Nick Robinson on 'Silk Road' and Carrying the Torch for 'Jurassic Park'
Nick Robinson knew he wouldn’t have access to Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, but he had the next best thing: his chat logs. Adapted from David Kushner’s Rolling Stone article, Dead End on Silk Road, Robinson stars as Ulbricht in Tiller Russell’s Silk Road, which chronicles the quick rise and fall of the twenty-something millennial and his black market version of eBay. With years’ worth of transcripts and journal entries at his disposal, Robinson was able to track Ulbricht’s innermost thoughts as he fell deeper and deeper into the illicit community he created.
“It was really interesting to go through because it almost serves as a diary for Ross,” Robinson tells The Hollywood Reporter. “He was on the site 24/7, posting, talking with people, building this kind of community. It was just really fascinating to dive into it and read his blog posts and manifestos… that got darker as time went on. So Ross’ words were the biggest resource.”
Heat Vision breakdown
Like most actors, Robinson did his best to rationalize his character’s decisions in order to play him, but that became more and more difficult as Ulbricht ignored the guiding principles that he established during Silk Road’s infancy.
“The website was Ross’ thesis statement, almost, on his libertarian ideals including no government involvement, free will and this laissez-faire attitude towards everything,” Robinson explains. “At the beginning, the website only sold some psychedelics and weed. And obviously, it snowballed from there, and the initial idealistic viewpoint just got corrupted over time. Things very quickly got out of control and out of hand, and they really tested Ross’ belief system. For better or worse, he stuck to these free market ideas and he paid the consequences.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Robinson also reflects on Jurassic World’s recreation of the main Jurassic Park set, why he said yes to Shadow in the Cloud and his surprising admission regarding Avengers: Endgame.
So the first thing I noticed about Silk Road was the Love, Simon reunion between you and Alex Shipp. When you know at least one person on a set, does that make each job a bit more comfortable?
Whenever you are working with friends or people that you have worked with in the past, there is an immediate shorthand and knowledge of one another that is helpful because it can be awkward sometimes. You show up to a film set, you meet someone for the first time and then all of sudden, cameras are rolling and you’re trying to build a history with someone that doesn’t actually exist. So if there already is a history there, then, yeah, it definitely makes things easier.
Since you’re in Albuquerque one week and New Zealand the next, I imagine it can get pretty lonely despite having a cast and crew around you.
Yeah, it definitely does. A great part of the job is meeting new people and having new experiences every time you do it, but it’s also really cool knowing people going into it. And the more that you work, the more you find crossover and the smaller it all seems to feel, which is both good and bad. But, yeah, I would say it’s always nice to have a familiar face around.
In terms of developing your version of Silk Road founder Ross Ulbricht, what resources did you lean on the most?
Well, I think the two biggest resources for me were Tiller’s [Russell] research that he’d already completed for the script, and Ross’ transcripts from Silk Road. When the FBI arrested him, he was logged in as Dread Pirate Roberts, and that was actually a big part of the arrest. They had to make sure that he was logged in so they could prove that it was him, and not only that, but beat the encryption and have access to all of the information that’s on the site. So all of that was entered into evidence and a lot of it is public. It was really interesting to go through because it almost serves as a diary for Ross. Silk Road took place over a relatively short amount of time.
Just two-and-a-half years.
Yeah, exactly. So there’s a lot of information out there about Ross and how he considered this his life’s work. He was on the site 24/7, posting, talking with people, building this kind of community. It was just really fascinating to dive into it and read his blog posts and manifestos. At the beginning, he hosted movie nights with community members on Silk Road, and there were even book clubs. It really was this community — like Reddit or something. There were all these different users and personalities and Ross, as Dread Pirate Roberts, was a legend in that circle. Everyone had these speculations about who he was — or if he was multiple people — and I think he enjoyed that. When he made the website, he didn’t really know what to do with it. So he posted on random message boards and said things like, “Hey, have you guys heard of Silk Road?” He’d pretend to be different users to try to drum up interest all the way to the end where he was posting these manifestos that got darker as time went on. I forget the exact quote, but he talked about how he’d rather be free than live a life in golden chains. These were the musings and philosophies of a young guy and budding libertarian. So Ross’ words were the biggest resource, but I wasn’t able to talk to him. I just had his writings.
Actors are often taught not to judge their characters and to find some way to justify their actions. In Ross’ case, he seemed to have a line he wouldn’t cross at the outset, but then he eventually opened the door to hitmen and automatic weapons. At the very least, were you able to defend his initial intentions behind Silk Road?
