'Unbreakable' at 20: Spencer Treat Clark on Bringing a Toy Gun to His "Traumatic" Audition
[The following interview contains spoilers for Unbreakable, Split and Glass.]
Spencer Treat Clark was just 11 years old when he brought a toy gun to his Unbreakable audition, and he still hasn’t forgotten the tears he shed that day in front of M. Night Shyamalan. In a scene that many believe to be inspired by a legend involving 1950s Superman George Reeves, Clark’s character Joseph Dunn pulls a gun on his father, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), in order to test his newly discovered unbreakability. Whether it was the crying kids at the audition or the camera operator who stormed off the set after nine takes, it’s a scene that remains fresh in the cast and crew’s minds 20 years later.
Heat Vision breakdown
“It was a four-minute-plus continuous shot, and it was exhausting. You’re really tired after that day, especially as an 11 year old, doing it over and over again,” Clark tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was back in the day when you had to load the film manually, and because the camera needed to be light enough, they had to reload the camera after every take. And by the end of shooting that scene, the camera operator was just dripping in sweat. Night would also get first releases or original film reels. So he’d gotten Jaws from DreamWorks or from Spielberg, and we screened Jaws that night. The movie started so late, and … I remember passing out in the middle of Jaws, just so exhausted.”
Despite positive reviews and making close to $250 million worldwide, Unbreakable was initially regarded as a disappointment since it didn’t catch lightning in a bottle like Shyamalan’s previous film, The Sixth Sense. But the tide would quickly turn, thanks to strong home video sales and a cult-like appreciation for the film, something Clark took notice of while working with Joss Whedon in 2011.
“I did Much Ado About Nothing in my early 20s, and Joss Whedon is a huge Unbreakable fan. So I remember him being like, ‘God, I wonder if there will ever be a sequel or anything,’” Clark shares. “When we did Much Ado About Nothing, he shot the movie in between filming and cutting the first Avengers. So all he wanted to talk about was Unbreakable and all I wanted to talk about was Avengers.”
It’s quite common for children to remember the more trivial details of a major life experience during their youths, and Clark’s first day on Unbreakable was no exception. Since Shyamalan shot in sequence at the time, Joseph’s upside-down introduction in front of the TV doubled as Clark’s introduction to Shyamalan’s set.
“[The Dunn house] set was built in the old convention center in Philadelphia, which is now torn down. It was a hulking and terrifying old building that I used to run through and explore,” Clark recalls. “What I remember most about that were the fake ads on TV. In the movie, there’s an actual commercial about bananas, and it had a little jingle that’s been stuck in my head for the last 20 years. Night would film in sequence, so I remember that being my first day on set, lying on the couch, and then running into the kitchen and sliding on my socks.”
In a conversation that covers the entirety of the Eastrail 177 trilogy, Clark reflects on Unbreakable and Glass, as well as how Split’s surprise ending was spoiled for him.
So you were 11 years old when the audition for Unbreakable came along. What’s stuck with you 20-plus years later?
I think I was one of the first people Night saw, to be honest. I feel like that’s part of the lore. (Laughs.) I actually do remember the audition, which is weird because, oftentimes, you forget those so quickly. But I remember bringing in a toy gun for the kitchen scene with David Dunn and Audrey Dunn (Robin Wright). That was the audition scene. Maybe there was another one, but that’s the only one I remember. So I came in and read with Night — and he’s talked about it, too — but he said he felt bad putting everybody through that process. All these kids came in and had to cry, and it’s quite a traumatic scene. I remember filming that scene, and we did nine takes. It was a four-minute-plus continuous shot, and it was exhausting. You’re really tired after that day, especially as an 11 year old, doing it over and over again. It was back in the day when you had to load the film manually, and because the camera needed to be light enough, they had to reload the camera after every take. So you have this emotional 11-year-old kid who’s crying, but everybody was really respectful. I remember the set just being really quiet and the crew trying to load the cameras as fast as possible. And by the end of shooting that scene, the camera operator was just dripping in sweat. It was all handheld, up on the shoulder, this super heavy Panavision camera. Night would also get first releases or original film reels. So he’d gotten Jaws from DreamWorks or from Spielberg, and we screened Jaws that night. The movie started so late, and it was just the cast and crew who were screening it. But I remember passing out in the middle of Jaws, just so exhausted.
