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Dustin Milligan on “alpha-male-ing” old friend Cory Monteith and a shifting Canadian indie film scene

Rachel Fox

March 27th, 2012

Actor Dustin Milligan wears his Canadian heart on his sleeve - literally. The 90120 alum and SHARK NIGHT 3D actor, who also had a memorable turn as a pool boy in EXTRACT, sports a tattoo of a postal code belonging to his hometown of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories on the inside of his wrist. Currently based in Los Angeles, Dustin returns to his home and native land regularly to make small, independent Canadian films. "I have a producer credit now, did I tell you? But you don't have to print that," he says.

Milligan is a keen student of the business whose aspirations extend well beyond the front of the camera. His latest film, SISTERS&BROTHERS, is an ensemble piece from prolific director Carl Bessai that debuted at last year's Toronto International Film Festival. The film is the third installment in Bessai's unscripted "Family X' trilogy (the films are entirely improvised) and marks the second time the two have worked together. "The kind of super low-budget movies with Carl – get your buddies to come out and help you and just wing it for a couple weeks – is really encouraging if you have the talent and you have the drive to get something done. It’s really good for young filmmakers."

In this case, the "buddy" Milligan is referring to is resident Glee superstar and heartthrob Cory Monteith; the two are old friends in real life who play brothers in the film. Interview (and exclusive photos) after the jump.

Who do you play in SISTERS&BROTHERS?

I play Rory Montagan – that’s a little wordplay there – brother to superstar Justin Montagan. Both of us have had a history of acting as well as a tumultuous relationship growing up.

Of our experiences in the acting world – mine led me to actually flee [the acting world] and go seek philanthropic opportunities and charitable activities in Africa and while I was off doing that my older brother Justin became a superstar. When we find these two brothers, Rory is returning from Africa and sees for the first time what his brother has become.

So you're rivals?

There’s an "on-the-surface," healthy sibling rivalry. As we dig a little deeper we find that there’s really some unresolved issues that have to do with their familial past; their mother comes up quite a few times. There is a rivalry but you learn soon that it’s more of a cover for some more deep-seeded, unresolved angst and issues.

You two have been friends for a long time. How much of your onscreen dynamic came from your real-life one?

There’s a lot of stuff that got edited out that got a lot closer to real life.

As it was an improvised film, one of the great things about Cory and I actually is that having been roommates, and to a certain extent in our very early stages of acting in Vancouver competing against each other, there is a similar dynamic that we were able to draw upon. For sure, we expanded on it and were able to take pieces of our real lives here and there and speckle them into the story.

The main source of real-life inspiration we were using was the actual fact that we had lived together for a couple of years (or something like that) but had known each other for a long time. It certainly made it a lot easier. We only shot ours [segment] over a one-day period; so [it helped] being able to walk in there and have an ease with which we were able to start "alpha-male-ing" each other.

Old friends Dustin and Cory circa 2004. Photo courtesy of Dustin Milligan.

"Alpha-male-ing?" I like that. I also like to use the word “peacock” as a verb. You only shot over one day?

Yeah, it was great. That was what was so exciting about it; Cory was super busy, I think he had to go to the Golden Globes the next day. It was crazy and exciting at the same time, frantically throwing everything together and making sure we could pull it all off on a Saturday. We flew up [to Vancouver] Friday night and all had dinner, talked about what we were going to do and then Saturday it got shot.

Independent Canadian guerilla filmmaking.

We did get some of the airport stuff, uh, less-than-legally when we both landed. [Laughs]

Cory and I flew up together and when we landed, all of a sudden there’s Carl 200 ft. away from us and Steve the camera guy and it was like, “Just go! Just go!” We did a long walk through Vancouver Airport and just rolled on our actual arrival, which was good, given that it lent itself to the actual awkward nature of the meeting of these two brothers as it occurs in the film.

You’re a Canadian actor who lives in L.A. but still do a fair bit of work in Canadian productions. Do you do that mindfully?

You know what’s funny? We’re in the middle of pilot season here in L.A. and it’s a time where everyone gets worked up into this frenzy like, “Where are the jobs? You have to get a job! You have to book a show!” It gets kind of crazy down here, and there’s this mentality that comes with that, like, “I’ll take anything, I just want a show!” But once it dies down you realize, "thank God I didn’t just take anything."

What has been really fortunate for me is that the little notoriety – certainly, nothing compared to Cory – that I’ve been able to build in the States translates to a lot of good work in Canada. There’s a lot of bad movies in both the States and in Canada and for me, it doesn’t really matter where it takes place as long as there’s an opportunity for me to be good or get better while working. I’m still pretty young and I’m still pretty new at this, so to ask for very much more is unrealistic.

