Julianne Moore opens up about ‘After the Wedding,’ playing Gloria Steinem, Time’s Up and fighting for equality

July 21, 2019

by Carla Hay

Julianne Moore
Julianne Moore at the New York premiere of “After the Wedding” during 51Fest at IFC Center in New York City on July 20, 2019. (Photo by Lou Aguilar/51Fest)

When people think of the most versatile, talented actresses in the world, Oscar-winning Julianne Moore is sure to be on that list. She’s played a diverse array of characters in such a wide variety of films, that she’s also an actress who defies predictability when it comes to what types of projects she chooses. In the drama “After the Wedding,” she plays a hard-driving New York media mogul named Theresa Young, who is thinking about making a multimillion-dollar donation to an orphanage in Calcutta, India. The orphanage is run by a modest do-gooder named Isabel (played by Michelle Williams), who is the movie’s other lead female character.

Theresa and Isabel couldn’t be more opposite, and they have completely different lives. Theresa will give the donation on the condition that Isabel come to New York and meet with her in person. During the meeting, Theresa invites Isabel to the wedding of her 21-year-old daughter, Grace (played by Abby Quinn), who is one of Theresa’s three children. She also has 8-year-old fraternal twin sons with her husband, Oscar Carlson (played by Billy Crudup), a successful artist whose specialty is sculptures. It’s at the wedding that the lives of Theresa, Isabel and Oscar collide, as secrets and lies are exposed throughout the story.

“After the Wedding” (written and directed by Moore’s husband, Bart Freundlich) is an American remake of the 2006 Danish film “Efter Brylluppet,” whose stars included Mads Mikkelsen. “After the Wedding” is Moore’s second American movie remake of 2019. She also starred in “Gloria Bell,” Sebastián Lelio’s 2019 American remake of his 2013 Chilean film “Gloria.” Whereas “Gloria Bell” is virtually identical to the original “Gloria” film, the American remake of “After the Wedding” has a dramatic overhaul by switching the genders of the three main characters. Moore and Freundlich are two of the producers of the American version of “After the Wedding,” which got mostly positive reviews after its world premiere at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. The movie had its New York premiere at the inaugural 51Fest, a female-focused film festival co-presented from July 18 to July 21, 2019, by the feminist organization Women in the World and the arthouse movie theater IFC Center in New York City. Here is what Moore said in a post-screening Q&A with Women in the World founder Tina Brown.

Michelle Williams, Billy Crudup and Julianne Moore in “After the Wedding” (Photo by David Giesbrecht/Sony Pictures Classics)

What was it about the original “After the Wedding” movie that made you want to do a remake of it?

Originally, this was Bart’s project. He had been approached to do an American adaptation of this really beautiful Danish film, directed by Susanne Bier. And I was just there talking to him about. We watched the [original] film, and I was really struck by this story and by one of the characters in particular. The movie was wrapping up, and I pointed to the businessman [played by Rolf Lassgård], and I was like, “Now, that’s a role I’d like to play.”

[Bart] was kind of fiddling with the script and figuring out how to adapt it. Because the [original] movie is so perfect, why do tell a story another time? Why do you make it different? And so, they came up with the idea of switching the genders. And so, immediately when he did that, I was like, “I’m in! I’m in! That part is the one I want!”

How much did that gender-flipping change the script?

A lot. In the original, there’s the issue of paternity and a lot of knowledge that people don’t have. You have the female protagonists, and obviously, there are some deliberate choices about parenting and knowledge … One of the things that I also thought was very fascinating about it too was that these women are very judgmental over each other’s choices. Both of them feel that they made the exact, right choices, and they really don’t approve of the other one’s lifestyle, but they desperately need each other. And in my case, Theresa is forced to reconcile with the one person she’d rather never, ever met.

Theresa is a very hard-driving business executive who sometimes treats people very harshly. Did you worry about playing someone who was unsympathetic?

I never saw her as unsympathetic. I think that she’s somebody who holds a lot of power … I loved the fact that she was interested in her business, that she didn’t really care about the orphanage. She was trying provide for family, provide for her employees.

[She is] somebody who controlled everything in her life, made very conscious decisions about what kind of work she wanted to do, who she wanted to marry. There’s a very veiled reference to IVF. Bart and I worked on that. I want everybody to know that she deliberately had these children [the 8-year-old twins], and tried really hard. And she’s really come up against the one thing we can’t control.

Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore in “After the Wedding” (Photo by Julio Macat/Sony Pictures Classics)

How was it working with Michelle Williams?

She was wonderful. That’s who we wanted. Bart and I talked about it. I can remember when we were making the decision. Somebody said, “So-and-so might do it,” but he said, “We really want Michelle.” I said, “If we want Michelle, let’s just go to her.”

I actually had her email from way, way back, and I emailed her directly. I thought, “All right, if you want something, go right toward it.” I said, “We have this movie. You’re our dream lead for it Would you read it?” She read it, and she committed right away, which was unbelievable. I can’t believe she actually did it. It’s a little, tiny movie. We had very few resources, but she responded very strongly to the script.

How is it working with your husband, Bart Freundlich? Do you give a lot of notes to each other about your work?

It can be challenging. This was the first time [working with him] that I actually gave really specific notes, because we were there as he was writing it … I always say that, especially in an emotional scene, an actor needs a scaffold, in the way we build our emotion as people through conversations and ideas, you want to make sure that’s present for the actor to do, so it seems like real human behavior.

There would be times when we would read it and work on it, and I’d give him notes. It’s the same thing when he’s directing. He needs plenty of information and assistance. It’s wonderful to have a collaboration like that, although it’s not so easy when your teenage daughter is also a PA [production assistant].

Was it the first time that your daughter worked with you and Bart?

Yes, it’s probably the first and the last. She’s like, “Why do people do this job? This is awful.”

Women in the World founder Tina Brown, Julianne Moore and 51Fest program director Anne Hubbell at the New York premiere of “After the Wedding” during 51Fest at IFC Center in New York City on July 20, 2019. (Photo by Lou Aguilar/51Fest)

What kind of research did you do for playing Gloria Steinem in the biopic “Gloria: A Life on the Road,” directed and co-written by Julie Taymor?

The very, very best part of working on this project was getting to meet Gloria Steinem and to spend time with her voice and her writing and her world view. When you have somebody as inspiring as that to learn from, I was really grateful for the opportunity. It’s like a lesson on how to live.

Her tolerance, her patience, her consistency of message, her non-reactivity, I think that’s really remarkable, because we’re living in a time when people are very, very reactive, and it feels very hot. And when you watch Gloria all through her entire career, when you see what’s she faced as an advocate for women and what she withstood, it’s really amazing how tolerant she was of the things she came up against, and how she continues to educate slowly and carefully, with compassion. She really is remarkable.

What did you go for, in terms of building the Gloria Steinem character from inside out?

I read her book,s and I watched all the video I could find. The movie is based on her book “My Life on the Road,” and it’s a really beautiful meditation on what her beginnings were as an activist, and her beginnings as a human being and he family. At the very end of it, she talks about how her father didn’t have a home, and her mother didn’t have a place of her own, and how you need both. You need a journey and you need a home.

And she talks about the split, the division of us as males and females, and why it doesn’t work for anybody. I think that’s really important to start with who that person was or how her ideology was shaped. It really was, even as a child, witnessing what her parents went through.

Can you talk about your involvement in the Time’s Up movement and where you think the movement is going?

Time’s Up is super-exciting. The one thing that benefits us all as human beings is contact with people who are not like ourselves. We’re often so segregated by sex, by age, by race, by culture, by jobs. So there was this opportunity to be in a room with all of these women in New York City, of various ages and various jobs, and say, “Hey, what do you do, and how can we do to help each other?” Suddenly, you have this network of people, and it’s been astonishing.

And they go, “What group do you want to be in? Do you want to be in the social group or the mentoring group?” “I want to be in legal,” so I found myself in a group with incredible legal minds. As you know, [New York governor Andrew] Cuomo just adopted the Time’s Up Safety Agenda, which is major!

Time’s Up was formed in California, which is a very progressive state. New York, much less so. As we sitting around talking about things, we realized that the statute of limitations was so short on a lot of these sexual-assault claims. Otherwise, we can’t move forward.

What’s your perception of changes for women in the entertainment industry after Time’s Up?

I think it takes a long time to turn a ship around. It doesn’t happen overnight, but I do think that because we do have these relationships with one another, Time’s Up is about safety and equity for people in the workplace, not just for women in entertainment but for all industries. We’re able to band together with other women and say, “How do I put my weight behind you? How do we solve this problem? How do we solve that problem?” It’s been wonderful to have that collective influence. It’s been only a year [since Time’s Up was formed], so it hasn’t been very long, but I do think that suddenly, there’s a conversation again, where there wasn’t one a few years ago.

Julianne Moore and Abby Quinn in “After the Wedding” (Photo by Julio Macat/Sony Pictures Classics)

How much of a role stays with you when you’re done filming a project? Can you just shed a role like skin when you’re done?

Hell yeah! They cling to you as long as you’re working on them. One of the things I hate a reshoot. I hate additional shooting. That means you have to hang on to that character maybe for six months or something. I always want to let it go, because I feel very immersed in something when I’m doing it, but then when I’m done, I’m like, “Drop it.”

One of the great things for me was having children, working in the movies and having little children, so when you go home, it’s done. You come home and shut the door. You learn to compartmentalize, and I think that’s what I like.

Acting is almost like self-hypnosis. You have to put yourself in a position where you have to actually believe the stuff is happening to you, but you also have to know that it’s not really happening to you. So, when there are actors who are like, “Oh, my God, now I know what it’s like to be blind,” it’s like, no, you don’t! You were pretending!

Because of the contemporary women’s movement, there seems to be more pressure for female actors to play strong women who live extraordinary lives. Is there a place for female actors playing “regular women”?

I’m so happy you said that, because it makes me crazy. What powerful woman do I want to play? I’m just not interested. I want to play people who are human.

I think it’s where people make a mistake. It’s not about playing somebody who’s powerful. Also, [the word] “power”—I don’t like that terminology, because that’s about status. If somebody is powerful, they are somehow “higher” than another human being. That doesn’t interest me, the idea of being the most powerful.

I want to play somebody who’s the center of their own narrative. I don’t care who they are, as long as they’re a human being, and they’re in their own story. What I don’t want is the character who kind of comes in the end and says a couple things, picks up a dish, and leaves. Nobody wants to do that, because everyone is at the center of their own narrative. We don’t have to be heroic to be the center of our own story, but we are the heroes of our story.

What’s your process for finding great material?

I don’t know. I get that question, “What character do you want to play?” And I always say, “Characters don’t exist without a narrative.” I don’t know who that is. I can describe somebody who likes to eat out and lives in Seattle, and that kind of thing, but I don’t know who they are. What’s their story? Where’s the narrative? That fascinates me. I don’t know until I read it. And when I read it, and if I get excited by it really quickly, I know it’s something I want to pursue.

There are several female candidates running for president of the United States. Which one would you want to play?

Elizabeth Warren.

Billy Crudup, Abby Quinn and Julianne Moore in “After the Wedding” (Photo by Julio Macat/Sony Pictures Classics)

What’s more pernicious in Hollywood: ageism or sexism? Is ageism worse for women than for men?

Yeah, of course. The thing that’s interesting about sexism and ageism, well, now I’m going to get into looks-ism, so I’m segueing over there. If traditionally, we have an unequal society, where women have only been valued for their marriageability, that means youth and appearance are going to be primary, unless you’ve got some huge dowry, that’s a whole other socioeconomic thing. We are still in a culture where that has seeped in.

So, this idea of women having value only when they’re young and beautiful is still in our culture. It’s going to take a long, long time for us to shed that. And it’s really only going to happen when we have equal opportunity and equal pay and equal work. So, if you are a human being who is paid the same and has the same access to a job and to opportunities, and it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, then that ageism and sexism will go away.

This thing about women feeling invisible makes me crazy. If there’s a 75-year-old man, and he is married, and he’s had a family, and he has a job and continues to be gainfully employed, and he has value, he’s never going to say that he feels invisible, because he has all this achievement behind him. But women, because they haven’t had the same opportunities, and haven’t necessarily been able to build that kind of career, are going to feel like they’re less important. Give that woman those opportunities, and she won’t feel invisible.

Is all the streaming content out there an opportunity for older actresses?

I think it’s an opportunity for everybody. One of the things I always try to remind people of is that the business doesn’t exist to give great parts to actors. The business exists to sell product globally. They’re just trying to figure out, “What can we sell all around the world?” So, it’s always been hard to find great parts for male or female actors.

I don’t know that Batman is a great part. I think it’s a fun part. I don’t think there’s an actor alive who would say, “Oh my God, that’s the role of my dreams.” People want to play complex, interesting characters—all of us, male and female. And suddenly, with all these platforms opening up, there are opportunities for everybody that are really exciting.

How long have you and Bart been married?

We’ve been together for 23 years … We lived together for seven years and had two children before we got married.

Why did you decide to get married after seven years and two children?

