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In the aftermath of Fantastic Four’s opening, critical reaction hasn’t exactly been glowing. From established critics to the blogosphere, from the Rotten Tomato reporters to serious fan-geeks, this Fantastic Four re-imagining hasn’t fared well — though maybe it is an overreaction, given the huge expectations developed by a fan base 50 years in the making.
When artist Jack Kirby and writer Stan Lee's creation, Fantastic Four number one, appeared in November, 1961, Marvel Comics barely existed. DC Comics -- home of Superman and Batman -- defined the superhero genre at the time. So there was a need to go against the grain with heroes that did not necessarily relish having powers, ones that were bestowed upon them accidentally. The Four’s real powers were their brains, quality of character and determination to both be normal and/or use the powers for something other than themselves. Their nemesis, Dr. Doom, was the embodiment of fury and self-obsession.
The groundswell that made Fantastic Four a benchmark in comic book history -- and the core series in Marvel’s history -- also built up a level of anticipation that was not rewarded with 20th Century Fox's first cinematic edition of Fantastic Four or its sequel, Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer.
Released in 2005 and 2007, these two tried but didn’t quite establish both the grand mythos or the quirky charm of the longstanding printed series. Its cast — older, established actors Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba and Chris Evans — tried but didn’t quite succeed in convincing audiences of their super-ness.
So when the quartet of leads who play this Four — Miles Teller (Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic), Kate Mara (Sue Storm/The Invisible Woman), Michael B. Jordan (Johnny Storm/The Human Torch), and Jamie Bell (Ben Grimm/Thing) came to an Apple Store to do a Q&A just before the film’s opening, they offered some insight into the making of this new-gen Fantastic Four. In doing so, they gave the audience a sense of the film’s creation and the dynamic the cast developed to make it work for them.
In being rebooted, this film deviates from the core origin storyline by making their visit not into outer space but to another dimension and offers a far more sinister and deadly Victor Von Doom played by Toby Kebbell).In being rebooted, this film deviates from the core origin storyline by making their visit not into outer space but to another dimension and offers a far more sinister and deadly Doctor Doom. Much of the blame has been laid at the feet of everyone from the studio, to the director Josh Trank and/or producers or even some of the performances. Yet this cast has shown a pretty enthusiastic belief in their performances and how they were making the best of it all for the release of this film.
Whatever has been said about the film since its opening, no one can fault the cast’s credits in establishing acting chops and opportunities to try on a range of characters.
Of the four, Teller’s been in the spotlight most recently having had lead roles in two critically acclaimed films — 2013’s The Spectacular Now and last year’s award nominee Whiplash. He’s also portrayed Peter Hayes in the commercially successful The Divergent series and will headline the upcoming biopic Bleed for This, playing boxer Vinny Paz.
Jordan has also culled some serious accolades, particularly for his performance as shooting victim Oscar Grant in the award-worthy Fruitvale Station. But he also built his own fan base through a couple of high profile, gritty television series, Friday Night Lights (as East Dillon High School quarterback Vince Howard) and The Wire (as teenage dealer Wallace). He also played Steve Montgomery in FF’s director Josh Trank’s debut scifi thriller Chronicle, and, costarred alongside Zac Efron and Miles Teller, in 2014's That Awkward Moment.
Jamie Bell has shuttled between copping serious creds playing Revolutionary War spy Abraham Woodhull in the TV series, Turn: Washington's Spies and a set of genre-based vehicles such as 2005 's King Kong, Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin (2011), to the futuristic Jumper (2008), produced by FF’s Simon Kinberg (there's a sequel underway) and the much praised Snowpiercer (2013). An English actor and dancer, this 29-year old rose to prominence in his debut Billy Elliot (he won the BAFTA for Best Actor in a Leading Role in 2000).
While Kate Mara hasn’t been in the action spotlight of her younger sister Rooney who starred in Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, she's made her mark as a character actor in the Netflix political drama House of Cards as Zoe Barnes, appeared in the Fox series 24 as computer analyst Shari Rothenberg and was in the FX horror mini-series American Horror Story: Murder House as Hayden McClaine. The 32-year-old actress made her film debut in 1999 with Random Hearts and was cast in 2005's Brokeback Mountain.
Nonetheless, despite the disparaging reviews and advance notice swirling around them, this quartet was enthused by that day’s fan ballyhoo and this Q&A was culled from that event. Excelsior.
Q: This is a different, darker, more serious spin on the superhero genre in general and Fantastic Four in particular. Are you playing Sue Storm or are you playing a “superhero?”
KM: This was a unique superhero film screen test, for me, anyway, because I’ve screen tested for many of them and never got any roles, unfortunately. But with all the other ones I’ve auditioned for, you have to get in costume and do the powers and all that. This one was more about the chemistry between Miles, Jamie, Michael and I. So it didn’t feel like any other drama or film I auditioned for.
Q: Fantastic Four is a beloved property in a genre that has good standing right now in pop culture. Everyone has been excited for this film and the other superhero films coming out right now. Michael, did you go after this, or did its producers come after you?
MJ: I’m in a unique position because this is something I’ve always wanted to do, but it came at me. It was a great opportunity to work with [director] Josh Trank [who had worked with Jordan on his debut sci-fi superpowered Chronicle]. We were playing video and sitting in the house one day talking about future ambitions, and he asked me if I wanted a job and if Johnny Storm is someone I wanted to play, and I said, “Yeah.” It was an awesome opportunity and I’m glad it worked out.
Q: Miles, were you able to see yourself in this context when you heard about this character and read about him? It’s different from other roles you’ve played.
MT: I have pretty eclectic taste and that’s a good thing to have. You want to keep yourself fresh; you don’t want to repeat yourself. I had just got done playing a character that’s closer to Johnny’s thing, [one with] a bit more of a temper.