Really, the biggest benefit is that I get a lot of different kinds of roles in two different countries; I’m legal to work in the States and I am legal to work in Canada. It only works to our benefit if something is shooting in Canada to have Canadian actors because of tax breaks and stuff. You do get opportunities to do some great work that maybe might not have happened otherwise. I think it’s a huge benefit that we [Canadian actors working in the States] do have these hungry Canadian artists who are trying new avenues to get their movies out there and to get their movie made in the first place. I think that’s really a great thing.

GOON has been remarkably successful - I think it must hold a new record for the biggest Canadian domestic opening [$1.2 million CAN] for a Canadian film. It's currently available on iTunes in the States and will be opening there at the end of the month. People are actually going to see this movie - it's very exciting, maybe even a game-changer. Do you think it might have an impact on the kinds of films Canada makes and how we choose to market and distribute them?

Dustin and Cory take in a Canucks game.

I recently met Jay [Baruchel] and he’s such a laid-back, true Canadian. Super Habs fan! You start to realize that that’s [GOON] an example of a Canadian film that has some American stars [Seann William Scott, Liev Schreiber] in it which of course, brings in that larger box-office draw. I’m hoping it’s one of the biggest [money-making] movies we have.

The content is Canadian without it making stupid jokes about Canada, the production is Canadian, the writers are Canadian, everything about it is Canadian – it’s just a movie about hockey. And yeah, I know how that sounds. [Laughs] It’s just a movie about a sport, but I think that is where the success in “mainstream” Canadian cinema will lie in the future; people making stories that appeal to our audiences. And by “our” I don’t mean strictly Canadian but new, young, audiences.

There was this movie called GOING THE DISTANCE, and I thought, on the one hand this is a "mainstream" type of movie: it’s not sad and "Canadian," there’s not a busload of kids falling off a cliff, no grey skies all the time. This is a fun Canadian movie, but at the same time there was a cheap attempt to go beyond mainstream in trying to make a movie that [looked] “American.”

Look at MEN WITH BROOMS: it’s a very, very Canadian film but shot as though it were an American production. It had a big budget, it’s a good-looking film. I felt this debate rising in me, “What is Canadian mainstream, what is ‘mainstream,’ and what is us just trying to desperately look like we’re making American movies so we get those box-office numbers?”

Dustin at TIFF Bell Lightbox. Rachel Fox photo.

It’s a matter of diversity, too. Sometimes the stereotypical “Canadian” film is all we see.

Let’s be realistic too – it’s English-Canadian film-making that has done that. French-Canadian cinema is always at the top of the list every year, internationally. Are you kidding me, how good French-Canadians are at making movies, getting good numbers, creating their own industry but also opening up to the international community and actually getting great numbers internationally as well? It’s an amazing thing.

There’s something about, I think in a weird way is a [kind of] desperation, about what it is that the powers-that-be in [English] Canada consider to be mainstream and Canadian. I don’t know. I hate to say it but I feel like maybe they’re missing the mark because those French-Canadians are doing it so well.

People want to make money and it's a risky business; investors want a return on their investment. Art, creativity, originality are the sacrificial lambs.

There’s a whole problem in the States too, with studios putting money towards big, ‘tent pole’ franchises. “Unless we’re making three of this, you’re not getting over $5 million.” There’s this whole separation: you’re either over $25 million for your budget or you’re under $5. In as far as money being doled out, that disparity is forcing a lot of interesting filmmakers to do things on their own and to go on new paths.

In Canada it’s the exact same position, where most of the funding money that goes to Canadian films goes to smaller, micro-budget projects. The huge chunks that go to these bland, broad… “trying to be like American cinema”, [films] that appeal to younger audiences… these larger films are failing. The smaller productions with less budgets and [often] younger filmmakers are getting a lot of attention in a different kind of way, a non-mainstream way.

Milligan's own: "Good Cop, Great Cop."

I am seeing better and more diverse Canadian films all the time, which is encouraging. Technology is changing a traditional industry which must adapt to how people are now wanting to consume their entertainment. Do you see a shift?

I think there’s a shift, a perception of what’s mainstream and what counts as success for your film and some are more forward thinking than others. You’ve got video on demand, Hulu, Netflix – there’s so many different ways to get access to films now and they’re [filmmakers] are taking advantage of that and becoming distributors in their own right. It’s really a changing face of film in general. Bringing it back to GOON – I’m hoping that’s one of Canada’s biggest success stories just because of the nature of the film, how it was made, and how it represents us.

What's next for you?

I did two Canadian indies; one called FEROCIOUS in which I worked with Amanda Crew again [both appear in SISTERS&BROTHERS and Bessai's REPEATERS] and Michael Ecklund [in the upcoming apocalyptic horror dystopia, THE DAY] also in PRIMARY.

I’m really encouraged by the smaller Canadian independents from an artistic point of view because the roles they are allowing Canadian actors to do are very meaty. It’s good stuff, a great opportunity for us. In the States, we don’t always have access to those kinds of characters because a lot of the actors in the upper echelons of Hollywood get to them first.

SISTERS&BROTHERS is currently playing in Vancouver, Victoria, and Toronto.

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