It just felt messy [to be unmarried]. I actually had a therapist say to me that she felt that marriage was like a container for a family. It made sense. It’s what we have as a culture to say, “We belong to each other. We’ll take care of each other. We well share each other’s money and houses and whatever.”

It’s a public proclamation of who you are in society as a couple and as a family, which is why marriage equality is so important. Everybody deserves that. Everybody needs an opportunity to say legally, “This is my family. This is who we are.”

Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore in “After the Wedding” (Photo by Julio Macat/Sony Pictures Classics)

Do you and Bart actively look to do projects together?

Well, we are now. As the business has changed, people start realizing that they can take responsibility for producing things, for developing things. Suddenly, we’re all going, “Hey, I can be a producer” or “I can hire a writer” or “I can acquire this book.” So, Bart and I are now looking at things we’d like to do together.

What’s next for you?

My next project is a Stephen King project for Apple called “Lisey’s Story” that Pablo Larraín is going to direct. I’m very excited about it because it’s a story of this marriage. These people have been together for years and years. It’s a romance but it’s also horror. It’s emotional.

I love horror. It’s interesting that it’s so popular now, because it’s so reflective of our emotional state, right? In horror, you’re always like, “Who is the monster? What is the monster? What’s happening?” This [“Lisey’s Story”] is really about this journey this woman takes to go find her husband, and it brings her literally into another place.

Except for Bart, which director do you think has gotten your best work?

I will say that your best work happens when you’re comfortable, not when you’re not comfortable. Your best work happens when you’re able to feel free, and you can do whatever you want to do, and kind of, sort of fly. I dislike it when people make an actor feel precarious. Then you don’t really go where you want to go.

I will say that think working with Todd Haynes was really extraordinary, because he does provide such an incredible amount of structure, just in terms of his language … how he frames shots, how he tells stories cinematically, how he tells them linguistically, I always feel like I have a lot of room within that structure to find stuff.

Can you talk about your relationship with Tom Ford? He’s been your director and you’ve collaborated with him in fashion.

He’s awesome! My part [in the 2009 movie “A Single Man,” Tom Ford’s directorial debut] shot in only three days. It was really, really quick … I remember it was so exciting because the music that he chose was so fantastic. It felt free! It was a beautiful set. Tom had set it up so that we were able to feel free.

After the Wedding” opens in select U.S. cities on August 9, 2019.

Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong are wacky birds of a feather in ‘Tuca & Bertie’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Tiffany Haddish, Lisa Hanawalt and Ali Wong
Tiffany Haddish, Lisa Hanawalt and Ali Wong at the world premiere of “Tuca & Bertie” at the during 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in new York City. (Photo by Dominik Bindl/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival)

Netflix’s “Tuca & Bertie” is an animated comedy series, which the streaming service describes as being about the friendship between two bird women in their 30s who live in the same apartment building in Birdtown, a fictional place that is clearly inspired by New York City. Tuca (voiced by Tiffany Haddish) is “a cocky, care-free toucan” and Bertie (voiced by Ali Wong) is “an anxious, daydreaming songbird.”Among Tuca and Bertie’s friends, colleagues and neighbors are other animal creatures with human-like qualities. They include Speckles (voiced by Steven Yeun), a robin who is Bertie’s loving boyfriend; Pastry Pete (voiced by Reggie Watts), a baker penguin; Dapper T. Dog, a prissy neighbor; and Dirk (voiced by John Early), an arrogant rooster who works with Bertie at their job at a media company called Conde Nest—an obvious nod to Condé Nast.

“Tuca & Bertie” has several of the same executive producers as Netflix’s Emmy-winning animated series “BoJack Horseman,” including Lisa Hanawalt (who created “Tuca & Bertie), Raphael Bob-Waksberg, Noel Bright and Steven A. Cohen. Haddish and Wong are also executive producers of “Tuca & Bertie,” whose 10-episode first season premieres on Netflix on May 3, 2019. The first two episodes of “Tuca & Bertie” had their world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City, where Haddish, Wong and Hanawalt did a Q&A after the screening. Here is what they said:

“Tuca & Bertie” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

Lisa, how long were Tuca and Bertie in your head, and when did you realize they needed a TV show?

Hanawalt: I started making comics about Tuca about four years ago, and then I started making comics about Bertie a little bit later. When I was thinking of TV show ideas, they just seemed like two of my favorite characters I ever made up. They just basically write themselves. They know exactly who they are.

I just wanted to make a show about female friendship. I thought the two of them would go well together. They’re kind of opposites, but Bertie has Tuca qualities and Tuca has Bertie qualities. And you can kind of see why they’ve been friends for so long.

Tiffany and Ali, what did you first think when you heard about “Tuca & Bertie”?

Haddish: When first I heard about it, I was like, “OK, two friends. That’s what’s up. I’ve got friends. This is funny … Where do I sign up? Do I get an executive producer credit?”

Wong: I didn’t know much about it. The only things I had heard that Lisa Hanawalt created a show about two birds that were best friends, and that Tiffany Haddish, who I’ve known for a long time and hadn’t worked on anything yet, was attached to it. That’s all I needed to know. “Yes, I’ll do it right now!”

Ali and Tiffany have executive producer credits on the show, right?

Wong: We do, but we didn’t do that much to deserve it.

Hanawalt: Yeah, you did.

Haddish: Yes, we did. I don’t know about you, but my feet hurt. I deserve it.

“Tuca & Bertie” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

How are you like your Tuca and Bertie characters in real life?

Wong: I suffer from crushing anxiety, like everybody else.

Hanawalt: You hide it well. You’re fearless.

Wong: I try. Yeah. I didn’t even know what you guys were looking for. I just went in [for the audition], and it was really short. I was like, “Oh, I didn’t get [the role], because they kicked me out so fast.”

Haddish: I was like, “Y‘all better get my homegirl, or I ain’t playing with y’all.” And ta-dah! We’re working together! That’s how you do it. I’ve been watching Hollywood. I see what y’all do.

Wong: I met Tiffany 10 years ago in San Francisco. She was so positive and so sweet then, even though it was the shittiest time. We were struggling and everything.

And then I saw her the next time in New York, when she had auditioned for “SNL” [“Saturday Night Live”]. Everybody around town knew she killed it. She knew she killed it, and she was like, “If they don’t give it to me, it’s fucked up.”

Haddish: No, I said, “If they don’t give it to me, fuck them!” That’s what I said.

Wong: “Fuck them, until I host for them!

Haddish: Yep. I said, “Next time, I’ll be hosting.”

Wong: And she did it in that white dress she’s worn a million times to maximize the value out.

Haddish: That part. It’s about saving our dollars, girl.

Wong: And then after I saw her after she auditioned for “SNL,” she had just booked a role for this movie with Queen Latifah and Jada Pinkett Smith [2017’s “Girls Trip”].

Haddish: And then boo-yah. I told you we were going to do it, girl.

Tiffany and Ali, what qualities do each of you have that bring out the best in each other?

Haddish: We balance each other out. I can be really over-the-top sometimes. And I look in her eyes and I’m reminded that I can bring it back down a little bit. It just depends. [She says to Wong] I really value you a lot.

Wong: Thank you.

Haddish: I like having her around. I wish we could be in the studio together more often, like when we made that song.

Wong: Oh my God. That was so fun. Tiffany is a good singer. I had to some training in the studio.

Hanawalt: You’re both really good.

Wong: Please don’t make me sing. I’m an executive producer. I command you to not make me sing. Please don’t make me sing!

Hanawalt: Ali has a whole musical number in Episode 4. She sings about having an anxiety attack.

Wong: We [Haddish and I] have duet that’s very catchy. I wish I wrote it so I could get residuals for it. It’s amazing. Tiffany’s really busy, if you’ve noticed. She’s doing five movies a year, all the time.

Haddish: You’re really busy too. You’re raising human beings.

Wong: That is true. When we got to see each other and work together, it was great. I hope we get to work together again.

Haddish: Yeah, more often. Season 2! Let’s go!

[Haddish and Wong then led an audience chant saying, “Season 2! Let’s go!” Wong also got up on her chair and twerked to the chant.]

“Tuca & Bertie” (Image courtesy of Netflix)

“Tuca & Bertie” is one of the few adult animated series that was created by a woman. What did you want to do differently in this show that you don’t see in other animated shows?

Hanawalt: I just wanted to make a show that I’d want to watch. I love watching adult cartoons. I’ve always loved watching animation. I wanted to see one about women and female relationships and women in the world, with stupid jokes I would laugh at and spicy chips for lunch and the kind of stuff that I want to watch.

And a lot of animated shows don’t have characters in their 30s. The characters either under 30 or over 40, right?

Hanawalt: I wanted to make a show about me and my friends and what we’re going through and right now … When you’re in your 30s, people really start to split off in drastically different directions.

Suddenly, your friends have a bunch of kids, and they own their own home and they have a husband and they seem super-stable, but inside they’re still like, “Do I really want this? I don’t know. Am I doing the right thing?” Meanwhile, I still feel like a big, sloppy baby, but I’m sure I look like I might have my shit together on the outside.

“Tuca & Bertie” tackles some serious topics, like sexual harassment and Tuca’s struggle to stay sober. Tiffany and Ali, how much of this did you know in advance before signing on for the show?

Wong: I honestly knew nothing. Lisa and the [other] writers were breaking the stories on as we were coming in to read the script. We’d just show up at the table read, and that’s when I would find out what the story was. Some of the twists and turns—you’ll see in the season—they shocked me in a really cool way. It’s serialized. That’s something you don’t usually see a lot in animation.

Hanawalt:  It starts out light and fun, but there’s definitely some darker stuff that happens. I think overall though, the show is very optimistic and feels like safe place, but we go into some darker things.  I didn’t want to tell them, because I didn’t want to scare them away.

Haddish: Yeah. I was like reading it, and I was like, “What just happened? Oh, hell no! For real? Okay, then. Continue.”

Hanawalt: There were definitely things I wanted to tackle. I like shows that are really silly and surreal and then also have some very real, relatable moments and darker themes.

What were some of the things you were most excited about in the look and design of “Tuca & Bertie”?

Hanawalt: I was thinking about things I’m not allowed to do on “BoJack.” There’s going to make talking plants. Fuck it!

Haddish: I was most excited about Tuca’s ass. In Season 2, let’s see if she can get some titties! Just putting it out there, boss lady.

Wong: I was excited to see the scenes with Tuca and me together. Also, the scenes with Steven Yeun, who plays Speckles, my boyfriend.

What do you want people to get from watching “Tuca & Bertie?”

Hanawalt: I hope people find it funny and relatable. I hope women see themselves in these characters.

 

Jared Leto reveals his snapshot of American culture in his documentary ‘A Day in the Life of America’

April 29, 2019

by Carla Hay

Jared Leto at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival premiere of “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Carla Hay)

“A Day in the Life of America,” directed by Jared Leto, is a documentary that’s exactly what the title says it is: It’s a compilation of footage filmed in various parts of the United States over the course of single day. In this movie, that day was July 4, 2017 (Independence Day), when Leto dispatched 92 camera crews to get footage of people living their lives and voicing their opinions on what America means to them. (Click here for Culture Mix’s review of the film.)

The results show a wide range of emotions and opinions that reflect the diversity—and divisiveness—of the United States. “A Day in the Life of America” had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. After the screening, Leto (who is also the lead singer/chief songwriter of rock band Thirty Seconds to Mars) sat down for a Q&A, where he answered questions from a moderator and some members of the audience. Here is what he said.

You’ve said this documentary was inspired by National Geographic’s “A Day in the Life” book series. Can you elaborate on why these books captured your attention?

I just think it’s the idea that you could use creativity, use art to further understanding about culture, about society. As a kid, I was just compelled by the images. I encourage everybody to check out that book [“A Day in the Life of America”], because it’s still fascinating to see.

The artists, the photographers, they all found images you didn’t really expect—things that you didn’t necessarily see every day, and it showed you a part of the world that you hadn’t visited. I always love when films do that. I guess that’s what I love about documentary films—they take you to a part of the world or to parts of someone’s life you’d never been to before.

There are parts of the film I don’t agree with, but I thought it was really important to … not censor who we are, who our neighbors are, who America is, and try to give an accurate depiction of the nation in this really tumultuous and important time. Watching the film with everybody made me want to spend more time with certain characters.

Jade Jackson in “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Gabe Mayhan and Gabe Gentry)

You mentioned that we’re living in a tumultuous time. Was there a particular incident for you that inspired you to make the film?

It started with the music. It started with the album [“America,” Thirty Seconds to Mars’ 2018 album]. I am in a band. And I had an idea to make an album where I would travel around the country, I would interview people, and I would write songs loosely wrapped in the people and places that I heard.

But I did it kind of backwards. I ended up writing this album, and I thought, “Man, maybe this is that ‘America’ album that I’ve always wanted to do.” And I ended up making the companion piece [the documentary film], and did a couple of other crazy things across the country, but that’s another story.

What criteria did you have in deciding which footage would go into the film?

That’s a good question. I can’t even begin to tell you how many hundreds of hours of footage we have. We were just buried in footage. We couldn’t make a film much longer than this. It was really hard to decide what to include or not. There are so many stories that are compelling. And when you make a film, that’s part of the challenge. What do you include? What don’t you include?

