Interview: Stanford Prison Experiment’s Chris Sheffield on Being a Standout Part of the Massive Cast
We hear the term “ensemble cast” a lot, but there as a big difference between a movie focused on five or six actors and a movie with 27 main characters to keep track of—The Stanford Prison Experiment is that film. (Did you read our review?)
With more than 20 actors making up a stellar cast, it’s hard for one member to stand out. One of the actors who does strike a chord with audiences is one of the lesser known cast members, Chris Sheffield, as prisoner 2093, AKA Tom Thompson. As the most obedient prisoner (nicknamed Sarge) in the makeshift university prison, Sheffield’s emotional response to the abuse by the guards anchors the film’s conclusion. We spoke with Chris about landing his surprisingly complex character, filming with the massive cast, and the Sundance experience.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): The ensemble is huge and the film has been in development for years, with a lot of big names attached over the years. What was the audition like for this kind of film?
Chris Sheffield: The audition came to me the way they all do: through my agency. But I had a special connection to this film because of the director, Kyle. I had actually auditioned for his movie, C.O.G. for the role Jonathan Groff ultimately played, but I looked way too young at the time. But I remember that when I first met Kyle, he had seen me in a short I did for AFI called Clear Blue, and he loved that short film and my performance in it. So that was one of the reasons he brought me in to audition for C.O.G. And we talked about that project and after my audition, he said well, you’re just not right for this role. But this time, he knew who I was, and we wanted to work with each other. But when I went in to audition, I had sides for both prisoners and guards, and then he gave me specific a specific role to read for, which was a prisoner. But I think I had originally booked a different prisoner and was then transferred into the role of Tom Thompson.
TMS: When you were ultimately given the role of Tom, was there anything about him you really connected to or found the key for playing this real-life guy?
Sheffield: I’ve never played a real person before, and this was kind of rare, because we had a plethora of information to pull from, that we were free to go through. Everything was videotaped and documented. And there were actually a lot of interesting interviews with Tom that I read the transcripts for, and what he said then were the things I really connected to. His point of view was very specific and came from somewhere very deep and personal within him. Kyle and I didn’t have a lot of time during filming to talk through everything, and he really trusted every actor to do the research on their specific character. But we had a couple of meetings and emails, talking about where his point of view came from. And I think the obvious choice was religion, or some spirituality which guided Tom’s point of view and how he interacted with other people—why he wouldn’t curse and was always obedient. And for me, it felt like that all came from a deeper place, like it had been engraved in his bones. I felt like it came from a person or event in his life which forced him to adopt this way of life. And that’s what I ran with.
Also, he really did live out of his car to put himself through college. He didn’t have any money and seemed to always be by himself. That was something interesting about Tom that I understood. Being in these small quarters with all these other guys was not something he was used to, and I’m not sure he knew how to interact with other people. I found in his interviews with Zimbardo, he responded from this sense of feeling really out of place. However, he was living out of his car at the time, so what better way to spend two weeks than to be paid to have a roof over his head, given meals, and a pillow and bed. Yeah he was in a fake jail, but this experience was completely different for him, because this to him was more like a getaway. So the obedience came out not only because that is just who he is naturally, but also because he was kind of enjoying being there. There were a lot of layers to the character, which is why it was so fun to plug in. I gravitated towards Tom because of his quietness. I’m a very outgoing person, but there is such an intense quietness that speaks loudly about him.
TMS: I remember reading in Zimbardo’s book that of all the guys in this experiment, including the guards, he seemed to really dislike Tom because he was too obedient. What did you think of that sense of animosity everyone had towards your character?
Sheffield: It was fascinating, because he was the person who was the most obedient, tried to be kind, and avoid causing trouble or provoking the guards. Which is why he pushed the guards buttons more than anyone else. We don’t see that as much between Zimbardo and Tom in the film, but we certainly sense the guards’ frustration with Tom, because they didn’t know how to respond to him, and it annoyed them. Not only was Tom alienated from the other prisoners for doing things they didn’t want to do, but it also alienated him with the guards. They hated him because they felt like he was mocking them by doing everything they asked, even though really, he was just trying to be obedient. Personally, I don’t think he did any of it to push back against the guards’ treatment. I think everything he did came from a pure place of being a naturally obedient person.
TMS: Sitting with the audience, I think that despite some of the bigger moments we see from other actors, the moment which hit people emotionally was the part focusing on you character, which is only about 10 minutes towards the end of the film. How did you prepare to step up and hit that emotional moment that punctuates the end of the movie?
Sheffield: Well, the pace of the film was pretty quick. We only had three weeks to film, so everything felt kind of unexpected. A lot of the moments that have an impact came from a true and unexpected place. So filming that scene, I didn’t know what to expect on the day. I’ve never had an 8-page scene where it’s kind of just me, so it was nerve-racking. It was shot over two days, and going in, I wasn’t sure how my emotions would come out. I knew what his point of view was and knew exactly what was happening, and what and who I was thinking about. And the thing I remembered was the fact that Tom is smart, he thinks ahead and anticipates what Michael Angarano’s character is going to do. He always seems to be a step ahead. But when he gets to the point that he realizes there is no other way and he is going to have to curse, is the moment that breaks him. In his life, he’s lived by these rules for specific reasons and that was the moment things changed. So I knew what I was thinking. But like you said, it isn’t an outburst like the other characters who break. It isn’t a scream or a cry, it is a quiet brokenness you can just sense. I think that’s what the audience can identify with, perhaps even more than the vesicle reactions.
