Interviews: Actor Richard Neil Talks About His Indie Sci-Fi Thriller Prodigy

Richard Neil talks about Prodigy

Richard Neil, best known for his work as Aratak in the best-selling video game Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds and for such films and TV series as Veronica Mars and Eli Stone, stars in the hit sci-fi movie Prodigy, in which he plays the lead role. In Prodigy, on VOD now, a psychologist engages a dangerous, young genius in a battle of wits -- unaware of the supernatural power the girl possesses, or that her life hangs in the balance. You can read our review for the film here.

We had the opportunity to speak with Richard about the film.

TMS: What’s up with Prodigy? Where can people see it? And, What do you want people to know about the movie? 

RN: It played in several film festivals, premiered at Cinequest in Santa Cruz, where it won several awards. It was just released online last week through the usual streaming sites such as Amazon, iTunes, and YouTube. It’s gotten a good amount of attention. I think it’s presently over 88% on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a psychological sci-fi thriller. There were two directors, Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal, who had worked on the script for several years and this is their first feature. We shot it almost two years ago in a location outside of Riverside, California. 

I play psychologist James Fonda, who’s brought into a military compound to rescue this girl who has super telekinetic powers, that the military feels might be dangerous. So I’m brought in as a sort of last ditch attempt by a former associate of mine, as I’ve worked with troubled youth in the past. So, I try to show her humanity, and garner some sympathy from the forces that want to do her in. 

TMS: What attracted you to the project? 

RN: Well, it’s a great role. It’s a very empathetic character who’s suffered some trauma in his own personal past. He’s a father who’s suffered this tragedy and he’s basically made it his mission to help troubled youth, though he doesn’t quite know what he’s walking himself into here. He’s basically a loner who spends most of his time helping kids and playing chess. Chess is kind of like a metaphor. He’s a detective trying to strategize and save these young people’s lives. And,so it’s a very empathetic character. I’m a dad personally as well, so to try and imagine this kind of loss is not that difficult for me. 

And it’s a lead role. This young girl, played by Savannah Liles, was only nine-years-old when we started the film. So it’s almost a two-person play, except there’s several other characters represented by the military and other psychiatrists that were brought in. I have some scenes with them, some combative and strategic scenes where I try to win them over. There’s a sense of urgency because there’s a time limit to everything, so it’s a compelling story I think. 

TMS: How did you end up being cast? Did you go through an audition process? 

RN: It was the usual way, auditioning against lots of other guys and then having a callback and meeting with Savannah, who was their first choice. Actually, they were looking for a boy. It was written for a young boy, but they couldn’t find anyone that they felt could handle the emotional demands of this character. Then they opened up to the idea of a young girl doing it, and when they met Savannah, she just seemed so perfect for it. So the callback was between me and Savannah, to make sure that we had the right chemistry and then we took it from there. 

TMS: Did you do any research or prep for the role? Was there anything you specifically drew from in crafting the character? 

RN: Well I just really studied the script. I had read about Psychology before, and have been in analysis myself. So I was familiar with the terminology and dialogue. I also met with Alex’s father-in-law who’s a psychologist. So we met a few times, discussed the script, the character, and got his own take on it. I feel I mainly took from him a sort of even keeled disposition. He’s very soft spoken and rather measured in his responses, so I think it’s more of his demeanor that I tried to emulate. 

TMS: Even though it’s sci-fi, could you relate to the story in Prodigy

RN: Yeah, I definitely can relate to it. As I said, I’m a father to a sixteen-year-old girl right now and have been very involved in her life. And I know that some of her friends have had issues, whether it’s divorce or other emotional issues. So, when you’re a father and an involved and attached parent, there’s something that opens up in you that’s strong and empathetic. I believe that everybody has this dormant parental nature inside of them, this unconditional love. It obviously comes out when you embrace this relationship with your daughter. You just naturally feel for people that are going through such a traumatic loss. So, I think it was just connecting with this girl who is all alone, and who feels tremendous guilt for things that had happened. My character believes she is covering up this pain by doing violent things, and behaving in an anti-social way. And, there’s this common humanity between people who have suffered such a loss. There’s nothing greater than the loss of a child by a parent. It feels impossible to deal with that! And so I believe it’s this compassion that’s at the core of the film. 

TMS: Was there any rehearsal before filming? 

RN: Yeah. Mainly the rehearsals were between me and Savannah, who played Ellie. She had a lot to take on, and a lot of dialogue. There were words in the film whose meaning she didn’t know, and that didn’t flow off the tongue. Her mom Wendy coached her, and she also had an acting coach that helped. She rehearsed a lot on her own. Then we’d get together and rehearse the scenes, working out the emotional beats. We have these encounters, therapy sessions, followed by another session, and the stakes get higher and higher as the familiarity and trust between us grows. 

