It was a time of sexual repression, red baiting and stifling conformity. An era that Lerman’s Marcus Messner, the brainy son of a Kosher butcher, finds himself uniquely unsuited for after he earns a scholarship to a mid-Western college. There Messner, an atheist, clashes with a priggish college dean (Tracy Letts), taking particular umbrage with a school rule that mandates students must attend chapel.
It’s a meaty part for Lerman, who has been off screens since getting tank duty with Brad Pitt in “Fury.” The actor best known for his work in the “Percy Jackson” franchise, dove into books about the time period, read popular theorists from the day and even learned to butcher meat, all so he could bring Messner to life.
“Indignation,” an adaptation of Philip Roth’s acclaimed novel of the same name, debuts at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Variety spoke with Lerman about his own religious views, his evolution as an actor and his decision to trade college for film sets.
Are you looking forward to the film’s premiere at Sundance?
I’m happy. I’m in a tough position, because I hate to see movies that I’m a part of in theaters full of people. So I’m not sure I’m going to watch it with everyone at Sundance. I prefer a more private environment. It depends on the material and the character that I’m playing, and what I was going through emotionally at the time, but some things are just hard to revisit when there is an audience around. It’s such a personal experience watching yourself going through moments of vulnerability.
You took a year off between projects. What prompted the break?
After “Fury” I was worn out. It just drained me, and I was seeking inspiration. As an actor, I need to care about the movies I make. I want to respect the material. I need to be passionate about the project and I can’t force passion. I think the best way to find inspiration is to travel, so that’s what I did.
What was it about “Indignation” that spoke to you?
There aren’t a lot of great characters out there for young people. I was trying to find something different and complex and challenging. I read the script and thought, “How the hell am I going to do this?” Marcus is so much smarter than me. There was one scene, this clash of ideals between Marcus and the dean of his college, that was so thought provoking and interesting that I went, “I have to do this film.” It was such a great experience to educate myself about all the different things that he is interested in. At the same time, he’s such a passionate young man who is battling himself to repress his desires and opinions in order to stay safe and not get drafted.
What kind of research did you do?
I read everything Marcus would have. I read Bertrand Russell and all the other scholars and thinkers he would have been reading at the time. I learned about being a butcher. I found out how to chop up meat and carve up certain portions of a cow and how to live that life.
I did a lot of research into the era. Just diving into that time period in the 1950s, which was a time I didn’t know much about.
Marcus is an avowed atheist. It’s a position he feels passionately about at a time when those views were costly. What are your own religious beliefs?
I share very similar views to Marcus. I come from a Jewish family, as well. I definitely identify myself as being Jewish, and I’m proud of my background. But I have the same questions as Marcus has in his mind about life and religion. I’m questioning — I question things and I have no answers.
This film is set on a college campus. You applied to college, but decided not to go. Do you regret that decision?
No, I don’t regret it. I received a great education outside of a formal one. I applied to calm my family down. I never really considered going to college. I always wanted to be a filmmaker, and I felt that the best way to learn about film was to continue acting and drawing on the knowledge of the people I was collaborating with. I got to have a more hands on form of education. A lot of my friends ended up in film school, so I got to have the best of both worlds. In between filming I would go and visit them on campus. I’d spend time and see what they were learning and read the textbooks they had.
You’ve been acting since you were a young child. When did you start to really take the craft of acting seriously?
It was around 2004. It was after seeing films that came out that year like “The Life Aquatic” and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” They made me fall in love with movies. And that got me interested in pursuing working with actors that inspired me and making sure I got the chance to work with them and pick their brain, so I could develop my own method of of working and learn from my failures. Technically I’ve been doing this for awhile, but in a weird way I feel like I’m just now getting to a place where I’m comfortable fully exploring a character or a world.
Do you want to direct?
I definitely do when there’s something that I’m passionate about, but I’m not rushing into it.
Did you meet with Philip Roth before shooting? Has he seen the film?
I did not, it would have been nice to meet him, but I didn’t pursue it. I hope he wants to see the film and that he likes what we did with his book.