The Bikeriders Star Mike Faist Says Zendaya’s Photography Inspired Him 5

Mike Faist was planning to take a prolonged breather after an exhausting shoot on Challengers, but then those intentions fell by the wayside once Jeff Nichols called about The Bikeriders.

The Take Shelter and Mud filmmaker made Faist an offer that was simply too tempting to pass up. He’d not only get to work a couple hours from where he was born in Gahanna, Ohio, but he’d also get to play highly regarded photographer Danny Lyon while observing and documenting several of his favorite actors. The clincher was that Faist’s Challengers co-star Zendaya had already pointed him in this direction thanks to her tendency to photograph film sets and pick the brains of directors and DPs. 

“Towards the tail end of Challengers, Zendaya got me into photography. She had her cameras on set and was always playing around with them and whatnot. So I got interested and played around [with them], and I ordered a camera of my own,” Faist tells The Hollywood Reporter. “So, when Jeff called and said, ‘Hey, do you want to play a photographer in a movie I’m doing?’ I figured that was a sign that I should go ahead and take on this job.”

The Bikeriders is loosely based on the real Lyon’s 1967 photojournalist book of the same name, as he documented his time with a Chicago-area motorcycle club in the mid-1960s. Unlike his co-stars, Faist had more than just audio tapes, photographs and book interviews to prepare; he had Lyon himself. 

“He has a cabin in Maine, and so I drove up there to meet him. We spent the weekend shooting photography and fishing, and he actually introduced me to a friend of his who showed me his studio. So then we developed film, and we went through some of Danny’s old works,” Faist says.

Faist is now back home and he’s making a point to enjoy real life for a minute. He’s reached the fortunate position to be able to wait for inspiration to strike, and gaining more life experience will only serve his character work in the long run.

“I always say that the minute this thing becomes a job for me, then I really don’t want to do it anymore. It’s too chaotic of a world to live in to treat this as a job,” Faist says. “That may work for other people, and kudos to them, but, for me, it’s not interesting enough. It actually deeply, deeply pains me whenever I have done something for money or a job. It’s much more interesting to make no money and watch brilliant actors you admire and just pretend to be a photographer.”

Faist is also reminiscing about the time he learned the value of “I don’t know” by way of his breakout film role in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. There was one particular day where the cast and crew were preparing to shoot a scene, and during Faist’s smoke break, Spielberg approached him to light his cigar that he’d never once lit throughout production to that point. 

“Steven, whenever he is on set, he carries around a cigar, but he never smokes it. It’s like a weird security blanket or something like that,” Faist recalls. “We loosely blocked one of the scenes that we were about to shoot that day, and I went out to have a cigarette. And then Steven came up to me and asked me to light his cigar. And I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll light your cigar.’ So I lit his cigar for him, and I was like, ‘Steven, I’ve never seen you smoke that thing. What’s going on?’ And he said, ‘Well, I haven’t figured out how I’m going to shoot the scene yet.’ He was stressing out, and I caught him sweating.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Faist also shares some of the stories that Lyon told him, before explaining why he has no desire to wade into the Challengers discourse. 

Congrats on the year you’re having so far, Mike. 

Oh, thank you. 

How’s everything overall? 

I’m at home, so I’m happy. 

I’m glad you said that because I was going to bring up homelife a couple times today. You got to work with Jeff Nichols and a stacked cast a couple hours from where you were born in Gahanna, Ohio. Did you know ahead of time that The Bikeriders would be this close to home?

It was the only reason I took the job. (Laughs.) No, I’m kidding. I did know that it was going to be filming close to home in Cincinnati, and I was actually excited that they were shooting in my home state.

Have you been an admirer of Jeff’s films for quite a while? 

Yeah, Take Shelter is probably one of the best movies that’s been made in the 21st century, and it’s certainly one of my favorite Michael Shannon performances of all time. His work in that is absolutely phenomenal. Jeff is also a great director and a great writer, so I’ve been a fan of his for a while. 

Mike Faist and Jeff Nichols on the set of The Bikeriders

Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

So it must’ve been rather surreal when Mike Shannon, as his character, was questioning your character, Danny Lyon, about what he was actually documenting.

Yeah, Mike is honestly an actor that I’ve admired for so long, and the first time that I saw him live was when he did Long Day’s Journey into Night on Broadway. That was a few years back now at this point [2016], but I’ve seen him a couple of times live since then. And just growing up in New York [after high school in Ohio] and going to the theater, Mike has always been at the top of my list in terms of actors that I would love to emulate and mirror. I have such high respect and regard for him as an actor and a lot of these [Bikeriders] actors.

