Actor researches 1950s America for Roth character

July 27, 2016

At 24, Logan Lerman has revealed himself to be one of the most promising actors of his generation.  Best known for his turns as Poseidon’s son in the Percy Jackson films and as an awkward teenager in 2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” Lerman is about to make an even bigger splash in a very different kind of coming-of-age story: James Schamus’ “Indignation,” based on the 2008 Philip Roth novel about a Jewish atheist chafing against religious and sexual mores at his conservative college in Ohio during the Korean War.

Lerman signed on to the film late last year after taking some time off from acting. He had felt drained after completing the grueling shoot for 2014’s “Fury,” in which he played an American soldier fighting the Nazis during the final days of World War II. “It was an exhausting project,” Lerman said in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles. “I needed to find some new inspiration.”

The actor discovered that spark when his representatives sent him the “Indignation” script about eight months ago. “I read it right away, and I just had a visceral reaction,” he said. He immediately hoped to portray the main character, Marcus Messner, a college freshman who eventually becomes undone by the repressive doctrines of the early 1950s.

Lerman was especially riveted by a 15-minute scene between Marcus and his iron-fisted college dean, which devolves into a virulent philosophical and theological debate with anti-Semitic undertones.

The dean, played in the film by Tracy Letts, wants to know why Marcus did not indicate on his college application that his father was a kosher butcher. He further asks why the freshman didn’t describe himself as Jewish on his admissions form. (That didn’t prevent the school from assigning him to room with two of the few other Jews on campus, however.)

Marcus tartly replies that he doesn’t practice any one religion over another, that he eschews believing in God, and that “prayer to me is preposterous.” He further objects to the school’s mandatory attendance at Christian chapel services and declares his affinity for Bertrand Russell’s controversial essay “Why I Am Not a Christian.”

“Tolerance appears to be something of a problem for you,” the dean retorts at one point in the conversation.  

At the end of the rancorous conversation, Marcus erupts with indignation — figuratively and, also, almost literally — as he collapses on the office floor with what turns out to be a burst appendix.

“It’s the most important scene in the movie,” Lerman said. “These characters are just at war. It’s two conflicting world views; a battle of the minds.”

And the stakes are potentially those of life and death. Should Marcus be expelled, he would be sent to fight in the Korean War, which had already claimed the lives of a number of young Jewish men back home in his native Newark, N.J.

The day after Lerman finished reading the script, he met with Schamus and soon landed the job. Reading “Indignation” “was that rare moment when you go, ‘This is it,’ ” he said. “But maybe 15 minutes later my heart was just flooded with stress and anxiety — knowing I was going to have to memorize, understand and fully realize the material.”

Copious research on the time period helped the young actor. Lerman studied Roth’s novel, memorized the Russell essay, perused books on the 1950s and even worked for a time in a kosher butcher shop to prepare for Marcus’ scenes in his father’s meat store.

The actor came to perceive his character not as arrogant, but as “an independent thinker and opinionated young man with extreme world views that he has to [stifle] in order to avoid conflict.  And so he’s like a powder keg ready to explode.”

Lerman, who was raised in a traditional Jewish household in Beverly Hills and became bar mitzvah at Temple Beth Am, identifies in some ways with his character’s religious point of view. “I’m proud to be Jewish,” he said, adding that his bar mitzvah was a serious affair — a true rite of passage — without the requisite fancy party preferred by some families in Los Angeles. “I love the traditions and the culture that has been passed down from generation to generation. But, that said, I am an atheist and I don’t belong to a temple.”

Lerman’s paternal grandfather, Max, was born to a Polish family in Berlin that fled the Holocaust to Shanghai. His paternal grandmother was born in Mexico City, the daughter of Russian Jews.

Since much of Lerman’s family is in the medical supplies business, he was a bit of an anomaly when he decided to pursue acting as a child. At 7, he appeared as one of Mel Gibson’s sons in “The Patriot”; when asked if he was surprised by Gibson’s anti-Semitic comments some years later, Lerman said, “Wasn’t everyone?” Even so, Gibson was generous to the young actor and cast him in a second film, “What Women Want,” which helped Lerman to snag additional acting work.

His titular role in “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief” placed him even farther along on the Hollywood map. Lerman went on to play Noah’s son Ham in Darren Aronofsky’s 2014 biblical epic, “Noah.” Of viewers who denounced the film because it did not adhere strictly to Scripture, Lerman said, “They don’t have to like it.” The actor added that he was drawn to the movie, in part, because of its reinterpretation of Noah as an environmental activist.

One of Lerman’s challenges in preparing for “Indignation” was coming to understand his character’s rather prim view of sex. Otherwise a free-thinker, Marcus is flummoxed when his lovely but emotionally damaged love interest, Olivia (Sarah Gadon), makes aggressive sexual advances on their very first date. “Being my age in the times we’re living in, I couldn’t really understand that very well,” the actor said. “But I came to realize that Marcus couldn’t quite escape all the socially acceptable values of the time.”

Olivia could be interpreted as another version of Roth’s blond, non-Jewish goddess characters lusted after by Jewish men. But Lerman doesn’t see her that way.

“Marcus is attracted to Olivia because she’s unlike anyone he’s ever known back home,” the actor said. “She’s alluring because she’s an anomaly, a mystery. Marcus doesn’t understand her, and so he wants to get to know her. And ultimately that leads to [tragedy].”

“Indignation” opens on July 29 in Los Angeles.

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