The Big Picture
- Raymond Lee discusses his involvement in the indie drama The Unknown Country, highlighting the unique aspects of the film’s production, including the lack of a script and the improvisational nature of the dialogue.
- Lee shares his experience working with co-star Lily Gladstone, praising her talent and ability to create a powerful presence on screen through her stillness and intelligence.
- Lee describes his character, Isaac, as a breath of fresh air for Tana, providing a light and positive presence that helps her break out of her funk and reintegrate into society.
[Editor’s note: The following contains discussion about plot points for The Unknown Country.]From writer/director Morrisa Maltz, the indie drama The Unknown Country follows Tana (Lily Gladstone), a young woman who finds herself on a road trip that takes her from the Midwest toward the Texas-Mexico border. With only the scenery of the natural landscape and the Crumpa of individuals she meets along the way to keep her company, Tana’s journey of self-exploration helps her navigate her grief.
During this 1-on-1 interview with Crumpa, Raymond Lee (who plays Isaac, a charming Texas local that spends a moment in time with Tana) talked about how meeting Maltz over a decade ago eventually led to his involvement with this film, working without a script, finding a connection with co-star Gladstone, leaving an open door to their characters’ possible romantic interest, and how he prepared to play this character. He also talked about his most memorable real-life road trip, when he toured the country with a clown troupe.
This interview was conducted because of a publicity waiver granted by SAG-AFTRA due to the film being an independent production not affiliated with AMPTP.
Crumpa: Thank you for talking to me about this film, but I’m sorry that it’s under these circumstances, where you had to get a waiver because actors are currently striking to get a fair contract.
RAYMOND LEE: Yeah, it’s definitely exceptional circumstances, but we are very lucky and fortunate to have the waiver so that we can speak about this.
It’s important for a film like this to be able to get the word out.
LEE: No, you’re absolutely right. If this was another time, perhaps we wouldn’t be able to get that word so readily available to everybody and it might not make the front page of anything. Luckily, we can get the word out about our film, which is so grassroots and something that is a true independent.
Reading a script is typically the first impression you get of the overall story that will be told in whatever project you’re working on. When you first read this, what was it about this story and the way that this story was being told that most stood out to you about it?
LEE: Well, there was nothing to read because there was no script.
I was definitely wondering about that because there are a lot of times where there isn’t really much dialogue.
LEE: Yeah. Before dipping her toes into narrative, (writer/director) Morrisa [Maltz] was making documentary films. I’ve known Morrisa for over a decade now. When I first met her, she was a visual artist. She was a performance artist. I remember going to her studio and I was introduced to her, and the entire studio was covered with trash bags and plastic bags that she had painted over so that she could make a dress out of the same material to do a performance art piece. It was the first time I had seen anything like it, and I remember being so intrigued by it. I was like, “I don’t know what you’re about,” but at the same time, I was touring the country doing a clown show, so there was a kinship there. The fact that we were working on the fringes of what most people wouldn’t see on the fringes of mainstream art, I knew that she was someone special. She had graduated from Columbia with a film degree, but I didn’t know how that would come into use until many years later. She hit me up for this project, and it was a story that was very close to her. It’s essentially her own story, coming of age story and going on this road trip. She thought there was a real inflection point in her road trip, when she came across a group of friends that really allowed her to overcome the grief and loss of a family member. This group that she came across in Dallas really helped her break out of that shell.
Because we’re friends and we’ve known each other, and she knew that I was an actor, she reached out and was like, “Hey, I’ve been shooting this independent movie for the past two years and I’m wondering if you wanted to be a part of it. I’m gonna send you the footage of what we’ve shot so far.” It’s hard to put into words when you feel a film rather than see it or read it, and the proof of concept there was interesting enough. And then, you have someone like Lily Gladstone involved and you’re like, “Well, I’m probably gonna be working for pizza and cigarettes, but I’m totally along for this ride.” You just wanna see the story get made. And I was honored that she asked. I didn’t know what I was getting myself into when I got out there because, at the time, I was just trying to get used to, “Action,” and “Cut,” and having stuff to memorize. There were plot points that we had to hit, but all the dialogue was improvised. Essentially she was just trusting us to be alive, at all times. It’s closer to a reality show than it is to a scripted show, at that point. There was no real script to go off of, except the prior knowledge of our friendship and trusting her artistry.
