It’s not every day that a homeless person gets to star in a movie opposite an Oscar winner. In David Gordon Green’s dark Southern gothic indie, Joe, Nicolas Cage stars as a good-intentioned but self-destructive ex-con who can’t resist helping his dirt-poor protege, Gary (Mud‘s Tye Sheridan), the product of a broken home. The desperate teen turns to Cage’s Joe for a job, and when the kid shows up the first day with his dear-ol’ dad in tow, it’s apparent to Joe that Gary is in a hopeless situation.

Gary’s father, Wade, is an alkie degenerate who’s quickly fired for his laziness, but it soon becomes clear that it’s not safe to turn your back on him. He beats Gary for his day’s earnings, he pimps out his own daughter for booze money, and woe to the fellow drunk who’s savoring one last sip in his bottle when Wade craves a toot. It’s a haunting portrayal of ugliness and depravity from an actor you’ve never seen before but will likely have a hard time forgetting.

Gary Poulter was living on the streets of Austin, Tex., when a casting director recruited him to audition for Joe. He’d never really acted before, and decades of addiction had laid waste to his appearance, if not his spirit. “He just had this personality and charisma that you can’t find, that you can’t access with an actor who hasn’t lived it,” says Green. “There’s a look in his eye and a texture of his skin, and he’s missing half an ear. There’s just some beautiful qualities in him that for our purposes, brought out an authenticity of the role.”

At the Toronto Film Festival this week, Green and his two Hollywood stars were present after screenings to take bows and answer questions about Joe. Gary Poulter, however, wasn’t there to bask in the applause that he certainly deserved. He wasn’t back in Austin either, trying to find a safe shelter to spend the night. Gary Poulter was dead.

On Feb. 19, two months after filming ended, Poulter was found submerged in three feet of water after a night of heavy drinking near Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. Days before, he’d received medical attention for alcohol-induced seizures and it’s unclear whether he’d suffered another attack or simply passed out before he fell in the water. It was a terribly sad ending for Poulter — eerie as well, for those who have seen the film can attest — but not altogether shocking. Poulter had struggled with substance abuse since he was a teenager, and drugs and alcohol had undermined nearly every meaningful relationship in his life, including that of his two daughters. Just last year, he’d been in jail and then spent time working for a traveling carnival — until he was caught stealing from the show, beaten up, and left on the road with no clothes or money. “He was really intelligent, very charismatic, but also he was like the damn devil,” says his younger sister, Maria MacGuire, who’d reunited with Poulter last year after not seeing him for 13 years. “It was just a shame that he wasted his life the way he did.”

It was his charisma that first captured Green’s eye. The Pineapple Express director, who is perhaps best known for his stark indie films like All the Real Girls and Prince Avalanche, has frequently looked to real-life to fill out his cast. When work began for Joe, he asked casting director John Williams to canvas Austin’s bus-stops and street corners with a camera and interview as many colorful characters as possible, in order to see if maybe one or two might have something special enough to nab a small role in the film. After a quick on-camera interview, Poulter was called in to audition for the tiny role of a man carving up a dead deer. He nailed it, and could’ve had the part if he wanted it. But Green had another idea. “I sat down with him and I said, ‘Listen, I can give you this role where you come in for half a day and we have some fun and you’ll knock it out of the park,” says Green. “Or I can give you the third lead in the movie alongside Nicolas Cage, a role that you have to keep clean, and we’re going to need you to commit, memorize lines, and be on time every day, and we’re not going to f–k around. And he said, ‘Sign me up.'”

Poulter had actually always wanted to be an actor. In fact, according to MacGuire, he’d appeared several times as an extra on the TV show thirtysomething when he was trying to break into the business. Now, at age 53, he was finally getting his chance alongside an Oscar winner. Destiny had literally tapped him on the shoulder and handed him a last chance. While Green and his producers debated officially handing a homeless man a pivotal role in their movie, Poulter set out to prove his commitment. “Every morning he would come by the casting director’s office and tape a little note to the door, saying, ‘John, I’m reliable,'” says Green, who admits there were reservations about casting Poulter. “But there’s a great risk hiring a movie star to be in a movie [too]. You take your risks and you follow your instinct, and when something feels profound, you got to take the chance.”

The risk paid off for Green and the movie. Not only could Poulter play the debased and unscrupulous villain from Larry Brown’s 1992 novel, but he added a daffy side from his own personality that only made Wade’s dark side truly frightful. “He would do those pop-lock dance moves and tidal-wave moves,” says Green. “That was his thing, and they saw that and they said, ‘Let’s put that in the movie.’ It’s a good example of someone just totally there, being naked in his performance.”

Cage recognized Poulter’s talent and welcomed the experience of working with him despite his lack of a resume. “To me, that just made my job more exciting,” says Cage. “I’m not a trained actor. I’m just someone who grew up watching movies and found my own way, my own style, my own craft. And in very much the same way, so was Gary Poulter. He was a street performer. He found his own way.”

MacGuire didn’t know what to think when her unpredictable brother called last fall and told her that he was making a movie with Cage. “Half of the time, I thought he was full of crap,” she says. But when she visited during production, she was impressed, both with his determination to see the job through and with the way the cast and crew treated him. “Everybody just welcomed Gary with open arms,” she says. “He felt accepted and that was huge for him. He’d never really felt like he could fit in anywhere, and they just embraced him and gave him love and support. It was amazing. I was really impressed with him because he stayed sober on the days that he filmed. He would have maybe two days off and the first day, he would do his thing — get drunk whatever — and then he would recover the next day so he would be okay to film. He struggled, but he did it. He didn’t want to blow it.”

When filming wrapped in December, MacGuire worried what would happen to Poulter without the structure and support system of the production. She tried to put him in touch with the Red Cross, which runs a free program that provides shelter and job re-training, but he kept putting it off. Poulter instead looked to land another acting role, and in fact, he had a promising audition that gave him hope even as it made him reflect on his life. “He called me and said, “I had to cry for this audition and I was thinking about you. We’ve become so close and I was just thinking about one day when I die how sad it’s going to be for you,'” says MacGuire. “And he goes, ‘It just made me cry.'”

As time wore on, MacGuire pleaded with Poulter to call or email every day just so she knew he was okay. In mid February, though, after not hearing from him for three days, MacGuire filed a report with the Austin police department. Her worst fears were realized a few days later on Feb. 19 when Poulter’s body was found in Lady Bird Lake, near a camp he had been using for shelter. No foul play was suspected and it’s difficult to imagine someone committing suicide in such shallow water. More likely, he passed out or suffered another seizure. The medical examiner ruled his death was a result of drowning with acute ethanol intoxication.

Poulter never got to see the finished movie, but Green dedicated it to him. “It was a very pivotal turning point in his life,” says Green. “He was ready to get back in gear and put his life together and was an inspiration to us every day on the production. He had cleaned up and was ready to be the next Civil War general in a great movie or a saloon keeper in a great western.”

MacGuire says that John Williams called her after Poulter died to tell her that he had won the part that he had tearily auditioned for. He sent her the audition tapes, which she treasures. “He really wanted to be an actor and he really wanted to get better, but his disease was just stronger than him,” she says. “He died a happy man. He was able to fulfill his dream and he passed quick and fast — instead of any suffering.”

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