Not yet out of his teens, Rock Tiller is already regarded as Hollywood hot property. The heart-throb romantic lead in the hugely successful Sing-Along-a-Schoolathon blockbusters, and then the too-dreamy-to-believe love interest in Vince Walden’s 2008 remake of the 70s classic Blonzy, Tiller is set to break the mould in his next role. Rumours abound about the teen star’s religious upbringing, his contractual obligation to retain his virginity. Disney has relied upon his squeaky clean boy-next-door-image since he first appeared on our screens aged 9 in Super Summer as the adorable little brother of teen bimbo Summer Solstice, played by Tamar Lovejoy. In his good-looking, good-hearted portrayals of the All-American boy, we have watched him sing, dance, shoot hoops and hit home runs, walk with his arm around the shoulder of the right kind of dozily flirtatious girl, his sports jacket folded carefully over the little puffy armlets of her prom gown, corsage in view, right up to her doorstop, to chastely kiss in the full admiring glow of her adoring parents, before soberly driving home to help his disabled brother do math.
In the new independent release, F is for Frenzy, Tiller plays Franz Bollinger, a troubled, dope-smoking outcast, trying to find a way to deal with his violent urges to rape and maim, the voices inside his head, and the lifetime of abuse he has suffered at the hands of his alcoholic parents and disturbed older sister. Need it be mentioned the contract with Disney came to an end last year, and though they bid big money to keep him on until he turned 25, the statement from his agent suggested that though he was very grateful for all Disney had done for him, ten years was long enough.
Tiller is in London, on a promotional tour for the film, which itself has been rather frenzied. “It has been non-stop since I got here,” he says. “I’m kind of wiped.” But he doesn’t look wiped: his famed blue eyes sparkle out at me across our knees, and though I am twice his age – more than twice his age – I feel myself blush when he smiles at me. I’ve come to meet him in a place about as insalubrious as they come, a titty bar, downstairs from an institutional-looking cafeteria in Dalston, which you enter via a spangly curtain of metallic ribbons. Neon signs reading Physical Emotion! and Girls! grimly light the black walls of the bar. In the section we are sitting, a skewed sticker on the mirrored walls lets us know we’re in Champagne Corner. This comes as a surprise: I would have attributed the stickiness on all the surfaces to almost any other kind of spillage. The carpet, where there is carpet, is spongy underfoot and slopes muggily towards the toilets. The darkly empty dance-floor is almost gluey – more spilled champagne? Why here? I ask.
“Back home the reaction to the film has mostly been shock,” he says. “People have been outraged; distribution’s been pulled in Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia. There’s talk of a projectionists’ strike in Mississippi. And that’s my home.” He fixes me with a wide smile, his eyes look surprised and resoundingly innocent. “To my mind, it’s an overreaction. I’m proud of this movie, I’m proud of the part I’ve played in it. I think it’s a story that needs to be told and I think Lawrence [da Silva, the movie’s director and executive producer] has done a great job. I think people are shocked because of the parts I’ve played before. But this was a huge role for me, a break from playing myself. The audience hasn’t wanted to see the Rock they know disgraced. But I don’t feel disgraced,” he explains, with a shrug, “I feel like a real actor now. I’m me, and playing a part doesn’t change that. But I want people to know that I know how the world is. I know strip-joints exist.”
I ask him how the response in the UK has been. “Everywhere in Europe had accepted this film, accepted my part in it.’ Accepted is an understatement: the film won the prestigious Prix du Jury at Cannes this year, but was panned at Sundance. “The critics over here have been really kind. Not kind – compassionate. They’ve understood the drive of the movie and they’re saying it's well made. I think it says something dark about the States, that it still can’t accept what lies beneath the surface. The States doesn’t want me to grow up.”
