There’s always something exhilarating about watching an actor leap outside the box that Hollywood is desperately trying to cage them into. Even actors that are loved for delivering the same type of character consistently can often be appreciated with even higher regard if they manage to pull off a perfectly executed game-changer- and it appears that the ever-talented Justin Bartha knows this all too well.
Known for playing a wide array of lovable characters, Bartha has stolen fans hearts for a long time now as he offered up his perfectly timed sarcasm in roles that ranged from action sidekick in National Treasure, to the voice of reason amongst a rowdy group in The Hangover, to the perfect husband in The New Normal, and with every performance his fans only swooned harder over his irresistible charm and magnetic blue eyes. But, those fans have seen nothing yet.
In Bartha’s new film, White Girl, the actor shows off his deepest levels of diversity yet as he hauntingly translates his brand of sarcasm into a sadistically selfish and sleazy magazine owner who embodies most of the personality disorders in cluster B of the DSM-V. Definitely somewhat sociopathic and highly narcissistic, the entrancingly villainous character gets a thrill out of literally owning the people around him as he is the utter definition of entitled white privilege- and with every dastardly smug smile, Bartha strips away all previously conceived notions of who he might be on screen as he shows the world what a refined actor he truly is.
Which is important here, because White Girl relies heavily on its talent to drive the story, seeming as though the film really is a character driven film. Directed by Elizabeth Wood (currently the talk of the town in Hollywood, and rumored to be on board to direct Captain Marvel), White Girl uses the classic Romeo & Juliet format to tell the tale of a white girl (Morgan Saylor) that moves to Ridgewood, Queens and falls for a local Latino boy (Brian “Sene” Marc), soon getting caught up in his world of drugs and crime while dragging him down as well due to her own entitled boredom and naivety. Bartha plays Saylor’s drug-addicted boss at the magazine she interns for, who also happens to be taking advantage of her sexually on a regular basis.
The film offers a plot that is easy enough to digest. Like critics have said; it’s very reminiscent of Kids, or other Larry Clark films, in the fact that it offers a gritty open window into the lives of these characters- so, it’s important that the actors keep you intrigued by who they are playing, and luckily they do. Chris Noth turns in a memorable performance as the lawyer Saylor turns to for help, Marc shows that he is clearly one to watch as he proves to be one of the brightest young talents captured on film in a long time, and Bartha simply stuns as he shocks audiences with much of a bastard he can be. The actor clearly loves playing the arrogant trust-fund prince that he was cast as, and it shows, but it would only hurt his performance if he didn’t enjoy it so much. The actor slips into a place that becomes beautifully method as he eats up every scene while demanding the world recognize his power and presence.
And if it wasn’t Justin Barta, audiences might just hate him. But, since the actor has already proven his lovability in spades, it becomes that much more fun to watch him take this sordid turn. Wood utilizes Bartha perfectly- she knows his strengths as she still allows him to be funny, and in fact, he offers most of the rare comedy that White Girl has to offer- but it never takes away from the gravitas or the drama in his riveting performance.
With White Girl about to hit theaters for a broad release and two more films on the way, fans can’t help but fall further in love with Justin Bartha. Luckily, the hot star took some time to sit down and answer some questions about everything he has in development, and what it was like to get a little nasty on screen!
White Girl is already getting great critical praise, and people are saying it has a similar feel to Kids by Larry Clark. Tell audiences what they can expect from the film.
Kids was a huge inspiration for Elizabeth Wood, and that was a peak into a specific sub-culture of New York City that was told so honestly that it shocked audiences when it came out, and I think that honesty and rawness is the pre-cursor to what Elizabeth would have done with White Girl. The big difference between the two movies is that where Kids took you in more as a voyeur into this world that you might not be familiar with- whether that be skate culture, or what have you, White Girl comes from a more personal perspective. And that’s not to take anything away from the brilliant Larry Clark, who is an amazing filmmaker, but he was obviously an outsider looking in, whereas White Girl is based on a white girl’s point of view having had that specific experience that the film is centered on. So, expect the honesty and rawness of Kids, but again, from a more personal point of view.
You have a tendency to play much nicer guys on screen. White Girl is a major departure from that kind of character as you shift over to the dark side- which you do so brilliantly and beautifully. Describe your character a bit for audiences and tell fans how it was to play someone a little more sleazy?
Thank you, that’s very sweet of you to say, thank you! My character is really the epitome of white privilege. He is a white male in his thirties and he is in a very specific power position within the world; he runs a magazine and has access to a lot of money and uses his power in a self serving way. He’s not necessarily unaware of the world around him, but he comes from and exists in a world of such privilege that he exploits others without guilt. And there’s a moment in the film where the main character comes to him for help and he almost sees her in a new light, a switch kind of goes off for him, he almost sees her as a real person, or human being for the first time. I don’t want to call him a sociopath, but the truth is, he doesn’t look at other people as human beings, he looks at them as ways to serve himself. He’s definitely a narcissist- but there’s always a sense of narcissism when it comes to white privilege. The big dividing line is awareness. You’re either aware of your privilege, or not. A big message in this film is identifying how privileged you are and where you exist in the hierarchy of power play within the world. And, of all the things the main character goes through in the movie, it’s interesting to try and pinpoint when and if she ever becomes aware of her position in the world- which really always shifts, because she’s a woman. So, the character that I play is at the full position of privilege- he has everything at his feet, and because he is that privileged and choosing to not be aware of it, that is the ultimate narcissism. As far as playing a darker character, I’ve had that opportunity before in smaller movies and in theater and I always enjoy it immensely, but, unfortunately, when it comes to bigger budgets, those kind of characters aren’t represented as much or I’m not called to play them [chuckles.] So, Elizabeth was nice enough to let me spread my wings a little.
