Sunday, December 20, 2009

British Actress Emily Blunt Reigns In "The Young Victoria"

Q&A by Brad Balfour

One of the great things about English actress Emily Blunt is that she carries no vestige of her characters beyond the set -- especially since she played the British Queen Victoria.

At her roundtables for The Young Victoria, she showed no royal imperiousness, no contempt of the masses, no unwillingness to answer questions that didn't please her. But her characterization of the youthful Victoria was so dead-on in the award-worthy The Young Victoria that you’d have expected her to be a royal pain.

It takes a fine actress to make interesting the story of a young princess who has basically been a prisoner in her own home, trapped by her mother, the Duchess of Kent and lover/consort, Sir John Conroy. When they try to force her to give control of the crown to her mother, she resists. On her 18th birthday, she becomes the Queen -- but the power really shifts to her once King William, her uncle, dies shortly after her birthday.

Of course, Blunt’s on-screen intensity is what makes the 26-year-old actor such a hit in the films she's made from her breakout role in The Summer of Love as a well-educated, cynical and deceptive 16-year-old beauty, Tamsin. She went on to have key parts in such films as The Devil Wears Prada, The Jane Austen Book Club, Charlie Wilson's War and Sunshine Cleaning but nothing has brought her to such public attention as this film about the English monarch who reigned the longest and changed her country's culture. Blunt's already been nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA award for Best Actress -- and she's expected to garner a few more award noms including one for an Oscar.

Q: How aware were you of the Victorian period? What were your prior impressions, and how did they change?

EB: I actually had a rather limited knowledge of Victoria and Victoriana -- how they created that -- and of her and Albert together. I had the image of her as the old lady who’s mourning and dressed in black.

I had no idea about the antithesis of that, when she was young, rebellious, spunky and bright, and she partied all night. It was these elements of her that I never imagined possible, so when I started reading about all of that, I was very surprised to hear about the character traits I never thought were there.

Q: What did the director Jean-Marc Vallée or the producers do to inform you? Was it just what you got from school?

EB: I had no idea, because I took geography, which I thought was the easiest subject compared to history. I took geography and can’t remember any of it. It was probably a stupid thing to take because I think history would have been a better way to go. It certainly would have helped me more with this. But maybe not; we have a whole lot of kings and queens, so I think that I probably would have only known a paragraph about her anyway beforehand.

It was really fascinating to read about what they did together, really mainly under Albert’s influence, because he was very educated in all these departments -- social reform, architecture and the arts and the sciences -- and what they did for [curing] poverty. They were very progressive in what they wanted to do for the country.

Q: How did the producers help you?

EB: [Screenwriter] Julian Fellowes is a historian really; you can’t try out history on Julian Fellowes because he will nail you every time. So it was very helpful talking to him and then reading books that he had encouraged me to read: biographies, diaries of hers and letters. The diaries were most helpful to me, because you can learn as much as you want about this history, you can read about it out of your own interest, but it doesn’t necessarily help me with trying to play this person.

At some point, you have to drop that and make it your own. Another actress would have read the same diaries and had a different take, so it was just my personal take on her, what I felt I could identify with, what I thought was important to bring across.

Q: Was it hard to keep that balance to make her relatable?

EB: It’s interesting... I wanted it to be accessible because I feel period dramas can be quite staged almost, and stiff and arch, and I think that that stops people from actually getting in and identifying with what’s going on. At the same time, you don’t want to risk losing those constraints because then you lose the whole nature of the implications of what happens if you do a certain thing in that period. And if you’ve lost any of those constraints and any of the world then it doesn’t become relevant.

It is a tough balance but Rupert [Friend, who played her husband Albert] and I approached it very similarly. I was very lucky with him because he is such a natural actor, so we fed off each other trying to make those moments incredibly real. Love is this thing that is all about emotions and instinct, and so you can have this flowery dialogue, but at the end of the day, instinctually, it’s about love.

Love is timeless and I think that we really strive for that, to fight against the dialogue, fight against the costumes, to try not to be swallowed up by the sets and the opulence of it. I thought this was a love story, but I also thought it was a film about a dysfunctional family and about a young girl who’s in a job where she’s in way over her head. So I tried to approach it in a way that I could understand. I have no idea what it’s like to be Queen of England.

Q: Did you feel the chemistry was there between you and Rupert or did you only see it when you saw the film?

EB: I think you know it [from the start]. Rupert and I met and we just got on so well and that really helps. When you have a genuine liking for that person it gives you a freedom within the scene to try stuff.

There’s a lot of trust there so you can improvise moments and they come alive, and sometimes you strike gold and sometimes it’s like watching paint dry, but at least you can try it because you have the trust there with that person.

Rupert was wonderful, and it’s just because he was the only guy to play that job because he was so perfect as Albert. He was the last person that came in to read and I was like, "Thank God," because he just blew it out of the water; he was so fantastic.

Q: Lord Melbourne -- her early advisor and friend who helped before she got involved with Albert -- was the other major male relationship in Victoria's life. He is so incredible -- what a dynamic between the two of you.

EB: It’s a really interesting relationship because Melbourne was sort of everything to her. He was a father figure, she was infatuated with him in a slightly teenage way, but she didn’t have those romantic feelings towards him. It was more sort of a teenage crush that developed into very much a real friendship.

She had a real love for him but at the same time he was manipulating her and was toying with that, but he actually ended up having a huge amount of respect for her when he realized he couldn’t do that anymore, the tables turned.

So it was an interesting dynamic to get because you wanted to see that there was a threat to Albert, but at the same time that nothing shady was going on. So he was great with that pull because he’d add elements of being vaguely flirtatious but not seedy, and you could see he really liked her but it wasn’t that he was completely trying to sabotage, or use her as a pawn.

It was a very complicated dynamic to get [right] and it was mainly on [Paul Bettany] to create that. He created it because it should always have been ambiguous as to what that relationship really was. I thought he was great; it was very delicately done.

Q: Did the corset help you find your character?

EB: It's very good in that it transports you to moving a different way, holding yourself differently. You do have to kind of glide with it, so I think it does help me. I usually try and approach characters in that way, I mean everyone’s very different, but I find the physical aspects of creating that person very helpful, like the costumes, the clothes, the way they move, the voice, and everything like that. I usually start from that point.

Q: Did you ever faint wearing those corsets?

EB: I got close to it. Miranda Richardson [who played Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent] was the one who had the closest call, after claiming she was amazing in the corset and that she could take it as tight as anyone wanted. We call it in the UK, she “pulled a whitey;” she literarily went white. She was sitting at the table and she was talking and she suddenly just went… and she was like, “Get me out of it!” and had a panic attack.

I was alright; I got very used to it and by about four o’clock, that’s when it starts to hurt. But they look beautiful so you’ve got to just suck it up, really. Or suck it in, as they say.

Q: One of the most powerful scenes was between her and King William. Was he as entertaining in real life?

EB: Oh he’s so entertaining. She did adore her uncle; he was always wonderful to her and very much a father figure. She was kept back from seeing him and that was always very sad for her. She was kept from seeing anyone. It was really an oppressive, lonely childhood.

There was one story I read about that she was walking with her mother in the gardens -- and her mother was reluctant about being there with King William -- and he came past in his carriage and just picked her up and they went on this crazy ride around the gardens in his carriage. So that was her outlet, going to see him. But Jim Broadbent [as King William] is absolutely as fun as you can imagine. He’s really wonderful. That’s my favorite scene in the film, that dinner scene.

Q: What do you think you'd do if you lived in that time?

EB: It’s almost an impossible question because I have no idea. I would hope that I could be as forward-thinking as she was. She went against protocol and she was determined to make things better and she overrode tradition. I thought that that was a really wonderful quality for her, and surprising that she had the guts to do it.

It probably helped her not growing up at court amongst those stately manners, from the mannerisms to the etiquette, and I think that she was kind of a loose cannon in a room like that. She had a horrible temper, which correlated as well to how passionate she was as a character. I think that she was a modern girl and that she was independent, so I would hope I wouldn’t be manipulated and controlled in a way that a lot of women were in those days.

Q: What about handling fame and wanting to be a young person?

EB: It’s funny because I think it is all about choices, from the choices you make as to where you want to go and eat dinner, like don’t go to the scenes, don’t go to where you know people are going to take your picture. Just find a dive bar. Why do you have to go to a scene?

Are you talking about me or Victoria? It’s a similar thing.

It’s interesting. You have to develop quite a thick skin because people are going to trash you. Not everyone’s going to think you’re great. I think that that’s important to remember… You’ve got to relinquish that and just let it go, because you have no control over that side of it – of people’s opinions – but I do have control over how much I put myself out there.

I feel that in a way I now lead a similar existence to what Victoria led, although certainly not under the amount of pressure that she was under. I have a good life. It’s not compared to the ridicule that she was put under, but I think it’s that sort of element of a dual existence. You have yourself at home behind closed doors and then you have an awareness [of something else] when you step outside the house. For me, it’s only an awareness. It’s no more than that.

Q: Celebrities are always complaining about the downside of dealing with fame and attention and paparazzi.

EB: It’s a really magical job, so the side effect of what comes with that can be good and bad. But what I get out of it is the work. It’s not whatever people think of me because with that comes bad and that willingness to see you fall as well.

