Austin Amelio Will Happily Be Your Wild Card

austin amelio
Austin Amelio Will Happily Be Your Wild CardJuankr

Austin Amelio doesn’t believe in setting goals, or even planning out his next steps. That’s simply not how things have worked for him in his thirty-six years on this planet. “Films come to you in this weird, cosmic way,” he says between drags on his cigarette. “Same with opportunities in life.”

Amelio is talking to me from the roof of his rental in Madrid. It’s 9:00 p.m., but the Spanish sky is still bright around him. He’s there shooting When Nobody Sees Us, a dark crime series on which he plays the lead, a man Amelio says is “essentially a psycho.” The role is a variation on what’s become a theme for him: playing characters he describes as “wild cards.” Guys with a fire in their eyes. Guys who are vibrating at a different frequency from everyone else. Guys who are liable to turn a scene—if not an entire film—on its head.

The first of these roles was Amelio’s big break. Richard Linklater cast him as a mud-wrestling, party-boy ballplayer named Nesbit in 2016’s Everybody Wants Some!!, a breezy 1980-set college-baseball comedy. From there, he landed a recurring role on Fear the Walking Dead as Dwight, a good guy gone bad gone good again. Now Amelio has reunited with Linklater—as well as Everybody Wants Some!! castmate Glen Powell—for Netflix’s Hit Man. In it, Amelio plays Jasper, a dirty cop who acts as a perpetual thorn in the side of Gary, Powell’s (fake) hit man.

Though Amelio sees himself as “a pretty calm, loving dude” in his personal life, he gets why he’s constantly cast in such roles. “If people see me, they probably go, ‘Whoa, he’s got kind of a wild look,’ ” he says. If Amelio’s wild look is partly cultivated—the cigarette, the untamed mustache, the Texas swagger—there’s also something inherently erratic in his wiry frame and sharp, beady eyes. It’s easy to see why Linklater and Powell wrote Jasper with Amelio in mind. Far from being insulted, the actor is happy to inhabit these types of renegades. “They’re deep and the world’s sort of against them,” he says. “They’re outcasts. And yeah, I sort of feel like that anyway. I like spending time alone. I like painting. I like skateboarding. I like acting. There’s not some real group I’m in. I’m not fully this or fully that.”

With Hit Man now streaming, Amelio and I talked about working with Linklater, whether people can change, and the scary state of the film business. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

austin amelio
How big was Richard Linklater for Amelio growing up? “Huge,” he says. “I used to watch Dazed and Confused nonstop on the VHS player.”Juankr

ESQUIRE: Before this movie, were hit men something you thought about at all?

Austin Amelio: No. [Laughs.]

I imagine growing up in Texas, there’s all that cowboy and gunslinger mythology. Was that ever romantic to you?

Always. Still is. Cowboys and the West and the South, there’s a sort of rebel-outlaw mentality, and it’s attractive. There’s some mystique behind it. Cowboys off on the land doing their thing.

Is the rebel-outlaw mentality something you’re also attracted to in roles?

It’s always more interesting to play bad guys than good guys. I don’t know why I get cast as that, but you’ve got to wear the dress, I guess.

For the role of Jasper, were you drawing from anyone you know?

No. The writing was there. When I saw [the role], there was this old rock ’n’ roll band member I was thinking of. And I was sort of thinking of Buffalo ’66, Vincent Gallo.

Funny story: I went out in New Orleans on Bourbon Street to try to find the sketchiest-looking dude I could find. I had already picked out my wardrobe for the character. And when I found the sketchiest guy, he was wearing the exact same stuff I had picked out for the character. The exact same leather jacket and the exact same boots.

I’ve been to Bourbon Street, and there are a lot of sketchy dudes. So for this guy to be the sketchiest, that’s saying something.

I found him, and then I was like, “Okay, I’m wearing this.”

Were there other pieces of the costume that helped you lock in?

Clothes do have some sort of expression to them. If you put on a nineties puffer jacket, you’d feel a little bit different than in the nice blue sweatshirt you’re wearing. So the boots make you feel a certain way. I wore a rattlesnake belt that my buddy had made for me. It makes you feel some type of way.

Glen Powell’s Gary is changed by playing his hit-man character, Ron. He ends up bringing a bit of that person into his life. Has that ever happened to you?