It’s interesting to see people you may not agree with. I’m not so sure I agree with Mr. Drinking Man With a Gun, but I really want to spend a little more time with him. That’s what’s kind of cool about the movie … You don’t have to agree with everybody on all fronts to get along with them, to have them be your neighbor, to have them be your friend. And that’s kind of a really nice thing. But it was hard.

And 10,000 people [from the general public] also contributed. We had our 92 crews, and most of the footage—I would say 95 percent of the footage—came from the crews, because the quality of footage was better, the storytelling was a little bit more succinct and consistent. But some of the footage that you saw at the end was from the footage that was crowdsourced.

DeAndre Upshaw and Stuart Hausmann in “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Evett Rolsten)

Part of this documentary project involved asking people who don’t live in the United States to give their opinions of America. That footage wasn’t really a part of the film. What did you find out from that footage?

Should I tell you the truth? You can probably imagine. I did ask people from all over the world to send in their thoughts, because I was thinking of including that. You’ve got to ask your neighbors if you want to get an accurate depiction of who you are.

We did end up using that footage. We kept [the movie] in the States, with the exception of the Space Station. Things that were broadcast on the news or radio were also fair game. This [footage in the documentary] is all one day, and it’s just a tiny tip of the iceberg. There’s a lot that happens in this country. But the footage that we got outside the States was interesting.

What was the most important lesson you learned through this process?

It’s always a good reminder that ideas are pretty worthless unless you do something about it. This is a film that was an idea for a really long time, and it’s fun to see it become a reality, to dig in, get a great group of people together, and go make something happen.

I love to tell stories. I love to make things and show things with the world, and it’s an absolutely amazing thing to do. I never take it for granted. It’s great to watch it with you guys. I learned so much talking with you. [He says jokingly] And I’m going to take the film now, and totally ruin it, and make into five-minute episodes for Instagram.

Renan Ozturk in “A Day in the Life of America” (Photo by Renan Ozturk)

This movie seems awfully dark. Did you did find a lot of people who were patriotic, or did you think it wasn’t worth including?

We did find quite a bit of optimism. We didn’t ask people to film dark stuff. I think we were specific about some things—events we wanted to capture, certain people we wanted to spend time with—but we didn’t dictate what stories people told. We didn’t dictate a point of view. We went to every single state in the country, so we didn’t avoid areas.

It is dark, but I do hear a surprising amount of optimism. I hear people go, “Yeah, shit’s pretty tough right now, but I still think we can do it,” which is pretty incredible. What’s so important about America and the American dream is that we have instilled inside of us this idea that with hard work, with passion, with help from our friends and neighbors, that anything is possible. And I still took that away, personally, from the film.

It’s a tough world out there for a lot of people in this country, and that’s what we see. But I didn’t write the script. I’m just the messenger, so it’s really your movie. It’s not mine. I just held up the mirror with 92 other [camera crews].

Spinal Tap and director Rob Reiner reunite to celebrate the 35th anniversary of ‘This Is Spinal Tap’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Rob Reiner at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival’s “This Is Spinal Tap” 35th anniversary reunion in New York City. (Photo by Sherry Brunet)

The 1984 comedy film “This Is Spinal Tap” will probably go down in film history as the most influential mockumentary of all time. The movie, directed by Rob Reiner and mostly improvised by the cast, is a mock documentary of a fictional British heavy-metal band called Spinal Tap, as the band goes through the humiliation of a career downward spiral. Spinal Tap’s core members are egotistical lead singer/rhythm guitarist David St. Hubbins (played by Michael McKean), simple-minded lead guitarist Nigel Tufnel (played by Christopher Guest) and laid-back bass player Derek Smalls (played by Harry Shearer). The band is rounded out by an ever-changing lineup of keyboard players and drummers. There’s a running joke in the movie that Spinal Tap drummers often meet an unfortunate demise.

“This Is Spinal Tap” takes place mostly during the band’s disastrous tour of the United States, where the band’s current album (“Smell the Glove”) is a flop, and Spinal Tap performs to increasingly smaller audiences. There’s also in-fighting because of ego clashes between David and Nigel. Feuds between a band’s lead singer and guitarist have happened so many times to famous bands, it’s become a cliché at this point. The movie also pokes fun at other clichés in the music industry, such as over-the-top machismo in heavy metal; embarrassing on-stage mishaps; smarmy hangers-on; incompetent handlers; a meddling girlfriend who thinks she’s almost a member of the band; and sparsely attended gigs in weird places. In the movie, Reiner plays fictional director Marty DiBergi, who is chronicling the Spinal Tap tour for a documentary.

When “This Is Spinal Tap” was first released, it was so convincing, that some audience members thought that Spinal Tap was a real band, and some real-life rock bands were offended, because they thought that the movie was making fun of their real-life experiences. McKean, Guest and Shearer can sing, play musical instruments and write songs in real life, and they’ve occasionally released albums and toured as Spinal Tap over the years. At the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, in celebration of the 35th anniversary of “This Is Spinal Tap,” a rare reunion took place with Reiner, McKean, Guest and Shearer, who gathered at New York City’s Beacon Theatre for a conversation and Q&A, before the Spinal Tap trio did an acoustic performance. (Elvis Costello made a surprise guest appearance during the song “Gimme Some Money.”) Here is what the “Spinal Tap” team said during the conversation and Q&A, which was moderated by Reiner.

Michael McKean, Christopher Guest and Harry Shearer in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Guest: I hadn’t seen [“This Is Spinal Tap”] in a while. It’s interesting to see yourself younger. What do you think?

McKean: [He says to the audience] Your reactions were like concert reactions, which were great. You’d see a scene beginning, and it was like hearing the beginning of “Free Bird.”

Shearer: I have to say, I was taken back in a time machine when I saw the scene with Paul Shaffer [who portrayed record promoter Artie Fufkin, who asks the band to “kick his ass” when there’s a low turnout for a Spinal Tap meet-and-greet at a music store]. It brought me back to a moment Michael and I and an ex-partner were in a comedy group called the Credibility Gap. We were in Arizona doing a gig, and everything that could be fucked up about our technical set-up was.

The representative from Warner Bros Records—a guy named Lou Dennis—came backstage, and we were furious. This was a record merchandising convention, and this was a chance for people in the business to become acquainted with an act they didn’t care about. Lou Dennis, before we could say one word to vent our anger, said, “Guys, kick my ass!” He became known as Lou “Kick My Ass” Dennis for years afterward. We put that in the movie, and for years afterwards, he would say, “I’m the guy in ‘Spinal Tap!’”

McKean: The other problem was that conventioneers started drinking at about 9:30 in the morning. And this was more like 9 p.m. when we went on. It got worse. Tucson, Arizona.

Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Reiner: It’s crazy, 35 years. It’s insane when you think about it. They put us in the National Film Registry and the Smithsonian. It was so crazy. The first time we screened the film at a screening in Dallas, people were coming up to us and saying, “Why would you make a movie about a band that’s no one’s ever heard of and one that’s so bad?”

McKean: Some of the cards that we got from the audiences from test screenings were amazing. In answer to the question, “What did you like about this film?,” one woman wrote, “DNA.”  “How would you describe this film?” And we figured out that “DNA” meant “Does Not Apply.”

Guest: Michael and I were in Dallas to get some popcorn, and there were two young women who came out in the middle of the movie, and one of them said to the other one, “These guys are so stupid!”

McKean: Well, they were right.

Guest: And one of the cards said, “What did you like about it?” And the person who wrote it said, “It’s in color.”

McKean: It’s not a good jumping-off point.

Christopher Guest and Michael McKean in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Reiner: I’d forget that Dana Carvey is in [the movie]. There’s Billy Crystal, Fran Drescher, Fred Willard. Sir Denis Eton-Hogg, played by Patrick Macnee. The whole film is improvised, except for that one speech by Patrick Macnee said about, “Tap into America.” He said, “I don’t improvise,” so we sat down and wrote it. It’s the only written thing in the whole movie.

We had Peter Smokler was the DP [ director of photography] on the film. We hired him because he shot lots of rock’n’roll documentaries. We thought he would be the perfect guy. He was actually at Altamont, with the very famous Rolling Stones concert with the Hell’s Angels, a very said time. And we were going through this, and he kept saying to me “I don’t understand what’s funny about this. This is exactly what they do.”

Shearer: This was probably a trait that served Peter well—not seeing what was funny about what we were shooting—because before he came on our project, he had shot another documentary called “This Time, It’s for the Championship.” There was a gentleman in the 1970s named Werner Erhard, who ran an organization called Est. And everybody’s agent went to Est.

And with all the money that his customers had given him, Werner Erhard decided to become a championship car racer and commissioned a documentary about it. So it would’ve been a bad idea for Peter to have said [about “This Is Spinal Tap”], “You know what? This is the funniest shit I’ve ever seen.”

Christopher Guest in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Reiner: I never heard that story. There was a life to the band. They had their own life and their own history. We spent a lot of time talking about the characters. Everybody had their own frame of reference. And so, there was an organic creation.

We had some people come in to audition. John Densmore, the drummer for the Doors, auditioned. He was great, but he’s in the Doors. It’s not this alternative world that we created. Paul Stanley from Kiss came in.

Guest: Nicky Hopkins, a great keyboard player.

Reiner: If you look carefully in the “(Listen to the) Flower People” [music video], you’ll see Russ Kunkel, who was a great drummer who played for Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne and James Taylor. And Danny Kortchmar was in “Gimme Some Money.”

McKean: And Ed Begley Jr. was the drummer [in an early lineup of Spinal Tap, in the “Gimme Some Money” clip].

At this point, questions were taken from the audience.

Christopher Guest in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Was the band Spinal Tap based on Iron Maiden?

Guest: It was never based on any particular band. The rhythm of the name Spinal Tap was like Uriah Heep or others with that rhythm. We picked and chose from various places.

Reiner: Life and art kept mirroring each other. That scene backstage where [Nigel Tufnel] is trying to get the sandwich to fit on the bread—that was taken from an article in Rolling Stone called “The Endless Party,” about Van Halen, and how they wanted all the brown M&Ms removed from backstage.

The keyboard player we had—a guy named John Sinclair—was in a 20-minute demo version of the film. And when we were ready to shoot the film, he got a job with Uriah Heep, and he figured, “This is a real band. I’m not going to go with these [Spinal Tap] schmucks. I’m going to get real money.” And when he came back from the Uriah Heep tour, he tells us how they got booked into an Army base. [In the movie, Spinal Tap performs at an Army base to a bewildered, straightlaced audience.]

Shearer: And just before we started shooting, I had the opportunity to be in England. I don’t even know how I wrangled this, but I got to go on the road with this mid-level band that most Americans never heard of, nor had I at the time, this English heartthrob band called Saxon. I picked up little details, like the bass player figured that that they were playing in E and A on all the songs, so he could play basically open strings, and he never had to finger it.

Reiner: There was life imitating art, back and forth. My favorite thing was we had this idea for Stonehenge. Black Sabbath decided they were going to tour with a Stonehenge theme. The movie came out about a week after they went on tour, and they were furious with us. They thought we stole the idea. It takes more than a week to make a film and distribute it.

Harry Shearer (pictured at left) in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

Why was the cucumber wrapped in tinfoil? [In one of the movie’s most famous scenes, Derek Smalls sets off a metal detector at an airport checkpoint, and to his embarrassment, an airport security employee discovers that it’s because Derek has a phallic-shaped vegetable, wrapped in tinfoil, stuffed in his trousers.]

Shearer: The real answer is—and someone might check this after the show to see if I’m right—if you slip a cucumber, or as I did [in the movie], a zucchini, in your trousers, and you get up on stage, and sweat for two hours, you’ll be glad it’s wrapped in tinfoil.

Since the members of Spinal Tap are American in real life, how did you get those English accents down so well?

Reiner: Chris’ father was British.

McKean: We spent a lot of time echoing what Chris was like, because he was on the money all the time.

Reiner: Chris’ father was in the House of Lords, and when he passed away, [the title] was handed down to Chris. Chris became a member of the House of Lords. Did you pass any significant legislation?

Guest: I was the one who said you didn’t have to wrap anything in tinfoil. It didn’t go anywhere.

Reiner: Why did they kick you out, by the way?

Guest: I’ll tell you later.

Michael McKean, June Chadwick and Harry Shearer in “This Is Spinal Tap” (Photo courtesy of Rialto Pictures/Studiocanal)

What was with scene where the band members have cold sores?

Reiner: That was the remnant of a joke that took about a half-an-hour of film to set up. At one time, the opening act was a punk band called The Dose, which was fronted by Cherie Currie, who was in The Runaways. And at one point, she is with Nigel, and they’re having a little fling, and in the next scene, you see that Nigel’s got a little herpes sore. And then, she’s hanging out with David, and then he has a herpes sore. And then she’s with Derek, and then Derek has a herpes sore.

And there’s a scene with the five band members sitting around, thinking about dropping The Dose from the tour. There are four guys with herpes sores, and the drummer doesn’t have a herpes sore, and he’s saying, “Why don’t we keep them? I like them!” That was the whole set-up and we ended up with two guys with herpes sores [in the final cut].