A lot of people like to see a fall from grace. There’s a real hunger for that. I’m aware of that, so I try not to buy too much into what people think. But as long as I keep getting the parts that I’ve been lucky enough to play… The variety is what I really strive for, because that’s what I love about the work.

It’s a wonderful job in that everything you go through in life can come out in it somehow. You can have a visceral reaction to so much in life and then put it into your work.

Q: What was your impression of Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York [former sister-in-law of Britain's Prince Charles], and did you get to meet any other real-life royals?

EB: Sarah was a great support system because she came up with the initial idea, but then she very much took a back step and said, “What do I know about making a film? I know nothing about that.”

But she’d come on set and make tea for everyone. She was always so open and down-to-earth; I think that you were able to see the humanity in the royal family through her because she would talk quite openly. In a way, she identified more with Albert because Albert was the guest in the house and the outsider, and she actually understood his character more.

Q: I want to know more about Fergie. She actually came on set and made tea?

EB: She only came on set twice. She really wasn’t around once we started filming. She was very tenacious with Graham [King, producer of the film] in getting it off the ground, but once we started making it, she was just thrilled to be a part of it. I only got to know her after, when we started doing press.

Q: How do you think the royals will react to this movie?

EB: The Queen saw it; she liked it. She said she wants to know what happens next. So that was good.

Q: Did you get to meet her?

EB: No I’ve never met her.

Q: Though you haven’t met the Queen, what is your imaginary scenario of getting to meet her Majesty.

EB: I’m sure I would botch it up somehow. I’m sure I’d forget to curtsy, or I don’t know what I would do. I’d probably say the wrong thing; I might drop an F-bomb, it could all go wrong. I think it would be nice to meet her in this context because I’ve played a queen and I think I’d feel more at ease meeting her in this context.

Q: Did you hear that Lady Gaga met The Queen?

EB: Did she meet the Queen? She did not! What was she wearing? Are you serious? Unbelievable. Unbelievable.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Oscar Winning Actor Robert De Niro Makes Sure 'Everybody's Fine"

Feature Interview by Brad Balfour

On the heels of his Kennedy Center Honors (along with Bruce Springsteen, Dave Brubeck, Mel Brooks, and Grace Bumbry), legendary actor Robert De Niro is on the silver screen again. While he's being lauded for past laurels, he's also garnering kudos for his latest film, Everybody's Fine, a comparatively modest work that has recently been released after making a festival circuit tour -- most recently it had a special feature screening at the 2009 Denver Film Festival.

Based on Oscar-winning director Guiseppe Tornatore's 1990 hit Italian film, Stanno tutti bene (which starred Marcello Mastroianni as an Italian bureaucrat on a veritable travelogue across Italy in search of his adult children), English director Kirk Jones transfers the story to the States and De Niro.

The 67-year-old actor plays retired widower Frank Goode who used to string telephone wire -- a job that encouraged interaction -- but is a guy not good at communicating or even knowing what's going on with his kids. When his wife was alive she handled his quartet of kids; now, as adults, they are spread across the country, so Frank goes on a surprise tour to re-connect with them.

Though the narrative falls flat at times, De Niro makes up for it with his passion and understanding of his character. And the interplay between him and the trio of actors playing his kids -- Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale -- is authentic and affecting. A great turn this late in his career, De Niro shows a softer side and redeems himself for some of his recent, lesser movies.

Ever since he established himself through his breakout performance in 1973's Bang the Drum Slowly, De Niro has racked up quite a track record of cinematic achievements --culminating in various Oscar nominations and two wins. In '74, De Niro received an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role in The Godfather: Part II and won Best Actor for Martin Scorsese's 1980 boxing film, Raging Bull. The New York born and bred De Niro has made a unique partnership with his fellow Italian American Scorsese, establishing quite a catalogue together from 1973's Mean Streetsto Oscar noms for best actor in two of Scorsese's greatest films, Taxi Driver (1976) and Cape Fear (1991).

In 1993, De Niro made his directorial debut with the touching A Bronx Tale and directed the epic CIA historical, The Good Shepard. Now De Niro heads his own production company, part-owns various restaurants and other real estate in lower Manhattan, and, in response to the 9/11 attack, co-founded the Tribeca Film Festival.

At least in Everybody's Fine, he neither plays a character who kills someone or plays a parody of Robert De Niro as either a crook or cop who kills someone. Instead, he has made a seasonally appropriate movie about a parent's loss and the enduring relationship with his adult children.

Getting De Niro to speak on much of anything is a bit of trick -- not unlike his character in this film. So when a crop of journalists sat down for an Everybody's Fine press conference with Jones and actor Sam Rockwell and this the veteran New Yorker, they were seriously tested.

De Niro deferred to Jones unless they were directly addressed to him (and Rockwell wasn't asked much anyway). Fortunately. enough questions were asked to produce some decent answers, but nobody will ever call Bob De Niro longwinded...

Q: When did you get involved with the process of making this film?

RD: Kirk and I had a meeting and he told me the story and what it was based on. He had photos of the whole project -- the traveling across the country -- and I was impressed with how passionate he was about the project. I could see that he was special and doesn't do movies often. This will have been his third [after two long hiatus between each of his other films, Nanny McPhee and Waking Ned Devine].

So that informed me obviously [about how] he cares so much. I saw the original [Italian film] and [Kirk's] other two movies, and then I read the script. We then just decided when to do it.

Q: How does your personal life affect the roles you pick and the way you play them?

RD: Obviously, I related to Frank and drew on my own experiences like I do in all my parts. You draw on whatever's relevant to the part you're playing; it makes it more personal. There was a lot here of course.

I have five children, and two grandchildren. But also, going back to Kirk being the director and his caring [about the project], that's the anchor of the whole thing [here]. So that's really, really important.

Q: More important than the role itself?

RD: Well, yeah. It's not more important but it's equally as important. He has to steer the ship, it's his baby, so he's got to make choices and all that. I put myself in his hands so to speak.

Q: You watched the original Italian movie; how did you relate to the Marcello Mastroianni character? What do each of the fathers have in common?

RD: It was just a different type of movie. I love Mastroianni. Since I was kid I always watched his movies. He's been in great films part of the great Italian tradition, obviously. But it was a different thing, totally. Kirk made it his own. The structure was there and all that stuff. But it was totally different.

Q: Possibly the most moving moments in the film are when we see Frank's telephone calls to his kids. When was the last time you heard a busy signal? Do you get nostalgic for those times or are you into the techno-gadgets?

RD: [Like] Twitter?

Q: Do you tweet?

RD: I don't twitter. Somebody told me about it. I didn't know what it was.

Q: How do you feel about new technology?

RD: I only know how to use a computer. I don't even know how good I am at it. I slowly use the little things and get emails and look at videos on the computer and use an iPhone. I guess I use it adequately.

Q: Did anything in this movie remind you of an experience you had with your own father --after all he was a major abstract expressionist painter -- or as a father with your own children?

RD: My father was pretty easy on me about what I wanted to do, to be an actor and stuff like that. My grandfather was much more strict, more old-school, old time Italian than my father ever was. That was my impression of him.

My father came from that to New York City to get away from certain things and they raised me kind of easily. And the fact that I wanted to be an actor, well, that was okay with them and my father.

And I try not to be too strict with my kids because certain things they have to do. But at the same time I don't want them to get away with anything. But I think I try to rationalize with them, and argue, "Now look I'm very good with you about certain things unless you do this. You have to now do this. That's only fair."

Of course, there are times when that stuff doesn't work. I'm not the all-knowing, all-seeing... But in general it works pretty good.

Q: You mean like the curfew kind of things?

RD: I don't put a curfew -- you know, [tell them] "do this" -- I'm flexible with certain things that the kids have to do. It's not like a curfew where they have to go to sleep at a certain time.

Q: Do you approach your comedic work differently than your dramatic work?

RD: Well, this is a more gentle sort of -- what would you call it -- comedy than say Meet the Parents. It's more of a dramedy.

Q: You've worked on every scale of film from mega-productions to an indie-budgeted one like this film, as a producer, director or an actor. What's the difference in working in indies versus large films?

RD: Well, the difference is you have more time. When you have more -- just a lot more -- then there are a lot more people on the set, a lot more trucks, [and such]. It's a big production. I don't know. I mean, making movies that are very simple, ultimately -- I always wonder when I walk around a big movie and you see all these trucks and this and that -- I think, "Just to get this, you've got to get all these people."

And of course, those are only certain movies that do that. It was good. This to me is a normal time to shoot -- I think we shot eight weeks? So eight weeks is a pretty good schedule. It's an independent film. An independent is going to be less than what goes on this film I think. It costs less to make. And a shorter schedule, like five weeks. Four weeks.

Q: Will you be doing more films like this?

RD: I will.

Q: Do you have some things in mind?

RD: Some, yeah...

Q: You signed a deal with CBS for three pilots to be shot in New York City. What kind of shows do you watch and will we see you taking a part on television?

RD: Maybe. I don't watch much TV other than the news. Really. I'm busy and I'd rather be reading and doing stuff. There's good television. I just don't watch a lot of it.

Q: So your interests are in producing?

