By Marlow Stern
There’s a line in “Inglourious Basterds” – Quentin Tarantino’s recent Nazi-occupied France-staged spaghetti western – where the protagonist, a movie theatre owner played by Mélanie Laurent, utters, “We respect directors in our country.”
Indeed, the French are known for lionizing their filmmakers to the point of sycophantism. It’s similar to the way the British music press treats their homeland musicians.
French genre filmmaker Jacques Audiard has been labeled “the French Scorsese” by the French press. The son of tireless screenwriter/filmmaker Michel Audiard, Jacques Audiard has carved a stolid reputation for himself crafting immersive, tension-filled dramas in which an uninitiated protagonist is drawn to the world of crime. In his previous two critically-acclaimed crime sagas – 2001’s “Read My Lips (Sur mes lèvres)” and 2005’s “The Beat That My Heart Skipped (De battre mon cœur s’est arête) – Audiard capitalized on the acting talent, and stardom, of hot young French actors Vincent Cassel and Romain Duris, respectively.
Audiard’s latest – and most engrossing – crime saga is A Prophet (Un prophète). Unlike his prior efforts, Audiard cast unknown actor Tahar Rahim as Malik El Djebena, an Arab Muslim who is imprisoned at age 19. Initially illiterate and scared, he soon falls under the wing of the Corsican Mafia, led by the imposing Luciani (Niels Arestrup). Malik flourishes within the prison system, committing hits on marked men and operating a budding drug ring. Before long, Malik passes his prison education with flying colors and dives head first into the criminal underworld.
The film has received an overwhelmingly positive response, taking home the Grand Prix at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival as well as a BAFTA award for Best Film Not In the English Language. It is also nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film.
MMM sat down with filmmaker Jacques Audiard to chat about the making of his crime saga A Prophet, the religious implications of the film, his gangster film influences and why we root for the bad guy.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: In the days of Sergio Leone there were no good guys, just antiheroes. Is that what you see in “A Prophet?”
JACQUES AUDIARD: Not exactly. I tend to believe that the character of Malik has a few virtues. He’s really positive and much more on the side of life then on the side of death. He’s a criminal but he has no vocation for being one. He’s a person that fundamentally doesn’t like gangsters or violence. He’s not greedy and ostentatious. He has his own qualities. For instance, he’s someone who really shows the importance of intelligence over violence. Little virtues.
MMM: Why are cinema audiences drawn to protagonists like Malik? We root for him and care for him so much.
AUDIARD: It’s the only way for him to survive. We adapted a screenplay by Abdel Raouf Dafri and Nicolas Peufaillit. We took the screenplay that they wrote and we spent three years adapting it. In the beginning, it was the story of a small gangster who became a big gangster. We weren’t interested in that. We were interested in telling the story of a homeless guy – he doesn’t even have words to tell his own story – and at the end, he has a home. He has a family. It’s a complicated family, but all families are complicated. It’s more the story of a homeless guy who finds a home then a small gangster who becomes a big gangster. The first rule we had with Malik’s character was it was important to see him learn. The second rule was every action he did you had to see him learn. So, if he has to kill someone, we would send someone to teach him how to kill. If he has to do a drug deal, Jordi (Reda Kateb) would teach him. If he has to speak Corsican, you see him learn Corsican.
MMM: Why did you make “A Prophet?”
AUDIARD: I made this film because I wanted to work with people I normally wouldn’t work with. I was rewarded for that. It was tiring and a very long process but I really learned things I didn’t know before. These are people that I socially or culturally would have never met, and I also worked with actors who are not well known or who aren’t actors at all. For me, it was a very interesting journey.
MMM: I’m curious about the significance of the title of the film and the role that religion plays in the film. Could you talk about that?
AUDIARD: I’m not crazy about that title, to tell you the truth. If we had found anything better we may have used it. The title has too much signification. It imposes something on the viewer: what is the prophet? Where is the prophecy? We saw that title with a lot more irony. Malik announces a new type of gangster and a new type of man.
MMM: But there are many religious images throughout the film. Malik sees glances of people praying in prison, he launders money through a mosque, etc.
AUDIARD: In French prisons people pray all the time. When we saw the title “A Prophet” we didn’t see it in a religious way. Yes, there are religious elements in the story of Malik. He’s a Muslim and the relationship with the ghost has to do with a certain spirituality. But that’s really not why the movie is called “A Prophet.” Maybe that’s the irony of it. For us, “A Prophet” was more of a secular way of doing things – a new type of gangster, or a gangster surname. People would say, “Hey Long Face,” or “Hey Big Guy,” or “Hey Prophet.” It’s not a religious evocation. We would have loved to find another title. We actually found one in English: “Gotta Serve Somebody.” It’s difficult to translate in French but when we found it in English we were quite pleased with ourselves.
MMM: There’s a touch of Sufism in the film and the ghost also does a Dervish dance. There seemed to be a whole spiritual journey that Malik goes through. He somehow becomes a good human being through that journey.
AUDIARD: At the beginning, Malik has nothing. He’s a wild child. He makes his way through the gangsters and his purpose changes throughout the film. Little by little, he develops a conscience. When he gets in that gunfight in the car he smiles. He has this revelation like he’s becoming the character. He’s becoming a movie character.
MMM: Could you talk about building your own prison to shoot?
AUDIARD: Yes, it would not have been possible to work in an actual prison because the prison director would have had to read the screenplay, and, by page 20, would have said, “Uh, no.” If I was in an actual jail there would have been a documentary temptation and the reality of the prison would have been a burden, actually. I would have needed to shoot the reality of the prison. By building a set, I limited myself to what we built. The set was a courtyard, a corridor, a few sets of stairs and 15 cells.
MMM: Malik is so clever. Why was he so unformed all those years?
AUDIARD: There’s one guy who worked in a big prison outside of Paris who worked with us, and he read the script and said that people like Malik are called the “over-adapted kind.” They are people who really spring up when they’re in jail. Outside reality is too confusing and discouraging. Inside prison, everything is much more simple and their intelligence can double up in an environment like jail.
MMM: How did you find Tahar Rahim? He really is the soul of the film.
AUDIARD: We asked ourselves the question, “Who is Malik?” at the beginning of writing and the answer was not Tahar. I met Tahar by accident in life. I was coming back from shooting on set and in the car there were a couple of actors. Tahar was one of them. He immediately attracted my attention. When we started casting, Tahar had arrived already. It’s very difficult to tell yourself the first person you see is the right one when you start casting. So I had to see a lot of other actors – and non-actors – but something happened to me on the prior film. In “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” I was looking for an Asian girl that was a good actress and could also play the piano. Something that was seemingly impossible. And the first actress I saw [Linh Dan Pham] was the right one. But you can’t immediately believe it, so you have to see 30 of them to convince yourself.
MMM: Could you also talk about the depiction of French Arabs in films? They’re almost always playing criminals, so were you at all preoccupied with catering to stereotypes?
AUDIARD: We had this feeling that Malik is not a criminal, but it’s not true. It’s false. What was really important for me was to make a genre film and to propose, within the frame of the genre, a heavy budget with some faces you haven’t seen. For an American audience, it may not make a lot of sense because, aside from Brigitte Bardot and Vincent Cassel, we’re not very well-represented here. But in France, yes, it was important. In a lot of films, the Arabic people are presented as criminals or presented as very positive characters who try to work hard, integrate and fight racism. We didn’t want to fall into either of these traps. We really wanted to make a film that’s not at all about integration. That would be the film after that. Problems are just territories or power or money.
MMM: Did you watch any gangster films in preparation for this? Do you have any favorites?
AUDIARD: I really like genre films. Noir, especially. In the process of writing we’ll detect a movie that’s coming out and we’ll say, “Oh, those guys are thinking the same things we’re thinking of.” When we saw “Gomorrah,” we were like, “Oh, they’re asking the same questions.” It’s very difficult to see films when you’re working because if they’re not good, then you double-up your ego, and, if it is really good, you spend 15 days in bed.
MMM: Those old gangster films with Cagney and Edward G. Robinson – they were rise and fall movies. This is just a rise movie. Was your intention to put a spin on that gangster formula?
AUDIARD: It’s true. He’s the Edward G. Robinson. “The Asphalt Jungle” is fall-and-fall. We come from a background of the gangster movies of the ‘30s and ‘40s – Raoul Walsh and James Cagney. But this is a much longer story than other gangster films. Usually those take place over weeks or months. This takes place over seven years and eight rolls of film. Because it’s not a rise and fall, we decided that we couldn’t tell the story over acts – act 1, act 2. A lot of people ask us about a sequel because this is just a presentation of the character.
MMM: Was this part of a thematic trilogy along with your last two films: “The Beat That My Heart Skipped” and “Read My Lips?” The three protagonists in those films are very similar.
AUDIARD: [Laughs] Ah! The only impression I have is the end of a cycle. So yes, looking backward, it may have been a cycle. I have a feeling after this film that I have to go do something else. It’s always the creation of a hero. A guy who has to extract himself from a poor condition. They are heroes. How many lives do you live? A hero maybe is someone who bets on his second life. His new situation.
MMM: Do you have a vision for Malik after the movie in terms of a possible sequel?
AUDIARD: He gets into politics! It’s possible! When I saw politics there’s no irony in it. He could really use the skills he learned in prison to serve the public good. He knows a lot about organization, the human soul and he’s made in such a matter that he could really be interested in the public good. What would be terrible is if his past gets back to him. At one point, we had the idea that he became the lover of a woman in politics and would help her professionally. Then, at one point, she would present herself to become president and the film starts the night of the election. Malik arrives at the office of the girl with suitcases and brings back all the bad files!
MMM: Having a father as a filmmaker, how much did he influence you?
AUDIARD: I am absolutely the son of my father. When you are a child and you see someone like my father, who’s writing all the time, cinema was really a profession. It was not an art at all. It was just a job. You start at 8:00 a.m. and finish at 6 p.m. It was a very prosaic and demystified vision of cinema. That’s why I didn’t want to go into cinema at first. At first, I studied literature. My father belonged to a generation in France that had very little respect for cinema. The fascination went toward literature or theatre. The cinema was just a joke.
MMM: You got your start editing for Roman Polanski. What sort of influence was that on you?
AUDIARD: I was Assistant Editor [on “The Tenant”], and the person who really influenced me was the lead Editor [Françoise Bonnot]. I learned a lot from her.
MMM: I heard that you employed criminals to be in a lot of the scenes of the film as background actors. What was that experience like? Were there any difficulties?
AUDIARD: They forced us to be real and set the tone within the jail environment. When we arrived onset in the morning there was all the noise and it made the place come alive. When you told a guy to give someone cigarettes or a baguette they immediately did it. They were the smartest background actors I’ve had. They were in groups and they knew how to behave.
MMM: Was the movie filmed chronologically?
AUDIARD: No. He has a beard at the beginning so we shot the part with the beard, then the part with the regular hair, then the shaved head part. We could not have shot scenes like the murder at the beginning because his head was shaved during the murder.
MMM: What do you think your Oscar chances are?
AUDIARD: Since we finished the film, we go on the plane, we dress well, we go in the big rooms, applaud Michael Haneke, have a few drinks. “Oh, Michael! Made a good movie!” Each time I don’t get a prize, I have a 20-minute conversation with Michael Haneke. I love this director. We’ve seen all of his films. One thing I’d like to see is him applauding us, but maybe one day.
MMM: I’m curious to know what the reception to “A Prophet” was like among Arab communities in France? This is one of very few film heroes they have.
AUDIARD: It was very good. That was the purpose for us when writing this film – to make an Arab hero.
A PROPHET opens on February 26th in limited theaters.
The ill-fated life of exiled filmmaker Roman Polanski often manifests itself in his haunting oeuvre.
His father surivived the Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria during World War II, but his mother perished at Auschwitz. Polanski escaped the Krakow Ghetto where he grew up in 1943 and, as a Jewish child in hiding, survived the war under the name Romek Wilk. These life experiences inspired 2002’s “The Pianist,” a film about Polish-Jewish musician Władysław Szpilman’s survival during World War II. The film earned Polanski his first – and only – Oscar for Best Director. In 2005, he would direct a considerably darker adaptation of “Oliver,” no doubt inspired by his time spent as a orphan.
