Alex Neustaedter on American Rust season 2, PTSD, and dark secrets | Interview

by Bryan Cairns

For the briefest of moments, American Rust vanished. The TV drama originally aired on Showtime before being cancelled after only one season.

Alex Neustaedter
Photo by Storm Santos

Prime Video, thankfully, swooped in and resurrected it. The finale culminated with Billy Poe, portrayed by Alex Neustaedter, lying in a coma. After taking the fall for a murder that his best friend, Isaac (David Alvarez) committed, Billy was locked up in prison and brutally beaten.

American Rust’s sophomore seasons now finds Billy awake, released from captivity, and seeking a fresh start. It’s the best of intentions, but the mental, emotional and physical trauma of his ordeal threatens to consume him.

Neustaedter recently spoke to me about American Rust, Billy’s new lease on life, PTSD, dark secrets and his hopes for season three.

After one season on Showtime, American Rust was cancelled but landed on Prime Video. Did that move give you whiplash? How surprised were you that the show found a new home?

Alex Neustaedter: “Yeah, I was fairly surprised. When your show gets cancelled, the odds go down for there to be a renewal. I heard they were trying to pitch it around, but it was definitely whiplash. It was definitely surprising when I got the call that we were going again. It was also incredibly exciting because it felt like we had so much more story to tell. It felt like we had the audiences on the ropes a bit and needed to resolve what had happened at the end of season one.”

Your character, Billy, found himself incarcerated and in a coma at the end of last year. How did all of that give him a new perspective on life once he was out and awake?

Neustaedter: “Billy got really existential. The whole trajectory he was on in season one let him have time with his own thoughts and see the consequences of his actions. He took it into his own hands to take the blame for his best friend. That sparked this existential feeling.”

“Then, for a lot of it, he was fully sacrificing himself and was putting his life on the line. In season two, once he goes into the coma and once he wakes up and recovers, there’s this newfound gratitude for life that he has and a greater perspective on what he’s doing and who he is willing to sacrifice for, but also, what he wants to do now that he has a second chance.”

“That is something that is really powerful for someone who has sacrificed everything. Now, for him to have it back in his own control, it is rejuvenating for him to start season two.”

Even though he takes the rap for his friend, that can fester and cause resentment. How did his decision affect their relationship?

Neustaedter: “It’s interesting. The resentment would have been there if he wasn’t fully committed to what he was doing. Billy knew that deep down, Isaac had a better future in store for him than Billy. Billy kind of wrote himself off and was pretty aimless until that happened. He found purpose in being the martyr and sacrificing himself.”

“In season two, there’s this reconnection and this selflessness that Isaac has for Billy. It’s this role-reversal, where Isaac is showing Billy the love and fully trying to support him, and help him get back on his feet. That is a beautiful friendship. A lot of it happens off screen, but they worked hard. Through the rehab process, there was a lot of communication between the two and an understanding that they have each other’s backs.”

What do you enjoy about that bond? It’s become a shining beacon in his life right now.

Neustaedter: “I am someone who values my best friends in my own life. That is something I could relate to. I don’t have a ton. I am someone who has a smaller network. I think Billy has a very small network, especially with the surroundings in which he has grown up and where he lives, in a very isolated community.”

“It’s a beautiful thing showing true friendship and true unselfishness for someone that you really love and care about. It was exciting to be able to play that. David and I are best friends and, for us, to have the opportunity to develop that more on screen… because in season one we only had two episodes in which we were working together… We were both really excited because that relationship grows a lot more and is seen a lot more.”

“There’s a lot of shit talking back and forth and it’s fun. There’s this ability, that they both have, to forgive each other. That’s beautiful and really powerful. It shows the true strength of their friendship.”

Everyone in this town has their own dirty little secret. In what way does Billy’s secret eat away at him?

Neustaedter: “One of the interesting things about Billy is he is seen as a certain type of entity. He’s much different than his community values him as. He is balancing a line of trying to live up to the expectations of what people see him as versus who he really is. That is intriguing to play.”

“And, also, with the fact that he had this murder happen and the secret behind that – that he didn’t actually do it – it’s difficult. There is no one else to talk to about that, to communicate about that. He is very alone with his own thoughts and his own deeds. It shows the true character of him, of how strong he is, and deep down he is willing to hold onto those secrets and keep his mouth closed the way that he said. He goes with his word.”

“We see that in season two in having the resentment and the vengeance grow inside him for what happened to him in the prison. That is something that comes out. It would be interesting to explore that in season three, as well, knowing that he has gone and done the need truly and killed someone in season two. That is another deep, deep secret to balance, too, because it’s so strange in how it’s portrayed. Him doing something so evil somehow gives him a newfound freedom and a newfound life.”

“It’s very interesting writing and very interesting to play because of the way it juxtaposes what happened in the first season, how it’s almost the opposite of something he didn’t do that ends up harbouring him. This is something that he does do that ends up freeing him in a more metaphorical sense. All these characters have secrets and flaws. What you see on the surface… there’s a lot more underneath and a lot more there that is fun for us to play, as well.”

Billy had to deal with PTSD. How much research did those sequences require?

Neustaedter: “I researched a bunch of what the basic symptoms were, what the basic triggers were, just to get an overview of how it works, especially with how it was written and how they are triggered for Billy this season and trying to pinpoint what the actual causes were. From there, what I focused on was hearing actual stories of people, through YouTube and through documentaries, of actual experiences of having very similar traumatic feedback and events. That was super-helpful to see how it manifested for people.”

“With actually filming it on the day, it was trying to tap into the PTSD from what I can draw from my own life. And, then, also, correlating it because I had experienced these actual events that had happened for Billy. It was trying to layer the two together to make it as real as possible for me while I was performing.”

Looking at what Billy went through this season, especially with the murder and in the finale, it appeared he was thinking of joining the army, what would you like a third season to explore?

Neustaedter: “That’s a good question. There are so many different ways to go. That’s hard. I like this protective instinct and protector that Billy always has. It seems like all the storylines are going to start meshing together at some point, in some way or another. That would be interesting to explore. It feels like Billy has this new sense of what his capability is for doing something to protect the people he loves.”

“That could be interesting to explore, especially with the stakes in which his Mom and Dell and everyone has left off on, and as they are going to look for the potential people that know the secret and that might be coming for them, too. The fact that he’s been trained to be a killer now, and shows that he is a killer, there are interesting ways they go in showing how much more Billy is willing to dive into the morality slipping or justifying what he needs to do to protect the people he loves.”

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