What was your favorite scene that didn’t get in the final cut of the movie?

Shearer: Bruno Kirby singing. It’s on the DVD extras. He’s at a party with us. It’s late in the evening. Weed and other things have been ingested. And he’s stripped down to his skivvies, and singing Frank Sinatra into what he thinks is a microphone, but it’s actually a slice of pizza.

McKean: And then he goes out like a light. Oh man, it was so good. I understand why they cut it. There was a touring company of “The Wiz,” and we shot a scene where there were two extremely flamboyant black dancers. And they just give us the eye, and our reactions got a little big, I think, so we cut that. [That scene] made me laugh.

Reiner: The first cut [of “This Is Spinal Tap”] was about seven hours. There were about three hours of interview footage. It was like making a documentary. It was like writing a movie with the pieces of film.

Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest at the Tribeca Film Festival’s “This Is Spinal Tap” 35th anniversary reunion in New York City. (Photo by Sherry Brunet)

Here is the set list from the Spinal Tap 35th anniversary reunion:

Celtic Blues

Hell Hole

(Listen to the) Flower People

Rainy Day Sun

Clam Caravan

All the Way Home

Big Bottom

Gimme Some Money (with Elvis Costello)

Sex Farm

Harry Shearer, Michael McKean, Elvis Costello and Christopher Guest at the Tribeca Film Festival’s “This Is Spinal Tap” 35th anniversary reunion in New York City. (Photo by Sherry Brunet)

Melissa McCarthy makes a dramatic departure as a desperate forger in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

October 19, 2018

by Carla Hay

Melissa McCarthy at the New York City premiere of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Melissa McCarthy at the New York City premiere of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix)

Melissa McCarthy has played several characters who are social misfits, but those are usually in comedies. The dramatic film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which is inspired by the true story of author-turned-forger Lee Israel, is a very different role for McCarthy, who is getting a lot of critical acclaim for playing the troubled Israel. McCarthy has already won Emmy Awards for starring in the sitcom “Mike & Molly” and guesting on “Saturday Night Live,” and she received an Oscar nomination for her supporting role in 2011 comedy film “Bridesmaids,” but “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is her first dramatic film for which she is getting significant awards buzz. The movie, which is set in 1990s New York City, tells the story of how a financially desperate Lee, who was once a successful biographer but whose latest books have been flops, turns to fabricating letters from famous dead authors and selling the forgeries to pay her bills. When some of her buyers start to get suspicious, she resorts to stealing real archived letters from research institutions, replacing the original letters with forgeries, and selling the stolen originals.

Lee is an unapologetic loner whose brusque manner often alienates people, but she reconnects with an old acquaintance—perpetual con artist Jack Hock (played by Richard E. Grant)—to help her with her forgery scams, with the flamboyant and charming Jack going to potential buyers and selling many of the fake documents for her. The relationship between Jack and Lee isn’t exactly a warm and fuzzy friendship; it’s more like an uneasy alliance that probably wouldn’t have happened if the ill-mannered and introverted Lee didn’t need a cohort who was better at dealing with people.

The real Lee Israel, who died in 2014 at the age of 75, forged hundreds of documents, and she and Jack were eventually caught and faced legal consequences. She wrote about her life of crime in the 2008 memoir “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” The movie was directed by Marielle Heller, with a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. The film’s cast also includes Dolly Wells as a bookstore owner who tries to befriend Lee; Jane Curtin as Lee’s increasingly exasperated agent; Anna Deavere Smith as Lee’s ex-lover whom Lee still tries to contact; and Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s real-life husband) and Stephen Spinella as literary collectors who make multiple purchases of Lee’s forgeries. McCarthy recently sat down with me and other journalists for a roundtable interview at the “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” press junket in New York City. Here is what she said.

Did you ever have a time when people told you that you couldn’t be an actress, but you did it anyway?

Yeah. I don’t even know if I knew what an actress was. I don’t know exactly what I thought I was going to do. I didn’t even quite have a thing to conjure. I know when I came to New York, I did not know how to do the business side of it. I’m not upset that I focused on the work. I studied, and I did plays. It didn’t help me survive any better, but I think it was good for learning.

I finally met with a manager, and I was so excited. I met with her in her studio apartment. Then she was like, ‘You’re never going to work.” I do remember her saying, “You’re never going to work. You have to lose weight.” But the point of that was, I think I was a [size] 6. I was like a little thing. And, somehow, in me I was just like, “Well, that seems crazy. That seems nuts.”

I was like, “I think you’re working out of your studio. Maybe you’re not the most business-savvy either.” I don’t know where that came from. Now at 48, I was like, I’m so glad I said it. It was probably a fluke.

But I remember just being in there and being, like, “I’m not going come back and sit in your bedroom to talk about why I’m not going to work, so see you later.” I think that stopped me from looking for representation for a long time. I thought, “I’ll just submit myself for plays.”

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

A lot of people are talking about how different “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is from your other movies. Can you talk about how different you are from the real Lee Israel, who was a bitter, depressed person who liked cats more than people?

I’ve had up to 30 cats.

Up to 30 cats at one time?

Yes. I’ve had 25 to 30 cats rush [up to] a car, and it would actually scare people. It was like a horror movie. People would have [cat] litters, and nobody would adopt them. And that’s how you end up with 30 cats outside.

There was a lot, energy-wise and social-wise, that Lee is different from me. But Michelle Darnell [the character McCarthy played in “The Boss”] and her harshness were also so abrupt, but a different energy. It’s fist-forward for her. I see similarities for them: Shove first before you’re shoved.

But certainly, the inward quality of Lee was fascinating to play. Instead of verbally responding, to know that Lee would probably just sit and watch and wait for that person to leave. Certainly, verbally she could have always come up with a line and a quip, and she often did, but it was interesting to change that pacing and timing, and direct it inward and wait someone out.

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

Can you talk about getting into costume for the Lee Israel character?

It’s a bit of Tetris of what will fit. One of my favorite things was when things didn’t fit right. I was like, “Leave it.” Like It shouldn’t fit, it’s 15 years old. She’s probably not the exact same shape, size, from age, from whatever it is. I did love that, because you don’t get that in a movie very often, where you let the bad fit kind of ride. It always helps.

When it all clicks in, I feel like, “Now I know the gait. Now I know the walk.” I kept thinking of it as her armor—her cashmere and tweed armor—but once it got on, I really felt the weight of her. The [clothes] were heavy. I just had things of a certain weight on me at all times. I thought she really feels weighted.

Marielle Heller and Melissa McCarthy on the set of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

What did you know about Lee Israel before doing this movie? And what attracted you to the role?

I didn’t know her story. And it bothered me that I didn’t. I felt like I should have. What attracted me was, first of all, it’s a fascinating story. It’s not even the area that you’d expect a crime to happen. You don’t expect that type of person to end up with the FBI after them. And it’s not like she’s smuggling drugs; it is for literary forgeries. I know it’s a crime. She’s grifting people, for sure.

I think especially now, I loved how she did not require anyone to tell her what she was. I think we’re in a current state where people really need people to validate who they are. “How was my vacation? Do you like me if I went to this party?” They need the reflection of others to see themselves.

I don’t think like that, and I love that Lee just didn’t need it. She was going to be who she was going to be, even when it made it much more difficult for her. I find that a really attractive quality. Even when it’s slightly unpleasant, I still admire it.

Dolly Wells and Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

As an artist, how do you view the limitations of talent versus the business side of art?

It’s a very current issue, and it’s a constant issue. Lee was an incredible writer. That was she did. It was the only things she did. And to suddenly be told that you are no longer valid, that you’ve come to a certain age, and you’ve become obsolete. Her writing was still good, but she was a woman of a certain age. She wasn’t adaptable. She had no flexibility to go out and get a different job, or go out on an interview and charm someone. That was not going to happen. We see it in the film. That was accurate to her life. She couldn’t do anything else. And she wasn’t a people person, to say the least.

And I was thinking, “What would any of us do if we lost our one means to survive?” She was on welfare at one point. She was going to lose her apartment. She was going to be homeless. It’s not like she had a bunch of friends that were going to take her in.

And at a certain age, instead of being revered, like, “Oh my gosh, you have 30 years of experience! How amazing,” it’s “What about that 20-year-old?” or “What about that person who’s more fun at the party?” It certainly doesn’t make that person a better writer or artist or fill in the blanks of whatever you may be. But it’s strange that more experience means you’ve become outdated. I find that very strange.

Dolly Wells, director Marielle Heller and Melissa McCarthy on the set of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

What did you learn about that era of New York City?

That era of New York is my New York. I moved here when I was 20. I lived here from 1990 to 1997. So, to me, it’s the most magical time. I loved it. I came from a little farm town, so the grit [of New York City] and people working four jobs [appealed to me]. We [my roommates and I] lived three in a studio, but we had a Manhattan apartment. And it all seemed magical, like going to Alphabet City and saying, “There’s a party on B [Street]. Do we risk it? Yes!” Now, it’s like $2 million studio apartments. I’m like, “What?”

I don’t understand the current New York. It’s not mine, so I take maybe unreasonable ownership of those ‘90s, and it was everything to me. It’s not the shiny walk through Central Park New York that you so often see in movies and films, which is beautiful and I love.

But I think [“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”] is a really great glimpse into really living in New York and to be part of the city that you’re tethered to in a different way.  We’re not always strolling through the park. It’s the real pulse of it. I think recreating that, I felt pretty overwhelmed a couple of times. I never thought I’d get to have that back.

Marielle Heller and Melissa McCarthy on the set of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

What inspired you to move to New York?

I just wanted something different. We went to a Chinese restaurant on the outskirts of Chicago when I was a kid, and I heard theme music. It was the most exotic thing I had ever seen in my entire life. My dad, who’s from the South Side of Chicago, said, “We moved out to a farm to keep you out of the city, and you literally had a magnet [to go to a big city]. Once you hit a certain age, the fascination was unreasonable.”

I moved to New York having never been there [before]. I don’t think I was on a plane until I was 19. I had $35 when I landed at LaGuardia [Airport], which was not the smartest move. I mean, thank God it was based on no good thinking, or I never would have done it. I just showed up, and I thought, “This should be easy. Then I was like, “What am I doing? Oh my God, I have no money!” I was sharing a bagel a day with somebody, and I just started collecting jobs.

Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

Lee and Jack both happen to be gay. How do you think having that in common affected their friendship?

People were not rushing out to help [the LGBTQ community]. We still have a ways to go, but [homosexuality] is not accepted as it is now. In my heart, I think it was just two people who were on the outside. It was one more slice of the pie of their loneliness, their isolation.

They were both kind of desperate. I think they were both people who probably couldn’t go back to their families. It was just one more element to why these two very unlikely people colliding into each other and why it worked.

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

Lee’s career downfall was partially due to her having writer’s block, but a deeper issue was that she was locked into this idea that she could only be a biographer, and she didn’t want to go out of her comfort zone. Considering her knack for making things up, she would have made a great fiction writer. As a writer yourself, can you talk about being put in certain category and going outside of your comfort zone?

We love to categorize people. I agree with you. I thought so many times, “Boy, I would’ve just loved to have heard her roll out a fictional story. It would’ve been so funny and have a bite to it, for sure. This is my opinion, and how I think I run parallel to Lee: I love what I do because I do it via someone else. Maybe it’s the coward’s way.

I don’t want to play a person who’s really similar to myself. I don’t know how to do it. I actually feel like I don’t have the skills to, in a scene, figure out what I would do. Through someone else, I’m much more assertive or vulnerable when I get to wear the cloak of someone else.

And I feel like Lee did the exact same thing. I feel like we had the ability to channel through people. So doing biographies was her way of always having someone kind of shield her. She was at her best kind of standing behind someone else.

Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

People know you for comedy, so how do you think your comedy-loving fans will react to you in this role?

I didn’t pick it or fall in love with it for any different reason from anything else that I do. I loved the character of Lee and the story. And when I read the script, I thought, “This is something that doesn’t come around [that often].

When I first read it, [my husband] Ben had the part first when [the movie] was in its original incarnation, which fell apart, as movies do. I read it because he was doing the part that he ended up playing. I read the script in record time, and I said, “This is unbelievable.” I said, “I don’t know why, but I think I love this woman. She shouldn’t be so endearing, but she is.”

And I just kept talking about it. And when it didn’t work out, I couldn’t let it go. I wanted to see the movie, and I thought, “Well, somebody has to do that [role]. It’s too good, and it’s fascinating. Who’s going to do it?”

And weeks later [I was still talking about it], and [Ben] was like, “Oh my God! Let it go!” It really bothered me that her story wasn’t going to be told. So I wormed my way into Ben’s movie. I was just like, “I feel like I have a connection to her that doesn’t happen very often.”

Mari [Heller] came in [to working on the movie] almost at the same time. We just had the same gut feeling about the tone and how we wanted to tell it, and it all then came together really quickly.

Anytime I take something, no matter how it does or how it plays, I’ve been lucky enough to have loved the people I’ve played. Once I really lock on to a person, I feel really responsible to tell their story.

Melissa McCarthy and Jane Curtin in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

If Lee were alive today, what questions would you ask her? And what advice would you give her to be a happier person?

