Monday, March 22, 2010

Actor Said Faraj Gives A Human Face To Iraqi in Green Zone

Exclusive Q & A by Brad Balfour

While director Paul Greengrass used a shaky cam to lend grit and authenticity to Green Zone -- his take on what really happened in the search for weapons of mass destruction at onset of the Iraq War -- actor Matt Damon gives it a human face. Damon makes his character, Roy Miller, the chief warrant officer in charge of the search, fret and sweat as he goes off into the wilds of Baghdad.

Yet it's 43-year-old actor Said Faraj who give the film a verisimilitude. With a life story right out of any war-torn Middle Eastern land, Faraj invests his character, the military adjunct to a top Ba'ath Party general, with his own perspective, having survived the Lebanese Civil War in the 1980s.

Born in Choueifat, Lebanon, Faraj was 13 when his Beruit-based family -- members of the Druze reformatory Islamic sect -- saw death and mayhem firsthand as warring militias vied for control of his homeland.

Faraj humanizes his character, Seyyed Hamza, by allowing us to see pro-Ba'athist combatants as more than brutal oppressors but as family men as well. Hamza is one degree of separation from the general who can explain where the WMDs are. He's also the one who unlocks Miller's anger about their questionable existence. As a result, the exchanges between Hamza and Miller pack an urgency that adds to Green Zone's narrative punch.

Miller's improvised aide, a Shia Iraqi nicknamed Freddy (played by Khalid Abdalla of The Kite Runner) plays out the notion of, "This is my Iraq, it's my country. You Americans don't have a connection to it."

Through Hamza we see the conflict through a Sunni perspective. He's a military guy -- sharp, ambitious and on the rise before the invasion, one who can invite powerful people into his home. So it is all the more poignant when he gets brutalized and tortured in an American military prison and begs for them to protect his family if he give the information demanded.

[Portrait by William Coupon]

Like so many of the Iraq War films, Green Zone presents itself from a Western point of view. Yet thanks in part to Faraj's authentic performance, the film also invites Western audiences to understand the unfolding ordeal from Iraqi eyes.

Though the film was greeted by mixed reviews and lukewarm audiences, it raises many crucial questions and deserves a viewing. In this exclusive interview, Said Faraj provides some equally compelling explanations.

Q: Your character shows the Iraqi side has a human face.

SF: One thing I wanted to [convey], was that regardless of the position I had -- that I am a high-ranking officer -- or of what we're trying to do, the most important thing in my character's mind was that "I have a family [to protect]."

I separated the two things in my head; it's like, "Okay, he does this, but at the same time, he has a family, he's caring, and he loves them so much.

This was one thing that, no matter if somebody wants information, you need to protect [your] family because [your] family comes first, especially [your] kids. So it was very important, because over there, especially in that type of war, family comes first.

It was very important for this character to have the love so that he could do what he had to do and go as far as possible. I think when people watch the film, [they] forget what he does, [but have] sympathy [for] the fact that this guy has a family and his job is to get them to a safe place.

Q: Were there debates among the cast and crew off-screen? You were trying to understand the conflict yourself.

SF: My character is from the Ba'ath regime and a Sunni. Khalid [Abdalla]'s character is a Shia. That was a conflict to the characters which made it great. I have to admit it was very hard, because every time we finished shooting we would go out, have fun, go smoke hookah and drink some Moroccan tea.

In the morning... I'd focus so much on the job that needs to be done, and then it's done and I go and sit down on my chair. Matt would sit down and we'd chat a little bit and then I'd go to my room and go, "Okay, what is this guy's point of view and what does he care about and what does he want to do?" Again, it's family, family, family.

This is one of the first films that I really feel shows Middle Eastern characters who have families and how much they care. My character is really pressed so hard because it's very important for people to know that we are really people who have families, and have kids, and care about them.

Q: How did you get connected to this film?

SF: My agent found out that they were casting for this film but that the role required a 65-year-old man. So he called me and said, "Amanda Mackey and Cathy Sandrich are casting this film called Green Zone. The role is for an older person but it's a very important person. Go audition for them so at least you'll get a chance to meet a new casting director."

This is how everything starts: I went over there, there were lots, and lots, and lots of people who auditioned for the film, and lots of offers went out for it. But I went to just go, [I] did the job, and I just want to give a big thanks for Sandra for her giving me the chance to work. And I thank Paul [Greengrass] for fighting for me so hard to get this role.

Q: So he changed the part?

SF: Yes, he thought a lot and was like, "This is who I want."

Q: Your character has to both fight for his family and be committed to Iraq he knows; so what made it work?

SF: They needed a high-ranking officer and I was blessed with having this part of me that's charismatic so I tried to portray him in a very manly, Middle Eastern way; that came out nicely. At the same time I went to an acting coach,Candace Kaniecki, because I wanted that image but I needed to give it an American touch so it would blend in.

You don't want him to be off the board, but at the same time you want a charm to come through. A very important part of the audition deals with my kid, and when I was auditioning, I was picturing one of my own kids [in that situation] so that really brought a realism into it.

Q: You're Lebanese right? Though you speak Arabic, how good was your Iraqi accent? It's a different accent from a Lebanese one or is it a dialect?

SF: I had a fantastic technical advisor in LA, Sam Sako, and I went to him and told him I needed to have an Iraqi accent. I really needed his help and that I didn't have too much time because I just found out about it. I had two weeks and needed him to give me enough to where I can speak it so people at least know I'm Iraqi.

We were working on it and another technical adviser said, "No, no. This guy is a Ba'ath militia from Tikrit." I's like going from, say if you are Chinese, speaking Mandarin, now you have to speak Japanese. And that's what happened; I only had a few hours to learn it and it was really, really brutal. I have to say that I worked really, really, really, really hard on my accent to represent the Iraqi people and the Iraqi language the best that I could.

Q: In that crucial scene with the Iraqi generals, you give a sense of who the general is, how everybody treats him and how those in authority express the right posture. He's not just a general, he's this Ba'athist leader. How did you get into it and look at the issues? Was there a discussion about how you play your interaction with Matt?

SF: Just being in that room [for that scene of Ba'ath officials with the general] was enough. Of course, they hired some Moroccan guys over there. Except [for the actor who played] his bookkeeper; he was 100% Iraqi and spoke as Iraqi as possible.