A scene is like a building block, one after the other. And so you try to figure out what’s at stake here, and get the right rhythm of each scene. And have a general idea of the blocking or what you think might be the blocking. Of course, it can all change when you get into the actual space, which we did not get into until we were ready to shoot. But, it was more about the rhythm, cadences, and dialogue and trying to figure out what is going on in each moment. Like any acting scene, you try to figure out why you’re saying what you’re saying, that it follows from the moment before. And as a therapist I’m trying to figure out my strategy. So, you rehearse that. I also had rehearsals with the other members of the cast, who were playing the people working at the military compound. That was interesting because we were in a very confined space, very close quarters, so you get a general idea of the blocking, and figuring a way to make things somewhat dynamic in a very constricted space. How do you make it visually interesting? Of course the cinematographer is highly involved, but it’s very hard to do a master in a very small space. It’s not on a sound stage, there are four walls, so how do keep moving the camera and capture the scene? So we had rehearsals, going back to your original question, for maybe about a week. I had maybe a week of rehearsals with Savannah and maybe a few more rehearsals with the rest of the cast. 

TMS: Would you say that rehearsals are abnormal for an independent production? 

RN: I would say so. These days it’s very strange having rehearsal. I remember a couple of years ago I went to this screening that Al Pacino attended. He was in this movie called The Humbling with Greta Gerwig and directed by Barry Levinson. It was a very low budget film and they had shot it over the course of a year, picking up a scene here and there based on everyone’s schedules. He had worked with Levinson twenty or thirty years before on And Justice for All, and he sad at that time they had a couple weeks of rehearsal. But for The Humbling, they no rehearsal at all. In fact, on the very first day of shooting, Pacino and Gerwig were scheduled to shoot their most tense, combative scene of the movie, and it was the very first time they'd met.

I think because of the nature of the film industry, the production doesn’t want to pay for rehearsals. I know at the end of Paul Newman’s career, he would pay out of his own pocket for rehearsals, because he knew that his performance would benefit if he had rehearsals. So, it’s true. In this day and age it’s rare to get a rehearsal. I recently did this video game called Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds, and I was shocked, we had two days of table reads and almost a full week of rehearsal. Paid rehearsal for a video game! It was such a luxury, I loved it all. I guess Sony had the money for it. But, in this day and age, it’s very rare to have rehearsals. 

TMS: Since you had rehearsals and the film is a cinematic version of a stage play, did you strictly adhere to the dialogue contained in the script? Was anything changed during filming? 

RN: No, there wasn’t that much. These guys had worked on this script for a couple of years. I know it started out as an idea of Brian’s, and he may have been the primary writer on it, but there was very little that was improvised or cut, a few words here or there for sure. As you can see, the film is under 90 minutes so there’s not a whole lot that you can cut, as far as dialogue. They said to me -it was very flattering - that there were lines in the script that they thought may have come across as too emotionally on the nose, that they felt would ultimately have to be taken out, but they said I delivered it in a way that came out of real place, so they kept them in. 

When you read a script and you have the luxury of time to work on the script, you really are a detective. As an actor, you’re asking,”Why am I saying this, why am I saying this?” In this day and age if you’re an actor and you’re going out for silly commercials, infomercials, or industrial films and you have to talk to the camera about this medication, or this product, you ridiculously try to justify it, like it’s Tennessee Williams or something. “There’s a reason for this word. I’m going to have to try and make an emotional reason for why I’m saying what I’m saying.” As if all writing is brilliant and inspired,so there must be a reason why I’m saying it. Sometimes it’s so absurd the dialogue you get, you say well, “I must be stoned or drunk, or I must be so emotionally out of my mind, why would I say such a thing?” Or you’re just like daydreaming it or saying it out of one’s subconscious. You try to be logical about it, but you have to figure out emotionally where this line is coming from. 

But, everything in the script of Prodigy seemed to make sense. There is this sort of depressive character in Dr. Fonda, he’s a loner and he’s had suffering in his life. So, he would sometimes go into these daydream trances, talking about stuff that, to him, were meaningful. I have this monologue about an inherited watch that I got from my father, and it’s like, “Why am I saying this?” It’s a timepiece, it’s a metaphor for what has worth in his life, what matters. So I go into these poetic trances and you end up finding a way to make the dialogue work. 

TMS: How long was the shoot? 

