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Kyle Gallner, Johnny Berchtold and Liza Weil Talk Taut, Small-Town Nightmare Thriller ‘THE PASSENGER’

Carter Smith’s (The Ruins, Swallowed) tense new thriller The Passenger is all set to leave a trail of destruction in its wake when it releases On Demand and Digital this Friday, August 4, 2023.

Directed by Smith, from a script written by Jack Stanley, The film follows Randy (Johnny Berchtold – “Gaslit”), someone who is more than happy to simply keep himself to himself and blend into the background. But when his co-worker Benson (Kyle Gallner – Smile, Scream (2022)) inexplicably embarks on a vicious rampage, Randy is forced to face his fears and confront his troubled past in order to survive.

The film also stars Liza Weil (“Westworld”, “How to Get Away with Murder”) and is produced by Jason Blum, Chris McCumber, Jeremy Gold, and Lauren Downey.

Jack Stanley’s writing credits include various scripts that have featured on the Black List including Possession: A Love Story, and Lou starring Allison Janney, Jurnee Smollett, and Logan Marshall Green for Netflix.

In anticipation of The Passenger releasing On Demand and Digital, before an getting an MGM+ release later in the year, CinemaChords caught up with Gallner, Berchtold and Weil who revealed how they expect audiences to take conflicted feelings away from the film and how they learned the importance of taking action when in high-stakes situations. (This interview was conducted prior to the SAG-AFTRA strike).

Can you tell our readers about the characters you play?

Kyle Gallner: I play Benson who works with Bradley at Burgers Burgers Burgers. One day one of our coworkers starts to bully Bradley and Benson has had enough. You watch their relationship grow and shift in a lot of unexpected ways. You slowly learn about these two characters as the movie goes on. Benson is not what he seems on the surface. I’m not saying he’s a good person but he is definitely a damaged person that has gone through his own trials and traumas and I think he sees Bradley heading down a path that he believes he can save him from. He thinks Bradley has potential, he thinks he’s better than the life he is currently living and watching him waste his life away pisses him off. In his mind he thinks he’s doing a good thing and thinks he’s saving Bradley from ending up like him.

Johnny Berchtold: I play Randolph “Randy” Bradley, a stilted young man who has made the decision to live in the background of his own life. He works a dead end job and is content going through the bare-minimum motions of life. He’s definitely a product of a traumatic childhood event that he’s let dictate his entire worldview. He’s still, quiet, and polite but brewing with absolute turmoil that he’s gotten really good at hiding. It isn’t until Benson, quite literally, shakes it out of him that he begins to realize that he doesn’t have to be defined by his trauma and that there are possibilities that could help him become a full version of himself.

It was really exciting to be able to make physical choices for Randy to contrast Benson’s persona. He’s very tucked-in, shoulders raised, hands clenched. A trembling, scared baby deer, and at the same time I wanted to almost portray him as a non-human at the start of the film to show the lengths he’s gone to disappear. As an audience member, you could almost project yourself onto him and be on this car ride from hell. As the film goes on, it was really fun to paint more and more colors onto him. He’s made no true goal for himself until now, and that’s simply to survive.

Liza Weil: I play Miss Beard, who is Randy’s second grade teacher. When Randy is in second grade there is this sort of awful classroom incident/accident that Randy feels responsible for. and has been carrying around this burden that he has potentially destroyed this woman’s life.

What was it that made you connect with your characters?

KG: I felt sad for Benson. I’m not saying that what he did is ok or even forgivable, but I did feel sad for him. He’s a guy who just never had a chance. His life was ruined and his innocence was stolen from him at a very young age and he didn’t have anyone to help him work through all of that. He is a ticking time bomb. I think we all experience some form of trauma and feeling lost, misunderstood, wanting more out of life or wanting to fix someone and leave something better behind. There are a lot of themes in here and character traits in Benson that I could latch onto. He obviously goes about things in an insane and horrible way but he has all of those things going on inside.

Meeting Johnny who plays Bradley really helped as well because I genuinely love Johnny. He has this excitement and way of looking at the world that you just want to protect and nurture and keep alive. I was able to take from my real-life love for Johnny and heighten that and apply that to Benson and his desire to protect and help and literally kill for Bradley. I was really grateful for that because you never know how you are going to get along with the people you are working with. Johnny is a special guy and I consider myself lucky to call him a friend after this.

JB: I think a huge part of what made me connect with Randy was actually our differences in the way that we’ve responded to childhood trauma. For me, the experiences I’ve had as a kid could have easily taken an all-consuming hold, but I was fortunate enough to have expressive and communicative people around me to help me through all of that and still do. For Randy, he’s alone in his head, and so I feel for him immensely. I am someone who has had their fair share of anxious tics over the years, and one that I used to do unconsciously at his age was ball my fists in a way that my fingernails would dig into the palms of my hands. I gave that trait to Randy so that he had some place to put the energy that he’s trying so hard to suppress. You can’t see it in the film, but I had an early conversation with Carter to have nail marks on my palms, and our incredible makeup artist Natalie Johnson gave those to me every day. It was a great way to blend me and Randy together. Additionally, I’ve always sort of had a fear of fading away into the background of my life, so using that fear and diving into it was key.