RD: Yeah, we're producing these shows. That is -- that's good. But to this point -- and once those start happening I will watch them. Work on them. But in general before that, I'm not that tuned in to television and such. But there's a lot of good stuff.

Q: Are you doing another Meet the Parents?

RD: We're doing a third one -- Meet The Little Fockers.

Q: You've built a career on playing tough guys, gangsters, police officers. How important is it to you to do something different, something softer? Do you think about how people perceive you from movie to movie; does that concern you at all?

RD: No, some people do that and sometimes I play off that because it's a certain thing you do -- you can make fun of it in certain movies. Like in Meet the Little Fockers, it's also titled, Or The Godfocker. And I asked Greg [Glienna, one of the writers] --because I have a feeling if something happens to me -- will he [De Niro's character Jack Byrnes] be the Godfocker?

Q: The film deals with lots of adversity in many ways. Do you have any ways that you deal with adversity in your own life?

SR: Depends on the adversity, I guess. I do different things to calm myself down. Exercise. That's a good thing. [There are] different ways to battle adversity. I can't think of any other ones [right now].

Q: You've dealt with a lot of adversity. You've overcome 9/11 nearly devastating your beloved Tribeca. How do you deal with it?

RD: Which adversity are you talking about?

Q: Any adversity...

RD: I'm here, aren't I?

For other articles and editorial work by Brad Balfour go to:

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Director Paul Schrader's Controversial Holocaust Film At The Israel Film Fest

Exclusive Q&A by Brad Balfour

For veteran director/screenwriter Paul Schrader, seeing his film Adam Resurrected appear in this year's Israel Film Festival in New York is a little like coming around full circle. Originally released here almost a year ago, his strange surreal little black comedy of a film stars Jeff Goldblum as a concentration camp survivor recovering his sanity in an Israeli psychiatric hospital in 1961. Goldblum's character Adam has tried coping with surviving.

Though the film received mixed reviews and limited exposure, Schrader will not only receive a special presentation of it at the 2009 Israel Film Festival in New York -- which kicks off Saturday evening -- but he will be honored with the IFF's Achievement in Cinema Award during the opening night Awards Gala being held at the SVA Theatre (23rd Street and 8th Avenue) -- where the rest of the Fest is held as well.

While the 63-year-old Schrader began his career as a critic, he quickly segued into writing then directing. His list of credits include Taxi Driver, Blue Collar, Raging Bull, Cat People, Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, The Mosquito Coast, City Hall, American Gigolo, Patty Hearst, Auto Focus, Affliction and The Walker among the more than 30 titles he has either written or directed.

In its 24th year, founder Meir Fenigstein's Israel Film Fest has brought to this country a fascinating survey of an ever-evolving cinema and has succeed in touring these film in several cities include NYC. Running from December 5th to 13th, 2009, the festival showcases 28 features, docs and shorts. For further info on the IFF program and ticketing go to

Q: This film reminds me of Philippe De Broca's King of Hearts.

PS: King of Hearts is a sweet film. [Adam Resurrected] breaks the two rules of Holocaust cinema, which is why it's controversial for many people.

If you think about it virtually every film you've seen on the holocaust is: 1) based on fact -- [that] these things actually happened, and 2) it's reverential -- all those poor people, they suffered so much.

This is not based on fact. There never was a hospital like that, or a commoner/prisoner relationship like that, and it's not reverential. [The book] came out in 1968 in Israel, right at the same time as Catch-22, Slaughterhouse Five, and all of those books written by guys who were in a war looking back after 20 years with a very jaundiced cynical eye at those experiences. That's the literary tradition that this book comes out of. So it is not really out of the holocaust tradition as much as it is out of that kind of literary tradition.

Q: Do you think that Israelis perceive this film differently than the general Jewish population or Americans?

PS: We premiered it at the Haifa Film Festival, and I was really expecting a possible negative reaction. But the response was very good. The book was viciously attacked when it came out, and it wasn't until it was championed in the West that the Israelis started to realize how good it was.

Q: Why is this film's story important to tell now?

PS: The metaphor of the man who used to be a dog who meets a dog who used to be a boy is a metaphor for recovery and survival; that's what struck me. It's informed by the holocaust, but it could've been informed by other traumas too -- anything that required him to live like a dog to survive. That's what grabbed me.

I'm not Jewish and certainly didn't think the world needed another holocaust film from me, so I didn't see myself as the logical candidate to be doing this. But then I started reading it, and as soon as that thing with the dog came, I went, "Wow this is cool."

Q: What is it about you that can do this? You get it...

PS: Well I don't know that part of the question. I know what attracts me. I get bored very easily. I find most movies boring. I go to movies and ask, "How do they stay awake making this?" They made this movie before, I've seen this movie before, how did they stay awake?

Anything that doesn't bore me I think is doable because it's keeping me awake. This particular story had been passed on by several of the usual suspects in Hollywood because they didn't think it was doable. That never occurred to me because I had never seen this before so of course it was doable because it was fascinating, it was interesting.

Once you have a situation that is fresh, then you sort of believe in it and it becomes normal. So you do end up with protagonists that haven't been in other movies before. There's not been a guy like Adam [Stein]; he's rather new to movies. What interested me is that I haven't seen a movie about this guy before.

Q: You've established yourself as a writer/director. This one you didn't write, you received the script. Did you have any input after you received the script?

PS: Of course, I'm a writer. The script was good but it was long -- it was by a first-time writer [Noah Stollman] -- so I had to take some length out of it, about 20 pages, and in doing so, you take ownership. It's Noah's script, but I have ownership too. That's just in pre-production, but once you get to production every script is rewritten in rehearsals. And then, to some degree, it's rewritten on set too... not nearly as much as some people think, but to some degree.

Q: Yoram Kaniuk, the author of Adam Resurrected, is still alive?

PS: Yes, miraculously. I've seen him quite a bit. He died a few years ago and then he wrote a book about being dead. And he'll describe himself as, 'Hi I'm Yoram Kaniuk who once was dead but now am alive.' That's the way he talks. He was in a coma for six weeks. And he came back to life.

When I first met him I didn't think he'd live to see the film, but he has improved. He's quite an extraordinary guy. He loves this film. He has been a huge champion of this, which is very flattering since the film is something else but does not have the reach and the complexity and the brilliance that the book does.

Q: You got handed a project that was once thought of for Orson Welles. Did you ever think in your head, how would Orson Welles approach this film?

PS: I don't know at what point in his career. I have a feeling it was in the back end of his career. But I know he wanted to do it with Bette Davis. And to see him and Bette going around barking like dogs, I think I would've paid for that [laughs]!

Q: Why did you think Jeff Goldblum would make a good dog?

PS: On the very first read [of the script] I was sitting in my living room on page 70, and my wife walks through so I said, "You know, I'm reading the script now and there is an actor who was born to play this role." She said, "Who is that?" And I said, "Jeff Goldblum was born to play the role I am now reading."

I didn't know Jeff. I said, "He has lived his entire career to play this role." That's how strong it hit me. So when I first met with the producer, I said, "You know there is an actor who was born to play this role." Of course he wasn't too excited when I said Jeff's name because that makes his job harder. We went to some other actor and as far as I was concerned I was happy they passed on it. Finally we ended up with Jeff.

Q: Is it because he has that sort of smarmy attitude?

PS: He's an entertainer, he's a showman. Plus he's tall, Jewish -- he's like a big Jewish prince -- and the right age. It's interesting to play him at his real age [56] because he always plays someone youthful-looking. So it was interesting to actually show the lines and crevices in his face.

Q: How does Jeff feel about it? He's not mad at you for showing that?

PS: No, no. Jeff is the perfect soldier.

Q: It was a no-brainer to have Willem Dafoe as the Nazi.

PS: That was a favor. Nobody likes to play Nazis. They wanted a name, so I just had to pick up the phone and say, "Willem, I'm going to ask you a favor." The German financer did not want a German to play that role. So we needed an American name, and that meant calling up a favor. So that meant Will.

Q: That was a bizarre plot twist with the nurse. I wanted to see more of that.

PS: She's fabulous. Ayelet [Zurer] is like the biggest star in Israel, but she's really famous for being vulnerable. She was the wife in Munich. So this is not really what she's good at, she's good at being soft. This was kind of a change for her. But I really felt that we had to hold onto that. Even though it doesn't make a whole lot of sense at times, but then not everything has to make sense. It makes some kind of sense.

Q: It hits all your marks. It's got a little bit of that brutal side and perverse eroticism. You must've had fun with shooting some of those scenes where she's with the dog. But it must've been tough to get it right.

PS: It was not fun for her [Zurer], she did not like that. So that was a little bit of a problem because she was doing it knowing it was the right thing to do, but she wasn't doing it because... she had to really be talked into doing this film.

Q: Would you agree that Adam Resurrected is also about survival?

PS: Yeah, although in some ways, if it was up to him [Adam] he would be dying. I'm just an old dying clown, let me die. Dr. Nathan Gross [Derek Jacobi] is the one who brings that boy... why is that boy in the hospital? He's not there because he's a camp survivor. He's there because he's Gross' special project. Then Gross finally gets interested in survival.

Adam resists survival. He doesn't know what to think about that boy. It's fascinating because he loves that boy but he hates that boy, he's jealous. And when the boy finally climbs to defense and can speak, his reaction is "beat him up!"