I was just coming off of Challengers when Jeff called and asked if I would be interested in doing this film, and basically towards the tail end of Challengers, Zendaya got me into photography. She had her cameras on set and was always playing around with them and whatnot. So I got interested and played around [with them], and I ordered a camera of my own. And then I took vacation and messed around with it [some more]. So, when Jeff called and said, “Hey, do you want to play a photographer in a movie I’m doing?” I figured that was a sign that I should go ahead and take on this job. The truth is that he caught me at a time where we had been making Challengers for about six months, and I had just finished. So I really was not interested in acting in anything, but I thought it was an interesting opportunity.

I’m obviously in front of the camera, portraying a real-life character, Danny Lyon, but the idea of playing the role of an observer actually really intrigued me. And he was not just any observer, but an observer witnessing actors that I really love. Tom Hardy is an actor that I’ve also loved for years now, as well as Jodie Comer more recently. So the opportunity to just sit and observe all of these amazing actors that I’m genuinely such a fan of and just watch their processes, I was just too curious to pass up the opportunity. That’s the truth of the matter. And then I got to talk about making movies with Jeff and what that all means and what we’re trying to get at, in general, as artists.

Between Danny Lyon and Art Donaldson, I thought it was interesting how you played back-to-back roles where you had to define your character in multiple different time periods. You said you shot Art first, so did you take a similar approach for Danny? 

No, just because Danny is a real, live, tangible human being, but there’s aspects of Art from Andre Agassi’s memoir Open that I certainly latched onto for myself and was able to just connect with in terms of ideology. But then I got to spend time with Danny. We went fishing. He has a cabin in Maine, and so I drove up there to meet him. We spent the weekend shooting photography and fishing, and he actually introduced me to a friend of his who showed me his studio. So then we developed film, and we went through some of Danny’s old works. 

But, honestly, from talking to Danny and other people recently, there’s been this interesting theme that all artists have essentially the same story that they keep telling over and over again in different ways. And if you look at how Danny got into photography, he was one of the first photographers for SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] during the civil rights movement. This was before anyone was getting any real traction as to what was going on in the South, and he was also John Lewis’ roommate. 

And then he became interested in this biker gang, and from there, he went into the prison system and followed these prisoners around. So he’s always been fascinated by telling the stories of people who are on the fringes of society, who were overlooked and outcast. He has always been interested, but I would say he genuinely loved these people, so much so that he wanted to paint an image of how he saw them.

It can be rather nerve-wracking for actors to play real people, especially if they’re still around to render judgment. Did Danny make a point to disarm you at all? 

Danny is genuinely one of the nicest guys I’ve ever met, and this particular book of his, The Bikeriders, is so beloved by this community. While we were shooting in Cincinnati, we were lucky to have real-life bikers come out with their pre-1970s bike collections that weren’t regulated. So the gear shifts and brakes and clutches are in different areas, and each individual bike is its own unique thing. They truly were chopped up and made specifically for the rider. It wasn’t until the ‘70s where they actually started to regulate them. 

But these guys all love Danny and his book, and a big part of why they started to get into this hobby, if you will, is because of his book. So Danny understands that, and he has a real love for these guys and for motorcycles at the end of the day. He just loves motorcycles. So I think he was honored and really excited that Jeff was fascinated to the point of turning this book into a movie. Danny is such an open guy, too. He will talk your ear off, man. He’ll just go on and on, and he has all the stories to back it up. That guy has lived such a remarkable and unique life. 

Photographers Kyle Bono Kaplan and Bryan Schutmaat recently released a coffee-table book consisting of Bikeriders set photos, but did you ever consider documenting the set with your own photos and interviews a la Danny?

The production has all the photos [that I shot]. In fact, I’m pretty sure that some of my photos are in that book. They gave me so much film, and I was like, “If we’re going to do this, let’s do it. Let’s document it.” 

I mentioned that scene where Shannon’s character, Zipco, gets on your character’s case about what he’s actually documenting as part of his college studies, but in real life, Danny was actually a member of the club.  

That was the only reason they would let him ride with them. The way that Danny told it was he got back to Chicago, because he was going to law school there, and his bike was in the shop. He was shooting in the South that summer, and when his time was up, he got his bike back from the guy that was working on it in the [Chicago] shop. And he asked the guy, “Is there a club that I could join?” And the guy was like, “Come back here on Thursday.” Danny is also such a charming guy. He can charm his way into or out of pretty much any situation depending on what’s needed. So he showed up on Thursday with his cameras, and he, more or less, lied to these guys. He was like, “I’m a really famous photographer and I’d love to tell your story. I’d love to follow you guys around. I have a bike of my own, and it’d be great if you guys would let me join the club.” And they were like, “Yeah, sure.” So he just rode around and followed these guys for six months in Ohio, Chicago and pretty much all over. 

Mike Faist as Danny and Jodie Comer as Kathy in Jeff Nichols’ The Bikeriders

Kyle Kaplan/Focus Features

Jodie told me that the audio that Danny provided production was invaluable to creating her character’s voice. Did you rely on those tapes as well even though you had Danny and plenty of other material available to you?

