Elias Koteas is part of a rare breed. It seems that he is one of the few actors in Hollywood today who is fearless when it comes to taking risks and seeking out challenging roles, all for the love of his craft. A veteran of stage, television and film, he is well into his third decade in his creative journey. In his latest film, Matt Reeves’ ‘Let Me In,’ Koteas plays an unnamed policeman who slowly discovers that he may be investigating a string of murders by no less than a vampire. Alongside newcomers Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Koteas breathes life in a character that could come across as two dimensional in less than capable hands. Icon Vs. Icon’s Jason Price recently sat down with Koteas to discuss his career, his experiences while working on ‘Let Me In’, the process of bringing a character to life and his upcoming projects!
Tackling a career in the entertainment industry is not for the faint of heart. When did you decide to pursue a career as an entertainer as opposed to going in a different direction?
I used to watch a lot of TV and I was a huge horror movie buff growing up. It wasn’t like I excelled in school, so it was either that or end up as some kind of thief somewhere! [laughs] I don’t know, man. I was just lucky that God bestowed upon me the gift that he has. It was kind of like, “Here is what you should go do.” So I just followed that path. I don’t know if there was a moment that it all sparked but I just feel so blessed that I have had the opportunities that I have had and that I found that path early enough, ya know.
Growing up, and even today, who are some of your influences?
As far as in the movie business, I was, and still am, a huge Nick Nolte fan. Watching him on ‘Rich Man, Poor Man’ was probably the reason I wanted to become an actor. As a young acting student, you would see all of the guys from the ‘70s and I love Laurence Olivier and Montgomery Clift.
What was it about the script or the character in particular that drew you to your role in ‘Let Me In’?
Well, I could really relate to Owen’s character, being bullied at school and trying to cope with that and his dysfunctional home life. I think that is universal for a lot of us. I just really feel in love with that journey. I thought that Matt Reeves captured it beautifully in that script and I just really wanted to be a part of it.
You mentioned that you are a horror fan. Were you familiar with the book and the original film before filming?
No, I was not. I am going to try and catch it at some point. I hear that they are great and equally great in their own way. I hope that the fans of the original film are open enough to receive a different version that is equally as soulful.
For someone not familiar with the other incarnations, what can you tell us about your character?
I play a sort of broad strokes police officer who is investigating some very bizarre murders that begin to happen in his town suddenly. He is a little bit over his head perhaps. He has never seen anything like it. Metaphorically, he could be anything — perhaps a moral conscience of it slowly coming towards these to kids and what is happening to them.
With a role like this, what is your process for bringing a character that could have much less dimension in someone elses hands and make it jump from the page to the screen incorporating some of your own essence along the way?
That is a good question. What started occurring to me because the character, for all intents and purposes, could be taken out of the movie in some way, except for the last scene of the movie, and the narrative still happens. Over time, he very much started feeling like a ghost to me. This just has to do with my personalizing of things. In a lot of ways, I feel like he has gone back in time and is trying to retrace his steps to discover where he went wrong and is somehow baring witness in a very compassionate way, not only to the people around him but to himself as a soul. I started thinking of it in those terms and it started making sense to me and added relevance to me being in the room. You may or may not see that in the script, but it added a certain sort of weight to being there for me.
You mentioned the director, Matt Reeves. There is quite a buzz about him and the film itself. What was it like working with him and what do you think he brought to the project?
I have known Matt for a while. We worked together on a pilot years back. He is such a lovely soul. He is very inclusive. He has his ideas and is completely open to yours. He makes you feel that you can keep trying different things and the more the better. He created an environment that his actors could feel safe in and try a lot of different things. As an actor, that is all that you can ask for. He loved the project so much and believed in it. I think that he related the the journey of this boy as well and you knew you were in the hands of someone who had the right sensitivity for the story. It doesn’t get better than that. He is just a lovely human being.
You are also surrounded by some great young talent who play some dark roles in this film. How would you describe your experience performing with Chloe Moretz and Kodi Smit-McPhee?
You know what, I feel like kids have a real “bullshit barometer”. You can’t fool them, ya know. The kids were great. All I can do is learn from them because they are just so present. It is not like they are doing any acting because they are so young and they are so soulful that they can really imitate what they see and play. As an actor, with my so-called experience, that is really the state that I want to be in at all times. So, I had a lot to learn from them. At the end of the day, when I felt accepted by them, I felt like I had accomplished something. It was me who was humbled by them. They were effortless. Working with them, you can’t help feeling very protective of them because you are watching them at a time in their lives where they are going to change, in the film they will be forever 12 years old and it captures their essence that way. It is really something profound.
As an actor, what was the biggest challenge in making this film?
It may sound simplistic but to me sometimes just being present. I am a bit of a helium balloon and I tend to just kind of fly off, so to be in a room and be grounded and to look at things and observe them in a non-judgemental way with a passionate eye, all of those things were a challenge to me.
You have been in several films in recent years that have supernatural overtones. Being a fan of the horror genre, what has it been like for you as an actor exploring that genre?
Listen, man … I grew up watching all sorts of horror films! I could not get enough of them. I would be in front of the television as a little kid with the TV Guide in hand, just waiting for something to come on! ‘King Kong’ was my favorite. ‘Dracula,’ ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ ‘Frankenstein,’ ‘The Wolfman,’ ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ you name it! Vincent Price, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, he was amazing in ‘Phantom of The Opera.’ All of these guys, what they have in common is that they have so much soul that you can see their soulful struggle and somehow be part of their world. I love it! If I could fill Vincent Price’s shoes I would be a happy camper! Or more likely Lon Chaney and what he had to endure with the character he created, I love it. Not just for the sake of just slasher and horror films, you want these films to have soul. That is what I think these films have had and that is what I think ‘Let Me In’ has — a timeless soul, the need to just belong and to be a part of this world and somehow make sense of your life or why you are here. If I could carve my own little niche that way, I would be very lucky! [laughs]
You have played so many different roles throughout your career. Is there a particular type of film or genre that you are anxious to tackle in the future?
I don’t know how to answer that, man. That is a really good question. I don’t know. Just recently I just spent some time in South Africa playing in a movie called ‘Winnie’ which is based on Winnie Mandela’s life. I never in my wildest dreams thought that someone would wake up and say, “Ya know who we need to play the South African leader of the apartheid army? We need Elias!” The fact that somebody thought that is a good sign because I never thought someone would have cast me in that. It was a great time and a huge learning experience that challenged me, ya know? If more people think of me for parts like that, parts that you wouldn’t expect to see me in, that would be a blessing! I am open to anything, comedy, horror, drama, as long I feel that the character is something that I could help contribute to the storyline.
What is the best piece of advice that you have for anyone who would like to get involved in the film industry?
That is a great question. I just think that, not to be simplistic about it, you should live your life as fully as you can. Absorb and observe what is going on around you. Read voraciously. Learn an instrument. Learn as many different things as you can because the more you know about what is going on around you, the more you know about what is going on inside your heart, the fuller your instrument will be to draw from if acting and sharing a part of yourself with people is what you want to do. In retrospect, that is the biggest thing that I could say. Live your life with an open mind and a curiosity. The more the better!
I wanted to ask you about one of your early roles. You played Casey Jones in the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ movie which is celebrating it’s 20th anniversary this year. Can you share any thoughts on your experiences with that franchise and was it as much fun as it looked?
It was a lot of fun, man! You know, you show up and you put on this outfit and you become a superhero that is talking to these Turtles! The people behind it, the creature shop, it was such a great experience. The people were so talented and friendly! At the end of the day you had to pinch yourself because you were working with these brilliant artists that were bringing these phenomenal beings to life! Seeing them brought to life was an amazing experience! I can’t believe it has been 20 years!
Well happy anniversary!
Thank you! It’s amazing!
What other projects do you have coming up that we should be on the look out for in the near future?
In addition to ‘Winnie’, there is a picture called ‘Dream House’ which is directed by Jim Sheridan and stars Daniel Craig. It is a great film that we just finished up. I will also be in ‘Harold and Kumar 3’. That was a lot of fun and it will be in 3D.
It seems you continue to have a full plate, which is great! Thanks for talking with us, Elias. We really look forward to seeing what you have in store for us in the future!
Thank you, man. It has been a pleasure talking to you!