She wouldn’t [ask for my advice]. She’d probably tell me to stop talking. I’ve often said, “I wonder how annoyed Lee would be with me, because I would ask her a lot of questions.” I would have loved to have met her.

There are so many stories from [producers] David Yarnell and Anne Carey, who knew her for many years. David knew her for 20 years. He’s actually the reason why she wrote the memoir. He says she was such a pain in the butt because she did not want to write it. She did not want to write about herself.

As in Lee’s fashion, everything about it was difficult. She finally wrote it, and it was great thing for her, but it took a long time. Anne Carey knew her for 10 years. That’s where I got all my Lee stories from.

Do you think that your role in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” is the best acting you’ve done so far?

I certainly loved every minute of doing it. There was a very solid feeling. Every single person who came into this little movie … it felt different. It felt like we were in this bubble floating through Manhattan and getting away with something or existing in this alternate universe. I never want to start ranking [my work]. I’d go insane.

Richard E. Grant shows the art of playing a charming con man in ‘Can You Ever Forgive Me?’

October 19, 2018

by Carla Hay

Richard E. Grant at the New York City premiere of "Can You Ever Forgive Me?"
Richard E. Grant at the New York City premiere of “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Kristina Bumphrey/StarPix)

Richard E. Grant has made a name for himself as a character actor in a wide variety of movies, such as the comedy “Withnail & I,” the period drama “The Age of Innocence” and the superhero flick “Logan.” He’s also had numerous roles in television, including playing the title character in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” and guest-starring on “Downton Abbey” and “Doctor Who.” And now he’s getting some of the best reviews of his career as flamboyant con man Jack Hock in the dramatic film “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” which is inspired by the true story of author-turned-forger Lee Israel (played by Melissa McCarthy), who enlists Jack to help her in her forgery schemes. Grant has received a nomination for Best Actor at the 2018 IFP Gotham Awards for his role in the movie, which is also garnering critical raves and awards buzz for McCarthy.

Set in 1990s New York City, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” tells the story of how a financially desperate Lee, who was once a successful biographer but whose latest books have been flops, turns to fabricating letters from famous dead authors and selling the forgeries to pay her bills. When some of her buyers start to get suspicious, she resorts to stealing real archived letters from research institutions, replacing the original letters with forgeries, and selling the stolen originals. “Can You Ever Forgive Me” is a crime drama, but it is also story is about how two opposites can attract—the prickly, introverted Lee and the charming, extroverted Jack—and form an unusual bond that is partially an alliance of convenience and partially an attempt to befriend each other out of loneliness. The real Lee Israel, who died in 2014 at the age of 75, forged hundreds of documents, and she and Hock were eventually caught and faced legal consequences. Hock was 47 when he died of complications from AIDS in 1994.

Israel wrote about her life of crime in the 2008 memoir “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” The movie was directed by Marielle Heller, with a screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty. The film’s cast also includes Dolly Wells as a bookstore owner who tries to befriend Lee; Jane Curtin as Lee’s increasingly exasperated agent; Anna Deavere Smith as Lee’s ex-lover whom Lee still tries to contact; and Ben Falcone (McCarthy’s real-life husband) and Stephen Spinella as literary collectors who make multiple purchases of Lee’s forgeries. Grant—who calls the film “a road movie in Manhattan that goes between bars and bookshops”—recently sat down with me and other journalists for a roundtable interview at the “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” press junket in New York City. Here is what he said.

What kind of insight did you bring to the Jack Hock character?

My immediate thought was, “What was the essence of what is happening in this story?” And I thought that [Lee Israel and Jack Hock] are like Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in ‘The Odd Couple,” and also like Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight in “Midnight Cowboy.” You’ve got two people who are on the fringes of society that are lonely and they’re in New York and they’re struggling. Despite all the wealth that you see around you and millions of people, they’re lonely and they’re struggling. And I thought that was the basis of their platonic friendship was they’re trying to find a movie reference.

And then I thought, because I grew up in Africa, I always see people and try and understand characters as, “What kind of animal would they be?” Just to get a lead in. And I thought she is essentially a porcupine. She’s prickly and private, and you’re going to get hurt if you go in her. And I thought Jack was like a Labrador [retriever], in that he’ll just go up to anybody and lick them into submission, to try and get petted, to try and get a jump on somebody, or steal their food or whatever. But he won’t give up … They have this kind of odd, platonic love/hate relationship …

We were going to start [filming “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”] on a Monday, and I thought we were going to have a week of rehearsal. That didn’t happen … Melissa McCarthy was coming in to New York on Friday … I was very aware of her comedy movies, from very subtle to very broad, and I didn’t know at what level she was going to pitch Lee Israel. So mercifully, we met for a half a day on that Friday, talked through the script and all the scenes we had together. And from meeting Melissa, within five nanoseconds, I realized what kind of person she was. And I saw how she was pitching it, and that affected what I did.

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” captures a bygone era of early 1990s New York City, before Times Square and other parts of Manhattan were cleaned up and made more tourist-friendly. Can you talk about that period of time?

The kinds of scams that you would see on 42nd Street … That doesn’t exist anymore, that kind of sleazefest that people operated in … I did a movie playing Sandra Bernhard’s husband called “Hudson Hawk” with Bruce Willis. And I went to meet with Sandra in the Meatpacking District in 1991, and on many street corners, there were emaciated men dying of AIDS, with placards saying, “I have no Medicare, my family has abandoned me, and I’m dying. Please help me.” It was so shocking, and I’ve never forgotten that …

In your research for this role, you couldn’t find any photos or video footage of Jack Hock. How did that lack of visual references affect how you portrayed him?

This was pre-social media. Now, we have people at Starbucks and they’re documenting it: “Look at me at Starbucks!” So, you’ve got a time, when all of his friends have died of AIDS, and a generation of men were being wiped out, and he was disowned by his family. So, if you’ve got people who’ve been disenfranchised to that degree, and then are dying of a plague, their photo records are minimal or don’t exist.

All I had to go on was that he had this shortened cigarette holder—because he was a chainsmoker, and he thought the [cigarette holder] would stop him from getting cancer—and that he had been in jail for two years for holding up a taxi driver at knifepoint because they disagreed about the fare. [And I knew] that he was tall, from Portland and blonde. That was a much of a description that Lee gave about him.

But she did say that he was really good at scamming, because if she reckoned that a letter that she’d done was worth 600 bucks, he’d come back with two grand. Even when he was trying to cheat off that two grand more money off her, he still was capable. He wasn’t good on the math, and he didn’t know who Fanny Brice was, which was bizarre to me, but he obviously had a way of charming people, and I thought that was a key to who he was.

He lived for the day, in the moment, and I think knowing that you have this time bomb of being HIV-positive probably added to that. “Tomorrow is literally another day; today might be my last.” I wish I could live my life like that but I’m too conservative, but it’s very endearing. I’ve known people like that all my life, and I’ve liked them and loved them, but I wouldn’t give them the keys to my apartment or my car or lend them money.

Melissa McCarthy and Richard E. Grant in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

How would you define a true friend?

My dad, who died 37 years ago, said to me before he was dying, “If you have five friends in your life, consider yourself a rich man.” When it comes down to it, five is a lot: someone who you can call at 3 o’clock in the morning and who will hear you out. So how do you define a friend? Loyalty. Someone who is not married to you, who is not blood-related, someone who, despite what anyone else says, they know you, and you know them to the fullest extent.

Has playing Jack Hock made you appreciate your friends more?

Yes. I know Melissa [McCarthy] gains friends in every job that she does … But, in my experience [making a movie] is having really intense, emotional relationships for two or three or four or five months—and sustaining a friendship beyond that a testament of true friendship … I haven’t seen Melissa in a year, but our friendship is still intact, so it worked out.

Richard E. Grant and Christian Navarro in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

Jack is very charismatic. How would you define charisma?

I have no idea. My answer is always the same. I don’t think it’s something you can teach. If you go into a roomful of people, and what this indefinable thing is that we call “talent” that makes you want to watch somebody more than the person right next to them who may be better-looking or better-dressed or have more money—that something that makes you want to watch them, I don’t know what that is. I think if we knew what it was, we could bottle and sell it and make a million bucks. I think it’s an energy inside someone that either demands attention or you’re just drawn to that person. Some people have it, and some people don’t.

You and Melissa McCarthy became very close while working on this movie. Can you share any stories of hanging out with her outside of work?

She was on the set in every scene, and I wasn’t. I’d just come on the days I wasn’t working. I had lunch with her every day. That is pretty unusual. That’s what we did.

Richard E. Grant and Melissa McCarthy in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Photo by Mary Cybulski)

Was it hard to have lunch with her in public since she’s so famous?

She had her Lee Israel wig on and a hat on, so we just walked down the street. And, you know, it’s New York City. We live in an age where the silhouette is this [he mimics someone staring into a smartphone], so actually looking up and having a conversation with somebody or recognizing somebody is far less [common]. We just walked around. [People recognizing us] didn’t happen.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” has a female-dominated crew: The director, co-screenwriter, two of the three producers, the film editor and art director are all women. How did having a female-led movie compare to other movies, whose crew leaders are typically men?

I’ll put it like this: It felt like the most de-testosterized, communal, nurturing collaborative environment. I think because it was such an intimate story and female-centric, whereas the movie that I just come off before that was called “Logan,” which had a crew of 300 men with arms thicker than my thighs. I’m not exactly chunky, but it was guns and jeeps and cars and cranes. I felt like a dandelion in the wind amongst this macho set, so the contrast was enormous. It was a different kind of movie. [“Logan”] had people with blades coming out of their hands, people being decapitated in all directions, and even the 12-year-old girl in this was karate killing people with batons, so there’s some contrast to the world of Lee Israel and Jack Hock.

 

 

Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson and ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ team untangle secrets of their groundbreaking movie

October 6, 2018

by Carla Hay

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Phil Lord, Christopher Miller, Jake Johnson, Lauren Velez, Shameik Moore, Brian Tyree Henry Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

The animated film “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” was one of the most talked-about revelations at the 2018 edition of New York Comic Con in New York City. Not only were fans given a huge surprise treat by seeing the first 35 minutes of the film before the panel discussion took place, but those in the audience who saw the sneak preview were also raving about it. Simply put: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (which opens in theaters on December 14, 2018) has the makings of being an award-winning hit.

The movie also represents the first time on the big screen that Spider-Man will be played by characters other than Peter Parker. The main Spider-Man in “Into the Spider-Verse” is Miles Morales, a half-Puerto Rican, half-African American high schooler from Brooklyn, who almost reluctantly becomes the masked webslinger under the mentorship of Parker. The trailers for the movie indicate that Morales’ love interest Gwen Stacy will also take on the persona of Spider-Gwen, plus there are other variations of Spider-Man in this movie’s alternate universe. (No spoilers here.)

After getting rapturous applause following the sneak preview, several members of the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” team took to the stage for a discussion panel. They included Shameik Moore (voice of Miles Morales); Jake Johnson (voice of Peter Parker); Lauren Velez (voice of Rio Morales, Miles’ mother); Brian Tyree Henry (voice of Jefferson Davis, Miles’ father); producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller; and directors Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey. Here is what they said:

Christopher Miller, Phil Lord, Jake Johnson, Shameik Moore, Lauren Velez, Brian Tyree Henry, Bob Persichetti and Peter Ramsey at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City. (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Phil and Chris, how did you get involved in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”?

Lord: When Sony came to us and said, “Wouldn’t it be cool to do Spider-Man as an animated movie?” And the first thing we thought was, “Yeah, that would be awesome to see a comic book come to life, but wouldn’t it be the seventh Spider-Man movie? It would have to feel like something super-fresh.” So we said we wouldn’t want to do it unless it was Miles Morales’ story.

Miller: It seemed like they really wanted us to do this, so we could make some demands. And so, we used the fact that this story had been told a lot of times to our advantage, because the expectation now is, “How can we do it differently?”

The visuals are stunning. Peter and Bob, can you talk about the visual approach and how the story is set in Brooklyn?

Ramsey: As Phil said, this was a chance for us to really lean into a medium that was made for Spider-Man … How can we take advantage of a medium that has been visually expressive for so many years and tie it into the original source material? And so, we started to lean into flash frames and visuals that are really reminiscent of drawings, but we had to figure out a way to do it with a computer, which is its own giant task.

And then separately, we’ve seen the Peter Parker story. We know. We haven’t seen the Miles Morales story. Brooklyn is such a character. There are so many things that were born out of New York: hip-hop, graffiti, Miles. How do we view the movie with a character that is the city? Each borough has its own flavor.

Persichetti: The great thing for us, as filmmakers, is that the stars all kind of lined up, and we were in a situation where we had producers/creators—Phil [Lord]  and Chris [Miller]—who had a vision, and a studio that said, “You can do that,” even though they didn’t know what we were going to do.

Every step along of the way, everyone on the team pushed as far as they could into his idea of using animation to be more expressive, be like a comic book, honor the original source, and to try to bring New York 2018 to life in a way that everybody in the audience can understand, so everyone can go through this experience in Miles’ shoes. Hopefully, we got it right.

