Last year, Gary Poulter, one of the stars of David Gordon Green's new movie Joe, died in a homeless encampment in Austin. For Joe, Green had mixed non-professional actors with stars like Nicolas Cage (as Joe, a hero in his rural community who's this close to snapping) and up-and-comers like Tye Sheridan, as Gary, the 15-year-old boy that Joe takes under his wing. In that sense, the casting was along the lines of other modern poorsploitation cinema like Winter's Bone and Gummo. Poulter plays Wade (aka G-Daawg), Gary's abusive father, a drunk who is as limber, and coherent, as Charles Manson. Gary and Wade join Joe's crew of tree-killing manual laborers, who prep forests to be cleared for the planting of valuable pine trees. Only the kid can hold onto the job.
Joe is a wild movie, partly because of Cage's unhinged performance—there is an unintentionally hilarious moment in which Joe seethes about the house mascot that lives in the dilapidated whorehouse he frequents, and hollers, "That dog is a asshole!"
But it's Poulter who's responsible for the bulk of Joe's vivid unpredictability. Cage performs; Poulter embodies. He was homeless when he was cast — casting agents literally picked him off the street in Austin, Texas (Joe was filmed in nearby, mostly rural areas Lockhart and Bastrop and Taylor).
In the Austin Chronicle, Joe O'Connell has written a detailed account of Poulter's life, which is more fascinating than the absorbing movie he stars in. Poulter was a drifter, who spent time in and out of rehab. (A Nexis search I performed turned up no fewer than 10 arrests on record — those I could find information on were for burglary, drug possession, and jay-walking.) He joined the army and went AWOL in Japan, becoming fluent in Japanese in the process. He spent time in a traveling carnival. He could breakdance and was a street performer. He was an extra on thirtysomething. His prized possession was his pair of roller skates. He bonded with Nic Cage over heavy metal.
Poulter was also diagnosed as bipolar and had a history of violence — when he was young, he threw his brother and sister down the stairs. He dreamed of acting, although after reading about Poulter, it's unclear just how much acting went into his portrayal of a wheeze-voiced, belligerent drifter in Joe. Certainly, he looked the part. O'Connell quotes a Facebook post from Poulter during filming:
The script called for somebody that looked like "An old man, alcoholic, prone to violence, who looked like the aftermath of a human disaster." My first day of shooting when I went to hair and make up. I asked the woman "Bridgette" "Do you need to do anything with my appearance?" She said "No you're good!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" lol.
Poulter's sister Maria MacGuire confirmed to O'Connell that what you see on screen is what you got with Poulter. This was her reaction to the film:
It was emotional for me. It was hard to concentrate on the movie. Gary's not even acting. That's so totally him. He did a good job.
Poulter was diagnosed with lung cancer in January 2013, though in a plea for help he posted online in 2009 reveals that he'd been diagnosed with skin cancer in 2003. In February 2013, he was found dead, face down in a shallow part of Austin's Lady Bird Lake. His cause of death was officially ruled accidental drowning with acute ethanol intoxication. In an Entertainment Weekly story about Poulter, Jeff Labrecque wrote:
No foul play was suspected and it's difficult to imagine someone committing suicide in such shallow water. More likely, he passed out or suffered another seizure.
Poulter suffered one of those seizures on set, apparently and conveniently enough for the production, it would turn out. Writes O'Connell:
In another scene, Poulter's character couldn't get up off the ground. Poulter really couldn't get up – he'd suffered a seizure that may have been triggered by years of alcohol abuse. "It was life imitating art rather than art imitating life," [Production coordinator Shanti] Delsarte said. He was back on set the next day.
Green hired a mess to play a mess and the results are astounding to watch, although perhaps less impressive when you understand Poulter's back story and general demeanor. Green doesn't tend to hold back when he talks about mining the innate offerings of his non-actors, who also included Brian Mays, a local restaurant owner with a speech impediment. Here's what Green told Indiewire about an intense confrontation between G-Daawg and Mays' Junior character in Joe:
I mean, like when I got to know Brian Mays, who plays the foreman of the work crew, and Gary Poulter I thought, "We're missing a huge opportunity if we don't just sic these guys on each other during a scene. So in the woods I said, 'Gary, go over on the hillside, we're about to wrap up for the day, we're gonna film you smoking a cigarette.' And then, 'Hey Brian, go over there and give him a piece of your mind for being lazy.'"
And then there's this exchange between Sheridan and Green, in which they extol the virtues of working with non-professional actors:
TS: It's great because they give such a free performance. They are willing to say anything they wanna say.
DGG: They don't know the rules.
TS: Exactly. And sometimes, they get so nervous that stuff starts coming out of their mouth, and it's like, "Oh my god. This is really great," and you have to roll with it. When you're doing the scene, you can feel it in the performance, and it's coming out so natural.
I detect a slightly patronizing tone here, as the actor and the director rhapsodize the exotic other (who in this case is just someone who'd never be welcome in Hollywood). But it's hard to argue with the results. Joe knocked me on my ass. I saw it once, and then I had to see it again, because I had no idea what the movie was trying to accomplish the first time (given Green's broad comedy background, I mulled over the possibility of it being one, long subtle joke, a parody of earnestness led by Hollywood's most unhinged leading man).
Green says that he wanted "chaos" in some scenes, and it's what makes Joe such a mindfuck. It's a feral movie that slithers gently between your feet before sinking in its fangs. And then it's a naturalistic meditation on manual labor, a buddy comedy, a dilapidated domestic drama, a romance, a thriller. It's a movie about good guys and the bad decisions that complicate their narrative. While not exactly charitable in nature, it shows a segment of the population that most movies do not.
For Poulter, it's a big break and an obituary, a decision that complicated his narrative and, above all else, made it visible.