HERO Summer Zine

He’s All That star Tanner Buchanan in-conversation with director Mark Waters
Film+TV | 25 August 2021
Photographer Drew Jarrett
Stylist Cece Liu

Coming of age films claim a spot in your heart that stays etched for life. 2004’s Mean Girls set an indisputably high bar and this summer its director, Mark Waters, worked his magic on reimagining another classic from 1999: She’s All That. This new interpretation – He’s All That – flips the original story on its head, and stars Tanner Buchanan in the transformative role. For this year’s HERO Summer Zine, Mark and Tanner reconnect to reflect on a whirlwind production schedule and finding chemistry in the age of Zoom.

Mark Waters: It’s funny, you’re so young in the film business, in a way you don’t even know the way things used to be done pre-pandemic. I know your career started before that, but you hadn’t done a lot… You and I would have met for lunch and talked about the project and then when we were shooting we probably would have had several dinners, and gone out drinking on Fridays… just doing all this stuff.
Tanner Buchanan: It was extremely weird because we met on Zoom and people are in the waiting room ready to come in after, so you can’t talk that much. And then I came back for the chemistry read, you talk for a second and then you do the audition, it was pretty… expedited. The process is very weird now!

MW: The [in-person] chemistry reads are the thing I miss the most.
TB: Yes, I would say they are extremely difficult because you’re trying to connect with another actor over video call who you’ve really never met before, you’re trying to have a little five-minute conversation, and then you’re like, “Okay, let’s just hope we can jump into this and connect over screen.”

top, trousers and shoes all by BALENCIAGA S21

MW: It really throws you. Chemistry reads are an important part of casting, it’s easier when one person is already set. I’ve had a situation where it’s like, “Okay, we know we have Reese Witherspoon and so let’s bring in three people to play her sister.” The worst is when you have two people to cast – this movie I did with [Matthew] McConaughey, we had to cast his brother and his brother’s fiancé, and so we had to read the [various casting options for] brothers with Matthew and then the brother and the fiancés jumbled up… the permutations got very labyrinth-y. But at the end of the day, the biggest thing about the chemistry is you sit there in the room and watch two people together. You booked a hit show right off the bat, but usually someone your age would be going up for pilot season every year. And pilots have always been cast by having everybody and their brother in a room, in the old days they did it because they used to shoot things live and multi-camera, they wanted to feel what that looked like in the room. But then it became like, “We just need to see people standing next to each other, we don’t even care about their acting, it’s just about how do they feel together.” I always say nobody gets to the test unless they’re good enough to do the job. So, it becomes less about their performance on the day and more about, “Okay, what do we feel about these two together?” You’re going for that feeling of charisma, that ephemeral thing called ‘star quality’, which you have. I’m glad you’re booking so much early in your career, hopefully you’ll be able to skip over some of these casting hurdles later in life because people are like, “We have to get Tanner Buchanan in this goddamn project, let’s offer it to him!”
TB: That’s what I’m working towards now, trying to make an impression for everyone to see that I can do the job, whatever that may be, whether in He’s All That as the outcast artsy type, or super character-y acting in a drama movie. I would like to get to that point where people are like, “He’s fantastic, let’s cast him and then cast everybody around him,” which obviously takes some time! I’m not quite there yet.

MW: You’re still working on learning the craft, which is great. I can see you becoming more of a transformational actor because even though you’re ridiculously good-looking, you can’t rely on just being charismatic, I see you moving more in the realm of Sean Penn, of being like, “I’m going to play different parts and not just show off my awesome Tanner Buchanan-ness.”
TB: That’s ultimately what I want to do. Recently I’ve been using Robert Pattinson a lot because I feel like a lot of his stuff, I mean after Twilight

MW: It’s a good example of somebody who made a conscious decision: “Okay, I’ve achieved huge mainstream success being dreamy and now I’m going to choose to work with [David] Cronenberg.” And now, of course, he’s circling back to huge mainstream casting in The Batman, but it’s only because he established that credibility.
TB: Exactly, I want to go and do those grittier roles.

“I would like to get to that point where people are like, “He’s fantastic, let’s cast him and then cast everybody around him,” which obviously takes some time!”