LW: What I was so drawn to about Miss Beard that was really surprising to me, is that as you’re sort of going along in this story, and what you’re hearing about Miss Beard in Randy’s retelling of the story, and the aftermath of this incident, you kind of expect that you’re gonna find a very sad, withdrawn, miserable person, and that is not the case. Miss Beard greets Randy with a genuine warmth and goodness, and really authentically wants to take this opportunity of reuniting with him and set him on the right path to forgiving himself and being good with himself, and I was so drawn to being able to play someone who was just so at peace and good.

What did you learn while making this film?

JB: In terms of craft, I learned so much from watching Kyle do his thing. I think when you’re in a scene with someone like him, it’s impossible not to learn something. He’s just so good at what he does, and if I can take even a shred of what he does along with me, I’ll be grateful. Liza too, just getting to watch these performers who have years of skin in the game and what they do on a set and in a scene was cool as hell. With the character, I learned the magnitude of stillness. How much of a challenge it is to convey anything when you’re trapped inside of yourself was something really enticing to tackle. In terms of story, I learned the importance of taking action when you’re in a high-stakes situation. To make a long, insane story short, I was grabbing a beer with cast mate Matthew Laureano six months after we wrapped, and we were caught in the cross-fire of a shooting. While in it, I didn’t understand the stakes at play, and my sense of urgency was way off but thanks to Matt and his insane sense of awareness, we were safe. It wasn’t until the next day that everything came flooding in, and I realized how wrong it could’ve gone had I stayed where I was, etc. It put a lot of things into perspective for me.

What are you hoping audiences will take away from this film?

KG: I think people will walk into this movie expecting one thing but getting something different that will surprise them. I honestly hope people walk away conflicted. I hope they don’t really know how to feel right after and have to take time to process what they just saw. I hope it sparks debates and arguments amongst friends and family members. There’s a lot to unpack with this movie and its characters. It’s not just some violent joyride.

JB: I think audiences will take away a few things from The Passenger. It’s never too late to take control of your life, however that may be. Sometimes we make unhealthy decisions for ourselves, or even safe decisions, that lead us to question what we want in life, and sometimes it takes a heightened event to put things into perspective. We shouldn’t always wait for those big events to want to make a change. Additionally, and most importantly for me, our trauma doesn’t have to define us. Easier said than done, but it’s great to know that there can be a light at the end of the seemingly never-ending tunnel, as long as we allow ourselves to have it.

LW: I hope that people take away, I don’t know, maybe empowerment that trauma can be overcome, you don’t have to be defined by trauma, and, listening to that voice inside you, maybe feeling more empowered to have a voice in the world.

What were your favorite scenes to film?

KG: Honestly, I enjoyed filming so many scenes in this movie. If I had to pick one I would say the Burgers Burgers Burgers set piece. I think that scene will have people’s jaws on the floor. It’s so visceral and disturbing and a real gut punch. Everyone did such a great job in it. I can’t wait for people to see that because they will be talking about it for sure.

JB: A lot of the stuff at Burgers Burgers Burgers was fun because of the cast and the insanity of what the first 20 minutes of the film entails. It’s no secret that I am a fan of blood and special effects, so to work with that was amazing. I don’t know what it says about me that I smile when surrounded by fake blood.

Another that comes to mind is the moment in which Miss Beard realizes that Randy and Benson have a connection to the assault of her vice principal. There is a quiet intensity between the three of us as we all express different messages through our faces to really sell that moment and it’s such a pivotal moment too. So, to be in a scene like that with the incomparable Liza Weil and Kyle Gallner was a dream.

I enjoyed getting tossed around by Kyle every time, too. Sometimes I miss it. Kyle, you can punch me in the face again if you want…

LW: My time on this film was brief. I’m only in a few scenes, but it was such a special experience and I loved every minute that I had on this set. I think my favorite thing to shoot was probably the scene with Randy in Miss Beard’s living room where they’re just having a conversation. I really loved spending that time with Johnny. It was really special to witness how Carter Smith is on a set and the space that he allowed for Johnny and me to kind of go deeper. It was really fulfilling and surprising just how lovely it felt to shoot that scene.

How was it working with the cast? The director?

KG: This was a dream project in terms of cast and director. Everyone came to play. It’s a very high stakes movie and that can make things difficult. Most of my scenes were with Johnny and Liza. Working with Johnny was a blast. Not only is he very talented but he was so game and up for anything and when you’re making something like this that is very physical and emotionally heightened that helps tremendously. Benson can get violent and has outbursts and the person on the receiving end of some of those outbursts would be Randy who was played by Johnny. Johnny gave me permission to do what I had to do and he walked away with some bumps and bruises and a bloody lip. His excitement for the work and his willingness to throw his whole self and body into this movie really elevated things. His positive attitude and love for what he’s doing is infectious. Not everyone smiles through a mouth full of blood and says let’s do that again.