Has Night ever brought up the George Reeves legend that may have inspired your aforementioned gun scene?
I may not be familiar.
George Reeves, who played Superman in the 1950s, apparently had a gun pulled on him by a little kid at an autograph signing. The young boy wanted to test Reeves’ invulnerability, and the legend is that Reeves was able to disarm him by stating that the bullet’s ricochet would kill someone else.
Oh, wow. That’s my first time hearing of it. Has Night talked about that before?
I’ve searched high and low to no avail, but many people assume it to be the inspiration.
I’m so curious. I’d love to ask him about it. He’s such a film aficionado, so I would not put it past him.
He’s talked a lot about Superman’s impact on him as a boy. He was even approached to direct a Superman movie at one point, so incorporating that legend would be pretty on-brand for him.
Just to establish the timeline, had you done Gladiator at this point? Obviously, both came out in 2000.
I had done Gladiator, yes. Unbreakable was a little bit after. It’s 20 years ago now, so I’m trying to get my timeline right as well. Going back and revisiting this part of my career was one of the best parts about returning in Glass.
Even though I’ve always thought that Unbreakable was the superior work, The Sixth Sense proved to be a very tough act to follow. However, Unbreakable’s stature seemed to increase as early as its home video release. When did you notice its reputation had changed?
I did Much Ado About Nothing in my early 20s, and Joss Whedon is a huge Unbreakable fan. So I remember him being like, “God, I wonder if there will ever be a sequel or anything.” And Joss, in the lead-up to Glass, was so adamant that I tell him absolutely nothing about it. He didn’t want to know anything. He wanted to go in with a completely blank slate, which I thought was kind of cool coming from somebody like Joss and how big a fan he is. When we did Much Ado About Nothing, he shot the movie in between filming and cutting the first Avengers. So all he wanted to talk about was Unbreakable and all I wanted to talk about was Avengers. We were rehearsing with Nick Kocher and Brian McElhaney, the guys from BriTANick, who were also in Much Ado About Nothing, and going over lines at Joss’ dining room table. And I think it was Brian who finally started asking him some questions about Avengers, and being like, “How do you think it is?” And Joss was like, “Oh, I think it’ll be fine.” And all of us, who were big comic book fans, were sort of deflated. We wanted him to be like, “It’s going to be amazing!” And then he was like, “Do you guys want to see some of it?” (Laughs.) So we went upstairs into his office, and eight months before Avengers came out or whatever, we got to see some clips from the movie. It was really cool. Just really rough cut stuff like Black Widow escaping at the beginning and then recruiting the Hulk. So we were super jazzed.
Since Night had a very meticulous approach to Unbreakable, did Joseph’s upside-down introduction require you to be in that position for several hours?
Yeah, I remember doing that scene. That set was built in the old convention center in Philadelphia, which is now torn down. It was a hulking and terrifying old building that I used to run through and explore. But I think that scene was pretty quick. What I remember most about that were the fake ads on TV. For whatever reason, they left an impression on me. In the movie, there’s an actual commercial about bananas, and it had a little jingle that’s been stuck in my head for the last 20 years. Night would film in sequence, so I remember that being my first day on-set, lying on the couch, and then running into the kitchen and sliding on my socks. Yeah, that was my first day on set and my first day working with Night. He was 29 at the time. That was the introduction to Night, the whole film and everything for me. But I don’t think we did it too many times.
One of the most powerful scenes in the movie is when David validates Joseph’s belief in him at the breakfast table. What do you remember most about that cathartic moment for your character?
Even as an 11 year old, I was conscious of the pressure to perform and that it was a big pivotal scene. I feel like the tear wasn’t something that I thought about or planned, and I’m sure that was just a testament to Bruce and to Night for eliciting that performance. I love that scene. It’s so great, and it’s cool that Night used it again in Glass. I don’t think that was initially the intent. In the Glass script, that flashback was somewhere else.
