Q&A: James Ransone talks Spike Lee's 'Oldboy' remake, Josh Brolin's transformation

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Image Credit: Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images

With his deep, dark eyes, thin face, and history of working with Spike Lee, James Ransone has all the makings of a perfect fit for Lee’s remake of South Korean revenge classic Oldboy, currently filming in New Orleans with Josh Brolin as a man going after his captors after being imprisoned for more than a decade. But Ransone, who replaced Nate Parker in the part of a doctor working with co-lead Elizabeth Olsen’s character, goes totally against type. He plays a good guy, different from other well-known twitchy parts he taken on, such as drunken, delinquent Ziggy on HBO’s The Wire, or a robber in Lee’s 2006 thriller Inside Man.

EW spoke to Ransone by phone in Los Angeles after Hurricane Sandy hit New York City, where he lives. The actor, who said he found out about his part in the movie “super last minute,” shot down those criticizing Lee even remaking Park Chan-wook’s beloved 2003 thriller, and talked about he and Lee getting along “because we’re both antagonistic,” witnessing Brolin’s drastic weight gain and weight loss for the part – 35 pounds gained in one week, then 19 pounds dropped – and being a (our opinion: refreshingly down-to-earth) middle-class actor in Hollywood. 

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you’ve been filming Oldboy.
JAMES RANSONE: We’re filming, in production in New Orleans. It’s probably a tax incentive. They really wanted to make it a non-descript city. I’ve seen a little bit of the production design.

How do you feel about expected comparisons to the 2003 Park Chan-wook original? Have you seen the first one?
I have seen the original. It was after I got the part, to see what it was. There was so much build-up about it. People built it up to be a masterpiece. I didn’t think it was sacrilege we’re remaking it. I had a different feeling about Let The Right One In, the original Swedish version, before it was hyped up. I’m such a hater, and will hate on anything. I went to see Let Me In [the American remake], and it was fine, a well executed answer to a foreign film.

When did you get offered this part, replacing Nate Parker?
I don’t know when Nate dropped out, or the timeline. They scrambled. I’ve worked with Spike a bunch of times. This is my fourth thing I’ve done with him [past projects include this year’s Red Hook Summer]. I found out on a Thursday night, I was on a plane Sunday, and shooting Monday or Tuesday. I live in New York.

What can you reveal about your character?
I’m playing a doctor who works with Elizabeth Olsen’s character at this medical clinic. The only thing I really will reveal is that I’m a nice person in the movie, which is nice for me. I can usually play polarizing characters. … They’ve taken more from the comic book than they did from the original movie, in the script. The real issue is the expectation that it’s going to be a really watered down version. People should remember that Spike’s polemic, an antagonistic director.

Expand on that. As someone who’s worked with Spike Lee, what are your thoughts on criticism of him doing this remake?
Spike is an actual filmmaker. He’s a uniquely American voice, and argumentative, a polemic. We get along because we’re both antagonistic. There wouldn’t be a point to make it, otherwise. For as antagonistic as he seems in the press, I’ve never worked with someone as loyal as he is, to me. Most of his crew he’s had with him since School Daze. He carries me around like a bag of old dirty laundry.

How was it working with Josh Brolin? There’s a high bar for this role, with South Korean actor Min-sik Choi so expressive in the original.
Josh, no matter what people’s expectation of the movie is, is really intense. He’s been living with this. He knew he was going to do this for a long time. His A-game is really intense. In the remake, the captivity scenes are longer than in the original. In the remake, they get more in-depth. What Josh did to his body, I’ve never seen an actor do before. He showed up pretty lean, pretty cut, and they shot the scene pretty much in sequence. In the course of nine days, he was ripped, he was fat, and then he was ripped again. He gained 35 pounds in one week, and then he dropped 19 pounds. I think Josh is so talented at what he does, I think there’s no way it’s going to be that bad. I met him for the first time last week. I’ve never worked with him before.

How about working with Elizabeth Olsen? She gained traction with last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene.
I had known her from just being in New York. She’s an NYU theater girl, just really sweet. Sometimes actresses are just insane. She isn’t. She’s really grounded. She grew up in such a Hollywood family.

How is it for you, working in Hollywood? You seem so straight forward, no BS.
I’m not sad to be part of this industry. I knew what I signed up for. For instance, though, that homeless video at Justin Timberlake’s wedding made me so angry. … A lot of my world-view is formed by the places I’ve been. Any new country I go, I realize the less I know, and the luckier I feel. Anyone who lives like a modern aristocracy, the last thing they exhibit is a sense of gratitude. Me, I’m very fortunate. I probably don’t make as much money as people think I make. I make more than the usual medium household. I’m one of the few middle class actors out there. The microcosm of Hollywood reflects the macrocosm of international finance.

For more film news

Read more:
Spike Lee’s ‘Oldboy’ remake set for release October 2013
Coming to America: South Korea’s top directors on hitting Hollywood with English language films — EXCLUSIVE

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