Following the murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate by Charles Manson’s gang in 1969, Polanski helmed a unique vision of Shakespeare’s tragedy “Macbeth” (1971).
The legendary director of “Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown’s” latest film, The Ghost Writer, seems to draw heavily from the auteur’s recent troubles – namely, his current exile/criminal status following his 1977 conviction of unlawful intercourse with a minor. Based on the novel “The Ghost” by Robert Harris, “Ghost Writer” concerns, well, a ghost writer (Ewan McGregor), who’s hired by disgraced ex-British Prime Minister Adam Lang (Pierce Brosnan) – accused of war crimes – to pen his memoir. As the writer delves deeper and deeper into his subject’s life, he begins to uncover some shocking revelations that put his own life in jeopardy. The film co-stars Olivia Williams as Lang’s shrewd wife, Kim Catrall as his doting assistant and Tom Wilkinson.
Starring in the film – and appearing in almost every scene – is Ewan McGregor. The Scottish actor rose to prominence in the early ‘90s after appearing in a pair of well-received films by “Slumdog” director Danny Boyle – “Shallow Grave” and “Trainspotting.” He’s since worked with some of Hollywood’s most celebrated filmmakers, including: George Lucas (“Star Wars”), Ridley Scott (“Black Hawk Down”), Tim Burton (“Big Fish”), Woody Allen (“Cassandra’s Dream”) and Michael Bay (kidding).
MMM sat down with the risqué Scotsman Ewan McGregor to chat about working with Roman Polanski on “The Ghost Writer,” his penchant for dropping trou and his career progression.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: You really carried this movie. Much of “The Ghost Writer” is just you by yourself observing other people. What sort of pressures did that bring to the role?
EWAN MCGREGOR: Playing a leading role like this, there’s a pressure with carrying the film. Leading roles come along every once in a while and you aspire to playing leading roles like this, so when they come around, there’s a pleasure. And especially when you’ve got someone like Polanski at the helm and the privilege of working with him every day for four months. You know you’re in good hands. “The Ghost” was a part to underplay, so I felt like it wasn’t a very heavy weight. There’s a ghostly quality about him and he’s just there discovering things. He’s an unimpressed character. There’s a “fuck it” quality and he’s not really bothered by things. So it was easy.
MMM: Can you talk about developing the character with Polanski?
MCGREGOR: It’s really snowing isn’t it out there? I can barely see it through cracks in the window as I’m talking. I went to Berlin and I met Polanski for the first time when I got there. I was working in the States and Roman was in Switzerland, so we didn’t get a chance to meet before. I would’ve played “The Ghost” as a Scotsman, but I spoke to Robert and he said, “It has to be English.” There’s a reference in the film about Lang’s family coming from Scotland and he didn’t want to be any confusion there. So he had to be from England. We learn that “The Ghost” had gone to Cambridge and I can’t do that accent without feeling it’s very posh. And I didn’t want “The Ghost” to be posh. He’s out of his depth when he’s writing a book about the ex-British Prime Minister cause he’s used to writing about pop stars, and I wanted him to feel socially out of depth, or out of his class. We were doing the wardrobe fittings and had two days until we were about to shoot, and I said, “Roman, could we just sit down and read some scenes? Because I want to see if you’re OK with this accent.” That night, we sat down and read some scenes and he didn’t really pay attention to the accent, just the way I was saying the lines. Right from the word go, he’s like [in Polish accent], “Why would you read it like this?” And he took my script and read the whole scene and say, “You see? You see?” After about four or five times of reading it, he’d go, “Yes! Yes! You see? You see?” And I didn’t see! I was just a little more frightened than I was a minute ago. This is Polanski’s way. He’s really picky in rehearsal, then once you start shooting he’s much freer. The next morning I phoned up Harris on the car ride in and literally read him some scenes using the London accent that I gave “The Ghost” just to see if it was okay. Polanski’s Polish, and even though he speaks many languages, I don’t know if he can hear the London accent. So, I double-chccked sneakily behind Roman’s back! That was a long answer, wasn’t it? Fuckin’ Ell!”
MMM: What about Polanski’s directorial style? He has a unique ability to create tension. How is this achieved onset?
MCGREGOR: He’s just incredibly clever with the way he’s shooting. He doesn’t use long lenses. He only uses really wide lenses. It has a strange effect on us because it’s quite similar to the human eye. Usually on a movie set, for a close-up, the camera would be very far away on a long lens and it would make the background be out of focus with your face in focus. It’s very beautiful. But he doesn’t do that. He has a 35mm or 27mm lens on that’s quite wide, and he has the camera right up in your face. It means that the world isn’t all beautiful and fuzzy and out of focus behind us. It makes you feel more reflective of our human vision. So, it makes us feel more tense because we feel like we’re in it and not watching a film. And the details. In “The Pianist,” he had such brutal, little details in it that made it effective. And the music is a hundred percent of the tension as well.
MMM: You have another nude scene in a film, albeit a brief one.
MCGREGOR: [Laughs] I get into bed! The first time – because I’ve been doing interviews for days – someone said, “Do you want to talk about your naked scene?” And I said, “There isn’t a naked scene. Do you mean when I’m in the bath?” And they said, “No, when you get into bed.” And I literally take my dressing gown off and get into bed and it’s considered a nude scene. I don’t know what to say other than I take my dressing gown off and you see my arse for a second! [Laughs]
MMM: You showing skin in a film is sort of cliché at this point. And it’s even played for laughs a bit in the film.
MCGREGOR: There’s a funny line when he’s in the bathroom beforehand where he says, “It’s just not a good idea,” which is a funny line for the audience. But at the same time, it’s that guy in that situation with the ex-British Prime Minister’s wife. When they got into bed, there’s a coldness about it on both sides. It’s one of the world’s least sexy sex scenes. I didn’t think about it much at the time. But I always have to answer questions about naked scenes because I’ve been naked in so many films I’m in because they reflect life, and, in life, people are naked!
MMM: Reflecting on your career, you’re now anchoring a Roman Polanski film and Danny Boyle just won every award possible for “Slumdog.” Do you ever look back and marvel at how far you guys have come?
MCGREGOR: Yeah. I thank my lucky stars. I started off with Danny. I started off with one of the best. Like Danny, we work away, and there’s a lot of good work there, and there’s some that aren’t as good as others, and, every now and then there’s one that really spikes out that’s a huge success. But I really value that I started with him. I loved working with Danny and I felt we had a really special, unique relationship between actor and director. It was like an identity for my acting. I was always his actor and I felt like it was who I was as an actor. I just went off and worked with other people in between.
MMM: Is the “Trainspotting” sequel “Porno” ever going to happen?
MCGREGOR: I don’t know. They’ve never sent me a script for it. Maybe. I’d like to work with Danny again. I don’t think I’d like to do a sequel for “Trainspotting” because I think it was an important movie, and an important movie for British cinema, and I wouldn’t want to tarnish its reputation by making a poor sequel. And, I think the book wasn’t as good as “Trainspotting.” I wouldn’t hold your breath.
MMM: Do you like making smaller films that need you to fight for them more? This film doesn’t really need you as much because it’s a Polanski movie.
MCGREGOR: I hope that’s not true because I’ve been talking about it for days! No, I just think its part of the business. You have to stand by them. “The Ghost Writer” is a good film for me, and Roman isn’t able to go around and promote the film. I’m not sure he would anyway because he strikes me as someone who would not do too much publicity, but he would’ve surely been at the premiere in Berlin and the press conference. And because he’s not, then I think we’re doing more than our fair share to help open a film. But I think that, you know… Yeah, that’s it! [Laughs]
MMM: So would you say that the press you’ve been doing for “The Ghost Writer” is more stressful than usual because of that extra weight on your shoulders?
MCGREGOR: It’s slightly more stressful than doing press for other films. I think because of Roman’s situation, and the whole case and everything, which is a tricky thing, I suppose that makes it quite difficult. I just introduced the topic for you. There you are!
MMM: The film’s a thriller but it ends up saying a lot about what’s happened politically over the last ten years. Can you talk about that?
MCGREGOR: It’s just become more and more current as we’ve gotten closer and closer to the film coming out. British politics is trying really hard to mimic our movie! It’s been suggested that the CIA is running our publicity campaign, which is also possibly true. [Laughs] The book was written three years ago and we made the movie a year ago. One of the essential plot points is that the ex-British Prime Minister is accused of committing war crimes and is going to be put on trial by the Hague. Two weeks ago, Tony Blair had to go in front of a committee and explain his decision-making and taking Britain into that war. And a week ago there was the revelation of rendition flights actually touching down on British soil. And then there was more evidence of British forces involved in interrogating and torturing prisoners for information that was then passed onto America. The surprising thing could be that it’s taking so long to come out in the public eye. With that being said, if our film states that politicians, and even those that hold the highest power in British and American politics, have to be held accountable for their decision-making and aren’t above the law, then I’m very proud of that and proud to be a part of a film that has that message. I think it’s right that Blair has to sit there. I’m sure we’ll never see Bush having to sit in front of a committee and have to answer for his decision-making, which is a shame.
MMM: What facets of your own personality draw you to darker, edgier roles? You’ve experimented with other characters but when people look back and assess your body of work, the strongest performances seem to be in darker, edgier roles.
MCGREGOR: I’ve always liked that. I remember having a meeting with a British film company and we were talking about that, and they were offering me this very NOT dark and edgy piece of work. And I was talking about being in dark and edgy work. They said, “Sometimes you have to do the lighter stuff to get to that.” And I was like, “Where is the other stuff? Send me that instead!” I just am more interested in it. I don’t have any criteria when I’m choosing stuff. I’m fortunate enough to take things on a bit of a whim. Sometimes I feel like doing smaller budget stuff. When I did “Young Adam,” for instance, I had come off of doing “Black Hawk Down” and “The Island,” and I really felt like being on a small film set. I’m lucky that financially I don’t have to be obliged to be in bigger things.
MMM: How was your experience doing “The Island?” You do relatively few summer blockbusters and I’m curious if that experience made you shy away from them.
MCGREGOR: I’m not really offered them. The studio system is about figures and money and maybe I don’t score highly enough to be a lead in those films. “The Island” was interesting. I liked that film. I think it’s unfortunate. It was timed to knock Michael Bay, and it was unfortunate that it was made then when it was his time to be knocked. Because I think it wasn’t the most knockable film that he’s made! [Laughs] I thought it was alright. But it’s fine. “Black Hawk Down” was very exciting and “Star Wars.” There’s something quite fun about being on those big sets and working with great actors. The last two films I made were a little film by David Mackenzie in Scotland called “The Last Word,” which was really low budget, and I came back to L.A. and did a film called “Beginners” with Mike Mills which was super low budget. Those two films in a way were as rewarding as anything I’ve ever done. Because there’s no budget, the filmmaking has to be much cleverer. You can’t spend a day shooting a scene from every angle. You have to shoot five scenes in a day. So, the filmmaking becomes much more exciting and there’s an energy that produces that ends up onscreen that I really like.
MMM: What were your preconceptions about Polanski? And did your opinion change after you worked with him?
MCGREGOR: I didn’t know an awful lot about him as a director. I was very familiar with his “Macbeth” film, “Rosemary’s Baby,” “Tess” and “Chinatown.” When I knew I was going to work with him, I got as many of his films as I could. I saw “Knife in the Water,” “Repulsion,” “Cul-de-Sac,” “The Ninth Gate,” “The Pianist” and “Oliver Twist.” I got a really good sense of his film language. The one thing I’d heard is he’s really fussy with props and set dressing and would take a lot of time organizing things even if they were slightly out of shot. And that did prove correct. If there was a bookshelf in the background, he’d spend 20 minutes organizing the books on the shelf in the right order. The details are really important. And the frame itself. He sets every shot up with his little viewfinder, marks the floor, and then the camera crew come in and they put the camera there. Very often he’d go, “No!” And they’d come back in and move the camera and re-measure it. He’s a total perfectionist. And with the parlaying of it, he’s very particular with the way we play the scenes. I feel like he’s really wrapped up in my performance more than is the usual case with directors. And I really love him. I’m very fond of him. He was an extraordinary director to work with and certainly quite unique. We worked very hard. The first day we worked for 22 hours. I was on the set for four months and the other actors moved in and out, and I was like, “Fuck! I’ve got four months of this!”
