Josh Pais gets ‘Touchy Feely’

September 6, 2013

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It was a moment that actor Josh Pais has grown increasingly used to: someone coming up to him (in this case, outside a theater where a film he was in was showing at the Tribeca Film Festival) to tell him how much they like his work.

Pais, a working actor for more than 20 years, gets recognized with regularity, though, as he says, “It’s about 50/50 now between people who like my work and people thinking I went to camp with them.” So he chatted with the woman, who was walking the same way he was. She could name his films and his roles and was effusive about his acting. Politely, he said, “And what do you do?”

She said, “I’m Lynn Shelton” – a name Pais immediately recognized as a rising star writer-director in the independent film world.

“I’d just seen ‘Humpday’ and so, for the next block, I was giving it back to her, about how much I loved her work,” Pais recalls, sitting in the restaurant of Soho House in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District.

Three years later, Shelton’s film “Touchy Feely,” in which Pais costars with Rosemarie DeWitt and Ellen Page, opens today (9/6/13) in theaters (it’s already available on-demand). The film was a direct outgrowth of their meeting, which turned into more than a year of phone calls and Skypes discussing story ideas, and even a day spent in Los Angeles just hanging out together with Shelton, DeWitt and Page.

“We cooked two meals together and just spent the day together,” Pais recalls. “It was a great way to be in the same space, feeling each other out. I thought we would do improv or something like that, but we never talked about the movie, which was perfect. I got to see parts of Ellen and Rose that really helped me when we started working together.”

In the film, Pais plays an introverted dentist whose practice is in a death spiral. Then he visits a psychic healer – and develops a miraculous ability to cure his patients’ TMJ. To get ready for the film, Pais spent time with a real dentist and even practiced on some real patients.

“He had his receptionist sit in his chair and showed me how to clean teeth,” Pais says. “I was using tools, making contact. Every person who sat in my chair in the movie, I scraped some tartar off their teeth. If you sent me into a tribe in the wilderness with the right tools, I could clean teeth – if I didn’t need a license.”

That hands-on approach put him in touch with his character’s inward orientation: “He’s so about focusing on a detailed area,” Pais says. “That’s where he can be comfortable. If he takes in too much of the world, there’s too much fluctuation for him to incorporate; he has no idea how to deal with that. So it’s great for him to have an activity that causes him to focus on the very tip of this little tool.”

Pais knew that Shelton tends to create script outlines from which her actors can improvise, which was fine with him. In this case, he says, Shelton came in with roughly 70 pages, with more written dialogue than for any of her previous films.

“We’d stick to her words, but if we got an impulse to take something in a new direction off the script, she was not locked into anything,” Pais notes. “That’s not very common. It takes a level of bravery for a director, who has a vision, to let things unfold outside that vision.”

The son of a theoretical physicist who was colleagues with Albert Einstein and a painter-poet, Pais grew up in the Alphabet City section of the East Village in Manhattan. At one point, Pais thought about studying animal behavior, ultimately opting for acting instead.

“Now I feel like I do animal behavior in my acting,” he says with a laugh.

Working with Shelton came naturally because his first work out of college was “very experimental, physical theater,” he says. “Then I reached a point when I just couldn’t eat anymore macaroni and cheese. So I began exploring how to bring that kind of raw spontaneity into very naturalistic work, like ‘Law & Order’,” on which he had a recurring role as an assistant medical examiner.

His subsequent filmography includes a string of independent films and TV guest appearances, including a recurring role in the current Showtime series, “Ray Donovan.” Though his character – a snaky agent – only showed up in a couple of episodes in the show’s first season, he’s been told he’ll be back for another story arc in the series’ second year.

“It’s got the best writing I’ve ever come across,” Pais says. “It was a really rich, creative, challenging experience. Originally my character was written to only be in the pilot. But Ann (Biderman, the show’s creator) was so responsive to what I was doing that she added other episodes for me.”

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Recent announcements of a reboot of the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” franchise have brought Pais an amusing set of tweets and emails from fans of the series – because Pais appeared in the first live-action “TMNT” movie in 1990, as Raphael, the most carefree turtle. He was the only actor to both voice a character and wear the turtle suit, because he had been a student of martial-arts since he was 13.

“That costume weighed 70 pounds – every day, from morning until we broke for lunch, we each would lose five pounds,” he recalls. “They’d have to shoot compressed air in our faces because the heads were so hot. We all had major claustrophobia – but the heads were glued on. To take one off took, like, five or 10 minutes. We all had our individual freakouts.

“I’d never heard of them before I did the movie. Now, when I meet people of a certain age group – say, 25 to 35 – when I tell them I played Raphael, their jaws drop.”

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