The newcomer on growing up in the Australian outback, playing Jennifer Garner’s son, and his next role on American Crime Story.
Based on Joy Nicholson’s 1997 best-selling novel of the same name, Brendan and Emmett Malloys’ sophomore narrative feature, The Tribes of Palos Verdes—with Karen Croner’s capable script that exchanged several directors’ hands during its nearly two decades in development—is the story of a family in crisis, set against the spectacular backdrop of coastal Southern California.
The Masons just relocated to an affluent Palos Verdes, planting roots in an idyllic clifftop residence overlooking the Pacific surf. But as our teenage protagonist Medina (Maika Monroe) informs us in voiceover, there was trouble brewing long before the family arrived in this paradise. At 16, she’s an outcast who relies entirely too much on her effortlessly charismatic twin brother Jim (Cody Fern). Medina and Jim take to the waves every chance they get—their mastery of the surfboard a reprieve from their doomy lives at home. Consider their manic depressive mother Sandy (Jennifer Garner), who grows pathologically dependent on Jim when her follow-your-bliss husband Phil (Justin Kirk) extricates himself from her “black hole moods” to be with their young, bubbly real estate agent (Alicia Silverstone). In fact, Medina and Sandy are so thrown off-balance by this adjustment from heartland Michigan to a rigid and superficial world that keeping them on an even keel takes precedence for Jim, even as he slips deeper into his own drug abuse—a seismic disaster-in-wait.
Anthem sat down with Fern, a newcomer who makes his debut performance in an American feature with The Tribes of Palos Verdes, to discuss his past life growing up in the small mining town of Southern Cross in the outback of Western Australia, winning the Heath Ledger Scholarship, and how Cate Blanchett rerouted his path from finance to chasing his acting ambitions in Hollywood.
The Tribes of Palos Verdes is in select theaters on December 1.
It must be wild looking back to where you came from now. Southern Cross sounds tiny.
Yeah, it’s tiny. When I was growing up, it was less then 300 people. It’s kind of hard to put into words. I was speaking to someone about this the other day: I want to get an old fireplace put in, but then how do you even get wood? It made me reflect on going out in the country during winter and finding trees and chopping them up. That’s how you actually keep warm. It’s realizing, “Oh my god. The life that I’m living now from the life I was living is so unrelatable.” They’re so vastly different. It’s wild! I’m so appreciative of where I grew up and how I grew up and the experiences that I’ve had. It’s just a completely different lifestyle moving to L.A. with films and press tours.
How did you get rid of that accent for the film?
It was hard, yeah! But I think it’s just part and parcel if you’re coming out here to act and work in the States. You better have a damn good American accent. It takes a lot of work, you know? It’s a completely different skill. It’s a completely different way of moving your mouth. You have to work at it daily, I think. It’s tough, but it’s fun. I love working with an accent.
Jim definitely uses surfing as a coping mechanism for all the things that are going wrong in his home life. Did you see a lot of water growing up in Australia?
I surfed when I was growing up so I had experience with it. Jim loves surfing. I think surfing becomes his life. It gives him a break from reality. But he has no perspective on surfing—or life—at all. The thing that was bringing him so much joy is now something he does to fit in. He struggles with pretty heavy depression. I think the main dilemma for Jim is, in that circumstance, this thing that he loved he doesn’t even like anymore because nothing is meaningful. But yeah, the Malloys had us out on the water. We did a lot of our own surfing, which was exciting. But we were also filming during the Santa Anita winds, so there was a very, very high swell. It was dicey! [Laughs]
What was it like to play Jennifer Garner’s son? What observations did you make about her?
Jen is a consummate pro. She’s somebody who shows up to work ready to go. She’s such a bright light. This was such a different role to play for her. I think people are used to seeing Jen as the likable, lovely and amenable woman on screen, and this is certainly not that role. She was never afraid to go there. She was always pushing herself and challenging herself to go deeper, and remove that veil of being relatable or being liked by the audience. She certainly threw herself into that. The thing about Jen is that, when she arrives on set, she’s the loveliest and the most down-to-earth person you’ve ever met. She makes everybody feel at home and there’s nothing “diva” about her. She doesn’t want specific juice. She didn’t care for a trailer. She was right in the thick of it with us all. We were all shooting in this tiny house in Palos Verdes and we would just get to it. She was a real trooper. She really cares about her work ethic. I think anyone can respect that.
[Laughs] It is a true story, yeah.
I was a lot younger then, I think. This comes back to Jim in the film. I mean, I had just reached a point in my life where you have to stop worrying about what other people think and what you think what other people think, this idea of success and what success is, and what being an upstanding citizen means. I was just a miserable human being when I was working in finance. I hated my life. I hated where I was going. I hated every part of it and knew that I had to do something radical—and fast. I was looking down at people’s lives and thinking, “Wow. This is not what I want my life to be. But I’m here and I’m doing it and I’m trying to fit in.” I had seen Elizabeth, the first one with Cate Blanchett, and it really made me want to become an actor. Then when I had gone to see The Golden Age, it was this strange sign that I was still unraveling because that came 10 years later. It harkened back to everything that I had thought, dreamed, wished, and hoped for when I was younger. It was a real moment of awakening. Not to get cosmic or whatnot about it, but checking in with yourself and how you feel about your life and where it’s going, I thought, “I really hate myself at the moment.” Acting was what I always wanted to do. If you’re gonna do it, you’ve got one chance to go off and do it right now. And I did. I walked out at lunch and I just never went back.
