Nostalgia can be uplifting in small doses. Get too bogged down in worshipping the past, though, and you’re unable to move forward. This is the key difference between Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong and the otherwise similar aging rock star character he plays in his first major film role.
In Ordinary World, out in theaters now, Armstrong is Perry, a grizzled yet boyish veteran of the N.Y.C. punk scene, whose career never recovered from his band’s indefinite 10-year hiatus. Perry spends his days minding his young daughter and (kind of) working at his brother’s family-inherited hardware store, but mostly pining for the past. Armstrong’s career, however, went on a more lucrative and creatively fulfilling trajectory. His pining for the past is restricted to an occasional, wistful trip down the wormhole of MTV’s 120 Minutes. He still knows this character in and out, though.
“Perry is a lot like me and a lot of my friends,” Armstrong says. “When I’m at home and I’ve got downtime, my wife is sort of like the CEO and I’m just some klutz. And that was something I related to a lot. And the kind of love he has for his family, and how they share music—that’s me too.”
Music runs through the prolific songwriter’s veins, as it always has since he and his bandmates first started jamming out together 30 years ago in Berkeley, California. So it should be no surprise that music is what led Armstrong to his nascent acting career. His first serious role involved taking over the lead as St. Jimmy in the fiery Broadway musical based on his album, American Idiot. An agent reached out after seeing Armstrong’s performance in the show and asked if he was interested in doing more. Although he’d never really given much thought to an acting career before, he admitted he was curious about it. Especially if the right role came along. Pretty soon, one did.
In between shooting bit parts in Nurse Jackie and Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, Armstrong read writer/director Lee Kirk’s screenplay for a film that at the time was called Geezer. He loved it. He was just a touch concerned about the awesome responsibility of carrying a movie alongside pros like Judy Greer and Selma Blair, with such little acting experience of his own.
“Leading up to it, there were some minor freakout moments,” Armstrong says. “I wanted to make sure that I did [Kirk’s] precious script justice and didn’t let anybody else down. After a couple days of shooting, though, it was like watching this awesome independent machine I was a part of come together.”
He also got to be part of the process of building Perry. Kirk encouraged Armstrong at every turn to draw from his own experience and put his own language into the character. The way the character talks in the finished film is reflective of the way Armstrong says things himself. He was also able to inject his own personality into the film by writing songs for it, in character.
Before filming began, he’d already written two songs for the eventual new Green Day album—Revolution Rock, released just last week. But writing songs for the film, including the title track, “Ordinary World,” was a different creative process.
“It was sort of like writing a musical,” Armstrong says. “It was sort of like going back to what it was like in the old days and what kind of music this guy would make. The way I kind of thought of the character as being is that he was probably a bit of a partier, living on couches with beer stains, and I really tried to incorporate that—especially in the song ‘Devil’s Kind.’”
Getting into other people’s heads is something the musician has done before when writing American Idiot, the musical These Paper Bullets, and just songs that are from a character’s point of view. With his role in Ordinary World, he now had to use this skill in a performative way beyond writing.
“If you’re writing a song like ‘Bang Bang,’ and you’re writing for someone who is a psychopath, and putting it first person, you tend to blow it out of proportion and make it as much a caricature as you can,” he says. “Whereas with the character for the movie, it was sort of like, try to be natural with it, don’t try to overact, just let the script breathe through you.”
Now that Armstrong has this experience behind him, he’s not sure what’s next. His new sideline in acting came about from following the music—if it wasn’t for American Idiot the album, there wouldn’t have been the Broadway show, or the acting offers, or the upcoming HBO special–so that’s what he intends to keep doing. It’s this constant push forward that separates the actual rock star from the fictional ersatz rock star he portrays in Ordinary World.
“I could see myself having become Perry in a different life,” he says. “But let’s just say I’m pretty grateful I’m in Green Day instead.”