Almost always charming and affable on screen, Justin Long has made a career out of playing lovable losers who audiences want to see get the girl. What he doesn’t often get a chance to play is someone who's undeniably vulnerable. Yet, that’s exactly how he’d describe his latest role in the indie drama Literally, Right Before Aaron, which made its debut at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival. “It was a pretty unique experience for me,” Long tells me over the phone. He plays Adam, a guy who is still getting over his college sweetheart Allison (Cobie Smulders). To make things more complicated, Adam just learned she's getting married to Aaron — the guy literally right after him. “[There] was an openness and vulnerability when you’re doing it, and you don’t think about what it’s going to be like a year later to see [the film] with an audience.”
Turns out, Long found it a little embarrassing to sit and watch a movie where he's required to reveal so much of himself. “Especially with my parents,” Long says, admitting his mom had trouble watching him be so profoundly sad onscreen. “She was feeling very empathetic, because she was wrapped up in the tragedy of it all.” But he didn’t see Aaron’s story as a "tragedy," he saw the hope in a man realizing he needs to let go of his past and start thinking of his future. One that will ultimately be without the woman he loves.
In a Q&A at a Tribeca screening of the film, director Ryan Eggold said Long was always the person he had in mind to play Adam in his first feature film. It’s something Long wasn’t aware of going into the project — and was glad he wasn’t — as he was concerned it would have added a “bit more pressure,” considering the movie is loosely based on Eggold's own life. Long said yes to the role because he saw himself in this character who was having a really hard time letting go. “I think that’s something that I struggle with, too,” he says. “The idea of never seeing somebody you know so well for so long. That they can exist in the world and you have no contact with them anymore is a pretty daunting thing to move on from.”
What Literally, Right Before Aaron shows is that moving on is inevitable, no matter how hard you fight it. But, every person will move on in his or her own way. In Adam’s case, he needs to be sad, so much so that it paralyzes him. He's frozen in time, unable to change or move forward, obsessed with a past that he's romanticized to be better than the real thing. He spends most of his time daydreaming back to his favorite moments with Allison instead of living in the present. In reality, Adam hasn't spoken or seen Allison in a year, which is why her calling to invite him to her wedding is so gut-wrenching for him. “He’s in a tough spot emotionally and he’s suffering,” Long says. “He’s untethered, and those were all very interesting things to play.”
It was emotionally draining for Long to watch his character of Adam let his pain get the best of him over and over again, like a heart-wrenching Groundhog's Day. “I was sick of my character being sad,” he admits. “I was saying, ‘Get over it. Enough already. Move on.’” Adam’s journey isn’t an easy one to watch, and it doesn’t end happily ever after. There will be some audience members, like Long’s mom, who don’t find solace in Literally, Right Before Aaron’s ambiguous ending, which pays homage to The Graduate. "That’s part of the charm," Long says of the film's final shot. "At least, I hope."
What Long also hopes is the movie will teach audiences what it taught him. “It doesn’t benefit anybody to not let go of things. You need to move on and invest in the present,” he says. “The present can be a very powerful healer.” You just have to start living in it.