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Getting cast in “The Social Network” was a dream come true for Josh Pence. The only problem with being in the Facebook movie? He wouldn’t have a face.
When Pence saw the casting breakdown for the Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron, the cantankerous twosome who sued Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for allegedly stealing their idea, he knew he had to have a part. Like the Winklevii, Pence had gone to an Ivy League school — in his case, Dartmouth — and was around when Facebook first came to campus, then presented as an exclusive brand available to Ivy Leaguers. Even more serendipitously, Pence was also a rower, just like the Harvard twins. He may have even competed against them, though he’s not totally positive on that front.
“Sometimes when you see the roles that feel so perfect, they’re the most elusive,” Pence told HuffPost. “Because if you care too much and you want the thing too much, it can easily backfire.”
He gave it his all. After weeks of auditions, hiring his old rowing coach to film him out on the water and learning pages upon pages of writer Aaron Sorkin’s snappy dialogue for both twin roles, Pence was on his way to reading with Armie Hammer in front of Sorkin and director David Fincher. But there was a catch.
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“We’re being told, me and my agent at the time, that there’s some kind of technology that’s probably going to be used, and there’s a very good chance that we’re not going to see you in the movie, and I said, ‘What?’”
It’d be a gut punch for anyone. Pence was cast as Tyler Winklevoss, but early in production, he got the news. Though his physical performance would be in the movie, allowing the twins to interact with each other, Hammer’s face would be digitally placed over his body.
Fincher broke it as gently as possible.
“The conversation I remember was him just saying, ‘I am so sorry that I’m gonna have to ask you to do this. There’s not a lot of people that probably want to do this, but I’m gonna bill you as a lead. I’m going to contract you as a lead of this film. I’m gonna treat you as a lead of this film. But at the end of the day, I need you to create this character. And I need you to know both characters, and I need you to pass that character off. And no one’s going to know, because it’s going to be that good,’” Pence explained. “And what do you say to that?”
Yeah. What do you say to that?
It was a David Fincher film. And the face replacement was that good.
Since the role, Pence has had plenty of pinch-me moments in his career. In “Draft Day,” he was filmed at the actual NFL draft, leaving real football fans confused when his character, Bo Callahan, was announced; he apologetically signed their real memorabilia with his fake name.
On “Gangster Squad,” at the urging of Josh Brolin, he was able to reunite his father with Nick Nolte, whom Pence said worked with his dad before he hit it big. Currently, Pence has a new film streaming called “Hosea” and is working on Season 3 of the drama series “Good Trouble.”
But 10 years on from “The Social Network,” the actor’s involvement in the film is often relegated to trivia lists of things you didn’t know. Lists, by the way, he admits to reading in order to prep for interviews about the 10th anniversary —and also doesn’t mind fact-checking. (No, he didn’t go through 10 months of twin boot camp.)
When all’s said and done, Pence says he would’ve “mopped the set” just to be a part of “The Social Network.” In many ways, the movie was a wish fulfillment even outside of working with the likes of Fincher and Sorkin. Pence, a rower since high school, had given up the sport due to pain he’d later learn came from a herniated disc in his back. (It was an old injury he’d only get diagnosed after filming the movie). Though he obviously wasn’t with a team, “The Social Network” allowed him to briefly take to the water at the legendary Henley Royal Regatta.
On filming the rowing scenes, Pence jokes, “It was basically like, you guys are gonna go out and play a little game of scrimmage football during the Super Bowl and then run off.”
But please, whatever you do, stop calling him a body double.
“It was really motion capture acting in a way, that’s how we would almost categorise it now. But at the time that was still, ‘What is this really? How do we define this?’ The press says, ‘Oh, you’re the body double. You’re the body double.’ You hear that enough, and it’s easy to get in your own head about it.”
Now, exactly a decade after the film’s Oct. 1, 2010 release date, Pence gives HuffPost a status update on his relationship with the movie. Like you’d say on Facebook: It’s complicated.
What was that final audition like?
I go in and audition for David and Aaron with Armie, and he was great. I mean, right off the bat. Of course, it’s David Fincher, so you’re intimidated a bit, but at the same time, he’s just got a very calm energy. And just had kind of quiet assuredness. That made me, as much as I was intimidated, I also felt like, “OK, I’m here to do the work and have to treat myself in my own head at least as an equal.”
