Skyler Gisondo (Vacation, The Amazing Spider-Man) gets his first shot as a leading man with Hard Sell, a coming of age story about Hardy, a high school senior who’s trying to take care of his mentally unstable mother (Kristin Chenoweth) and raise a bit of money to pay for the family dog’s impending medical bills. When a beautiful woman named Bo (Katrina Bowden) walks into Hardy’s life claiming to be an ex-stripper, the pair hatch a mutually beneficial plan to alleviate their problems.
Though the idea of Bo having Hardy’s fellow classmates pay for the privilege of her company may seem salacious, writer/director Sean Nalaboff didn’t have a sex comedy in mind. Rather, the film, along with having a healthy share of humor, is an evocative look at a young man’s struggles and eventual maturation through a very tough time.
During our conversation with Gisondo, he talked about why Hard Sell has been such a pivotal experience in his personal and creative life, and he also discussed his collaboration with a talented ensemble (including Kristin Chenoweth and up and coming actress Hannah Marks) and his bond with Nalaboff.
Hardy’s a very complex character and usually leads in a coming of age story are reactive characters, with everyone else around them spurring on most of the action. That’s not the case with Hard Sell.
That’s funny you say that, I was just talking to my buddy the other day about how the lead protagonists are kind of usually introspective and more reactionary than anything else. It’s true, and that’s what attracted me to the project. Especially at that age – I was 17 at the time and Hardy’s 17. This coming of age story that has so much weight to it. That’s what made me fall in love with the project.
But yeah, Hardy’s very complex and he has a lot on his plate. His mom, played by Kristin Chenoweth, who is absolutely amazing, is mentally unwell and his dog gets sick and he has to find a way to raise money for his dog. He’s just got a lot going on and it’s forced him to confront these problems and he’s grown a lot. He’s in a very different place than most people at that age. He’s wise beyond his years.
Did Hardy’s school situation parallel your own educational background?
I started acting when I was six years old. I was home schooled so I had the flexibility to work. I was always working with adults. I went to a private school for a while that was not dissimilar from the private school Hardy found himself at. But I had also been living in (an environment) that was kind of an adult world. So I understood the depth (behind Hard Sell).
But it’s also about a boy who loves his dog! I’m looking at her now and she’s the love of my life so I could connect to that very strongly. (The script) was so well written, and because Sean’s younger – he was 26, I think, when he did it, and he was much younger when he started writing it. He could still strongly relate to that time in adolescence.
Did you grow up as an actor while making Hard Sell? Watching this film, I’d wonder how previous actors grew from taking on lead characters early in their careers with coming of age stories (for example, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate).
Really interesting comparison. Absolutely. The Graduate’s one of my favorite films. I did do a lot of growing up because that wasn’t only the first time I got a script with this (type of role) but it was the first time I read the script where I had the opportunity at such a young age to showcase all of that. Usually things you do at that age can be a little bit one-dimensional – and Hardy was going through everything.
So I grew up a ton and even though we filmed for 19 days it’s funny how – it’s been over 2 years now since we shot the film and I have more memories and life experiences from those 19 days than I had the following six or eight months.
I grew so much, and that’s from working with Sean – he has such a way with actors. Getting to work with Kristin Chenoweth who is such a “powerhouse of talent” and she is so sweet. It’s these unspoken things like watching how (she reached) a certain level of emotionality in a scene and really connecting with her. Some of the heaviest scenes are with Kristin in our home and I learned so much from working with her.
Also working with Hannah Marks who is so talented, she plays my love interest in the film and she’s kind of an older girl. So yeah, I was forced to . . . at times I thought, ‘how do I link this’ or ‘how do I get into this?’ Sometimes you just don’t have a way in, but you have to really put yourself in that character’s shoes and place yourself in that moment and let things happen naturally. By doing that, I was forced to learn a lot. I came away, at that point, – that was the thing I was most proud of as an actor. I’ve seen the final cut, but I’m excited to see it with a room full of people to see how they react.
