By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist
In a year when movie theatres were mostly dark, two veterans of the Colorado stage lit up the screen in one of the most acclaimed films of the year, an underdog horror hit called “Rent-A-Pal.”
In this dark and twisted year, one of the most praised films of the year has been the dark and twisted thriller written and directed by University of Colorado Denver graduate (and first-time filmmaker) Jon Stevenson. Playing a mother and son, Brian Landis Folkins and 25-year Denver Center Theatre Company favorite Kathleen M. Brady enjoyed their long-deserved big-screen breakouts. … even if the pandemic saw to it that most of those screens were in people’s basements.
“Rent-A-Pal,” released to theatres in September and now available on Hulu, is a story necessarily set in pre-digital 1990. Folkins plays a genuinely sweet 40-year-old virgin named David, who lives with a mother slipping into dementia (Brady). His lonely search for real human connection takes a creepy turn when he comes across a VHS tape called “Rent-A-Pal.” In it, a charming host named Andy (Wil Wheaton) offers him the much-needed friendship he is looking for – but at a very high cost.
And therein lies the twist. The premise is (probably) exactly what it appears to be: This is a man on a couch having a conversation with a prerecorded tape – not with a man somehow trapped in the box. On the tape, Andy (you know him from “Star Trek TNG”; I know him as the nice kid from “Stand By Me”) asks whoever is watching questions and waits for answers. David talks back, and as he shares personal information about his parents and personal life, he somehow feels heard. A real bond is happening. That’s quite an acting trick. And critics noticed.
“Watching Folkins watch this tape — to see the formation of this relationship — makes for one of the most original and riveting film sequences of 2020,” critic Nick Allen wrote for rogerebert.com. But when this unnatural connection unleashes latent feelings of entitlement, misogyny and anger … game on.
Allen went on to call Folkins’ performance “gripping and empathetic.” Of course, he doesn't yet know that Wheaton's Andy is a monster.
A few other critics’ comments:
Erick Weber, editor of the Oscars website awardsace.com, listed Folkins as among his eight personal favorites for Best Actor of 2020. Even Wheaton, who delivers some brain-seeping work of his own, said of Folkins: “His performance is so impressive and so beautiful and so incredibly memorable.”
After appearances in more than 100 short films and small features over the past 20 years, “Rent-A-Pal” is a career-defining moment for Folkins as a complex character actor. That it’s happening now, after toiling for years and paying his dues over and over again in Colorado’s stage and film industries, only makes it sweeter.
“The lesson is: Never give up,” Folkins said. “I love what I do, and there was never a question that I would always do it. Whether you are successful at it is the luck of the draw. But I feel like if you do good work, people will notice.”
Thanks to Folkins, more people are also noticing the remarkable Brady, whose body of work at the Denver Center since 1986 places her among the most beloved and acclaimed actors in local theatre history. And it was Folkins who suggested to the director that Brady play his mother.
Brady had a few indelible scenes in the classic TV series “Breaking Bad,” but she had never appeared in a feature film before landing the role of Lucille in “Rent-A-Pal.”
“I grew up watching Kathleen onstage and loved her work for two decades,” said Folkins. “I am telling you, she is absolutely stunning in this film. If you know anyone who is experiencing a deterioration of the brain, you know just how hard it is to find the balance in that character. But Kathleen is fearless. This mother and son have a difficult relationship, but Kathleen just brought so much heart to it.
“Plus, she has the best lines in the film.”
2020 already was a notable year for Brady because she had made very few local stage appearances over the past decade when she accepted the leading role in Curious Theatre Company’s "The Secretary" (pictured above by Michael Ensminger).
Brady played Ruby, the owner of a gun manufacturing company, in Kyle John Schmidt’s incendiary black comedy about the fallout when a high-school secretary takes down a student shooter. In an interview at the time, Brady said the whole experience of that play made her “happy as hell.”
And “Rent-A-Pal,” filmed entirely in Colorado, offers two other familiar local acting faces: Real-life married couple Adrian Egolf, who plays a significant supporting role as the receptionist at the Video Rendezvous dating service; and her her husband, Luke Sorge, who makes a fun cameo. Turns out, Sorge has appeared in every film the Denver-based Pretty People Pictures has ever made. (Pictured at right: Luke Sorge, Brian Landis Folkins and Adrian Egolf.)
The bummer for Folkins, of course, is that he got this first taste of big-time success during a pandemic. No big Hollywood opening. No red carpets. No big press junkets. No awards-season schmoozing with the power brokers who can further your career. “Rent-A-Pal” was released to 60 screens nationwide just as movie theatres were (briefly, it turns out) re-opening. “But just because theatres were open again doesn’t mean people were going to them,” Folkins said.
“It is a strange time to be experiencing some success, given what’s going on in the world. But at the same time, I don’t know that we would have had the success we’ve had with this film if it had not happened during the pandemic. The film really speaks to what people are going through right now, with the loneliness and the sequestering. It rings true with what they are feeling.” As Janel Spiegel said for the Horror News Network: "This movie is so relevant for everything happening right now with COVID-19."
Turns out this lousy, lonely year, just like David in 1990 – everyone could use a pal.
And now that “Rent-A-Pal” is widely available for anyone to watch on Hulu, Folkins thinks the film will catch fire.
“It just has the feel of a cult classic," he said. "I think people will really attach to it.”
Whatever opportunities may yet come Folkins’ way from the film, he’s a little bit glad it didn’t come quickly or easily to him. It could be said he’s been rehearsing for playing David for the past 20 years of exploring sad, sympathetic, average white guys – and their darker sides –on Colorado stages.
“To be completely honest, if this had happened in my 20s, I probably would have screwed it up,” he said. “I know who I am now, and I now what I want in terms of creating art and the stories I want to tell.”
Watch the official trailer for 'Rent-A'Pal'
About Brian Landis Folkins
Brian Landis Folkins, who won a 2018 True West Award for his performance as Senator Charles Whitmore in the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College’s “Church and State,” is a longtime Curious Theatre Company member and DCPA Teaching Artist whose stage credits include Curious’ "Gloria” and “The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scripture.” In “Church and State,” he played a republican Senator from North Carolina who is up for re-election just weeks after a gun massacre at a nearby school. His film resume also includes last year’s “Hoax,” starring Adrienne Barbeau (and possibly Bigfoot), about a Colorado camping trip gone wrong.
About Kathleen M. Brady
Among Kathleen M. Brady’s many Denver Center productions since 1986 have been "The Beauty Queen of Leenane," "Arsenic and Old Lace," "Dancing at Lughnasa" and "Trip to Bountiful." She has appeared on TV as Dorothy Yobs in "Breaking Bad" and in numerous commercials. Kathleen has received accolades from Westword for Best Actress in a Drama for the play "Well" in 2010, and was named The Denver Post’s 2009 Colorado Theatre Person of the Year.
Brian Landis Folkins with the cast and crew of 'Rent-A-Pal'