Gary Poulter was living on the streets in Austin, Texas, eking out an existence as a breakdancer, when he was spotted by the casting director on David Gordon Green’s dark new film Joe, starring Nicolas Cage.
The original intention was just to offer the homeless man a small supporting part in the film. Green, though, took a risk and hired Poulter to play Wade, the vicious alcoholic father of the teenage hero Gary (Tye Sheridan).
“He blew us all away. This was a guy with no address, no driver’s licence and no social security number. I think he had to take a great risk on us and a great risk on himself. We had to really trust him,” Green recalls. “He was a performer looking to be empowered. He was looking for someone to say, ‘you’re very good, I want to see more’.”
Poulter’s Wade is cunning, cruel and violent. Off-screen the film-makers found him “good-hearted and funny.” Nonetheless, Green acknowledges there were some dark episodes in Poulter’s past that enabled him to bring a “brutal reality” to set.
“What we saw in Gary is what we amplified in Wade. We saw a beautiful human that could act very negative and [with] an ugly past. We were there to film a representation of the ugly past but to work day-to-day with a beautiful human being.”
In one chilling scene, Poulter’s Wade tails a fellow alcoholic, kills him for his booze and then treats the dead body with a strange tenderness. “It was all in the book [Joe By Larry Brown] except the kiss,” the director says of the scene. “In his own twisted world, it was [like] tucking him into bed.”
It has been reported that the film-makers bought Poulter new teeth as a present at the wrap party but Green doesn’t mention this during our interview. “When we met Gary, he was at a point where he had just started a Facebook page at the library and was trying to put his life back together and reconnect with his children, whom he hadn’t seen in many years, and his sister. It was a very inspiring and tragic story.”
Poulter was a screen natural but, as it turned out, Joe was to be his one and only role. A few weeks after production finished, he died near a homeless encampment in Austin.
“The last conversation we had, he said, ‘I could die a happy man’,” Green recalls. The director attended Poulter’s funeral, and says: “It was a city service in the middle of nowhere. There was a volunteer priest and about eight people there.”
Poulter’s sister was one of the mourners. She showed Green pictures of Poulter in his twenties, when he looked very different from the grizzled old vagrant he became.
“He was an example of a guy who had made some unfortunate decisions in his life and had a last chapter of redemption,” says Green.