Ron Eldard on ‘Roadie,’ a movie about Queens

Eldard and Cannavale in Roadie. ()
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Roadie, directed by Michael Cuesta, is a bittersweet look at a day in the life of Jimmy Testagross, a recently fired roadie for the Blue Oyster Cult, played by Ron Eldard.

Written by brothers Michael and Gerald Cuesta, Roadie takes place entirely in Queens, and the film wears that borough like a well-worn sweater. Also starring Lois Smith, Bobby Cannavale and Jill Hennessy, Roadie dares to be ambiguous, and dares to allow spaces for silences, pauses and breaths, and yet is also completely specific to this group of people in this Queens neighborhood.

Jimmy Testagross is a piece of work, a beautiful creation by Eldard, with flashy rock-and-roll sideburns, a bloated belly and an aura of muted sadness about him, coming from 26 years of hotel life, overindulgence and escape from reality. After being fired from the Blue Oyster Cult, he is forced to return home to Queens to crash with his mother (played by the great Lois Smith), and over the course of his first day back, he runs into an old high school sweetheart (Jill Hennessy), who is now married to Testagross' high school nemesis Randy (Bobby Cannavale), a used-car salesman.

A strictly four-character movie, Roadie's plot is full of unexpected pathways. You may think it is going to be a love triangle. It is not. Or, it is, but it's also not. It's about how people listen to each other, and how they misunderstand one another. It's about the private dramas we all have going on, from moment to moment to moment, ghosts of our past running alongside our present day, affecting us, limiting us, inhibiting us.

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Jimmy Testagross is like a mole who has been living underground for 26 years, now blinking in the cold brutal light of day, and he finds normal social interaction difficult.

He is baffled by his mother, who seems to be slipping into dementia, and all he wants to do is go back on the road as soon as possible.

Watching Eldard as Testagross is one of the greatest pleasures of Roadie, in which all four leads give magnificent performances.

Ron Eldard has been working steadily in film, television and theater since his debut in 1989's True Love, and in Roadie he gives one of the best performances of his career.

Eldard was generous enough to speak with me over the phone about Roadie (which opens today in New York at the Cinema Village), and to talk about his experience making the film.

He said his agent sent him the script and "15 pages in," he called his agent and said he wanted to do it.

"This is without question one of the best scripts I’d ever read," Eldard said. "I had seen Michael’s other two films [L.I.E. and Twelve and Holding] before and I loved them both. You could tell that the two guys who wrote it knew how to make it. It was made for very, very little money. We shot it in 19 days.

”I could see that there were basically four characters, and over half the script takes place in that one house, in his home, and the neighborhood."

Actors go where the jobs are, and there are many reasons to take a part. But once in a while, a movie comes along that makes an actor remember why he got into the business in the first place, and Roadie was that kind of movie for Eldard.

"This is the kind of thing that makes me want to act, that makes me love movies... and I wouldn’t say that normally,” he said.

Eldard said he was so in love with the script that when he finally met Michael Cuesta, he told him, “'If you’re not gonna hire me, just tell me soon. This one’s gonna hurt if I don’t get it. But I’ll still come see it because I think it’s gonna be beautiful.' This would have been one that I would have been very sad if I hadn’t been in it."

Another appealing factor about Roadie for Eldard was that he grew up in Queens, in Ridgewood. He knew that area well, and felt that the Cuesta's script captured the environment without cliche or condescension.

"I grew up working-class,” he said. “More often than not, we were poor. I really do not like movies where—whether it’s being Southern or working-class—most indies do not show respect for working-class people. They’re either ridiculous saints or the joke is on them or at the end. They’re just some lovable quirky character, and you don’t really look at them like they’re real people. Here, with my character, this guy is a fuck-up, but he is not stupid. He is not a dumb guy. I loved that these people have dignity, they’re not stupid."

Eldard's transformation in the role is startling. He's big and bulky, with pasty skin and pointy, aggressive sideburns. I asked him about how he came up with the look. Apparently, in an early conversation with Cuesta, Cuesta had asked Eldard to gain some weight for the role.

"I was honest with him, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do that,” Eldard said. “But once he got Lois [Smith] and he got Bobby [Cannavale] and Jill [Hennessy], then I knew he was for real. I didn’t know him. I didn’t tell him I was gaining the weight. I just started gaining it."

Lois Smith made her film debut in 1955 in Elia Kazan's East of Eden and has never stopped working ever since. She is an ensemble member at Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Company and has been nominated for numerous Tonys.