MMM: Which scene was that?
MCGREGOR: That was the publisher’s office when I get the job at the beginning. We shot six hours with Belushi [the publisher] with hair! And he goes, “No, you know in the book he had no hair.” So they went away and shaved his head and then we shot six more hours of Belushi with no hair.
MMM: Do you have a favorite Polanski film?
MCGREGOR: “Macbeth” is my favorite. I know from doing Shakespeare onstage how difficult it is to pull Shakespeare off and make it really moving, but I know how wonderful it is when you do. And at that time in his life to pull a film like that was amazing.
THE GHOST WRITER opens on February 19th in theaters nationwide.
By Marlow Stern
John Travolta’s pathway to Hollywood stardom – and back – is well documented. For the uninitiated, a quick recap…
Travolta rose to prominence starring as Vinnie Barbarino on the TV series “Welcome Back, Kotter” in the mid-to late ‘70s. Became a movie star towards the end of “Kotter’s” run in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s with cult classics like “Saturday Night Fever,” “Grease” and “Urban Cowboy.” Then, he endured a major dry spell with a string of crappy comedies. Career resuscitated in 1994 by writer/director Quentin Tarantino – as is his wont – in “Pulp Fiction.” Star status put in serious jeopardy after embracing Scientology and starring in the Scientology-themed film “Battlefield Earth” in 2000, arguably one of the worst films of that (or any) decade.
Since then, he’s been floundering in a series of mediocre genre films like “The Punisher” and “Basic,” before scoring a pair of hits in 2007 with the broad comedy “Wild Dogs,” and the critically-acclaimed musical “Hairspray.” Historically, Travolta’s most intriguing – and over-the-top – performances have come as suave villains or antiheroes, e.g. “Pulp Fiction,” “Face/Off,” “Get Shorty” and “Saturday Night Fever.” In his latest film, director Pierre Morel’s (“Taken”) From Paris with Love, Travolta plays Charlie Wax, an American superspy in Paris who teams up with a young employee in the office of the U.S. Ambassador (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) to stop a terrorist attack in the city.
MMM was there at the New York City press conference of From Paris with Love, where the inimitable John Travolta chatted about his penchant for playing villains, his unique onscreen hairdos and his challenging year, which included the accidental death of his son Jett with wife/actress Kelly Preston.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: This is a pretty unique character for you. What did you do to prepare for the role?
JOHN TRAVOLTA: Well, thank you, firstly. But I think that between Pierre [Morel], Luc [Besson] and myself there were a lot of discussions about this guy. It was beautifully written and so he was easy to fill because the verbiage was so ideal for me to attack. The look was very important in this movie and we saw “Soldier of Fortune” covers where these guys are suddenly – I don’t know why – but very glamorous looking with scarves and shaved heads and goatees. It was brave to take it all off and all of that but I think that we decided that that was the only way that it would work, just to be bold with it and go all the way. So that was some of what we did. Then of course I hung out with some undercover guys in my hometown. They were kind enough to let me hangout with them. So I would spend the night driving the streets of Ocala and going into these different areas that were in trouble and seeing what these guys do. It was like a microcosm of where it is all over the world.
MMM: How close was this tough guy character to your real-life persona?
TRAVOLTA: I don’t know if it’s anything like me at all really but I sure liked acting it.
MMM: You and Jonathan Rhys-Meyers make an interesting duo in the film. Could you talk about how you established onscreen chemistry?
TRAVOLTA: Well, Jonathan is a miracle. Jonathan is this amazingly talented, gorgeous guy that can do anything. If you look at his history he just approaches a role with full body. We communicated well, meaning that Jonathan is an easy communicator. So we could talk it out and Pierre is the same way so there was no stoned unturned as far as our ability to discuss the possibilities of our characters together. We approached it from a good perspective, a spirit of play type of thing.
MMM: John, your character’s hair – or lack thereof – seems to play a large role.
TRAVOLTA: Well, Pierre and I did a superimposed type thing. We had to get approval from Luc, of course and Luc loved it right away. But you see you’re right. The illusion; film is a visual medium. I remember with “Pulp Fiction” it was my idea to do that kind of Dutch Boy thing because he had spent time in Holland and I thought this would be this Euro trash look. I remember Quentin [Tarantino] and the producer thinking that it was not a good idea and I said, ‘Well, can we just test it.’ Then the next day when they did the screen test on it I made sure that it worked and then they loved it. It was iconic, meaning it was the signature of the character. So when you design these things for the screen they’re very important and not to be looked as superficial at all.
MMM: There’s a little nod to “Pulp Fiction” in this film. Can you talk about that villain, Vincent Vega, versus the killer you play here?
TRAVOLTA: Well, I can answer that question. I would define it three different ways. The villain in “Pulp Fiction” is misguided. The villain in, lets say, “Pelham 1 2 3” is just out and out criminal and then the villain in this is not really a villain. He’s a good guy who has unorthodox methods. He’s a rogue. So even though he does things that we don’t agree with he still solves a problem and he’s so good at what he does that he gets away with being a little naughty and you can take that liberty when you’re that good. So there are distinct differences in these kinds of character, believe it or not.
MMM: Do you have a preference then for what kind of villain you like to play?
TRAVOLTA: I just like it to be well written and full-bodied and when it is, like it is in this movie, then you’re free to blow it out and do what you think. I remember one of the first days of shooting when I’m telling the French Customs off and in one of the takes I thought, ‘I have to do this,’ and at the end of it when Jonathan puts the seal of dismissal on it I go like this. Then I went and though, ‘Oh, that worked so well.’ Then I looked at him and he said, ‘Okay. I don’t know.’ He said, ‘Lets do one take without you humping.’ So of course I did five more takes with humping and then I did the one take without it.
MMM: What are some of your favorite things to do while you’re in Paris?
TRAVOLTA: Now, [Jonathan] being a single man, his joys might’ve been different from my joy. I think that Luc and I enjoy the food of France. I think that Jonathan may have enjoyed something different. My highlight was taking, or I came home from work around midnight one night and I said to my daughter and my son who had a couple of friends with them, I said, ‘How would you like to go to downtown Paris where Pino Pizza on the Champs-Elysees is open and we will have pizza and then we’ll go to the Plaza Athenee and have hot cocoa?’ They said, ‘At this time of night?’ I said, ‘Yes, believe it or not.’ So we went to downtown and we had pizza and then at 2AM we’re sitting at the Plaza Athenee having hot cocoa and they thought they had just, you know, this is a whole universe of lifestyle. So that was one of my highlights with the kids, in the middle of the night in Paris.
MMM: John, have you ever tried to incorporate your passion for flying into a film project?
TRAVOLTA: I was the first guy to develop the Howard Hughes script. I have even written my own airplane scripts. I haven’t found the definitive aviation script and I wish that I could. I’d love it. I just haven’t had much luck finding it but it would be great.
MMM: What are your thoughts when you look back and see yourself in films like “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever?”
TRAVOLTA: I see a little boy. I thought that I was very advanced and mature in those days. And maybe I was but I looked so young but proud of myself. I had a great start. I started this industry with a bang. “Saturday Night Fever” and “Grease” back to back and got my first Academy Award nomination. I mean, I couldn’t of had a better start at twenty three years old. As my mother said to a reporter one night, they said, ‘What did you think of your son in “Saturday Night Fever,”’ and my mother was very dramatic, she was a drama teacher and an acting teacher and she said, ‘Porterhouse, darling. Porterhouse.’ So those are my memories of those early days.
MMM: You said awhile back that you reinvent yourself every few years for the screen. Is this one of your reinventions?
TRAVOLTA: I would have to say that it might be because it’s pretty extreme and I don’t think anybody has seen me quite this way. I think that when I read it I knew that as long as Pierre and Luc would allow me to do this in the full bodied way that it was written then I knew that I could do something entertaining and effective and they beautifully allowed me to do that. So, yes.
MMM: What message do you want the audience to take away form this film about terrorism?
TRAVOLTA: Oddly enough, I said this to Luc when the movie was over, I said, ‘Strangely enough this is the most authentic movie about terrorism that’s ever been made because in a very light way we’re not making a statement or giving a message.’ There’s a truth there, a veiled thing that says, ‘Wow, this is really the crux of it.’ It’s about misguided religion and misguided concepts and how things work in that terrorist world, and yet we’re having fun disguising it almost. But I don’t think that we intended on any particular message.
MMM: John, was that your family that we saw in the background of that one scene?
TRAVOLTA: You win the award for best observation. That was my wife and my daughter. We were shooting at The Eiffel Tower. My daughter hadn’t yet seen The Eiffel Tower and we were shooting in the middle of the day. I said, ‘Hey, you should come up and visit while we’re shooting there.’ Then I asked Pierre if they could be the extras in that scene and Pierre graciously agreed and there you have it.
MMM: Were there any scenes you shot that were particularly challenging physically?
TRAVOLTA: Well, to me the whole thing was challenging because I said to Pierre, I said, ‘Do you really want me to do all these stunts? I mean, I’m going upside down on a pole and shooting two guns and rolling down buildings and jumping off?’ I said, ‘I’m an old man.’ He said, ‘So what.’ The odd thing was that there was such a confidence in that I could do it that I decided, ‘Well, hell, I’m going to live up to their expectations,’ and I went and did it and I was really proud that I attached in that full-bodied way. It really paid off because I’ve never done this much action in a movie, ever. Even though I’ve been in two John Woo movies this was the most running and jumping and fighting and flipping. The body is still able to do it. He’s a young whippersnapper and so his body is made to do this kind of thing.
MMM: John, you’re a very beloved actor and I’m very curious to know how you’ve been doing after this past year?
TRAVOLTA: Thank you. Well, it’s been a rough year. I’m not going to say it’s not been but we’ve been working very hard everyday at healing and we still are but it’s working. We’ve worked with our church and we’ve worked with each other and our friends and family and it’s been a tough one and it’s going to be. But at least we have help and it’s working. Thanks for asking.
MMM: There are some comedic moments in this film that alleviate the tension. Can you talk about balancing the comedy and action elements?
TRAVOLTA: I think that’s in the writing. I really do. In all fairness to your question, I think that Pierre was the balancing act. He knew when something was too funny or too serious and I think that he modulated this beautifully for us because I’m a comedian, too and so my instinct is to go really funny and he’d sometimes pull me back. Sometimes, too, he’d say, ‘You’re free now. You can make it funny,’ and then I’d go all the way. So I think that Pierre orchestrated that as well as a beautiful script. We called that Chinese menu and I actually got that from Meryl Streep. She gives tons of choices. I decided that I’d always done that but that now there’s a name to it. Chinese Menu is that you give the director as many choices as he can handle and then in the editing room they pick the choice that they like, if you trust the director and the editor. So I said to Pierre, ‘We’re going to do Chinese Menu. I’m going to give you funny, straight, dramatic and as many styles as you want,’ and it works.
MMM: What do you have coming up next?
TRAVOLTA: I’m still taking some time off. So I’m promoting this film and then I’m going to wait for a great next one but I did three in a row and this is my third and I’m going to wait for something that I really like.
MMM: Are you going back to Haiti?
TRAVOLTA: Oh, yes. Haiti. In a nutshell what happened in Haiti was that I had the privilege to fly my big Boeing down because it was sitting there empty and I felt a duty and a responsibility to fill it and fill it with doctors and fill it with supplies and food and medicine and the cool thing that I found was that when we arrived we unloaded seven tons of supplies and I promised the doctors on board that the supplies we brought would stay with them so that it didn’t get dispersed among all the other. The good news was that yesterday and today I got full reports that the supplies did stay with them. They were very successful with hundreds of patients and it was all fresh. It was all very user friendly and that was a very satisfying feeling and that was my second plane that I sent down. I sent down a plane the week before, as well. So it’s been a good and satisfying feeling, not just that you sent things but that there was an end product that was successful. That was very good.
FROM PARIS WITH LOVE opens on February 5th in theaters nationwide.
