In ‘The Ultimate Playlist of Noise,’ Keean Johnson and Madeline Brewer Bond Over the Sounds of Music

A teen with a love for music and all things auditory gets the worst blow imaginable in “The Ultimate Playlist of Noise.” Keean Johnson stars as Marcus, a high school student who receives a devastating diagnosis after experiencing multiple seizures. While the tumors found in his brain are benign, the operation required to remove them would render him deaf. For Marcus, what follows in the days leading up to his surgery is not a story of someone who has taken something for granted, as he has been so audio-obsessed that not only is known among his peers as a guy who can curate the perfect playlist for any occasion, but he can also be found wearing earbuds under his headphones in order to layer the best ambient sounds with his favorite tunes. What transpires is a life-affirming road trip rom-com with lots of odd stops to places like a cow farm, an abandoned bowling alley, a roller rink, and a spot deep in the woods in order to compile the Ultimate Playlist of Noise.

After learning that his hearing days are numbered, Marcus makes plans to take a leave from school in order to compile the Ultimate Playlist of Noise, but he has some resistance from his parents (Iam Gomez, Rya Kihlstedt). He takes his destiny into his own hands when he sneaks out of his bedroom, and fate seems to be on his side, as no sooner has he left his neighborhood does he almost run over Wendy (Madeline Brewer), a musician who is fleeing her abusive boyfriend. Coincidentally, Marcus fell in love with Wendy “at first sound” days earlier when she was the opening act at a recent concert he attended. Conveniently, Wendy needs to go to New York to further her music career, which is also Marcus’ ultimate destination, as he wants to hear a demo his older brother, Alex, made in the city before his death ten years prior. As Alex lost his life saving him, he has become an almost mythical figure to Marcus.

Both Johnson and Brewer both recently sat down for a conversation with Entertainment Voice via Zoom. “It was just different from a lot of the other young adult scripts that I was reading,” said Johnson when asked what attracted him to the screenplay. “Whenever I look at a script, I really like to find that deeper meaning or that deeper tone, and [screenwriter] Mitchell [Winkie] did such a great job of writing both sides.”

For Brewer, who is best known for her role on the dystopian series “The Handmaid’s Tale,” playing Wendy allowed her to show a different side of herself. “It was a little bit of a departure from the kind of dark sci-fi shit that I do sometimes,” she explained. “Ultimately, everything I want to work on is about deep human connection, as actor-y as that sounds, and this really has all of that.”

The actress went on to discuss channeling her inner rocker. “I went to musical theater school, so I’ve always been a performer, but it was a very different kind of performance. But my dad has always been a singer-songwriter, so I’m familiar with that kind of music, but it was definitely different for me to step into that kind of role. I was super nervous about it. I was a bucket of anxiety on the day when I had to do the scene where Marcus first sees Wendy. …I got to wear makeup, which I don’t usually get to do (laughs). I got to feel like a rock star, even if I’m not actually one.”

While Marcus and Wendy are both deeply attached to music and sounds, something that cements their bond, both Johnson and Brewer admitted to being more visual people. “I am much more likely to be moved by a painting than a piece of music,” explained Brewer. “But then I listen to ‘Case of You’ by Joni Mitchell, and I’m a puddle.”

As Marcus and Wendy hit up so many fun locations, it was important to ask the actors which one was each of their favorites. “I thought the bowling alley was really fun,” recalled Brewer of a memorable scene in which the pair sneak into an abandoned bowling alley, one that looked like it had been untouched since the eighties, in order for Wendy to help Marcus record the perfect strike. “There’s something about being in an empty bowling alley and just kind of having the run of the place.”

Another unforgettable scene involves Marcus and Wendy hitting up a crowded skating rink in order to record the skaters. They end up having a romantic interlude after Wendy pulls the fire alarm and the sprinklers drive out the other skaters. “I’ve never skated in water before, so that was pretty fun,” remembered Johnson.

Despite their age difference –– Marcus is still in high school and Wendy is in her 20s –– the pair find themselves falling for each other. The task of compiling the playlist and the budding romance is a welcome distraction for Marcus, but there’s a tonal shift in the third act as reality catches up to him. First, he learns a troubling truth about Alex, one that doesn’t line up with his image of the perfect hero he has carried with him all these years. Then, there’s the surgery itself, and Johnson gives an emotional, vulnerable performance as Marcus is wheeled into the operating room.

“I like that it’s not a film about him being depressed the whole time or a really dark drama,” said Marcus. “The way he handles it and a lot of people would handle it –– I know I would –– would be to act like it’s not happening until the day of, and then all those feelings and emotions come hitting at once. You see that in the movie; he’s just doubting it the whole time. He wants to run away from it as far as possible, still knowing that he has to get this done, or the tumor is just going to get bigger. It’s something that he has to do, but doesn’t want to do, and I think that we’re all given those situations in our own lives.”

Finally, the pair shared their personal favorite sounds that they would have to include on their own ultimate playlists of noise. “I keep saying the sound of the clicking of a gas stove before the flame comes up,” said Brewer as she mimicked the clicking noise. “I love the sound of a faucet running, filling up the tub. It’s really loud. That’s maybe just because I really love taking hot baths. I would miss that sound if I couldn’t hear it.”

“I’d say a fire starting,” said Johnson. “Your pets. The different noises that are singular to them, I’d definitely want to record those. The ocean.”

Brewer went on to share a particularly magical memory involving watching the sun go down in Sedona, AZ, but the sunset wasn’t the most memorable part. “I watched it from this mesa where all of these people were watching it together. As soon as the sunset, I was crying. ‘It was the most beautiful sunset I had ever seen,’ I heard from two different people. One guy said, ‘Thank you, nature.’ And the other guy said, ‘Thank you, sun.’ I was like, ‘People are so great!’ I was so glad I got to hear those people experience that in their own way. They weren’t announcing it. They were having a moment of gratitude in an adorable way.”

The Ultimate Playlist of Noise” begins streaming Jan. 15 on Hulu.