Ramsey: And I think the secret was we didn’t tell them how bold of a visual approach we were going to take until it was too late to change it.

Jake Johnson and Shameik Moore at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City.   (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Shameik, what was it like to inhabit the Miles Morales character?

Moore: I can relate to the upbringing we’re looking at. I’m not actually Latino, but I feel the spirit. I’m very excited. When I was younger and I first saw Miles Morales, I was like, “Dude, there’s a black Spider-Man out there.”

I wrote it down in a journal filming this movie called “Dope.” I said, “I am Miles Morales. I am Spider-Man.” And two years later, I got the opportunity, with these guys. We made an amazing movie. It really is a crazy thing.

Jake, what can you say about the Peter Parker character in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”?

Johnson: It’s Peter Parker at 40. Peter Parker who’s a little chubby. Peter Parker who’s a little depressed. I just saw [the movie] this morning. It’s just so exciting, and I’m fired up to be in it.

Jake, how would you describe the relationship between Peter Parker and Miles Morales?

Johnson: They become partners in crime. They become unlikely friends. There’s a little bit of “The Karate Kid.” They end up needing each other to get out of a situation, and they become friends along the way.

Bryan Tyree Henry at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City.   (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Brian, how would you describe your Jefferson Davis character as Miles’ father?

Henry: It reminded me of my father. I was raised by my father for … most of my formative years—junior high through high school—puberty, mostly. My father was a Vietnam vet, and there was this kid he was trying to raise. Looking at the [the movie], I was like, “Oh, that’s what he was going through!” I didn’t think I was that bad, but I was off the chain!

There is nothing more important to me than to see a black boy and his father. We’ve seen the single mom trying to bring up a teenage boy to be a man, but it’s really nice to see … Miles Morales has both of his parents. He’s bilingual and raised in Brooklyn. His mom works in a hospital, and [his father] is a cop.

He had a damn good upbringing. We made a good man! It’s important for everyone to see that Miles is part of that. It was very important for me to be part of that, to be someone trying to raise [Miles] right and make him a decent man … And to play the husband of Lauren Velez? I jumped at the chance. Our son is the bomb! It’s an honor to be on this panel with all these creators. And Miles is “dope.” See what I did there?

Shameik Moore and Lauren Velez at the “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” panel at New York Comic Con in New York City.   (Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images for Sony Pictures)

Lauren, can you talk about your Rio character, who’s Miles’ mother?

Velez: This is my first animation [project] ever. I had no idea what to expect at all. I’m floored by everything. I’m floored by the storytelling, the visual style. Is that animation? Look at the depth of that. So much if it is beyond what I expected. I really have the most amazing family.

My son [Miles] is so dope and my husband is amazing. I’m the daughter of a cop [in real life], and seeing this [movie] made me think so much of my own family and growing … [Miles] doesn’t come from a broken home. He comes from a real stable, professional parenting environment and parents who want the best for him, and want him to achieve his highest potential. That’s why they’ve sent him away to a school that is better for him but is still diverse; he’s not completely away from his world. All of that I thought was so important.

And the bilingual aspect of it. I’m Nuyorican, and I think Miles is such loving, wonderful son on the cusp of manhood. I feel like [Rio] supports him in moving toward being the man she wants him to but still wants to nurture him and hold on to him and take care of him. I think, secretly, she thinks his art is so dope, and she supports that.

Vera Farmiga goes on a road trip filled with dogs and daddy issues in ‘Boundaries’

June 22, 2018

by Carla Hay

Peter Fonda, Shana Feste (with her dog Loretta), Vera Farmiga and Louis MacDougall at the New York City press junket for "Boundaries" (Photo by Carla Hay)
Peter Fonda, Shana Feste (with her dog Loretta), Vera Farmiga and Louis MacDougall at the New York City press junket for “Boundaries” (Photo by Carla Hay)

In the comedic drama “Boundaries” (written and directed by Shana Feste), Vera Farmiga plays Laura Jaconi, a divorced mother of a quirky, artistic 12-year-old son named Henry (played by Louis MacDougall), who finds herself in a dilemma. Henry has recently been expelled from drawing nude photos, and the only school that might be able to accept him is a private art school that she can’t afford. So Laura finds herself reluctantly reconnecting with her estranged father, Jack (played by Christopher Plummer) to ask for Jack’s help to pay for Henry’s school tuition.

Jack—a charismatic rogue who has a long history of breaking the law and who has recently been kicked out of his retirement home—agrees to pay for the school tuition on the condition that Laura and Henry accompany him on a road trip in Henry’s antique Rolls-Royce from Seattle to Los Angeles, where Henry plans to live with his other daughter, JoJo (played by Kristen Schaal). Unbeknownst to Laura, Jack (who doesn’t have a driver’s license) is using the trip to smuggle marijuana and do some pot dealing along the way. Laura is a compulsive rescuer of stray animals, so the Jaconi family members have plenty of company on their road trip, including several dogs. (Feste’s real-life dog Loretta, a white terrier mix, is one of the dogs in the movie.)

During the drama and dysfunction that ensue on the trip, they meet some colorful characters, including Jack’s old friends Joey (played by Peter Fonda) and Stanley (played by Christopher Plummer), while the Jaconis face uncomfortable truths about their relationship with each other. If “Boundaries” seems to have a lot of authentically family moments in the film, that’s probably because Laura is an alter ego for Feste, and the Jack character was inspired by Feste’s own father, who often made his living doing things outside the law. Her father, who has since passed a way, has a cameo in “Boundaries” as one of Jack’s marijuana customers. Some of the other characters in the movie were also inspired by Feste’s real-life family. Here is what Farmiga, Feste, Fonda and MacDougall said when they recently gathered for a roundtable interview with journalists at the New York City press junket for “Boundaries.”

Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Shana, what were some of the things you learned about your family and yourself while you were writing the “Boundaries” screenplay?

Feste: That’s a good question. I guess I learned how totally out of touch with my own anger I really was. My father was in and out of my life for most of my life. And when he was with me and visiting me and taking care of me, it was the best thing ever. It was Chinese restaurants, “order everything on the menu.” But when he was gone, it left a huge hole.

And I think as a kid, you try and make each visit the best visit, so you’re always really positive and happy when your dad is around, and you don’t get to express he kind of resentment you feel when you’re doing your very ordinary things, and you’re looking at other parents who are on the sidelines at AYSO games, and your dad is in Africa digging for diamonds to smuggle in the rim of his cowboy hat—some crazy adventure that he’s going on. So in the process of me writing, I learned a lot about vocalizing my own anger. It wasn’t anything to be scared of—I was so frightened of that, but it was therapeutic for me.

Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

When did you know that Vera Farmiga was right for the role of Laura Jaconi?

Feste: This was one of those dream situations where I got to cast all of my first choices for these roles. I had met Vera a few years before, and I had always wanted to work with her. I met her with a friend. I remember thinking, “Oh my God, we’re going to her house for dinner?”

Farmiga: The “Country Strong” director? What am I going to cook? We were at my house in upstate New York.

Vera Farmiga, Christopher Lloyd and Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Feste: No, we weren’t. We were in Laurel Canyon.

Farmiga: Seriously? [She laughs.]

Feste: And I just remember being so taken with Vera and trying to play it so cool. Cut to—I have this role, and I knew she would be the perfect person. I had never really seen a lot of comedy from Vera, but I remember her being so funny and sharp. And that was really important to me: the intelligence behind the funny.

Vera Farmiga and Bobby Cannavale in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Vera, what was it about the “Boundaries” screenplay that spoke to you?

Farmiga: I love chuckling about dark stuff. I really do. And I felt enlightened by the script. For me, it was a personal reminder to lower my expectations. It read like a really comedic parable. I love parables as a kid, like “The Prodigal Son.” This was like “The Prodigal Papa,” but a comedy. I also loved that it highlighted animal rescue. It’s just a reminder that people often disappoint us, but animals don’t.

Kristen Schaal, Louis MacDougall, Vera Farmiga and Christopher Plummer in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Speaking of animals, what was it like interacting with all the animals on the set?

MacDougall: A lot of scenes are in the back of the car, four dogs were in the back of the car with me. It was really enjoyable. You’d think it would be stressful, but I didn’t mind it at all. The pets on set were a very calming presence. People can get stressed on a film set, but everybody can just poet a dog, and it can make everything better.

Feste: The hardest thing about the animals for me was that I wanted all the animals to look natural. Usually, when you have animals in a movie, they’re doing backflips or doing Air Bud tricks. So not only was it hard to find the rascally, scruffy ones to cast, it was really hard to have the animals act naturally.

To go to bed was the hardest thing … Everybody would be very quiet … and the animals would nod off, but sometimes it could take 20 to 30 minutes. And on an indie movie where you’re shooting 10 pages a day, you do not have time to make sure six animals are asleep in a bed, but we did it.

Farmiga: The hardest thing was my allergies. I think I had a week of Benadryl, and then I acclimated to every particular dander, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t hives underneath.

Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

What was it like to work with Christopher Plummer?

Farmiga: Don’t let the tweed jackets fool you. He’s a clown and so easy to get to know and so easy to get immediately affectionate with and to giggle with. Most of our time was just spent combing Zillow together and fantasizing about real estate in alternate lives. And eating Cheetos. And playing I Spy With My Little Eye in countless hours locked up in a car together.

Fonda: His first motion picture was with my father. It was called “Stage Struck.” He’s 10 years older than I am. I was 18. I saw him from time to time. He might not remember it. He knew my first stepmother very well.

When I saw this was my chance to work with him, I thought, “This is really terrific.” And the parts that Shana has written for him and me, I thought it was wonderful, because I’ve known him. Vera’s right. He is a card. He’s very funny. He keeps his energy flowing. He did for us.

Christopher Plummer and Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

In “Boundaries,” the free-spirited people who show the most reckless behavior are the older people, when most movies follow a stereotype of the young people being carefree and irresponsible. Peter, when you look back on your life, what inspired you the most to play Joey?

Fonda: I just read the character she had written. It was a full character. And knowing what I could bring to it with Christopher, it was a gas. Realizing what we had to do to get it done, we couldn’t be just goofing off. It turns out we were goofing off while we were getting it done. It was hysterical.

Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

What was the best road trip you’ve ever done in real life?

MacDougall: I’ve never been on a road trip. I live in Scotland, so after you drive for an hour, you reach the other side of the country.

Farmiga: The 1980s. Irvington, New Jersey to Palm Beach, Florida, every summer. June, one way. August, the other. Oh, yeah.

Kristen Schaal and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

And who went on the road trip with you?

Farmiga: My mom and my dad—it was four of us. I have seven siblings now. It was four of us originally, and then [my parents] took a hiatus for 12 years, and then there were three more of us wacky people. It was an uninsulated blue van, so you could feel the heat of the summer and the stench of the makeshift toilet, which was five-gallon bucket with mushrooms painted on it.

My dad tried not to make many pit stops, when you have four kids who want to go at different times. It would be a highlight when we would stop at a Days Inn. My parents would be in one king-sized bed, and the four of us would be in another king-sized bed. And my parents would give us coins to toss in the bed jiggler. Oh, good times!

Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Fonda: My whole life has been a road movie. Sometimes I don’t go further than from one room to the next. Sometimes I go across town. Sometimes I go across the country. But any good story, play, book movie generally is a journey. Whether it’s in one room of the house, or like in my father’s movie “12 Angry Men,” you can see the journey.

Shana wrote a movie about a journey, but there’s a journey within the journey: bridging the gap between the father and the daughter. And connecting the pin, in a sense, is the son, who’s goofing off with Grandpa while she’s trying to get everything straight—and collecting more dogs. This is a wonderful gift of a trip that I get to be a part of.

But in this sense, I’m like one of the campfires in “Easy Rider.” They come in, they do this little thing, and then I’m not part of it anymore. I was having so much fun, but we have to move on the next campfire.

Christopher Lloyd and Christopher Plummer in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Shana, can you talk about assembling the “Boundaries” cast?

Feste: I got to choose who I wanted to work with for the first time in my career. I did for my first movie as well, which was “The Greatest,” which was my second-favorite experience. There was a day when Peter Fonda, Christopher Lloyd and Chris Plummer were on set, and they were all sitting next to each other in directors’ chairs. You guys were just all having a conversation. And every single member of the crew had their cameras out and were secretly taking pictures of them. It was like three unicorns sitting together all at once.

Christopher Plummer and Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Farmiga: I have that picture up in my office.

Feste: My mother was never really excited about my films, but this one, she wanted to be on set. Every single day, she would ask me, “Is Peter Fonda going to be on set today?” I knew this was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. For a director, working with actors like this is a gift. It just makes you look stronger.

Kristen Schaal in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Can you talk about Kristen Schaal, who plays JoJo Jaconi, Laura’s sister?

Feste: That [character] is verbatim, my sister. My sister has always been wacky. She’s followed the Dead her whole life. But she actually knows so much more than I did. She was able to see my father for who he really was. It was so easy for me to say, “Oh, I have it together.” But my sister really did the whole time.

Vera Farmiga and Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

How was it for the cast to bond together off-screen?