By Marlow Stern
The gifting suites and lounges have reverted to art galleries; tinted-windowed Honda’s sped off into the sunset; and Park City’s Main Street is devoid of women in obnoxiously conspicuous fur costumes. It’s a ghost town.
Yes, the snowy 2010 Sundance Film Festival has come and gone. Running from January 21 to 31, the premier independent film festival on the planet – dubbed ‘Sundance Twentyten’ – boasted 113 feature-length films representing 36 different countries and 44 first-time filmmakers.
Debra Granik’s “Winter’s Bone” was the fest’s big winner, taking home the U.S. Dramatic Competition’s Grand Jury Prize as well as the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Granik’s film weaves the tale of a teenage girl living in a remote, impoverished region of the Ozark Mountains who faces violent relatives in a quest to track down her drug-dealing father.
The U.S. Documentary Competition topper was “Restrepo,” a raw war documentary following a platoon of soldiers during their 15-month deployment in Afghanistan. Directed by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, the film created major buzz following its premiere screening on Sundance’s opening night.
John Cooper’s appointment as Director of the Sundance Film Festival was a key factor in many of this year’s changes. Former Sundance Film Festival Director Geoffrey Gilmore, who headed the fest for nearly two decades, moved on to head the Tribeca Film Festival. In past years, you would walk out of certain films and wonder not just how they found their way into one of the world’s most prestigious film festival’s, but how they even got made in the first place. At Sundance Twentyten, there were less of these unfortunate outliers and the overall quality of the non-Indiewood flicks was noticeably stronger.
As with every film festival, there were several recurring themes during this year’s Sundance. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as expected, made their presence known. In addition to the aforementioned “Restrepo,” there was the doc “The Pat Tillman Story” chronicling the death of the former Texas Ranger/NFL player. “Tillman’s” U.S. distribution was acquired by the Weinstein Co. The predictably grim “The Dry Land” starred and was produced by “Ugly Betty’s” America Ferrera and concerns her husband returning from Iraq totally PTSD’d out. It’s a more indie “Brothers,” minus the flashy stars and incestuous relationships. Ryan Reynolds starrer “Buried” [pictured below] concerns a U.S. citizen working as a contract driver in Iraq who, following an attack on his convoy, suddenly awakens to find himself buried alive inside a coffin with nothing more than a lighter, a cell phone and a hazy memory of how he got there.
Another topic that loomed large over the festival was the economic recession. Mediocre ensemble drama “The Company Men” [pictured below], helmed by “E.R.” creator John Wells, was billed pre-fest as “Up in the Air” meets “Traffic.” Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Rosemarie DeWitt and Maria Bello topline the film, but the corporate downsizing-themed pic is a ‘made for television’ bore that offers little to no insight into the economic crisis, as well as a host of one-note performances from the otherwise talented cast. The only people who escape with their reputations fully intact are Rosemarie DeWitt as Affleck’s doting wife, and Chris Cooper as a severely depressed corporate downsizee. Mat Whitecross and Michael Winterbottom’s documentary “The Shock Doctrine,” based on Naomi Klein’s best selling book, chronicles the rise of disaster capitalism and the effect it has had on the world over the past 50 years.
As far as acquisitions are concerned, gone are the days of the $15 million pickups like “Little Miss Sunshine,” however, unlike last year, 2010 marked a major improvement in acquisitions during the festival. The most notable ones were “The Kids Are All Right,” a film by Lisa Chodolenko (“Laurel Canyon”) about a lesbian couple (Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) who have two kids conceived by artificial insemination. The kids grow up and try to reconnect with their birth father, played by Mark Ruffalo. The film sparked a bidding war among several companies, and was eventually acquired by Focus Features for $5 million. The aforementioned Ryan Reynolds-starrer “Buried,” shot from a first-person P.O.V. inside a casket, went to Lionsgate for $3.2 million. Hanover House acquired the rights to craptastic filmmaker Joel Schumacher’s latest crapfest “Twelve” for $2 million. The film had an awful reception, and was probably only acquired because of its star cast, including: “Gossip Girl’s” Chace Crawford, 50 Cent, Rory Culkin, Emma Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland narrating. Prizewinner “Winter’s Bone” found a home at Roadside Attractions, while the Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams relationship drama “Blue Valentine” went to Weinstein Co. One of the festival’s biggest buzz films was the documentary “Catfish.” The film follows Nev, a 24-year-old New York-based photographer, who is contacted by Abby, an eight-year-old girl from rural Michigan, via MySpace seeking permission to paint one of his photographs. When he receives her remarkable painting, Nev begins a friendship and correspondence with Abby’s family, including a budding romance with her attractive older sister, Megan. Strangeness ensues. The film was picked up by Rogue Pictures a few days after the festival wrapped.
Now to the fun stuff…
My buddy Josh and I arrived in Park City the morning of Thursday, January 21 – the first day of the festival. We checked into our condo at the Lodge at Mountain Village, a part of the Park City Mountain Resort. If you ever wish to go to Sundance – it’s an amazing deal. For a little over $300/night, you get a spacious two-bedroom condo, two-floor condo with a full kitchen and huge living room equipped with a flat screen TV. The couch pulls out into another bed so you could easily sleep 3-5 people.
Since I wasn’t aware of whether or not I could pull off the trip to Sundance financially until the eleventh hour, we didn’t have press/media passes. But I prefer to attend the public screenings anyway with actual audiences (as opposed to a group of aging, muted, cynical film journos). So, pass-less and relatively ticket-less, we queued up to see the opening evening premiere of “Howl” [pictured below], a buzzed-about film about the Allen Ginsburg obscenity trial starring James Franco as the celebrated beat poet. After waiting almost four hours on the wait-list line, they kindly let us know that NO ONE would be getting a wait-list ticket.
Depressed and tired, I decided to camp out at the Sundance box office overnight to ensure not getting screwed over on the waitlist line on Friday. For those not in the know, the ticket-buying situation at Sundance is a travishamockery. You register on the festival website and are given a random (usually shitty) time to purchase tickets online. So, if you’re screwed with your purchasing start time, you’re usually forced to queue up on the waitlist line between 2-4 hours before the start of a film at Sundance to guarantee yourself a waitlist ticket. However, every evening during the festival at 7 or 8 p.m. they post a list of available tickets for each film for the following morning when the box office opens at 8 a.m. It’s usually wise to camp out by the Main Street box office or arrive at 4 a.m. and wait, because then you’re all set with your tickets for the day and don’t have to queue 2-4 hours for each film. I ended up scoring tickets to buzzed-about documentary “Catfish,” the premiere of “Hesher,” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Natalie Portman, road comedy “Douchebag” (mostly for the title), the midnight screening of “Tucker and Dale vs. Evil,” a horror-comedy about rednecks hunted by rich college kids (a play on “Deliverance”), and tix to the aforementioned corporate downsizing ensemble drama “The Company Men.”
“Catfish” was very compelling, and takes you on twists and turns you don’t see coming.
“Douchebag” was a decent road comedy about, well, a douchebag (played by Andrew Dickler), who, on the verge of getting married to the lovely Steph (Marguerite Moreau), insists he escort his awkward younger brother (Ben York Jones) on a hunt to track down his fifth grade girlfriend/love of his life. The film is most notable for the effective, low-key soundtrack, some sharply-written scenes between the two brothers, and Andrew Dickler’s magnetic performance as the bearded, pretentious, hypocritical vegan.
“Hesher” [picture below], which stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the titular pyromaniac outcast who shacks up with a trouble child following a tragedy, was a disappointment. Boasting a huge cast, including “The Office’s” Rainn Wilson as the child’s depressed father, Piper Laurie as the grandmother, and Natalie Portman as a random shopgirl who bonds with the child, it’s a very cloying and awkwardly-pitched movie that is only slightly redeemed by it’s denouement. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great as usual as the anarchic loner, and you can tell he had a lot of fun filming it, but Natalie Portman’s character is narratively pointless and the film fails to fully immerse you in it’s melancholy world.
“Tucker and Dale vs. Evil” is a fairly humorous comedy of errors about a group of dumb rednecks on a fishing excursion who are mistakenly preyed upon by a group of revenge-hungry, preppy college kids. The Murphy’s Law approach works for a little, as college kid after college kid meets their accidental demise, but gets very repetitive as the blood-splattered film chugs along. Still, if you’re flipping around the movie channels late one night, it would be a fun watch.
Friday was movie day. Saturday was for partying.
The day began with drinks. My buddy Josh and I arrived at the VILLAGE AT THE YARD gifting lounge and entered the bar area at 11 a.m. We ordered Red Bull & vodkas, to which the bartender replied, “Congratulations, you’re the first person to drink today.” I guzzled two, and followed it up with a delicious Caesar salad and chicken sandwich at the T-Mobile Diner.
Back to business. A screening of “The Runaways” [picture below], a fast and solid rock ‘n roll flick about the titular 70s punk/glam rock outfit comprised mainly of Joan Jett and Cherie Currie – and starring Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning, respectively. The film is mainly about Cherie Currie, and drags a bit towards the end, but Kristen Stewart’s non-“Twilight” body of work has been impressive. She pulls off the badass rocker shtick with flying colors, and I thought her performance in last year’s “Adventureland” was Golden Globe nomination-worthy. Next up was “Cyrus,” the first studio film – Fox Searchlight, to be exact – by mumblecore filmmaking duo Mark and Jay Duplass. The film stars Jonah Hill as a strange child whose umbilical cord is still basically attached to his single mom, played by Marisa Tomei (he still lives with her and sleeps in her bed). She begins to seriously date a man, played by John C. Reilly, and all matters of awkward hilarity ensues between the Oedipal son and the Shrek-a-like paramour. The film is a big laugher and I’m anxious to see what the directing brothers, who made their filmmaking debut at the 2005 Sundance Film Fest with “The Puffy Chair,” come up with next.
After movie #2, I stopped by the ALIVE! VIP LUXURY ECO-LOUNGE to get a free massage – really hit the spot – and check out the nature-friendly products offered. The early morning Red Bull & vodkas proved to be a terrible idea, as my energy level gradually sank over the course of the afternoon. Took a nap back at the condo, and then we went out to the SPIN party at the LUXURY LOUNGE preceding a JOAN JETT concert at HARRY O’S on Park City’s Main Street. The Joan Jett & the Blackhearts concert was packed to the nines and just fantastic. I never realized how many hits Jett has and her energy was off the charts. The party was to promote “The Runaways,” and stars Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning embraced Jett onstage prior to the encore.
Then, we headed to the AT&T HOUSE OF HYPE to check out JOHN LEGEND & THE ROOTS play together. It was a star-fucking extravaganza replete with a Queen (Latifah), the richest man on the planet (Bill Gates) and a gaggle of model-types. I will admit, I’ve knocked John Legend in the past, having always viewed him as an effete crooner with a girly fanbase. Was I wrong. Legend is a fantastic live performer with a strong, soulful voice, and, with instrumental accompaniment courtesy of the always-stellar Roots, it made for a fantastic show. When you can get Bill Gates to do a tipsy rendition of ‘the Macarena,’ you know you’ve brought the thunder.
Sunday, January 24, was our final one Sundancing. Half-asleep, I stumbled to a 9:15 a.m. screening of “Jack Goes Boating” [picture below], Philip Seymour Hoffman’s adaptation of the off-Broadway play by Bob Glaudini (which he also starred in). The film tells the tale of the forlorn Jack (Hoffman), a limo driver into Rastafarian music who finds love with the delicate Connie (Amy Ryan) over a Manhattan winter. Meanwhile, Jack and Connie’s mutual friends, the married couple Clyde (John Ortiz) and Lucy (Daphne Rubin-Vega), are on the down slope of their relationship. The film features heartfelt performances by all involved, a mature hand by Hoffman in his directorial debut, and a stellar soundtrack with songs from indie rock stalwarts like Grizzly Bear and Fleet Foxes. It was one of my favorite films of the fest, and will be released by Overture sometime in the fall. The rest of the day was spent relaxing, grabbing swag at the Village at the Yard suites for my little sister, conducting interviews, and screening “Night Catches Us.” Written and directed by Tanya Hamilton, the film is set in 1976 race-torn Philadelphia, and involves complex political and emotional issues brought to the fore when a young man (Anthony Mackie), returns to his old neighborhood during the Black Power/Panther movement. Backed by talented supporting actors Kerry Washington, “The Wire’s” Jamie Hector and The Roots frontman Tariq Trotter, it’s a heavy-handed letdown that the always-brilliant Mackie, who recently starred in “The Hurt Locker,” can’t quite salvage.
