Interview: Jason Butler Harner Discusses The Big Bend, Apple TV+'s Sugar, and His Love for the Stage

The Big Bend is playing in select theaters this month.

By: May. 21, 2024
Interview: Jason Butler Harner Discusses The Big Bend, Apple TV+'s Sugar, and His Love for the Stage
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Jason Butler Harner is all over our screens these days.

In addition to his significant theatre background, Harner has been seen in numerous television shows including The Walking Dead, The Handmaid's Tale, and a memorable turn as the villainous character of Roy Petty in Ozark. 

Now, he is appearing in a newly released independent film called The Big Bend. Filmed in rural Texas, the movie follows two couples who attempt to reconnect in the midst of undisclosed struggles that slowly begin to rise to the surface.

Harner also appears in Sugar, the Apple TV+ series starring Colin Farrell as the cinema-loving detective who is not quite who he appears to be.

BroadwayWorld sat down with Harner to talk about his latest film, Sugar's major twist, and his eagerness to return to the stage.

Spoiler Warning for The Big Bend and Sugar

I know this project has had a long journey getting to the screen. I’d love to hear a bit about that journey and how you first got involved.

I was really lucky that Brett Wagner, the writer-director, asked me to do it. I've learned that I was the first choice, which the casting director said never happens. It was nice that I was asked first and I really responded to the script. I thought it was nuanced and special and curious. I also had never been to that part of the world, so I was intrigued. They started to build the cast and we ended up with Virginia Kull, who I had met in New York. She had seen me play Hamlet at Dallas Theater Center and had stopped me in the street. When her name came up, I thought that was really exciting. And then I met David Sullivan and Erica Ash beforehand, and all the kids were incredible and funny. The two daughters are actually Brett's daughters and then the other ones are Grae and Gavin Matthews. It was ballsy because it was a very tough shoot in the summer of the Texas desert in 120-something degrees.

Was it filmed during Covid?

No, it was right before Covid and then they used Covid to edit the film. It was interesting because they couldn’t edit together because of the pandemic. Brett teaches at SCAD and the editor who did a terrific job is in New York, so they did it on Zoom. He said that it was a testament to how in sync they were, that there were so many things that they both responded to. Also in a film like this, I think it was 24 or 23 days and there's one or two takes, max. You're dealing with the elements and kids and a bare-bones crew who are all doing their best job to get things accomplished efficiently. It's cinematically so beautiful. What our DP,  Paul Atkins was able to do is very special.

While I was watching it on my computer, I was thinking about how great it would look on a big screen.

It really does. Very much like theater, to experience a film or anything communally changes the whole impact of it, especially because you're not going to look at your phone. You're going to make this commitment to sit there and watch the whole thing. You can give it your focus. And then just being a community, not realizing that you all are experiencing something together and the impact of that. I know we always say to see it in a theater makes a difference. It does. 

But I will say, germane to this movie, you're seeing this incredible landscape of Texas and an area that we don't see often. Paul was able to really capture it in a way that you understand the vastness of it and the distance from real civilization. 

You mentioned this was the first time you'd been to that area of the country. How does filming on location differ from something like a theater space?

One of the things that I always love about the theater is that sense of community. The sense of a group focused on building something together and then sharing it with an audience. On a distant location, and especially on a low-budget film, you are a tight community tackling a huge task, very much like a play. 

I have had the great fortune of standing alone in a spotlight on huge stages. When I did The Invention of Love American premiere in San Francisco, there's a moment alone that Housman has. And I will never forget during The Coast of Utopia, at the Beaumont, having a moment alone center stage. It’s a very unique thing. And then, in The Big Bend, that scene where I'm standing on the cliff with a few crew members far away, and the camera operator, Paul. There's something special that can happen.

The difference on a film set far away is that you are spending a lot more time with each other off-screen. When I was at grad school at NYU, I would go to that Barnes and Noble on Union Square that’s gone now. Emma Thompson had written a book about her experience filming Sense and Sensibility, and I would go and read a chapter at a time. The idea of being in the English countryside with a bunch of great actors doing this work all day is, for me, the definition of heaven. But the English countryside is a little bit different than the summer 122-degree weather every day. 