So the issue of it wasn't [discussed] because they didn't say much [to us] since they were speaking Moroccan among themselves. We had lots of dialog that we had to remember with that accent, so that accent as very important and each person was trying to really concentrate on it along with everything else. And it's amazing, what Paul enjoyed was every time we did a scene he'd want more and more. So I'm trying to add to what I needed to say.

Q: You came from Lebanon during its civil war. You have an understanding of the turmoil in the Middle East from your own life -- your own story could be made into a movie.

SF: Of course. I grew up in Lebanon and started fighting in the civil war at 13 with the Druze; I used all kinds of weapons and have fired more guns than you can imagine.

Q: Does that get you Israeli citizenship?

SF: Actually we're very well respected in Syria and in Israel. We go up there and they salute us, and in Lebanon we are all respected.

One thing that's very important about my religion, is that we love the ground we live on and respect it so much and protect it with our heart, mind and soul. It doesn't matter what the point of view of other people is but it matters what we believe and we believe that if this is the place we're staying at we need family, of course, god comes first, family and the land.

We put everything political on the side and this is what we do. I was fighting in the wars when I was 13 years old, and around 16 years old, it's mandatory in Lebanon to go into the war. I was 16 years old and supposed to join the army, but I didn't want to do that at all. My dad tried to get us down to Beirut, and at the time there was an American embassy in Lebanon, in 1983, and they were giving five-year visas to come to the United States.

We went over there at three in the morning because there were long lines; it was crazy. We stayed over there from three in the morning until three in the afternoon and what happened is that I went and I got my visa, and I was so proud to get it so that I could leave Lebanon with the mess that there is. I was the last person who got the American visa stamped, and walked out like 100 feet; then they came and blew the embassy up.

I saw everything in front of me; it was a horrifying scene. I went to the hotel and because I'm supposed to join the army, we needed to get an excuse to get me the ticket so I can leave. There was also a person who was Druze giving all the Druze at least 10 days to leave the country; they could do whatever they had to do. I went with my friends and cousin and we get this for 10 days, and that night they came and assassinated the guy.

I went back to the hotel and we found out that they assassinated him, so I got my ticket to come to the United States. My flight was supposed to be at seven o'clock in the morning and that night [factions were] bombing Lebanon; it was a really big mess over there. October 17, 1983.

We woke up at 12 o'clock in the morning and went to the airport. There were very few cars going to the airport since there were snipers; they shot at the front part of the car but my dad was zooming through the streets.

We get to the airport, and while we there we find out that the hotel we were staying at there were a few Druze guys who are my same age. They came and knocked at the room that I was in while we were at the airport. I was the only guy, by the way, who was 16 years old going to the United States on this airplane.

The most important thing was just to get on the plane. I hopped on the plane and we went from Lebanon to Jordan, which is 45 minutes away. We landed there, and let me tell you, my friend, that was the last airplane that left this airport. After that they bombarded the airport and it was closed until it was opened up a few years later. So I reached Jordan, called my parents and they're crying on the phone telling me what happened, and I went from there and flew to New York.

Q: You didn't speak English?

SF: Very little; I spoke French and Arabic. As you know, the embassy had just been attacked, so they were like, "Said Faraj. Please go over there to interrogation."

Q: You're probably one of the few actors in this movie who had a real experience with this kind of conflict and from an Arabic point of view.

SF: My brother died in front of me; so did some of my relatives and my best friends. I almost died three times. To top things off, when I reached New York and they interrogated me, thank God, after four or five hours I [was able] to fly to LA.

In my country people live according to their family's last name. I knew that I had an uncle that lived in North Hollywood, so I go over there. I asked the security guard at the airport to direct me to North Hollywood and he told me which bus to take.

I got over here with exactly in my pocket, $235. So the bus dropped me at the corner of Colfax and Riverside, and this is the best part. My dream is to really eat the real, hardcore American hamburger. The first minute I step my feet on the soil of American land I want to have a hamburger.

I'm looking around and my uncle is not there and I don't know what to do. There is a stand on the corner; that was the best hamburger. I was sitting on this bench eating a hamburger a day, sleeping on this bench for two-and-a-half weeks waiting for my uncle, who did not show up. I'm almost running out of money and I'm looking around -- what should I do?

One street down there was an ESL [English as a second language] school that taught adults, and I start walking, thinking maybe I'll meet somebody that has dark features, maybe they'll speak Arabic. Fortunately, I found a Syrian guy and explained to him my story and asked if he could help me. Guess what? My uncle lived in one of the apartments that his relative owned, and he lived two blocks away. And now, 28 years later, I'm sitting here talking to you, my friend.

Q: So what did your father do?

SF: My father actually lived in Africa, in Monrovia, [the capital of] Liberia, and fixed typewriters and adding machines. He was kind of the right hand of Wlliam Tolbert, the old Liberian president that was assassinated. It's so funny because we grew up in Lebanon but they were over there in Africa because the education over there and the school system was really very poor.

Q: In Monrovia they had English-language schools; did you spend time in that area?

SF: I did actually for seven years, but separated. I was born in Lebanon, went to Africa, lived there until age four, then went back to Lebanon to live with my aunts. During the first Lebanese civil war in the mid-'70s we went to Africa for a couple of years, and then we went back to Lebanon.

Q: Where was the guy who played the general from?

SF: He's an Israeli [actor, Igal Naor who was also in Rendition and Munich].

Q: I guess he had military experience too. But he's an Israeli. Of anybody in the movie, besides the American soldiers who went to Iraq, your experience is closest to that of the Iraqi people. Did you tell that to the book's author?

SF: When we went to Morocco I met Rajiv Chandrasekaran [the former Baghdad Bureau Chief for the Washington Post, whose book Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone inspired the film]. What a beautiful book.

Q: He's South Asian and works for one of the big newspapers. Because he spent time in Iraq as a journalist, he knows all this bullshit about the parties and factions.

SF: I met him but didn't have a chance to sit down and explain to him, "Okay, this is your story, but this is my story."

Q: But you never spent any time in Iraq?

SF: No. I'll tell you one thing; one of my dreams is to go see the Garden of Eden in Iraq, one of the wonders of the world. I really wanted to go.

Q: The irony is that the only ones who have actually been to Iraq are the American soldiers. How many in the movie were actually in Iraq?

SF: All of them.

Q: So basically this military group infiltrated Hollywood.