Following the screening, we ate dinner and watched some NFL playoff football – my New York Jets losing to the Colts and the Vikings losing in overtime to the Saints – and then I had to head to Salt Lake City airport for a redeye flight back home. Exhausted. Can’t wait to navigate through the hordes of film fanatics on Main Street [picture below] next year!
By Marlow Stern
With his baby blue eyes, boyish looks and Scottish brogue, it was only a matter of time before James McAvoy would break into the higher ranks of Hollywood stardom.
As a young Glaswegian lad, McAvoy briefly considered entering the Catholic priesthood before ultimately graduating from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama. After appearing in a few minor films and BBC series’, he got a break, landing a supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s HBO TV miniseries “Band of Brothers.” For several years after, McAvoy popped up in bit film and TV roles across the Atlantic, appearing in the acclaimed BBC miniseries “State of Play,” and as Paul Bettany’s obnoxious brother Carl Colt in the 2003 rom-com “Wimbledon.” He garnered indie acclaim as a quadriplegic in 2004’s “Rory O’Shea Was Here,” which made its stateside debut at the 2005 Sundance Film Festival.
Things began to really happen for McAvoy when, in 2005, he landed the supporting role of the polite Faun, Mr. Tumnus, in the blockbuster film adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.” He also had his first leading role as a college student participating on a game show in the critically hailed comedy “Starter for Ten.” The next year, McAvoy’s star rose higher, starring opposite Forest Whitaker in “The Last King of Scotland.” The biopic of Ugandan despot Idi Amin would garner Whitaker an Oscar for Best Actor.
McAvoy cemented his status as a highly talented screen actor with the role of star-crossed lover Robbie Turner in Joe Wright’s 2007 period epic “Atonement.” Starring opposite Keira Knightley, McAvoy was honored with a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actor in a Drama. And 2008’s “Wanted,” a bullet-riddled summer blockbuster about a fraternity of assassins, earned over $340 million worldwide, turning McAvoy into a box office viable leading man.
Directed by Michael Hoffman (“One Fine Day”), McAvoy’s latest film is a far cry from “Wanted.” The independent film, entitled The Last Station, is a period pic of author Leo Tolstoy (Christopher Plummer), exploring his turbulent final year and his troubled marriage to Sofya (Helen Mirren). McAvoy plays Valentin Bulgakov, a naive private secretary sent by Tolstoy’s trust follower, Vladimir Chertkov (Paul Giamatti), to work for Tolstoy.
MMM sat down with the charming James McAvoy to chat about his Tolstoy biopic, how he chooses his roles, his upcoming Robert Redford-directed Lincoln assassination drama and the crap his mates give him for his various roles (*cough* Mr. Tumnus).
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: You said that you had an interesting line to walk with this character.
JAMES MCAVOY: Yeah, I suppose I did. He’s that guy, that figure, that you kind of project onto a little bit, so you need to leave enough space for the audience to get inside, but you also need to do something as well. But also, between just the comedy and the drama, which I think everybody had to walk that line, that’s one that’s always enjoyable to balance and risk falling off.
MMM: He’s so naïve yet we have to see him grow by the end of it.
MCAVOY: Hopefully. My favorite movies and my favorite stories are ones where people change because it’s about things happening and changing that’s interesting in stories, I think. You need to have one character who’s got a definite moral view or a definite opinion or a definite haircut at least by the end of the movie. And I always look for a bit of character arc, progression change; even “Wanted” had one.
MMM: Were you a fan of Tolstoy?
MCAVOY: I’d be lying if I said that I was actually a humongous Tolstoy fan. I never got through “War and Peace” when I read it. I got nearly to the end, but I read it because I thought I should not because I wanted to. I think I’m probably finally ready to read it maybe in five years and get to the end. But what I didn’t know was all about his political and spiritual sort of leadership that came after his fictional writings. It was such an eye opener also to learn that my country, Scotland, had the largest concentration of Tolstoy communes outside of Russia. We got him in Scotland; we really dug him in Scotland it seems. So hopefully something on a subconscious genetic level made me love him.
MMM: Your wife was also in this movie. What was that like being on set together?
MCAVOY: We’ve done it before. We met on a tv show so it nothing new; it was nice to be together. We didn’t actually work with each other that much which allowed us to accept the job together. If we had lots and lots and lots of scenes with each other that could maybe get difficult. But we didn’t actually do that much acting together so it was nice.
MMM: With a role like this where the source material, or the back material is so dense and there’s so much of it, how do you go about preparing for this role? Obviously you didn’t go back and read “War and Peace” or go through any of that, so how do you get into the skin of this guy?
MCAVOY: I think it would have been a total waste of time for me to go and read “War and Peace” as preparation for this film. It wouldn’t have been a waste of time; it would have been time spent reading an excellent book obviously. However, this was about a different time in his life, and the main source of information was unparalleled in anything I’ve ever had as an actor, it was incredible. I had a direct link to exactly what my guy thought; he was a real person and in the film we show that he kept 5,000 diaries. He did keep a lot of diaries so I know how he felt went Countess Sofya Tolstoy climbed along the balcony because 10 minutes after it happened he wrote down how it made him feel. I’ve never had that kind of connection to a character before; it almost made it too easy. I’m really just trying to execute well what he says he felt, but my imagination doesn’t have to been engaged to connect to all that, not to say that I didn’t use my imagination. It was lovely to have that direct link to somebody, and I don’t think I’ve played anybody who existed before. This might be the first time I’ve played somebody real, and to have that link is amazing.
MMM: Can we go back to something you said about Tolstoy and the connection to Scottish people? What is that?
MCAVOY: No idea. But I do know that we are both from very cold countries; maybe that’s something. And we have a left-wing leaning country that leads to Socialism and socialist democracy. We were a socially democratic country forever. Up until Thatcher came in really we were quite a Socialist democratic country. But before that I think Scottish people were quite up for Communism at one point. And whilst Tolstoy wasn’t a Communist I think it’s what really laid the blocks and sort of helped cultivate an environment in which Communism could be born. We really liked that, I think; the idea that somebody was saying the land doesn’t belong to the English, the land belongs to you, it belongs to nobody but everybody. That was hugely interesting to Scottish people, Irish people, Welsh people; anybody who was part of a union that they didn’t want to be part of.
MMM: Now that you’ve gotten to play a real person who actually existed and were able to see exactly how he felt and act that out directly, how do you like being able to do that as opposed to playing a fictional character?
MCAVOY: It wasn’t that different. The only difference was I had this link to how he felt, but other than that it wasn’t that different. You’re playing scenes that actually happened, but whether we’re playing them exactly how they happened or not we’ll never know. So you’re still imagining, you’re still engaging your imagination completely. The only thing is, sometimes I suppose when you play a real person you are bound by reality, although sometimes that’s a very freeing thing. But maybe you can’t make some bigger dramatic choices that a story maybe could use to make it more interesting. But playing Valentin, he was so strange anyway. The guy did sneeze when he was nervous, like hugely. It sounds like a kind of Draconian device but it is true. So he was kind of an odd fish and I didn’t really feel constricted at all. But I imagine you can feel constricted by reality sometimes.
MMM: Is that the first character you’ve ever played where every time a specific emotion came over you that you had a physical action that you had to do?
MCAVOY: I’ve played a character with a very bad stammer and a kind of tick, and that was sometimes else that was physicalized. Tension wasn’t internalized, it wasn’t about film acting as we are told it should be about – internalizing it – it was about overtly communicating how you feel. “I’m nervous, I’m trying not to show you, but I’m going to spray you with nerves through my nose. You can’t hide it, and I really really liked being overt.
MMM: One of the adjectives I hear most applied to you in every role you do is “everyman,” even when you’re playing a badass action hero. Do you find yourself pigeonholed in that? Do you want to play some evil one-dimensional bad guy some day?
MCAVOY: Totally, of course I do. But no, I don’t feel pigeonholed. Getting to play “everyman,” that’s great, that’s wonderful, I think. You get great parts.
MMM: Or is it just that there’s something in the quality of your acting or the way you approach your roles that adds sympathy?
MCAVOY: I don’t know really. Maybe. I think I just look at the script and see what the story needs and try and do it. And if the story needs an everyman that you can understand and sympathize with I try and get your sympathy.
MMM: Is that what you gravitate towards?
MCAVOY: I’ve said this so many times I’m boring myself, but the last three films I did – “The Conspirator,” “Wanted,” and “The Last Station” – I gravitated towards them and I chose to do those films. Everything before that I was at the mercy of fate as to whether I got it, and as much as I’m glad that I did those films I just did them because I got offered them and they were the best of the bunch. I haven’t structured my career, it’s been really lucky, and now I’m starting to structure my career. But I really just did whatever I got, so maybe they gravitated to my ability.
MMM: If you play a two-dimensional villain next you can ask Paul for advice on moustache twirling.
MCAVOY: Nice. I just did a film in which I had a big old beard in it, and for period it would have been correct for me to have a nice bit of twirl. I was so keen to have a nice twirly moustache; I was gutted I couldn’t have one.
MMM: Did you have a game plan when you started?
MCAVOY: My game plan was entirely based around dealing with rejection and being cool with it, and preparing myself for mass rejection. I was bitterly told that I probably wouldn’t work that much because most actors don’t and I was just lucky that it didn’t turn out that way for me. One of the things that really helped me out is when I left drama school there were hardly any actors under the age of 25 in Scotland. They thought, “Look at Ewan McGregor; I’m off to London and Hollywood to go make it too.” So there was a dearth of young leads in Scottish theater, so a couple of mates and I cleaned up for a whole year and a half. And it really set me on the path. I don’t know if it’s because they all went “Look at Ewan McGregor, I’m going to do what he’s doing,” but I think it might have been. I didn’t get all the Scottish actors under 25 together and go, “Why did you leave? Tell me, I’m interested; it’s like a fucking wasteland out there with no actors,” but that’s my imagining anyway.
MMM: What does the period nature of the film add to it for you? The costumes, the setting…
MCAVOY: It gives it an extra element of interest I think. But for me and my attraction to do the thing, it’s not because it’s period it was just because it’s a cracking story, that was the main thing. The period thing is just being true to the man’s story and to everybody’s story. But I do like it, I do enjoy it. I don’t go out and go, “Yes, what’s the next period film that I’m going to do? Find me another period film please.” If I read a contemporary piece and it’s not as good as the costume drama piece then I’ll do the costume drama piece.
MMM: It seems like the costumes would be kind of uncomfortable.
MCAVOY: No; they were cracking. I like wearing costumes and all that. Quite often you’ll find they’re tight, but it just helps your posture, it helps your performance. Sometimes you feel a bit bound in in some of the outfits, especially in the first half of Valentin’s journey, and then we loosened him up a little bit. We actually made him go quite far and he put on peasant garb, which I thought was quite nice because it was slightly patronizing; this total upper-middle-class dude walking around dressed like a peasant. And then towards the end of the film he kind of comes back to your half and half hybrid, sort of like peasant-chic but still could make it in middle-class Moscow. You can tell stories through costumes as well.
MMM: Did you find that it’s a real love story? And if so, could you imagine a love like that, like the way she loved him?
MCAVOY: The way that Sofya loved Tolstoy? It’s a story about love but I don’t know if it’s a love story; I kind of think of love stories as people getting together. I think this is an examination about a particular marriage as well, and maybe a discussion about a particular marriage, because you’re seeing one love story right at its end and another love story right at its beginning. I bet you theirs was just as passionate as the two young ones. It’s also about two people that grew apart and grew in different directions. I don’t know what the film is saying about marriage really, but if you don’t evolve together you’re going to give yourself nightmares.
MMM: Could you relate to that type of relationship? The wife was totally in love with him, even when everything was gone.