[“Thor” director Kenneth Branagh] told me that. I actually tested for “Thor,” and I met him. I’ll never forget it, and he just said, “I know the position you’re in right now. You have to treat yourself in your mind as my equal.” I don’t know why that struck me right now, but perhaps I’m reminding myself of beginning that journey because it was a 10 month shoot [on “The Social Network.”] And I often struggled with feeling like I was an equal. It was difficult.
There’s actually a moment recorded. Have you seen “The Social Network” behind-the-scenes documentary?
I did, yeah.
There’s a moment when we were doing the very first camera, hair and makeup test. And I remember that day, specifically because it was the first day that we were in character, being put in front of the camera. I also remember it because I met Justin Timberlake that day. And that was just a kind of surreal and funny moment. Everybody’s lining up, and it’s like, OK, there’s Sean Parker.
There is a crew there filming it, and Sorkin says, it’s on camera, (doing an Aaron Sorkin impression) “I, I, I, I don’t know. Maybe they could be fraternal.” I remember that, not because it was in the documentary, but I remember at the time because I just thought, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. What he said.”
They are identical twins, and there is something so alluring and cinematic to having these two 6’4” identical twins and this little Mark Zuckerberg. It’s such a perfect image, and it’s real, it’s the reality of it. David Fincher, if there’s one person who could pull that off and make it real and convincing, it is him. I don’t blame him for doing that. I would have done the same thing.
What’s that moment like when you see Armie Hammer’s face on your body?
You know what, I felt happy for him because it was flattering for him physically to be on my body [Laughs].
You know, it’s weird. It’s really weird, and here’s what’s also crazy, it’s kind of freaky because I remember when they scanned my face during preproduction, and they had to create this whole 3D model and mold of you, and then they use the tracking dots to track you. You know — Andy Serkis in “Lord of the Rings” — it’s the same thing. So that image and that mold is stored forever ... On the one hand, of course it was exciting — the technology, the movie — but there’s just this moment, almost a little bit of a terror in you.
I can’t imagine. I don’t even use the face unlock on my phone.
You’ve seen these deepfakes? It’s terrifying. It’s almost like seeing some kind of weird version of that, but 10 years ago, before that existed.
It’s almost like you were the first deepfake.
Yeah, Armie and I were the proto-deepfake [Laughs].
You know what’s so funny, we actually met the Winklevoss twins. They came out to LA, and they had a company at the time, and we were like, we have to meet them. That was obviously very surreal.
After meeting them, were you like, ‘We nailed it’?
Yeah, I think we did. I really do think we did. I think there was empathy in it, because anybody really in a way could be the villain of that movie ... I know that they felt good about it. Better apparently than Facebook and their lawyers did.
I’m proud of the way we helped tell the story in an objective way. It’s just this greater portrait of where we are as humans in 2010. Time capsule. To me, that’s one of the greatest aspirations you can have with a film like that, just provide something that captures that moment for all time. And I think David Fincher, I love that guy. He was so great about the whole thing. I know he’s got a difficult reputation, and he does so many takes, but the guy’s a brilliant filmmaker, and Aaron’s a brilliant writer.
Speaking of all the takes, have you ever eaten a double cheeseburger again?
I have had a double cheeseburger since then; not one that large, though. Those were huge patties, like the patties you’d have on Fourth of July. And when props comes to you and says, “What do you think you’d be eating here?” And you say, “What’s the biggest thing they have on the menu?” You’re not thinking I’m gonna do this 90 times.
You also mentioned meeting Justin Timberlake. How was that?
I remember I first saw him, and this is no shade at all. I was just like, this guy looks tired. He looks like he probably just stepped off a jet from a tour or something. I just remember thinking this guy must be so busy, and then he walked in front of the camera, and it was like a light switch went off. All of a sudden, all that went away immediately. I remember thinking that’s an old pro right there.
I wish I could do that. My girlfriend just says I look tired and all I can do is, you know, get more sleep.
I had this interview, just an interesting memory that I remember when thinking about “The Social Network,” primarily because it was one of the first big one-on-one press interviews I’d ever done, and a pretty legendary journalist. At the time, I was green, and I was still working through the insecurity of my role in the film and trying to explain it to people. That was the hardest thing. The more I tried to explain it, the more it felt like — especially to people in Hollywood — I was trying to make it out to be something it wasn’t. That’s how I felt. If I told it to a friend, they got it. If I told it to a casting director, I swear I could see people’s attention fade, and it’s like, “OK, but you’re a body double.”
