Chris Pine’s ‘Poolman’ Has a Singular Message: Joy

CUL01_PS_Chris Pine
Chris Pine attends Amazon Studios’ “All The Old Knives” Los Angeles Special Screening at The London West Hollywood at Beverly Hills on March 9, 2022, in West Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images)

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty

“When I got into this business, when people started packaging me as a prince…it was about the farthest thing from who I was.”

What do you do when Hollywood wants you to be one thing, but you have a wholly different outlook about yourself? For Chris Pine, breaking the mold of expectations meant creating the new film Poolman (May 10). “Believe it or not, it’s probably the most personal thing I’ve ever made.” And it should be, considering he not only stars in it as Darren Barrenman, a colorful pool man on a mission to protect the city—and the pool—he loves, but Pine also co-wrote and directed the film. The idea for it is rooted in Pine’s own search for joy. “It was COVID and I was going through a lot of personal stuff and feeling a lot, and I said, ‘Why not just lead from the heart instead? Lead from instinct and joy and giggling and catharsis in a kind of positive, joyful way? [That’s] all I really wanted to do.” You can feel that watching the movie, and for Pine, that’s all that matters. “There’s a bunch of yelling in the world and if we can just shut up for just the briefest of seconds and allow the other person their moment, maybe there would be more, I don’t know, joy—who knows?”


Editor’s Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed for publication.

Where did the idea for Poolman come from?

The idea came from talking with Patty Jenkins years ago, and we were having a laugh after shooting. It was two things then, the idea of a pool man and his name Darren Barrenman. And they just made me laugh and they really didn’t get out of my system for a long time. I come up with a lot of ideas, many of which fade into oblivion, and this one just struck a chord with me, and I couldn’t let it go. That was really the genesis. It kind of started snowballing and more things started coming out as I investigated what the story could be, basically.

How did you make the decision to write and direct it?

It was it was really so much more instinctual than I thought it [would be]. I got into acting because I enjoyed it and it made sense and then I was doing it. And it wasn’t ever…. The only thing I’ve ever really wanted to do deeply, passionately was to be a baseball player or Maverick in Top Gun, and neither panned out. And this one, it just felt inevitable that I would do it. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I thought I’d get a screenwriter, but that proved to go nowhere. And then as I started thinking about it more, the ideas came, and it was much more instinctual. It was just following my joy. Everything about this whole process was joyful. I mean, it was a lot of hard work, but it never felt like I was carrying some sort of onus because I had to or shouldn’t do it. It’s because I really wanted to do it.

That’s something I write down while watching the film. “Joy.”

I’m so happy to hear that. That’s honestly my shining north star in this, I think maybe it’s where I am in my life. I’ve always been a perfectionist, I’ve always wanted to make great art and I’ve always been very harda** on myself about trying to be perfect. And I lead with my head much more often. I was like, ‘You know what? Goddamn it.’ It was COVID and I was going through a lot of personal stuff and feeling a lot and I said, ‘Why not just lead from the heart instead? Lead from instinct and joy and giggling and catharsis in a kind of positive, joyful way? [That’s] all I really wanted to do. That is really meaningful for me, so thank you.

There are so many sensory things that I found interesting in the film, like the focus on how a CD player closes, little things like that. Was that intentional?

I’ve been living in this bubble for four years now, so to get to talk to a newbie watcher is so fun. I’m a very visual person—a bit of OCD when it comes to that. I think, oftentimes, we’ve forgotten, because now filming is so easy, that our medium is visual; it’s storytelling, but it’s also visual. I love a beautiful visual image. So, to get to talk to the costume department about costumes and to dress DeWanda [Wise] in everything I wanted to be on her and to get into all of the weird minutia of Darren’s trailer, to get into the origami and to do a deep dive on that. So textures and colors in the color palette and all of that was very important to me. And the more that I got to know Darren, writing him and playing him, the more he struck me as someone who was deeply, naturally, innately uncomfortable socially, especially in his dealings with his girlfriend or DeWanda’s June, he just misses a lot of social nuance. So the things that he can touch and feel that are substantive like, this is a pool skimmer, and that’s a pool and you clean the pool, [that] makes a lot of sense to Darren. So I think it made sense to me and the character.

Chris Pine Poolman
Chris Pine attends the Los Angeles premiere of “Poolman” celebrating Chris Pine’s directorial debut at Vista Theatre on April 24, 2024, in Los Angeles, California.