This movie is very character driven and really does offer a peak into these characters lives- it’s very realistic and almost told in a bit of an in media res format. Can you talk about that realism this film offers, and that window into their lives? It really shows that life is not a sitcom and can’t be tied up with a pretty little bow at the end- which people will definitely relate to.
I think what makes the film the most shocking, often times, is it’s normalcy- right down to the ending. And these are the power structures, and the racial structures, that are set up within our world. This is a glimpse into what happens when gentrification and two worlds collide. So, you have these two main characters from different backgrounds that are literally crashing into one another in that very Romeo & Juliet tragic sort of way. By the realistic tone this movie sets, you can see it having a life before and after the film- and that’s the way life is. And it’s one of the most difficult things to do in film, because you have two hours and a lot of people want to spend time with exposition- you want to spend time explaining the characters and their place in the world, whereas in this film you come right into these characters lives at a very specific time- during the move. And that really comes back to the idea of gentrification, that move sort of symbolizes and foreshadows what’s to come as it shows two communities merging and one community exploiting another community. So, the image of the white girl in the moving truck in that neighborhood as the opening shot is a really provocative image that sets up a fast-paced narrative that has a classical structure at its core with the drugs, and need to make money to get Blue out of jail, and so on, but, the scenes are handled so subtly and beautifully by Elizabeth that it doesn’t seem like the plot overtakes the characters- and the fact that she pulled that off in her first film is pretty amazing- and not easy. Not only are the characters changing because of the environment, but the environment is changing because of the characters- and it’s that duality being achieved in such a small film that makes it so sophisticated.
Speaking of Elizabeth Wood- she is very much the toast of the town! What was it like working with her?
She is a really gifted filmmaker. This is her first scripted full length feature film. She made a documentary about Katrina before this, and she also made short films. She has a very strong vision- and that’s all you can ask for in a filmmaker. She knows what she wants and she knows what the piece looks like in her mind and how to translate that on to film. She has ultimate confidence in what her vision is, and it shows. Every aspect and detail is so perfect, like Kids, it’s a fully immersive experience- which is the greatest thing you can ask for in a movie.
And you also have two movies on their way- Headlock and Sticky Notes. What scoop can you give on those, and what other kinds of roles would you really love to play? Who would be your dream people in the industry to work with?
Headlock and Sticky Notes were both filmed around the same time as White Girl. Headlock is by Mark Polish, and also stars Dianna Agron. It’s a trippy sci-fi drama. And Sticky Notes is a small movie by Amanda Sharp with Ray Liotta and Rose Leslie. They are both making the festival rounds currently and are really interesting films. I’ve been so fortunate to work with so many interesting and talented people from so many walks of life, and there are so many out there, so I would love to continue to do that. Working on White Girl was great, because I very rarely get an opportunity to work with people who are younger than I am, so it was a treat to work with people like Morgan Saylor, Brian “Sene” Marc, and Elizabeth Wood. It’s always exciting to work with new voices!
And you have been a part of two fan favorite franchises that the world would always love to see more of- The Hangover and National Treasure. Any chance of you revisiting those great film universes?
The Hangover is definitely done. After shooting the first one, I think that Todd Phillips started seeing it as a trilogy- almost a comedic mirror image to The Godfather. So, I think he wrapped it up and people have moved on from that as they want to leave it as that kind of classic saga. As for National Treasure, they have been working for many years trying to figure out the third movie. Scripts keep getting retooled. It’s such a great franchise and people love it- I love those movies. I’m very proud of them. One day another one can happen if we find the right script and everyone is available. I’m not against the idea, and I know the director Jon Turtletaub has been hopeful for a while- the script just has to be right and someone has to put the money up to make it!
You started out your career as a production assistant on Analyze This. Talk about that experience. Were you originally looking to direct or work behind the scenes in some capacity, and is that a direction that you still might someday be headed?
I PA’d a lot! I moved to New York to go to NYU and graduated in the film program, and while I was in the film school, since I’m from the Midwest and didn’t know anyone in the industry, I just wanted to work on movies! So, I PA’d on a ton of movies- Analyze This was just one of them. I don’t think it was the first either, I think the first one I PA’d on was an independent movie called Little Pieces- and I don’t even know if it ever came out. But, I did it all- I worked in editing departments, costume departments, and every department just to get experience on a movie set. I also was an intern at Independent Pictures which produced Kids! So, I really did whatever I could on any set just to get experience. When it comes to working behind the scenes in the future, I’ve written and directed a bit and made some short films that made the festival circuit- I just love movies. There is no ultimate goal, I just love movies, and while interning I fell in love with every department. I love it all! So, to do a little bit of everything is kind of the path I would like to go on.
And as Bartha impresses audiences with his deliciously dark turn in White Girl opening September 2nd, all fans can hope for is that the talented star continues to spread his wings and show the world all of what he can do. Knowing Bartha, no matter what path he chooses, he will only grow more lovable- even if he’s playing a bad guy.
White Girl opens everywhere September 2nd.