Q: How do you explain the relationship between him and the nurse?

PS: She was somehow attracted to this sick dying clown, and when he became healthy he was not of interest to her anymore.

Q: Was that part of what she thought was her therapy?

PS: I don't know. It's not her movie. Actually her movie would've been an interesting one. But it's not her movie. I can't say I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was her movie.

Q: There's something special about this being set in Israel.

PS: When I first got this script it was set in Palm Springs. The book is in Israel. The producer moved it to Palm Springs because he was under the impression that no American director would come to Israel and shoot it. And I said, "Why is this thing in Palm Springs?" So we moved it back.

Q: The pervasive qualities of Israel are an important part.

PS: I'll just tell you one last quick story. Yoram is writing this and he's out in the desert, and he comes across a sign. On it says: "on this spot will be built the town of Arad." So he said, that's pretty cool, I think I'll take my imaginary mental hospital -- because no hospital like this ever existed -- and I will put it in this imaginary town of Arad.

After the book came out 10 years later, after they had built a mental hospital in Arad, they invited him over and they said, "You built the first mental hospital in Arad and now we built the second one!"

Q: What do you think people should take away from this film?

PS: I don't know. The complexity of survival I guess. It's not always the contradictions of things that are interesting; he loves the dog and he hates the dog, I'm sane, but it's boring, I'm crazy but I'm dying.

Contradiction is the heart and soul of character and drama. You're always looking for it. I loved her so much I hit her; that's character. I loved her so much I hit her again; that's even more character.

So if you're always looking for contradiction, people say: "Okay you gave us contradiction, now take contradiction away." No, you can't take contradiction away. Part of the fun of it is that the contradiction never really quite goes away.

When people had different ideas about what the ending of Taxi Driver meant, somebody asked me, wasn't I upset? And I said no, that's perfectly acceptable. I would be more upset if everybody had the same opinion of what it meant.

[To read an extended version of this interview, go to: and click.]

Monday, November 23, 2009

Q&A: Actor Michael Shannon Is Finding Himself And His Character In The Missing Person

Exclusive Q&A by Brad Balfour

At 6' 3" the tall, lumbering Michael Shannon doesn't look like a leading man with his rumpled character-actor looks. Sometimes, Shannon's so quiet and reserved in person you wonder how he made the leap to stage acting. Yet when unleashed by a role, his presentation can be so overpowering that it often overwhelms other performances. Such was the case with his characterization of John Givings in Revolutionary Road, which won him a 2009 Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his dark philosophizing on the state of the world in 1950s America.

Aligning with his arch, pained performance in Sam Mendes' film, Shannon is now to be seen in The Missing Person, in which he plays private eye John Rosow, who's hired to tail a man on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. The former NYC cop had been self-medicating the loss of his wife -- who was working in the World Trade Center's North Tower on 9/11-- through drink for years. Rosow gradually discovers that the man was one of the thousands presumed dead after the 9/11 attack. Persuaded by a large reward, Rosow is charged with bringing him back to his wife in New York, a journey that compels him to finally address his own trauma, making the film something more than just a cinematic homage.

Debuting in the States at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, This neo-noir film, co- starring Oscar nominee Amy Ryan, is directed by director Noah Buschel who also directed the intriguing Neal Cassady (a film about the late Jack Kerouac's traveling buddy and inspiration).

The Lexington, Kentucky-born Shannon first came to wide critical attention through his uncanny, twisted performance in 2004, appearing Off-Broadway in Bug at New York's Barrow Street Theater; it later became a film directed by William Friedkin starring Ashley Judd and Shannon. He had established his role initially in Chicago, where he did it at Chicago's A Red Orchid Theatre and got nominated for a 2002 Joseph Jefferson Award for Actor in a Principal Role in a Play for Bug. Shannon discusses finding himself through his characters in this exclusive interview.

Q: You play a detective, one of those prime roles that every actor looks to do. Had you read a lot before? Had you seen all those movies like John Huston's The Maltese Falcon or Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye?

MS: The movies I've seen hardly any of at all. I consciously didn't want to look at them going into shooting the film because I didn't want to feel like I was imitating somebody else the whole time.

In terms of the books, I've read a lot of Jim Thompson books, I've read a bit of Raymond Chandler, but I took all my clues basically from the script and the director. He was clear about what he wanted and I just went with that.

Q: It was a good opportunity for you, taking that detective character and updating it into a contemporary context. I think that must have been interesting to you as well.

MS: Oh yeah, definitely. It seemed appropriate; it never seemed ham-handed to me.

Q: What did he tell you he wanted, and why did he feel you had those qualities?

MS: I did a reading of the screenplay, which I guess wound up being an audition. I applied my natural sense of things to the reading, and he was pretty happy with that.

Actually, he was much more interested not so much in the detective aspect of it or the classic noir aspect of it, but in the fact that [this] man was severely traumatized by 9/11 -- pretty much incapacitated by it. The film was really about seeing if this person could come back into the realm of the living. That was more the journey that we were exploring, I think.

Q: Where were you when 9/11 happened?

MS: I was in Chicago. I was doing a play called Bug, which later became a film. Apart from it being a devastating experience, it was also an incredibly bizarre experience, because I was playing that character at the time. He was very skeptical of things to begin with, and so to have that kind of event happen in the middle of telling that kind of story was really, really intense.

Q: If you had to say something about your character in terms of 9/11--who he was, or how that resonated--what would you think is the truth there? What will people take away that is that truth?

MS: I think the truth in this film is a deeply personal one. In the other two instances you mentioned, it's much more directed at society or the world at large. But this is very personal. I think at the beginning of the film, John is pretty delusional and not in touch with the truth of what's actually happening around him. The journey of his character in the film is towards a truth. It may not be a truth that involves anyone other than himself, but it's important nonetheless.

Q: Obviously, you have some ability to play traumatized characters. Yes, you have a look, but also an understanding as well. Does coming from Kentucky do that to you?

MS: It's tough to figure. I was telling somebody, inevitably when you watch somebody in a movie, no matter how much craft or acting is happening -- however much or little of that is happening -- you're essentially drawn to who the person is innately, because you can't escape the fact that you are who you are. I think that comes through. That's why people are fans of certain actors.

That's why some people say, "I really love Christopher Walken." I mean, as great an actor as Christopher Walken is, you love him because he's Christopher Walken. When you go to a movie you go to see him, even if he has funny glasses on or a mustache or something. You know that that's him and you know that you like him, regardless of what character he's playing.

I think who I innately am, for whatever reason, translates into the things I do and makes it so that you can buy me as a certain type of person. Whatever my life experiences are that allow me to give off that sense of understanding, that's private.

Q: Did you realize that director Noah Buschel made that movie on Neal Cassady?

MS: I saw [Neal Cassady]. That was the first time I met him, actually. I was having coffee with Amy Ryan, and she said, "I have to go see this film that I'm in because the director wants me to give my input." And she said, "You could probably tag along if you wanted."

So next thing I know I'm sitting in a little editing suite with Amy and Noah, who are watching Neal Cassady. I loved that movie; I thought it was so fantastic. It really baffles me that more people haven't seen it. I thought it was beautiful.

But Noah has a very eccentric style to what he does. He has a very unique style, and it's something that leaves some people scratching their heads.

Q: He certainly applied that style to this movie. What was your experience with him like?

MS: We shot the film in about four weeks, so it's all kind of a blur. It was a very intense schedule, we had to work very quickly. We shot two weeks in New York and two weeks in LA. And we shot all this super heavy stuff in New York first, and then we went to LA and did the more whimsical part. It was an interesting order of sequence.

Q: Was that just a logistical choice, or was that also a choice in helping you?

MS: It was purely logistical; it was very low budget. We couldn't start in New York and go out to LA and then come back to New York; we couldn't keep going back and forth. We basically shot the beginning and the ending of the film first, and then went out and shot the middle in LA, just because that's the way it had to be. That didn't wind up really bothering me. I enjoyed that order, it made shooting in LA a lot of fun.

Q: So when you saw the movie assembled, did it work in the way you expected it or did it surprise you in certain ways?

MS: I was real tickled with it. I had seen a variety of different cuts, actually. I was a little bit worried to see the final cut, because I know that Noah had been under pressure to maybe make some choices that he wasn't entirely convinced were right. He had been getting notes from a lot of different sources. At one point, after almost starting to lose interest a little bit--it was just too difficult to make everybody happy--he kind of sucked it up and got to the end of it. I was really proud of both the film and him for surviving that process.

Editing a film can be very arduous, particularly if there are a lot of people with opinions looking over your shoulder. I think in the end he was able to find a way to make everybody happy, but still hold on to his vision of things, which is quite an accomplishment.

Q: Though you were the one awarded the Oscar nomination, you were still just a supporting character in Revolutionary Road. In Bug, you're really the driving force, but you weren't thought of as the lead. But here you're really the lead; it's a movie about reaction to you, and you reacting.

MS: It's an opportunity for me. I'm not shaping these stories really, I'm just getting the opportunity to show up and participate. At the end of the day, at least from my perspective and my experience of things, the actor in a film is not a real power position.