TMS: It was hard to watch because Angarano is playing a character he created for the experiment, but he’s breaking your character of his core values, so there is a sense that forcing him to betray those principals will still carry with him into his real life.
Sheffield: Exactly. At that point in his life, he didn’t have much to hang onto. He was living in his car. His family life seemed to have broken down, although I had to take some liberties with that, because there wasn’t much in the research. But his principals and morals were two things in his life he could control. And when that’s taken from him by Michael’s character, that is something that will haunt him long after this experiment is over. And I think that it did weigh on him.
TMS: The filming is very unique, because in a majority of the scenes, there are anywhere between 10 to 12 people on screen at one time, for extended periods of time. How hard is it to stay in character for that long, especially when there are extended periods when you don’t even have a line.
Sheffield: That happened a lot for me at the beginning, because I’m pretty quiet for the first part of the film. I found having everyone there to be a fascinating way to work and having everyone in the shot made our scenes feel more real. It felt like everything was really happening in this small space. And it’s really important that you have scenes like that, because you can see just how different all the prisoners are and how they react to what is going on around them. and the film is most effective when you capture that. Technically speaking, it was challenging because we had to do a lot of takes to cover everything, and there was lot of specificity in the camera work and timing of how people came in and out of cells. And we didn’t have much time to rehearse, but everyone just went with it. And the cast was so great, across the board. We had a great time together and became good friends. It’s funny how intense the film is, because we had a great time filming.
TMS: Besides Ki Hong Lee (also in The Maze Runner), did you know anyone else going into filming?
Sheffield: Oddly, a lot of us are from Texas, and I met Johnny Simmons in Dallas, but we hadn’t seen each other in a long time—and then Ki Hong and I did Maze Runner together—but it seemed like everyone was interconnected in some way. Everyone had worked with or knew at least one other actor.
TMS: Because you had to play a pretty quiet character, did you ever notice yourself removing yourself from the group in order to stay in character?
Sheffield: The only time I really separated myself to mentally prepare was the two days we were filming that 8-page scene. That was when I really needed to take time for myself. But otherwise, everyone really respected one another and their process, and for the most part, we were all complete goofballs, pranking and making each other laugh most of the time.
TMS: You guys have to do a lot of sit ups, jumping jacks, and push-ups, and you personally have the added challenge of having to do them letter perfect. Did you have to prepare to do the physical stuff in advance of filming?
Sheffield: No, but Kyle actually came up to me during filming and said, “I’m so glad you’re playing Tom, because I think you’re the only one who can actually do all the push-ups.” But it was interesting that because he was nicknamed Sarge, Tom has a certain military aspect to how he behaves physically. No matter what he does, he has to do it very well, and he has to do it right. Even when the camera just scans us doing the push-ups or when Tom is pointed out for doing the perfect jumping jack, you can see how everyone does it a little differently, and Tom stands out because he does them perfectly.
TMS: Were there any scenes you had trouble getting through?
Sheffield: I feel bad saying this, and I wasn’t the only one who cracked up, but the scene where the prisoners had to simulate humping, we could not stop laughing. Because the actor Benedict Samuel, who played the guard whispering in our ears, would come up with the most disgusting things to say to us. And I just kept apologizing because it mostly happened when filming his coverage. That was probably the hardest scene to get through, because we could just not keep it together. I couldn’t, and he couldn’t. And it’s odd, because you don’t see any of that on screen.
TMS: There’s an interesting line that Zimbardo has regarding why the boys had to wear “dresses,” claiming he wanted to emasculate the prisoners to make them more submissive. Did you think about the effect Zimbardo tried to create?
Sheffield: It was interesting, because I didn’t know what the aim was, but I felt it. As soon as you put that smock on, you felt it. I’m pretty tall, and I think I had the shortest one, and it really transforms the way you feel. And the stocking caps are very tight. It was interesting, because it seemed as if it was a tactic to make you feel so uncomfortable, it would make you submissive involuntarily. It seemed like that was the result he wanted. I know Zimbardo spoke extensively that the purpose was to make them feel emasculated or more feminine, and strip them of their identity because it helped solidify the relationship between prisoner and guard. And going in, I didn’t know what to expect, but as soon as I tried it on in the costume fitting, it felt very emasculating.
TMS: It comes up in the film, particularly at the end when we see the interviews, that the participants found themselves getting into their roles of prisoners and guards, and it went too far. Was it a little meta to be in a movie about characters who got too into the roles they were playing?
Sheffield: I think it was different for me than it was for the other guys, because I don’t think Tom ever thought of this experiment that way. Because he took it so seriously as a job and wanted to do well and keep to himself and have the bed and the meals. I’m not sure he ever thought of it as playing a role the way others allowed themselves to.
TMS: The movie premiered at Sundance this year, and I know you had a chance to go. What was your first Sundance experience like?
Sheffield: It was great. I think all but three of us went, and for this large a cast, that is pretty incredible. We had two condos close to the main strip, and it was just like a vacation for us, because we like hanging out together anyway. We went around Park City together, and some of us had more than one movie at the festival. It was probably the best way to experience Sundance for the first time, because it felt like just being with friends, and I didn’t need to worry about the film. But for it to be so well received was just great.
TMS: Did the film spark some discussions during the Q&As or press at Sundance?
Sheffield: Yeah, it absolutely did. Especially because of where we are right now socially. The issues we’re dealing with in regards to authority and police brutality are themes we look at in the film and make the film very topical today.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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