Did you get to experience the ending of Split without being spoiled?
Unfortunately, I did not find out while watching the movie. I had it spoiled for me. I was actually camping that weekend, and when I turned my phone back on after having it off, I had all these texts from people being like, “Have you seen Split? Have you seen Split?” I was like, “No, I haven’t yet. I’m going to see it. I get it. I’ve worked with Night. I’m really excited about it and I can’t wait to see it.” And eventually, somebody did tell me. I wish I could’ve had that experience of going in there fresh and hearing the Unbreakable music playing. It would’ve been really cool. So I was in the dark as everybody else.
While I wish you had the same earth-shattering experience that I had, at least this particular spoiler had a job attached to it.
(Laughs.) Yeah, well even at that point or shortly thereafter, there was talk about doing a sequel, but it was still a few more months until I got the phone call from Night. And even then, I didn’t get to read the Glass script until several months after that. For all I knew, I could’ve died on page two. But yeah, it was pretty exciting. Night called me and said to keep my fall open. He was writing the script at the time and he said that he was writing that scene in the security store where his character comes in and buys security cameras.
“Let your dad take a walk, Jesus.”
(Laughs.) Yeah, exactly.
I thought you had a great role in Glass. I loved the dynamic between Joseph and David and how Joseph served as The Overseer’s quarterback of sorts. What was your initial reaction to your part?
Night’s assistant, Rakel (Joyce), came to Los Angeles and dropped the script off in person for me. Once I sat down with it, I don’t think I’ve ever taken so long to read a script because I wanted to savor each turn of the page. (Laughs.) So I just really took my time going through it. It was a little counterintuitive; you’d think I would’ve rushed through it. But yeah, I was pretty sure that at every page turn, my character was going to die. (Laughs.) I definitely didn’t expect to get through the first act. And yeah, it was so fun to see that I had a well-developed storyline and to see how Joseph Dunn had grown up over time. It was also fun to see David Dunn, Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson) and Mrs. Price (Charlayne Woodard) and where their journeys have taken them over 20 years. I think it’s written as 19 years, but it was fun. Because I’d known the particulars of where my character had gone, some of my expectations were met and some of them were not, but it was nice that there was this throughline that Joseph still believed in his father and looked up to him. And then, the big change that really informs my character from Unbreakable to Glass is the death of his mother, Audrey.
Audrey passed away five years prior to the events in Glass, so she was alive when David opened the security store circa 2010. How much did she know about David and Joseph’s operation?
Night had established it in the script that we shot. It’s acknowledged that David never told Audrey, and I think it’s covered in one of those flashbacks too. One of his big regrets before her passing was that he didn’t tell her about his secret identity. So Joseph and David kept it from her, but now I’m curious too. I probably should’ve asked Night why they kept it a secret for so long. I think her disapproval is probably why they kept it from her for so long. They clearly feared that she wouldn’t be accepting of it. In Unbreakable, she was a pacifist based on her aversion to David playing football when they were younger. So I think it was something that David and Joseph chose to keep from her for fear of her disapproval.
Sarah Paulson’s character, Dr. Ellie Staple, tried to gaslight David, Elijah and Kevin (James McAvoy) into thinking they’re delusional. She also tried to convince Joseph, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Mrs. Price to do her bidding. When you were first reading the script, did Dr. Staple ever cause you to waver in your belief that David was a superhero?
I never wavered. I had such a bias toward Joseph’s point of view while reading it. Inevitably, when you read a script and you know you’re playing a certain character, you immediately start to view everything though their eyes. I did question how much Joseph genuinely wavers in his belief in his father. I think he’s frustrated after he first talks to Dr. Staple because she asked, “Did you choose to believe your father was a superhero because you lost your mother and you need this to be true?” But I think that his moment of doubt is pretty short-lived. He was frustrated, so he went to the comic book store, seeking inspiration and belief. So, for him to challenge his beliefs after 20 years of believing his father, it would be such a massive paradigm shift for him. It’s one of the things that’s really cool about his struggle in that moment. But yeah, for me, Spencer, I knew that the characters were always going to be superheroes. I never thought Night would have them not be in the third act. And Joseph, although wavering in his belief, it’s only momentarily because he finds that information about Mr. Glass being responsible for not just the train crash, but also the genesis of Kevin’s story. I think that really puts Joseph over the edge and is a little bit of vindication for him.
