To C-word or not to C-word. When given the choice, Eddie Jemison C-words.
Which is why he spent some time shrugging his shoulders at little old ladies at festival screenings of King of Herrings, a film he wrote, co-directed and starred in that follows four on-again/off-again buddies who are not shy about dropping the taboo word that many American audiences still cringe at.
“The Sex Pistols called each other cunts. That was just their way. It was their scene and their language,” Jemison says of the word. “But a lot of people are turned off by it. Old ladies, as it turns out, don’t like it. I don’t blame them. I just apologize. On the other side, though, people hear the word and laugh; they aren’t grossed out.”
Jemison admits the word is tempered not by his four male stars, who unleash all sorts of awful vulgarities on one other, but by the film’s female lead played by the lovely actress Laura Lamson, the actor-director’s real-life wife. Lamson plays Mary, much-better half to Jemison’s Ditch, the wildly offensive leader to his circle of misfits and miscreants. When Ditch pushes his caustic sense of humor a little too far within the group, The Professor (played by Joe Chrest) plans a retaliatory strike by befriending Mary, Ditch’s lonely seamstress wife.
“Whenever people start thinking the movie goes too far, it really centers all back around on Mary. It’s her movie,” Jemison says of King of Herrings, which played at last year’s Phoenix Film Festival and is available digitally today.
Jemison, as the pig-headed misanthrope, plays against type; he is widely remembered as a dweebish character actor, frequently playing mild-mannered men in technical positions usually involving numbers or computer code. He’s had small parts in Waitress, HBO’s Hung and Bruce Almighty, but he’s most recognizable in fellow Louisiana State University alum Steven Soderbergh’s films, including as sweaty computer expert Livingston Dell in the Ocean’s 11 movies.
“Of course, I’m usually typecast. I’ve always hated that, but what can you do? For this, though, I cast everyone against type. Me more obviously, but also Joe Chrest, who’s easily the most assertive of all of us,” he says. “It was a blast being a big jerk with a Napoleon complex.”
The film came to be during an acting workshop in which Jemison was asked to write a script. “I had this scene I wanted to write where a guy says ‘cunt’ a lot,” he says, adding that the class got involved and the film blossomed in front of him. “Everyone wanted to know the end of the story, so I knew I had something there that was working.”
The film works not only because of its delicate sleight of hand with the star of the film — as Jemison says it, the film may play like a boys club but it’s really about Mary — but also because its characters chew the screen. They live in a world that must smell like old cigarettes and cheap beer. Cracked vinyl seats, flickering fluorescent lighting, bowling alleys, dog tracks, laundromats. The world is lived in and worn, and the four characters are in no big rush to leave it. The film was shot in color, but given a high-contrast black-and-white treatment in post-production, a look that solidifies the film’s forgotten time and place. It looks very indie and cheap, but in this case that works quite splendidly.
This is Jemison’s directorial debut, which he shares with co-director Sean Richardson. Much of the cast, and some of the crew, go way back to their LSU days, back to around the time Soderbergh was filming sex, lies, and videotape, and casting many of King of Herrings’ actors in his early movies. Jemison hopes Herrings is enough of a success that he can take the LSU crew down to New Orleans and film a new project “with the exact same actors, like repertory cinema.”
One actor who was easy to work with was Lamson, his wife in and out of the movie. “She’s so good in this movie. I would tell her stuff, but she would really just take over. And as I would be busy directing, she would direct me. She would remind me to give more and to not hold back,” he says, repeating again that Lamson’s Mary calms Herrings’ more sinister verses. “She provides the balance the film needs. When we were showing this movie early on, it was getting really dark responses. But the more people who saw it, the more who started seeing through the film’s more menacing tone. They were finding this sad character in it, and she was cutting through all the rawness.”
“It’s a weird, hard movie,” he admits. “But we’re very proud of it.”
King of Herrings is available on VOD Tuesday.