Toronto-based actor Joel Ballanger portrays the lead in Mark Weeden’s new film ‘That Is All’.
Ballanger plays the character of Ryan, a man who is deeply in the closet and falls into an affair with his friends boyfriend Sam (Al Braatz). The film is an exploration of the impact that loneliness can have on someone who is trying to figure out their sexuality.
I spoke with Joel recently to talk about playing Ryan, discuss the challenges of playing the role and to find out how he felt about the film not wrapping Ryan’s story up in a neat bow…
You worked with Mark Weeden before on ‘Only People’. What made you decide to take on the character of Ryan in his latest film ‘That Is All’?
He actually wrote it for me, which is a massive honour. I also identified with the stuff that Ryan was going through. I grew up in a very religious family. You start to realize as you get older and older that certain ways of thinking have been ingrained in you. A few years prior, I’d come to terms with my own sexuality being attracted both to men and to women. I saw in Ryan something that I was interested in exploring, and I thought that it was a really interesting character because it was so not dramatic and felt so real. Mark was gracious enough to present it to me and and I think that he is at a really interesting point in his life too, where you get to this point in your late 20s, that I’ve experienced in the last few years, where you start to realise the things that you don’t have in common with your friends. I was in the midst of that as I was offered it so I thought it was all very interesting.
Ryan is such an interesting character and I love that Mark doesn’t push him to give a definitive answer or resolution by the end of the film. The character is a man of very few words, communicating often through facial expressions and body language. What was that like for you as an actor?
You don’t think about it to be honest. The way that I work, and the way that I’ve been taught to work, is that every character is a variation of myself. It was about going in and doing your work ahead of time so that it’s all preparing your subconscious; knowing all the things that he’s going through, knowing why those things are personal for me, knowing the story that we’re telling, knowing what happened in a scene prior, or what happened in a scene afterwards that we’ve already filmed, and then forgetting all of it and just trusting that the artist that exists inside me can listen and react. For me, it wasn’t even really something that I thought about, you know. It was just these are the words that I get to say and this is the scenario that I’m in so I have to listen to who’s talking and I have to just allow everything to happen, and just breathe and my body and my artist will take care of itself. Something that I’ve struggled with as an actor is that it’s not a heady profession for me. I can’t figure out all the things that are happening so when I go into a scene, the best thing and the best way for me to work is to not really know what’s going on and to let it all happen. If I’m in control it’s just bad acting.
You had a really great chemistry with Al Braatz who plays Sam in the film. Their relationship brings a bit of lightness to the film and it allows Ryan to show a less intense side of himself. What was Al like to work with and how did you feel about your chemistry?
It was good, man. We didn’t meet beforehand but I called him to chat about what boundaries and so on and so forth were and to run lines a little bit. Al’s a super open, loving, vulnerable dude. He’s one of those people that’s so joyous all the time that you’re like, ‘is this real?’ I remember the first time I met him I was like, ‘is he faking this right now?’ but he’s just such a happy and loving person that it became really easy. I think that for him and I as we went from scene to scene to scene throughout the film, the chemistry between us organically grew. We literally just would show up and spend every day all day together. We were shooting in these locations and we had a base camp so he and I would just sit together and we would chat for hours each day. I don’t know if Mark structured it that way, if he did good on him it worked, but it was really good. I was really thankful to be able to work with him. We finished the film and I was like, ‘fuck man, I’m gonna miss you. I hope we get to work together again’.
You mentioned that the role was written for you. Was there anything that was particularly challenging for you while making this film?
It was only the second film that I done, and the other one I made with Mark as well, and I was living alone at the time. I would drive to set and drive home, my partner wasn’t living with me, and it was the loneliness of him, man. He’s just such a lonely dude. I’ve always thought, and the pandemic too has taught me more about this, in that loneliness we’re forced to reckon with all these things that we don’t want to feel and the pandemic made everyone do that. I guess the hardest thing would have just been to sit in the loneliness and to sit in the vibration of being uncomfortable and feeling sad and alone, because I don’t think that he and or I, at the time, had a lot of things to distract him from that.
It feels like there could be more story to tell with Ryan. Is that something you’d be interested in exploring?
I would love to, if it came up. I don’t see Mark writing a sequel to it but who knows? I haven’t actually talked to him. I think that you’re right. I would love to see where it went. He and I had discussions that I won’t talk about because I don’t know if that’ll impact whether he does it again, but he and I both knew the type of person that (Ryan) would end up becoming. You’re right in your assumption that he wasn’t much farther along (by the end), which I think happens to a lot of us. Change is a pretty fucking scary thing and we are so fearful of these things, while being so unaware that all it takes is to step into that scary thing and then all of a sudden we’re happier than we’ve ever been. I think that he got really scared, stopped and ended it, and like you say, wasn’t much farther along than he was before.
