When Brady Corbet was a kid, he got paid in books. That is, from seven to 12, he worked in a Colorado bookstore, snowboarded like most mountain kids, and watched French films recommended by his Francophile mother. Perhaps what was gleaned from a childhood spent with his nose in books and in front of cinematic classics informed Corbet’s unconventional film career, full of smart, complicated films.
The scruffy cinephile broke out as a Sundance stud in 2003 as the older brother to Evan Rachel Wood’s wayward youth in Thirteen, which led to roles in Gregg Araki’s Mysterious Skin with Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, as Michael Pitt’s homicidal sidekick.
As evidenced by his decidedly indie oeuvre, it’s not surprising when Corbet says he’s very particular about the directors he chooses to work with. “I recognize my limitations as an actor,” he says. “I really try to consider the filmmaker. There’s no ticking clock.”
More recently, Corbet played a young adman named Tim, bashfully trying to get Kirsten Dunst’s character to cough up a campaign tagline on her wedding night in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. They end up screwing on a golf course.
“Lars is truly the greatest,” he says, going on to talk about the director’s Falkneresque tendency to write red story maps on walls. Corbet seems more interested in discussing film craft than his individual roles.
He also plays a young cult member in the Catskills in Martha Marcy May Marlene. In the role, a bleary-eyed Corbet helps to break in cult newcomer Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen). The film, made by Borderline, a film collective in New York, contains a dread-inducing narrative that, like von Trier’s Melancholia, peers into the psyche of a troubled female protagonist.
Corbet is comfortable with female presence. He maintains a close relationship with his mother, and he’s constantly analyzing the tropes of gender roles in film and otherwise. “I find it kind of soul searching to question how do fetishes develop?” he says. “Why is it that all pornography is degrading?”
In his upcoming neo-noir thriller Simon Killer, he and director Antonio Campos (producer of Martha Marcy May Marlene) share a story credit on the film, which was made in Paris without a physical script. “It is the crowning achievement of my career,” says Corbet. “We’ll see if anyone else feels that way. It’s a tricky thing to make a movie with a protagonist that is so deplorable.”
The explicit and emotionally violent film screened at this year’s Sundance. In the film, Corbet’s character forms a manipulative relationship with a Senegalese prostitute in Paris. “I was interested in making a movie about men who hate women and why,” he says. “I find that incredibly present, everywhere. I’m curious how that’s shaped modern male sexuality, especially of this generation, where you can watch cum shots on your iPhone.”
And while all these themes seem heavy with sexual and psychological darkness, Corbet is about as dark as a floodlight. In fact, the interview ends at a West Village party, where he chats about swimming and ceviche.
Perhaps it has something to do with his well-read upbringing, or maybe it’s simply experience with so many top-shelf directors, but the blue-eyed, milk-and-honey-faced 23-year-old spouts opinions in a way that’s so raw, semblances of certainty pale next to sincerity.
“I don’t want to see movies the way people see life,” he says. “I want the camera to be objective, to be God’s point-of-view. I want things to be truly grand.”
In the end, Corbet is a lover of cinema, of independent, thought-provoking films. Which means you won’t see him in much mindless summer fodder if he has his way. “There is a certain brand of cinema that is almost a crime against humanity,” he says. “I make movies with my friends, and I try to make movies with artists. The movies I’m interested in doing are not exactly blockbusters.”
Corbet's got a grin on his face, and, as serious as he gets about his work, he comes across more as a goofy New Yorker about to grab another beer. “I’m not nearly as pretentious as I sound half the time. I have an opinion about this, because if I don’t have an opinion, what am I doing? But you know, I’m a high school dropout, so I have big gaping holes,” he teases.
The company around us buzzes. A longtime friend and filmmaker leans over the hubbub and whispers, “He’s great.” It’s a sturdy, if not premature, appraisal. The way it’s going, though, that friend might be onto something.