Movie Star Wanted, No Experience Necessary: Phil Hanley on Sundowners

August 25, 2017

Two and a half years ago, Canadian-comic-turned-New-Yorker Phil Hanley got a strange email from a total stranger.

“It was Pavan (Moondi), reaching out to my website saying, ‘Hey, I’m writing this movie and I want you to be the lead.’ Apparently, he’d seen one of my stand-up sets on Craig Ferguson.

“I was like, ‘Oh, okay,’” Hanley says of the dubious message. “I’d had a few improv lessons, but I’d never acted.” He’d also been in a couple of commercials with no lines.

“I mean, I get odd emails like that on my website every so often. I like to say yes, just in case. But then he turned out to be for real, and I was kind of taken aback.”

Turns out: Yes was the right answer. Moondi, whose comedy Sundowners opens this weekend at TIFF Bell Lightbox, likes the innocence of style he gets from non-actors who are otherwise performers (just look at July Talk singer Leah Fay Goldstein, who had never acted before starring in Moondi’s previous film Diamond Tongues, earning her a Canadian Screen Award nomination).

Non-professionals are again the leads in Sundowners, a film about a pair of aimless Toronto millennials who get hired to record a seemingly-jinxed wedding at a resort in Mexico. Hanley plays Alex, a wedding videographer going nowhere fast. Luke Lalonde (lead singer of yet another Toronto band, Born Ruffians) plays his feckless best friend Justin.

It all sounded good, but Hanley admits he still didn’t entirely consider it real. “Every so often we’d meet. Pavan would come to New York and say, ‘Let’s get a drink and talk about the film.’ And then one day it was, ‘Yeah, the movie’s happening. We’re flying out to Colombia.” (Colombia doubles for Mexico in the film.)

Sundowners was based on Moondi’s own experience in Toronto as an unpaid wedding videographer, and an actual Mexican resort wedding he worked for “exposure dollars.”

“I knew the story came from him, but I didn’t really ask him too many details,” Hanley says. “I wanted to get into the space myself. But we clicked immediately. We are huge fans of Seinfeld, and we kind of started to talk to each other in comedy references, particularly Seinfeld and Louis C.K.” (Hanley says Seinfeld’s Comedian, his documentary about creating a new act from scratch, inspired the former male model to go into stand-up himself).

The Oshawa-born Hanley and the Kitchener-native Moondi hit it off so well, in fact, that they’ve since collaborated on pilot scripts for TV series. One, based on Hanley’s life in New York, was shopped around in Los Angeles this year and the comedian has high hopes to star in it.

Shot in reverse chronological order, the meat of Sundowners was shot at the Colombian resort first. The opening act of the movie was then shot in the dead of winter in Toronto. Moondi says that part of the production felt like a bit of a letdown, especially after shooting for a month in one of the most beautiful coastal vistas imaginable.

Hanley had a different take on the Toronto shoot. “By the time we got back to Toronto, Pavan and I were really close and Luke and I were, like, buddies. So, for me it was a homecoming. I hadn’t hung out with a large group of Canadians in years. The crew were from in and around Toronto. And some of my buddies from Oshawa were living in the city now.”

Hanley took to the script immediately, and to the concept of having a dream and worrying that you’re spinning your wheels in pursuit of it. “As a comic, you live it,” he says. “You do a lot of gigs that are not great. They tell you it’ll be great exposure and you get there and the audience is, like, 12 lumberjacks in rural B.C.”

Of course, he’s happier than ever that he decided to answer that crank email. “You know what? I honestly didn’t think I’d enjoy anything as much as stand-up and I did.

“I missed the immediacy of the stage a little bit. I’m dying to see the screening and see what’s landing and what gets laughs. But I definitely want to do more film and acting.”

Jim Slotek