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Dead Man Swimming

“This is the film I made while Jonathan was in the bottom of the rubble,” grins Jeff Branson (Jonathan, AMC) of The Big Bad Swim, the indie movie that stars Branson as Noah. The film — in which he plays the lead role, a first for Branson — is poised to have its world premiere at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 26. He spoke to Digest about the project:Soap Opera Digest: Tell us about your character.
Jeff Branson: My character, when the picture picks up, is a swimming instructor at the local rec center. He was an athlete in college — a swimmer and a diver. As the movie goes on, we find out his whole story. He was competing to go to the Olympics as a diver; he was a very different man five years earlier. One day, he was doing his cocky little jog around the pool, doing everything he tells his students not to do, and he tripped over a kid on the side of the pool. He fractured his skull and detached his knee cap up into his thigh, basically. Now, we catch him five years later and he’s addicted to pain killers and antidepressants. He’s kind of losing the life in mediocrity — emotional mediocrity. He had a girlfriend that left him and so on. He’s just really kind of screaming out for help. Even though Noah’s the lead character, it’s really an ensemble piece.Digest: Who are the other members of the ensemble?
Branson: Jess Weixler plays Jordan, who came up to Connecticut [where the movie takes place] to get away from this abusive man; she’s a stripper at the local booby bar. Paget Brewster is also in it; her character, Amy, is going through a messy, messy divorce. Everybody’s got this stuff going on and we kind of help each other out through this hard time, this transitional time of our lives.Digest: And who does Grant Aleksander [ex-Phillip, GUIDING LIGHT; ex-Alec, AMC] play?
Branson: He plays the husband Paget is divorcing. I didn’t work with him, unfortunately; we didn’t even see each other. I keep waiting to run into him somewhere so I can be like, “Hey, congratulations! You were able to successfully never run into me the whole time we were shooting!”Digest: You shot the film up in Connecticut?
Branson: Yes, mostly around Mystic. It was right up on the water; we had great lobster every day. Dan Schechter, the writer, had done a ton of research on Connecticut for this other project he worked on. He wrote the role with me in mind; every time he was developing the character, he’d call me and ask my input on things. I really gravitated to him. I think he’s a great writer.Digest: Was there a question of whether you’d be able to do the film, since you were under contract to AMC?
Branson: Yeah, it was a hallelujah when everybody found out I was off the show [laughs]. They were starting to shop around [for other actors]. Jesse Bradford, actually, was somebody they were looking at for the role, and so was Jesse Metcalfe [ex-Miguel, PASSIONS; ex-John, DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES]. But it all worked out, and I found out I got the movie right as I walked into the Emmys last year [where he’d been nominated as Outstanding Supporting Actor]. I was high as a kite. I was like, “Yeah!”Digest: What timing!
Branson: Yeah, it helped me out at the time. I went from shooting so much — [during] the whole cave [drama], we were shooting seven episodes in five days for two weeks. Jonathan was freaking out and to go from that to nothing was just like … You know, for one week, it was cool, but then I was like, “Oh, God, I’m so bored.” So, the Emmys and this movie deal got me through that as far as creative boredom. And now, the big premiere is two days before this year’s Emmys, so it’s like it’s come full-circle for me.Digest: Noah’s an expert swimmer. Did you have to train for the role?
Branson: Oh, yeah. I had to work my ass off to get ready for this picture because I swam before, but I almost drowned when I was a teenager, trying to swim across a very large cove in the lake I grew up on. I got back in the water like a year-and-a-half, two years later. But I had literally almost drowned. A friend of mine saved my life and brought me back to shore. I got reacquainted with the water later, like I said, but when I sat there and read this script, I was thinking, “Can I sell that? Can I sell that level of comfort? Can I look like I’m a fish in water and not act like any of my phobias and fears are gonna pop out?” So, I trained with a swim instructor for about four months. I’m very confident in the water now. But it was serious, you know? We worked at a college up in Connecticut and the pool, it’s no joke. Digest: Did you have to do any diving?
Branson: Yes, actually; I had to do a dive off the high board, a three-meter high board. Scared me to death, but it was wonderful. I mean, when I was a kid I used to cliff-jump at the the lake I grew up on a lot, with no fear, because I was 15 years old and out of my mind [laughs]. Ah, I remember one day, I was jumping off the cliff and I went in feet first with my legs a little spread and I split my trunks right up my bum and busted my eardrum. I was like, “I am never diving again.” Then years later, I’m up on a three-meter board going, “I’m doing a diving movie? What the hell is going on?” But it was thrilling, really, to do a picture that was a low-key, slice-of-life film and at the same time, I got to do something I was afraid of that challenged me in that way. I just hope the actual movie plays as good as it did in my head when we were filming it!Digest: So, is the premiere the first time you’re actually going to see your own movie?
Branson: Unfortunately, I think so. It’s nerve-wracking. I’ve heard about this kind of thing happening, but I don’t know how people get through it. They’re gonna sit me right up front and hopefully, the theater is going to be packed. I’m scared, but I think it’s gonna be exciting.