What the audience ultimately winds up watching is a lot more about the vision of the director and of the other artists involved--the cinematographer, editor. Film is a very technical medium, and the actor gets this opportunity to contribute their portion of it, but it's not like it's my vision.

Q: As an interpreter of the director's vision, you are the truth teller. In Revolutionary Road your character was a truth teller. In Bug, as crazy as he was, he was a truth teller as well.

MS: Maybe there's something about me. It's hard to be aware of yourself to that degree. I'm not even necessarily sure that I look at what I do as an act of self-expression, really. It's more about trying to serve the story. I guess I express myself basically in what I decide to get involved in. But once I'm there, it's like [I'm] a servant of the story and director.

Q: In a funny way, Kim Fowley, who you are playing in The Runaways -- the upcoming bio-pic of the legendary girl rockers -- is the ultimate manipulator, truth teller or truth hider. He too fits into the set of characters that you should play. That must have been interesting; what was that like?

MS: That was very daunting, very intimidating. I met him. [He and I ], Joan Jett and Kristen Stewart [who plays Jett in the film] had dinner one night at a Denny's. He told me that he hoped I did a good job in the movie, because when he died that was how he was going to be remembered, was by my performance. I said, "Well, thanks for the pressure, I really appreciate that."

He was very sweet, actually. He really is a character. I watched as much footage as I could. I don't think I pulled off a spot-on impersonation of Kim Fowley, but that's never been my forte to begin with. I never claimed to be able to do that. But I certainly think what I did will honor his legacy and his memory. Hopefully, when he sees it, he'll agree.

Q: Were you much of a rock and roll fan?

MS: Oh yeah. I love rock and roll; I love music in general. That was a really fun era for music.

Q: Besides getting to work with some great first-time directors, you've also worked with the legends -- from John Waters (Cecil B. DeMented) and Cameron Crowe (Vanilla Sky) to Sidney Lumet (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead). How do you resist wanting to watch all their movies and talk to them about it?

MS: Well, fortunately, most of the time you're just there to work, you don't have too much time. If I'm working with someone for awhile, we make an opportunity to have dinner or something, and that's when you get to hear all the stories.

But when you're at work, it's all about the work. I'm not a Chatty Cathy on the set anyway. I generally tend to not talk unless I'm saying one of my lines, because I'm trying to concentrate and conserve my energy.

Q: You were initially a theater actor, and because you're a tall person with an imposing quality you can really have a power on a stage. In film, you pull it back or you control it differently. How is that contrast for you?

MS: I don't know, I don't see them as being as different. I think that's largely because a lot of the theaters I have worked in have been very small, very intimate. I think the difference was larger maybe back in the old days when you would do a play in an 800 seat theater and then go do a movie with Hitchcock or something; that was a bigger discrepancy.

But nowadays, a lot of the theaters are very intimate. Even some of the larger theaters, they've found a way to make them incredibly intimate. It's not as big a discrepancy as it used to be.

Q: You worked with a great ensemble in Werner Herzog's re-think of Abel Ferrera's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans.

MS: That was a lot of fun. I got to do two scenes with Nic Cage, one of the biggest movies stars in the world--also a very inventive actor to work with. My scenes were just with Nic. Both the days I was working with him, I think he was feeling particularly inspired.

It's an older kind of Nic Cage performance, not so much the leading man roles where he has to rein it in or something. He gets to let loose and have fun.

He does such an incredible job. When he gets an opportunity to do what he's good at, he really knocks it out of the park.

Q: Give me a quick take on working Jonah Hex -- based on the Marvel Comics character. Even though you're not Hex, it must be fun to work in a comic book film where these characters are a little larger than life.

MS: I had a lot of fun on Jonah Hex. I was only there a couple of days; my character's just in a couple of scenes. But they tell me that if there's a sequel, I would be back in a larger capacity--which would be fun, because it's a really fun character. I had never heard of the comic series before, but when I was there and looking at the artwork, [I thought] it's really strong.

Q: Are you working on something now--beside being in Herzog's My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done and Gela Babluani's 13?

MS: I'm working on a TV show right now called Boardwalk Empire, which is going to be on HBO. We shot the pilot this summer, and now we're shooting the series.

Q: And that will be the Atlantic City boardwalk?

MS: The first episode is right at the start of Prohibition in Atlantic City. Very gritty.

Q: You don't think you'll do a superhero someday like Nic Cage has done

MS: I'd play a superhero if there was good writing. I'd play Oscar the Grouch if it was good writing. I like good writing, and a lot of times the writing is more complicated and interesting when you're dealing with characters that are [somewhat] damaged. That's just the way it is.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Director Roland Emmerich Give Us Something to Look Forward to In 2012

Feature Story by Brad Balfour

Judging by a short conversation with him, director Roland Emmerich doesn't seem megalomaniacal. In fact, he seems so down-home and unassuming, that you just want to grab him, a beer--being the good German that he is--and sit in rapt attention as he tells how he destroyed the world--again.

You see, Emmerich is the great manipulator who has ravaged cities and continents thanks to the wonders of cinema. He destroyed New York via his remake of Godzilla and had world's capitals blasted through an alien invasion in Independence Day. The 54 year-old former painter and sculptor has ravaged this planet in other ways; he even had it frozen under sheets of ice when he produced and directed The Day After Tomorrow.

But now he's gone all out shuffling all the continents into the oceans; in 2012 it's not just the cites or mankind he attacks--he entirely re-designs the configuration of the planet. Based on the myth of the Mayan calendar's 2012 prediction, the Teutonic-accented Emmerich came to New York to tell a bunch of journalists how much fun it is to destroy us all. Well, not quite all of us; stars John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Amanda Peet survived on screen and the off-camera experience as well.

Q: Had you studied the Mayan calendar prior to doing this film?

RE: I've had a project about a gentleman named Gonzalo Guerro, one of the first Spaniards who set foot in the Yucatan and encountered the Mayas after being shipwrecked. But he went native. He was the only guy who went native and fought his people.

Because of that, I had studied Mayan culture so I was very aware of it. When Harald and I had an idea to do this movie, Harald [Kloster, screenwriter] said, "We have to incorporate the Mayan calendar into this a little bit." it was Harald's idea to call the movie 2012.

Q: Do you give any credence to the Mayan calendar?

RE: The Mayans were very exact people. They had a calendar, and had created these cycles. There are only five cycles, and the last one ends on a very exact date: the 21st of December in 2012 [A.D.]. It's the only culture in the world which has a prophecy like that.

This is the only culture that gave an exact date and even set a time of day. [It's] like a miracle. But it's [one] day, and with the rise of this day, time ends. They don't even say "destroy" [but] obviously, it does [mean] the earth gets destroyed.

Q: What do you believe?

RE: I think if you look at disasters, what is really important for people? Their first thought is the people they love. Sometimes we get so carried away with silly things, like my car, the house, clothes. We should actually live each day like it's the last.

Q: So was it a little slap to Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger to have him die in the destruction of California?

RE: I don't know where these ideas come from. We felt that every politician should be in the ark--the Pope too, I dare to kill my own people; [I'm a Catholic]. But the Arnold moment, or why Arnold [didn't get on the ark], I cannot tell you anymore. It's too long ago.

Most of the time, Harald and I talk--Harald is Austrian [too], you know--we talk about things and ideas, and most of the time we laugh a lot. We have terrible fun in what we do. It's hard, showbiz, [so] we have fun with it.

I know certain things that I can explain to you exactly where they come from. For example, the Sistine Chapel came from the discussion that certain art can be taken off the wall and put on the ark. They cannot put the whole ceiling away. So I said, "This looks so great. We can have [the portion where] God creates Adam and have a crack [between the fingers]. It pretty much tells the people that God will not help you."

Q: Was that the first thing you thought of?

RE: Yeah. One of the first images I came up with--and I was really excited when I told Harald about it--I said, "I see water coming over the Himalayas, over the roof of the world." That was, for me, what this movie should be.

Q: What kind of budget did you have and did you ever go over budget?

RE: Nope. We stayed in budget. I learned from Larry Franco, our money guy, that we pretty much came in on budget, which is rare. But the budget was already big. It was $200 million.

I always stay in budget, or as close as I can. There's always one or two million [left over].

Q: How did you decide to pick off your characters? Why were those people picked for death and others weren't?

RE: Well, most of the time, it's the economy of the story. Tamara didn't have anywhere to go because she lost Sasha. But whatever she was as a character, at the end, she would have been unfinished, in a way. And you have to kill some people, otherwise it's not serious anymore.

Gordon is not a bad guy, and he saved their ass because he flew all these planes. But he could not be anywhere on this boat. And then Yuri, the Russian guy--OK, he's a terrible guy, but it's also not good to make him totally terrible, so he sacrifices himself for the twins. A lot of people said to me, "Why didn't the twins die?" I said, "They are children."

Q: You have rules. No kids?

RE: Yeah.

Q: What are the other rules?

RE: Animals. You have to be [kind to animals]. It was mainly a nice little thing, because this girl's best friend was this dog. To be really cruel, you have to have the twins go away with the dog, because it's actually their dog. And then [she] reunited with the dog, which worked well with the story. And then she gave Yuri the finger. In movies, it has to work like that.

Q: The cliffhanger with the Rusian twins--where will they go?