How about your parents, your family, I ask. He looks away, focuses his gaze on the stage at other end of the bar where a girl in tassels is titillating the lone customer. It is 5pm. Rock and I are sitting very close, on high bar stools that were difficult to mount and which swing cheaply, and now as he turns away, our legs interlock at the knees and we turn left and then right, trying to disengage. He laughs. I blush hotly. “My folks aren’t too happy about how I’ve been treated,” he says. “But we’re close. They support me.”
Despite his reticence, it’s impossible not to know about his severed engagement to Natalie Luana, his co-star in the Sing-Along-A movies. The tabloid press have been printing teary-eyed snapshots of her for weeks; in the last week there has been a plethora of photographs of Natalie with Jot Toberman, son of the staunchly Republican Congressman Abraham Toberman.
When I ask about America’s new premier, Rock says he’s never taken much of an interest in politics, but that despite the seeming swing to the liberal that Obama’s Democratic presidency represents, in theatre audiences, at least, America is still fiercely conservative. His single-mindedness in talking about the movie is surprising; he talks of it as if it awakened him to art, and to politics, as if, in acting the outcast for the first time in his life, a social conscience was born. There is something of the eighteen-year-old activist in him; of the white girls with dreadlocks and the trustafarian boys who parade banners about the approaching end of capitalism on anti-war marches. Yes, he is smiling magnificently, and yes it is with a certain debonair charm that he addresses me, and our photographer Geoff, and the sour looking barman and his agency’s British representative, Carlotta; but even ordering his coca-cola (“Hold the rum’” he quips), I can see that this is a boy in pain.
His childhood was happy, he tells me, but the family order was strict, and unlike his ex-fiancée’s family, who are portrayed as pushy Hollywood types, his family were firmly against his move into performance at such a young age. Tiller grew up on his father’s small dairy farm, outside of Picayune, Mississippi. His mother was a god-fearing home-maker, his father was a hard-working Methodist, stern and irascible. Rock stands up smoothly from the bar stool, which swings impertinently having lost him, and pulls his wallet out from his back pocket. He flips it open to show me, in the seedy lighting, a picture of perfect America. The family stands between the swinging seat and the two rocking chairs on the porch of a largish farmhouse, placed to catch the evening sun, which slants artistically over the kids. They are ranged in height order, and the beam of light matches it exactly, spotlighting each sandy head, each freckly face, leaving their chests in shadow. There is a screen door. To the far left of the shot I can make out a picket fence; and yes, it is painted white. The boys, two big and one little, are holding out a baseball bat, a baseball, a catcher’s mitt. The two young girls are dressed prettily in flowery dresses and grin cheekily towards the camera. Mom and Pop stand behind them, their faces beatific in the glow. He is small and wiry, she - buxom and grey. They look far too old for these children, but full of energy. “This isn’t really your family,” I say. “Disney put this together for a remake of The Waltons.” He laughs at my joke, and then winks at me coyly. “Wouldn’t you like to know,” he says. The third of the five children, Rock is the only Tiller to have flown more than half a mile from the nest. Eldest brother Bud took over management of the farm from his father Harrison two years ago, and lives there in a small house he has built on the land. Second brother Junior is working on a small-holding not far from home; the two girls are finishing off high school and are thinking of teaching for a few years before marriage. But from a young age Rock wanted something different. He says it was a nativity play that sparked his love of performance: Christianity was – and is – central to his life. “I love Jesus,” he says without a trace of irony, which is a shame, because I guffaw immediately at his American sincerity. “I pray every day. But I’m growing up.” I ask him – what about the virginity? “I’m a young man,” he says, “I’m almost 20.” I’ve got no idea whether this is supposed to affirm or confound the rumours, but I find myself unable to speak for a moment, because Rock has casually laid his hand on my knee, ostensibly to whisper something to Carlotta. I am pretty sure he squeezes.