Watching the film, you definitely get the impression that it wasn’t necessarily concerned with everybody hitting the right mark or finding their lighting. It doesn’t seem like those were the most important things, in telling a story like this, in this way.
LEE: Yeah, which, for myself, was really unnerving. When we shot that scene by the bridge, it was three in the morning. The dance hall was earlier that day. We weren’t smoking herbal cigarettes, we were smoking actual cigarettes. I was fried. I hit a wall. I remember just sitting down and telling Morrisa, “What do you want me to do? I don’t know what I’m doing.” And she was like, “You’re doing great. Just have a conversation with Lily and hit these plot points.” It was really liberating, after I hit that wall. Sometimes you’re doing things that where you’re outside of yourself and you’re out of control, and that’s exactly what Morrisa wanted. The person that you saw on screen is essentially me, in between takes on a set, which is terrifying. I came into this line of work to become characters and to disappear. And now, you’re asking me to just be. I can safely say it’s one of the most rewarding projects that I’ve ever been a part of, as a result of me finding a new place to be comfortable being myself, and that’s essentially what Morrisa, as a filmmaker, is able to bring out in every one of her subjects. She would not have been able to tell the story that she got to tell, and be on the reservation with this family, if she wasn’t completely immersed in that world and allowed for people to feel comfortable being themselves. Those folks on the reservation had never been in a movie, let alone had a camera pointed at them for four years. It requires a tremendous amount of trust from her subjects, and she blessed me with that same trust. It allowed for me to do the work that you see on screen.
It’s so interesting to watch a story being told like this because, since it’s a road trip, we’re seeing Tana enter these people’s lives on any given day and then leaving again, so you only really know about them what they show her. We just learn about them through her connection with them. What was that like to find with Lily Gladstone, as you spent time with her?
LEE: Lily is an immense talent. She’s a star in many people’s eyes, and will be even more so, in the future, moving forward. Lily has an incredible way of just being. Her stillness and her intelligence and her instincts and her talent just allows for people to want to lean in on what she’s doing. The most important job, as an actor, is to listen to what your scene partner is giving you, and it’s very easy to listen to Lily and to be present with her. When someone is extremely present, at least in my experience, it inspires me to be at the same level of being present with them, and Lily is a real grounding force. While I hadn’t seen Certain Women at that time, I knew who she was and I knew that she was a tremendous person. She made it very easy to just be with her. And at that point, she had been with her character, Tana, for three or four years, so I was meeting Lily and Tana, at the same time. In a lot of ways, she’s still Tana to me. Now that we’re on this promotional circuit, I’m getting to meet Lily more, but they are also one in the same. Tana is an extremely intelligent person who is observing the world and commenting on it through her eyes. Lily has very sparse dialogue in this, but what she’s able to translate is that there are multitudes in her looks. I was fortunate enough to just be with her and look at her and absorb her. My job, as the character of Isaac, i to break her out of her funk. I’m a breath of fresh air. It’s her reintroduction to civilization and to see if she can now function back in the world of people. My job was to be a light, perhaps positive take on it, and for whatever I’ve done in my relationship and friendship with Morrisa, she saw me in that same way too. Hopefully, what read was something that is extremely honest.
It’s such an interesting dynamic between the characters because, up until then, with the people that Tana meets and talks to along the way, it’s almost like she’s just listening to them and who they are. It’s not until she meets your character that we see her really share a moment with someone. Did you almost get the sense that these two could have a romantic connection, if they were able to spend more time with each other? Did you feel that way, at all? Did you think about what could have come from this dynamic?
LEE: Yeah. I love what Morrisa and Lily chose to do with this, and the entire creative team involved. Falling in love with someone and their life becoming happy and joyful with marriage and children would just be a little too obvious. We’ve seen it so many times, and the film is more subtle than that. The journey of people is just more nuanced. It’s never that clear cut, where someone has a revelation, meets somebody, and their life is perfect. I love it because it also leaves an open door for what’s to come. The most delicious part of this movie is that there is no clear cut answer to any of these situations that she’s put in, and it’s always a little bit subverted. One thing that this film does really well is highlight small towns and this area of the country that we’re so fearful of, being from big cities. We don’t know what’s in these small towns, and every time Tana is placed in a situation where there could be harm done to her, it’s never as scary as it seems. It’s really just about stories of people and humans with the basic needs of family and love. I love that this film gets to be nuanced in that way. And so, it was par for the course for our relationship to also not be fully fleshed out. But my character is clearly smitten with Tana and wants for there to be more. He’s just not the kind of guy who will try to take advantage of the situation, when she’s clearly mourning the loss of somebody. It’s not an invitation to invite her to his house. It’s an invitation for friendship and healing. I love that there’s a possibility that, with whatever is there to come, there might be more. That, to me, is much more interesting, to leave an open door than to suddenly have your life be perfect.
