Interview: SHAMELESS star Cameron Monaghan on JAMIE MARKS IS DEAD
While on hiatus from playing one of six outrageous yet endearing Gallagher siblings on Showtime’s Shameless, rising star Cameron Monaghan teamed up with The Ruins director Carter Smith to tell a ghost story that is as much about life as it is death.
Based on the 2007 coming-of-age novel One For Sorrow by Christopher Barzak, Jamie Marks Is Dead follows Adam McCormic (Monaghan), a small town boy and track star who forms a strong bond with the ghost of his recently deceased high school classmate, Jamie Marks (Noah Silver), placing him In the middle of an unusual triangle between a dead boy and his friend/romantic interest, Gracie Highsmith (Morgan Saylor).
I got to chat with Monaghan earlier this week to talk about the film, his character, the themes explored in the story and more. Check out the interview below.
The book, which I got a chance to read after seeing the film, is a good resource to understanding the characters. I know that you read it in preparation. Did you also find inspiration from other sources to help create your character?
When you’re building any character you’re taking stuff from not only personal experience, not only everything that you’ve ever seen, but also then trying to find new inspiration as well. I think the most important thing for building a character more than any specific role by anybody else was just having the week of rehearsal before we shot, where I got to know Noah, who plays Jamie and Morgan, who plays Gracie Highsmith. Being able to establish some sort of chemistry and some sort of rhythm with them, and also sitting down and talking with Carter and his thoughts on the character, some of the changes we thought could be made. A lot of the times we found for the characters, it’s kind of breaking away from the dialogue and not being constrained by it, allowing a lot of it to go unsaid is retaining a certain amount of mystery with both the story and the characters by doing so.
Carter Smith studied visual arts when preparing for the aesthetic of the film. He even started a blog titled “All The Dead Boys” when he was deciding what Jamie’s physicality would be. He also gave a CD to Morgan Saylor to prepare for her character. Did he do anything interesting with you to help you?
First of all, we had a lot of meetings. Before I even ever auditioned, it was just a lot of speaking about the film itself and then we were emailing and talking about the book with him [Carter Smith]. It’s funny cause even though he gave it to Morgan, I think it ended up being the soundtrack for the entire filming for everybody. We would always be listening to it in the van, going to the set, at the hotel…I remember “Dead Man’s Bones” was on it. A bunch of stuff — anyways…(laughs) Oh! We always had these florescent, yellow beanies. Carter has an affinity for very bright beanies that he loves to wear. We all got these bright, yellow ones — the colour of like a highlighter and “JMID” across it. That’s one of my prized possessions. I wear that thing whenever I get the chance. I don’t even care that it’s like walking around with a billboard on me.
As opposed to the film, the novel is told from the first person narrative. In a way the lack of narration kind of hinders the film because the internal dialogue isn’t shared with the audience. But at the same time, I also think it benefits it cause it challenges you as an actor to just use your emotions to tell the story. What are your thoughts on that change?
I think that’s pretty much a change that’s present when you’re making an adaptation of any source. Books, a lot of times, are first person perspective, but filmed by a certain nature in the third person storytelling. I think that’s why the movie works is because we don’t get inside into who Jamie is, what Adam is thinking when he’s bonding with him — his curiosity. We see that obviously there’s some sense of empathy that he has with him. There’s doings of friendship and all that, but at the same time we don’t quite get to know why he’s putting so much things in this guy who’s dead and who could very well have some sort of malicious intent or intentions or something beyond that. I think it adds to the mystery of the film, the character that we don’t get inside into it.
Speaking of changes from the novel to the adaptation, a key figure in the novel that didn’t make it was Adam’s father, John. As you know, they don’t really have the best relationship in the book. Do you think his exclusion from the film had any effect on your character?
Yeah, I think that I retained the backstory in the back of my head even though it wasn’t in the film. It was still something that I was kind of colouring his relationship with his mother, with his brother. He has a tougher exterior. At the same time, I think he’s probably driven by this fear of being like his father and that his father was not a very nice guy and he left. I think that’s one of the reasons why Adam pursues this relationship with Jamie is because he doesn’t want to be like his dad. He wants to be there for someone who, you know, a little bit more vulnerable than he is.
Another important character from the novel that didn’t make it to the big screen translation was Adam’s grandmother. Although she was dead in the story, like Jamie, her advice still influenced Adam in his perspective of the world. Most notably the poem “One for Sorrow,” which he often references when trying to comprehend something. Although this wasn’t an element for the film, did you still keep it mind while playing your character?
