Created by Academy Award winner Cameron Crowe and executive produced by J.J. Abrams and Winnie Holzman, the Showtime series Roadies is an insider’s look at the reckless, romantic and funny lives of a committed group of individuals that work backstage and behind the scenes to put on the show while touring the United States for a successful arena-level band. They are the unsung heroes who live for the music, often at the expense of their own personal and family lives, and who become each other’s de facto family, as they devote all of their time to making sure the band gets on stage.
During this exclusive phone interview with Collider, Colson Baker, aka Machine Gun Kelly (who plays Wes, the official espresso maker for the tour), talked about his audition process, the legendary phone call he made to campaign for the role, why he wanted to be a part of the project, working with someone as passionate as Cameron Crowe, the relationship between Wes and his twin sister Kelly Ann (Imogen Poots), his own superstitions on the road, their massive season finale, and where he’d like his acting career to go next.
Collider: Did you go through an audition process for this show?
COLSON BAKER: Yeah, there was a big audition process, actually. It was a six to eight month process, starting with sending in a tape, which I did when I was on tour with Limp Bizkit. I had to send in a scene of me crying after Pearl Jam fired me. It was pretty funny, I made Limp Bizkit leave the entire venue, just so they couldn’t hear me crying. So, they liked the tape and said that Cameron [Crowe] wanted to meet with me and do an in-person audition. On an off day from tour, I flew in and did that. I wore a Led Zeppelin tour t-shirt and ripped up jean shorts, and classic shit that I thought Cameron Crowe would just spaz over. And the first thing he said when he walked in was, “Great outfit,” which was exactly what I wanted to hear. And then, we talked music for 45 minutes. I totally forgot I was even supposed to audition ‘cause we just had so many commonalities, music wise. Finally, I remembered we were supposed to do the audition, and I ended up doing the most unconventional audition I’ve ever done, in my life. It was really, really, really cool. I left feeling good.
But then, five months went by with no call. So, I made what has become a very – and I don’t know if legendary is too epic of a word – ballsy phone call that everyone knows about now. I called (casting director) Gail Levin and put the decision on the table for Cameron, on Christmas eve. I called at an unprofessional hour on an unprofessional holiday and said this whole speech about how before Nirvana put out Nevermind, people either thought they were the shittiest garage band in the world, or they knew that they were going to be the biggest rock band in the world, so which guy was he going to be because I have a Nevermind in me, and this is my Nevermind. I just wanted to know whether he saw that I was going to do that, or whether he was going to judge me by the fact that I wasn’t an already established A-list actor. And then, he ended up calling me the next day, and I got the role. And as the series expanded, they wrote the role based off my personality rather than the persona that they could have paid attention to.
Did you know exactly what the story and who character was, or was it more that you knew what the project was about and you wanted to work with Cameron Crowe?
BAKER: It was more that I knew what the project was about and wanted to work with Cameron. I ended up later finding out that certain shticks that my character had were based off an actual roadie who was very similar to Wes, and who did make this crazy espresso for the band and who did actually have a guitarden. After the pilot, they wrote my character more specifically to me and the quirky personality I had on set. When you see Wes, there is a huge part of me in him, and I think you can tell that.
What’s it like to work with someone as passionate about the subject, as Cameron Crowe is about this one?
BAKER: I tell you what, man, I pray to God that I’m 60 years old and still behind the camera, laughing and giggling and having the best time, ever, which is what he does. If you do something funny, he just bursts out laughing, in the middle of the take, ‘cause he just loves it so much. If someone nails a take, he’ll be there pumping his fists like we just won a championship. He’s so into it. He plays good music, all the time. He carries everybody with his big smile and all these cool stories. He has a story for everything. I remember one day when he found a letter that James Brown sent him from jail. He came to work and was like, “I went through my storage closet and I just found this letter that James Brown wrote me back when he was in jail.” It was the coolest thing, ever.
What sort of insight does being in the music business yourself give you on a job like this?
BAKER: My world and the world that I work for in the show are much different. Mine is still very young, and sex, drugs and rock & roll is very much a part of it, in a very non-cliche way, but a very realistic way. That doesn’t play much part in this show, which is great because the shock factor goes away and you have to really appreciate the human condition of happiness, sadness, etc. That’s what Cameron is so good at capturing. I think what being a part of that world does give me, when I come in, is that if something is really corny or I don’t agree with something, and I have a good stance on it, we’ll make a change. But, it stays pretty authentic. There are real roadies on set, all day, making sure we don’t go too far away from the truth.
When you’re on the road crew of a band, your life is the job, so we don’t get to see too much about these people’s lives, outside of work. Do you know much about who Wes is, outside of the job, and are there things you still want to learn about who he is, personally?
BAKER: I play a very compassionate version of the guy my character is based on, from what I understand. The thing is that I don’t think there’s much of a real life or an alternate life, outside of that. I know, for me at least, the road is everything to me. All I do, when I’m off the road, is just wait for the time I can go back on the road. So, I’m assuming his life consists of music and looking for the next gig.
Do you think that he’s always been so easy-going, or is that something he’s adapted because it makes it easier for him to be accepted in a job like this?