GALLERY

MW: Another template, even though he’s probably an old-timer for you, is Tom Cruise. He blew out of the gate with Risky Business and then he had this big success with Top Gun, even Cocktail was a massive hit. But then he also made a conscious effort, “I’m going to devote myself to working with top filmmakers, really good scripts, I’m going to say no to most things,” and then he trained on the job with the best directors and got better, and also became a filmmaker in his own right, and learned how to produce. So, now he’s a top producer and I know you have aspirations to actually make movies, so working with people who know what the fuck they’re doing is going to help you learn too. So, I’m sorry you didn’t learn much from me [laughs].
TB: Everyone asks me how it was, but I have extreme respect for you – we came in, you had a goal of working ten-hour days, which doesn’t usually happen at all, you usually work twelve hours or more… But you hit the mark every day. You know what you’re doing, you understand everything. You understand lighting, you understand camera, but the big thing is that you understand acting, you’re definitely an actor’s director, you know how to give direction to get performances. You knew exactly what you wanted. You came in and said, “Camera, you’re going to do this and this, actors, you’re going to do this and this.” You have a vision in your mind, and I don’t know quite how you plan it out in your head… you’re one of the best directors I’ve ever worked with because of that. You came in, we got it done on time, and in short days for filming.

knitwear and jewellery both by SAINT LAURENT by ANTHONY VACCARELLO SS21

MW: 23 short days! My first movie was called The House of Yes, which you need to see because I think you’ll dig it, it’s probably my darkest movie. But it was five characters stuck in a mansion, one location, never moved the trucks, in a hurricane. It was 23 days, and that felt like the right amount of time to shoot that. This move was 23 days with ten-hour days, dozens of locations and a crazy amount of cast, and extra dancers and musical sequences. But the thing is, now that I’ve proven that I can do it, people are like, “He can do that in 23 days so let’s only give him 23!”
TB: I learned a lot from you always being prepared, but also being able to communicate with everybody. You are an amazing communicator, which is a skill a lot of people lack. It’s probably gotten worse since the pandemic because of the shortage of interaction.

MW: I think communication is about admitting that you’re wrong and communicating that, “I don’t necessarily have the answer to this but let’s figure one out.” People who act like they know what they’re doing but don’t is when you immediately come into trouble. Having the ego to admit that you don’t have all the answers is, counterintuitively, what makes a strong director, saying “I’m going to talk to everybody and the best idea is going to win.” I will be the arbiter of the best idea but I’m not going to be the person who’s always saying, “My idea is the one that wins.”
TB: That’s what made the shoot go so smoothly, you were open to any ideas anybody had. “Hey, what about this?” “Oh, I see where you’re coming from, let’s talk about it real quick,” and then, “Can I try it this way?” “Absolutely, let’s try it that way, we have time.”

MW: We often didn’t have time, but I never give anyone the illusion that time is an issue. I manage time in my own mind and give myself an ulcer because I want everyone else to feel they have all the time in the world, like it’s a sandbox.
TB: I’m going to be honest, for this shoot, I had way more time to play around than I’ve ever had because I mostly come from the TV world, which is, like… we’re shooting nine pages a day. You do it once, twice, okay, moving on and that’s it. So for me, this was a luxury because we got to do it six, seven times, I’m like, “This is awesome!” I guess entertainment now moves so quick, they’re just trying to get it out as fast as possible.

MW: It’s produced and consumed very quickly. It used to be, “We’re going to let one episode out every week and it’s going to slow drip.” And now it’s like, “We want all the shows ready when we release on this date, you have to get it all done.” The consumer is like, “What? I have to wait a week to watch the next one?!” So tell me – we’re both Midwesterners originally, how did you decide to get into this? In high school were you doing plays, were you involved in theatre at all? Did you sing or dance? You moved to LA quite young, were your parents driven or were you like, “I need to get out of here?”
TB: I’ve been in LA now for twelve years now and my parents weren’t involved in [the industry] at all, my dad installs heavy machinery in car manufacturers, hard labour stuff. And then my mom was a pharmaceutical rep, so she worked with doctors, but I was always the outcast, I played sports growing up but I wanted to dance, I wanted to perform so that’s what I did. I actually don’t have any siblings but I followed in my cousins’ footsteps because they felt like siblings, and they all danced. I said, “That seems cool, that’s what I want to do.” So that’s what I did for the longest time. I was in competitive dance and I just liked performing. I went to a dance competition in New York and there were agents and managers there who were like, “Have you ever tried acting?” Because I had a very – how they say – ‘character look’, my parents always said I looked like the Jerry Maguire kid, I had the thickest glasses and really big buck teeth, a terrible haircut. And I just liked to try everything, it seemed like fun. My dad said to my mom, “I’ll support you, why don’t you take him out there for six months, see if he likes it?” And within the first six months I think I booked three national commercials, then I just fell in love with it and we literally never left. I’ve just been trying to continue to get better and better because I know for sure from the ages of ten to sixteen I was not a good actor! I feel like I didn’t know anything, but as I’ve grown a little bit more in the past few years, I’ve gotten more insight. [Back home] I never really liked the small-town feel, I knew there was always more out there. I had to get out.