Feste: It was really magical. I remember the first time I met Louis, and I remember thinking, “This is one of the closest relationships I’ve ever written, between a mother and a son. And Louis is just meeting Vera for the first time, and they’re going on this journey.” How do accomplish something like that? I just remember the physicality of their relationship changing so much. By the end, he was in her arms.

It was a really beautiful thing to see. I so admire things I cannot do. I’m so closed as a person sometimes. And actors are so open, so available. And you guys embraced it. You’re so empathetic, you were able to find love for these characters and then find love for each other. That was really kind of beautiful to see.

Louis MacDougall in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

“Boundaries” shows the healing power of having pets. Can you talk about any real-life experiences you’ve had where animals brought people together?

Feste: Anyone with any kind of childhood trauma is attracted to animals. Animals were my safe space, growing up because, just like in the movie, they’re the one thing that can never hurt you. And they represent love, loyalty. So I surrounded myself with animals. I still do. I’m a huge rescuer. This film was an opportunity to shine a line on something I really care deeply about.

I teach at the American Film Institute, and one of the things we always teach our students is “Don’t work with animals. Don’t work with old cars. Don’t shoot multiple locations. Don’t shoot with minors.” I broke every single rule with this film.

But what was really cool to see was the impact that the animals had on the cast. Loretta, my dog, had the best five weeks of her life, because she was always in someone’s arms. Like Louis said, it’s an incredibly stressful environment being on set, so being able to hold this little animal just totally calms you down.

Louis MacDougall and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)

MacDougall: Bonding with the dogs, I had a special moment with every single one of them. It was great. I couldn’t wait to go back the next day and say hello to one of the dogs.

Farmiga: I love working with children and dogs. You can anticipate what your fellow actor might do, but you don’t really consider what the animals are going to do. And there were surprising moments in the heated tonality of it, like, my character would be afraid of revving up her engine so much that it would disturb her animal friends, so that sifted my performance in ways I didn’t even consider.

Henry gets bullied a lot at school. What kind of message do you think “Boundaries” has about bullying?

MacDougall: He gets bullied at school, but I think the film gives you an option to see who he really is. You get to see another side of him. You can’t judge a book by its cover. It just sends that message.

Louis MacDougall and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Vera and Louis, your relationship as mother and son seems so authentic. How did you build that chemistry?

Farmiga: I think we had no rehearsal whatsoever. What we had were family picnics, where Shana’s family and her kids and Louis and his dad and my two kids and me and my husband. They’d just come over and we’d have picnics. We just bonded naturally. It happened very quickly. It just has to do with openness and willingness. It’s just that simple.

Christopher Plummer and Halldor Bjarnason in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

Shana how did your family react after seeing “Boundaries” for the first time?

Feste: My siblings were like, “I didn’t know you felt this way. We never really talked about that.” When they saw the film at South by Southwest, they said, “I didn’t know you felt the same way this whole time. I didn’t know you had that anger too.”

Christopher Plummer and Vera Farmiga in “Boundaries” (Photo by Lindsay Elliott/Sony Pictures Classics)

What do you want audiences to take away from “Boundaries”?

MacDougall: I think it’s a film about second chances. Jack wasn’t a very attentive father, so when Henry comes along, it’s a second chance for him to be a father and for Henry to be a son, since [Henry’s] father has been absent. I think it sends a message that people can change and deserve second chances.

Feste: I hope people rescue an animal after watching the film. That was really one of the goals. Look at all these adorable animals. They’re so amazing. You need to take one home. Even the pitbull. Pitbulls get such a bad rap. People don’t understand pitbulls. They’re such loyal, goofy dogs. That’s why I wanted to include a pitbull.

Farmiga: It’s a story about dysfunction, but we put the fun in it. People will have a really great laugh.

Fonda: That’s how I feel. It’s a good laugh. People will have a good time watching the movie.

Jennifer Lawrence and Joel Edgerton get caught up in a web of sex, lies and spies in ‘Red Sparrow’

March 2, 2018

by Carla Hay

Jennifer Lawrence, Francis Lawrence and Joel Edgerton at a New York City press conference for "Red Sparrow" (Photo by Carla Hay)
Jennifer Lawrence, Francis Lawrence and Joel Edgerton at a New York City press conference for “Red Sparrow” (Photo by Carla Hay)

Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence takes on the edgiest role of her career so far in the spy thriller “Red Sparrow,” in which she plays Russian former ballerina Dominika Egorova, who is forced to work for her government as a spy in order to stay alive and provide housing and medical care for her ailing mother, Nina Egorova (played by Joely Richardson). As part of her training Dominika is sent to a “Sparrow school,” which brutally teaches its students (who are called Sparrows) how to manipulate people through sex, lies and violence. During her work as a spy, Dominika meets CIA operative Nate Nash (played by Joel Edgerton), and their relationship turns romantic but keeps the audience guessing about where their loyalties really lie and if one person will betray the other.

“Red Sparrow” is based on former CIA operative Jason Matthews’ 2013 best-selling novel of the same name. The movie was directed by Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer Lawrence), who previously worked with Jennifer on three of the four movies in “The Hunger Games” series. With plenty of violence that includes scenes of torture and sexual assault, “Red Sparrow” is geared to adults more than most mainstream spy films. Other members of the “Red Sparrow” cast include Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeremy Irons, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker and Ciarán Hinds Here is what Jennifer Lawrence, Edgerton and Francis Lawrence said when they gathered for a “Red Sparrow” press conference in New York City.

Jennifer and Francis, after working together on three “Hunger Games” films, you knew that you clicked beautifully. What was it about “Red Sparrow” that made you want to reunite?

Francis Lawrence: I was finishing “Mockingjay 2” when Fox sent me the [“Red Sparrow”] book, and I read it. I thought of Jen. Obviously, she’s a fantastic actress, so I knew she could really do an amazing job with the role. She’s also really fun to work with …

Jennifer Lawrence: I like this.

Francis Lawrence: So I thought that would be nice. And I also thought she could look Russian.

Jennifer Lawrence: I really like this!

Francis Lawrence: So when I finished reading the book, I called her up and I said, “Hey, hypothetically, I know you haven’t read it, but would you interested in playing a character like this?” And she said, ‘Yes.” And so we developed it with her in mind.

Jennifer, what was the key to discovering the Dominika character?

Jennifer Lawrence: There were so many things. I think the unique perspective on a life of a spy I’ve never seen a spay movie done this way, where it’s not glamourizing anything. It’s actually about the brutality of such a lifestyle, the anxiety, the lies, the deceit. And seeing this world of abuse, especially sexual abuse, through the lens of a woman who comes out and gets her power back by using her intellect—all of it was just very inspiring to me.

You trained in ballet in preparation for “Red Sparrow.” That was a whole new thing for you, right?

Jennifer Lawrence: That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life … It was actually amazing. Halfway through I was like, “Oh my God!” Because my overall end goal is not to be a ballerina, so I was having trouble finding the wherewithal to keep going. But then halfway through training, I started feeling my muscles changing and my body language changing.

And also just understanding the mental and physical discipline and the mindset of a dancer, I realized that all of this work was actually character-building. It changed the way she moved, it changed the way she looked and walked. It was just another layer on Dominika. And then I finished and just threw my shoes and ripped the tutu off. Out! Done!

Joel, there is such an honesty and sense of honor to your Nate Nash character. Was that one of the keys to understanding this character?

Edgerton: Yeah. It seemed to me from meeting Jason [Matthews], who wrote the book and was himself an ex-CIA operative, I suspect that there’s a lot of operatives who go out into the field because they think they can make the world a better place. And having that optimistic view of the world also, ironically, makes Nate kind of bad at his job in the eyes of his superiors. “You should be more cynical. You should put every judgment through a more cynical filter.”

But I think Jason must think it’s one of those things about working for the government: You start with that feeling that the world should be a better place and you should make your mark on that. I just think Nate is truly a good guy. And on the flip side of the men in [Dominika’s] life is someone who also wants to be a crusader for a damaged woman, but she doesn’t necessarily need him to get her vengeance, which I think is cool.

Do you think Nate’s honesty puts him ahead of the game?

Edgerton: Ahead of the game and behind the game. It’s like if you’re going to the Olympics, and you’re not a drug cheat, you’re in one of the final eight lanes, but you’re probably not going to win at the end of the day. “Red Sparrow 2” is going to be all about Nate’s corruption. I’m joking.

In an era where there are drones flying around and there’s big-scale espionage, “Red Sparrow” really feels like spying is more person-to-person interaction.

Francis Lawrence: One of the things I loved about the book was that it felt really authentic. I think it’s the most genre-specific thing I’ve ever done. I’ve always been a bit wary of doing things that are really specific to a genre, because they’re typically well-worn. So you want to do something that you want to be unique. The authenticity of the world felt very unique to me. And the character journey felt unique. And the humanity of the characters involved felt unique to me.

Jennifer and Francis, since “Red Sparrow” is your fourth film together, did you find a new groove or try something different?

Jennifer Lawrence: The way we work was the same. Our friendship was the same. The subject matter was different. It was nice to start a new world and a new character. All of that was nice.

Francis Lawrence: The only thing I thought was different was because of the content of the movie, the conversations started much earlier than they normally would have between us. I think Jen was much more of a partner in the making of the movie much earlier than she had been on “The Hunger Games” films with me, in terms of script development and thinking about how specific content is going to play within a story. But the dynamic was the same. I think we worked differently and more thoroughly, I would say, than we had before.

Jennifer, is it true that Francis gave you little bits about the story here and there instead of telling you the full story before you agreed to do the movie?

Jennifer Lawrence: He planted seeds. He would talk to me about it a little bit. He’s known about my insecurities around sexuality and my fear of being judged. He knew about these fears that I had. But I think what he didn’t expect was for me to read the script and actually feel floored by it and feeling like it was incredibly empowering. I remember thinking that if I were to miss out on making something this absolutely fantastic and playing this amazing character because of these insecurities, I would lose. [She says to Francis Lawrence] I don’t know if that surprised you or not.

Francis Lawrence: I was not positive that you were going to do the movie.

Jennifer Lawrence: Yeah, me neither.

Francis Lawrence: That’s why I was doling out information carefully. I didn’t want you to pass on the movie even before we had a script. I think that I wanted you to either say yes or no to the thing I wanted to actually make, and not just random ideas from a conversation.

Dominika uses her body and her sexuality to achieve her goals, but in the end, it’s her mind and intelligence that prove to be the most useful. Was that part of the character process for you in watching that character’s journey?

Jennifer Lawrence: That’s one of the marks of an amazing spy movie—everything gets turned on its head. There are so many twists and turns in this movie. You never see where anything is going. You look at this movie from the outside and you see the Sparrow program, which is very inhumane and sexualized. These young men and women are being trained in the art of physical seduction, but in the end, she gets ahead by using her mind.

These Sparrow training schools really existed in Russia, right?

Jennifer Lawrence: Yeah. It was used by the KGB. It could still by the SVR. We have no way of knowing. America actually tried to use it in the ‘50s and ‘60s, but it didn’t work because of the cultural difference between Russia and America. They would try to blackmail somebody, like say, “We’ll send these photos to your wife,” and they’d be like [says in a defiant voice], “Do it.” In America, they’d be like “Damn.”

Joel, did Jason Matthews give you any clues on how a real CIA operative would act in these situations?

Edgerton: I learned a lot from Jason. And strangely, I almost learned a lot more from his wife, because she was an operative as well. Dating in the field is something that is a little dicey because there’s a third party involved. You go on a date, and you’ve got to report it to your bosses, and that person has to be vetted as well. I guess it helped the two of them that they were already both in the agency.

Francis’ point about the human nature of the story, rather than the constant gun-battle, car-flipping part of this world—and there is that element to this movie—but the human aspect to the character. I was very curious about the day-to-day life, the constant anxiety and the constant loneliness, particularly for characters like Nate.

It’s easy to forget when thinking about spies in the James Bond and “Mission: Impossible” context that they still bleed red blood, and they still have to cook breakfast. I love finding out those things about characters—it’s just constantly grounding them.

There’s a lot of graphic sexuality and violence in “Red Sparrow.” What was it like to film all of that?

Francis Lawrence: Once Jen signed on, we started a real series of conversations about the content and what the tone of that would be and the theme and character and the narrative. We had to be really, really careful that we did those scenes were done right. So those conversations started really early, partially so that we weren’t really going to tiptoe around any of that stuff.

It’s very easy for people to get shy about that kind of material. Had we not broken the ice early, the next thing you know, you’re coming up to that scene, and you don’t know how to talk about it, and you’re worried about it. You’ve just got to be as open as possible. So that’s where it all got started. Then when you have a scene with these two in an apartment, it’s very easy to have a conversation and it becomes work.

You also create a sense of privacy, so you only have the people who need to be there, and you tent off the monitors, and that footage only goes to me and the editor. It doesn’t even go to the studio. It doesn’t go to the producers. So they feel they protected in that way. For me, it’s about openness and honesty.

In terms of the violent stuff, I keep hearing about the skin-grafting scene. People keep talking about how intense that is. It’s so shocking to me, because on the day [of shooting that scene[,it actually feels kind of silly sometimes. Joel’s tied to this chair in his underwear writhing around, and there’s this guy with a little rubber prop moving it along his back …

Edgerton: Everyone’s game to make it look terrifying, but at the end of the day, it is a little silly.