RE: You know you cannot ask. Maybe one line, "You're one of us" kind of thing. But it would have been awfully cheesy.

Q: What about Woody Harrelson's character? What were you trying to say?

RE: It's great. We realized through the Internet that there's a lot of crazy people [who] believe in a lot of crazy things about 2012. So we thought, we have to have a character like that.

And then on the other hand, at one point, we said, we have to explain what the theory is. Earth crust displacement--how do you describe this in scientific terms? Then all of a sudden, I said, "We can have him tell the audience how this whole thing [works]." And we came up with a little YouTube film he made. And that was such a clever way to do that, I think, because normally the scientists explain it to you and it's a little bit boring. But here, the people have fun with it, because it's a sarcastic way to do it. It's science and movies, it's always a little bit forced.

Q: He talks about the religious [aspect].

RE: He also explains to us why politicians will not tell us, because they say, "What will happen?" And he was right. The stock market crashed, pandemonium in the street, people will kill each other. And he thinks there are spaceships anyway, which I think is funny because they're not. They're just regular ships.

Q: How much free will did you give Woody to do his stuff? I know he improvised quite a bit here.

RE: Yeah, but it's good. John Cusack and everybody in this movie improvised. You want to have your actors contribute because it makes it come alive. And that's why as a writer, especially, you want to have good actors.

Q: You like to show presidents and scientists. Why are you so fascinated with them?

RE: I make movies [set] in America and when something really, really big happens, the president naturally has to be involved. I lately saw a movie from Fox, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and they so avoid the President, it's kind of comical. It just doesn't work.

Q: You've gotten pretty good at destroying the earth. What are the rules?

RE: Well, I always like saying the pictures have to be super-impossible. Only when it's impossible [am] I interested in doing it. And that's always hard to explain.

One of the first things I saw in my mind when we were talking about the earthquake scene is [that] the ground needs to open up. And I just realized what that means. It's a little bit of when the bottom falls out under your feet.

I'm terribly afraid of heights. I'm always trying to put my fear in these movies. And the other thing I've talked about, is water coming over the roof of the world. And then, have a monk witness that and strike his bell one last time. These images come to Harald and me and we get terribly excited, because we feel these movie scenes.

Q: Any other rules?

RE: Well, the characters help you a lot--people from all walks of life. These movies are so expensive that they have to work for pretty much everybody. Every audience member has different people he likes in the movie and follows them. For young people, for men and women, everybody finds some sort of access.

Old people will like [President Wilson, played by Danny Glover] or Harry Helmsley [Blu Mankuma] and Tony [Delgatto, played by George Segal], as these two jazz musicians. Young people get relatable [characters as well]. Kids get wrapped up in our two kids. You create all the characters so everybody has some sort of figure to identify with.

I'm always saying that I'm a person who doesn't like superhero movies. I like some of them, but I can't really relate to superhero. I have trouble with fantasy stories. And then famous books aren't an option for me. I write my own stuff.

There's very little left in the big movie genre of what you can do. So it's science fiction or disaster movies. You know yourself, look at what is the most successful movie of all time: Titanic. And the great thing is also, with a disaster movie there's no sequel. I hate sequels.

Q: Well, speaking of sequels, the word is that you're interested in making a TV show called 2013.

RE: Well, that's different because that's something like Lost, which has a totally different feel to it. It's more a little bit of District 9. These ships show up in Africa, there are some survivors and they're not happy people because they were left behind. Now how do you start off a new society? That has nearly no visual effects. It's all about characters and what will the future bring, hold for us.

Q: 2013 is going to happen pretty soon after this movie comes out. Do you have any actors or places in mind?

RE: No. We just made a deal with ABC, and we're very happy about that. I'm already discussing with the people who write it, and tried to help them with what this could be.

The original idea is from Harald, me and Mark Worden. Mark is big on TV. Harald and I had an idea that everyone should do a TV show, because there were a lot of things that we couldn't incorporate into 2012 and it was so interesting.

What happens after all of this? We couldn't be riding the script. We had to end it at one point. We left at where they just discovered Africa is still existing and has risen a couple thousand feet, but that's it. And we ended on a really, really small note about a little girl who overcame her fear in a way. It's a very small way, which is very important and ends in something very personal.

I think a sequel is silly. There are certain sequels that work for me. But to make a sequel for a disaster movie, the people would expect a certain kind of visual effects. But [for 2012] there would actually be only what's happening between people, and that you can do a TV show week after week.

Q: What would you like to see happen in 2013?

RE: It's not the bright happy future everybody was envisioning. It's the same old problems.

Q: What do you expect people to walk away with after seeing this film?

RE: First of all, I am very conservative in that way, because I said they should have fun. A movie of this kind, I want people to enjoy it and have fun watching it.

And then, the great thing that I learned lately--I tried it first in The Day After Tomorrow, that in these big movies, you can pack some sort of message that you believe in. And that's what they should take away from all this.

Q: When you planned this particular apocalypse--as opposed to your other apocalypses--you've destroyed certain buildings several times in your movies. Did you say, "I'm not going to destroy the White House [again]," or can I find a different way to destroy the White House?

RE: When we had the idea, I said, "Harald, I'm not going to do it. I cannot destroy the White House again. I don't want to repeat myself."

Then Harald rightly said, "Look, Roland, this is such a good idea. We heard inklings that other people were working with something similar, even also with the title 2012, [and] we said, somebody else will do it. Do you really want to not be the person to do it? Look at your movies. You're perfect for this. Just come up with something new. Make this your crowning achievement."

I personally know how most visual effects came along. I know that I don't have to use any models anymore. I can do whatever I want. So out of that, what other images? It has to be very original, otherwise you don't do it.

I remembered that as a kid, after we visited the White House, we drove in the Chesapeake Bay somewhere, where they have all the warships. They had just inaugurated the JFK Aircraft Carrier [USS John F. Kennedy (C67)], and I was terribly impressed with how big it is.

I don't know how that clicked, [but] we knew there had to be a wave. I said, "I can have this [aircraft carrier] crashing into the White House." Because we knew, in one of the first waves, we had to put objects in which are gigantic, to show how big the waves are--maybe tankers or warships. This is how you think.

I was doing a lot of reading then on the Kennedys, so I said, "Oh let's [do] something ironic." And then we came up with this image that JFK returns to the White House [literally].

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Q&A: Actor Woody Harrelson Delivers The Messenger

Feature Q&A by Brad Balfour

While actor Woody Harrelson has been characterized as a stoner, he's been no slacker lately, having worked hard on three movies coming out virtually back to back -- films that might help get him beyond his past. From starring in the hit television show Cheers to a film like White Men Can't Jump, Harrelson created such iconic characters that he's had a hard time escaping from them. No matter how well he immerses himself into characters unlike himself, he has struggled to get audiences to see past those cynosures with which he saddled himself.

Through his gonzo character Tallahassee, Harrelson helped propel Zombieland on to be an unexpectedly huge commericial success. The mega-feature 2012 -- which opened this weekend -- is likely to be a sci-fi blockbuster, and though Harrelson only provides a supporting role his character plays a crucial part in moving the story forward.

But it's with The Messenger -- a film also being released this weekend in New York -- that Harrelson tests himself and shines. The 48-year-old former Ohioan plays Captain Tony Stone, a hard-assed soldier who has chosen to deliver death notifications to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq. When it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival early this year, it garnered Oscar buzz even then. That only amplified its powerful message, that we can best understand the sacrifices being made by our troops by seeing it through the eyes of those who have been most affected -- the families of fallen.

Q: These three movies coming out deal with death in one way or another. Did you notice that commonality and what do you think about that?

WH: I hadn't really thought about that commonality until now. I guess that's kind of true. [Zombieland] is not really dealing with death as much as just it's post-apocalyptic and the end is nigh for everybody. I hadn't really thought about that, no.

Q: The end of the world is a death in a way.

WH: Yeah, that's true.

Q: When you deal with films that deal with death, how does that make you think about it, talk about it or accept it?

WH: Well, the most confrontation that I've had with death is when people told me about close people to me passing and it's one of those things, of course I guess that we've all had where it's an impossible task. The person can just deliver the news and get out of the way.

There's nothing more horrible than losing someone you love. Even losing yourself is not as big a deal as losing someone that you love. In the context of this movie, it was really intense because, thanks to Oren [Moverman, the director] as well as Ben [Foster, his young co-star who is his fellow notification officer] -- they really helped make the whole scenario seem real.

It was very emotional for me. [While] I was playing Captain Tony Stone I had to be stoic, but in reality, as soon as they'd say cut, I'd just start bawling. I was so moved by those experiences.

Q: So what sold you on the idea of doing it?

WH: I thought it was one of the more beautiful scripts I'd ever read; really powerful, full of emotion and humor. It was one of those things after meeting with Oren where I thought, "Well this guy is a sharp customer." He was so prepared and just on top of everything. I thought he could make a good movie here, but I didn't expect him to knock it out of the park the way he did. I love it.

Q: You talked to some of the soldiers at Walter Reed Hospital and to a Notification Officer; was it hard talk to them or ask questions about their experiences?

WH: With every person I've met that's done notification--which is quite a number now because there's people I've met since who have seen [the movie] and not just the people I talked to before -- there's no real way to describe it. You're walking in and breaking someone's heart; there are certain protocols that they obviously have in the Army and in the rest of the military, but I don't think there's any easy way to do it.