“Have you seen the movie?” he asks turning back to me, and gently removing his hand as if he never knew he had laid it down. I have seen it. It is cuckoo, crackerjack, f for effing amazing. It is neither indie tongue-in-cheek nor cutesy dark humour; it’s not cartoonish, its not horror blood and violence. It is the quiet intensity of sitting on the end of the bed as your son cracks up; crying as he babbles and raves. It is Bergman, reborn an American in the time of Dubya, Eminem and Dancing with the Stars. There is a gripping stillness to the movie; it could almost have been a play. He nods “The writer, Mike Orly, started writing it as a play, but Lawrence got hold of it and insisted.” [Da Silva and Orly go back a long way: they met in the off-off-Broadway circles in the early nineties and have been friends ever since.] “Its because of the dreams – he insisted the dreams would only work on film. And the voices.” The voices, those that Franz ‘Frenzy’ Bollinger hears in his head, are terrifying and strangely compelling. They seem to be speaking from inside Tiller’s head. The camera watches the breeze in his hair compulsively, and yet it is somehow understated, somehow heart-breakingly subtle.
I tell him how much I liked the film, and he smiles eagerly throughout my compliments, and thanks me. But then his smile drifts away. His face takes on a bitter look. “You know I’ve received hate-mail because of this. I’ve been spat on. I’ve…’ He looks at Carlotta and abruptly stops talking. I follow his gaze, but her face looks calm, unperturbed. He continues, tentatively. “They don’t seem to get that…”
“F is for fiction?” I offer. He comes back quicker, sharper than I would have expected: “F is for farce.”
The outcry in America, however, is concentrated around the fact that this movie may not be fiction at all. Franz Bollinger may be a fictitious name, but Johan Doolethey, the man whose life Frenzy is alleged to follow, is not. You may not remember the name, but it’s unlikely you will have forgotten the Thanksgiving Murders, four of the most grotesquely sterile slaughters ever tried in America. On November 22nd 2001, Leonard and Cynthia Doolethey of Avalon, Georgia were gathered for Thanksgiving with their daughter Gabriella Sheers, her husband Steve, and their two daughters aged 6 and 8. Johan, their 23 year old son, was long estranged from the family and had not been invited, so it must have come as a surprise when he rang the doorbell at seven that evening, bearing a pumpkin pie as an offering and expensive presents – a new bicycle and mini-scooter - for his nieces. From the stony faces and the stiffness of the poses on the photos taken that night on Leonard’s new digital camera, all signs point to an unhappier-than-average family reunion over turkey, yam and plenty of greens. The last few photos are of the two girls, whippet-thin in pink chenille, trying out their new toys in the yard. What we know happened next takes a dark and disturbing turn. The girls found that they were locked out of the house. They tried the front door, then went round to the back. The doors wouldn’t budge. They made their way around the side to see that all the curtains were closed. Unsure what was happening, they pushed their scooter and bike up the road, to the house of their grandparents’ friends, Deon and Celeste Williams. Deon soon came out to investigate, and suspecting something was up, put in a call to the police. But he was second in line in making the call - Johan had already turned himself in.
The scene in the house was described by police reports as ‘shocking and macabre’. Doolethey first poisoned his victims - the pumpkin pie he had brought for desert was laced with large doses of a mild sedative - then they were rolled and sealed in polythene bags, and stabbed once each, a kitchen knife straight through their sternums. The photographs of the scene make it seem surreal in its cleanliness. The blood from the knife wounds had spilled and eddied within the plastic wrapping but none had leaked. The four bodies, laid out neatly in height order, in their reddish, bubbly shrouds appear like vacuum-packed joints of meat.
This is no spoiler. None of what I have described above appears in the movie. And yet Bollinger is as close to the real Doolethey as ‘real-life characters’ come. Where is the link? And why does the movie not feature these murders, gory, and terrifying and dramatic as they are?