“I guess entertainment now moves so quick, they’re just trying to get it out as fast as possible.’

shirt and trousers both by PRADA SS21; boots Tanner’s own

MW: It’s interesting you discovered that early. You were in middle school saying, “I’m booking commercials and making money that adults would love to make.” You know… the percentages of people who book [jobs] versus people who don’t is astounding, you’re almost too young to have any perspective on what you’ve experienced, which was almost immediate success and then having it pretty much continue. You’ve probably had some fallow periods here and there, transitioning from kid into teen and now into an adult actor, you have periods where you don’t really fit in somewhere. Have you ever thought, “Should I stick with this?”
TB: There was never a time for me going through those periods, even when I didn’t work for a year or two, I was never like, “Maybe I should go home and do something else.” I always stuck with it, I was like, “I want to do this, I love it, I don’t care if I’m not working, at least I get to audition. That’s fulfilling enough right now, even if I’m not getting the job, it doesn’t matter, I’ll just continue to audition and hopefully it will stick one day.” It’s funny you say about the percentages of people that don’t have success – being here that long has been interesting, growing up you see the same people at auditions, then a couple years pass and then a lot of them are gone and there’s a brand-new group. And it’s the same – you see them at auditions, you say hi, and then they just slowly start to disappear again. Luckily, my parents were supportive enough to allow me to continue to do what I wanted to do, there was never a dark period where I said, “You know what? I don’t know if this is for me, I’m not booking, I’m getting frustrated.” But there are definitely periods, even now, when I want to give great performances, and I feel like the darkest times for me are looking at what you’re doing and trying to figure out how to get better, but getting so frustrated about knowing what the next step is. That’s probably when I’ve wanted to give up the most – when I don’t feel like I’m getting better, and I get frustrated with myself, I’m very hard on myself. I want each performance to be better than my last.

MW: Which is great, I like the fact that you’re less concerned about people not hiring you, and more concerned that you could be doing a better job. It’s less connected to other people’s decisions and more to your decisions about yourself, which is healthy. Even though it’s bad to beat yourself up, it is healthier that you are your biggest judge as opposed to letting other people have that role.
TB: The way I look at it is that we’re in a business where a lot of people in the world get to see our work and everybody has an opinion. I hope everybody loves and enjoys it, but obviously that’s just not possible. So, if I can just block all that out, as long as the director and the producers are happy, I’ll watch it when I’m done and I’ll find one million and one things wrong with it, I’ll beat myself for a couple of weeks, get over it, and then say, “Okay, this is my new game plan to do better.” It’s different every time.

shirt by BOTTEGA VENETA SS21

MW: You told me you got a link to see He’s All That this week and watched it multiple times. Now I’m wondering… did you watch it multiple times enjoying your performance or multiple times just to beat yourself up?
TB: The first time I saw it, I shut my mind off. I can do that now, which is a new thing I’ve not been able to do before. I said, “Okay, I’m just going to watch it to enjoy it, we’ll just do that.” And then I watched it and I was like, “You know what? I really enjoyed that, that was great. Okay, let’s watch it again, now let’s fix everything.” Then I watch it, pause it, go back and say, “Oh, I wish I would have done that… ” I make a mental note, and then I leave it for a couple days. Then I watch it again, same thing. So, I watched it about three times in that week, even though I was still shooting a show and had lines to memorise, because I couldn’t let it go.

MW: I’m going to let you in on a secret, when I cast you in this I had never seen a single episode of Cobra Kai. You definitely earned it, I had no feeling that you were getting a leg up because you had some previous success. But since we’ve worked together and since we’ve wrapped, I’ve watched all of Cobra Kai and I enjoyed it immensely. I think your work in this movie is some of the best stuff I’ve seen you do. You were able to play a lot of levels, we gave you the opportunity to do some transformative work and it connects. So, I’m really happy with the work you did in this.
TB: I feel good about it, which is something that doesn’t happen often!

Interview originally published inside The HERO Summer Zine 5.

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