American Rust: Alex Neustaedter Digs Deep Into Billy Poe and Show Themes

Alex Neustaedter is playing Billy Poe on American Rust, a young man who cares too much about others to his detriment.

We had a chance to talk with Alex about his role and joining the stellar cast, including Jeff Daniels and Maura Tierney.

If you haven't watched American Rust Season 1 Episode 3 yet, there are some light spoilers. You've been warned!

Alex Neustaedter in Jean Jacket

Since you're the actor bringing him to life, can you give me your perspective on Billy Poe?

So Billy's a former high school football star, and he got offered to play college ball, and he declined that. He turned it down because of how important family is for him.

And I think that's very evident with these small towns outside of Pittsburgh, it's very family-oriented, and everybody knows each other. And he's good-natured at heart. And I think he's very comfortable where he is.

He doesn't want to press his boundaries too far. And I think that's another reason why he stayed. But he has this allure of being intimidating and very manly, but at the same time emotionally, he's still like a boy.

And he still was in love with this girl that he dated in high school. And, and yeah, I think. Yeah, I'll leave it at that.

Billy at the Mill

Okay. That's good. You mentioned that you know a little bit about this area. Whenever I talked to Mark Pellegrino, he said that you guys, the younger crowd, got out and about a little bit. I happened to have grown up right down the street from fictional Buell.

Oh wow.

And I'm actually calling you from Pittsburgh now. So I'm wondering what kind of experiences you have with similar groups of people to the characters in American Rust?

Oh, yeah. Well, so we were two days away from you from starting, and then the pandemic hit. And I had just driven out to Pittsburgh, and I was rooming with David, who plays Isaac. And so everything's shut down.

And Julie came in because her Airbnb fell through. And so, we all lived in Pittsburgh for two months together during the height of the pandemic. And then Julie moved back to LA, and then David and I spent the remaining four months in Pittsburgh.

Alex Neustaedter Flying

So we got a lot of time before we even started filming, exploring all the areas and parks nearby. And I think that was incredibly helpful for us to get not only an idea of the landscape but a sense of what day-to-day life was like. And I'm a big camper. So I went out in the woods and camped a lot during my time there, and we met a lot of people.

And then, when we got back to actually really start the production, I had a sense of familiarity with the area and felt comfortable there. And I grew up in a similar small town in Kansas City.

So I've met people that are very much could fit into Buell. And the locals could have met people like Billy who never want to leave their town and want to stay at home and live their life there.

And that was something that, once I spent more time in Pittsburgh, I'd met people like that as well. And I think that was really helpful for me to see what their temperament was like, would they were like, and look at it completely non-judgmentally, but just try and help influence me playing Billy as best as it could.

Billy the Wedding

Perfect. I don't like this topic, but I'm going to ask it anyway because I think it's important. A phrase that I despise when used by critics is poverty porn. And they've used it in reference to American Rust.

What's your reaction to those who say that the show exploits the tragedies of people in small towns, similar to Buell?

The way that I look at it is, we're just trying to tell this story as best as we can. And these characters happen to be not very well-to-do there. In Billy's case, he lives in a trailer with his mom, and some people are more well-to-do within the town than others.

But I think in this area of America, it is much harder to get by. There are fewer opportunities.

Billy Drinks a Beer - American Rust Season 1 Episode 1

And I think people can say what they want to say. I try and avoid anything like that because I find it to be quite negative. And I think all of them are good people regardless, and they're very family-oriented.

These are stories that need to be told because, quite frankly, there are so many stories and so much online showing the excess we have in America. Unfortunately, the excess of our lifestyles tends to have some Americans wanting more and this and that.

And I think we sometimes forget that a large portion, if not the majority, do not have those opportunities and do not have that glamorous type of lifestyle. So I think we're just trying to do justice with what some people's real situations are like.

Billy Enters The Mill - American Rust Season 1 Episode 1

Absolutely. I agree. And although the characters aren't always filled with joy, given the circumstances they find themselves in, when they get together for a wedding and the second episode, they prove that they're more than capable of having a good time. Why do you think that including that celebration is so important?

I think it's so important because storytelling-wise for Adam [Rapp] and Danny [Futterman], I think it's very important to show viewers the other side of what they're like because it's introduced in a very dark way and grim way.

And I think any time you can, you provide more life and optimism and excitement and something like a wedding, which is new growth and potential for new opportunities. And there's a baby; she's pregnant. So I think that's very exciting.

Grace Chases Billy - American Rust Season 1 Episode 1

Audiences want to see both sides of the characters because they're not just always grim. And I think it was really great how they did that wedding sequence.

It was a lot of fun to do because, during our filming with COVID restrictions, everything was kind of sectioned off, and it was difficult to interact a lot with people.

And even with a couple of hours that we did have dancing, it was amazing because I hadn't been to a place that actually danced with live music like that in so long. So I think it was kind of a relief for everyone. And it was a release for the characters because they had so much tension going into it.

And with so many things that happened before it, the wedding was a way to release it all and be in the present moment and happy with who they're with -- their friends, family, and company. And so I think they pulled it off really well.

Billy and Isaac with the Cattails - American Rust Season 1 Episode 1

And when it comes to Isaac and Billy, their friendship is interesting. And it seems like there are some sexual undertones between the two of them. What kind of insight can you share about their friendship?