Liza was also incredibly game. She was also on the receiving end of some of Benson’s wrath. She had some really difficult scenes and to step onto a movie set after people have been filming for weeks and relationships have already been forged and have to throw those down can be a tricky thing, but she came to play. She brought such a beautiful humanity and depth to her character. There’s a great scene between her and Johnny that just really helps bring a lot of things together for those two characters. I loved watching them shoot that. I also found her to be an incredibly calming presence on set which was really nice after living in such chaos for so long. Even though she wasn’t there the whole shoot it felt like we all knew her forever. She is a really special person and I loved working with her.

I had been a fan of Carter’s before we started filming. I loved The Ruins when it came out and have seen it a few times since then. I think he’s an incredibly talented director. This movie is so different from something like The Ruins and I think that just speaks to his versatility. There’s

almost a modern western vibe to The Passenger and it feels very grounded and lived in. I love the way he operates a set as well. It’s calm, cool and collected. There’s no screaming and shouting. I’m sure there was stress running under the surface because making a movie is always difficult but you wouldn’t know it by the way he handled things. He also gave really great notes and was always very thoughtful in the way he approached character and story. We had a few creative conversations about the film and I always felt heard. I really think Carter is a secret weapon. His eye and his ability to tell a story are very unique to him and he has a strong point of view and knows what he wants. I’m excited to see what he does in the future and I hope I can be a part of it somehow.

JB: The entire scenario, for me, was a dream come true. Working with the Blumhouse team, with Lauren Downey was the most ideal situation, and as a fan of Carter’s work, it was an honor to be under his direction. Carter has such a beautifully gritty tone that he infuses into his work, and I was so in awe with the concepts he’d come up with and selfishly I was happy to play in his world. Additionally, I struck gold with Kyle and Liza. I can’t believe I get to share the screen with them. I’ve been a fan of Kyle’s for years, since I was a kid, watching him command every scene he’s in. He should be in everything. He’s a dream. I’m completely in love with him and his craft, and he’s become a big brother to me in my everyday life. I’ve definitely called him up to spiral and steal advice. We also agreed pretty early on that we were both game to take Carter’s ideas and drive them in as truthfully as possible, and so we’d allow ourselves to really get into it with each other. I was honored to be his punching bag.

Working with Liza, to my complete disbelief, was insanely full circle. The first time I was ever on a professional film set was on the pilot for “How To Get Away With Murder” almost TEN YEARS AGO. I was a background extra, and was so excited to watch the cast, including Liza, do their thing. There was a moment while shooting that when we were on a stairwell, and Liza was next to me trying to put her high heel back on. She turned to me and was like “I’m so sorry but could I use your shoulder for balance?” I was like, “UH YES OF COURSE? ANYTHING YOU NEED.” And when I re-met her on set for The Passenger, this story was the first thing I told her and I cannot believe it but she completely remembered the interaction. I’m still in shock at how full circle it is. Additionally, my sister is a massive Gilmore Girls fan and so it was a massive flex. That being said, Liza is a legend. She brought the most incredible warmth and truthfulness to the film and she’s an absolute dream to be in a scene with. She’s a genius and also cool as hell. I got a masterclass in craft working on this film. It was awesome. I’m so grateful.

LW: I loved working with Kyle Gallner as well, he is a really, really astounding performer and he cares very deeply about what he’s doing, and it was just a real joy to be around and watch his process and watch the dynamic of him and Johnny together. Johnny also is an amazing actor, and brings such an enthusiasm and excitement and joy to whatever he’s doing that is really contagious and such a delight to be around, so I loved being able to be around those guys and witness the dynamic that they had and and the way that they worked together was really special to watch.

Carter Smith, also, who directed this movie, is just a really good, talented, kind person. This was a very quick movie to shoot, and he just had such a command and specificity about what he was after, but very calm, and warm, and really just allowed a great space for everybody to do their best work. It was also very wonderful to watch the collaboration that he had with Lyn Moncreif, the DP, and Lauren Downey, the producer. They all just worked so well together and the whole movie just had a really wonderful feeling that everybody who was there really wanted to tell the story in the best way possible.

What’s coming up next for you?

KG: I have a movie called Mother May I that just came out on July 21st. You can buy or rent that. I also have a movie called Strange Darling that will come out at some point. I’m not sure what the plan is for that one yet but there will hopefully be some information on that soon.

JB: I have a movie I was a part of back in the summer of 2021 that will finally get its release I think towards the end of the year. It’s still not in the stratosphere so I’m not sure I can give any more info yet. I also just wrapped on a horror/sci-fi film that I am so unbelievably excited about and I think people will lose their minds. As a die-hard horror fan, it is something I would seek out and eat up immediately. Long live horror!!!! (And on that note, if anyone is in the market for any new scripts after the WGA is rightfully given the deal they deserve, I’ve written many and want to make them!)

LW: Coming up next for me, I hope to be returning to a show called “The Cleaning Lady” on Fox, and there are a couple independent movies that I just finished and am waiting to hear their release plans.

The Passenger will release On Demand and Digital on August 4, 2023 before an getting an MGM+ release later in the year.


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