SF: Paul really wanted reality in this. He cares a lot about balance and real authenticity and respect to cultures, and really wanted genuine, hard core, to the max from the military. If you notice, he picked an area in the film that was really beaten up earlier.

By the way, my first name means "happy" and my last name means "hope." To tell you a good thing about Paul Greengrass, his last name means "spring."

Q: Did you tell him that?

SF: I didn't have the chance. At the premiere party I really wanted to talk to him and he just gave me a hug but we only had a very light chat because he was busy; I understand that.

Q: So where does the actor come in?

SF: In my country, we loved theater, and to this day, theater is our passion. After I found my uncle, I went to North Hollywood High School and graduated from there. I started looking for jobs and didn't have my papers with me so I had 22 jobs in two years. Every time they stared asking [about my papers, so] after a couple of weeks I was gone, and I went from one to another, one to another, but always the acting and entertainment was a passion that never stopped.

I went back to Miss Haber, my art teacher in school -- that was in 1985 -- and I asked her in 1988 what could I do and she told me this is exactly what I needed to do.

And believe it or not, my first job was a film produced, directed, and starring David Hasselhoff, The Hoff. I just want to say thank you so much. It was called W.B., Blue and the Bean, and they changed the name to Bail Out, and out of this film I got my Screen Actors Guild [card], and here I am after 21 years in the business.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Swedish Actress Noomi Rapace Brings The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo to Life

Interview by Brad Balfour

I always look at what people read on the subway. So when I saw the many well worn copies of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo being read on my every ride, I knew there was something epochal about it. Eventually, I picked up one and started reading but ADD got in the way so I put it down and it wasn't finished.

Thankfully, the Swedish movie version came out last weekend and I heartily recommend it especially for the striking performance by actress Noomi Rapace who does an uncanny version of her character Lisbeth Salander. The first of three cinematic versions of the Millennium trilogy by the late controversial leftist journalist Stieg Larsson, it grappled with violence against women, Nazi elements in Swedish society and corrupt business practices.

It introduced the punkified, tat-and-pierced hacker Salander -- saddled with a sexually abused past -- and journalist Mikael Blomkvist, editor of the muck-racking magazine Millennium. Their lives become intertwined when the temporarily discredited Blomkvist is hired to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of an aging Swedish magnate's niece.

Despite the black-and-studded garb of her character, Rapace projects a strange allure that lends both her performance and the film its credibility. She made an ideal choice for Danish director Niels Arden Oplev to work alongside veteran Swedish star Michael Nyqvist as Blomkvist. Daughter of a flamenco dancer and actress, the 31-year-old Rapace has already tackled some difficult roles such as the failed actress in 2007's Daisy Diamond.

Q: This is a very dark movie and Salander is a challenging character to play. What was the most difficult aspect of it for you? You were really into the character; are you anything like her?

NR: When I was done with those three films it was very strange. I'm never sick, but when the producers and everybody going to celebrate with champagne, I begin to throw up, and couldn't stop.

For an hour or so, I couldn't stand on my feet. It was like my body was just throwing Lisbeth out of me in a way; it was very strange. Everybody was a bit shocked because we had been working for one and a half years and I was never sick...

Q: You did all three of the movies back to back?

NR: Yes. [When I was done] I didn't really know who I was; it was very strange when I walked out of the room. I have this mohawk in the third film so both sides were shaved and I was walking out in real life and didn't really know who am I today? What have I become? So it was strange, but good.

I like to let things go; I love to go on and to leave things, and I'm not so sentimental. I was supposed to play Medea, so one week later I began to rehearse Medea.

Q: What was it like making that transition?

NR: Lisbeth pretty much helped me; it's like they're sisters in a strange way. I think that the rape scene was probably one of the hardest to do and to go into. The scene when he actually rapes me, but also the scene when I come back and rape him and torture him.

I expected the scene when he rapes me to be terrifying and horrible; it was, and I dreamt nightmares; it was like some kind of demon who sat in me in a way. But the scene when I came back, I didn't expect to feel the way that I did; I actually enjoyed doing those things to him and that was pretty frightening.

I felt some kind of dark force in me that actually liked to scare the hell out of him and I didn't expect that. It was like we went down to hell and we were in this hell for a week or something.

It's extremely important that you trust the director in those situations and that you can fully hand yourself over to the situation. I have to force away my vanity and try to just let go of control.

I hate when you see rape scenes in films where it's like entertainment, it's a bit charming or sexy in a sense. I hate that because I'm very sure that a rape scene in reality would be terrifying and horrible, and everybody who's gone through a situation like that knows.

My responsibility as an actress is to try and get every scene as credible as possible. You have to be on the edge, you have to force yourself all the way.

Q: Had you known anybody that had been abused or raped?

NR: Yes. when I was 20 one of my best friends had been abused.

Q: Did you read the books?

NR: Yes, a couple of years before.

Q: The chemistry between you and journalist Blomkvist [Nygvist] makes for a very unusual relationship because of the difference in age and background. But most surprising is when she seduces him. Is that typical for the women of Sweden [laughs]?

NR: They will come and knock on your door and seduce you [laughs].

Q: How did you feel about that? Did it feel right?

NR: Yes. I think that love is the most dangerous thing for Lisbeth and she actually falls in love with Mikael, but doesn't know how to behave. It's the first time and she doesn't have any weapons for that so that makes her very scared.

People can beat her up, rape her, do a lot of really bad things to her and she will always survive, she will always find a way to stand up and fight back. But when it comes to love she's terrified.

So I think the scene where she comes into him, she wants to have sex with him because of physical reasons, but also she's emotionally connected to him. It's also her way of protecting herself; when she's done she's got to go.

She can't stay with him because that would be emotional and then they would be close. It always has to be with her rules and she has to be the play leader in a way.

Q: How do you think American audiences will react to the rape scene?

NR: I think people all over the world will feel released in a way. It's very freeing. It's strange, but I think it's a pretty bright moment when Lisbeth actually fights back, and I think it's worldwide. I think everybody can understand and can follow in that kind of situation.

When somebody has been abused and they fight back, there's always something good about that. In Sweden we have a huge problem with young girls and women harming themselves, cutting and burning themselves. It's much better to actually hate the one who has abused you instead of beginning to hate yourself.