You got your start in theater. You got a lot of acclaim for War Horse. Then you were the recipient of the Heath Ledger Scholarship in 2014. Do you feel like that gave you a big boost?
Yeah, absolutely! It was one of the main reasons that I was able to come out to Los Angeles. It’s very difficult as a foreigner to come into this country—not to get too anti-Trump about it at the moment, although I absolutely am anti-Trump—particularly as an actor. You have to tick off so many boxes. You have to have a certain amount of acclaim. You have to be at the top of your field, etcetera, etcetera. Winning that scholarship propelled me into a field, which made it possible for me to work here. Without that, the opportunity might not have come up again for a couple of years. So it really acted as a launching pad for me to get out here to Los Angeles and start meeting people and kick things into gear. It was a great initiative. I’m very thankful for that.
As much as that scholarship is a once in a lifetime thing for you, it must be so rewarding for the Ledger family, too. Heath’s career was cut short, but they can nurture a new generation.
It’s such an exciting initiative and I know it means a lot to Kim [Ledger] and his family.
Do you still stay in touch with Kim?
It’s been a while, which I’ve been feeling guilty about. [Laughs] I certainly will reach out to him. Heath was such an inspirational actor and guy. It was such a tragic loss. He really was a beacon of hope in Australia in terms of the industry. We’re always looking up to people like him, Cate Blanchett and Jeffrey Rush, and what they’re doing. It makes you wonder, “How am I able to get out there and do amazing work and continue [Heath’s] name and carry on his legacy?”
You’re at an important crossroads right now because you’re brand new and the slate is clean. The first steps will dictate everything that follows. How do you feel at this current juncture?
I feel really excited! I’m very passionate about the craft of acting and the kind of impact you can actually have. I love the process of collaboration. When I came out to the States, I was hoping and wishing and waiting to be an actor, but kind of diversified and started writing. I was going to be directing my first feature film when [The Tribes of Palos Verdes] came through for me. Right now, there are things I’m not allowed to talk about. I have a couple of projects coming up, which should put me out of auditioning again for a while. I feel very fortunate. I’m excited about the future.
I don’t want to put you on the spot, but can you talk about American Crime Story?
Yeah! I wouldn’t have been able to if it weren’t for the trailer that was just released. On January 17th, I’ll be in Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story and the Gianni Versace world. I play a fairly significant role in that series. I can’t say who I play or what goes down, but that’s next for me.
Keir and I met at Sundance Lab, which is an initiative set up by the Sundance Institute. It’s been going on for a couple decades now. It’s an opportunity for artists to take risks and make content and learn from each other. It’s run by Robert Redford and I took part in this film called American Animals directed by Bart Leyton. I met Keir through that project and we became friends. I was just getting increasingly frustrated by the lack of interesting roles that were coming out, particularly for people in my age group. I just really didn’t want to play, and refuse to play, the guy next door or the throwaway guy in high school. It’s just not where I want to go. So I started writing and wrote Pisces, which was produced by Nancy Grant and Xavier Dolan through their company Sons of Manual. That was a truly amazing project—we shot on 35mm film. It was set up as a proof of concept for a feature that I’ll be directing in the future. Working with Keir was a great experience and he’s a phenomenal actor. It was nice to act together in that because I think we were both frustrated. Now flash forward a year and he’s doing Atypical on Netflix and I’ve done this film, and there’s American Crime Story. It’s all about the work at the end of the day—good work. That was a great stepping stone, just speaking for myself as a filmmaker. I’m very passionate about it.
I was sort of curious about the Malloy Brothers. They made music videos for artists like Avril Lavigne and The White Stripes at the height of their fame. What are those guys like?
They’re incredible guys. They have such an interesting dynamic as brothers, which was a lot of fun to play with. They each have their own perspective on what’s happening in a scene. They had different opinions, but at the end of the day, they were there to tell an incredible story. They were a lot of fun. We became like one big family. This was my first feature out here in the States. Actually, it was my first feature, full stop. It was an exciting process because we were all learning together.
Just circling back to what we talked about earlier in the conversation, was it really rattling when you moved out to L.A.? Your character in the movie goes through a seismic lifestyle change upon arriving in Palos Verdes. Is that something you can possibly use as an actor?
I had never experienced anything like it. My first time in L.A. was when I actually moved out here because I had never been. I jumped off the plane and it was like, “I’m just gonna have to make this work,” which is something I’d been used to because I moved from country to the city and that city to another city in Australia, I lived in Melbourne for a little while, and Brisbane. I was so used to moving and I really like that process. I enjoy growth and change and pushing outside of my comfort zone. I think it’s something I’ll continue to do in life. I love Los Angeles and I don’t see myself leaving, but there’s a part of me that also wants to know what it’s like to live in New York or São Paulo. I love the idea of living in different places, different cultures. But yeah, it was a strange feeling coming to L.A. Seeing the Hollywood sign for the first time was very overwhelming because you grow up with that. You dream about it in Australia and what Hollywood is, and it’s tough! [Laughs] I didn’t know anybody here, but it didn’t take me too long to settle in. L.A.’s been very kind to me and I know L.A. can be a difficult city for some. I just made sure that I was in the company of good people—not just in the industry, but in general. I love every second of it. I’m just constantly surprised and excited by everything that’s happening.