Contending with constant familial struggles, such as the grieving and healing cycle following the death of a loved one, and the resentment over not understanding relatives’ sense of loss, can be a challenging process for many people. This harrowing struggle, and the emotional battle of ending an estrangement that was born of anguish, is the relatable motivating force in director Sandra Nettelbeck’s new comedy-drama, ‘Last Love.’ Actor Justin Kirk’s sentimental and tormented character, Miles, is the perfect example of a son who has trouble understanding his widower father’s sorrow, until he finally begins to accept his parent’s decisions and actions.
‘Last Love’ follows Matthew Morgan (Michael Caine), an American and former philosophy professor who moved to Paris with his late wife, Joan (Jane Alexander), to live out their golden years together. Three years after her death, he still grieves for his wife, particularly while he’s passing through the areas where they spent their time together.
After unsuccessfully attempting suicide, due to his inability to move on from his loss, Matthew is inexplicably saved by a young dance instructor, (Clémence Poesy), whom Matthew meets on the bus and immediately reminds him of Joan. The two form a close relationship, much to the concern and confusion of his two children, Karen (Gillian Anderson) and Miles (Kirk), who travel from America to France to try to convince him to come home. As the two witness their father’s developing relationship with Pauline, Karen and Miles realize that Matthew is exactly where he wants to be, living his life the way that comforts him in his final years.
Kirk generously took the time recently to talk over the phone about acting in ‘Last Love,’ Among other things, the actor discussed how he was excited to have the opportunity to play Caine’s son the comedy-drama, and how starring alongside the icon on camera lived up to his expectations; how he enjoys the fast pace of shooting independent films and television series, as it allows him to quickly and realistically work through the emotions of his characters before moving on to his next scene; and how Nettelbeck included universal familial themes of loss and loneliness in the film’s script that people can relate to, which he used to help him build his character.
Question (Q): You play Miles Morgan in the new comedy-drama, ‘Last Love.’ What was it about the character, and the script overall, that convinced you to take on the role?
Justin Kirk (JK): Well, it was a chance to go to Europe and play a bunch of father-son angst with Michael Caine, so there you go! (laughs) You don’t need much more than that!
Q: Speaking of Michael Caine, he plays Miles’ father, Matthew, in ‘Last Love.’ What was your overall working relationship like with him on the set?
JK: Well, you hope for the best. I was so excited to have the opportunity, obviously, as anyone would be, to go and work with him. The first time I met him, he and his wife took the director and I out to dinner at some groovy Perisian restaurant. That’s the way you get to know someone over the course of a movie shoot; he loved to have a drink in the hotel bar and tell a great story, which is exactly what you would hope for while working with Michael Caine.
It was great to have the camera rolling, and see that iconic person across from you, who you’ve enjoyed in so many movies, and get down to business and yell at each other. But (we only yelled at each other) on camera, of course.
Q: Speaking of the film’s director, Sandra Nettelbeck, she both wrote the screenplay for, and helmed, the comedy-drama. What was your working relationship with her like on the set? Do you prefer working with directors who also penned the script?
JK: I guess it goes both ways; sometimes yes, and sometimes no. I had really liked a movie of hers that she had done previously, called ‘Mostly Martha.’ She was one of the first people I met upon arriving in Paris. I hadn’t met her before the shoot; I had received the offer to do the movie, and I read the script and liked it, and enjoyed the idea of moving forward.
I think when it’s your baby, there’s something about it. I’ve worked with a lot of people who are both writers and directors. Often when it’s a smaller, independent film, that’s the case-the director also wrote the script.
Q: Speaking of being offered the role of Miles, what was that process like-did you speak to Sandra before you accepted the part?
JK: Oh gosh, did we? We must have spoken on the phone. The first thing I got was the script and the offer. So I hadn’t spoken to her before I got the job. But the first night I got to Paris, we had a nice dinner. We got to talk about universal themes that are addressed in the motion picture, and off we went.
Q: Like you mentioned, ‘Last Love’ was shot independently on a smaller budget. Did filming the comedy-drama independently pose any challenges on the set, and do you prefer working on smaller movies?
JK: It may have for the crew, but not for me. That’s pretty much been my experience; most of my career has been on television or in smaller movies. For both, you shoot several pages of the script a day.
Honestly, for me as an actor, I don’t know what I would do if we had three days to shoot a single scene. I never in particular felt rushed; I like to get it going, and then move to the next. ‘Last Love’ seemed big enough for me; there we were in Europe (laughs), and I’ve done much smaller movies than that.