I was close to feeling like maybe I needed to move into a different realm of occupation ... It’s hard. It’s real up and down a lot of the time, and you gotta be willing to stick through it even if your movie is nominated for an Oscar and your face isn’t in it. You just gotta know there’s another one coming.Josh Pence
I was doing this interview, and I’ll never forget she stopped the recorder, and I really admire that she did that because she was trying to give me advice. She said, “You know, part of the thing is, you need to act like a movie star to be a movie star. You’re not acting like a movie star.” And pressed record again, and I just remember thinking, “I have no fucking idea what I’m supposed to do now. I’m just being me.”
It’s just a memory that sticks with me. Maybe it just has to do with feeling like an imposter. It’s easy to have an imposter syndrome as an actor. Then double up — you’re in the biggest movie of the year but most people in the business don’t even believe it — probably adds to that feeling.
How has your perspective changed on everything since then?
I think certainly time and just working on other projects and feeling more secure in myself as an actor and my craft. A label is a label. It really doesn’t matter. It’s only for the sake of, please just print what’s accurate. If you just look in the billing of the movie, it does not say, “Josh Pence, body double.” It lists me as a character because I had to create a character, and then Armie had to do even more work at the end, and have his face act out some of those scenes. It’s a combination of a lot of different technology, but I’d rather the truth be stated clearly instead of ... fake news [Laughs]. I’m not taking a swing at anybody in particular, by the way; it really doesn’t bother me, but I keep seeing stories now, and it’s like, “Guys, can you not get it right. Still?”
As much as I was disappointed — and you know, that’s ego, a lot of it, obviously — at the end of the day, I just had to keep putting my head down and not worry about other people’s perception of me.
Right? And it really is funny because that’s the meta I guess of Facebook in a sense — not to draw too fine a point on it — but like you gotta do you, and everybody’s gonna have an idea, and you can try and present something one way and people are still gonna believe something else. And so, at the end of the day, that doesn’t matter. It really is about the work and nothing else, and no one can ever take that away from you.
And so I guess from that point forward, it was like, “OK, we just chop wood, carry water, go in, work your ass off.” And it was a blast. As soon as I think I let go of that disappointment, I just had the time of my life.
Well, I’m glad your face shows up in “Good Trouble,” because you have such heavy storylines.
“Good Trouble,” for me, came along at a point when I was definitely going through some pretty big personal changes in my life, and some of my life experience could really serve that role. And that’s one of those moments where you just think — gosh — I don’t know how to explain that. This is one of those parts that came along, and even selfishly speaking, was a divinely timed opportunity for catharsis. I’m really grateful I’m able to go on that journey with our cast and the group and speak to a younger audience.
I’ve learned a lot, even about certain social justice issues and things I was less educated on than I’d rather admit to being, and it was thrust into my face because these are the conversations we’re having on our show.
How do you feel about your journey, going from “Social Network” where people didn’t get to see all of your performance to now having such a complex part?
I think part of my journey as an actor really was getting to the point where I finally felt comfortable speaking up for myself and my needs, and I was able to communicate them in an effective way.
I’m so grateful for that moment that, to be honest, kind of brought me back in. I was close to feeling like maybe I needed to move into a different realm of occupation or did I still really love this work. It’s hard. It’s real up and down a lot of the time, and you gotta be willing to stick through it even if your movie is nominated for an Oscar and your face isn’t in it. You just gotta know there’s another one coming.
I think I’ve learned more to just be about the work, and the other stuff has kind of faded. My first red carpet ever for a film was the New York Film Festival with “The Social Network.” I cannot tell you how terrifying that was.
Whoa. What happened?
First of all, the New York Film Festival had set up a dinner for everybody, but unbeknownst to me, I was not invited to said dinner. I showed up to walk the carpet before the screening, but everybody else had walked the carpet already. Everybody. They were all up on the balcony of this restaurant, and I’m down there about to walk my first red carpet, terrified. I actually had a clip-on bowtie. My family, my mom, dad and brother, flew to New York to be there with me, and I borrowed [friend Taylor Kitsch’s] publicist. I didn’t have the money for a publicist at the time. I go walk my first carpet, my family is standing on the other side of this press line. It’s awkward enough to be on a carpet alone. You look for the other people that you know. So this huge, long, prestigious carpet. I look back at the pictures, and I remember what I was thinking in my head. It was sheer panic.