Americans are like Swedes or European people in that sense, so everybody can feel some kind of revenge and some kind of energy in that scene. Lisbeth is aggressive, dangerous and full of hate, but she's also full of life, and I think you can feel that in a way. She wants to live, otherwise she would have been gone years ago.

Q: Your character is so realistic and convincing. Did the pierced, bisexual communities approach you to serve as their spokesperson?

NR: No, but Lisbeth did become a big icon in Sweden. I think that she in a way paved the way for many young people in Sweden. Also she opened up many things. She doesn't define herself as bisexual or heterosexual; I think that she's a very free spirit in a way and she's very impulsive.

I think that to open that up for many kids and young people in Sweden that it's okay to be different, we don't have to stick in the line, because the Swedish society can be pretty hard to live in because you're supposed to be so many things, and you're supposed to not stick out.

Swedish people are a bit repressed and stoic and they keep everything inside, and sometimes it's really difficult to know what people really feel and really think because they don't show anything. And everybody's trying to keep this nice, neutral, normal, surface, and you don't know anything about what's going on inside of them, and it can be pretty difficult to live in a society like that. So I think that Lisbeth has opened up things in a way.

Q: Those were real piercings; you did them for the sake of the film?

NR: Yes.

Q: You have had your own punk background.

NR: When I was 14, and 15, I lived in Malmö, Sweden, which is next to Copenhagen, Denmark. I was pierced and had white hair; I wanted to look like Nancy Spungen, Sid Vicious' girlfriend.

Q: Do you think Lisbeth was a victim like Nancy or did you find her intimidating?

NR: I love her; she's such a fighter. She has gone through so many terrible things, but she always finds a way to pull herself together and to stand up and to continue what she wants to do. I think that she doesn't accept being a victim, but she is. The whole society, everybody has let her down, and everybody has treated her so badly, but she doesn't feel sorry for herself.

I think that she is a victim in many ways but she refuses to be one. That was the thing that I really loved of her when I read the books. She's like a little warrior fighting her own personal war, and I love that.

Q: She was a combination of victim and intimidator; was she intimidating? Or somewhere in the middle?

NR: Yeah maybe some place in the middle.

Q: How did you find a way to play that?

NR: I tried to not analyze her so much. I didn't do too much research, but I did a lot of preparation; I was preparing for seven months before shooting because I really wanted to transform my body. I don't like to fake things, so I try to do everything as far as I can as realistically as possible.

I trained and exercised, did a lot of kickboxing and Thai boxing, and was on a certain diet because I wanted to get a bit skinnier and a bit more like a boy in my body. I cut my hair and pierced myself, got my motorcycle driver's license, and it was like Lisbeth slowly grew inside of me and slowly I didn't think so much about it.

I always try to come to a point where I can let go of control when I'm shooting, so the director can be the man in charge, and can have control, and be sharp, and I can just free myself. I can't really see myself from the outside anymore so sometimes it's really hard for me to answer questions like who Lisbeth really was and where did I put her and so on, because it's sometimes like I was so deep into her.

Q: Truly into character.

NR: Also, I try to use myself as much as I can, dig from myself and translate things from me into the character. I can't come to work, put on Lisbeth's clothes and now I'm Lisbeth so now we can begin to work. It's more like I have to give her a place in me for the whole time. This was a year - we were shooting for a year - so it's more like I have to open up for her in me, and then she's with me 24 hours a day.

Q: In the film Mikael said to Lisbeth, "Friendship requires mutual respect and trust." How do you feel personally about that in regards to your real life? Is that statement true to you personally in life?

NR: Of course. Lisbeth doesn't have any friends so she doesn't know how to behave or how to act. I think that Lisbeth is the most loyal friend that you can every have; she will die for you. It's easy to be strong on your own, but it makes you vulnerable when you let people into your heart and into your life.

When I was younger it was difficult for me to have friends. It's always easier to be tough if you're the one who's making all the decisions and you're the one in charge. When you have a close friend or a boyfriend of a family member, you have to compromise in a way, and then you have to open up. I can understand Lisbeth in many ways.

Q: You did a scene in the hospital with your real mother. How was it seeing your mother play Lisbeth's mother and how was that for your mother? Had you ever acted with her before?

NR: No, that was my first time. Well it was heavy. I said to Niels that I wanted him to meet my mother. It's a very short scene so we have to immediately get the audience to feel the energy between those two and we have to feel that they have a history. But Lisbeth's father has harmed her so badly so she's not working anymore, she's way out.

So it was extremely important that the audience could feel the strong relationship and the strong energy between them, even though she can't really talk and respond as normal people do. We have this history in my real life that we could use; my mother was in the hospital when I was a teenager, so we had things that we could dig from.

Q: You weren't afraid of that?

NR: Yes, I was. I'm afraid of things every day but I force a way through those things because it doesn't help you. I'm pretty much like Lisbeth in that sense; I try to play stronger than I am.

You have to go where the fear is, you have to face the fear in a way, and that it's extremely important when you're making films; it has to be personal. I have to put it as close to myself as I possibly can.

Q: Do you feel the ending is believable when she goes through the sudden transformation from an outsider to a Julia Roberts-like foxy lady with a lot of millions?

NR: Yes, of course. She's like a chameleon; she can change and she's very smart. It's a uniform, this punk rock, emo message she's sending to the world. At the end of film she has to look a different way in order to get all this money so she can be whatever she needs to be.

She's a very good actress; she can play every game in the whole world and transform herself. She's a survivor so it's a way of surviving.

Q: You're now a big star in Sweden on the verge of international stardom. Once you go through that door, you can never go back. Have you thought about what it means to you?

NR: Yes. My life has changed pretty much, and I think that last year was like three years or something. I've been traveling so much, and I've done, I think, 1,000 interviews talking about this film, so it has changed my life already.

I don't see any value in being famous for being famous; I hate those celebrity parties. I don't want to be in every paper and I don't want everybody to know everything about it.

If you get too famous it can stand in the way of your acting and people will go to the theaters only to see this famous person, they won't go to see what kind of character you're playing.

It's a balance between how much you should and shouldn't do, and it's extremely important to keep some kind of secret. But most of the directors that I deeply respect and have changed my life are from the US or the UK.

Sweden is very small and I will leave Sweden one day because I always felt like some kind of outsider; I always felt a bit uncomfortable [there].

