After a fruitful acting and writing career, B.J. Novak becomes a triple threat with Vengeance, making his directorial debut while also starring as a New York journalist who travels to Texas to investigate the death of a woman he’d previously hooked up with. Along the way he starts a podcast to tell the story and becomes immersed in the Texas culture after being welcomed in by the woman’s family, who think the two were in a serious relationship.
“In these times where we’re disconnected from each other, when friendship and dating and LOL and all of these things are completely different in our phones than real life, we think we’re connected when we’re not; we listen to podcasts and we know these people very well, but we don’t know them at all,” Novak told The Hollywood Reporter at the film’s Los Angeles premiere on Monday of coming up with the concept. “I thought, ‘Well that’s not only good for a comedy, but that’s really a drama these days too’ because that’s what the whole country is going through. It became a way to go from an observational comedy into a much bigger canvas about America.”
For his first time leading a feature film, Novak said he took particular inspiration from Quentin Tarantino, whom he worked with on Inglourious Basterds, in how he “gets everyone excited about his vision so they can feel like part of it,” as well as Saving Mr. Banks director John Lee Hancock.
And it appears to have paid off, as Novak’s cast had high praise for his behind-the-scenes work: “If he calls me tomorrow and says, ‘Let’s do this thing,’ I’m doing it,” said Ashton Kutcher.
Kutcher, who plays a Texas record producer that Novak’s character encounters during his investigation, said the script for Vengeance was one of the best he’d read in the last decade, and explored “this fracture that is in the country of the coasts and the middle and how far apart people think their ideologies are when really they’re much closer than people want to imagine.”
“It’s so much easier to run these identity politics games and vilify anyone who disagrees with you, as opposed to listen to their perspective and then try to find their humanity,” the star added. “I think this film does a really good job of showing both sides listening and finding each other’s humanity in a way that you don’t really see. Most movies are this ideology or that ideology, and the notion of this film being both is an impressive feat that B.J. pulled off.”
On top of a starry cast including Kutcher, Issa Rae, Boyd Holbrook, Dove Cameron and J. Smith-Cameron, Novak also recruited longtime friend John Mayer for a cameo role, which the musician was quick to agree to when the director suggested it.
“It’s not even a matter of consideration,” Mayer said of joining the project. “I know [Novak] wouldn’t just haphazardly have a thought about me, so [he has] a really good reason. I’ll do it.” The two were able to play around for most of their scenes, as Mayer joked, “If it was just a script I don’t think he would have been happy with my work, but we got to goof off really. I think we did it for three or four hours, and then maybe an hour in we started cooking and it was like, ‘This is really fun.’”
Did the onscreen experience launch a desire for John Mayer, movie star? “It’s just an interesting adventure. All of these things are adventures, I get to go on incredible adventures,” he said. “I never quite know where I’ll pop up, I just follow where my enthusiasm takes me.”
Mayer’s other role on the film was connecting Novak with superstar producer (and brother to Billie Eilish) Finneas O’Connell, who did the film’s original score, something the musician had always wanted to do.
With both he and Novak taking on their roles for the first time, “It was fun for both of us to be looking at each other and shrugging, like, ‘I don’t know, what do you think we should do?’ That made it a really interesting experience.” And as for if Mayer’s acting turn inspired him to also go on camera, Finneas — who appeared on Glee before his big break — said it’s on the table: “I love acting and I’m excited to return to it at some point with the right project and right role.”
Vengeance hits theaters nationwide on Friday.