“Palm Trees and Power Lines,” an unnerving and deeply disturbing look at an older man who grooms a bored teenager, asks challenging questions about consent and predation.
As Tom, Jonathan Tucker, a veteran scene-stealer in “Kingdom” and “Westworld,” is a revelation, painting a picture of pure evil that is nonetheless charming and seductive. He appears on the scene as Lea (newcomer Lily McInerny) is feeling bored and disconnected from her single mother and friends and prays on that loneliness and dissatisfaction for sinister ends. “Palm Trees and Power Lines” marks co-writer and director Jamie Dack’s feature film debut and earned rave reviews when it debuted at this year’s Sundance with some critics praising it as one of the best films of the festival. Tucker is thrilled with the reception, but admitted to Variety that watching the finished film was one of the most challenging experiences of his professional life.
Why did you want to make “Palm Trees and Power Lines”?
Over the past 30 years of working in the entertainment business, I’ve sort of honed my intuition. Oftentimes we put all this dissonance between our gut and the choices that we make and we don’t trust that voice in our head that is telling us what’s the right way to go. I knew from the moment that I started talking to Jamie that she was a visionary director. She understood the process of filmmaking and had a deep understanding of actors. She is a very clear-headed artist. When the universe is telling you something, you need to listen.
Did you research grooming?
Absolutely, but most of it was there in the script. There’s lots of grooming in the world that’s not sexual. There’s lots of gaslighting in life and business — much of it nefarious, some of it tactical. There are power struggles that we see all around us. Ultimately, this wasn’t a deep research project. It was a matter of trying to score the character over the three acts, the way one would in music. The notes were all on the page.
Tom remains preternaturally calm throughout the film. He never really erupts, although there’s a danger to him. Was that important to your characterization?
You can’t scare the deer. I thought a lot about foxes. They can so be cute and agile, they bounce as they walk, there’s a gracefulness with that thick tail, their eyes are similar to a dog, and yet they can be ferocious. They don’t always pose an immediate threat, and that’s how they’ve been so successful as a hunter. That’s how they worm their way into a henhouse.
He’s also charming.
Evil, like Old Testament evil, comes with grace and charm and humor. You don’t see it coming. It can be so good at hiding itself behind a smile.
Lily McInerny is stunning in this film, and I believe it’s her first major role. What was she like to work with?
She just owns this movie and there are going to be so many offers and opportunities coming her way. We shot this at the height of #MeToo, and I was really scared. The content of the film, what we had to do as actors, I was petrified. Not because I’m worried about my own behavior in any way shape or form. As much as you choreograph things and have conversations and have an intimacy coordinator establishing boundaries, you’re still playing with fire. I was open about those concerns and kind of emotional about my profound fear. On our first day, Lily reached over right as the camera started rolling and wrapped one of her fingers around my finger. Jamie called action and I knew that Lily was going to be my support system to get over this challenge. That felt so beautiful because this was her first scene in front of a camera. She’s 22 years old, and I’ve put in 29 years on the Screen Actors Guild pension plan. When you open up your heart the world presents magical things.
Intimacy coordinators are a relatively new thing on sets. What do you think of the work they do?
I’ve had so many intimate scenes in my career, and I’ve always gone above and beyond what was ever required. When intimacy coordinators first came around I thought this was totally silly. I have a whole protocol. I ask to speak to the actor or actress, and I explain what the scene is and we have a conversation and they tell me if there are parts of their body they don’t want touched. I want to make them feel confident and safe. I check in with wardrobe to make sure that we have the right garments and I make sure that the assistant director is clearing the set and all the eye-lines. This was how I approached it. Then I realized this is what I do, but why is that my responsibility on a set? And also I’m only one actor, so who is to say everyone is doing the same thing I am? So I went from thinking this was a gesture to the woke zeitgeist to thinking that it was completely insane that there hasn’t always been a designated advocate to make sure that actors feel safe performing these vulnerable moments.
What was your reaction to the finished film?
I was more upset having watched this movie than anything I’ve ever done. I just deplore this man and it broke my heart for a week or so after I watched it. Jamie kept asking if I was mad at her, because I couldn’t talk to anyone. It’s such an upsetting story and to see myself on screen being part of this evil was the most challenging viewing experience I’ve ever had.