Since I was a kid I always felt like I didn't really fit in Swedish society, so I think I will leave. And if fame can help me so I can work with people that I deeply respect and whose work I love, that would be wonderful.

Q: Who are some of those people?

NR: Martin Scorsese, I love his films. Quentin Tarantino, Sean Penn, Christopher Nolan, Sofia Coppola. I can go on forever. I don't want to jump on the first big boat that comes so It's very, very important to stay on the ground and really listen to yourself because all of a sudden there are many people who want to explain to you what's good for you. I'm trying to stay true to myself.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Former Godfather Actor Andy Garcia Makes a Home in City Island

Interview by Brad Balfour

Andy Garcia smiles [pic: B. Balfour]

Nestled up alongside the Bronx is a place called City Island, a sweet gem of a seaside neighborhood with the kind of New Yorkers that have been driven out to New Jersey or other parts of the tri-state area. It's made up of classic borough ethnics, working class folks struggling to survive laden with family issues that don't usually make it into films populated with superheroes and otherworldly villains.

Situated in this environment is the story of City Island and troubled middle-aged prison guard patriarch Vince Rizzo ( Andy Garcia), the husband of Joyce (Julianna Margulies) and father to Vivian (Dominik García-Lorido) and Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) -- who have various issues of their own. Though his wife thinks he's having an affair, the only flirtation on his mind is an acting career; and he's afraid if anyone he knows finds out he will endure endless ridicule.

Manhattan-based director Ray De Felitta has made other local films, but this one really hits its mark as a fine dramedy, with heart, some twists and turns and unique touches. It hit its mark with festival audiences as well, having won the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival's Audience Award.

The 53-year-old Cuban-born, Miami-raised Garcia has played his share of villains, Hollywood heroes and, in recent years, the lead in films he passionately supports, sometimes as director, sometimes as producer. Though he was Oscar-nominated for The Godfather: Part III, he has really been driven by movies with authentic roots such as the self-directed The Lost City (2005). He signed on to produce City Island because he so connected to the story -- understandably so, since it also starred his daughter Dominik.

Q: This is such a feel-good film. It’s so rare that we get those types; what did it take to get into this film?

AG: Well Ray sent me the script — we share the same agency — and then my agent said, “There’s a script I read, Raymond wants to talk to you about it and you could produce it if you want.”

So I sat and I read it and I had the same feeling that you guys had with the movie; I went, “Wow, what a beautiful script. You mean this thing is having trouble getting off the ground? What kind of world are we living in?” This is a beautiful script and I knew it would attract great actors because of the quality of the writing.

So we met and hit it off. We had a lot of similar interests in music and piano and all these things. I watched his movie, Two Family House -- which was terrific -- and then I signed on. It’s easy to say romantically, “Hey, I’m a producer in the movie,” but I’ve done six of these independent things and when you sign up to produce a movie, it’s a commitment you’re making to the director, to the piece and to yourself -- to challenge yourself to get this thing made. I want to fulfill that challenge.

When you challenge yourself, you want to be successful, and not in terms of money. I’m talking about just the achievement, because the fact that the movie exists is success enough already. The fact that you’re going in saying, "We’re going to do this," you want to fulfill that.

So it’s not like anything that comes along I go, “Yeah I’ll produce it!” because it takes a lot of work. Unless you go to Warner Brothers, where they say, “Great script. When can you start?” That’s easier. But when you’re on your own, raising money from your dry cleaner, it’s different.

Q: How is it producing in this economic environment?

AG: It’s a very, very tough environment. Most of the independent distributors are gone, the ones that were part of the majors, the Warner Independent, Paramount Classics and all that, most of those closed down, so it’s very difficult. It’s hard to raise money internationally if you don’t have a distributor. The pre-sales are very soft, so it’s possibly the worst time to try to produce a movie. But yet again, here I go.

Q: What strings did you pull to put this movie together?

AG: Well, [how about] Alan [Arkin], Julianna [Margulies], and Emily [Mortimer]? They were friends and colleagues and I had worked with them before.

Q: Was it fun working with your daughter Dominik García-Lorido?

AG: It was great. For us it’s like baking bread together. It’s pretty natural because we’ve...worked together before. Of course I’m proud of her and look at her from a distance going, “She’s doing her thing.” But it’s like you want to also make it not a big deal like, “Hey, I’m really watching you,” kind of thing.

First of all, she doesn’t need my help. I need her help as much as she needs mine because as actors we need each other, so it’s as simple as that. You just let it be relaxed, have fun and do your thing. If there’s an idea that I feel I can articulate to her or to a fellow actor or a fellow actor to me, I want people to be comfortable to express ideas. I’m not one of those actors who goes, “Mind your own business.”

Jeff Bridges taught me that the first time we worked together many years ago in 8 Million Ways to Die. I didn’t know the man, but I played the antagonist to him, so my job was to make it miserable for him as much as I could. And the first thing he said to me was, “Hey man, if you have any ideas of something I could do that would make it better, please let me know.” And I went, “Okay. Wow.”

Q: He’s like that, isn’t he?

AG: He’s the most generous individual and generous actor I’ve ever worked with. And he set a great example to me of how to behave as a protagonist in a movie. He always said, “I consider the protagonist really the most important supporting actor because I’m here every day and you’ve got guys coming in to a new set. It’s my job to make them feel like, "Hey man, come in here and let’s play and don’t worry about it. What do you want to do? Let’s just do it.’”

He’s so supportive that way and it was a great lesson for me in one of my first movies. I feel that way; it’s a collaborative art form. The most important thing in any creative collaboration is respect, and the deeper the respect, the deeper the love, and the deeper the generosity, the deeper you can go into hatred and all the other dark characters because you’re going in there together. You can push each other’s buttons and at the end of the take go, “Hey man, that was pretty wild.”

You went there together and it feeds you as a creative unit. You don’t have to really hate the guy to hate him. So Jeff really personified that for me and it’s been a philosophy that I’ve adhered to and I’ve followed.

Q: Though your character didn’t struggle too much because he gets a part right away, for non-actors just the audition, the huge line of actor wanna-bes, is unnerving, but at the same time…

AG: Funny.

Q: Did you struggle a lot?

AG: Oh yes, very much.

Q: Was it like that?

