Indie artist: Musical Oldham finally tackles film acting

Local musician Ned Oldham's artistic journey has been a quirky and interesting one–- punk rocker, psychedelic groove maker, college and middle school teacher, writing center director, folk singer and songwriter, freelance journalist, restaurant reviewer, and now: film actor.

Last year, Oldham, 44, disappeared to shoot a film in Baltimore called I Used to Be Darker, in which he plays a musician whose marriage is unraveling. His music is also featured in the film, directed by Matt Porterfield, an independent film maker who has been garnering the praise of film critics since his 2006 debut film Hamilton. Indeed, the New Yorker's Richard Brody called Hamilton "one of the most original, moving, and accomplished American independent films in recent years." Brody was equally as enthusiastic about Porterfield's 2010 film Putty Hill, saying it was shot with "breathtaking formal ingenuity and a rapturous eye."

"The cinematography is beautiful," says Oldham, who admits that he had never acted in a film before. " I think it's a great screenplay, and Matt really knows how to make a large crew and cast work as an organic unit."

The story revolves around a Northern Irish runaway named Taryn, who ends up with her aunt (played by musician Kim Taylor) and uncle (Oldham) in Ocean City, Maryland. Meanwhile, their marriage is on the rocks, and their daughter is home after her first year in college. Family drama ensues.

Oldham met Porterfield when he and his wife were living in Baltimore, and his band at the time, The Anomoanon, played a gig to raise money for Hamilton. When Porterfield needed actors to play musicians who were themselves musicians in a complex and subtle family drama, he thought of Oldham.

As for Oldham, Porterfield's plain, realistic approach to film making appealed to him.

"My costumes were my clothes but with a couple of things they added, like a plain blue t-shirt or something," says Oldham. "But, at the same time, it felt like a professional set, with its own technical language. I felt like I was seeing a real example of the art of filmmaking."

Acting runs in the family, as Oldham's brother, Will, better known as the musician Bonnie "Prince" Billy, made his acting debut as a teen preacher in John Sayles' 1987 Matewan, about an Appalachian mining town. Will went on to perform in other films before finally settling on a music career, but has still turned up in various indie films over the years. Ned, however, appears content not to settle on anything quite yet.

As a youth in Louisville, Kentucky, Oldham was into the art-punk scene with a band called Lanquid and Flacid, and later experimented with psychedelic music while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia in the late 1980s. In the mid-1990s, he would form the The Anomoanon with his friend Jack Carneal while they were both grad students at UVA (where Oldham labored over a novel about musicians called "The Teeth"), cranking out a kind of a psychedelic county folk with literary ambitions. Indeed, the group's first album borrowed from Mother Goose fairy tales, and the next got its inspiration from 15th century poet Francois Villon. Oldham also spent time touring with his brother, Will, often performing together as the Palace Brothers.

After grad school, Oldham taught writing at several colleges, continued to write, and published art features in the Oxford American and Virginia Living, for which he wrote a story about how the giant tulip popular cut down at Monticello was being used to make instruments. For a time, he was even the Hook's restaurant reviewer. After a stint teaching English at the nearby Field School, Oldham quit to focus on writing and forming his new band Old Calf with local musician Matty Metcalfe.

As for his foray into movie acting, Oldham says it wasn't all that glamorous.

"We had twelve-hour days," he says, "Pretty hard work. And a good deal of waiting around."

In the end, however, it was the artistic camaraderie that he enjoyed.

"We would have lunch for 35 people on set every day," says Oldham. "There were a lot of talented people working together on a project everyone was excited about."


Watch the trailer for I Used to Be Darker below:

1 comment

"Will went on to perform in other films before finally settling on a music career" is sort of correct, but not really. he did take an extended break from acting, but has recently returned to the screen. he co-starred in kelly reichardt's excellent "old joy" (2006), and has also been in reichardt's "wendy and lucy" (2008), as well as phil morrison's "junebug" (2005) and r. kelly's "trapped in the closet" (2007).