In the madcap globetrotting B-movie action film “Blood, Sand and Gold,” Aaron Costa Ganis plays Jack Riordan, an archaeologist fresh out of prison who helps Mave Adams (Monica West) recover a fortune in gold from her brother who stole it. Costa Ganis doesn’t take the material too seriously. He looks like he is having fun with all the clichÃ©s: chases through foreign bazaars, cars that roll over and then explode, underwater fight scenes, and a love interest (that’s developed between Jack and Mave). Viewers who share his enthusiasm will enjoy the film immensely.
The amazing, engaging actor is starting to make a name for himself. He received good notices as the very seductive co-lead in the sex-with-an-ex drama “Lazy Eye,” and for his turn in the terrific new Sundance-showcased web series “The Chances.” Costa Ganis has a strong, leading man presence that serves him well. He looks good running and fighting and shooting in “Blood, Sand and Gold,” but also delivers sarcasm with the aplomb of Hollywood A-listers.
Costa Ganis chatted with Salon about doing stunts, shooting guns and his lack of a love scene in “Blood, Sand, and Gold.”
The film is a low-budget B-movie. What is the appeal of starring in a film like this? How does it help your career?
The idea of it was we really wanted to bring something that is usually just reserved for massive Hollywood blockbusters to the indie world. Of course there are some sacrifices you have to make to be able to do that. But for me, as an actor, you never get to do that stuff unless you’re Tom Cruise, so there was something about doing a car chase in Dubai or riding a motorcycle in Mexico. Most New York actors usually don’t get the opportunity to do that.
That’s the major appeal. It’s pitched to me as: You’re opening night at SXSW in a film about a treasure chest in the Moroccan desert versus a story about your grandmother’s ratatouille recipe. It was a unique situation, unless you’re at the level of the $20 million actors. Gaelan [Connell, the director,] is a lunatic, and when I talked to him, he made it sound like a world I desperately needed to discover with him.
The film is full of clichÃ©s. Do you embrace them or do you think, How can I put my own spin on this?
What do you do? There’s no sense in pretending that we could do a car chase or run across a roof of a Dubai market somehow better or differently than Vin Diesel or something. I don’t know if I was thinking, How do I do this different? I don’t think it’s a process question; it was more “Jump in this Bentley and drive down this street!”
I do remember thinking the story was something in the realm of things I’d heard of or seen before, but the way we were trying to attack it felt really fun and new. What if you and your best friends wanted to re-create “Mission Impossible” in your hometown? We did something like that. We traveled to five countries. We’re eating tacos out of the trunk of a car at 3 a.m. trying to get a man to blow up a castle wall that’s been there for ages, and there is miscommunication. It was chaos! And in a way, that was the fun of it.
That fun carries on screen!
You’ve seen it all before — but here’s a way you haven’t seen it. I knew I wasn’t going to bring something that hasn’t been brought before, but I embraced the fun of the situation to do what we tried to do. I left my agents to do this film.
When I considered whether to do it or not, an actor friend asked what the project was. I said it was pitched that I get to go to five different countries and we’re going to make an indie action movie, and I’ll get paid. He said, “Dude, that’s the dream!” I never thought it was something I could do. So I embraced the art of travel and what comes out of this opportunity to see the world and make something while you’re doing it; that’s extraordinary.
We embraced what it was and the experience of what it was — a low-budget jaunt around the world to make an action movie about recovering gold coins. It’s ridiculous.
You’ve played comic and romantic roles in the past. What made you take an action-hero role?
I assume when I am an actor working on a project, the expectations are always that it will help in some way. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a proponent for work — it’s all practice. In a funny way, for me specifically, I was destroyed by multiple injuries through grad school — I had two knee surgeries. I broke my hand. On a personal note, a big part of getting the opportunity to do an action movie was testing my body to see if I could actually physically do it myself.
There was a part of it that was stupid. My big agency wanted me to book a TV pilot, and I went to Switzerland instead. I gave up on the idea that I was gong to have a traditional career route, so taking a project like this made a lot of sense to me. My career is gong to be slightly less on the nose. This could be a unique and lovely and exciting and a singular experience. Gaelan was signed with [Creative Artists Agency] and he bailed with them and left to go to India because he got sick of acting and he opened up a chain of burrito restaurants modeled after Chipotle in India. He’s full of grandiose thinking. If he can bring burritos to Maharashtra, then he can make an indie action film.
It was helpful to see how he worked and operated.
I feel when I’m put in a position on a TV set, I don’t have time to ask questions to figure out “How are you doing this? What’s working here?” When you’re on a set like “Blood, Sand and Gold,” and they switch lenses, you learn what things really mean, and part of doing this project gave me information on how filmmaking worked because we were a skeleton crew after we shot in Mexico. We went to Dubai, and we worked with really amazing people — a female cinematographer. She was maybe 25. It would take her 15 years for her to be a [director of photography] on a major film. We’d shoot for days and have tons of time. I got to learn about why that shot was the choice. It was super educational. We created shots together. It was collaborative.