The Thanksgiving Murders were big news, for a week or two. During his trials, Doolethey was featured in the press all over the south eastern states. A pop psychologist chatted with Oprah on a segment entitled Bloodbath, the inside story of the Thanksgiving Murders. When he was sentenced to death at Georgia’s State Prison, a number of highly-publicised suicide attempts kept him in the papers. It was the attempts on his own life that drew the young playwright, Mike Orly’s, attention: "He suddenly realised, he knew this guy," Tiller tells me. He knew him? I ask, knew him personally? "No, I don’t think so. But he felt like he knew him – he felt – this is a man I know – so he wrote him. And Johan wrote back. And then they kept on writing." The full correspondence between Orly and Doolethey, Death Called to Me, is being brought out later this year by HarperCollins. It is, according to the press release ‘a stunningly beautiful and empathic account of death row and the life that lead there.’ Four of the letters will be printed in tomorrow’s Observer to coincide with the release of the movie in the UK. It was their publication in The New York Times last month that precipitated the uproar in America.
The selection of letters featured is comprised of Orly’s first letter to Doolethey from January 2002, Doolethey’s bewildered, heartfelt response, and then two more letters from the death row inmate, dated 2005 and 2008. Orly’s letter is a powerful tract of recognition.
‘Dear Johan Doolethey,’ it begins. ‘You may well receive a hundred letters like mine, and I’m certain you won’t have the inclination to answer them all. But I write to you because your story speaks deep to my gut and my gut is a cruel master whose demands I can’t ignore. I can’t be sure, but my sense is that you have similar troubles with your gut too. I would like to understand – and that’s all. I’m not interested in the way you killed your folks. I want to know why you had to do it. Because if your gut is anything like my gut, you only did it because you had to. And I’m only writing to you because I have to, and I hope that’s clear.’
The three of Doolethey’s letters selected for pre-release, reveal a mind that works at breakneck speed: there is the sense in Doolethey’s writing that he is sprinting after his thoughts, panting, trying to catch up, and sometimes achieving it. The letters span his lifetime in jail, from the ‘excruciating hollowness, the living death, of life in the can’ which his first letter describes, to the last letter he penned before his execution, which ends, heartbreakingly: ‘Mike, Mike, my truest friend. I’m sorry. Thank you. And goodbye.’
But it is the second of the letters around which the storm of hatred for the movie has whirled. Described by the Facebook group F is for Frenzy Must Be Banned as ‘the work of patent sanity masquerading as gross madness,’ this letter is being portrayed by the right in America as a cynical and pointed attack, and along with the movie and the book, is considered as a major weapon in the arsenal of the Campaign for the Cessation of Capital Punishment. I ask him, was it Mike Orly’s and Lawrence Da Silva’s intentional that this movie was a political protest? "I don’t think it was the aim. That makes it sound so cynical. This is a homage to their friendship,’ he says. "I didn’t know Mike back then, but when Johan died? It was really bad. He told me he was drinking, he could barely get out of bed, it’s like his life was going off-track. He told me that the only way he started to get better – started to deal with this loss – was by continuing to write." And what started out as more letters to Doolethey, became a fictionalised version of his early life, and then a play – and finally the film as we know it now.
So what’s the fuss about? "As far as I get it, it’s that the movie doesn’t feature the murders, or death row. It’s that it’s a compassionate look at a guy who’s been really cruelly treated and about how that affects him when he’s young. Also, from this movie, there’s no doubt he’s not well… I mean, this guy is very sick. He wasn’t in touch with reality. There are moments in the letters when he’s clear as a bell, but other times… Mike got to know him as a person, and he managed to understand that sickness a bit, and he was completely convinced that they would win the appeals. It’s not legal to execute people who are insane, right? So he appealed – Mike was there, helping him out, all the appeals you can do from death row, and the judges just kept on loop-holing the psychologists reports which said that he was psychotic and whatever else. So now all this shit storm is about the fact that the movie portrays him as mad, which the courts say he wasn’t. It’s like – when did America become a country when an artistic endeavour can’t criticise the authorities?" He pauses, looks down at his hands. There’s something of the undergraduate about him now, the way he seems to be watching his own naïveté spin him in circles. He looks up at me, and asks "Or is that what it’s always been like?"