Monica Schipper/Getty Images

I’m fascinated by actor directors and that process. How does it change as you’re directing it? Does it change how you approach your performance and your acting in the film?

I talked to so many people about how to do it. I talked to John Krasinski and Ben Stiller. I did all my homework, everybody had great things to say. I had all this anxiety going, “How the f*** am I supposed to turn to Annette Bening, and give her some kind of note?” And I will tell you the greatest benefit of making an independent film—we shot this in 21 days for some ridiculous amount of money—is that you have no time to be anxious. Because I had no time, the flow state, the ability to just go in and out of character and to direct and to act and to talk to lighting, talk to costumes, talk to sound, [it] becomes so fluid that there is no break in creativity. There’s no on-and-off switch, you just have to simply go with instinct, and it’s incredibly liberating in many ways, a lot easier to dare I say to do it? Because your interface is simply yourself. You just have to get out of your own way.

Another thing I enjoyed about the film is that it seems like a bit of a love letter to Los Angeles. What about L.A. inspired you?

It’s a great question. So many things inspired it. Look, I’m a product of Los Angeles, I’m a product of Hollywood. I’m a third-generation actor. The city has given me and my family a great deal. It also can be a very sad town because it can be the boulevard of broken dreams. The family unit [in the film] that is comprised of myself, Jack and Diane, who are Annette Bening and Danny [DeVito], and Susan, [played by] Jennifer [Jason Leigh], my girlfriend, they occupy this unit of people that [my character] knew very well growing up, which is adjacent to the Hollywood dream. They’ve touched the dream just enough to still want to be here, but they’re not living in Bel-Air and they’re not living in Beverly Hills and aren’t even living in West Hollywood. They’re living in the Valley. It’s kind of hot and it’s dreary, there’s smog in the San Gabriels in the summertime. And Jack made films maybe 25 years ago, but they were horror films on a B-level for Roger Corman. They just touched [the dream] and they still want to be in it so badly, like Jack wants to be in it. And Darren loves Peter Sellers and all these old wonderful actors. There’s this shot I was dying to get, my A.D. killed me for it, but I wanted to get Cary Grant, Peter Sellers and Peter O’Toole above [Darren’s] bed because I want three of my North Stars. But I love this adjacent to the Hollywood dream thing. My father has been in the business, and he’s been rich and dead broke and working and nonworking. And my mother had the same. So this was really a tribute to those people. There’s a meta aspect to this where it’s almost as if you gave all of these outcasts, like these people that are like the guys on Hollywood Boulevard, and they’re gonna make a film. It’s as if Darren made this film Poolman for himself. I wanted that coloring, and it got me a chance to talk about all the things I love talking about, like why isn’t the Garden of Allah [Hotel] on Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard anymore? Why is that a f****** shopping center? Why do we keep on tearing down beautiful buildings to create like boxy f****** cardboard boxes? So it’s just a lot of me in this. I want the red trolleys back and I want people to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit? so they understand the history of [L.A.]. That kind of stuff.

I always say the best thing about L.A. is grocery shopping, because you’re bound to bump into somebody who has died on Grey’s Anatomy.

I’m a deep lover of L.A. as it’s my hometown. Like, I love the physical space while having a love-hate relationship with it. I love the fact that in the opening scene, it’s this kind of washed-out version of deep Reseda, but then once he goes into his noir dream, it’s all beautiful, lush darks and shadows at the Biltmore [Hotel]. It’s like L.A. can be many, many different things. It is the land of make-believe and it’s the land of polarities.

Another thing about it is the references and the parts of the film that, for a film lover, are fun to see. Like, I saw Peter Sellers’ Being There, references to Chinatown, even The Big Lebowski.