Jennifer Lawrence: [She says jokingly] I don’t know if we’re selling the movie correctly. I think we should talk.

Francis Lawrence: I think what ended up really selling the scene was Joel’s reaction, his whole visceral body reaction. And the sound that the sound designers did, what they used for the skin-grafting tool was just fantastic.

Edgerton: First of all, hats off to Francis in the handling of those sexual scenes to make it about the brutality and not some kind of attempt to excite an audience. But it is interesting when you get to deal with actor on set. It’s amazing how actors when working on scenes, as much as you can tiptoe around actors, when director wants you to do something, when you’ve checked into a project, it’s amazing how game you are for anything.

It doesn’t mean you don’t have anxiety leading up to it, and you may wrestle with your own demons about it, but you’re game. It’s amazing what great actors are capable of doing. I’m always amazed at watching people from a distance the way they fearlessly handle stuff. This movie is one of those.

Jennifer Lawrence: Like Francis said, the reality is shooting is so much different from watching. It’s so much harder to watch. On the day [of shooting], everything so technical. It’s funny because I feel like Francis has known me since I was a child. He’s like a paternal figure to me. [She says to Francis Lawrence] I hope that doesn’t make you feel weird or uncomfortable.

And the camera guys I’ve known since I was little. It was almost like being in a nude house, you know like those families who get naked in front of each other. It felt like that.

Edgerton: I think it was weirder for them than it was for you.

Jennifer Lawrence: I think it was way weirder. I accidentally moved something and flashed the camera guys, and they were like [she says in a horrified voice], “Oh my God!”

And then here was that time I accidentally made a mistake [about] Francis’ intentions of coming into my dressing room. He was being very respectful throughout the underwear process of finding the right lingerie. When I would go into fittings, they wouldn’t take pictures. You never really go on camera without the director approving your lingerie.

And so they were like, “Jen, Francis is here to see you.” And I was like, “Okay, send him in.” And he walks in and was like, “Oh my God! What are you doing!” I was like, “I thought you came in to see the costume!” There was a lot of laughter throughout the whole thing … but watching them was more disturbing.

When you filmed “Red Sparrow” in 2017, you probably couldn’t imagine the state of affairs the world would be in a year later. Can you comment on that?

Francis Lawrence: It’s clear that the movie certainly reflects the world we live in today, but there were certain aspects of that didn’t feel all that relevant. We never set out to make a political movie by any means, but I remember having conversations with the studio in the development process, and somebody saying, “This modern Cold War thing doesn’t feel relevant; it doesn’t feel all that realistic.”

But again, it wasn’t all that of an important element to us and to the movie, and we kind of rolled on. And then we were in Budapest, we were in pre-production, the [2016 U.S. presidential] election was happening, and this stuff starts coming up in the news. And suddenly, the movie is becoming more and more topical—at least that element in the movie is becoming more and more topical.

Jennifer Lawrence: The relevancy really kind of landed in our laps, but so many of the themes in this movie have consistently been relevant—the abuse, the manipulation and the use of women and their bodies and harassment and unsafe workplaces. A lot of these themes have always been relevant. Nobody should put any sort of political weight in this movie. It is fiction.

Edgerton: Sometimes you make something and it grows and hits an intersection with something a little more resonant than you expect. I think on the one hand, it’s not about election meddling or that sort of collusion, but there’s definitely a deep curiosity that still exists—maybe it was dormant for a couple of decades—about Russia when you look at it from an American perspective.

“What do they want? What are they doing over there? What’s behind that curtain?”

Every time it comes up, we get curious about it. So yeah, it’s good for us in that regard. As far as the subject of women taking back power. Anything that supports that or reflects that in a story form is also awesome.

Can you talk about how “Red Sparrow” feels modern with classic elements of film? Was Alfred Hitchcock an influence?

Francis Lawrence: I would say not really any particular film, but Hitchcock was definitely an influence for me in this, even down to weird little things. The use of screen direction in the opening sequence.

I remember learning about in “Strangers on a Train,” there’s a great bit in the opening of the film where a car pulls up, right to left, and feet get out, moving right to left, and then car pulls up left to right. And you feel the collision course purely based on screen direction before these two men ever meet. And then they sit on the train, their feet touch, and the movie starts.

And so, I did the same thing with Nate and Dominika, where Dominika is always left to right, and Nate is always right to left. And you feel the collision course between the two of them is inevitable.

Jennifer Lawrence: I didn’t know you did that. That’s really cool.

Francis Lawrence: I did. It’s some of those things you don’t need to know.

Jennifer Lawrence: I don’t know why your movies are good. They’re just good.

Francis Lawrence: There was definitely a [Hitchcock] influence. When we were trying to find the sound for the music, I was using a lot of classical ballet as reference, and listening to a lot of Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky and things like that. And then James [Newton Howard, the composer of “Red Sparrow”] and I sort of stumbled on this weird mix of Russian-ballet-meets-Bernard-Hermann, and that’s what created that sound.

Gerard Butler and 50 Cent play a dangerous game of cops and robbers in ‘Den of Thieves’

January 19, 2018

by Carla Hay

Gerard Butler and 50 Cent
Gerard Butler and 50 Cent at the New York City press junket for “Den of Thieves” (Photo by Carla Hay)

In the gritty crime drama “Den of Thieves” (written and directed by Christian Gudegast), an elite unit of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department named the Regulators is on a mission to bust an elusive gang of bank robbers called the Outlaws.  Gerard Butler plays “Big” Nick O’Brien, the leader of the Regulators, whose rule-bending ways to get what he wants blur the lines between who are the “good guys” and who are the “bad guys.” Pablo Schreiber plays Ray Merriman, the leader of the Outlaws, whose crew members include Enson Levoux (played by Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson), Bosco Ostroman (played by Evan Jones) and Donnie Wilson, played by O’Shea Jackson Jr. Here is what Butler and 50 Cent had to say during a roundtable interview with me and other journalists at the New York City press junket for “Den of Thieves.”

When did you first hear about “Den of Thieves” and how were you cast?

50 Cent: I read the script for the first time six years ago. I met Christian [Gudegast] … and he had an idea of what he wanted the film to look like already. Remember “Smokin’ Aces,” with the bright colors. That was the initial look of the [“Den of Thieves”]. I wanted to be in that because I wanted to be in “Smokin’ Aces” too.

When I got a chance to read the [“Den of Thieves”] script, I thought it wasn’t predictable. I can appreciate a heist film, particularly the action excites me. And then it had a whole feel where there was more to the characters. A lot of times in a heist film, it’s just the film.

Butler: I read the script way back then as well. I was good friends with Christian, and we were already working on a few projects, some of which he had already written. In the middle of this, he said, “I have this script I want you to read called ‘Den of Thieves.’” It was actually back in 2012.

It was at time when I think I had just finished “Olympus Has Fallen,” and I was being very lazy with scripts. I let it sit there for three months. I had two scripts. My agent kept asking me, “Have you read ‘Den of Thieves’ and have you read this other movie?” I said, “No, I haven’t read it.” And I finally read it, and So I called my him and said, “This is so good! Why didn’t you tell me?” He said, “I have been telling you for three months to read the script!”

Even though I was good friends with Christian, I found myself being nervous when I went to see him. Originally, he wanted me to play Merriman. I love the role of Merriman. [He’s like] Steve McQueen, as he doesn’t say much, but he’s so captivating. But “Big” Nick was my guy, and I knew that was the role that I had to try and score and really get my head into. So I went, and I found myself getting nervous and stuttering. And so, from that day, he said, “You want ‘Big’ Nick? ‘Big’ Nick is yours.”

But the problem after that was that it took a while for the movie to get made. It was with a certain company, and they weren’t doing particularly well. The second they got out of the picture, we were ready to make the movie. And it all just unfolded, and we got a chance to tell this incredible story.

Gerard, you mentioned that you were nervous about meeting with Christian to talk about the script, but people have seen you do a lot of badass action films before. Why were you nervous? Was it because the character was hard to read?

Butler: No, it was just complete immaturity on my part. The second I like something, I get nervous. Human nature. I just really wanted to do it. And suddenly, the negative part of my head starts saying, “Oh, I’m sure Christian probably has somebody else in mind for the role.

But what it literally turned out to be was six years of us talking about. When you try to make a movie, it doesn’t mean that you’re trying to make it every day; it comes back around every few months Christian and I had so many dinners where we would sit and talk about this movie and what “Big” Nick and what he meant.

And I remember Tucker Tooley, who’s one of our producers, said, “You and Christian have talked this movie to death.” I said, “I don’t remember! It’s been six years of these discussions!” But sure enough, I did remember. I would get so amped up.

He’s made such a great movie. Christian’s such a fantastic director. He explains things to you because he understands. That’s one of the reasons why the script is so great, because the way he describes things in the script, you’re there. It’s actually very easy to perform because he leads you so beautifully.

One time, he was explaining to me this particular part of the story about “Big” Nick, and we were in Benihana, sitting and talking. [Christian] said to me, “See the way you’re holding that glass? That’s ‘Big’ Nick.” The more I would talk to him, the more I would start to get into ‘Big’ Nick. I then started eating what I thought was raw fish, and I’m eating the whole plate.

I’m chewing and thinking, “This is quite chewy for raw fish.” I’ve been doing it for about 40 minutes, and when I’m on my second plate, he said, “What the fuck are you doing? That’s chicken.” I had eaten two plates of raw chicken, which was supposed to be cooked [at the table]. When the chef came to start cooking it, he was like, “Where’s the chicken?” I had eaten it all, being “Big” Nick!

How do you prefer to be prompted in your scenes by directors?

50 Cent: I like for them to know what they’re asking me to do. Sometimes, the director will give notes, or they’ll explain it, and it won’t be as informative as you’d like them to be. Make an adjustment, fine. But please let me know exactly what the adjustment is. The guys get into the roles so well … We trained ahead for two weeks. The physicalities and movements were all down pat by the time we got there …

I’d sit at the monitor and watch … So I was watching the movie instead of being in it.  I was having so much fun at the same time. I appear to be a workaholic because I’m enjoying myself. We made it fun. We were enjoying ourselves the entire time, but it is still technically work.

Butler: What was amazing was that every single person who was cast in this film is the ultimate alpha male. If you look at this man here [he gestures to 50 Cent] and me, Pablo, O’Shea—we’re all big guys with a lot to say. And yet, you couldn’t see guys bond more in this movie, and everybody having a great time together, and treating each other with a lot of respect, and giving their all. So it was a lot of fun.

Then you had Christian, who—even though it was his first time directing a movie—the guy’s a master. It was like he had done it a thousand times. What I loved about him is that he loved to see people experiment—anything we did that was different.

I was actually the boring one, in a way. I was like, “We already have a long script. We already have a phenomenal script. Sometimes, let’s not have people experiment too much, and get too far away from I know works great on the page.” But I love that he had the confidence to encourage us to do that.

50 Cent: A lot of times, writer/directors, especially on their first time, they fall in love with their words because they spend so much time on it. For six years, we kept going over it. When you write a song, it has your instincts involved … and it could be done in 30 minutes and ready for the world to listen to it.

With a film project, they write it over and over … until they try to make it perfect. When you actually start doing it, your performance choices allow you to make more adjustments … That’s what Christian did really well—he actually watched and listened and gave directions at different points that allowed us to make it great.

How important do you think it is to make your characters more likeable?

50 Cent: I think that it’s important to this story, how the characters have been developed and how you perceive the character. Sometimes I’ll play a guy who is so nasty. Like in the “Power” series, I play Kanan. Less is more. If you don’t see him love anything, you don’t have compassion for him; he’s a monster. If [audiences] don’t see things they can relate to, they don’t accept the character.

Butler: I think that a lot of the most memorable characters are the ones who are messed up. They’re discolored or a bit lost; they can be venomous or bullies. There are a million different colors you can have. I think you can judge that and put it against an audience but make sure you don’t judge and step too far, because there are certain things a character can do where you can lose an audience, and you don’t want to do that. And that was the danger with my [“Big” Nick] character with his unfaithfulness and coming home late in the house. He’s still the lead character and the protagonist and you want to be on his side somewhat

But you can also give truthful assertion of who he is. He’s a cop, and at the end of the day, he’s trying to bring down the bad guys, but that involves some low-life activity. And he’s made the decision that “If I’ve got to beat the worst, I’ve got to be the worst. I’ve got to be worse than them. I’ve got to eat those guys up.”

And that takes a toll on your life, you know? That’s what comes out. A lot of Nick is just playing at being a bad guy. At the end of the day, he’s kind of a big kid. And sometimes, in those moments alone, you realize that he really finds it hard.

Is he a classic definition of what it means to be a man? He’s not a man. He’s a terrible father. He’s a terrible husband. He’s not necessarily a man of his word. However, he’s good at his job, he’s loyal amongst his friends. But other than that, he’s an addict, he’s full of fear, and he’s such a damaged human being. And then at times, it comes up and bites him in the ass. And in the end., he’s just a scared kid.

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