Before last fall, you likely knew of Emory Cohen only if you happened to be part of the demographic that hate-watched NBC’s notorious TV musical series Smash. Then Brooklyn came out, and moviegoers collectively swooned over the now-26-year-old actor and his sweet, grounded performance as smirking Italian suitor Tony in the coming-of-age period piece.
Instantly Cohen, who previously made a splash in the intense 2013 indie The Place Beyond the Pines, was on the top of everyone’s Breakout Stars list. Just like that, this journeyman young actor was heading from Brooklyn to, just maybe, a galaxy far, far away.
With his rising star coinciding with a high-profile casting search for a Star Wars spin-off starring a young Han Solo, Cohen was named alongside hot Young Hollywood actors Miles Teller, Dave Franco, and Logan Lerman among those in the running.
“They don’t even want me!” Cohen mock-cries in a Manhattan hotel room, where he is promoting the indie-thriller Detour, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival. “I read for it once and then there was some release thing about me testing for it in London when I was in New York. But they did bring me in.”
Misreports in the industry trades: a rite of passage in a breakout actor’s career as significant as the public superhero/franchise film audition is in the first place.
“You’d be great for it, though,” Tye Sheridan, Cohen’s 19-year-old Detour co-star says, rubbing Cohen’s shoulder supportively. “You hear this?” Cohen laughs. “From Tye Sheridan’s mouth.”
It’s fitting that Sheridan is by Cohen’s side for this conversation. The two actors are at very similar turning points in their careers.
The barely legal Texan actor made his own Brooklyn-like splash a few years ago with a trio of preternaturally strong performances in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (opposite Brad Pitt), Jeff Nichols’s Mud (opposite Matthew McConaughey), and Joe (opposite Nicolas Cage).
He, too, quickly found himself in casting rooms for some of the industry’s biggest studio flicks. This spring he’ll star as young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse, and he just wrapped shooting as the lead on the Steven Spielberg thriller Ready Player One. And Cohen? He recently finished filming war satire War Machine opposite Brad Pitt.
Detour, then, is a remarkable gathering of clearly the most exciting young actors in the business.
In addition to Cohen and Sheridan, 24-year-old British actress Bel Powley co-stars. Last year, Powley, who was essentially unknown in the U.S., stunned critics in The Diary of a Teenage Girl, eventually winning the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Actress over the likes of Cate Blanchett (Carol), Lily Tomlin (Grandma), and eventual Oscar winner Brie Larson (Room).
“A year and a half ago when we came up with all this stuff, Brooklyn hadn’t come out,” Christopher Smith, who wrote and directed Detour, says. “Tye was without a shadow the most successful so far of the three. Bel hadn’t done anything yet. She was apparently good in this movie no one had seen about a teenage girl.”
In Detour, Sheridan plays a young law student contemplating killing his stepfather in a revenge plot. Cohen is the gritty hitman he less enlists to do it than who convinces him that it should be done. Powley is Cohen’s associate, and, eventually, the girl that Sheridan decides to save from a seedier life.
With Detour premiering at Tribeca, we gathered Sheridan, Cohen, and Smith—the director with the forethought to cast them—to discuss what it’s like to be Hollywood’s Next Big Thing and find yourself torn between the indie world that you love and the universe of spandex your agents often push you toward. (Powley, in true testament to her breakout status, couldn’t make it because she was on set shooting.)
It’s jarring to see you guys in such dark roles. Especially you, Emory, after just watching you be so sweet in Brooklyn.
Emory: After I did Brooklyn I did about five or six violent films in one way or another, and not always with me being the bad guy, but something violent about it to keep the street cred up really. [Laughs] To be honest with you it’s to keep the street cred up.
So it’s a conscious decision to do darker movies after being in something lighter like Brooklyn?
Emory: Yeah. I did Pines and everybody wanted me to be the bad boy. Then I did Tony in Brooklyn and everybody wanted me to be the sweet kid. So I just want to keep everybody on their toes. Basically that was the thought process. Plus, I loved the script and got on the phone with Chris and loved working with Chris.
Why did you want to do a film like this, Tye?
Tye: I never had an opportunity like this. First of all, it was one of the first scripts I ever read and I thought I would be an idiot not to jump on board. Plus, what the character offered me was much more mature than anyone I ever played. It was much smarter than anyone I ever played.
So it was an opportunity to introduce yourself as an adult, instead of the movie’s token kid. That you’re not a teen actor anymore.
Tye: Yes, thank you.
Chris: I said it to him when he came on that his performance in Joe is so unbelievable. You actually believe he is this little feral kid. He’s played all these sort of responder behavior kind of characters. It’s strange to suddenly be the one who’s feeding the narrative and others have to feed off. It’s a different set of rules playing the lead.