Then I got up to the dinner and everybody’s sitting there, and David Fincher got up from the table and said, “Sit here. I need to go do something else. You deserve a seat. Sit here.” He knew the situation was weird. That was his way of saying, “I have immense respect. Please sit and eat and relax and enjoy yourself.”
I think a big takeaway for me is, people over the years have said maybe work with him again, and he owes you one. I don’t see it that way. If we’re meant to work together again, we will, but there’s no debt to be paid. I got paid as an actor to do that movie, and I’d do it again.
You know Kevin Spacey was a producer on that too?
Yeah. What was that like?
Just a wild group of people. And actually that night, I remember him pulling the actors together, and he said, “For some of you this may be the greatest film you’re ever a part of, and you probably won’t know it ’til later on.” He said something about “American Beauty” was that film for him. I guess I heard that, and I thought, “Well, my face isn’t in this, so that’s not gonna be me. I’ve got more coming, man.” [Laughs] “The best is yet to come. But all the rest of you should watch your back, your number’s coming.”
Actually, though, your face is in it. Don’t you have a cameo?
Yeah, I do. As myself.
Oh, as “Josh Pence”?
Maybe it was, yeah, “Guy at the Bathroom”? All I remember is they came to me, and they’re like, “Hey, we think it’d be funny if we do this.” It’ll be a separate day of work. I was hired just for that day, like I got a completely different trailer. I was in the honeywagon, like when you’re an extra.
It was a trip though. It was really weird. It was kind of hard to do and not laugh. I just kept going, “I’m gonna start laughing.” I’m in the scene with [Jesse Eisenberg] and [Andrew Garfield], and we’ve been hanging out this whole time. There isn’t really a character. It’s easier if it’s a character. It was a funny little moment.
What’s it like looking back on the whole experience?
I’m just so proud to be a part of it. And I know how hard I worked on it, and it’s kind of hard to look back at it, to be honest. It’s almost like looking back through an old yearbook or a family photo album or something. You love that time and those people so much, and you have a deep nostalgia for it. For me, it’s easy to get caught up in that. There’s just this pain that it’s over.
I don’t get to go see David Fincher work, or Armie, or Jesse or any of these people. I look back on it with so much love and gratitude, but also, it’s painful because there’s that nostalgia for this thing; it’s maybe like Kevin kind of said. It’s once in a lifetime. You don’t know.
I still have Armie in my phone as Brother Cam. We were Brother Cam and Brother Ty. There’s always going to be that link.
A “Social Network” sequel has come up in the news. What would be your feelings on that?
As long as they put my face on Jesse Eisenberg’s body. Or how about Rashida Jones? She’s beautiful. Let’s put my face on Rashida’s body.
Of course I would. I can’t imagine David Fincher doing that. Anytime he’d come knocking, it’d be tough for me to say no.
How do you feel about Facebook? Is it leading to the downfall of society? Is it a useful way to share cute pics?
I couldn’t say one way or the other entirely. I’m certainly not a Luddite, by any means. But I also feel like we’re being promised the world, and they’re taking it from us. I think that its importance is overstated, and the necessity of it in our lives is overstated. And you can just look at history and see that plenty of revolutions occurred throughout our civilisation’s history that needed no Twitter.
What’s it like being in a movie where Facebook is such a big part of it?
You know, I need to go back and watch the film again. I haven’t seen it in years. It’s one of those things I kind of can’t touch. Just thinking about it makes the hair stand up on my arms. If I watched the first trailer, it’d probably bring tears to my eyes.
I watched the trailer the other day, and I was thinking this could be the greatest movie trailer ever.
You know why it’s so great? This is what I think about all these years later, there’s an absolute overt cynicism and pessimism about Facebook and these growing technologies that’s self-evident in that movie. But there’s also a love for people and for humanity in spite of all its faults. And you see a lot of that in David Fincher’s films in general, and I think that trailer really captures that essence so well because it’s a tragedy. It’s a lesson that’s meant to be taught through suffering in a way. I’m certainly very proud of the work that I did. I’d do it all again today.
I think, obviously, I have my own misgivings or wishes about being more visible in the film, but that is what it is.
So 10 years later, what should people take away from it?
I think if anything, I hope people look back on it and realise that humans create technology, humans are fallible, and that technology is fallible. I think there’s an inherent warning in a very, very direct way in that film that’s letting us know we need to look up from the screen.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.