BAKER: The way that we play it is that he was a former addict, and that’s why he’s so good at making espresso. When you’re addicted to one thing and you drop that, you tend to move on to being addicted to the next thing. Whatever his addiction was, his next addiction became caffeine and making this drink. If you know any addicts, once they’re sober and done, coffee becomes their new drug.
The dynamic between Wes and Kelly Ann is so interesting to watch because he just wants some respect from her, and he never seems to get it. How does he feel about the way that she treats him, and what would he like their relationship to be?
BAKER: In the fifth episode, I said this one line, where Shelli was talking about her sister and I agree with, “Yeah, Kelly Ann holds it over me that she’s seven minutes older.” We’re so similar that we are the same, but this tiny little detail that she’s seven minutes older, for some reason, makes her feel superior. As the series goes on, there’s a really genuine love between Kelly Ann and Wes that screams off the screen, and that actually happened, in real life. During the pilot and the first couple of episodes, Imogen [Poots] was very to herself. She’s very artsy, and she loves to read and stay in her zone. There was this moment, after the third episode, where we would come on set and just hug each other. It was this odd thing where I was like, “Oh, my god, are you my sister, for real? Why is this so comforting?” And oddly enough, as the scripts kept coming in for each episode, our relationship became closer and closer and closer. It’s less of butting heads and more about love, and it was like that in real life. It’s really cool, all of the relationships that you see on screen are so genuine.
Wes’ job is a lot less defined than the rest of the road crew.
BAKER: It really is! I think it’s a vibe business. When someone has a good vibe, you just make up an excuse to keep that vibe around.
What do you think Wes wishes he was doing? What is his goal?
BAKER: He’s a guitar tech and he loves the shit out of guitars. I know that much. I’m just curious to see what Cameron has in mind, if we go to Season 2, for what Wes’ thing is going to actually be. I think it’s going to need to be defined.
We saw that superstition can send a road crew to extremes. Has there ever been anything, anytime you’re out on tour, that you’ve been superstitious about?
BAKER: If I’m not in a venue an hour before, or I don’t soak up 20 minutes of everyone in my band’s vibes before I go on stage, I’ll have the worst show. And I’m a scent guy, so I like to smell a certain sent that will bring me to a zen place. And then, I like to drink and smoke. Drinking and smoking is a necessity to me, before shows.
It sounds like you have a pretty massive season finale with some amazing guest musicians on it.
BAKER: Yeah, the season finale is absolutely fucking amazing!
What can we expect from the finale, and what was it like to work with some of those music legends?
BAKER: They say, “Don’t meet your idols,” so I try to stay away from people because I never want to meet someone and be upset with who the person actually is. I prefer to sit back and appreciate the craft. So, I didn’t interact personally with too many of them in the season finale, but I definitely sat back and watched. I can’t give away too much, but I can say that there is a slew of performances and they’re fucking jaw dropping. I was like, “Okay, this is why you’re a legend, right here.”
There are so many special moments on this show, especially if you’re a music fan and music lover. What were the moments that most stood out for you, over the season?
BAKER: When I read the script for Episode 8, I cried. I don’t know if they kept the scene in or not, but there was a scene with such a genuine moment between Phil and the cast that I actually cried real tears, and that was my first time, ever, on camera, crying real tears.
What made you want to and decide to branch out into acting?
BAKER: I’ve felt like I have charisma on camera since the Jackass days, when we were in 6th grade, picking up a camera and filming ourselves doing stupid stunts. There’s just something about documenting things like that, that was so awesome. But what drew me to this particular series, and why I called on Christmas eve and refused to let them say no, was because of reading lines, like when Kelly Ann said, in the pilot episode, “Kurt Cobain and Jimi Hendrix didn’t die to become crop tops at Urban Outfitters.” When you read lines like that, and you know that this is just a series of lines like that, you don’t want to just let some fucking actor deliver that line. You want to bring some authenticity to it. You’ve gotta feel this shit. Imogen Poots loves music to death and can literally name 300 bands that she listens to, that you’ve never heard. She’s so heavy into the underground music scene. When she’s speaking on music, she means it. And some actor couldn’t play Wes. It’s impossible. That really is me.
Outside of Roadies, you’ve also done the feature films Nerve and Viral. At this point in your acting career, what do you look for in a project and role?
BAKER: Nerve, which is possibly one of the biggest movies I’ve been a part of, was less about the character, even though when I watched the movie I was like, “Holy shit, this character is awesome!,” and more so about the fact that I’d done a movie with the directors (Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) before. The directors were just so ballsy. The concept of it could have been really corny or really amazing, but I knew those directors were going to do it really amazing. It’s a cutting edge movie, in the sense that it’s dealing with what’s happening now, in 2016, with our society, and they were doing it the right way, which was cool. But, I only have so many relationships in the industry that I would ever care to do something based off of that relationship. Now, I’m looking for a role that’s going to make the movie industry and community really just be impressed with the fact that I went so out of my element for that role. If I’m a bad guy, I want to be the most scary fucking bad guy you’ve ever seen. I just want to continue to push it.
Roadies airs on Sunday nights on Showtime.