For award-winning actor, producer and director Sean Nateghi, a career in film was not something that he initially foresaw in his future. Studying pre-med at Auburn University, Sean didn’t catch the acting bug until he saw “Urinetown” in New York; after that, he moved to California, determined to pursue a career in acting. He got his start in the industry doing local theater roles and eventually started his own production company, ZOOR Films. In addition to producing, Sean is known for his roles in Van Wilder: Freshmen Year, Anti-Hero and Shrader House. He also has studied and learned 11 different types of martial arts. Later this month, his new film, Me You and Five Bucks, which has been earning accolades and awards on the film festival circuit, will be released on multiple platforms. I recently had the opportunity to chat with this multi-talented man about his new project, the challenges of producing and acting on the same film and how he hopes to inspire others through his work. Check it out below!
What inspired you to pursue a career in the film industry?
It’s interesting because I was actually studying pre-med, to be a doctor, in college, and I took a trip up to New York—I was attending Auburn University, which is in Alabama, and my best friend’s parents lived in Manhattan—so for Thanksgiving, we went over there for a trip, and I saw a musical called Urinetown, and it just basically blew me away. I caught the acting bug and that night, I went home and stayed up till like four in the morning researching how to be an actor and what is an actor and what’s a good acting school, and emailed myself all of these links. Basically, from there, I went to California, signed up for a two-year program at the Joanne Baron/D.W. Brown Meisner Studio and never looked back.
When you were first getting started, what was one of the first lessons that you learned in regard to acting?
It’s so hard to say because it was like an overload. I was really, really fortunate to go to a really great school; you could kinda look at it like an old martial art, like a traditional karate or traditional kung-fu where they take the craft very seriously. It’s very old school. Everything was a lesson; every moment was a lesson. Basically, your mind is being blown, and I guess without even knowing what the lesson was, because it takes time to even know what you’re doing on stage, it was really all about being present. How do you be present in front of people and be honest and not be self-conscious and just be truthful. And you don’t know that that’s what they’re doing to you but over time, you just say, “Ohhh, I see what you’re doing!” You watch your fellow students do the same things and you go, “Ohhh, I get it now, I see what they’re saying!” Because you have to see something else do it, too, to understand what the lesson really means.
When did you realize that you not only wanted to act but also wanted to produce?
You know, after working on some sets, and getting more involved with the industry, I just naturally got more curious about the process of filmmaking and wanted to make my own content. I’m a fan of Ed Burns, and people like John Favreau and Vince Vaughn who did “Swingers”, and that era of film-making, so I said, “Hey, why not?” As an actor, you always want to make your own new opportunities, too, and have more say in the creative process. So, I took a stab at it and I was very fortunate that my film got distribution.
Actor-wise, who are some of your idols?
There are quite a few, actually. The obvious ones are going to be Marlon Brando and De Niro. That’s a given, since I think that they’ve shaped and influenced a lot of the actors of today. After that, there are people that I really like watching whenever I see them onscreen, like Stanley Tucci and John Turturro. I think Johnny Depp’s awesome. I’m actually a fan of Mel Gibson because when I was growing up, he had a very masculine leading-man energy but he was still vulnerable. He wasn’t just playing a manly role; he was also very accessible and vulnerable. I’d also have to say Daniel Day-Lewis. I’d love to work with him!
What do you find most challenging about both acting and producing on a project?