It's a great story and an experience I never would've had if I wasn't offered it. I wouldn't trade it for anything. But the hail and the rain, scorpions in the bed, the daughter passing out from heat exhaustion in my arms. Those are real events that happened.

In the movie, your character has a private struggle that we don't, as an audience, know fully about until later on. How did this aspect of your character influence your physicality and demeanor of the character?

I tend to be a contemplative person, which I think is part of the reason that Brett cast me. He saw Ozark and, as tormented as Roy Petty was, there was a deal of contemplation and struggle to him. I think it's something that I'm pretty gifted at if I dare say that, in terms of allowing an audience in and not being afraid to live in the fullness of it.

The difference this time was that I had Virginia Kull to share the secret that Corey is not going to be long in this world. The secret that I certainly have is what my intentions are to try to save my family when I can't be here, and that struggle. 

One thing I love about the film and Brett's direction was letting the audience slowly discover that [struggle]. Not making it so clear in the beginning, but trusting the audience to take little pieces of information and put them together. It’s something that people have really responded to. I think maybe because in mainstream movies, they tend to make sure you know what it is from the jump and it just limits the nuance of the storytelling. To live in that is challenging and beautiful, and I think I'm only particularly capable of doing it because I have done it on stage in plays like The Glass Menagerie and Long Days' Journey into Night. I have lived in those long plays with an audience. It’s a muscle that's not hard to flex, and it's a beautiful place to access. [But] I don't want to live in it forever.

Interview: Jason Butler Harner Discusses The Big Bend, Apple TV+'s Sugar, and His Love for the Stage

You play the character of Henry in the Apple TV+ series Sugar, which just concluded its first season. He’s contemplative as well, and again, there’s a lot about your character that isn’t revealed upfront. 

That was a very special acting moment in time. Colin [Farrell] and I genuinely had a synergy from the moment we met. When I acted in those first scenes in Episode 3, I recognized that I hadn't experienced that kind of mutual energy acting in a while onscreen. It reminded me of when I do things on stage, in a certain way. 

In the show, I knew what the trajectory was going to be, even though there was a lot of rewriting in process. They [the otherworldly characters] are all taking notes in those little black books, but Henry is an anthropologist, so he's really taking notes. He's fascinated with human nature and the complexity they're in, and he goes too far. And boy, I hope the second season gets to happen.

All of those things- the noir and the detective work and then the reveal that they're from another world and that they're trying to understand this world to keep it from happening in theirs- are so juicy.

It crosses genres, which I love. I think that's what makes it effective.

Completely. And so does The Big Bend, actually. Brett has made this very unique tone, which is inspired by David Lynch and Wim Wenders.

I feel like it's a particular win when you can maintain an audience and have a multi-genre like Sugar, like The Big Bend. I think sometimes in cinema, and especially with big budget things, you have to fight very hard to not have the comfortable thing for all the reasons.

You're doing all these TV and movie projects. Do you have plans to be back on stage anytime soon? 

I'm dying to. There's been some discussions. It's hard only because I really want to, I'm better for it. It's what gives me joy in a different way. I was supposed to do a play in the spring, but unfortunately, I got the Menendez Brothers Monster series, and I needed to do that. But I'm looking for a role. The last thing I did was so wonderful with Janet McTeer. Getting to be in love and fighting with her every night and being at the Roundabout. The other challenge is if I get to do something, it has to be a good workout. 

I have very close friends who are doing or did incredible work on Broadway this season and are being recognized rightfully so for that work. I've gone every time and been so happy for them. William Jackson Harper, Sarah Paulson, Amy Ryan: I just watch them and think, God, I need to be living in this moment. I'm hungry [but] I don't have anything on the books yet.

The Big Bend is opening in select theaters this month. The film is currently playing through Thursday, May 22 at the Laemmle Royal Theatre in Los Angeles. All episodes of Sugar are available on Apple TV+.

Watch a trailer of The Big Bend below:

Photo Credit: Eammon Films, Bruce Glikas