There are chase scenes, driving scenes, a scene where you hit the water from a helicopter. Did you do most of your own stunts? There are some parkour scenes that looked kind of tough!
Yes, the helicopter thing killed me because I wanted to do it but they wouldn’t let me. The executive producer [Stephen Israel] found out how injury prone I am. Stephen would say I’m not allowed to jump across the house. So the helicopter scene — I was up there, but I wasn’t able to do it. I got to paint on all of my stubble on this clean-shaven [stunt] guy because Gaelan thought we could maybe see [the] face as he jumped.
So what stunts did you do?
I did all of the running and jumping — but not across the house. There’s a shot we have that is during a chase across these roofs. And the end of the scene [the character] jumps off a roof onto a car and rolls before he runs off. I don’t know how these guys did this. They taught me how to run and kick and they were doing the majority of the real stuff.
In the full vein of being a micro-budget film, these guys were just jumping. No crash pads. The guy who rolled over in the car was wearing just BMX biking gear. He should honestly be dead. There was no roll bar. He did survive. I’m watching these guys rip up their bodies. They got really amped doing all the stunts. I was generally terrified. The most daring thing I did was kick a fence. But I put all my force into it.
What is your fitness regimen and how important is keeping a good body for your career?
I’d love to say I have a regimen — that I wake up early and run 3 miles and do push-ups in a park. I don’t want to tell you what park because I want to protect my privacy. . . . But I have no fitness regiment. It’s the middle of pilot season and everyone is rocking in the gym, pumping every day. I have no motivation to get in shape. I’ve convinced myself I will have a Chris Pratt transformation. I miss the chunky Chris Pratt who vibed on wearing cargo pants. I believe there’s a world where I can inhabit that space. I will get in immaculate shape when I get “Guardians of the Galaxy 3.”
There is considerable gunplay in the film. Are you a sharpshooter? What experience do you have with guns?
I went to a firing range with Justin Long, who is not a gun person, and Daniel Charmin. So we went to LAX.
What?! You went shooting at the L.A. airport?!
There’s a popular gun range by the airport. It’s next to the greatest In-N-Out. You have a Double Double Animal Style — I told you I don’t have a fitness regimen — then you go shoot automatic rifles, or handguns for the less adventurous.
I come from a family where you weren’t allowed to have water pistols. It was excellent; I was so good at shooting, it doesn’t make sense. One of the cutouts looked like Sandra Bernhard circa 1992, and it was weird for me to be murdering her over and over again.
The relationship that develops between Jack and Mave doesn’t include the obligatory sex scene? What the fuck! Was that cut out? I thought you might have insisted on it!
I completely agree with you! I kept skimming [the script] for the white sheets and sunrise after we did some extraordinary scene. None of that! All we get is a crappy smooch after a car burning! I don’t know why there was no sex scene. I’m still angry. I’ve not forgiven Gaelin.
You speak lines in various languages in the film including Arabic and Italian, but not French. What is your background and what are your language skills?
I did know a bit of Arabic for a little while because a friend of mine happened to speak it fluently. I tend to get a lot of Middle Eastern roles. I have a weird fluency with accents but with actual language skills I only speak French! My mother knows some Italian, and my dad spoke some Greek. That’s what I heard growing up, and I didn’t learn either of those languages. My friend did almost all of our Italian translations. None of the Italian actors spoke English so my friend was next to my ear working with me on sounding Italian and telling me what I was saying. I did a bit of the translating for Mave’s French bit.
Jack’s mentor, Charlotte Ainsely, played by Jenny Sterlin in the film, talks about having vision and patience. Another character talks about fortune and glory. What is important to you in your career? Taking your time to do things right or getting money?
You’re going to make me sound bad! I love money. I would say that has changed over time for me. I’ve always been something of a perfectionist when it comes to things that have deep meaning to me. When I do music, if I am writing a song, it’s not ready until it’s ready and legitimate in my mind.
“Lazy Eye” was an 11- or 12-day shoot, and it didn’t pay super well, but the story was really lovely. Having a story about love, where the specifics of sexuality and each individual’s background were just unimportant — that what really mattered was this self-exploration and self-discovery, not having to deal with the mishugas of the specifics of it.
A writer friend of mine wrote a play about a young black woman who loses her best friend who is shot. She’s cognizant about not making it about her blackness. It’s just about loss. It’s about two friends who can’t be friends anymore. If every story in the world can be like that and not didactic or forcing an agenda, we’d be better off in the arts.
A friend said a role has to benefit your career, be artistically satisfying and pay well. If two of those three things are there, you should do it. You have to evaluate not just in terms of money but more about creating a career on your terms.
On that same note, are you encouraged to write or direct your own films?
Absolutely. I love to write and I love to direct. My personal philosophy as an actor is that I know I need to do other things. Sitting waiting for a call makes me want to kill myself. Collaborating with directors and actors while we’re working is so weird and amazing. I think this is something I should be doing. I have ideas and input. I love to tell stories, and that’s why actors get into this. It’s so much fun to make stuff. If there’s an opportunity to create something new, I will jump at that. I’m working on a couple projects as a writer. I’m most excited about being a creator, writing, acting or directing.