AG: Pretty much like that. I had a lot of embarrassing auditions. I had a lot of struggle: years without even an audition, without agents. I was still going to class, I was doing improvisational theater. I was staying active in my craft but I was making a living as a waiter or as a roofer or as a mover. I was not getting any acting work because first of all, I didn’t even have an agent that would pay attention to me. So for me it was very difficult for me to get an agent to begin with.

I moved to LA in ’78, I started making a living as an actor in ’85. So that was like seven years, and it was really like the last year and a half that I actually had an agent and was making a little progress. The other six years or whatever were like Death Valley days; nothing was going on for me.

Q: Did you ever feel like giving up during that period?

AG: I had nowhere else to go. I had moments of insecurity. I had moments of sadness. And I had to really deeply soul-search; those years weren’t always a party. They were lonely years. I was there alone, really. I had some friends I had made, but I wasn’t around family, and wasn’t married until ’82.

It helped me when I got married. That empowered me more and grounded me more with my wife. We had Dominik right away. The first thing I did to make a little bit of a living is I used to do what they call "walla," which is the background voices on all the show. If you’re in a restaurant scene, it's all those people. You go in as a group and you would do all those voices for the mixer to fill in, and I used to do that for Cagney and Lacey and other television shows. When they rerun you get a second check, so I used to do that two or three times a week with a group. Barbara Harris was the leader of the group. That kept me afloat and got my daughters in Pampers, and paid the rent. I was waiting to find a niche.

Q: Was that the only thing you were interested in doing?

AG: That was it.

Q: How long did you know this?

AG: It was always in me as a young man, but I was involved in competitive sports all the way until my senior year in high school, baseball and basketball mainly. But in high school I concentrated on basketball, because the seasons overlapped and they wouldn’t let you play both sports.

Q: So you didn't go professional?

AG: Of course I wanted to play professional basketball, but the likelihood… I was a little guy, I weighed 150 pounds. I’m about the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life right now and I’m not that heavy.

I was very good at point guard but had physical limitations ultimately. I could have played college ball at a small college but...I got very sick my senior year with an illness that put me out, and during that time of limbo is when this other interest really grew. I was vulnerable for that other virus because it really was something in the pit of my stomach. I started feeling this kind of intense thing inside my body and I really related to it like a virus, like a huge cramping feeling that I needed to attend to, and it was this thing about acting.

Q: You must have found it ironic to play a character that wants so desperately to be an actor?

AG: There’s a reason why I made this movie — because I related to him, I related to his dream. I remember there's one scene where I’m telling my son, Tony, played by Steven Strait in the movie, and he discovers me with this thing and I tell him I want to be an actor.

What’s in the movie is the first take because the second take I started weeping, and the director said, “It might be too much. Would you be weeping in front of the son? You haven’t even told him he’s your son; would you be weeping in front of him? It might be too much because this guy’s so cramped up that he’d be evasive.”

But I related to Vince so much that I had this reaction, and if you look at the movie again you see in the scene that it’s there underneath and it’s coming. He wants to be an actor but he doesn’t think he knows anything about acting. He thinks he’s terrible about it. He’s insecure. He’s embarrassed.

There’s a great line that was an improvisation that always gets a laugh, and it’s always very gratifying for me because I come from an improvisational background. When the character starts to speak, and Raymond was very good about saying, “This is yours. Go with it.”

He knew that I worked that way a lot. When you stay out of the way of the characters, they start to speak for themselves. And there are some lines in the movie that come out that the character says that you can see the audience relates to because it’s not even Raymond or me or anybody, it’s the guy. There’s a moment where Emily says, “No, no. You channeled your son’s experiences and incorporated them into yours. That’s acting,” and I said, “That acting? You can do that in acting?”

And that’s just him; that’s just me in it there and that’s what came out. There’s another one at the end where I kiss him and I say, “You’re my son now, you’re my boy now, I’ve got you now,” and then I turn around, and I turn to Dominik and I say, “Hug your brother.” That just came out. At that point you’re just a vehicle for the guy who is in it.

Q: Dominik said that in the scene in the cul-de-sac you decided to play it straight. Was that how it was written in the script or how you worked it out?

AG: There was no rehearsal in this movie. The first scenes we shot in the movie, we sat around the dining room table in the morning, they brought the pasta, I looked at Julianna and she looked at me and said, “Here we go,” and that was it. [There were] two cameras, we kept moving them around, shot the two scenes and went home.

Q: In 27 days?

AG: 27 days. But that scene is basically as written, aside from these little embellishments and things that come up. I knew that this scene was designed, for me anyway, as sort of farcical. All the stories are coming together, everybody’s coming in and out of the door, the stories being tied together in this one scene. I knew that it was my responsibility in the comedic structure of the movie and the comedic structure of the scene to drive this scene. If I didn’t drive the scene it would just lay flat because it was just too much information, too many storylines to complete.

I knew that I needed to hit it because I was at the center of the vortex. After we did the scene inside the house where he runs away, I knew that when I hit that street we had to be powerful until I finally say, “I walked out on you.”

So I knew that was the way it needed to be played; that was just my own thing. Other than that it was in the material, the relationships were there, and you’re in it. But you make that directorial choice in a way of how the scene should be designed.

Q: I’ve always liked how you make your characters really organic in your films. How do you get into these characters to make them so real?

AG: Thank you. My training has been one to try to personalize the characters and find the parallels in my own life, to feel their emotional weight, their joys, pains, whatever. I try to strive for a sense of truth in the work and stay present in the moment and be free and relaxed and spontaneous and take my performance as much as I can from my fellow actors. You just got to stay in the moment and make sure the stakes are high, and the only way the stakes can be high is that I try to do as little acting as possible, basically.

Q: Do you have a favorite role of the many you’ve done over the years?

AG: This one’s pretty close. But it’s like children; you’ve got to be careful when you pick a favorite child. But this character was... unique. First of all, I’m playing against type because I’ve played a lot of gangsters or tough guys. People who know me see me in a much goofier, looser fashion, but you get known for a certain persona, thank god, because it’s a job, but you get type-casted to that persona.

Q: What’s next?

