"Can you speak up a little, man? I dove off a boat yesterday, and I now have an immense amount of water in my ear!" Brady Corbet, 24, is on the phone from the Republic of Panama, where he's filming a new movie opposite Benicio del Toro and Josh Hutcherson. When I suggest that he do a handstand against the wall, Corbet's exasperated laugh lets me know that he's heard that one too many times today. "Dude, we put a lit cigarette in my ear this morning. We've tried it all!"
One continent and one bad phone connection away, the young veteran actor instantly, and charmingly, dispels any notion that he is anything at all like the tightly wound title character he portrays in writer-director Antonio Campos's provocative new film, Simon Killer. Simon is a year older than Corbet is now, and, like him, a bit of a nomad, but Simon would never laugh at his own absurdity or raise his voice excitedly, except in those moments when his underlying rage abruptly revealed itself.
Simon's charms are fleeting, and yet, as he makes his way through Paris on a post-graduate trip, smart, worldly young women continually fall for his mumbly, little-boy-lost persona. Victoria (Mati Diop), a back-of-the-bar call girl, invites Simon to live with her after he tells her he's been mugged, but that mugging, like so many of Simon's stories, may be a fabrication. By the time Victoria clues in to Simon's sociopathic tendencies, she's in real danger.
Corbet and Diop share an on-screen story credit with director Campos, whom Corbet met at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival. During a long night of Jack Daniel's-fueled movie talk, they became best friends, and later, Campos and producing partners Josh Mond and Sean Durkin cast Corbet in two films, including the Durkin-directed sensation Martha Marcy May Marlene. "I just really love him," Campos says. "He's one of the sweetest guys I know, and also one of the most talented. I needed someone brave and smart to play Simon, and Brady is all those things."
Just five months shy of 25, Corbet has already worked with Austrian master Michael Haneke (on Funny Games), Danish provocateur Lars Von Trier (Melancholia), and American renegade Gregg Araki, who drew from Corbet a classic, wrenching performance as a UFO-obsessed, sexually abused teen in 2004's Mysterious Skin.
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It all started when a relative, "probably my uncle, yeah, let's give him the credit," took seven-year-old Brady to an open-call audition in Colorado for Alfonso Cuarón's contemporary adaptation of Great Expectations. The day landed him a manager, an agent, and a series of "tiny, nothing roles" on sitcoms and kids' shows. Corbet turned thirteen on the set of his first feature, the aptly titled Thirteen, in which he played Holly Hunter's son. He's been making movies non-stop ever since, and that, Corbet admits, was definitely a planned trajectory.
"They let me go to that audition," he says, "because I was a cinephile right out of the womb. I was watching Orson Welles and Jean Vigo films at a ridiculously young age. My mother loved movies and was a Francophile, and [she] wanted to give me an education through film. But after working for a while, I realized that acting was only satisfying about 30 percent of what interested me about the filmmaking process. Somewhere around age seventeen, I started to realize that if I'm very particular about the people I work with, then I can have the best sort of master class possible."
That strategy continues to pay off, but it hasn't all been golden. There are roles Corbet isn't thrilled to have taken, mostly in TV. "People would say, 'Hey, suck it up. Do this thing and then you'll be able to do whatever you want.' At a certain point," he says, "I realized that work doesn't beget work. Good work begets work. So I got a lot more patient and stopped worrying about working all the time." There's irony here, as Corbet appears to jump from project to project, often with his passport in hand. "It won't always be easy, but Brady's always going to work," Campos predicts, "and only on films he really wants to do."
"Fame is one of the potential hazards of this job, but I really just want to make movies," Corbet says. "I want to be respected, sure. Who doesn't? But famous-famous? I just don't care about it. And if you genuinely don't give a damn about that stuff, you really are free." And with that, Brady Corbet begs off. He has a boat to catc — only this time, he promises, no diving off the side.