Yeah, in a way. Nothing too crazy. But I’m filming this really wild crime thriller in Spain right now, and I’m playing essentially a psycho. Some of the scenes are pretty disturbing, so some nights I’ll have to come home and take a shower. But I’m not a Method actor where I’m in it all the time.

One of the things the movie explores is people wanting to put you into a certain box.

Which I don’t think is even possible. You have the ability to change as a person, always, I hope. I hope we’re all evolving. It would be so boring if I were the same dude I was when I was twenty-one. It’s fun to have things influence you in a way where you can change and evolve. That’s sort of the whole point of life.

In Hit Man, the way people change is by inhabiting different characters. Do you feel like that’s how change has worked in your own life?

It’s been more of an experiential thing. I experience something and look at it in a 360 degree way—and then I know not to do this but that I want to do this and do that.

Was Linklater big for you growing up?

Huge. I used to watch Dazed and Confused nonstop on the VHS player.

a man wearing headphones
In Hit Man, Amelio plays Jasper, a dirty cop who acts as a perpetual thorn in the side of Gary, Powell’s (fake) hit

That must have been so special to be in Everybody Wants Some!!, given that it was a sort of follow-up to Dazed and Confused.

It was amazing. I had to work my ass off to get that audition. And then I had to audition five or six times for him for that film. So I was pulling out my hair. The really special thing about it was we were all sort of at the same level in our acting careers. No one had really taken off or done anything. We were all sort of experiencing this amazing moment at the same time. It was a blast. And we’re still on a mass text today.

Is it like the movie, where everyone is constantly razzing each other?

It’s nonstop. That’s all we do—just make fun of each other.

In Everybody Wants Some!!, you have a scene where you mud wrestle, and it looks like you got a little mud in your mouth. Did you swallow some there?

I think I did, yeah. And it was super cold that night. So I was freezing. We did a good number of takes—between five and ten. That was horrible. I hate being cold and wet.

Was the scene in Hit Man where you get on all fours and start sniffing around scripted?

Yeah. I think that was Rick’s idea. It was kind of difficult to do because you’re trying to find the truth, but it’s so ridiculous.

I imagine it would be hard to nail that screwball tone and also make it real.

There’s a fine line—because it is a comedy—but this guy has a real objective. And it’s to be on the dude’s tail and figure out what’s going on. But to me, the funniest comedies are like Step Brothers, when it’s really taken seriously. It’s like Philip Seymour Hoffman when he says he sharts in Along Came Polly. That was an amazing piece of acting, but it was a total comedy. I like trying to do that. Trying to live it out as honest as possible.

austin amelio
“I want no identity for myself,” Amelio says. “It’s too much work. I just want to go with the flow and let people have different perceptions of you, and that’s sort of it.” Juankr

It seems like the industry is going through this weird time. I’m curious how that’s affecting you and what your perspective on it is?

Yeah, I don’t know if good actors even matter anymore. [Laughs.] Obviously they do, but it’s so much about Instagram followers and who could put people in seats. I believe there are people out there who care about the craft and want to make good films and have good people in their films. But it’s a weird time with social media. There are so many strange things going on. I just hope I get put in the right hands, you know?

How is everyone in your orbit processing this moment?

I don’t know. My hope is just that good movies get made. And it’s not all about who has a million followers and who doesn’t. Let’s go back to a meritocracy, and whoever’s good, let's get people working. I’m sick of the social-media shit and all that. This person has 20 million followers. Sure, let’s cast them. They’ve never acted before, but let’s put them in a movie and fill up the seats. That’s a bummer. Maybe it’ll go back to the Dogme 95–type films where we’re making indie films and supporting people who are trying to really make some interesting stuff.

Are there any young directors doing cool things whom you’d like to work with?

I really enjoy the Safdie brothers’ stuff. As far as young directors go, I don’t know too many. But I know they’re out there. And I’m thinking of them. It’s such a hard business and I just want to see those kinds of films getting made.

At the end of the movie, Gary instructs his class to “seize the identity you want for yourself.” Did that line bring anything to mind for you?

I want no identity for myself. It’s too much work. I just want to go with the flow and let people have different perceptions of you, and that’s sort of it. I’m not really trying to enforce some identity on the world of what I am, who I am, and what I’m about. It doesn’t matter. I don’t care. I care about what my friends and family think of me. I have a son, so I hope he looks at me in a certain way and my lady looks at me in a certain way. Beyond that, I don’t really care.

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