I’m always hesitant to say it because Ashby is Ashby [Hal Ashby directed Being There] so I feel like a pretentious prick, but the film was deeply motivated by my experience of watching Being There. I was on a plane so obviously there’s the plane altitude issue, but I’m watching [Being There] and I love it and it’s everything I remember. He walks on water and then there’s a weird Masonic funeral and I’m crying. I’m like, “how? How did he pull this magic trick? How? How is this film so sweet and delicate and seemingly, I don’t know, one line deep into this deep, cavernous well at the end?” And that was the magic trick I desperately wanted to pull off in this is that you think it’s one film, you think it’s this absurd potentially screwball comedy with crazy overlapping dialogue characters that never listen to one another and you just have these moments of bottoming out and [Darren] has a weird monologue about despair at the racetrack. And then you figure out that this movie is about this whole other thing. Ours is basically a story about an emotionally fractured man who’s desperately trying to figure himself out who goes on this incredibly absurd journey, only to learn about the deepest trauma about himself and find relief. And could you marry those two things? And that Darren is, he is this very classically Hollywood trope, the Buster Keaton model, Peter Sellers in Being There, it’s the innocent lamb in a world of intrigue and cynicism. What happens when this lamb walks through the world? Has he changed the world? How does it change him? And just like in Being There at the end, Chauncey [Chance, played by Peter Sellers] is Chauncey and goes on Chauncey’s way, and the world has completely changed. And just like Darren at the end, he’s a f****** pool man. No, I don’t want the job, I’m a f****** pool man.

As someone with a Golden Girls tattoo, I loved the Golden Girls drag show part of the film. But there’s a moment there with Stephen Tobolowsky—who is such an example of a journeyman actor, you know his face but you don’t always know his name—in it there’s a moment, Darren and his character, while in drag, it’s such an emotional and honest moment. Did that stand out to you?

A lot of what I have dealt with [in] my life and what I find interesting is listening and witnessing and being witnessed. Like who is an actual listener, reflects back to you, where you feel relational. This film is about non-relationality, [everyone] is talking over one another, there are four different conversations happening at once. And I wanted the only time in the film where it all stops, for all of it to drop away with Stephen where they’re actually talking to one another and it’s like eight-year-olds had written this. I’m sorry for this. Okay, I’m sorry that. Do you forgive me? And I really wanted it to be as quiet as possible, where these two people are alone. They feel deeply unheard and unseen. And Tobolowsky, he trained to be a rabbi, and so he said, “This reminds me deeply of the idea of forgiveness in the Talmud.” And he read me this whole thing about what it means to forgive in the Talmud. He said, “What this needs is both an apology from one side and forgiveness and an apology from the other side and forgiveness.” So I rewrote the scene, and it’s a very meaningful scene to me, because it’s, I guess, what I wished for the world, what I wish for interpersonal stuff. There’s a bunch of yelling in the world and if we can just shut up for just the briefest of seconds and allow the other person their moment, maybe there would be more, I don’t know, joy, who knows?

It’s so true. And I think L.A. as a character is part of it, because there’s this sense of chosen family out here. Everyone is a transplant, so you need to make these deep connections just to survive.

Oftentimes on my flights to New York, there’s inevitably a conversation about New York versus L.A.. Inevitably the conversation comes to how fake people are in L.A.. The f****** hair on the back of my neck stands up and I get really defensive. And I said, “You ever been to an art party in New York? A finance party? You think those people are truly authentic real people? Go with God, man, have fun.” What I love about L.A. is you can be f****** anywhere and no one gives a flying f*** who you are, what you are, you’re gay, you’re straight, you’re Black, you’re white, you’re trans, you’re a f****** poet, investor, you can be whatever you want, as long as you have a really good story. That’s all people care about. And people may think that’s fake, I call it reinvention. It’s the land where not only can you reinvent yourself, but you can find community with other f****** weirdos and other people that are in the circus chasing the dream. And a lot of Darren’s journey is precisely that, wrapped up in this absurdist screwball comedy. It’s the journey of a man just trying to individuate from the trauma of his nuclear family to swim in a pool with his best friends and have a lot of joy. Call it a day. That’s it.

Ultimately what do you hope people take from this film?

I didn’t write this as a comedy. It’s been really hard to market it because people want to put it in a box. I hope this is kind of a boxless endeavor. The best version of this is when I see people after seeing the film, and they just have a brightness to them. They’re smiling. I want people to be delighted, just delighted at life and that they’ve spent the hour and a half watching people do ridiculous things. I just hope that people have patience. This is not self-seriousness. This is hopefully great craftsmanship wrapped in a really well-popped piece of popcorn. That’s what I hope. Believe it or not, it’s probably the most personal thing I’ve ever made in my entire life. It’s closer to who I believe I am than anything I’ve ever played before. When I got into this business, when people started packaging me as a prince and all of these things, I was a kid who was deeply awkward; it was about the farthest thing from who I was. So if you want to take a peek into the brain of me and what it’s like to be me, the Poolman is it.

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