That’s a very good question! When I was working on “Me You and Five Bucks” actually, I learned from the director, Jaime Zevallos, about this. So, when you’re a producer, to be a good producer, you have to very detached emotionally when it comes to handling problems on set. And there’s gonna be a lot; Murphy’s Law applies there, so anything that can go wrong is gonna go wrong. So if you get angry or you start getting emotional, you’re gonna have conflict. Every minute and every second counts, so if somebody quits or somebody gets angry, at the end of the day, it’s gonna hurt the project as a whole. I think a good producer serves the project, not himself, you know, because your movie is kinda like your baby that you’re trying to build and feed so it can grow up and become a finished project. But, when you’re an actor, what’s expected of you to be a good actor, is you have to be reactive; so the opposite of what you have to be when you’re a producer. You have to be emotional. We don’t want to watch somebody that’s avoiding or not dealing with what’s going on, because the movie is usually capturing some type of climax in these characters’ lives. So someone might say, “You know, in real life, I don’t know if I would get angry like that,” and that’s sometimes true, but if we’re making a movie, we’re gonna capture that moment in which you did. Otherwise, there’s no point in making a movie. So, when I was on set one day actually, I came in to do my stuff and Jaime said, “Hey Sean, we need actor-Sean,” and I was like, “What do you mean?” He was like, “Right now, we’ve got producer-Sean on set. The expression on your face is different. When you’re in producer mode, you’re very serious and very focused, and kinda detached, and when you’re in actor mode, you have a twinkle in your eyes,” which I kinda laughed at. So I was like, “So what does that mean?” and he said, “It just means that you have a lightness and a joy and a readiness to play.” So when I heard that, that was actually a good lesson to be like, “Ok, when you come on set, you gotta let that mentality go and switch from fix-it mode to let’s-play mode.
How did your background and commitment to martial arts prepare you for a career in film?
I think that, indirectly, it prepared me a lot, because people who are military people or people who do martial arts or people that did something like wrestling in high school are used to working hard. I think it prepares you for life because it teaches you discipline, teaches you focus. You know, it’s very interesting, I’ll give an example: when you’re hitting a punching bag or hitting a target, you have to hit through the target. You don’t hit the target and bounce off; you impose your will on the target. So, when you have obstacles in life, you learn this mentality that you go through something moving forward; you don’t get deterred when something happens or when there’s an obstacle. You go through the obstacle. And this is a business riddled with obstacles and rejection. All the while, you’re vulnerable emotionally. You’re exposing yourself to rejection and you still have to have the mentality that it’s ok, just keep moving forward. Take the good from every situation and go forward. So, I think martial arts as a whole did a lot to shape me as a man. That’s what my brother recently told me: “the moment you got involved in martial arts and got obsessed with Bruce Lee and studying and teaching yourself, you dramatically shifted as a person. You became focused.” So, I’m very thankful for that.
Let’s talk about your film, “Me You and Five Bucks.” What do you think viewers are going to enjoy the most about this film?
So far, we’ve been really fortunate in the festivals and won a lot of awards, and the one that meant the most was The Audience Award, because that’s the people themselves who came to watch the film and they liked it. I think from what we’ve heard, it’s a very relatable film. It’s a Manhattan love story that’s full of comedy, and it is capturing people’s lives, a bunch of people who are trying to find themselves. And, no one’s got it figured out; that’s something that you’ve gone through and I’ve gone through. Everything with the relationships and people who aren’t happy with where they are in their lives is something that everybody has gone through. One thing that I’m really proud of with our film is that we have a very diverse cast. Nobody is playing a stereotype. We have so many different ethnicities all across the board , and Jaime’s intention behind it was that he wanted to create a story that captured the New York that he grew up in, which is really a melting pot. And I think that people are going to enjoy the fact that it’s a slice of life film that feels like a documentary. It’s just like watching real people go through real events in their lives.
In addition to producing the film, you also star in it as the character, Louie. How did you prepare for that role?
I didn’t even get much of a chance to prepare because from the time that I wanted to make this project happen, it was just about two months until we were on set in New York. Cast, crew, everything—it was lightning quick, which was awesome and exciting. So I didn’t have too much time to be an actor and do my regular prep. So, when I got to New York, what I would do is, since a lot of the scenes had to do with me and Jaime, and he was also directing the film, we would just improv. As we were looking at locations and walking around at night time and checking things out in New York, I would be in character and basically talk crap and be competitive and do things that Louie would do to create that relationship. Because as an actor, as you train more, you learn that it’s not about the words as much as it is about the relationship and the context of what you’re saying. It’s like, you could say the words—the line might be “I love you” but “I love you” might mean “Yes, I love you” or you could be screaming it at somebody because you’re angry. In that case, you’d be saying “I love you” like “Why don’t you love me back?” So it’s much, much more important to focus on the relationship.
In what ways is Louie similar to you and in what ways is he different?