RN: Really it was only slightly more than two weeks. It was very intense between me and Savannah, we were working 12-plus hour days steadily. So the first week was exclusively just me and Savannah in that room, then the other characters came in. They had a couple of scenes on their own, then I came back and had my scenes with them. So I was pretty much working steadily for two weeks and then we had exterior shots that were shot in a park, to sort of bookend the movie. You see me before I take on this mission playing chess in the park on my own, and then you see me playing chess with Savannah in the park. Those were much easier days, shooting outside. 

TMS: Now, were your scenes with Savannah shot chronologically? 

RN: They were really good about trying to shoot everything chronologically. Aside from those exterior shots that we shot after we had wrapped everything in the interior. Asides from that, we shot them in chronological order, so we didn’t have to deal with the very climatic, emotional scenes until the end. 

TMS: The film is essentially the cinematic version of a stage play. Did you find that your prior theatrical experience helped at all? Was there anything that you would say is more challenging doing a film like this? 

RN: Well, I guess the fear is that it’s going to come off as theatrical. You know, film and theater is different, in a sense that the camera picks up everything. So anytime you’re not really coming from a centered place or you’re acting, the camera picks it up. So you know, you do all of the work emotionally. As far as the camera work goes - and I heard Michael Shannon talking about it, he comes from a theater background, he said,”You do all of the work and then when the camera is about to roll, all of that has to go out the window, because all that you can do is be present, listening, and reacting. Because anytime that you act, the camera’s going to see it.” The camera picks up everything. So you try to be really listening, really reacting, and do every trick that you can as a performer to not anticipate things. Even if that leads to you screwing up your lines or getting lost, you try to be really attentive and play it moment by moment, not anticipate anything. 

When you’re doing a stage play, it’s a completely different thing. I’ve had runs of plays that have gone on for months. The challenge of doing theater is of course keeping it fresh and to always have a new experience on stage, so the audience doesn’t think you’re doing it by the numbers. You do everything you can to just be in the moment, feel fresh, discover something new. With film acting and TV, you know who you are, you know the stakes, you really have to leave yourself alone - really just be there, and react. Because if you’ve done the work, you’re instrument: your emotions, your voice, your body - will react in an instinctive, naturalistic way. 

TMS: Both of your performances are excellent and the film heavily relied on both you and Savannah’s strong performances. How was your experience working with Savannah Liles? 

RN: She was terrific! She was really well prepared. The only drawback with working with someone so young is that they have a strict amount of time. They can only work certain hours, and she had to have a double. So a lot of my closeups had to be working with the girlfriend of the camera operator. We had to make sure that she was at the right eye level, and someone else off-camera would deliver the lines, so it just made it another challenge. Savannah was working during most of my close ups, she had to go back to the hotel with her mom. So that’s the challenge, but other than that, she was a doll to work with. It was very easy, and she was always game and had a very positive attitude. 

TMS: How about working with directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal? Can you talk about their approach to filmmaking. How different is it working with two directors as opposed to one? 

RN: Yeah, it was kind of strange, but they worked really well together. I guess they have been best friends since USC, so they’ve had this long friendship. It’s almost like a marriage, they know the specific roles that each one is playing. Alex was more of the hands on one with the actors. Brian is more reserved, though he definitely had an opinion, and when Alex needed him he was always there, with a strong point of view on how things should look and how things should be framed. He was the technical expert, because there were special effects that had to be done and all of those aspects were handled by Brian. Alex is the more gregarious one, always present on set and always talking to the actors. Brian was more behind the scenes overall, talking with the primary cinematographer about the shots and the setups. They had storyboards and a shot list, but we would confer about the way things looked. They would do the playback and discuss the performances. They had a really good consensus about what they wanted, they had done so much preparation for the film, there wasn’t a whole lot of surprise. So most of whatever drama that might have happened, happened before we had already started shooting. They were really simpatico with each other. 

TMS: Can you tell us anything about the other projects that you are working on or planning on working on? Or, anything else that you would like to plug? 

RN: I’m a voice actor as well, I’ve done several video games. Last year I did Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds, and I just did one of the main characters on a Netflix graphic anthology series, I cannot even say the name of the series at this time. It’s directed by Tim Miller, who did Deadpool, and is being produced by David Fincher. So that’s pretty exciting. It was great working with Tim Miller. Besides from that, I wrapped on a sci-fi noir hybrid called Clyde Cooper, that I think is going to be pretty interesting. It’s directed by Peter Daskaloff. And there’s a film called Nothing Like the Sun, a period piece directed by Nguyen Nguyen. So, I have those two coming out. We’ll see what happens.