MCAVOY: Could I relate to it? Could I see myself loving somebody who would completely disappear from my life? I don’t know; I don’t think so, I don’t think I could. But also, the other thing is that she was completely tied to him. She wasn’t just in his throw because she loved him, she was tied to him. She couldn’t do anything; she couldn’t divorce him, and she was also worried that her family was going to get left with nothing. And her family definitely would get left with nothing if she left or committed suicide or did anything. I don’t know what the equivalent would be for an aristocratic lady in Russia at the time would be to seek separation. She had to stick with him to the bitter end to see if she could get something. I don’t think it was just love that kept them together, but I think there were still elements of connection, there must have been. And we show them a lot and we dwell on that. But she was bound to him completely.
MMM: There is the scene that Tolstoy recorded his voice. Was any of the audio material available for you guys to listen to?
MCAVOY: Yeah we listened to it on gramophone; it was incredible. His voice really was wonderful the first time that we heard it, and Michael left it to play it to us until we were rolling. To have that almost physical connection, actually it is a physical connection because even to hear something is a physical connection because it’s vibrating in your eardrums, it’s making you physically react, and it was really powerful. I don’t know what he was saying though; it’s all in Russian.
MMM: Have you finished filming “The Conspirator”?
MCAVOY: Yes; I finished a couple of weeks ago.
MMM: What was it like working with Robert Redford?
MCAVOY: He’s great; he’s really, really good. A really nice guy as well. He makes you call him Bob. Justin Long kept calling him Mr. Redford and he was like, “Call me Bob,” and Justin would just keep on going, “I don’t think I can.”
MMM: What else have you got coming out?
MCAVOY: Nothing else coming out. I’m about to go do a film called “I’m with Cancer,” and that’s getting started in February, during the winter Olympics, which is a bold stroke.
MMM: I keep hearing rumors of them bringing Wesley Gibson [“Wanted”] back to life, or wanting to.
MCAVOY: Yeah there are rumors. I don’t know any of it. I got a phone call from [Timur, “Wanted” director] just after New Year’s Eve passed and that was it. He didn’t even talk to me about the film, he just said, “I’ll talk to you in a couple of weeks about the film,” so god knows what’s happening.
MMM: How do you stay grounded?
MCAVOY: I don’t feel like what I do would ask me to not be. Actually, sometimes it does. Dame Helen was saying something the other day about how when you talk about yourself all the time in these situations you can become quite boring because you think you’re fascinating and you’re so used to talking about yourself that even with your partner, even with your friends you’re still in the same mode; let’s talk about me because that’s what I’ve been doing for 10 days. That’s the only threat, is doing press sometimes can make you a bit self-obsessed because your job is to be analytic and people are analyzing you all the time. But honestly, I’m getting used to that and I don’t think it has that much of an effect. You just need to watch that you don’t become the center of your own little film.
MMM: How do you balance the big films, like “Wanted,” with something that’s a little bit smaller, like this?
MCAVOY: I don’t even have to balance it, that is what gives you the balance. Life is a scale. [laughter] It’s just so desirable to do something massive after you’ve done smaller things, and then to go back to doing something small, and then maybe hopefully one day do something massive again. You just keep mixing it up. And honestly, just go with what you think is a nice character and a good script. Even with “Wanted,” people kind of question me when I say it, but I really liked the character. I thought the character progression was great; a nice workout for an actor.
MMM: And that was a surprise. That wasn’t cut out to be a big film; it was a little thing that all of a sudden took off.
MCAVOY: I don’t really know why; I think it was just a combination of factors really. Not that it redefined the parameters of action movies or anything like that, but it had a different eye to it and that’s because Timur Bekmambetov is slight mental. And he’s also got quite a Russian sense of humor, even though he’s from Kazakhstan, he spent most of his time in Russia. He’s a got a different sense of humor that infused the film and we all bought into that. And also I think it’s funny; violent as hell but I thought it was still funny.
MMM: Are there any social causes that you’re really passionate about, and if so, why?
MCAVOY: I kind of work with the Red Cross in Uganda. But the main reason that I’m passionate about one particular country is because I spent time in Uganda and I had an amazing time there, and it’s a cliché thing to say but it’s true; I had my eyes opened to things I didn’t understand beforehand. So I feel a debt to that country because it’s given me a big step up in my career, telling one of their stories [“The Last King of Scotland]. So I work with the Red Cross in Uganda and I work with an amazing organization called Retrack that works not only in Uganda now, it’s now spread to Kenya and Ethiopia as well. They basically re-house street kids and sometimes, if they can, get them back with their larger families if their parents aren’t there anymore. And they do a lot of soccer and aid with them as well and basically try and keep them off the streets. A lot of kids that come from the countryside end up in the city basically fighting for their lives every single day.
MMM: You’ve played a variety of roles. Is there a genre that you prefer?
MCAVOY: I always like doing comedy; I really like doing comedy. I don’t think I’ve done too much of it, but to make people laugh is the best thing an actor can do I think. To make them cry and all that is good too, but it’s not as good as making them laugh. Comedians are the best.
MMM: Do you find it hard to do comedy?
MCAVOY: It is hard. But it depends, it’s like anything. If you’ve got a part that suits you it’s not hard, or it’s not as hard. But it can be a nightmare, it can be very hard. I like the pursuit of the gag as well, I like the pursuit of the moment where you go, “I think we just made something funny,” even if it’s not overt. And also it’s quantifiable; you can identify it when it works or not. When a movie’s a drama story you can sit in an audience and go, “I don’t know if they’re actually getting it or liking it.” But if it’s a comedy that either laugh or they don’t, and you know. So it’s quite nice to be able to identify a success or a failure.
MMM: When you go home and you see your friends that you went to school with or that you grew up with, do they give you crap about being in a videogame, because “Wanted” became a videogame? With all your success to they help keep you grounded by giving you crap about it?
MCAVOY: Yeah. I’ve got three or four really good friends back home who give me a lot of shit, and thank god for that. But actually nobody gave me any crap for the videogame. In fact, I don’t think anybody knows there’s a videogame; I don’t think anybody bought it. I don’t know if it’s any good or not. He asked me to voice my character which I didn’t do so they hired somebody to do an impression of me; it was hilarious.
MMM: If they give you crap about your career how do they feel about you playing Mr. Tumnes?
MCAVOY: Oh man, that never ended. When one of my friends saw that he phoned me up at 3 o’clock in the morning (I was in another country) just to rip me about it. The guy was in fits of hysterics; he walked out of the cinema halfway through the film just to tell me I looked like a dick. Hey, I like it, but it wasn’t really his genre.
THE LAST STATION opens on December 12th in select theaters nationwide.
By Marlow Stern
The film directorial debut of E.R. creator John Wells, The Company Men studies the effects of corporate downsizing on middle-class families in rural Boston suburbs. The story centers on a year in the life of three men, played by Ben Affleck, Tommy Lee Jones and Chris Cooper, trying to survive unemployment. Ben Affleck’s character is offered a job installing drywall by his blue collar brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner. Affleck’s wife is played by Rosemarie DeWitt (Rachel Getting Married), and the film also features supporting roles by Maria Bello and Craig T. Nelson and lensing by famed cinematographer Roger Deakins.
In years past, it would’ve been rare for a film with such a star-studded cast and timely subject matter – even in the wake of Reitman/Clooney’s Up in the Air – to have to go to the 2010 Sundance Film Festival seeking distribution, but such is that state of the independent film industry.
The film’s stars Ben Affleck and Rosemarie DeWitt sat down with MMM to chat about their downsizing drama The Company Men, the downsizing of independent film distributors, their own ‘getting fired’ tales and their intriguing upcoming film projects, including Ben Affleck’s sophomore directorial effort, the gritty police drama The Town, starring Affleck, Jon Hamm, Rebecca Hall, Jeremy Renner, Chris Cooper and Blake Lively, and Rosemarie DeWitt’s upcoming romantic drama Earthbound alongside Michelle Williams and Gael Garcia Bernal.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: You both must have lost jobs at some point in your lives, right?
BEN AFFLECK: I did lose jobs. Nothing on the scale of what happened to the folks in this movie or people in the real world who’ve worked for twenty years. I lost jobs when I was a kid. I got fired from a movie theater when I was 17 and got fired from a restaurant when I was 19.
MMM: Why did you get fired?
AFFLECK: I was late a couple times at the movie theater and one time at the restaurant. My manager at the restaurant was like a vindictive marijuana dealer that wanted to hire one of his friends who was also selling marijuana, and he fired me.
ROSEMARIE DEWITT: Not yet! I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop. I think I’ve had a harder time getting jobs then losing them, so maybe that’s what it was.
MMM: When you’re an actor is there that constant anxiety of what your next role’s going to be?
AFFLECK: I think being an actor or being in the arts – whether it’s dance, a painter, etc. – is a different way of making a living than regular, corporate America, where you have a contract that says, “I’m going to do this sort of job, and it may not be creatively fulfilling, but at least the job will be there for me. I’ll go to work every day from 9-5, punch the clock.” In the arts, you don’t have that same deal but you get to do, I think, more interesting stuff. But, a job’s a job. You have one audition, you may get that part, and then you have no guarantee that you’ll work again for the rest of your life. There’s no guarantee that anyone will buy your paintings, that you’ll get hired as a dancer or that anyone will buy your music and that’s really scary. The one thing about the arts is you internalize that reality, and you learn it.
MMM: What are your thoughts on the state of the film industry? It’s experienced a great deal of downsizing itself with all the studio reshuffling and closings of independent studios.
AFFLECK: I think it’s having a really dramatic effect on the industry. The arms of studios who previously made movies like this and movies you’ll see out at Sundance have all basically closed. The conventional wisdom is that those kinds of movies can’t make money, or they’re at least not worth enough money to be financed within a studio system. There’s still Fox Searchlight. Miramax is greatly diminished.
DEWITT: I feel like it’s going to affect the storytelling, too. I keep reading scripts that feel like they were meant to be big studio movies but they’re going to be made on a little budget. It’s sort of like the intention of what it came out of is different, and it feels awkward. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just, as an actor, like putting your foot into a shoe that doesn’t fit. You see these big production values but you know it’s going to be made on a much lesser scale, and possibly a much lesser story.
AFFLECK: I watched “To Kill a Mockingbird” the other night, and it occurred to me that it would be a Sundance movie right now. That’s not the type of movie that people would be willing to make today on a studio level. I ran into Harvey Weinstein the other night and I had the same kind of question that you had. I asked him, “Why aren’t people making as many of these kinds of movies?” And he said, “It’s hard to make money because the DVD market has been cut back so dramatically. You basically make half as much money on DVDs now so the profit margins are less, and people are going to less movies like this in theaters. Without studios making movies like the ones you’ll see here, Sundance is basically the only venue making interesting, different kinds of American cinema. And the studios themselves are making a very narrow brand of movies. I like studio movies, but there needs to be other kinds of movies too.
DEWITT: And people were really depressed after “Avatar,” because they couldn’t get back to Pandora. [Laughs]
MMM: Ben, the fact that “State of Play” didn’t connect with audiences… how did that effect you? And what did that say about the studio system?
AFFLECK: I just wept. [Laughs] Universal had a tough time there. They had some struggles and eventually “shuffled” management. I liked the movie. I think the movie was pretty good, got good reviews and, for whatever reason, it didn’t do so well. It’s hard to know. Movies are interesting because you judge success and failure of a movie based on what kinds of standards you put on them. A movie succeeds at Sundance if it costs $5 million to make and does $20 million. But if it costs $100 million then it certainly has to make a lot more than that. I’m not sure how much “State of Play” cost, but it may have been a victim of undue expectations in some ways. And audiences just haven’t been going to see dramas a lot in the last couple of years. I thought “The Road” was a great movie. “The Road’s” made eight million bucks! I think audiences go in cycles and I think dramas are due for a comeback.
MMM: Ben, you’re from Boston. The film takes place in Boston. Was it a more personal experience for you?
AFFLECK: It made it very easy to prepare and much more specific, which was great. I went to Framingham – I actually know some people from that area – and it keyed into it in a really specific way. It made it really easy for me to contextualize and understand the story and add detail to it than if it was in Milwaukee, because I just wouldn’t have known the lay of the land as well. And I was really happy because a lot of Boston stories – “Good Will Hunting” is certainly one of them – show that Boston is salty and Irish and that’s all it is. That’s the cliché of Boston right now – not that it isn’t Irish or urban in parts, but some people think that’s all you ever see in Boston. Regular, suburban middle-class – [Route] 128 – is really what’s going on there, and I really liked that that’s what was presented. It’s not a bunch of guys whipping out knives on each other all the time.