I loved that moment of doubt Joseph had while watching some guy bench press a huge amount of weight a la his dad. Since he seemed to moonlight at the local community center, did you interpret that job as him expanding on his days as a spotter for his dad’s workouts?
Joseph is not a superhero, but he’s been inspired by his father to help people. I think he’s helped coach and mentor kids at the community center. That desire to help people has always sort of been his ethos and is very much inspired by David. In the security store scene where you meet Joseph as an adult, that scene is actually cut a little bit short. I think there’s another 10 or 15 seconds where he encourages his father to come to the community center to see this kid play basketball. Joseph has been coaching this kid and he’s come a really long way. So you get a little taste of it there. But yeah, Joseph has definitely adopted this sense of service that he got from his father.
Since Audrey was a physical therapist, I like to think of it as a tribute to her as well.
Exactly. That was my understanding, too.
The death of David Dunn. What was that day like?
That was Bruce’s last day of work. When they filmed up through the water, it was actually up on this rig. We were up on a platform that was probably like 6 feet above the parking lot, and that allowed the camera to shoot through the puddle. So it was a little awkward because we were actually standing up on a platform and not down at street level. But at one point, I pushed a security guard and that wasn’t in the stage directions. Night just let me have some free rein with that scene and it just kind of felt right. (Laughs.) The guy I pushed is actually one of the stunt guys. He’s just absolutely massive. He’s like 6-foot-6 and barrel-chested. (Laughs.) So I think he was a little taken aback by that, with very little warning. But yeah, I always trusted that those emotions would come. I never really worried about that scene because I had so much to draw upon. I think those scenes are a struggle when you don’t really quite know why you’re at that emotional state. But for that scene, there was so much, both personally in terms of coming back and doing this role again, and it being Bruce’s last day and saying goodbye to all of the crew. But it was also just the backstory of knowing and living Joseph’s journey, I just really trusted that that scene would be there, and I think Night did, too. We re-rehearsed every scene, but we actually didn’t rehearse that one beforehand. And yeah, it just felt really right. It was sad. It was sad to see David in that puddle and to see him pass away. And it was sort of a fitting end to this journey for me, to have come back to this role so many years later when I never expected that would happen. Yeah, I think it was a fitting end.
How would you sum up your experience with Bruce?
It’s been so overwhelmingly positive. Bruce has always been so sweet to me and so good to me. He’s such a great scene-partner too. As an 11-year-old, he was just so welcoming, and he gave me the whole box set to The Beatles and Led Zeppelin as wrap gifts on Unbreakable. He’s such a hero of mine, not just because I worked with him. I grew up on action movies, so I grew up on Die Hard. I would watch it with my parents and my sister. We were just total action movie junkies growing up. I also got involved in music because Bruce was playing music. So to come back and get to work with him on Glass was so special. I got to hear about his adult children and eat dinner together. A lot of this movie took place in Allentown, Pennsylvania, not Philadelphia. So we were all staying at the same hotel and kind of living together; it was pretty special. I have some cool memorabilia from Unbreakable, and it was really cool getting to sit down with Bruce and show him. I even had notes that he’d written to me. He wrote me a thank-you note at the end of Unbreakable, which was obviously so sweet. I also have my old script that we got to pour over and see the little notes in the margins. Yeah, he was just really cool throughout and it was this amazing experience as an actor to get to come back. I feel like I got to pour so much of myself into that character, which is kind of rare. Normally, my process is not as involved with who I am as a person, but strangely, there are a lot of parallels between Joseph and myself in this one. And having such a strong relationship with Bruce really helped inform my character.
Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that we didn’t meet an adult named Jeb.
(Laughs.) That’s so funny. That would’ve been such a great nod to Unbreakable. Of course, you had not just Mrs. Price and Joseph, but you also had the comic book store guy (Bostin Christopher) return, as well as the newscaster (Ukee Washington). He’s a real newscaster in Philadelphia, and he came back all those years later, too. But yeah, an adult named Jeb would’ve been hilarious. That’s such a good scene in Unbreakable.
Have you thought about the fact that your two biggest childhood films, Gladiator and Unbreakable, nearly collided since Joaquin Phoenix was once attached to play Kevin Wendell Crumb?
Yeah, I didn’t know that until we were actually filming. It would’ve been wild. I haven’t seen Joaquin in years. Every once in a while, I run into these people. I run into Russell Crowe or get to pass a message on to him because he obviously doesn’t live in L.A. But it was amazing to work with Joaquin. Again, all these people played pretty important roles in my life. I spent three months with Joaquin in Malta, and three months when you’re 11 years old is a long time. These people all had really informative roles in my childhood. So yeah, it would’ve been really cool to work with him again, but James did such a wonderful job. It was a real privilege to get to know him and watch him do his thing.
Did Night run his set like you remember?
Yeah, he did. The fact that we were taking four-minute one-shot takes wasn’t something I was conscious of as an 11-year-old. I didn’t have a whole breadth of experience to compare it to. And getting to come back on set with Night after 20 years of working in this industry, especially in TV where things are so much more fast-paced and there’s not as much attention to detail, it was really special for me to get to go back and savor those moments. And on Unbreakable, Night was a kid. He was younger than I am now and I had no concept of that. (Laughs.) To go back and revisit these pictures and just think about all the uncertainty that must’ve been going through his mind at that age and that period in his life, and to be doing this huge studio movie, I can’t imagine how surreal that experience must’ve been for him. And I wasn’t aware of any of that. I had no idea how young Night was because I was 11. In my mind, he was just another adult, you know? (Laughs.) And he was so warm to me on set. During Glass, he had so much pressure to perform and people had so many expectations about what this movie should be, and yet he was still mentoring all these people around him. Not just myself, but everybody. His editor, Luke (Ciarrocchi), is super young, and all the people at his production company are up-and-coming. Everyone’s eager to learn and he creates this amazing environment on set. So I’m no longer the young kid on set. A lot of the people in all sorts of departments are younger than me. I remember when I realized that I’m no longer the youngest person on set, because for a decade-plus of my life, that was always the case. But Night’s sets are the most amazing sets to learn on because he’s such a student of film and he’s got time for everybody.
Any final thoughts on the Eastrail 177 trilogy?
Yeah, it truly was an incredible experience and I never expected it to happen. I’m so grateful and privileged to have had these experiences as a child. I hadn’t watched Unbreakable in so long, and to get to go back and revisit that, it was really special. As an actor, it was this amazing experience to not just work with these incredible people again, but to have this backstory that had already been developed. As an actor, you try to build these stories for yourself and answer these questions that aren’t discussed in the script just to inform your decisions, and I had a lot of those questions already answered because I had played this character before. So it was this huge opportunity for me to get to go back and explore. Getting to watch Night work was truly great. I spent so much time on the Glass set, even when I wasn’t filming, just watching him do his thing. The reality is films just aren’t made like that as much anymore. People don’t storyboard and block things months and months in advance and have such precise ideas of what they want to do with each scene. There is some merit to the idea of exploration, and it can be a little daunting when you step on set and someone says, “Stand here and say this, and then walk 3 feet and say this.” But with Night, he has such a clear vision of what he’s eventually going to use in the camera. Night had talked about doing a sequel years ago, but it had been so long and nobody expected this, least of all me. So it was really special to spend time with these people again and to get to play this character. It’s not something I take for granted. It was such a huge opportunity, both personally and professionally.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
by Graeme McMillan
by Graeme McMillan
by Graeme McMillan
by Etan Vlessing
by Graeme McMillan