Yeah, they grew up together, and Billy fell in love with Isaac's older sister Lee. Billy wasn't the most studious student, and Isaac is incredibly smart and incredibly intellectual. And so I think they formed a trio, and Isaac growing up, always helped him with school and helped him with things that he didn't understand.

And Billy kind of offered sort of more protection and allowed him to hang out in places that Isaac maybe wouldn't have been able to hang out with. And so, I think the relationship started there, and it carried all the way through high school.

And then after high school people left, and got different jobs, and Billy and Isaac were kind of all they had because Lee left, and a lot of Billy's friends went and did their own thing. And Billy doesn't really have any other tight friends that he had like Isaac. So I think they were best friends.

Billy and Lee Dancing

And when you don't have anyone else to rely on, it's a very important relationship.

And I think in that first episode, you see Isaac breaks the news to Billy about Lee getting married, which is a complete shell shock for Billy because he has this fantasy and this idea that she's going to come back to him. They're going to have a family and live happily ever after.

And so Isaac breaks that news, and then he tells Billy how he feels about him, and that's another complete shell-shock. And I don't think Billy saw it coming at all. And I don't think there was ever any notion before that, that Isaac had felt a certain way.

I mean, maybe it was, but Billy is distracted with Lee or distracted with other things that he wasn't paying attention to or aware of enough to understand how he felt. But I think it shows their friendship that Billy will always care about Isaac. Even once he walks out on the ice and falls through, there's no hesitation.

Billy Has a Drink

You know, you mentioned he was fairly protective of Isaac and offered him protection against many things.

And it seems as though he's kind of doing that again, as he urges Isaac to leave town in light of whatever went down in the mill. Is that how you see it?

I think that's a really good way to put it. Yeah. Billy wants what's best for everybody. I think that's one of his best qualities. And he has seen what the toll that being around Henry has taken on him. And it's made Isaac a former shell of himself. Isaac, he's lost, and Billy wants his friend to follow his dreams.

And he knows that he has so much more potential than Billy ever had. And I think it's something that I really admired about Billy when I was reading the book and reading the scripts. It was this notion that he wanted Isaac to go live his life and go do this.

And I think it becomes even more evident in the next couple of episodes. You see more reasons as to why he's pushing [Isaac] and the consequences for that.

Alex Neustaedter Crouching in a Suit

And I think Billy got a raw deal with the street fight. But he's technically still on probation. And yet, after whatever went down in the mill, he hasn't shown himself to be nervous really about the potential possibilities that could arise.

Yeah.

Do you think he's kind of oblivious that he may be implicated? Or, where does he stand on that?

I think he is a little too naive in understanding what happened at the mill. I think he has this idea that he doesn't quite understand the consequences of any of his actions. He is very much in the moment, and he doesn't quite look forward as much.

I think it's something similar with him turning down the opportunity to play football somewhere. He doesn't understand that this is an opportunity that could change his life. He doesn't understand the opportunities that could come from that.

And I think it's a very similar thing with what happens in the steel mill, is if he doesn't see the consequences, he doesn't see potential issues with what happens. And so I don't think he's overly concerned at first.

And I think once more questions are being asked, and people start becoming more curious, and the case starts to develop more and more, I think he starts seeing how it's spiraling down, and he doesn't quite know what to do or where to run, or what's going to happen. I think it's just that youngness that he's naive. He doesn't know what to do.

Mother-Son Dance - American Rust

Right. I like the way you put that, by the way. I thought that was a good answer.

You've got to work with some of the most exceptional actors around. What was that like for you?

It was such a blessing and such a joy. I always try to be a sponge when I'm around legends like Jeff Daniels, Maura Tierney, and Bill Camp. I try and take as much in as I can because they've been doing this for so long, and they're incredibly talented.

And I felt with every one of them when I'm working with them that everything else disappears, that it's just the characters interacting with each other. And we're just trying to do the best we can to honor whatever the situation might be that we're in. And that's something that Jeff told me specifically, is just how important it is to be present.

Billy Dons a Sweater

And it's always something I try and remind myself, but hearing it from him, I knew that's always going to be my go-to -- just being present in the moment. Because if you're not present, it's not going to be relatable to someone watching you. If you're not feeling everything that the person is feeling, they're not going to see things as well.

So it's not about thinking about how you're supposed to see them or anything like that. It's just being there and honoring what that, feeling and what that intention of the scene is supposed to be. But yeah, it was a real blessing and a joy to be able to work with them and talk to them and just, yeah. I feel very lucky.

And finally, in one non-spoiler-y sentence, how would you tease the remainder of the season for viewers?

Ooh, that's a good question. Alright, let me think about that. I don't know if this is a spoiler or not. I don't think it's going to be a spoiler.

Okay. I think the majority of the rest of the season is about the sacrifices you will make for the ones you love and how willing you are to put your life on the line for the people you love.

Carissa Pavlica is the managing editor and a staff writer and critic for TV Fanatic. She's a member of the Critic's Choice Association, enjoys mentoring writers, conversing with cats, and passionately discussing the nuances of television and film with anyone who will listen. Follow her on Twitter and email her here at TV Fanatic.

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