MMM: You guys made a very believable squabbling couple.
DEWITT: We were squabbling! [Laughs] No, we weren’t. We had a good time. It was one of those ones where it seemed more useful to goof around in between and hear each other’s rhythms, as opposed to rehearse it.
AFFLECK: It’s hard to just show up with someone you don’t know and your characters have this whole history and life together—
DEWITT: —It’s such an interesting pressure for actors. It’s gotta be believable and there’s no way to do that, necessarily, it just comes together.
MMM: Could you guys talk about your respective upcoming projects? Ben, you’ve been directing and starring in “The Town,” and Rosemarie, you just signed up for a cool-sounding movie…
DEWITT: “Earthbound!” Yeah. Kate Hudson’s character gets cancer and it’s a love story between her and Gael Garcia Bernal. It’s sort of this young woman’s struggle about having to learn to love somebody.
MMM: Any more “Mad Men?”
DEWITT: I don’t know! There’s plenty more of the 60s to go, so I’d love to see Midge return in some go-go boots!
AFFLECK: I just finished shooting “The Town” at the end of November and I’m editing now. It’s really exciting. I’m just starting to look at all the footage and go through it. I’ll probably have a cut sometime at the end of March.
MMM: You really lucked out casting Jeremy Renner, didn’t you?
AFFLECK: I did! I knew he was great, but he did kind of blow up as soon as I put him in the movie. He was in “Assassination of Jesse James” with my brother Casey, and somebody was like, “He’s got this Iraq movie coming out and it’s going to be really good,” and I was like, “Well, nobody sees Iraq war movies.” And then I saw it, and I was like, “You are really good in this movie!” And it was successful beyond what I thought. I lucked out with Jeremy Renner in a major way.
MMM: Are you and Matt ever going to work together again? There’s always chatter…
AFFLECK: We’re in the process of setting up a production company together. It’s not finalize, so I can’t give you any details. That may in fact happen now, which is cool. Both of us are kind of slowing down a little bit on craziness because of kids and stuff. Matt also never stops acting. He’s just non-stop. [Laughs]
MMM: Since you’re a family man now, how did that inform this family-oriented role?
AFFLECK: Yeah. Obviously, having a marriage – I think it would be very hard for me to play somebody in a real marriage or a real relationship without having one, or being in one and understanding it. When I was younger and not understanding what that was about, it would’ve been difficult for me to understand the pressures, the nuances, the love, the whole thing. That’s what I liked about this couple and this movie – they seemed real to me. It wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t bickering… It was just real.
MMM: It’s no “Chasing Amy.”
AFFLECK: [Laughs] Yeah, it’s no “Chasing Amy” for sure. We didn’t try to have a three-way with Tommy! [Laughs]
THE COMPANY MEN premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking a distributor.
UPCOMING FILM PROJECTS!
Steven Soderbergh is moving forward with CONTAGION, the deadly virus outbreak script taking place over four continents and written by Scott Z. Burns (“The Bourne Ultimatum”). The action-thriller has attracted the likes of Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Marion Cotillard who all have deals closing to star in the film. Filming would take place in the fall…
Madonna is set to direct W.E., a biopic about the affair between King Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson that led to the British royal abdicating from the throne to marry his divorcee lover. Vera Farmiga (“Up in the Air”) is in talks for the role of Simpson. There is no word yet on who will play King Edward…
Paramount Pictures announced today that it is making MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE IV. The film, which will be produced by Tom Cruise and J.J. Abrams (“Star Trek”), will star Cruise, and will be released Memorial Day weekend 2011…
Vin Diesel is confirmed to star in and produce a third installment in the CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK franchise. Universal Pictures will handle domestic distribution and Lionsgate is currently selling international rights. David Twohy, who wrote and directed both “Pitch Black” and “The Chronicles of Riddick,” will direct again from a screenplay he wrote…
Martin Scorsese is looking to reteam with Robert De Niro on a project that will be related to the mobster world. “Bob De Niro (and I) are talking about something that has to do with that world,” Scorsese said at the premiere of his new psychological thriller at the Berlin International Film Festival on Saturday. “There’s no doubt about that,” he added. “We’re working on something like that, but it’s from the vantage point of older men looking back, none of this running around stuff.” Scorsese and De Niro worked together on such classics as “Raging Bull,” “Taxi Driver” and “Cape Fear.” The last time they teamed up was for “Casino” in 1995…
Al Pacino is replacing Robert De Niro in SON OF NO ONE, the police thriller starring Channing Tatum and being directed by Dito Montiel (“A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints”). The film begins shooting in New York on March 22. The script, written by Montiel, centers on a young cop (Tatum) who is assigned to a precinct in the working class neighborhood where he grew up, with an old secret surfacing and threatening to destroy his life and family. Terrence Howard, Ray Liotta and Katie Holmes are also joining the cast…
Cate Blanchett is joining Saoirse Ronan and Eric Bana in the Joe Wright-directed thriller HANNA at Focus Features. The film centers on a 14-year-old Eastern European girl who has been raised by her father to be a cold-blooded killing machine…
Penelope Cruz is in negotiations to join Johnny Depp in the Rob Marshall-directed PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES. Scheduled for a release on May 20, 2011, the fourth installment revolves around the Fountain of Youth. Depp is reprising the role of Captain Jack Sparrow and Cruz’s character is expected to be Sparrow’s foil and equal in many ways…
After the worldwide success of the comedy “Clueless,” Alicia Silverstone is set to reunite with writer/director Amy Heckerling to star in the new feature film VAMPS. Film tells the modern day tale of two young beautiful female vampires living the good nightlife in New York until love enters the picture and each has to make a choice that will jeopardize their immortality. Silverstone joins Krysten Ritter already on board as the other lead vampire…
The NY Daily News caught up with Quentin Tarantino, who says he’s interested in making a Western, but one that is a little different…
“I’d like to do a Western. But rather than set it in Texas, have it in slavery times. With that subject that everybody is afraid to deal with,” Tarantino said. “Let’s shine that light on ourselves. You could do a ponderous history lesson of slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. Or, you could make a movie that would be exciting. Do it as an adventure. A spaghetti Western that takes place during that time. And I would call it ‘A Southern.’” Tarantino has previously mentioned he’d still like to do a third “Kill Bill” movie as well…
“The Dark Knight” and “Batman Begins” director Christopher Nolan has been assigned by Warner Bros. to try to save the SUPERMAN franchise, in this case in a mentoring capacity to figure out the best way to proceed. Director Bryan Singer helmed the last installment “Superman Returns” three and a half years ago, which grossed $391 million worldwide, but wasn’t seen as a hit due to its reported $270 million production budget…
Halcyon Holding Corp. has sold the TERMINATOR rights to Santa Barbara-based hedge fund Pacificor for $29.5 million. Halcyon will receive $5 million for every “Terminator” movie made from now on, as well as retains the revenue streams from the third and fourth “Terminator” movies. An arrangement also was made that the sale now wipes out the debt Halcyon owed to Pacificor and all the other creditors…
Summit Entertainment has acquired North American rights to Mandate’s comedy formerly titled I’M WITH CANCER. The film will start shooting later this month in Vancouver. James McAvoy, Seth Rogen and Anna Kendrick star in the film, to be directed by Jonathan Levine (“The Wackness”) from a script by Will Reiser. McAvoy plays a man who learns he has cancer and successfully battles the disease over several years. The character is based on the real experiences of screenwriter Reiser, who won his own fight with cancer in his mid-20s…
Universal Pictures has acquired the North American distribution rights to the Tom Hanks-directed LARRY CROWNE, in which Hanks will also star with Julia Roberts, his co-star from 2007’s “Charlie Wilson’s War.” Hanks co-wrote the film with Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”). It centers on a man (Hanks) forced to reinvent himself and find a new career as he navigates the second act of his life…
AT THE MULTIPLEX!
Opening this weekend is Martin Scorsese’s psychological thriller “Shutter Island,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, which is getting very good advance buzz despite the fact that it was pushed back to February from its original October release date. Also, there’s Roman Polanski’s political thriller “The Ghost Writer,” starring Ewan McGregor and Pierce Brosnan. It’s Polanski’s first film since 2005’s “Oliver Twist,” and despite his current legal troubles, he actually finished editing the film himself…
…Until next week!
By Marlow Stern
Born and raised in the tiny town of Winthrop, Iowa, it’s been a long, strange trip for Michelle Monaghan.
After graduation, Monaghan moved from her 700-strong town to Chicago to study journalism at Columbia College. While studying there, she became disillusioned with journalism and began modeling across the world. And, with one semester remaining in her journalism degree, she moved to New York to pursue an acting career.
Like most struggling New York actors, Monaghan first appeared in “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” before landing a minor role in the 2002 film “Unfaithful,” alongside Diane Lane and Richard Gere. She got her break in 2002, co-starring in the role of teacher Kimberly Woods in the Fox TV series “Boston Public.” In 2005, Monaghan thought she was about to break into Hollywood with supporting roles in the geopolitical thriller “Syriana,” and the graphic novel adaptation “Constantine.” Unfortunately, the scenes she shot for both films would be left on the cutting room floor.
That same year, however, Monaghan appeared in her first lead role alongside Robert Downey Jr. in the action-comedy “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.” And in 2006, another stroke of luck came Monaghan’s way: her audition tape for “Constantine” had been making the rounds in Hollywood, and fell into the hands of filmmaker J.J. Abrams, who cast her as the lead opposite Tom Cruise in “Mission Impossible III.” So far, Monaghan’s known among wider audiences for her work in action films like “Kiss Kiss,” “MI:3” and “Eagle Eye,” as well as romantic comedies like “The Heartbreak Kid” and “Made of Honor.” However, her finest work has flown largely under the radar – portraying working class women in films like “North Country,” “Gone Baby Gone,” and most recently, “Trucker.”
Marking the directorial debut of James Mottern, Trucker tells the story of Diane Ford (Monaghan), a truck driver who leads a freewheeling life of long-haul trucking, sexual encounters and all-night boozing with Runner (Nathan Fillion) until the evening her estranged 11-year-old son Peter (Jimmy Bennett) is unexpectedly dropped at her door.
MMM chatted with Michelle Monaghan about her unusual rise to stardom, her acclaimed role in “Trucker,” and her reunion with Robert Downey Jr. in “Hangover” director Todd Phillips’ “Due Date,” as well as her other upcoming roles in films by Duncan Jones (“Moon”) and Sofia Coppola.
MANHATTAN MOVIE MAGAZINE: What attracted you to the film “Trucker,” and how were you cast in the film?
MICHELLE MONAGHAN: James Motern, the director, had seen a scene that I’d done in “North Country” and had seen elements of Diane Ford in that character. He sent a script to my agent, he sent it to me, and I was immediately blown away by the role, the movie and the story of a woman who at first glance isn’t likeable and someone who you can identify with but, by the end of the film, is someone you come to understand and appreciate.
MMM: Could you talk about “Trucker’s” unique approach towards motherhood?
MONAGHAN: It really butts up against a lot of double standards. We’ve seen the story over and over again of a father abandoning his family, but it does happen with women finding that they’re not maternal and cut out for motherhood. That’s something that this film set out to explore. Also, just a woman being a free spirit and doing what she wants to do. It may be a little selfish, but she’s very honest.
MMM: So what does the film have to say about the concept of motherhood versus female autonomy?
MONAGHAN: I don’t really know. This particular character realized that she just wasn’t cut out for motherhood, and that her son was probably better off in an environment where he could be nurtured and loved the way he deserved. For me, I found that a very selfless and honest thing to do.
MMM: And ironically, you became a mother shortly after wrapping this film.
MONAGHAN: I did! About a year later I became a mom, and fortunately, I found out that I was maternal. I think I’ll stick around. It’s going amazing and it’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever done.
MMM: This is the first film where you’re really in every scene and harnessing the narrative. Was that a big burden for you?
