Africa to work with him.
Did you wear it on set around him?
I wore it one day. He was like, “Hey!”
Did he give you any advice during the shoot about navigating the next step of your career? A bit of a Giver-Receiver relationship?
He did. He gave me more than he actually probably realized, just through watching him work. It’s one thing to watch an actor on screen, but it’s a whole other beast to watch them prepare.
It must be wild to, so early in your career, be on set in your first few films with Angelina Jolie and Jeff Bridges and Meryl Streep. What goes through your mind the day you’re about to be on set with Meryl Streep or Angelina Jolie for the first time?
I was nervous! I’m nervous before the first time I go on screen for the first time with anyone. But especially with those ladies, because I’m familiar with them but they’re not familiar with me. You feel like you know these people because you’ve watched them so many times.
It has to be strange to know so much about their lives while they know nothing about yours.
Exactly. It’s a cool, strange experience.
What was the audition process for this like? It must've been highly sought out among Hollywood’s young actors.
The audition process was quite intense! Jeff had this baby for 20 years and to cast it at the last second, he really wanted to work it out and find the right Jonas. It was basically just a rehearsal. It didn’t feel like an audition. It was more finding this character and finding this kid’s innocence. I really enjoyed it. It’s where I really started working on this film, subconsciously. Then I met Jeff for the screen test and got on like a house on fire. He was super cool and I was super nervous. He was very relaxed in his Giver robe. Instantly, we were like, “This is going to be cool.” We jammed and rehearsed, playing around with the text and changing things up until we had a rough canvas of how we’re going to work together.
How do you think the decision to age Jonas changes the narrative?
Originally they wanted to stick with a 12-year-old kid. A lot of fans connected with that kid. My take on that is that I always read him as an older kind of a guy on the cusp of finishing school and finding a job. In our world, we do that when we’re 17, 18. When we’re finishing high school you go out and find a job or go to college. So the crossroads you find in a teenager that’s about 17 or 18 is the same that Jonas is at. It has advantages or disadvantages, of course. You can really enhance the love story. I think it’s more believable that a young adult would have stronger feelings of love for a woman opposed to a 12-year-old boy, who might have a crush.
There’s a story about a big storm that shut down production for a day in South Africa.
There was a huge storm! We got caught in a storm. We were shooting on a mountain and we saw these black clouds. The local guys were like, “Guys, you better get out of here. It’s going to catch us.” We kept shooting because we were time-poor and had to get that stuff. There was a lot of stressors going on, because it was our last day in that location. So we started shooting and this storm hit us. Like, the lightning strikes were coming down next to me. I’ve never been so scared in my life. It was gnarly.
Who was on set? What were you filming?
We were shooting scenes with the baby! They were OK. Everyone was OK. Nothing bad happened. It was just a little moment where Mother Nature said, “Hey! I’m here! Don’t forget about me!”
How are you with babies? You spent quite a bit of time with one in this movie. Are you a baby guy?
I never was, but this movie has turned me into a baby guy! I obviously don’t have any babies, but I’ve come to really enjoy spending time with those kids. They’re just so fun to play around with. I love children and get along with children really well. But those babies were a new challenge for me and I really enjoyed it.
I imagine this was a pretty big acting challenge, to pretend to experience emotion for the first time. How did you do that?
You ask yourself, what would that feel like? In a way, you sort of brainstorm. “It would feel funny. It would feel confusing. It would feel exhilarating.” Then you use those words and try to re-create something in your own life, touching back to when I was a kid. What was something that funny and exhilarating that I have experienced? Then re-create that.
Are you more in touch with your emotions now after doing this movie?
Ha, am I more emotional? I don’t know! I learned so much from this movie, so I guess in a way I’ve become more accessible. I don’t know if I’m more emotional or in touch with my emotions more. But it’s a good thing for an actor to be able to pull out any kind of tool you have in a toolbox, and I feel like this movie gave me more tools.