Buddy Duress, Lost at 38, Was the Most Brilliant Actor You’ve Never Heard Of

The ‘Good Time’ actor, known for his work with the Safdie brothers, died after a long struggle with drug addiction.

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Actor Buddy Duress attends the 'Good Time' photocall during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 25, 2017 at Cannes, France. Getty Images

As an actor, Buddy Duress didn’t have all the qualities of a movie star. Before his breakout, Duress was a junkie and faced numerous legal troubles involving drug possession and identity theft. Even after receiving critical acclaim and buzz for his most prominent role in the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time”, he got sent back to jail at Rikers Island, charged with grand larceny in the third degree. Incarceration limited his showbiz opportunities,  including a then-gestating Judd Apatow project starring Pete Davidson (that film turned out to be “The King of Staten Island”).

“I could have done the [Apatow] movie,” Duress told the New York Post in 2019. “But instead, I am here in jail.”

Buddy Duress, real name Michael Stathis, died in November 2023 at the age of 38, although his death was not announced until February, by Jay Karales, the director of his final film, “Mass State Lottery,” due out in December.  Duress’s brother, Christopher Stathis, confirmed that he died of cardiac arrest from a drug cocktail. 

Buddy Duress, actress Taliah Webster, actor Robert Pattinson, writer and co-director Ben Safdie and co-director Joshua Safdie attend the ‘Good Time’ screening during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 25, 2017 at Cannes, France. Matthias Nareyek/Getty Images

Actors with prior criminal convictions are nothing new. The late Tony Sirico was a mobster who went to prison for extortion and weapons possession before his star turn as Paulie Walnuts in “The Sopranos”. Mark Wahlberg was once arrested for attempted murder.

But what made Duress stand out in his handful of roles was that he was one of the rawest actors of his generation. His troubled resume enhanced his performance. His appearances brought an honest, gritty yet philosophical sense of realism that’s not seen in many films today. 

Buddy Duress as the escaped prisoner Ray in ‘Good Time’. A24

Cynics may see Duress as someone who squandered his life potential, but we should remember how much he brought to the table as an actor. He boosted the life of his films, possessing a comprehensive knowledge of cinema, with a particular grasp of the acting skills of Jack Nicholson and Al Pacino.  

He may be best known for the manic monologue he delivered in the Safdie brothers’ indie classic, “Good Time”, in which he plays a criminal on the run, desperate to somehow matter in life. “I’m NOT going back to jail,” says his character, Ray. “So I looked down at the pavement and jumped.” Ray’s desperately sad desire for a life of consequence seems to mirror Duress’s own struggles in life, down to its premature end. 

Buddy Duress attends the ‘Good Time’ screening during the 70th annual Cannes Film Festival at Palais des Festivals on May 25, 2017 at Cannes, France. Antony Jones/Getty Images

Duress’s appearance in “Good Time” was part of his fruitful partnership with the Safdies, who are known for using non-actors in crucial roles, whether it’s Julia Fox in “Uncut Gems” (which made her a star) or Ronald Brownstein in “Daddy Longlegs”. Duress was no exception. His first role was in the Safdie’s “Heaven Knows What”, featured alongside Arielle Holmes, another non-actor, and the more professional and well-known actor Caleb Laundry Jones. Duress got to the Safdies through Ms. Holmes, and they played the homeless drug addicts, Harley and Mike, living in New York City. As Mike, Duress is gentle and calm, unlike Ms. Holmes’s unstable boyfriend Ilya, played by Mr. Jones. 

Buddy Duress and Arielle Holmes in ‘Heaven Knows What’. Radius

“Heaven Knows What” is a film that paints the lives of New York’s homeless drug addicts in a way that’s refreshingly unsanitized. As it is based on Ms Holmes’s unpublished memoir, it is undoubtedly her story and is unflinchingly biographical. What Duress offers is something uncompromising. He brings his tragic baggage to provide comfort for Harley’s woes, but he also adds a human element to the culture of the homeless that’s rarely depicted so effectively. 

Duress then made his aforementioned greatest appearance in “Good Time”. The imagery evoked by his now-famous monologue, and the Safdies’s stressful direction, allows his story to be intense and insane, something that your crazy friend tells to a barfly sitting next to him. I swear it was one of the greatest montages put into film. one that shows the best strengths of the Safdies in partnership with an unlikely actor like Duress.

Buddy Duress (R) and Ben Safdie. Duress was know for his work with the Safdie brothers. Getty Images

After Duress’s turn at Rikers, he appeared in fewer roles. Those include “Flinch”, a crime thriller, and “Mass State Lottery”, out this year, in which he plays dual characters. The director, Mr. Karales, said that “he brought a certain authenticity and charisma to the screen that you just don’t see anymore.” 

Duress’s untimely demise brings to mind a final scene of “Good Time”, in which (spoiler alert) his character, Ray, as desperate not to go back to jail as he is to live a life of consequence and meaning, falls to his death from a tall building while trying to flee law enforcement. Hopefully, more actors will draw from Duress’s finesse as an actor, which will remain underappreciated for a long time. He’s survived by his mother, Jo-Anne, and younger brother, Christopher.

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