MONAGHAN: We did shoot it in 19 days, so that was a really big push. But it’s a blessing to be able to do that because you’re able to live it and breathe it. You don’t have time to overanalyze things.
MMM: Did you go from shooting “Eagle Eye” to “Trucker?” Because that must have been a huge leap.
MONAGHAN: I actually shot “Trucker” just before “Eagle Eye.” It’s the exact opposite though, truly. You’re looking at a huge budget movie versus a film you made for $1.5 million. One of the great things about shooting independent films is you really have access to a lot of people who shape your career. The accessibility is much greater when you’re shooting a smaller film as opposed to a large film. When you’re shooting a larger film many decisions are made for you before you even show up to the set.
MMM: You seem to have a penchant for playing working class women – in “Trucker,” “Gone Baby Gone” and “North Country.” How have these experiences compared to your broader characters in romantic comedies, etc.?
MONAGHAN: They’re all facets of my personality. Maybe I’m drawn to working class characters because they’re real people dealing with real struggles. And it’s also my background, it’s where I’m from, so it’s definitely something I understand. But doing a comedy – I’m a goofball – and I’m also a Tomboy, so you’ll continue to see me have a varied career and explore all those different genres.
MMM: Speaking of Tomboy’s, you learned how to drive the Big Rig in “Trucker.”
MONAGHAN: I did! I went to truck driving school and got my CDL license. For me, it was the most challenging yet fulfilling thing I’ve ever done. It was imperative for me to get my license because it is her livelihood, and, I think in doing that it would inform me so much about her character.
MMM: Anything crazy happen behind the wheel of that thing?
MONAGHAN: No crazy things happened, fortunately! When we first started there were days where I thought, “There’s no way I’ll be able to get on the freeway and do this!” I didn’t want to hurt anybody – most of all Jimmy, whose Mom was very brave to let him get in the truck with me.
MMM: This seems to be a very exciting time for female actresses with “The Blind Side,” the “Twilight” films and Meryl Streep’s resurgence. Could you talk about the current atmosphere when it comes to actresses?
MONAGHAN: Yeah! I think it’s always been there, to be honest. I just think some people either choose to acknowledge it, and some people don’t. What’s really exciting this year is a lot of female directors are being acknowledged. I’d like to see more female directors. I’ve worked with a few, and I don’t really see a difference between a female or male director. So, that’s what I’m most excited about.
MMM: What job would you have right now if you weren’t acting? You were a journalism student in college, right?
MONAGHAN: Yeah, I’d probably be doing journalism – investigative reporting – of some sort. That was my dream growing up, and then I realized it was something I didn’t want to pursue, so that’s when I discovered acting.
MMM: What made you come to the realization that journalism wasn’t for you?
MONAGHAN: Realizing that I was going to have to start off in markets like Iowa and you become a one-man band in small cities. I had just been exposed to Chicago and was really enthralled by the big city. I didn’t want to go back to places such as Iowa, which I had just gotten out of. And I wanted to move to New York. I didn’t know what I wanted to pursue, but that’s when I found acting.
MMM: You modeled quite a bit before acting. That seems to be a very common transition, from model-to-actor, so how was that experience for you?
MONAGHAN: For me, you kind of perform in front of the camera when you’re a model. It was a transition from modeling, to doing commercials, and then I started auditioning and it turned out to be something I really loved. The transition was really great for me. Also, to be honest, one of the great things that really benefited me from modeling was dealing with rejection. When you’re modeling, you’re dealing with rejection on a daily basis. When I started acting and auditioning, they were like, “Nope. Nope. Nope.” So, it rolled right off my back and helped me persevere without hindering me.
MMM: It’s interesting, because you had scenes cut from “Syriana” and “Constantine,” but I heard that they actually used your audition tape from “Constantine” to cast you in “Mission Impossible: 3?”
MONAGHAN: Yeah, they did! For some reason, that audition tape had been floating around Hollywood, and, over the course of a couple of years, I kept getting meetings due to someone getting their hands on this audition and liking it. That’s what happened with J.J. He got his hands on the audition and he really liked it. So, I didn’t really get my scene shown in the movie, but it turned out to be good nonetheless.
MMM: Could you talk about the upcoming Todd Phillips comedy “Due Date?” You’re reuniting with Robert Downey Jr.
MONAGHAN: Me and Robert had such a good time working on “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang,” and we had been wanting to work again together and this was just the perfect thing. I play his 9-months pregnant wife, and he inadvertently gets caught up with Zach Galifianakis’s character – they’re strangers – and they’re rushing home to me before I pop. And I’m getting ready to start a sci-fi film with Jake Gyllenhaal in a couple months.
MMM: “Source Code,” right? That’s your first true sci-fi film, right?
MONAGHAN: Yeah, it is. It’s not really something I’ve done, so I’m really looking forward to it, and I think Duncan Jones is a really interesting director, so I’ve very excited about it.
MMM: Both your and Robert’s careers have really taken off since “Kiss Kiss,” so what was it like reuniting?
MONAGHAN: I have such a fondness for Robert. He really took me under his wing on “Kiss Kiss” and truly made me a better actor. He taught me how to improv. I always compare every experience to that one. Nothing has really changed with him. He’s still the same old Robert. He’s probably got a lot more money in the bank, but he still has that really cerebral approach to acting, and he’s just fearless in his performance. He’s typically about five steps ahead of you so he’s sort of pulling you along the way, but in a good way.
MMM: We talked about female directors earlier, and you have an interesting film coming out soon by Sofia Coppola, “Somewhere.”
MONAGHAN: I’m a really big fan of her work and I think she’s really great at creating a quiet, unique and beautiful world. It stars Stephen Dorff, Elle Fanning and Benicio Del Toro. I play sort of a love interest to Stephen Dorff, and it was all shot at the Chateau Marmont. It’s a very mysterious project and there’s not a lot out about it so I’m reluctant to talk about it. I don’t want to be the one to spill the beans!
MMM: Did you recently read your “North Country” co-star Charlize’s piece praising your “Trucker” performance in Variety?
MONAGHAN: I did. It really meant a lot to me. Charlize has been a friend since we worked together on “North Country,” and she’s someone I really appreciate as both a friend and an actor. To hear one of your colleagues say such nice things about you really touched me. I was really grateful for her words.
MMM: How do you think your performance in “Trucker” will affect your career, in the grand scheme of thing? Because you really do get to show off your acting chops in this, as opposed to other roles.
MONAGHAN: I think it has found it’s place, in a way. It’s my first lead role where I carry a film. It’s very dramatic. I consider it to be a very honest performance. There’s not a lot of bells and whistles, so I’m really proud of it. I hope more people see it and connect to it. It will allow me to do more of that. I love independent film and I want to do more of those. I want to get financing for more films that are independent, which is such a struggle to do nowadays, and hopefully it will get me to do more honest stories.
MMM: How did growing up in a small town in Iowa inform your performance in “Trucker?”
MONAGHAN: 700 people. Again, it’s a working class environment, so they’re real people with real issues and real struggles. Regardless, everyone kind of struggles with being a parent. It’s challenging. I saw that a lot around me and I think it informed my performance tremendously.
MMM: Do you feel divorced from that working class milieu now that you’re in Hollywood?
MONAGHAN: Not at all. Not at all. I’m definitely more comfortable there than I am here, without a doubt. In Hollywood, it’s my job. I get in, I get out, and I come back to my normal life. I feel like my life isn’t that extraordinary. I feel like my job is extraordinary.
TRUCKER is available on DVD now.
UPCOMING FILM PROJECTS!
Producer Joel Silver told the Los Angeles Times that Guy Ritchie is no longer attached to direct Warner Bros. Pictures’ adaptation of the DC Comics title Lobo because the studio is moving forward with Sherlock Holmes 2. Apparently, Downey and everyone from the first should be onboard…
Mel Gibson is in talks to reunite with Lethal Weapon screenwriter Shane Black for the Universal Pictures spy thriller Cold Warrior. Black will direct from a script by Chuck Mondry. The film is about a spy from the Cold War era who comes out of retirement to team with a younger agent from the new school to confront a domestic terrorism threat orchestrated by Russia…
Olivia Wilde (upcoming Tron Legacy) is in negotiations to star opposite Daniel Craig in the graphic novel adaptation Cowboys & Aliens, to be directed by Jon Favreau for DreamWorks. Based on the Platinum Studios title written by Fred Van Lente and Andrew Foley, the sci-fi Western explores what would happen if the traditional Old West enemies — cowboys and Native Americans — found the prairie attacked by aliens in mid-1800s Arizona. Wilde will play a character named Ella who joins up with the mysterious gunslinger (Craig)…
Clash of the Titans star Sam Worthington is a frontrunner to star in Universal’s Dracula Year Zero, to be directed by Alex Proyas (Knowing, I, Robot). The film is an origin tale of Vlad the Impaler, the Romanian royal who inspired Bram Stoker’s vampire tale. It centers on how Vlad became the creature; the choices that he made to make him into the tragic character…
Robert De Niro has been attached to play Alabama Governor George Wallace in the Civil Rights movie Selma, which is likely to be the next movie from Lee Daniels, director of Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire…
Seth Rogen and Michelle Williams are set to star in Sarah Polley’s (Away From Her) romantic triangle film, Take This Waltz, says Deadline Hollywood. Polley will direct her own script, which made the Black List of 2009’s best unproduced screenplays. In the film, a young woman (Williams) struggles with her infidelities and the budding realization that she may be addicted to the honeymoon period of her relationships. Another actor will be cast soon to round of the cast. Filming is expected to start in July in Toronto…
Star Trek and Heroes star Zachary Quinto will play famed composer and pianist George Gershwin in a biopic at DreamWorks Pictures, says Deadline Hollywood, which adds that it is one of three projects that Steven Spielberg is looking at to direct next. The site says that the studio is supplying accent and dialogue coaches for Quinto, and shooting could begin as soon as April. Gershwin, who passed away at the age of 38 in 1937, composed music for both Broadway and the classical concert hall, as well as popular songs. His compositions have been used in numerous films and on television…
Not toooo many surprises, but I’m overall very happy with the results. Very glad that Jeremy Renner was nominated for his performance in The Hurt Locker, considering he was so unjustly shunned from the Golden Globes in favor of Tobey Maguire for Brothers (???). Also, very glad that District 9 was one of the ten nominees for Best Picture. Very surprised that The Blind Side was nommed for Best Picture, as it was totally undeserving. Thankfully, In the Loop was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay as well. Hilarious, rapid-fire dialogue. You can see all the nominations at www.Oscars.org…
News Corporation chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch said during his quarterly earnings call on Tuesday that the company, which owns 20th Century Fox, is in early talks with James Cameron about a possible Avatar sequel. Cameron “has ideas about it,” he said, adding: “We will be pushing one.” The Hollywood Reporter says Murdoch cautioned analysts not to “hold your breath for another one” in a possible reference to Cameron projects often taking a long time to come to fruition. Asked about the Blu-ray and DVD release, Murdoch said Avatar will be released during the company’s current fiscal year, which ends June 30. He added that it won’t be a 3D release as the technology isn’t developed enough yet…
In other Avatar news, the film is expected to break Titanic’s domestic box office record of $600.8 million as soon as Wednesday…
The studio will be closing the New York and Los Angeles offices of Miramax Films and 80 people will lose their jobs. Six movies awaiting distribution, including: Last Night, The Debt and The Tempest, will be shelved or get a tepid release. Founded in 1979 by Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Miramax was a leading independent movie distribution and production company before it was acquired by Disney in 1993, releasing films like Pulp Fiction(1994) and Good Will Hunting (1995) and Shakespeare in Love(1998). In 2005, the Weinsteins decided to leave the company and founded The Weinstein Company…
AT THE MULTIPLEX!
<i>Edge of Darkness</i>, Mel Gibson’s take on the <i>Taken</i> formula, is largely a bore. Not enough action, tons of dialogue, and some ridiculous third act developments. Speaking of Taken, From Paris with Love, which marks Taken helmer Pierre Morel’s latest Hollywood film, is sufficiently terrible. Some decent action, but a ridiculous plot and some wacky (not in a good way) performances…
…Until next week!