I related to Louie because in his backstory, he actually was obese, so it’s kinda funny how that lined up because when I was a kid, I was a chubby kid and an insecure kind of kid that was picked on, so I connected with the fact that although Louie is a Manhattan Times writer and he’s slick and he dresses nice and he looks sharp and seems to have it all together, I related to all that because underneath there was someone that was just doing his best to be loved and accepted. I related to that a lot as a kid growing up. You know, I moved around a lot, and I never stayed in one place too long to really have a home where I could adjust, so I was able to kinda connect with the vulnerability of Louie. He’s not what you think he is on the surface.
What was it like working with Steven Bauer and Jaime Zevallos?
It was awesome. It was a ton of fun working with them on “Knuckleheads.” Bauer is just a pro. He’s on “Ray Donovan” right now, and I’m sure if you watch him that you’d see how awesome he is. He was literally playing the guitar and singing in between takes. So, when you deal with someone as seasoned as that, you see firsthand how, again, it’s not about the lines. It’s not about over-preparing and taking things too seriously. It’s just more about being present in the moment, which I think goes back to the first lessons that I had when I was in acting school. You know, it’s all about “Can you be present? Can you focus on what’s in front of you?” So, he’s just a great guy. Besides being a pro, he’s just a really, really sweet guy. He’s like a big teddybear. And Jaime himself, that’s when we really started working together because that’s around when I met him, on that set, so that went to the next project, “Me You and Five Bucks,” because I had a conversation with him like “Hey man, do you have any scripts? Because I kinda want to do something.” So, we became good friends starting from that set. And Jaime, what I love about him is that he has the same exact work ethic as me, which is: we’re kinda obsessive people. You know, when we were on set, we had to be up by at least 7:00 am every day, but we would usually be up till like 4:30, 5:30 in the morning because we were talking about what we were doing the next day and the shots. Everyone else on the crew was asleep, but me and him just couldn’t help it. We were like “I don’t know why we keep doing this; we’re gonna be so tired tomorrow.” But we just love to work and he’s been by my side and fantastic to work with.
Do you have any funny stories that you’d like to share from filming “Me You and Five Bucks”?
Oh, there’s probably a lot! So…and he’s probably gonna hate me for saying this…someone on our staff, Micah Brant, he was also very, very hard-working on the project, and like I said, we had very late night hours. And one night, he was working at his desk on his computer and he started falling asleep. Everyone else was asleep—I had just showered and was getting ready for bed—and he was about to go to sleep, but as I got out, I noticed that he was sitting upright, asleep in his chair. But he was awake, and then he was asleep, so I took out my camera phone and started recording him and literally recorded him for about two minutes fighting sleep. He literally slid almost off the chair, got back up, he was drooling, he was scratching himself; it was like everything that you could ever hope to get on tape, and I played it for everybody the next day. It was hilarious.
Through your work, how do you hope to inspire others?
That is a very good question. I guess that there are two ways that I hope I can be inspiring or help someone. One is, as an actor, through the actual project itself, through the actual performance. Our job is to imitate life, so whether it’s something that you can learn about somebody else’s life, or feel the emotions and circumstances that you might have encountered before and is kinda therapeutic, I hope the work is truthful and I hope that people get something where they feel better or feel happy. You know, sometimes you tune into something because you want laugh, sometimes you tune in because you want to cry, or sometimes you do it because you just want to turn your mind off, so in whatever sense, if it makes people feel good, that makes me really, really happy. In the other sense, I hope that my approach in life, just working hard, being focused, taking nothing for granted and just—I have a saying, “Persistence beats resistance,” and that’s the way I do things and the way I just push forward. And if that motivates people to say “You know what, I can do that, too. I can work hard and I can try things and this guy’s never produced before but he just took a chance and it happened.” You know, I just think that there are no limits for anybody, other than the limits that you put for yourself. So, if that also helps people, it would be awesome.
Me You and Five Bucks will be playing in LA at the Arena Cinema in Hollywood September 25 – October 1 and will be releasing on all other platforms, including iTunes, on October 13, 2015. You can also follow Sean on Twitter at @SeanNateghi!