In this case, they just say, "The Secretary of the Army regrets to inform bop, bop, bop." For all of those guys, it's the hardest job in the Army. Even people in combat or the people I'd met at Walter Reed who've lost their leg, arm or whatever, when I tell them what the movie is about, they go, "Oh, God. I'd much rather go back into combat than do that." Nobody wants that job.

Q: In the context of a million Iraqis who have been killed based on an invasion that was based on lies about weapons of mass destruction, what do you feel about the film? And did you know that there are now more soldiers from there that are killed by suicide than by combat?

WH: I hadn't heard that statistic. Well, my feeling for quite a while was always more concerned with the victims of war. I was getting images because I wasn't just going to the standard press and so I was getting images from the first day of the Bush War II.

I saw all kinds of horrifying images, of children, that nobody in the United States was seeing unless they really went kind of a different route, but people in Europe were seeing them, I think. So I have a great deal of sympathy for them and always thought of the war as the biggest cost being for them. Perhaps that's appropriate.

So It's appropriate to be anti-war or pro-peace, especially when wars are being fought for resources and land. But the big missing piece to my whole philosophy or understanding was to find out what's going on with the soldiers, so having spent time with these soldiers and hearing their stories was really a great thing for me because it really made me start to care for them. Before I had always just lumped them with the war at large.

Now I do support the troops and think that a part of supporting them is not getting behind the concept of having to send them into harm's way for resources, for oil, etc. But I didn't know about that last thing, the suicides. That really makes me sad.

Q: In a way, your character had to set himself aside to deliver the notifications; is this a role where you put aside your beliefs or philosophies to play it?

WH: Definitely. With this film, I can never imagine being a soldier. I never would've have imagined it if I hadn't played this part. I never would've really gotten into the mindset of it and I don't do well with authority. There's a lot of reasons why I think I'd make a lousy soldier, but it's nice to try to fit your mindset into another framework.

I did this movie, Battle in Seattle. I didn't play a protestor, which would've been obvious I think, but I played a cop during the WTO [riot]. That was the backdrop of it, the whole WTO thing in Seattle. I find it intriguing to try and explore the thoughts and mindset of another [kind of] character.

Q: It must have been tough to imagine yourselves in these roles.

WH: There were two types of roles that I always felt I didn't know if I could play them, one being a cop, and the other being a soldier. There's something very interestingly complex about trying to take on a role of a guy who's hard core. The Army's his family, he's a lifer, he's just as gung ho as they get, longs to be in combat. So part of that was intriguing but challenging to a hippie peacenik from Hawaii. Well, I'm from Texas, but I live in Hawaii.

Q: How do you feel about a war movie that's not really a war movie where it has more emotional impact than an out-and-out war movie?

WH: I feel great about it. I think the response that we've had to this movie has been incredible. Also the response by soldiers has been amazing, particularly -- Oren might've told you -- the Vietnam vets who have responded. It's incredible. Tim O'Brien [author of the Vietnam War novel, Going After Cacciato has seen the movie], loved it and had a real emotional response. That's great.

I know that it's going to be a hard movie to sell because people don't want to go see something that at least, on the surface, is so depressing. But I do think that it's actually a very uplifting and hopeful movie in many ways. There's a lot of intense stuff in there but it's one of those things where if you're not prepared to feel something or get emotional then this is definitely not the movie to go see.

Q: What have been some of the reactions of the Vietnam vets?

WH: They really just felt connected, particularly with the notifications, to the families. It brought up a lot of stuff that had maybe been dormant for a while.

Q: Did you go out and see any of the war films along the way, particularly the late director Hal Ashby's films?

WH: I love Hal Ashby [director of such classics as Coming Home, The Last Detail, Harold and Maude]. He's one of my favorite directors, but now, so is Oren. Actually, Oren and I are going to do another movie together, Rampart.

Q: Did you talk to Oren about his experiences as a soldier in the Israeli conflicts?

WH: I think his whole vantage point really helped our character development a lot. He's a guy who's actually been in war theaters, as they call them. I think he's one of the greatest directors I've worked with.

I keep referring to him as a young Hal Ashby and yet he's got his own vision. It's not like he's Hal Ashby but I think his vision, and the way he managed to create a film that is shot very uniquely, as with that nine-minute scene between Ben and Samantha Morton, it's just breathtaking that he was able to shoot this thing the way that he did. I think his own sensibilities coupled with his experience in Israel, or really in Lebanon, that really helped him a lot.

Q: Did that help you in prepare; didn't you only have a week to prepare for the film due to working on another movie, Bunraku, that you were shooting in Bucharest before this?

WH: Yeah. He really helped with that. I had asked him. I was coming in a few days before we started shooting and feeling really at sea and was actually scared to death that I was going to botch this thing. I asked him to give me the background of Tony Stone and he sent a couple of pages that were really helpful, stuff from his past. He also had me go to Bucharest with my Class A's and my fatigues.

So I'm walking around Bucharest in Army clothes, boots, people are looking at me like, "There's an actor who wishes he was in the Army." It was that and he sent me a book called The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien which also helped, and a couple of other books [as well].

So while I was there, even though I was working intently on this other thing, I was thinking, "Okay, there's something, a big focused thing that's coming up." I really wanted to focus early on and then once we got there he took us to Walter Reed and that was just an incredible experience because for me this whole thing has been a journey of the heart and an opening to what's going on with those soldiers.

Q: Has this film change your opinion in any way?

WH: There have been a number of people who've seen it who have talked about the fact that prior to seeing it, they looked at the war more statistically, more in terms of numbers and figures. Particularly in the United States, other than recently with the President, we tend not to really show the cost side of war. It's a good thing that it helps people look at the war that way and maybe have a discussion about it.

Q: What do you hope people will take away from this?

WH: Certainly their Coca-Cola cups and whatever they have in the theater; it's best not to litter.

Q: People are now talking about this as an Oscar-worthy role. How does that make you feel?

WH: I guess it's better that they talk about it than don't but I can't get all emotionally charged about it. I don't think there's any actor who wouldn't want that kind of thing. To me, I'm just happy that the film turned out great and I honestly mean I think I did an okay job.

I don't know that it's award worthy but I do think that Ben did an Oscar-worthy performance. I think his performance in this is so seeringly beautiful and so calculated and perfectly rendered, and I can tell that although I have seen others who've maybe done as good I've never seen anyone more fully commit to any part than him. He just completely immersed himself in the character.

Q: Would it change anything for you if you did win an Oscar because you've been nominated before?

WH: I'm always more interested in what kind of reaction I'll have when I lose. It's easy to be a winner [laughs].

Q: You seem to be making some interesting choices. Battle for Seattle was a great film; Zombieland was a big hit. Did you expect that?

WH: No. I didn't when we made it. I really thought that this was so swinging for the fences but the odds of it were just astronomical. But the first time I saw it was in Orange County with a huge audience, a thousand people and it was like going to a rock concert. It was incredible, the response. Then I thought, 'Yeah, this thing is going to do okay.'

Q: Will that happen with Defendor another genre type of film
WH: It was made for like $2.5 million but it turned out fantastic. The direction was really good but I don't think it's going to have that kind of [reaction]. I don't think it could play like that because it's not a comedy although there is comedy in it. This thing, Zombieland, was just a lot of laughs.

Q: How close is your wacky long-haired doomsaying character in 2012 to the real Woody Harrelson?

WH: I don't think the end of the world is nigh. I do think though, ecologically speaking from what I've gleaned over the last several years of looking into it, that we're pretty much right on target. But I still have hope. I'm kind of hopeful that we're going to survive as a species.

I guess it involves some kind of intense transformation that some people think might be a mental transformation but I'm almost certain that it's a transformation of the heart that needs to take place because it's really about starting to care more about each other and our plight if you will.

Q: More as a person, since you are both an actor and political activist.

WH: I think there are probably some similarities.

Q: Okay. Are you more like Tony Stone or Tallahassee? At least you're not hoping for a zombie plague [laughs].

WH: Well, we had eight years of that.

Q: What would happen if Tallahassee had to do notifications?

WH: Jeez. I don't want to speculate.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Gabby Sidibe Proves to Be The Girl for Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire

Interview By Brad Balfour

For a total newcomer like Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe to find a starring role in any film was beyond comprehension. But to find one where her ultra plus-sized frame proved to be an asset was more than extraordinary. Nonetheless, this daughter of R&B/gospel singer Alice Tan Ridley and Senegalese father Ibnou Sidibe got the lead role in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and is now being touted as an Oscar contender.

In director Lee Daniels' devastating yet ultimately hopeful film, the adult Sidibe plays the 300+ pound,16 year-old Precious, who has been abused and raped by both her mother and father. Though she has two children by her father and is near-illiterate, several adults throughout this saga recognize her potential, and through hard work and a survivor's determination, Precious rises above her miserable situation to look towards the future.

Besides the uncanny find of Sidibe, Daniels also got remarkable performances out of other cast members such as Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Mo'Nique. And he has managed this before; Mo'Nique starred in his hard-hitting directorial debut Shadowboxer; Carey was in Tennessee, a film Daniels produced. Daniels has tackled controversial projects that sit outside the box; the first film he produced, Monster's Ball, dealt with an interracial relationship (and won an Oscar for lead Halle Berry) and the second, The Woodsman offered a sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile (played by Kevin Bacon).

