Film festivals, away from the glitz, are a sort of minor league for emerging talent. Last year, the Tribeca Film Festival was host to the world premiere of HBO’s The Night Of, and series star Riz Ahmed walked the streets of New York City unrecognized by the passersby. Now 12 months and a Rogue One later, he’s on the cover of Time magazine, deemed one of 100 most influential people in the world.
Today, actor Owen Campbell has no trouble strolling around his native New York City. Selfie-seeking fans haven’t yet caught his scent. Once in a while, he gets recognized for a six-episode arc on season 2 of The Americans (more on that below) or for his acclaimed leading role in 2016 Sundance prizewinner As You Are, which costarred The Hunger Games Amandla Stenberg and Stranger Things Charlie Heaton.
But that could change. At this year’s Tribeca (running through April 30), Campbell appears in two movies which have generated big buzz and are poised to blow up. In 22-year-old director Quinn Shephard’s Blame, a provocative high school drama with overt allusions to The Crucible, Campbell has a supporting role as a sly, skateboarding drama class student. And in Kevin Phillips’ phenomenal thriller Super Dark Times, he delivers a natural, nuanced performance as a high-schooler named Zach who, along with his best friend (Charlie Tahan), conspires to cover up a gruesome accident involving a samurai sword. It’s a decision that violently shifts the dynamics of their friendship. (Super Dark Times is scheduled to be released in theaters later this year; Blame is seeking distribution.)
Campbell is a 2012 graduate of NYC’s LaGuardia High School of Performing Arts. Simple math indicates that, despite his elfin appearance, he’s got a few years on the sophomores and juniors he’s playing. And that slight remove from the experience is perhaps a big reason why his performances as discombobulated teens is so deft and affecting.
Over lunch on a Sunday in downtown Manhattan, Campbell swings between topics of conversation with a hyper-verbal, almost Sorkin-esque command of what he wants to say. Growing up in Brooklyn has given him a certain edge and restless energy. There are two miniature jars of raspberry jam on the table, and he’s gripping both like air hockey strikers. As he speaks - the subject at the moment is Moonlight - he skims the jars across the table, underlining each sentence with the fuzzy sound of glass scraping against wood.
“In Moonlight, there’s the cruelty of the world around the characters, but it’s such a tender film,” he says. “Oh, my God, man, the emotions that we watch are so gentle. It’s beautiful. I think it’s gorgeous. That first kid is this quiet, observant young man. Then he’s this sensitive teenager, trying to come into his own but feeling the force of the world. And then finally he’s this handsome, powerful guy, with obviously a lot of the insecurities still there, but he’s finding a life for himself. The scene in the diner at the end - oh, man, I wept. It’s one of the most romantic scenes in movies.”
Campbell lets go of the raspberry jam jars and sits back. He’ll lean forward again when the topic turns to urban housing or his favorite antique shop or Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation or a scientific process that turns atmospheric CO2 into carbon nanofibers, which could potentially solve the climate change crisis.
Campbell is especially uncorked about the latter topic, though he also says, “Yeah, as I’m here eating at a restaurant that is certainly not carbon-negative.” He shrugs. “Some people can make their every waking moment about the chase for nobility. A lot of us can’t. We do fantasize about the glorious nurse, who’s also a carpenter, who also feeds the blind cats. I’d love to hang out with that person, but I also want to make movies.”
The conversation, eventually, turns to his acting career.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So why did you want to be an actor when you were younger?
OWEN CAMPBELL: My father does documentary stuff, and he’s acted. My mother was a dancer. It was definitely around me. I’m lucky to have that be the case. There was never a moment when someone said, “Really, you want to be an actor? How you gonna pay the rent, kid?”
What were your first roles?
I had this teacher who gave me parts in plays, and I just loved being involved. I loved being backstage, I loved being on a set. I loved the community. I was 13 the first time I was in a professional film. It was called White Lightnin’. I was taken out of school for two weeks and flown to Croatia to mess about and play make-believe. And then I came back to school, and I was f-ed. I was screwed.
Because I knew I loved making movies. I can’t ever wake up early, except for when I’m on a film set. Bang, six in the morning, I’m there. I will work every day. I don’t need a weekend. Just even watching someone else rehearse is exciting as hell to me.
You got a role in The Perks of Being a Wallflower but ended up getting cut from the film. What did that feel like?
It happens. I still got the experience, still met the people. I only had one scene. I went on a set one day, had fun, went home, and then later found out I wasn’t going to be in the movie. It’s still the thing that shows up the most among people who go, “You were in Perks of Being a Wallflower? I love that movie.” Yeah, I’m not actually in it.
In your arc on The Americans [spoilers ahead], you play a kid named Jared whose parents are murdered in a hotel room. How did you approach the role?
The character ends in a much different place than I imagined it, even darker and more sinister than I could have imagined. And [exec producers Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields] didn’t tell me anything about that.
Right. All I knew was that my character’s parents were killed. So I’m reacting to that. They didn’t tell me anything, but just being on set, I almost started to play detective. I was snooping around. I could tell from overhearing people talk that something bigger was going on. The writers were not going to tell me.
Do you think that was helpful?
Oh, yeah. The suspicions of other characters were building, and my character’s nervousness was building. I just had to play everything close to the vest and try to figure out as much as possible, which is exactly what my character was doing. People on the set were starting to say things or not say things in front of me, so I felt like something was going on.