The tapes were very helpful. Danny doesn’t do too much talking in the tapes because he’s really trying to get them all to talk. But they were great to listen to, because what Danny sounds like now is different from what Danny sounded like then. So we were going to run with anything that we could grasp onto and utilize to our fullest ability. 

As alluded to earlier, I really appreciated how well you sold Art Donaldson at different ages, especially when juxtaposed against Patrick Zweig (Josh O’Connor), who never really grew up. The point of the movie was to reconnect and rebuild this home that had been wrecked, but everyone wants to take a side regardless. Did all of you expect this amount of tribalism?

No, no, no. And, whatever, it’s silly. That’s the funny thing with movies. We go into them as artists for our own reasons, and we’re trying to do things as a team, and we’re just trying to make the thing at the end of the day. For us, as artists, we put everything out there for the camera to collect, and then it’s Jeff’s job or Luca’s [Guadagnino] job to go and edit the thing. And then, at a certain point, we all have to let it go. It then becomes this co-collaboration with the audience, and it’s really none of our business anymore. The truth is we just have to move on to the next thing.

Mike Faist in Challengers

MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Actors typically say that they have to defend their characters no matter what, so did each of you have pretty staunch defenses for your characters? Were there ever debates off camera?

No, we just did our work.

Your Bikeriders co-star Austin Butler was recently quoted taking Patrick’s side. Does it surprise you that people would be Team Patrick?

Honestly, no. Again, we show up, we make the movie, and then it’s really up to the audience to interpret and make the thing for themselves.

You said something recently that I really respected. Sophie Wilde asked you what project was next, and you replied, “Going home. And being a human.” And that’s an important lesson to know at this stage in your career. Bryan Cranston talked not too long ago about how he was running out of fresh ideas for his characters, so, once he turns 70, he’s planning to take six months off to explore and find new inspiration. When did you first realize that having a life outside of work is ultimately better for your work? 

I think I was maybe fortunate to not always book a lot of work. (Laughs.) Quite often, I was unemployed, so that’s the truth of the matter. People, as they get older, start to learn this lesson, but if you determine your worth or your self-value based on what you are working on creatively, if anything, then I think you’re going to run into some issues. Life happens, and there’s only really so much that you actually can control. So I think Bryan is right. 

I always say that the minute this thing becomes a job for me, then I really don’t want to do it anymore. That’s not why I do it. It’s too weird. It’s too chaotic of a world to live in to treat this as a job and to be that pragmatic with it. That may work for other people, and kudos to them, but, for me, it’s not interesting enough. And, quite frankly, it hurts, actually. It actually deeply, deeply pains me whenever I have done something for money or a job. It’s much more interesting to make no money and watch brilliant actors you admire and just pretend to be a photographer. That’s much more interesting and compelling for me to show up for a project for X amount of weeks or months than showing up and doing something just for the sake of having a job. I always say, “If I need a job, I’ll just go get a job.” So I think it’s important to stay open and only latch onto the things that actually spark an interest with you.

Lastly, I just saw a great clip of you and your West Side Story castmates having a laugh with Steven Spielberg behind the monitor. He’s known for figuring out blocking and shot selection on the day, but for the song-and-dance numbers that required tons of people and several months of rehearsal, was he more deliberate on those days than his usual instinctive way?

I’ll tell you one anecdote that I think we’ll all appreciate. The truth is that we had four months of rehearsals prior to day one of shooting. So we were all kind of living in it, and what we were rehearsing during that time was all the music sequences and dance numbers. Steven was there to witness what we were doing, and from time to time, he would pull out his iPhone and have someone push him around in a computer chair or something like that. So I think there were things that were shot listed prior to [shooting] — probably those larger sequences where you have to.

But when I was shooting West Side, I was chain-smoking at the time. And Steven, whenever he is on set, he carries around a cigar, but he never smokes it. He just kind of holds it. It’s like a weird security blanket or something like that. He just always had it for some reason. So I remember we loosely blocked one of the scenes that we were about to shoot that day, and I went out to have a cigarette. And then Steven came up to me and asked me to light his cigar. And I thought, “Okay, I’ll light your cigar.” So I lit his cigar for him, and I was like, “Steven, I’ve never seen you smoke that thing. What’s going on?” And he said, “Well, I haven’t figured out how I’m going to shoot the scene yet.” (Laughs.) He was stressing out, and I caught him sweating. 

Wow.

But it’s important to just go off your feelings with so much of what we do. So much room has to be allowed for, “I don’t knows,” because the answer is going to find itself in one shape or form, and it might be from the least likely of places if you’re open to receiving it. 

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The Bikeriders is now playing in movie theaters.

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