Harlem resident Sidibe never expected to pursue acting let alone be in such a bright spotlight, first as the audience award winner at this year's Sundance Film Festival then the winner at The Toronto International Film Festival. But now, a myriad of festivals later--including a big premiere night as the centerpiece of the New York Film Festival and as the opener for the up-coming Denver Film Fest--the accolades and reactions are still rolling out well before the film opens at the end of this week.

Q: How did you connect with your character Precious?

GS: I felt like she was in my family, she was my friend and was with people that I didn't want her to be friends with. I realized that I had judged this girl and had stopped being friends with this girl over and over again. I actually felt a lot of guilt behind it. So I think in reading the novel it gave me more compassion and it opened my heart to more cases like Precious.

When it came time to film, and to actually take on the role of Precious, I felt an immense responsibility to do it justice, to do justice for the girls who have gone through it, to do justice for the men who have gone through things like that [as well].

I felt a responsibility to these people as well as to Sapphire the writer, and to Lee Daniels, the director. He plucked me from obscurity and put me basically in the same room with Helen Mirren, with Halle Berry, with all these people that I idolize, and I didn't want him to be wrong in choosing me.

Q: What gives you such a sense of confidence and composure?

GS: I'm 26 years old. I'm a grownup. So when I got the role I was 24-years old. It wasn't very hard for me to play a 16 year old. I only operate at about a 19-year old level anyway. So my sense of self comes from being a grownup.

I know who I am because I've lived with myself for 26 years. That's really where it comes from. In turn, I know Precious because I know who I am. Does that make sense?

The lines don't blur because I know exactly who I am and I knew who I was before I started.

Q: Since she is so thoroughly depicted in Sapphire's book, how did you bring this character to life so distinctly? What was it in you that you homed in on to bring her to the screen?

GS: As I said, I had a lot of guilt because I'd walked past this character. I had walked past Precious and a lot of different people before in my life, and I felt like I owed it to the people out there who hold this kind of pain, who live this kind of life. And, I felt a lot of responsibility to the writer, to Sapphire.

Q: You've talked about the pomp and circumstance around the movie, but what about the negative things that have surrounded this project for you?

GS: Some of the negative stuff--things that have hurt my feelings, which I stopped reading--are when people comment on clothes that I've worn or whatever. That's weird, because it's my own style and I've been dressing myself for a very long time and I wear clothes that fit me, things that I like.

But people expect more because they think I'm rich or think that someone else is pulling strings around me. No.

It's always weird, when someone [says], "Someone needs to get that girl a stylist." It's like, "No." I tell me what to wear. That's the negative part, when people expect something different from me.

Also, people expect to me be a role model, which is cool. But I am a role model because I have 13-year old sisters and I have a 20-year old brother--because I have siblings and cousins, that's why I'm a role model. Not because I'm in a movie. My first responsibility is to my family and to myself.

It's so weird to turn on a switch and be the role model for all women, for all African-Americans. That doesn't happen that easily. It does not. So I don't act up in public and don't do anything weird, because my sisters are watching me. Not because the world is watching me.

Q: There are so many positive African American stories out there. Why do you think this story needs to be told?

GS: I think this story needed to be told because no one has told it and it's reality. When I actually did research--these numbers change from month to month--but when I [looked], seven out of 10 children were physically abused, sexually abused. And out of those seven, one in three were victims of incest. That's too many people.

Think about how many people you walk by, how many people you know, and you don't know what their story is because no one is saying anything and because it eats at them inside. That type of secret eats away and destroys a human.

This story needed to be told because it starts a dialogue. It says that it's okay, that you're not the only one that's been hurt, that you can get past it, you can talk about it, and that it can possibly save another life.

Q: Your mother, Alice Tan Ridley, once said she was offered Mo'Nique's role but that it was too hard for her to do because of the reality behind the story itself. Did that makes it too difficult for her?

GS: My mom found it to be really, really hard and heartbreaking. But another reason why she didn't want to do it is because she's not an actress and she's not famous worldwide the way that Mo'Nique is. She was afraid that strangers wouldn't be able to differentiate between her and the role.

Also, my mom has been a teacher since she was 12 years old. That's crazy in itself, but my mom loves children and she's like, "There's no way I can do that. I can't even act like I'm going to harm a child." She just couldn't do it.

Q: You didn't have that fear that when you took on the role that people would liken that portrayal of what you're doing to your reality?

GS: No. I've been in a million situations since filming where people have seen it and seen the trailer and they think that I'm that girl, but all it takes is for me to say hello because I'm so very different. The difference between her and me is so distinct that, in a word, that I'm [very] different.

Q: After working with Mo'Nique, you two had to bond in such an emotionally charged project. What was your relationship with her like as you worked together and what is your relationship with her now?

GS: Mo'Nique is so full of love. I've been describing her all day as being like the tree in Pocahontas. She's really wise and she's so loving and she is everything.

Mary [the mother] is not. Mary is there to degrade Precious. Mo'Nique is there to uplift. Precious and Mary are enemies. They're in a constant fight and they've always been in a constant fight. So when the director says action, we're fighting because we're Precious and we're Mary.

When he says cut, I certainly go back to being Gabby and she goes back to being Mo'Nique; we hug each other and we love each other. We really do have to love each other so much more, because while the tape is rolling we hate each other.

Q: How are you dealing with all the attention you're getting now from this role? Have you gotten any advice from executive producer Oprah in terms of dealing with a possible Oscar nomination and how is that affecting you and what you want to do next?

GS: I don't know--[I take it] one day at a time. It's a new life, certainly, but it's still a life. It's all so weird. It's an office job in a way, and my office happens to be a red carpet or a room full of interviewers. So I take it like it's life. It's fun. It's more exciting, but I still take it as something that I have to do.

As far as the advice that Oprah has given me, unfortunately Oprah is so awesome that I can't hear when she talks to me. My brain shuts down. I met her and all I remember is her saying my name over and over and over again.

I talked to her maybe twice, for two days in Toronto, and we had a bunch of conversations. But all I can remember is that her favorite color is not purple. It's green.

Q: How was it talking to the other executive producer, Tyler Perry? What was it like getting to know and hanging out with him?

GS: Oh my gosh! He's really tall and so handsome [laughs]. It's so weird when you meet all these celebrities and you meet people you admire. It's one thing to meet them, but then to hang around them for a while, they dissolve from being superstars to just being a dude.

Tyler is just a dude now. Tyler is really, really awesome. He's really, really funny and he's handsome. Weirdly enough, Mariah [Carey] is just a chick, she's just a girl.

Q: This job has taken you to such heights. Has it been hard to go back to your life, your neighborhood, to Lehman? What's keeping you grounded at this point?

GS: I don't know. I never actually went to Lehman College. It's not my school. It's my best friend's school and I had done a lot of plays there, but I was never enrolled in Lehman. I go back every now and then should there be a party going on, something like that, or to visit friends. But I'm certainly not hindered by this life at all.

At this point, I still go where I want to go and I do what I want to do. While I do get recognized a lot, it's not like I'm getting recognized every second of the day. Not every second of the day is a red carpet or these type of things where everyone knows who I am. For the most part, I pretty much live my life in pajama pants and hoodies.

Q: Where did you go to college?

GS: I went to City College, BMCC, and Mercy.

Q: What experiences on set were fun and will they end up on the DVD?

GS: We certainly had our documentary boys--we called them docu-boys--that filmed everything. One thing, it was Paula Patton's birthday and her husband, [singer] Robin Thicke, came to the set. It was a big surprise. She didn't know he was coming. Mr. Daniels had hired a mariachi band and they got cupcakes from Magnolia and there was apple cider. It was a really, really big surprise party that she didn't know was happening.

So we all started singing happy birthday to her and she was all flummoxed and embarrassed. Tthen this mariachi band comes in and then Robin has flowers in his hand and he's all jazzed up. It was amazing.

The whole company was in this one tiny classroom celebrating Paula's birthday. We danced and sang; we ate cupcakes and drank fake champagne. That was the best. I know it's on the docu-cameras because I've since seen the footage. That should totally be on the DVD extras.

Q: How do you feel about the Oscar possibilities?

GS: I have not followed the Oscars because I wasn't an actress and wasn't interested. It wasn't my field. So I don't know what makes an Oscar film and I don't know what makes an Oscar winning actress. I just don't know.

While it's all very nice, I don't understand any of it, to be honest. I don't know what I did that's different from what any other actress has done in order to receive an Oscar.

Q: What are you going to do next?

GS: I would certainly love to continue acting.

Q: Do you want to do a comedy? Some people might send you scripts that are similar to this. Are you open to that or do you want to do something completely different?

GS: So far, so good. The thing about this film is there probably isn't going to be another role like this, another Precious role or film, for a while at least.

Fortunately, no one has yet pigeonholed me to this character. I've received scripts that are all different kinds of characters.

So I would love to do a comedy. I'd love to do a romance. I'd love to do a lot of really different films. I must do other stuff. How else will I prove that I'm an actress, if not to take on different kinds of characters?