Yes, at the beginning. The website was Ross’ thesis statement, almost, on his libertarian ideals including no government involvement, free will and this laissez-faire attitude towards everything. He felt that people should be allowed to do whatever they feel is best for themselves, and there is something kind of noble in that. At the beginning, the website only sold some psychedelics and weed. And obviously, it snowballed from there, and the initial idealistic viewpoint just got corrupted over time. Like you said, there was a major shift on the site. They went from selling shrooms, weed and acid to crack, meth, cocaine and automatic weapons, unregistered firearms, murder for hire. Things very quickly got out of control and out of hand, and they really tested Ross’ belief system. For better or worse, he stuck to these free market ideas and he paid the consequences.
In the movie, Ross worked on the site while standing up. Did you guys discover that detail, or was it just the way your director chose to block him?
I’m trying to remember where that came from. I think that the standing desk was a choice on Tiller's part. Whether Ross actually worked at a standing desk or not, it reflected his millennial, Silicon Valley-esque mentality of thinking outside the box… So the standing desk is a phase, and I’m sure you see plenty of people standing up and typing in Facebook’s offices. What Ross did was illegal, but you can draw some very direct lines between him and the folks in Silicon Valley. Ross created an online startup as a millennial — and a very successful one. Obviously, you can question the effect that it had, but I think that Ross’ motivations were pure, at least initially. So I think the standing desk was just building on this idea that, in a different life, Ross could’ve been working in Silicon Valley.
I recently saw you in Shadow in the Cloud, which I thought was really cool. Was that a last-minute casting with little prep time?
(Laughs.) Kind of. It was something that I became aware of at the start of 2019. I had a few people tell me about this script that had been floating around. So I read it, and it was a bonkers story. I also really loved Roseanne [Liang]. She had done a short called Do No Harm that was equally bonkers and awesome. With any job, you factor those things on some level. You also ask, “Where’s it going to shoot? Who’s it going to be with?” And New Zealand is an amazing country. I’m so glad that I had the opportunity to visit there. So I just thought it was a really weird, interesting script, and I’m actually really proud of how it turned out. It is such a crazy, pulpy, fun movie. I don’t think it was completely last minute, but it wasn’t planned far in advance. I think I heard about it in January, and then I was in New Zealand in May or June. Roseanne is a real talent.
You clearly don’t mind traveling to faraway places for a few days' work since you went to Hawaii to be Raoul Duke in the background of Kong: Skull Island.
(Laughs.) You really did your research for this interview.
Speaking of which, since Godzilla and Kong are facing off soon in Godzilla vs. Kong, I presume you’re Team Kong given your ties to Jordan Vogt-Roberts?
Yeah. (Laughs.) I hope to see it as soon as I can. I’m working in British Columbia right now, and when we first got here, theaters had actually opened back up, for a short window, because the case count had dropped low enough. So I saw a few movies in theaters and it was glorious. So I’m hoping that by the time [Godzilla vs. Kong] rolls around, I’ll be able to see it in a theater again. I just miss seeing movies in a movie theater.
Obligatory Jurassic World question: Since I saw Jurassic Park in the theater as a boy, World gave me such a nostalgia high, especially when you and Ty Simpkins discovered the remnants of the original park. When you were filming that sequence, was the entire set buzzing over the nostalgia trip?
Kind of. It definitely felt incredibly special. That whole job was such a fun experience. We were on a massive base in New Orleans, in these giant hangers that they used to build the Apollo program in, or pieces of the Apollo program. So they built a replica of the original Jurassic Park set, and it was the coolest thing ever. Opening up those doors, finding the old banner and making a torch, it was childhood fantasy-type stuff. Yeah, it did feel really special while we were making it. Jurassic Park is an all-time great. It’s a masterpiece. So it was really fun to revisit that world — literally.
Out of curiosity, did you immediately recognize Ty at the end of Avengers: Endgame, or did you also do a double take like a lot of people?
I hesitate to say this, but I have not seen Avengers: Endgame. (Laughs.) I have nothing against Marvel; I just missed that one somehow, even though everyone in the world saw it. So I can’t actually say, but I do know that Ty has grown up a lot since Jurassic World. It actually makes me feel very old, sometimes. I think he was 12 when we were making it, and maybe he turned 13 on set. And now, he’s a freshman or sophomore in college and looking more and more like a strapping young man every day. So it just makes me feel older and older every time I see him. (Laughs.)
I rewatched The Kings of Summer recently, and that scene of you in bed remains as brutal as ever.
Oh man, thank you so much. Yeah, that film is very near and dear to my heart, even now. I’m still in touch with most of the people that made it.
How’s Maid going with the mother-daughter combo of Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley?
I’m excited for people to see this one. It’s heavy, but Margaret and Andie have been great. They’re obviously really talented.
Well, I’m sorry for spoiling Avengers: Endgame for you.
(Laughs.) No, it’s all good, man. I think the spoiler alert expires after a couple years. So that’s more on me.
Silk Road is now available on Apple TV, Prime Video and On Demand.
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