What’s your take on where Ryan is in his own head about himself and his sexuality. Is he totally in denial or does he just enjoy the secrecy around the situation with Sam?
I think that he was in denial. He knew on some sort of level, like we all do about these things about ourselves. I think that we get these ideas of what our identities are and we’re so rigid in them and believe that everyone else thinks that that’s what our identity is and we think that it can’t change. I think that he didn’t even think that it was a possibility. It’s a combination of that and then I also think that there is the excitement that exists when you have an affair with someone like that, like the forbidden fruit. What they’re doing is wrong and there is a giddiness and excitement to the privacy of what they’re doing. In the lead up, my acting coach and I talked a lot about how Sam’s the wrong guy for him and if he had chosen a different guy, I think it could have gone a different way. He chose Sam, or Sam chose him, and because there was all that excitement and guilt and wrongness about it, I think that it actually was almost detrimental. I think he’s aware. If you sat him down in front of a therapist and he worked at it for a little bit, then he’d come to terms with being gay. It’s just a stage that he’s at in his life and there’s no one to help him. His friends aren’t seemingly interested in what’s going on in him.
Ryan is quite awful at times and he reacts with anger towards Sam, especially when Sam wants to tie everything up in a bow and run off together. Ryan is clearly not at that stage in his life to be able to do that so perhaps Sam isn’t the person he’d make that leap for. You’ve made me think about this differently now…
Oh, that’s good. I think it’s that way for both of them. They’re both trying to escape things and through they find solace in themselves. I think you’re right, Ryan does react the way that he does and it’s how we react whenever we do something that we aren’t accepting of in ourselves, we just take it out on others. Though they do have this elicit beautiful relationship, I think Sam on some level was trying to get away from the relationship that he was in, that it wasn’t working as opposed to facing that it wasn’t working. I always talk about this with people that I work with. It’s all grey. We’re so obsessed as human beings with everything being black and white, right and wrong. Everything is grey. It’s always grey and we’ve never got it figured out.
I think in society as a whole we’ve lost nuance. That seems to have gone out of the window as people put their foot down on one side or the other. There’s also this expectation that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that’s not always the case. That’s what I liked about this film. It told a story in a way I haven’t seen it being told before…
I was guilty at the beginning of being like, ‘OK, where really does it go? Where does it go at the end?’ even though I’m like a fan. I adore when a movie ends making you ask a question. Mark was very intentional about that. He was like it. ‘I don’t want to finish it on a specific thing’. I think that it’s a brave and beautiful thing to do. I love Hemingway when I was younger, and I still do, because his writing style allows you to create the story. That’s the beautiful thing about art is that it speaks to us. It’s this human universal thing and it’s put out there and it speaks to you in a certain way, and then it speaks to me in a certain way based on how I feel. It’s a brave thing to do to end something like that, as opposed to being like, ‘here’s the definitive statement about what it actually is’.
It made the film feel more real and it was so refreshing to not have everything tied up neatly with a happy ending. By the end of the film, I just felt sad for Ryan and I identified with some parts of him because I’ve been through some of what he goes through. My husband had a religious upbringing so we’ve both experienced what that’s like once you come out. I did see elements of Ryan in our relationship and what we’ve been through…
That’s amazing, man. That’s really cool. It’s true, real life doesn’t always end in a happy ending. To end it in a happy ending is sets everyone up with unrealistic expectations. It alienates people. People like your husband and you, or myself… I have siblings who are in the LGBTQ+ identification and it’s like if we put things in one specific happy ending, then the rest of us are like, ‘oh, that’s not me’ or ‘oh, there’s something wrong with me’. To finish it in the way that he did was really smart.
What do you have coming up next?
Acting wise, I’m part of an acting ensemble called Gracemoon Arts. We did this TV series that’s an ensemble of all these characters who are all intertwined in this one crazy, long, huge story. That’ll come out at some point soon. I write and direct as well. We’re trying to find some money right now for a film that deals with the way that men in friendships are close and vulnerable, in a way that I don’t think is often portrayed on screen. It’s not all ‘Superbad’, it’s the love and closeness that men get when they live together and when they are just deeply, deeply in love platonically. We’re hoping to film that next summer.
‘That Is All’ is available on digital now courtesy of Random Media. Watch the trailer below: