AMERICAN RUST is a Showtime limited series, airing Sunday nights. Adapted for television by executive producer Dan Futterman from Philipp Meyer’s novel, AMERICAN RUST is set in the fictional small, rural Pennsylvania town of Buell, where a murder occurs.
Alex Neustaedter plays Billy Poe, whom Sheriff Del Harris (Jeff Daniels) believes has committed the crime. However, Del is in love with Billy’s mother, Grace (Maura Tierney), and therefore tries to conceal any evidence pointing to the young man.
Billy, meanwhile, is still in love with his now-married high school sweetheart Lee (Julia Mayorga), whose brother Isaac (David Alvarez) is Billy’s best friend.
Neustaedter (pronounced NEW-sted-er), originally from Kansas City, Missouri, was previously a series regular on COLONY. His feature film work includes the recent THINGS HEARD & SEEN, JOSIE & JACK, and THE TRIBES OF PALOS VERDES.
In an exclusive phone interview, Neustaedter talks about his AMERICAN RUST character, working with Daniels and Tierney, and more.
ASSIGNMENT X: How did you become involved with AMERICAN RUST?
ALEX NEUSTAEDTER: I sent a self-tape in. I did it in my bathroom at a hotel, because I was working in upstate New York at the time. I was reading opposite my mom on speaker phone, and it was a very low-budget setup, but it got the job done. And then, from there, I started meeting with Danny [Futterman] and [writer/executive producer] Adam [Rapp], and I read the book, and then I read the scripts. I got really interested after I read the book. That hooked me and drew me in.
AX: How similar or different is the Billy in the AMERICAN RUST series to the Billy in the book?
NEUSTAEDTER: I think he’s pretty similar. One thing that I found was a big challenge was the actual physical look of Billy. When I first read the book, I think it states that he’s 6’2”, 240 [pounds] in the first chapter, and I was not even close to that size. So, for me, that was a big concern, and something that I really had to work hard towards, to try to get as big as possible, to feel at least like I was a former high school linebacker. But other than that, I think it’s pretty similar. There are little changes, but in terms of the character, he’s kind of this man-child. He has the physique of a man, but emotionally, deep down, he’s still not fully developed.
AX: Do you feel any different when you look in the mirror? You look very different than you did in COLONY, even though that ended just a few years ago.
NEUSTAEDTER: Yeah. I think if you look at COLONY, compared to Billy here, there’s a big difference. It’s a slower transition, but I definitely did notice, once I put on extra pounds and a little extra fat, that I was like, “Okay, this is the heaviest I’ve ever been, and probably the most different I’ve looked.” But I liked it. I liked sometimes scaring myself a little bit, and losing myself a little bit. that’s what’s fun. I think that’s how I can grow as a person. I can find things that push me in ways I didn’t know I could be pushed, because that’s how the character was pushed, and I think that’s what’s exciting for me, is going somewhere that I didn’t know I could be, or didn’t know I could look, or anything of those, didn’t know I could feel. I think Billy definitely brought out feelings that I didn’t know I’d had, and I just feel really lucky to be able to have experienced that, as an actor and as a person.
AX: Can you say what those feelings are?
NEUSTAEDTER: [laughs] If you ask me after the show [finishes airing], I could definitely tell you, [but] because they’re so tied in with the specifics …
AX: That would be venturing into spoiler territory. It just seems like Billy doesn’t want to be intimidating, but he knows that he can be …
NEUSTAEDTER: Yeah. I think he’s deep down a good-hearted person. And that’s what I really admired and was drawn to. I wanted to play someone really good. But I think at the same time, he has this switch. I’ve used this analogy before – he’s almost like a candle. If nothing’s going on, he’s going to be pretty stationary, and just sitting there. But if something lights him, and sparks his fire, he’s going to start burning and morphing and changing, and you’re going to notice it’s there. For Billy, it’s a similar thing. He’s always good, but when something sparks him, he can turn into something else, and I think that was really interesting to play, not only him trying to control himself, but him using it at times to either get out of situations, or to intimidate.
AX: Is one of the reasons, if not the main reason, that Billy is still hanging out in Buell because he doesn’t want to leave his mom?
NEUSTAEDTER: I think so. What I really respect and admired about Billy is, he always thinks about others before himself. I think that’s something that’s really accurate with those Rust Belt towns. It’s all family-oriented, because that’s all you have. You rely on your parents, and they rely on you for what they need, and I think that’s something that we really tried to honor, doing this project.
I also think that Billy has this fear of the unknown, which a lot of people have, and he felt so comfortable in this town, even though he may not fully love it all the time. For him, the idea of leaving his mom, and everything else he knows, just makes zero sense to him. It was never something intriguing, and it never drove him to want to leave. So, I think he needed to find an excuse to stay.
I think Isaac leaving is something Billy definitely supports, and it was actually kind of his idea from the get-go. He told Isaac, “You need to get out of your situation, and you need to go,” before the series even starts. And then he’s surprised Isaac actually goes through with it. But for Billy, there’s pretty much zero thought in his mind that he’s actually going to leave himself, because what is he going to do out there?
He’s lost confidence because he knows he can’t play [football] anymore. If he had the mentality that he could do it, I’m sure he could. But in his mind, it’s already been made up that this is where he wants to be, and this is where he wants to live. So, he sees no reason to want to go with Isaac.
AX: Does Billy also have concerns about the fact that Isaac seems to be in love with him, and he does not reciprocate, at least in the way that Isaac would like him to?
NEUSTAEDTER: Yeah. I think he has no clue at first that Isaac is in love with him, that he does feel what he feels towards him. [In the first AMERICAN RUST] episode, that’s the first time Isaac’s ever made an approach and done anything. They’re talking, and Isaac comes up to him, and it’s incredibly confusing. You can imagine your best friend coming on to you like that. There’s a wide mix of emotions, especially when Isaac’s sister is the love of Billy’s life. It’s a very interesting, weird triangle that fully connects at that point.
Billy doesn’t understand, he’s straight, and doesn’t have those reciprocating feelings. But I think it shows Billy’s true friendship for Isaac. The second Isaac goes out onto the ice [and falls through], there’s not a hesitation to go save him. Because he’s Billy’s best friend, the only friend he has left in Buell. Billy accepts the fact that maybe that’s how Isaac feels, and doesn’t feel the same way, but it wouldn’t ever taint the relationship in the sense that Billy wouldn’t face him or still care about him.
AX: What about Billy’s feelings for Isaac’s sister Lee?
NEUSTAEDTER: I think Billy is saddened [when] Isaac tells him that Lee’s married. That’s breaking news. In Billy’s mind, he has this fantasy that Lee is going to come back to the town, be over New York, fall back in love. Because I don’t think Billy sees himself with any other woman. I think there is such a strong connection that Billy has, and such a strong idea that Billy has of what he wants from that, he’s still not over it. There are so many things that happen in that one scene of Isaac breaking that news to him, of Isaac telling him that he has feelings for him, and then Isaac going off and falling through the ice, it’s a very compound moment, and a lot happens, and it’s very charged.
AX: How does Billy feel about his parents? He seems to have pretty uncomplicated love for his mom.
NEUSTAEDTER: Yeah. I think Billy is a bit of a mama’s boy, and they have a very, very close relationship. Virgil [Billy’s father, played by Mark Pellegrino] has been there at the football games, and in Billy’s life in and out, but for the most part, he’s been absent. And I think Billy doesn’t like that in the sense of how much it’s hurt his mom, and they’ve been separated for a while now, so it’s not something that’s new. But him and his dad are pretty distant, and they’re pretty different. I think Billy takes himself a little more seriously than Virgil does. Virgil’s kind of a schmoozer, and a little more playful, and Billy kind of has a different mentality.
Billy and Grace’s love for each other is incredibly strong, and you’ll see that grow even further throughout the series. And it’s something that I really related to, because I’m an only child, and Billy’s also an only child, and I think as an only child, you have to rely so much more on your parents, because you don’t have another sibling to talk to. With Virgil out of the picture for so much, that parent was really Grace. And so, they need each other equally, and you see that come to light more throughout the series, and the sacrifices that have to be made.
AX: What is Billy’s attitude toward Del?
NEUSTAEDTER: It’s a very complicated relationship, because I don’t think Billy has the strongest feelings for Del at the beginning. Especially with Del putting Billy in custody, and getting probation. Billy doesn’t understand the back story of what Del has done to get him out early. So, he doesn’t see all the things that Del is doing for him. He just sees it as, this guy is trying to get with my mom and take over as the man of the household. But I think Billy slowly starts to catch on, and Del is someone that he can trust with what he’s done at the end of the day.
There are things that happen later in the episodes, more conversations between Billy and Del. I don’t want to give away too much, but the relationship grows, and there’s definitely some trust that is forced upon both of them, because there’s no one else that Billy can turn towards.
AX: Can you say if we’re meant to know who actually committed the murder by the end of the first three episodes of AMERICAN RUST, or if that’s meant to be an open question?
NEUSTAEDTER: No. I think it’s open. I don’t even want to say when it gets revealed, but I’ll say it’s revealed soon after the third episode. There are a lot of questions as an audience watching this – you don’t know who did it, or who it’s going to be blamed on, et cetera. There are all these questions, and it’s really interesting how it unfolds, but I don’t want to give anything away.
AX: Did you have to learn how to do anything in order to play Billy, like the rural Pennsylvania accent, or how to coach football, or fix a motor …?
NEUSTAEDTER: I think what I learned the most is how to eat a lot. Because I had to put on a significant amount of weight, compared to where I was when I first got the role. I think that was the biggest hurdle for me, because I grew up playing football – I played Pee Wee since I was six years old until high school, I played tackle football, and so that was something that was always close to me. I very much am a big football fan.
But what also really helped me was, we were about two days away from starting production and then COVID hit, and then we were kind of stuck in Pennsylvania, and I had just driven out from L.A. So, I stayed with my roommates, I stayed with David, who plays Isaac, and Julia, who plays Lee. We all roomed together for the first bit of COVID, and then David and I stayed for six months, essentially.
So, I was able to check out a lot of Pittsburgh, and a lot of surrounding areas, so it was advantageous for me to get acquainted and see a part of that city, and those towns, and get to meet people, and to see how they live their lives. That was incredibly helpful for me, because I really like immersing myself in whatever role or environment I’m in. The landscape itself is so beautiful. I definitely traveled more around Pittsburgh than Billy ever did, but I got to see a lot of where the story takes place.
AX: Were there things that you found in Pittsburgh or the outlying areas that helped you with playing Billy?
NEUSTAEDTER: We [Neustaedter, Alvarez, and Mayorga] would go on a lot of hikes, and every time we would go, it would feel like we were filling in our back stories, even though we weren’t in character, or even talking about certain things. The experience of getting to know each other and bonding that we did in that timeframe that we were there, it felt like we had started the process way earlier, and it really helped solidify who Billy and Lee and Isaac were to each other.
I worked out a lot when I was there, and I worked out with the local people, and just talking to people in the streets, or talking to people in restaurants, you just get an idea of what life is like. It’s a different pace, and it was something that I had not ever experienced, but I have loved. I really enjoyed my time there, and I think the culmination of all those things really helped me prepare, and helped me play Billy, for sure.
AX: Did you become a Steelers fan?
NEUSTAEDTER: Absolutely not, no [laughs].
AX: [laughs] There are limits to immersion …
NEUSTAEDTER: I grew up in Kansas City, so I will always be a diehard Kansas City Chiefs fan. But I do have a lot of respect for the Steelers. I gained a lot more respect being there, and I went to Pirates games when I was there, and they’re very dedicated. I think everyone in that city, even if you don’t like sports, you’re still either a Steelers fan or a Penguins fan or a Pirates fan. It’s just [bred into] you if you grew up in that area, so that’s something I really respect. It’s very similar to Kansas City. But they didn’t convert me [laughs].
AX: How is working with Maura Tierney?
NEUSTAEDTER: She’s amazing. She’s such a sweetheart, so funny, incredibly talented. It was always so difficult, because of COVID, we had these restrictions. In the first month, we had barely any scenes together, just because of how the scheduling was, and we kept passing by each other when we were doing our [COVID] testing every day, and we were like, “When are we actually going to do our scenes together?” Which I always thought was funny, because the scheduling was so out of whack at the beginning.
I loved working with her. I had some of my favorite scenes I’ve ever done with her. There is this one scene that happens later in the season, I think it’s either Episode 8 or 9, and when I think about it now, it still hits me right in the stomach. I see her, and I say, “Hey” to her, and she just said, “Hi.” She just said, “Hi,” one word, and it completely devastated me. She’s just that powerful. I just loved working with her. I hope I get to do it again.
AX: Working with Jeff Daniels?
NEUSTAEDTER: He’s equally amazing. I mean, they’re both legends, and I’ve been such a fan of his, I’ve seen him in DUMB AND DUMBER, and my mom always used to watch THE NEWSROOM, and it was just wild to be able to actually work with him, and work opposite him. He just brings so much out of you as an actor, you are so in the moment with him, and that was something that I really took away from it – it’s not about how you look, or what you sound like, or how you’re trying to sound, it’s just being as honest to this character as possible, for whatever the situation is that you’re playing in. Everything else disappeared, and it was just us two in that moment. I feel really lucky to be able to have had that experience and learn from him.
AX: And what would you most like people to know about AMERICAN RUST?
NEUSTAEDTER: I think that, even in these small towns, there are amazing stories to be told, and that bad things happen to good people, just as good things happen to bad people. And I think everyone deserves a shot at their dream, whatever it is. Sometimes when other things get in the way, your dreams get clouded. But I would like people to take from [AMERICAN RUST] that everyone has a dream at some point, and whether it happens or it doesn’t, they still try and make the best of it, and that’s what all these characters are doing. They’re just trying to make the best of their lives and their situation, wherever they are, and I think that’s something that’s very relatable.
Article Source: Assignment X
Article: AMERICAN RUST: Alex Neustaedter chats about playing a small town murder suspect on the new Showtime limited series