With new film role, Joel Thomas Hynes extends his run of intricate, oddball characters
Body & Bones was filmed in Witless Bay and St. John's
Actor Joel Thomas Hynes has skirted cliché and made a career out of playing complex, intricate men, and his latest film — the Newfoundland-shot Body & Bones — showcases him in a role that feels like a custom fit.
Hynes, also an award-winning novelist, screenwriter and musician, has never been afraid to show a dark side. His latest project is no different.
"It gave me an opportunity to explore my personal mythology, and the role almost seemed tailored around a version of my life," Hynes said in an interview.
In the film — the directorial debut of fellow Newfoundlander Melanie Oates, which screened earlier this month at the FIN Atlantic International Film Festival in Halifax — Hynes plays Danny, a drifter and musician who arrives home to his small town on the Rock after two decades spent in obscurity far away.
A failure, he comes to see his mother and meets Tess, an 18-year-old high schooler grappling with the death of her mother. As the two embark on a friendship — and things escalate — their coupling causes untenable consequences.
"Danny is a rocker, and he's left his small town and headed to the big city. He tried to make a go, and he's come back home not having a great reputation," said Hynes. "Danny's story isn't mine, but it was up until my mid-20s. There's a grey zone about whether this character is a good guy or bad guy, and I liked that."
Hynes is used to the anti-hero role, and his CBC show Little Dog cast him as a sympathetic — albeit problematic — boxer who seeks redemption five years after quitting a match.
"These sorts of things and characters really attract me," said Hynes, who found new challenges in Body & Bones.
"I knew the character could be malleable, and I'd have a lot of freedom. You often get to play around more with a low-budget feature."
Oates met Hynes years ago, when she went to a book signing. The two hit it off, and Hynes always hoped they'd work together. "I was always supportive of her work, and she was an up-and-coming writer to watch," he said.
I knew the character could be malleable, and I'd have a lot of freedom.- Joel Thomas Hynes
"We would always see each other, as we were both part of the arts scene in Newfoundland. We stayed close and became friends beyond the industry. I always have had nothing but respect for her."
Oates was happy to have Hynes on board, as the two are, respectively, from Fermeuse and Calvert, two towns close to each other on the Avalon Peninsula's Southern Shore, south of St. John's.
"I've been a fan since his first novel, Down To The Dirt, since I was 14. I had to sneak and read it because it contained things kids shouldn't read," she said with a laugh.
"Knowing we were from the same place showed me you could make a living and do great things if you were from here. He inspired me, and opened my eyes to the possibilities."
Half of the shoot, she said, was in Witless Bay, and the other half was in downtown St. John's.
A complex relationship
Though Hynes wasn't her specific pick to play Danny, she says his audition in Toronto made him a perfect fit.
"I had a great advantage on set, having a previous relationship with him. We talked before the shoot, went through script, and he's an amazing writer," she said. "I wanted to take advantage of any notes he had."
"He was on my side and wanted me to succeed, and did everything on-screen to make that happen. He's so playful and social on set, and has such great ideas."
In an era where #MeToo, Time's Up and movements for pay equity and gender parity cast a large shadow on conversations around the film industry, Oates was conscientious while making Body & Bones.
Knowing we were from the same place showed me you could make a living and do great things if you were from here.- Melanie Oates
"I had to think about that, and I know it had an impact on the script when I was writing the story. It pushed me to go further into the subtleties of this relationship that develops between an older man and a young woman. Tess and Danny have a complex relationship, and there was a lot of thought around the subtleties of consent," said Oates.
"In the film, Tess [played by actress Kelly Van Der Burg] is really infatuated, but we had to ensure we were not perpetuating or advocating for problematic relationships like this. However, as artists, we have to reflect the truth, talk, unpack and explore this. It's the only way to validate the experience. In life, all our emotions can't always be politically correct."
Hynes is no stranger to the sensitive lens with which moviegoers consume and process content in 2019.
"I'm doing a movie in P.E.I. right now that's in defiance of modern convention. It's Fargo-esque, and it's a simple crime story about a bag of money and the bad men who come looking for it. It's from Adam Perry, based on his short A Blessing From The Sea, and there's a whole lot of blood," Hynes said.
Hynes himself finds some of the films he used to love are a bit too much for him these days.
"I recently rewatched Reservoir Dogs, and that scene where Michael Madsen is dancing around, torturing that guard, with Stuck In The Middle With You playing in the background … [and] seeing it years later, I got emotional and it turned me off," he said.
"I wonder why it appealed more to my younger, desensitized self, but I find anything gratuitous these days is difficult for me. Even when I'm asked to take my shirt off on screen, I need to be given a really good reason. I'm hyper-aware of things like that now."
Hynes recently won the Best Atlantic Actor Award at FIN, an honour that his young son, Percy Hynes White, had won in 2014 for Cast No Shadow, a film his father penned.
"It was a fantastic honour. I remember coveting that award in my early days. I won for best screenwriter for Cast No Shadow the same year my son won the award I just got for Body & Bones," he said.
"I feel like I celebrated through his win already, so it feels kind of funny. But it was a great honour."
Holding on to the vision
Post-production, Hynes is proud of the way director Melanie Oates conducted herself on set.
"She never broke a sweat, raised her voice, or anything. She was so composed and calm. She was efficient through every moment of the shoot," he said.
"She held onto her vision and saw it through with a lot of class. It could be difficult for an emerging director to direct me. I have a reputation for going anywhere on camera."
However, he saw something special in Oates, and says the two worked in tandem.
"As an actor, you need a mentor on set," said Hynes.
"You need to trust your director and writer or you'll have a hard shoot. I gave myself over to her, trusted her, and she trusted me. That's how we ended up with the finished product of Body & Bones."
St. John's audiences will have an opportunity to see Hynes in Body & Bones at the St. John's International Women's Film Festival at the LSPU Hall, Oct. 19 at 9:30 p.m.