"I had seen her in plays and met her backstage and we have some mutual friends from [Steppenwolf], but I had never met her,” Eldard said. “I think she is one of the great, great actors on the planet earth and still, in many areas, an unknown. There’s no one like her. There’s no one who can do a performance like she does. She’s so honest and specific and straightforward. She’s also one of the coolest, funniest, hippest people you’ll ever want to meet."

The scenes between Lois Smith and Eldard are incredibly compelling, as the characters stare at one another through a mist of confusion and disappointment and love that does not know how to express itself. Her son hasn't been home in ten years. She doesn't understand what a "roadie" is. She is proud of him, but she always thought that he could do more.

Jimmy, struggling with the guilt at having not stayed in touch with his mother, and struggling with the shame of being a man in his 40s who now has to crash at his mom's house, has a difficult time even being in the same room with her. He keeps wanting to escape.

Cuesta films their interaction in what feels like real time, so conversations have a chance to breathe, and to be as awkward as they actually would be in real life. There are no easy answers here, no big moment of revelation where everyone hugs at the end. Things are still left unsaid, unresolved.

Eldard said that he and Lois Smith, from the first table-reading, had a connection, and it was something that came so naturally that neither actor wanted to address it, or talk about it, for fear of ruining it.

"Working with [Lois Smith] is one of the highlights of my career," he said.

While they were filming the movie, Blue Oyster Cult happened to be playing a show on Long Island. Eldard and Cuesta approached the band about allowing Eldard to work with the roadies for the night, so they could film it on a Bolex to grab some footage of Jimmy Testagross in his former glory. That footage plays with a crackle of immediacy, and watching Eldard change guitar strings, carrying gear and doing sound checks gives us a good idea of how much he "fit" into that world, and how that world left him unprepared to deal with regular life.

The Blue Oyster Cult, at first, were hesitant about the film. They weren't sure if they were going to be made into a joke. But, of course, Roadie, in all its mess, celebrates Blue Oyster Cult, and celebrates their obsessive fans. Eldard says, "Roadie is a love letter to B.O.C.. The joke is not on B.O.C.."

The roadies who allowed Eldard to work with them for the night "were lovely, they couldn’t have been nicer," and when he showed up with the crazy sideburns and the bloat, "they were like, 'That is a roadie.' They loved it. They thought it was dead-on."

Alongside the Blue Oyster Cult, another Long Island band, The Good Rats, is featured in Roadie (and its lead singer, Peppi Marchello, shows up as a bar rat in one scene). One Good Rats song, "Advertisement in the Voice," comes up during a lovely awkward scene when Jimmy and Nikki (Hennessy), his high school sweetheart who is now trying to make a go of it as a local singer, hang out in his boyhood bedroom (which has not changed since he left). They put on The Good Rats (on vinyl, of course), and the song propels them backward in time, into a scene of awkward reminiscence and sexual tension. She is married now, to someone Jimmy despises. The two sit on his bed, listening to "Advertisement in the Voice", looking at one another with a sense of loss so potent that the air seems to shimmer between them.

Eldard says, "I knew of the Good Rats, growing up in Queens, these guys I worked with had all their stuff. It’s so specific to Michael and Gerald—who else is gonna write a movie and have the Good Rats [show up]. Everyone has something from their childhood like that and if you’re from Long Island, you had the Good Rats. Rolling Stones called them 'the greatest band that nobody knows.' All these great huge solo acts and bands all opened for the Good Rats. Peppi said, 'They all passed us eventually.' But from Bon Jovi to Billy Joel—every major rock artist opened for the Good Rats. That song is so beautiful ... Just like my character says, “That is a great voice and that is a great song.”

Eldard very obviously enjoyed working with Jill Hennessy. Their two characters were young and idealistic together in high school, and now they are middle-aged, and have made compromises, and understand that life doesn't work out as you originally planned. But Roadie does not follow the typical route of love triangle between Jimmy, Nikki, and her husband. Roadie is smarter than that, and gutsier. Jill Hennessy, known mainly for her successful stint on Law and Order, is a revelation in the part.

Eldard said, "Obviously I’ve seen Jill’s work, but I’ve never seen her like this. ... The last scene was the only one that went through some serious rewrites. ... That scene is a walk of shame for her, and she came in with no makeup and she looked like shit—as much as she can look like shit—and she was willing to not be liked. I wasn’t sure if she would be willing to do that. I didn’t know. I had never worked with her. With actors, [wanting to be liked] is often typical but with actresses it’s harder, just because, socially, women from a very young age are taught to be liked, to be a good girl, and you are rewarded for that kind of behavior in a way that men aren’t.