And when did they tell you the news that the murderer of your parents was, in fact, you?
They sat me down right before the last episode of the season and spilled the whole thing. And wow. It was a shocker.
Within the last year or so, you’ve acted in As You Are, Super Dark Times, and Blame, all in a row. The first two are set in the 1990s. You auditioned for all three of those?
Oh, yeah. I’m not getting offers.
What drew you to Super Dark Times?
It’s ugly to say at first, but I just wanted to work. And when you’re working a lot, you want to keep working. So I got this audition. I’d just done As You Are, and they’re both set in the 90s and both dealt with a lot of themes of guilt and friendship. And the mothers are both named Karen. And there’s a scene when I drink cough syrup in both. How will I ever distinguish between these characters? One is named Jack and the other is named Zach. Jack and Zach. Zach and Jack. But then I started reading the script [for Super Dark Times], embarrassingly, the night before the audition. And, my God, I couldn’t put it down. If you can’t put the roadmap down, it’s gonna be a fun trip.
Like all the best thrillers, there’s an amazing amount of subtext churning beneath the film’s surface. Did you talk about the themes while on set?
We didn’t sit down every day and think about it. That was in Ben [Collins] and Luke [Piotrowski]’s script and [director] Kevin [Phillips]’s understanding of it. We had to do our best to inhabit the power dynamics between the characters. It’s about a certain type of masculinity that can be very corrosive. And it’s a lot about friendship and the betrayal of shifting friendships.
Was it a quick shoot?
It’s an independent film, so you’re moving. And Kevin liked to take his f-in’ time, and for us, that was beautiful. He’s looking for serendipity. He’s looking for the shot when the meteor goes across the screen, I’m not s-ting you. The scene with the samurai sword we shot for three days. They had to rearrange the schedule at the end of every day. The producers would sweat bullets, but he’d let us take our time.
I think that patience shows in the film. It’s incredibly atmospheric, especially in regards to that specific confusing time for the characters.
It’s about that period when kids get thrown in that cruel soup of teenage life. You change. The characters are also a little younger than we might even read, and they’re at this stage where they all just were little kids. There’s a moment when my character arrives at a party at which he didn’t expect to see his best friend. If you strip away all the trauma of the film’s plot, it’s just simply about a guy seeing his best friend, who’s been close and safe with him their whole lives, suddenly stepping into a new different world. And he’s unseated.
Do you see some similarities between Super Dark Times and Blame?
Sure. What’s wonderful about Blame is that it’s a film made by young people that really feels so young. It’s not a nostalgia piece. Super Dark Times embraces the nostalgia while being honest and empathetic and never looking down upon the characters. They’re both beautiful in that way that they allow very different views on youth from two valuable perspectives.
Blame features a provocative storyline in which a male teacher (Chris Messina) initiates a relationship with a troubled female student. I wonder if it’ll get slammed for that.
Good. If people slam for the film for that, they’re fools. Because, why? The teacher is still so in the wrong. He should still have the emotional maturity to take a step back. Just because he’s a nice, lost guy doesn’t excuse him. He’s still pursuing an asymmetrical relationship with someone who is unstable and so immature. He lacks that teacher brain. That’s why it’s fascinating.
What’s coming up next in your career?
I’m auditioning for things. I’m working in an antique shop, and I’m working on a climate change project, trying to support the work of this group of scientists from George Washington University. And producing a show that’s going on in the summer.
An antique shop, really? I’ll have to go check it out.
They might not let you in, but it’s worth the struggle.
What’s it like in there?
Magic. There are few places that tickle a romantic like this place can.
Do you have a nostalgia streak?
Sure, why not?
What’s your favorite movie of all time?
The first movie I ever loved was Singin’ in the Rain. What a film. It’s born out of this very typical cookie cutter time for musicals in Hollywood, and it’s so stunning and daring and original.
What have you liked recently?
Alright, I can think of three films. Force Majeure is a masterpiece. Imperial Dreams, John Boyega’s film after Attack the Block and right before he did Star Wars. Really, incredibly beautiful. And then The Fits, have you seen The Fits? You’ve gotta see The Fits. Oh, man, now that’s a movie.
Did you see that at Sundance last year, when you were there for As You Are?
Yeah, we were doing press all week, and then one day I had a chance to watch movies. So I saw one at midnight and then every three hours of the entire next day.
Do you feel any unease about being an entertainer with everything going on in the real world right now?
I think there are two tightropes with that. The first one that a lot of actors fall into is where they say, “This is my charity. Oh, without the emotional shamanism of the actor, where would we be as a species?” Okay, yeah, to a certain extent, but go f- yourself. Go work at a food pantry. Go spend some time calling senators about their connections to corruption. And I mean, films, my God, for having all these environmentalists making them, we sure do produce a sh-t ton of waste.
But then a guy came up to me after a screening of As You Are, and he was just smiling, and he said, “I cried so hard.” Smiling and crying. And I just flashed back to being a little kid and the importance of that catharsis that art can give you. So I’m definitely not down on acting.
Do you think you can thread that needle, working in your chosen industry while also doing good?
I hope so. You just do what you can to live a creative, comfortable life. Don’t hurt anyone. And then take time to do some noble things, and that’s not just writing a check to the ACLU every month or two. But there’s such a great importance in the act of doing good things for other people. And call your mother!
Seems like you’ve got it figured out.
Nah. [Smiling] I’m just naive enough to think I know what I’m talking about.