Michael Barbieri: from Little Men to Spider-Man

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 13 Sep 2016

From a Sundance indie to the Spider-Man reboot, it's been an eventful six months for emerging actor Michael Barbieri. We speak to the 14-year-old about keeping it real in tender New York drama Little Men

“I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was 12. Jesus, does anyone?”

This corny line from Stand by Me chokes on nostalgia, but that doesn’t mean it rings any less true. The notion gets a contemporary, urban twist with a pair of chalk-and-cheese adolescent New Yorkers in Little Men, the new film from Ira Sachs.

The boys of the title are shy Manhattanite Jake (Theo Taplitz) and exuberant Brooklynite Tony (Michael Barbieri). Jake finds himself across the East River when his estranged grandfather dies, leaving his struggling actor dad Brian (Greg Kinnear) a brownstone apartment and the ground floor boutique that Tony’s mother Leonor (Paulina García) runs. “You’re going to like the neighbourhood,” Tony says to Jake when they first meet. “It’s becoming a very bohemian area.”

Both are aspiring artists: Jake paints, Tony acts. But they’re also into kids’ stuff. They love video games, and exploring the city’s sunlit streets at speed on their preferred modes of transport – Jake on rollerblades, Tony on his scooter. Like 13-year-olds can do, they become best friends immediately. Their parents? That’s a different story.

When Brian, broke after years on the off-Broadway circuit, realises his father was letting Leonor’s boutique out for a song, he proposes bringing the lease terms in line with Brooklyn’s current post-gentrification prices. The fiery Chilean seamstress refuses the rent hike and a battle of wills ensues, with the boys caught in the middle.

On Scorcese, Pacino, and Spider-Man

The young actors are terrific. Taplitz, who lives in LA, plays Jake as introspective, thoughtful and delicate, which makes his outburst of emotion towards the end of the film all the more powerful. Barbieri’s Tony, meanwhile, is Jake’s polar opposite: swaggering, charismatic and a little cocky, he’s charm personified.

The differing on-screen energies – one precocious, the other gregarious – work wonderfully together. “I knew I had to cast kids that would be memorable, that would stick with you,” Sachs told Vulture. “And I found that with Michael and Theo, and cast them oppositional. I thought of Theo as being out of a Robert Bresson movie, and Michael out of a Scorsese movie, and worked with them as such.”

We mention this to Barbieri when he speaks to us down the phone from his parents’ Battery Park apartment, and it’s music to his ears. “Martin Scorsese is by far my favourite director,” he says, speaking with the kind of 'fugeddaboutit' accent that only a true New Yorker, or maybe Daniel Day Lewis in Scorsese's Gangs of New York, can get away with. “I love his work. My favourite film of all time is definitely Goodfellas.” At only 14 years old, Barbieri probably shouldn’t be all that au fait with the director’s work, but it clearly hasn’t done him any harm.

Barbieri’s acting heroes are from a similar movie milieu. “If I’d to pick two people that I’ve looked up to over the years, it would be Al Pacino and Robert De Niro,” he says. “My favourite De Niro performance is Raging Bull and my favourite Pacino film is tied between Scarface and The Godfather.” He pauses for breath… “If I could be in a Martin Scorsese film opposite De Niro and Pacino, that would be my dream come true.”

His dream has surely already come true, we think. The young New Yorker’s vivid turn in Little Men has caught the eye of Hollywood. Since its premiere at Sundance in January, Barbieri has landed himself a role in The Dark Tower, a horror-western based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, opposite Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey. “It was my first time out of the country,” he says enthusiastically. “I was out in South Africa for a couple of weeks, which was amazing. The whole set was crazy.”

Bigger news was to come when he was cast in Spider-Man: Homecoming. “When I told my friends, they were so excited for me,” he says. “They were jumping up and down. Me and the kids I grew up with, we used to love Spider-Man. We watched the Spider-Man movies, we had the Spider-Man action figures. He's my favourite superhero.”

What can he tell us about his role? “Sadly, I can’t tell you anything about my character,” he says. “I’m sworn to secrecy.”

Come on, you can tell us something, we insist. Does your character have any super powers? “All I can say,” he says, “is that I play one of Spider-Man’s good friends.”

Barbieri on making Little Men

We’re impressed. He’s barely been a film star for six months and he’s already deflecting journalists’ questions like a pro. Back, then, to the performance that launched all these opportunities.

While the war that brews between the parents in Little Men brings up many questions regarding the economic and gentrification concerns of modern day New York, Sachs is clearly more interested in his young characters. When we ask Barbieri how he achieved such a naturalistic performance as Tony, his answer is pleasingly straightforward. “The character was me,” he says. “He's Italian and, like me, he’s really into acting.”

On set, Barbieri was in his element. “Everywhere [we shot] was close to my house or the neighbourhoods of my family and friends, so I know those streets pretty well. It’s a real New York movie and shot on New York sets, so that was pretty cool.”

Barbieri also contributes the film’s showstopping moment in a scene set within the Lee Strasberg acting school, where he’s been training since he was nine. “That’s my favourite scene,” he says. For people who’ve seen the movie, it tends to be theirs too. “I’ve watched it with an audience many times – at Sundance, at MoMA, at BAM – and every time that scene comes on people just clap and cheer at the end of it. It’s crazy!”

Who wouldn’t cheer? We watch Tony in acting class as he begins an improvisatory repetition exercise opposite his flamboyant teacher. The idea is to repeat your partner's dialogue, but with attitude, reflecting their emotional register back at them. Little Men, like all of Sachs’s movies, has been quiet up to this point, but this scene is a shot of adrenalin; it’s a dazzling explosion, and the freewheeling Barbieri is the fuse.

“That is my actual acting teacher Mauricio [Bustamante],” Barbieri reveals about the actor he shares the scene with. “Ira said, ‘Listen, we’re going to get your actual acting teacher for this scene,’ and I remember waking up in the morning ready to shoot the scene and being nervous because there was no script. But then I relaxed when I was like, OK, because that scene is all improvised, I wasn't even sure they were going to use it. It’s crazy how my favourite scene in the movie was not meant to be in it.”

Tony (Michael Barbieri) with his acting coach in a scene from Little Men

This seems to be Sachs’s technique for keeping the actors fresh. “Ira does not believe in rehearsal,” says Barbieri. “He believes that if you don’t rehearse, it’s more realistic. Every scene you shoot, the rehearsal is the first take.” Sachs also likes to send his actors on 'dates' before the shoot. He wanted Barbieri and Taplitz to be good friends off screen before they even thought about trying it in front of the camera. 

“When we first met it was through Skype, because Theo is based in LA," he recalls. "Then Ira had us meet up with each other a couple of weeks before we shot. We just skated round the park, we would talk, we hung out, watched a movie. I think I felt that our bond in the film was so realistic because we became really good friends in real life.”

There is a point where Barbieri’s life diverges from that of his character. In the film, Tony dreams of one day going to LaGuardia, New York's premier high-school of music, art and performing arts, but it’s Jake who makes the grade. For once, real life provides a happier ending than the movies. “I’ll be starting at LaGuardia for the freshman year of high school in September,” says Barbieri, “so I’m very excited to start a new school that really has a passion for what I do.”

We ask what he thinks is the most important thing he’ll take away from his first feature. “There’s a code I live by now: know your lines, do your best and be respectful. If you do that, you can’t really go wrong.” Before the phone call ends, he remembers something else. “Oh, and also: be confident. I learned that from Ira Sachs.”

Confidence? This young man has it in spades. He’s sure to go far.

Little Men is released 23 Sep by Altitude