Q: Speaking of television, you have appeared on several series throughout your career, including ‘Weeds’ and ‘Jack and Jill.’ What is it about television that you enjoy so much? How does starring on a series compare and contrast to filming a movie?
JK: They’re pretty much the same. I lived in New York for 10 years, so I did a lot of theater.
How are they different? Craft services is different on TV; the food that’s around is a little more extensive. But the food was very good on this movie. (laughs)
But I guess the main difference is that on television, you have a new script every week, rather than these 100 pages of text that you spend two months or so doing on a film. That’s a lot of fun-to do something, and then work on how you feel about the way you hit it, and then move on to the next day’s work.
With TV, obviously, you get to grow a character, and live in him for a longer period. But obviously, if you’re around for a while as an actor, all you want to do is try the different things.
Q: Were you able to have any rehearsals with Michael and your other co-stars before you began shooting?
JK: Not really. If I remember correctly, they had already begun by the time I arrived. I think I sat down and read a couple scenes with Clémence when I first arrived. But other than that, you pretty much go there on the day and read the scenes through, block them for camera, and off you go.
Q: Speaking of Clémence, Miles and his sister, Karen, question the new friendship their father develops with her character, Pauline, in the film. Even though Pauline offers Matthew comfort, why do you think Karen and Miles immediately question the nature of the relationship, before Miles begins to develop a closer relationship with Pauline?
JK: Well, we didn’t necessarily film in that order. Miles arrives in Paris with various feelings about his father. The first thing he sees there is this beautiful young woman next to his father’s hospital bed, so he becomes suspicious of who she is. Of course, Miles is having some issues in his own life. But he’s gradually taken in by the magic that is Clémence Poésy.
Q: Gillian Anderson portrays Karen in the film. What was your working relationship with Gillian like on the set?
JK: We had a blast. She would pretty much come in for a day at a time from wherever she was. So she’d pop in, and we’d knock out our scene, and then I’d see her again a couple of weeks later. A lot of the stuff that we got to do was the more comical elements of the movies. So we had a really great time together.
Q: Like you mentioned, ‘Last Love’ was filmed in several areas of Europe, most notably Paris, where the story is set. What was the experience of shooting in France, and how does it compare and contrast to filming in New York, and in America in general?
JK: Well, I can spend a lot of time on my couch and be a homebody. So it was a little intimidating to me, but most people would be stocked to go. Not that I wasn’t excited, but I was a little scared about going out of the country for two months. But I think it was good for me, and is something I continue to work on. I actually just did a pilot that shot in Morocco.
That’s the thing, if you want to be an actor; work can move you. Projects aren’t always necessarily shot where you live, so that’s part of the gig.
Q: The film has played at several film festivals, including the Locarno Film Festival and the Munich Film Festival. Were you able to attend any of the screenings of the film, and if so, what kind of reaction did you receive from the audiences?
JK: I wasn’t, but I was hoping that I would be. I was working through all of them. But I got email reports from Sandra about how well the screenings had gone. She sent me a picture of the enormous theater at one of the festivals (the Locarno Film Festival in Locarno, Switzerland); it was a huge outdoor screening space. So alas, I remained Stateside for those. But I’ve heard it has enjoyed success in various countries.
Q: ‘Last Love’ explores the difficult emotions people contend with as they grieve the loss of a family member, and how that anguish causes estrangement with their surviving family members. Were you able to relate to Miles and Karen’s estrangement from their father after their mother’s death? Why do you think this subject resonates so deeply with audiences?
JK: I would say, sure. (laughs) I think everybody has those experiences. There are some universal familial themes of strive and loss and loneliness in this movie that people can relate to. So you try to use all that stuff when you’re acting.
Q: Besides ‘Last Love’ and the pilot you mentioned earlier that you shot in Morocco, do you have any upcoming projects lined up that you can discuss?
JK: Yeah, let’s see…the pilot is called ‘Tyrant,’ and it’s for FX. We have not yet heard about the future of it, but with everything I’ve heard, it’s looking pretty good.
I also did an episode of ‘The Blacklist,’ the James Spader show on NBC. I just got home from that (on October 29), and it was a lot of fun. I play a bad guy on that.
I also did a movie called ‘Walter’ this summer. That will hopefully be at a film festival near you soon.