In THE CARD COUNTER, writer-director Paul Schrader’s darkly-tinged romantic thriller, Oscar Isaac plays William Tell, a mysterious poker player. Tell is a low-level gambler who has just been released from military prison. He soon encounters a young man (played by Tye Sheridan) who has a connection to Tell's past and revenge on his mind, and La Linda (Tiffany Haddish), a sort of manager for top players. As the characters collide, things get twisted and complex. We were thrilled to sit down with both Haddish and Sheridan to talk about their characters and the smoky, morally murky world of THE CARD COUNTER.
"What originally attracted me to THE CARD COUNTER was Paul Schrader," Haddish said of the writer of TAXI DRIVER and writer-director of classics like BLUE COLLAR, AMERICAN GIGOLO, MISHIMA: A LIFE IN FOUR CHAPTERS and most recently the superb FIRST REFORMED.
"Knowing that he wrote it and was going to direct it, that was huge to me. I’m a big Paul Schrader fan since CAT PEOPLE.” (She said that if she had power, she and Schrader would reteam on a new version of CAT PEOPLE, with Haddish as the titular feline.) "When he called me and told me about it, we had an hour-long conversation. We were laughing and digging in and I was asking a lot of questions. It was really great. I felt like, I need to work with this man even more so because I will learn to be a better performer. And I did.
While Haddish couldn’t improvise on set, all the performers went through a thorough rehearsal process where they were able to experiment and play. Some ideas created there wound up in the final version of the movie. "I got to work with the other actors, I got to play with things, so when we got to the casino floor, we were knocking out. And I knew exactly what he wanted," Haddish said. "There’s a line where I say, ‘I’m always looking for a good thoroughbred.’ That wasn’t in the script originally. Paul just said, ‘We’ll put it in.’"
Working with Schrader was "incredible," said Sheridan, who has already worked with legendary filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg, and equally talented up-and-coming directors like Jeff Nichols and David Gordon Green. "[Schrader is] a very charismatic guy and a bold filmmaker and I respect him for a lot of the choices he’s made over the course of his career. I feel super lucky and fortunate to get to work with him and watch him in action."
Another bonus for Sheridan is that he gets to play one of Schrader’s famous obsessives — characters that become relentless in their pursuit of some truth or to rectify a perceived slight. (In this case, he is going after a military contractor played with sly malevolence by Willem Dafoe). "Most of who the character is, you build from the screenplay. There was no real need to look outside of that. You understand this guy’s past and where he comes from," Sheridan said. "He has a lot of pent-up anger from what happened and he just wants revenge to relieve that. Oscar tries to steer him in the right direction and get on the right path."
THE CARD COUNTER opens on September 10!
All images courtesy of Focus Features.