Well, you know, we actually shot a couple of scenes with Jamie’s mother and didn’t end up making it into the movie. It was another subplot. Even though the scenes were really good and the actress was very good, who was playing her, and there were also some big, freaky moments that they were playing with, like, Jamie’s dad out in the background and stuff. I think that it was something that was losing focus from the main narrative, the main idea. The movie — it ended right before Jamie goes in the tunnel. He says goodbye to his grandmother. It was just losing focus a little bit too much even though it was really good. It was just something that had to go.
One could argue that both the film and book have a homosexual subtext. Besides the strong metaphor of the closet as a sanctuary, I noticed that in the book, Adam and Jamie were more physical together and even kissed. Was the film intentionally more subtle and open to interpretation regarding that?
I think that there’s lots of interpretation that you can read from the film. To me, it’s a metaphor for adolescence, for friendship. I think part of the reason that Jamie and Adam are so close is in many ways Jamie is — is Adam. He’s another kind of part of himself. They kind of mirror each other. Jamie is kind of Adam’s vulnerable side and something that he’s embracing throughout the story. So, I mean, you can read it that way. I’m not sure that Adam has those feelings for Jamie. I think it might be the other way. I think they definitely had sort of a curiosity about him. At the end it’s never going to work because A, it’s because he’s dead and B, because I’m not sure he feels the same way.
The film has so many elements to it. I tried thinking of another film it reminded me of, and the closest thing I got was Let the Right One In because it can’t easily be categorized as just being horror even though it’s often categorized that way. It’s partly a coming-of-age drama, a romance, and thriller. What aspect of the story resonated with you the most? Was it any particular theme?
I didn’t — I didn’t hear what movie you were reminded of.
Oh, sorry. Let The Right One In.
Oh, Let The Right One In. Yeah, I can see that. I like that movie. Um, I mean, I think the aspect to me that really stuck with me is the idea that Adam, while he has this fear, is really driven by curiosity and perhaps even this saviour complex of some sort. You see him throughout the movie, constantly thinking that what he’s doing is right and pushing everybody else away. You know, who are advising him against it, like Gracie. I’m very much attracted to a character that knows what he is doing is probably awful, but because he has this sensitivity or empathy is still doing it anyways even though it might be a bad idea or dangerous for him.
In the book, Christopher Barzak quoted the poet Thomas Lynch, who said: “The facts of death, like the facts of life, are required learning.” As much as the story is about finding hope to live again, I also find that it deals with Adam’s attraction to the world of the dead. Without getting too emo, why do you think that world drew in Adam so much?
(laughs) Being a teenager and you’re not very happy with your life — anything besides what is currently there is probably more attractive, you know. As frightening or as weird or as odd as Jamie’s world might be, we wanna know more about it. There is this kind of magical mystery to it that is kind of hypnotizing. What I tried to play in the movie is that throughout the story Adam starts losing his grip through the world of the living and kind of starts feeling closer to death himself, so I tried to mirror the physicality that Noah was bringing to the part of Jamie. Throughout the story, I wanted him to kind of hold himself in a very similar way, so towards the end, you know, they kind of look like the same person.
Yeah, I think it’s just basically the unknown. No one really experienced death, so that’s why it’s such a fascination. Well, the exchange of words is one of the unique characteristics of Jamie and Adam’s relationship. Although it weakened him personally, it’s the way that Adam keeps Jamie connected to the world of the living. What did you think is the significance of those moments, particularly the use of language as a tool?
Yeah, I thought that was very interesting. It was one of the things that I immediately asked Carter about. I think that words, language, you know, communication is life at its very basis. We need to communicate at the beginning to exist, so when he’s giving his words, he’s kind of giving a bit of his life to Jamie. When you give a word, it’s kind of gone forever. To me, I see it as a metaphor of giving a bit of yourself, sacrificing for someone that you love, that you wanna give a part of yourself.
Since I read the book after seeing the film, I was surprised by the differences. But I still got a sense of hope after finishing each one. What experience do you want the audience to take away from seeing this film?
I think that ultimately it is a hopeful movie. We don’t know what’s going to happen to Jamie. We don’t know how Adam is going to come out of it on other side. Hopefully, the scariness and the drama and everything that people ultimately come out of the movie hopeful and appreciative of life.
Jamie Marks Is Dead is now available on VOD/digital platforms and in limited theatrical release. Watch the trailer below.