It’s so weird to see a movie and be in so much of it. That was the first time that had been the case. I was like ‘man I’m going to get tired of my own face, this is going to suck.’ When you’re in only three or four scenes in a film, you’re not worried about when you are going in or when you are going out. But when you’re in most scenes in a movie, you have a huge arc. And it’s a coming of age story where Hardy starts in one place and ends up in a different place, and I had to bring that. I walked away a better actor and person (from working on the film).
Can you talk a bit more about working with Hannah Marks? I loved her in Southbound and she’s simply a charismatic and talented actress. It’s hard to put a finger on it, but she’s got a long career ahead of her.
She’s so talented and she’s a good friend of mine. She just locked down a huge BBC series – she’s going to be doing big things. Those were some of my favorite scenes in the film – I liked all these scenes in the movie because it was so well written – but I think we only have four scenes together. Because it seems the biggest relationships in the movie are with my mom or with Bo (Katrina Bowden) but the last scene in the movie is between me and Hannah and it’s such a nice way to wrap things up. It’s so touching.
— hannah marks (@hannahmarks) May 15, 2016
Man, I don’t know either, some people are just magnetic and during a scene your eyes are just drawn to her. I felt like we found a chemistry. She was the only young person that Hardy has a real relationship with. She’s the only person he connects (with) and talks to and they had to be bringing equal weight to the table to be interested in each other.
After filming, if we were having a late night, Hannah and I would just spend hours messing around, hanging out, doing whatever in between takes. We ended up growing very close as filming went on and by the last scene of the movie, which we shot towards the end of the film, it just helped inform the roles. She is so good and those are some of my favorite scenes in the film and I felt we bounced off each other really nicely in those scenes.
***Note: One of my favorite moments in Hard Sell comes during a dance sequence with Gisondo and Marks. Below is the song that plays during the scene:
Were you a big movie or TV buff as a kid and is that a reason why, I’m assuming, acting will continue to be a big part of your life?
I was born in Florida and we moved out to California when I was 6. From the time I was born, my parents would tell me that I needed to be the center of attention and that I loved storytelling. I would watch the same movie over and over. I would watch West Side Story four times a day and I’d memorize the whole script. My uncle showed me Happy Gilmore which my mom was super pissed about! I love to make people laugh and to engage people and that’s something as I got older it started to manifest itself in film and visual storytelling which I think is the best way to tell a story.
Now I’m just fortunate to have found what I love to do at six and I love to do it even more now. At the end of the day it all comes back to having an impact on people and movies are very powerful. Whether it’s a comedy and people can go into a theater and with whatever is going on outside then can laugh for 90 minutes or two hours. Or with a movie like Hard Sell you can walk away with an enlightened (perspective) on a certain world view or maybe they’re a more empathetic person from having seen the film.
I’m going to film school now part-time to balance work and I would love to direct. I do love to write, I’ve never written anything good, but this is something I want to do for the rest of my life. I love it and that’s why Hard Sell was so awesome to work on because it’s the first time I got to play a role like that. It was the first time I got to work with a young director who understood me so well. Sean has become a mentor to me in terms of just storytelling, writing and directing. We talk all the time and (he’s) one of my best friends. The whole experience as far as developing myself as a person and as a storyteller was invaluable.
Can you talk about Class Rank, and are you working again with Kristin?
I’m glad you brought it up. I had never read a role like that. It’s a very different kid and it has a Rushmore vibe to it, a Wes Anderson (type) tone. I thought it would be an opportunity to do something that was different from anything I had done to that point. Eric Stoltz, who is such a capable director and such a talented guy, he directed it and he’s amazing. A week into filming I found out that Kristin was going to play the mother of my love interest who’s played by Olivia Holt. I was so excited and so unreal. It was like not a moment had passed since Hard Sell. We had dinner together almost every night we weren’t filming. She’s the sweetest and kindest person, it was awesome working with her. I’m really happy with how that film turned out. That was the second time in my life where i was kind of the leading man.
Bernard is not the conventional leading man. He’s very eccentric and very strange. But Hard Sell helped me prepare for that in so many ways. I have a little bit more understanding on what I have to do now to prepare myself and how to start in one place and end in another place. I’m really happy how Class Rank turned out as well and I hope it gets some exposure and people get to see it.
Skyler thank you so much for your time and good luck with Hard Sell.
I appreciate that. Good talking with you and take it easy.