AG: I did a movie called Georgia directed by Renny Harlin, about the conflict in Georgia. I played the President, Saakashvili. I might have done something else; my memory is so bad. Right now I’m involved in a script that I wrote called Hemingway & Fuentes, with Hilary Hemingway, who is Ernest’s niece, about the relationship between Hemingway and Gregoria Fuentes, who was the captain of his boat for the last 20 years of his life. I’m going to direct that. I’ve committed to trying to raise the money for that.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Forest Whitaker & Jude Law Go for Your Gut in "Repo Men"

Feature Q & A by Brad Balfour

For veteran actors Forest Whitaker and Jude Law, this demented buddy movie, Repo Men, pulls on both their inner action heroes and tragic Shakespearean personae. Based on a one hell of a gonzo idea with decidedly political implications, Repo Men doesn't just bleed on the screen, it smears it in your face.

As veterans of some meaningless conflict set in the future, the two come home, still pals, and try to find their place. Eventually that place turns out to be the Union, the company that has cornered the market on mechanical body parts ("artiforgs") to replace the many that are lost to the ills of this future world.

As repo men, Jake Freivald (Whitaker) and Remy (Law) are assigned to recover the artificial organs that are sold on an egregiously inflated installment plan that only the most financially secure can pay off. If you default on your loan, the repo men can come and cut out your body part after three months.

So Jake and Remy become master re-possessors, bloodily slashing their way to corporate success. But Remy's wife wants him to quit -- it's either she or the job -- and Jake can't imagine life without his buddy at his side. When an accident occurs, Remy has his heart replaced, making the collector potentially collectable.

Placing such consummate actors as Whitaker and Law into roles where they are pitted against each other makes the gory action all the more delicious (and decidely different from Repo! The Genetic Opera -- a rock musical with similar themes).

And with a supporting cast that includes Alice Braga [pictured left; photo by Balfour], Liev Schreiber and Carice van Houten, you easily overlook the film's over-the-top premise.

The two leads sat down in a mini-press conference, livers intact, to rewind their experience on this sci-fi action-thriller based on Eric Garcia's novel, Repossession Mambo, and directed by Miguel Sapochnick.

Q: In creating your characters' back stories, how much did you collaborate on developing your interactions?

FW: Jude worked on the script for a while with Miguel at the beginning of the film. I came on towards the end, and there was just little discussions about these markers: what scenes we were going to shoot, what scenes we weren't going to shoot and what was necessary to make sure we told the simple backstory of our characters to bond us, to complete the world and to create this weird universe that we were going to live in.

Once we realized the bonds they had since they were children, and when they went into the army, and how these things would affect them in being able to be members of society...that was really important to the movement of our characters, and to the human part of the movie. (It's) about their friendship and separation, and about people who were growing in different directions. It was all a part of it in some way. We didn't have a long, hour-long discussion...

JL: No, it's funny, we really didn't... [but] it's thrilling when people watch your performances and can say what worked and what didn't. It's not something you sit around and create or orchestrate, because that's like dissecting a friendship, which seems unhelpful or unhealthy.

But a lot of it was on paper. We did both have our filmmaker hats on to fight for certain scenes, in flashbacks, but an awful lot did get cut in the end.

Little bits like coming back and little bits that we knew were worth fighting for, rather than talking about -- let's see a little of those moments. We particularly thought it was important to see them in combat together.

Another theme in this film is very much how to do with we have all these governments around the world who train men to kill, and then when they come home, that's not there anymore...

FW: ...And where do they go?

JL: We have more war vets than ever before, and what's interesting in this film is they're given a place to go use their skills. And when that breaks down, what are they going to do? Go be normal citizens?

FW: You look at life a certain way -- this is "right," this is "correct" -- and then all of a sudden, this character looks at it a different way. Where do I fit in? What I'm doing every morning can't be right; that's not me anymore -- that's something that's explored.

Q: The violence in this film is so over the top it's almost balletic...

JL: The script was very descriptive in the violence, and we knew when we read it that it was going to be extreme. For my part, I constantly thought, how much are we going to be able to get away with?
But again that's a question really more for Miguel because he really fought for it. I hope I answered the question directly but I'm going to be more sort of impressionistic about it.

The idea of these two men in a society that's desensitized to violence, it was important to the theme of violence, that the graphic nature of the violence be very real. And then the rest of the film, the journey of the film broadens, especially towards the end, when it becomes almost unreal. This level of violence, this grotesque use of the body or dissemination of the body, you suddenly start to realize, you've been so brought into the world that you continue to believe in it.

We also hoped...I hoped, that it was a film that would make you close your eyes. Especially young people when they're watching that sort of stuff, it doesn't do anything to them. And I hope this one does, that's it's shocking, because it should be. Violence is shocking.

FW: It's part of the dilemma for your character, too. What he faces is the construction of violence and what it means, and it's personal.

JL: How far do we go for it to be shocking? For us to wake up?

Q: Did you put aside your director's hat to work on this?

FW: The whole thing was to create a universe, a world. Every great movie is its own universe, its own world, with its own rules and stuff. I can't say that I would do it that way, but what [Miguel] did was create a universe that allows you to fall into it, and believe and trust in what we're doing. And we were committed to those motives. We would do anything, as far as we needed to, to get inside the truth of what this universe was.

JL: One of the scenes I found the most important was when Beth [Remy's fellow artiforg fugitive and ex played by Braga] and Remy repossess each other. To get that far there had to be a sort of embrace of the violence in a way -- two people coming together physically like that, it could almost be lovemaking, a sharing of something, a sharing of agony rather than sharing pleasure.

FW: It was a bit bleak to do things that broadly, to go so far out, like A Clockwork Orange-y or Monty Python-y, because you have the chance to fall on your face.

JL: A Clockwork Orange was a big influence on Miguel.

Q: Did you do any research on the proper way to do the removal of organs?

JL: I worked with a surgeon in London. I bought a half side of a pig, because pig flesh is very like human flesh, and he taught me how to cut through that with scalpels, and then we worked with a guy in Toronto.

FW: A surgeon. For my character, though, my character is not a neat kind of guy. He just is into retrieval, so I watched that and discarded that and went with the knife and fork concept.

Q: Both you had training, so whose kung fu is stronger?

JL: We never really had it out.

FW: No [makes a funny kung fu noise]

JL: The truth of the matter is we didn't do a lot of the fight sequences. The producers don't want you to pull a muscle or be injured, so they do these trainings to get you in good shape, so you don't call in and go, "Oh, I've wrenched my thigh yesterday kicking that guy down." But we had a quite bit of training and there was an awful lot of choreography.

FW: For my kung fu grip.