What was it about these two specifically that you wanted in this, Chris?
Chris: I love Terrence Malick. I mean, Joe, I fucking love that film. I realized very soon for this that you have to find somebody who’s not shot, in the sense that you know all about their private lives.
Tye: What you’re trying to say is that we’re mysterious…
Chris: What I’m saying is that you’re a young actor but you’re not wrapped up in the Hollywood scene. I don’t know anything about you, but you have the skills to play this, so you’re perfect. Getting to Emory or Bel, I wasn’t sitting there going, ‘I have to get these three.’ It was a process of originally thinking OK, Johnny Ray [Emory’s character] should be in his 30s. When I pitched the idea first in 2007, before I wrote it, I thought I’d get Josh Hartnett and stick him in tattoos and get him to play something he hasn’t played before.
And when you cast Emory, you aged the character down?
Chris: I saw Emory in Place Beyond the Pines, just fucking loved it. So when Em’s came up really late in the day, I had just kept saying no to people. They would suggest people who would get you on the front page of a magazine and I was just like, no, he can’t do that. But a year and a half ago when we came up with all this stuff, Brooklyn hadn’t come out. Tye was without a shadow the most successful so far of the three. Bel hadn’t done anything. She was apparently good in this movie no one had seen about a teenage girl.
You read the Tribeca summaries and see these three names listed and realize it’s a crazy gathering of actors on everyone’s breakout lists.
Emory: Also you did Glee. I did Smash. And Bel did EastEnders. So I don’t know, we did all that kind of stuff.
Chris: Although I wouldn’t have given you the job if I had known that.
[They all laugh]
Chris: I wouldn’t have given you the role if I had seen Brooklyn either! He’s so soft, this guy. Have you seen him? This little sweetheart.
The street cred thing you mentioned earlier, Emory: What was it like to have everyone swooning over you so heavily after Brooklyn?
Emory: It’s just this slow process where doors open a little further than you had known about, or maybe cracked open a little before. You just remember this is a process of trying to have a career. And that’s really what I took it as. What’s funny is as much as beyond this breakout star thing, I’ve been doing this for 10 years as just a profession. I’m trained in this. So I guess I just ignore all that.
You both have lots of projects to your name. Now we’re talking about the breakout thing. What is it like to balance the journeyman actor credits—the films that you believe in—with the big stuff. The X-Men movie. The Spielberg movie. The trades are reporting on Emory in the running for Han Solo.
Emory: They don’t even want me!
Tye: You’d be great for it, though.
Emory: You hear this? From Tye Sheridan’s mouth. There’s a great thing out about what if a Jew could play Han Solo.
They saw you for it?
Emory: I read for it once and then there was some release thing about me testing for in London when I was in New York. But they did bring me in.
That speaks to the question I was asking, balancing the pressures of a Star Wars audition with the indie work you love. Doing movies like this when everyone wants to put you in spandex.
Emory: That’s why you work with guys like Chris. You work with guys you believe in. Tye was talking about the process of reading the scripts, it’s funny to realize that because of the position we’re in how many terrible scripts we read, and how many times the agents want us to do the terrible scripts. So when you get a script like Detour and you get on the phone with a guy like Chris, it’s like everybody can just go away because I know I’m doing good material.
Tye: Also, Emory’s such a, for me, strong role model. After meeting you and working with you I understand what it means at the purest aspect, just the choices you make and the ethic which you have and approach every job with. You’ve given me some incredible advice. I’m just so honored to have you as a friend and to be working with both you guys.
Is there an actor who has a résumé that’s a back and forth between studio and indie that you think you’d like to do something similar?
Emory: John Hawkes. He does small indies. He does bigger roles. He does comedies. That guy is just doing his job, too. He’s an artist and he’s just making his living and that’s what I appreciate most. Not just the work, but the way he seems to conduct himself. He’s not on the covers of magazines or doing any of this stuff. He’s just doing his job.
Tye: I respect people who are simply doing it just for the passion of the craft; for the art that they’re making. That’s what I’d like to try to emulate.
Is it hard to make your teams understand why you want to do these things when they might have visions of spandex?
Emory: Is it hard for you, Tye?
Tye: I’ve been so blessed and lucky to have the right people there with me in my team, every step of the way. When Detour came around they knew how passionate I was about the script. Everyone loved the script. “We all think Chris is amazing, Tye, I think this is a great choice for you.” I just came off a pretty big film that I was shooting this summer and now I’m doing another studio picture this summer. That’s all very new to me. I never defined myself within those films, but now I do. But I don’t know, you want to keep that element about yourself that is the artist.