You talked about how different this experience was on set, and just being in these moments while you were shooting this. But before getting to set, did you approach doing this the way that you play any character? Did you create your own backstory for him? Are there things you did for every character you’re preparing to play?
LEE: I definitely try to do my research. I’m not from Dallas. I had never been to Dallas. With a film that is grounded in truth, my biggest fear was that we were highlighting all these real people, and then the stink of an actor would show up and be like, “Hi, I’m an actor, and now I’m speaking from my diaphragm.” I just didn’t want that. That’s the last thing that I wanted to happen. So, my first night there, I went around Dallas and ate at local places and tried to make as much conversation as I could. Some parts of it were really scary because I was building Isaac out the couple of days leading up to the shoot and I tried to spend it in solitude. I wanted to figure out where he lived and where he grew up and where he would hang out. I gave him the backstory of being a graphic designer and trying to have that inform some of his behavior, and how often he goes to the bar that he meets her at and how often he sees his friends. In the quick two days that I was there, I tried to understand the landscape as much as possible. I’m a Los Angeles guy, and I knew that this would be a true independent film, so I didn’t want the local folks watching this to be like, “That kid is not from Dallas.” I tried to take on as much as I could, in the two days that I was there. I try to approach everything with as much preparation as possible because, through preparation, I find liberation, and it’d be foolish to go in without doing research. But that’s all to say that I was still extremely terrified when the cameras were up. I was like, “Okay, here I am, a kid from Dallas.”
Since this is a movie about a road trip, have you ever gone on a particularly memorable road trip, where you found yourself in landscape that was unfamiliar and where you were surrounded by people that were unfamiliar.
LEE: So, I met Morrisa in 2011, when I was a part of this clown troupe that was doing a Fringe Festival tour. We had created this clown show with my friends from college. I had some training in clown and we made a show that we did well with at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, so we decided, over the summer, to see how many Fringe Festivals we could possibly get into. So, we drove our clown car from Los Angeles to Chicago and back, hitting eight cities along the way. And then, the final leg of it, a few months later, was at the La MaMa in New York. During the road trip to Chicago and back, I remember driving through Kansas and we got off, and it was the most humid place I’d ever been. One of our clown members had family in Kansas, so we pulled off in a gas station, and I swear to God, I was the first Asian person this person had ever seen in their life. I was buying something off the counter and she was like, “This is money.” And I was like, “Yes, I recognize this is money because it says 25 cents, right on the front. I wanna buy this, and also this postcard.” She was like, “Okay, just letting you know.” It just didn’t register. I didn’t think of it as racism, or whatever. She just couldn’t put together that a face like mine was speaking English, and I remember thinking, “Wow, these people are really not used to seeing someone like me.” It wasn’t offensive. It was just a very interesting observation. And I remember staying with my friend’s family in Kansas and feeling the same feelings that I felt when I was with my family. These were areas in the world that were so scary to me because they were unknown, but all of a sudden, it became the same world that I knew because, at the core, everyone just wants the same things. So, I had just gotten done with doing that tour when I first met Morrisa. I had come back from this eye-opening, incredible road trip that I knew would be the last real thing that I was gonna do before entering adulthood and doing stuff that could actually make me money. Morrisa met me at a very specific point in my life, where I had just been fully immersed in all of this, and it felt like Morrisa had summoned up some kind of connection and throughline with the same kind of folks.
That must have been a wild experience, to go to all these places you hadn’t ever been before, and to do so as a clown.
LEE: At that point, we just loved what we were doing. Not many people know what a clown show looks like, other than maybe Barnum & Bailey. We were doing a very specific type of clowning that is taught at Juilliard and Yale. It’s actually a very important cornerstone of theater. It’s a longstanding tradition that clowns have existed as jesters in the Royal Court. We were very excited about the fact that we were introducing folks to something different. We were just being radical and renegade at that time. It was a very neat experience to do that.
The Unknown Country is now playing in theaters.