JL: I had to catch up with you.

Q: Did you know anyone who had to deal with an actual repossession?

FW: Oh, yeah, I've had friends who've had cars repossessed, I've known people who've had their homes taken.

JL: You said something really interesting earlier. To take it further, to lose your home, you should say it, to lose your home, people can lose belongings. You lose your car. You lose your job. You lose your home. But this idea of taking it further: I am myself, I own myself -- the idea that they own you too, and they're coming to take it.

FW: They have emotional questions too. When you lose everything, when someone takes everything, your house, your home and then a part of yourself, you feel a loss. The emotional loss is so powerful.

Q: What was cut about your characters?

JL: There wasn't a whole lot...

FW: There were scenes with the repos...

JL: They cut my favorite scene...[laughs at the irony of the comment].

FW: It was Christmas...

JL: There was a Christmas scene we were filming in Toronto. The script kept changing. We had done a lot of stuff in the middle, which was trimmed down, the army stuff to just us in the tank. But there was one scene in a bar, and we're saying, "What are we going to do with ourselves?"

Then we see a poster that says, "Be trained by the Repo Men;" and it had just snowed in Toronto, and there was this little house that was covered in lovely Santa lights, and we decided, we just covered each other in blood.

And we come out of the house just laughing, having just done our first repo, and we walk down the street. It was my favorite scene. Anyway, little bits that just show the bond, layers and layers of brotherhood.

Q: Could there be a series in this for you guys, doing a prequel or sequel?

JL: Is there any saving Remy? He's there, but he's not all there.

FW: He was always... well, we could get some more body parts.

JL: But at what cost?

Q: Do you think Jake is finally happy with brain-dead Remy?

JL: What, me in the corner?

FW: I always thought he was just happy with him. He's not gone. And caring for him could be part of that relationship, and he'd be with him. I think there's something a little twisted in that part of Jake, because that defined his life, his world, and now he can't say he's going to go away.

JL: That's a very contemporary theme, too -- the questions asked, keep the lie up, don't question the lie, and you can pretend that everything's alright. I was the one asking the questions, and Carol [Remy's wife played by van Houten].

Q: Did you make any notes on the script?

JL: You'll have to ask them. Oh, yeah, I remember one note: I wanted people to like Carol. Carol was just a bitch, and I was thinking, "It wasn't fair; it should be a balanced relationship." It's more touching when see a relationship with two healthy, wholesome people -- well, not wholesome -- but two rounded people falling apart, then someone leaving someone because they're a pain in the ass, you know?

I was just really taken by the characters and with the heart of the film, so going through it and working on it, I can't remember what I contributed. To be really honest, I think it became very much a part of what we then filmed and that process is very fluid. I should keep notes so I can claim ideas for myself.

Q: Since this movie touches on the health care debate, what's your perspective on it?

JL: I don't talk politics. [Long pause, then laughs.] First of all, let's talk about the film. What's always interesting about dystopian films, or rather, good dystopian films, [is that they] only reference current themes. They don't hit you over the head with them; they don't make it the source of the story.

Don't forget, [when] we made this film, [it was] filmed this two and a half years ago. So it was an issue, but it wasn't as current as it is now. It's just very fortuitous that the world is as messed up as it is and played right into the hands of our movie.

With what's going on here, I think everyone would agree that it's a side, an element of your society that needs addressing. The problem is that it's a Gordian knot, in that everyone approaches it with a very different need, a very different design, a very different background. And everyone has a right to have their voice heard in that argument, but equally, one can't hear all arguments and please all people all the time to reach a consent.

As far as how it references England, I think the more interesting theme in the film is how...there can be corporations who can sell you stuff and it's bad for you because they know they're the company that's going to sell you stuff that's good for you. That there's a sort of umbrella holding it all together. That they can, they'll cut off your nose with one hand and sell you a nose with another.

Q: So did you read the book?

JL: I did. This is like a cousin of the book. First cousin. Very close cousins.

Q: What do you enjoy about making genre films -- sci-fi, fantasy, horror -- and do you take them as seriously as drama, or is it a matter of real acting vs getting a paycheck?

FW: I didn't see [working on this film] as that... I saw it as an interesting character, a well-written script, the chance to work with someone who was really talented, a good director, something new. I'm always trying to challenge myself to do something new, to try to do something great, whether it's Sci-Fi or comedy or whatever.

JL: There's still a serious theme to it. It still required a lot of work and attention, even the physical side. I know the physical side of films, the action, the violence is considered thrill-seeking or what have you, but to make that kind of stuff, especially when you have something grounded in reality, it's not just gratuitous. It required a hell of a lot of work. I think we both, what Forest said, it's fun to try new things.

Q: Will you be doing a Sherlock Holmes sequel?

JL: We had such a blast making that film, and it was another very happy experience. I know you probably always sit in front of actors who say, "I had the best time." I haven't always had the best time but I did on these two films.

We were very aware that we had a lot more material to use. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote so many books and there's so much to take from. And because of our enthusiasm for the project, once we knew it was doing well financially, we all started throwing in our ideas of where it should go and what should happen next.

And of course mine involves Sherlock Holmes being locked in a box and Doctor Watson... I don't know for sure, but I think we probably are going to make another one.

Q: You'll have to grow the mustache again.

JL: So that's fine but it's not like next week. I think it's sometime next year.

Q: Is there more theater or independent films underway for you?

JL: Maybe later this year.

FW: I'm going to go very shortly to Shanghai to do this movie, Little Treasure, about adoption. My character, his friend and his wife go to adopt a child, and they start to question her sense of cultural identity. They start to question her sense of being able to raise a child, and issues like that. That's the next film I'll do.

JL: I don't know actually what I'm going to do next. Hit a bump with a hammer? It's quite hard to read scripts after you've done Hamlet. So I'm not really sure, I don't know. I may be doing another Sherlock Holmes, but that's not certain.

I'm working with a wonderful writer/director team in London. They're going to do a play in summer or winter of next year, they're writing that now. And Contagion [directed by Steven Soderbergh] is not until the end of the year. I'm one of a large number of people in a big ensemble, so I'll be doing my 10 days in San Francisco.

The subject matter's really very interesting, and again, very current. It's about a contagious disease spreading across the world and how it affects the public, the medical services, politicians, and I play an online blogger who is a fear-monger. I just liked the part. I really like the part.