That wouldn’t have interested me at the time. But I was into this guy who’s obsessed with science and discovery — wanting to push the human race forward. I love that kind of spirit in Reed. He doesn’t care about whether or not this person likes me or if they think I’m weird, no, man. He’s dead set on creating something that will give us the ability to travel inter-dimensionally [no matter what], and I like that [attitude].
Q: Jamie, you’ve done motion capture performances before. Could you have done this role without having that knowledge and experience going in?
JB: Well, I’ve worked a few times with Andy Serkis, who’s considered a guru of performance capture. For those who don’t know him, he did Gollum in Lord of the Rings and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
So I had seen how Andy really used this technology to his advantage and really got under the skin of these characters, and [was able to] move audiences around the world and give them these experiences. So having worked with him before on Tintin, that technology was useful.
Q: What does it look like on set when the scene is in another dimension and you’re playing The Thing, which is not a suit, but it is performance capture. Are you in a void? What does it look like?
JB: It’s just a green void. It’s green, everything is green. The floor’s green, the wall is green, everything is green.
KM: Jamie’s suit was green as well.
JB: I’m basically in pajamas that look like a jockey with a wig cap on and I got [to wear] stilts to get me up to 6’8”. But the funny thing about that is that I’m in scenes with these guys….
For us it’s a leap of faith in terms of acting, as though we’re in an environment and then reacting as such and then it’s going to be put on the screen. We really have to have a lot of faith and trust in the director and the story so we don’t look like idiots when the movie comes out.
Q: Earlier this summer, with another big movie [The Avengers], actress Elizabeth Olson [Scarlet Witch] said she had to do what you had to do, create something with her hands, and you just have to go with it. Do you feel silly on set, or do you feel like, “I’m in it with these guys, I can’t half-ass it.”
KM: The first day I thought I felt like an idiot, but then you have to own it. You got to go for it. Also, we all had to do stupid things, so any time I felt stupid I just looked at Jamie.
Q: What were the stupid things Miles and Michael had to do?
MT: It was a scene — I think they show it in the trailer — they were trying to get this one line and I was saying, “The light, it’s swallowing the earth!” Every time we’d do it they just didn’t get it. So they’d re-write it or add a scene and I would just be in a different environment saying, “The light! it’s swallowing the earth!”
We did it in three different scenes, and after a while I’m just like, “Screw the light. Let the earth get swallowed, it’s not a big deal.”
And the stretching stuff, it’s all in your imagination. When I’m on the bed and my body is stretching, Josh was walking me through it, saying, “Your hand is stretching down and going to this grate and your fingers are grabbing it.” And it’s nice, it takes you out of your head and you just have to give in to the process.
Q: Michael, you play a superhero that flies — did you have to work on your flying pose?
MJ: You want to have your own unique kind of style with this, so I played with a couple different poses and I went with what I was most comfortable with. With those safety harnesses and flying harnesses, they aren’t as comfortable to the males as they are to the females, what with the way the anatomy is made up, if you follow me. So that was the most uncomfortable part of the movie, the flying stuff and the harnesses.
Q: How much of your costumes were CGI or actual outfits?
MT: The wardrobe was not CGI at all. Obviously when Michael is flaming-on, it has to be CGI to look like flames. But the suits… Reed’s looks different because built his own suit at one point. And you have to think, if I’m building a suit and also stretching all the time, it has to contain all that business so I’m not overflowing with limbs and stuff. So yeah, the suits were all real.
Q: You have all been in some great TV series. I’ve seen Jamie in Turn and Michael in The Wire as Wallace. Like the Marvel Universe, these shows have huge fan bases. How did these two experiences relate?
MJ: I don’t know. When the Wire came out it was after the fact that it got attention, it wasn’t while we were filming it.
Q: The same for Friday Night Lights.
MJ: Friday Night Lights was also an awesome show. But it’s the same thing. I didn’t get the instant gratification from the fans. This movie hasn’t even come out yet and a massive amount of fans are here showing love, so it’s pretty awesome to be part of the Marvel Universe.
Q: Miles, what was the best thing you got from acting school and the worst thing?
MT: Being in acting school was the greatest time in my life. It’s tough going from film set to film set and you have to work on yourself. In theater school, you’re with sixteen other weirdos in sweatpants who are pretending to be seaweed while their teacher is playing whale music, and you’re pushing an imaginary box across a ballet stage for 30 minutes, stuff like that.
If you’re not learning and you’re not growing and not getting to work on things… I miss it, yeah.
The worst thing, the debt. The student loans. And also, I think a lot of people got caught up in… they couldn’t do sense memories or some can’t hold a coffee cup and they forget at the end of the day you’re just talking to another person, so they can get a little intellectual. But it was the best experience of my life.
KM: I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was nine years old. I used to watch movies with my mom and little sister. I was completely obsessed with film then and it was all I wanted to do.
Q: Who were your superhero inspirations?
JB: Tim Burton’s Batman.
MT: I liked Batman, but for me it was also Indiana Jones and Dick Tracy.
MJ: There are so many, but I’m going say Darkwing Duck.
KM: I loved Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.
Q: And if you had powers, what would they be?
KM: I’ll give MBJ a power that he needs, and it’s to be on time.
ALL: Ooooohhh [laughs].
MJ: I want… The power to stop time.
KM: You do that already.
MT: I dunno, man. Fly, just fly. I took yours, right?
JB: For me? Teleportation… [Laughs].
Dorn with Jennifer Muro & Angela Marie Volpe
Besides comic conventions and Ted 2, actor Michael Dorn is making sure the world doesn’t forget the original Star Trek universe and the character he lived in for nearly 20 year the Klingon Commander Worf.
With the original Star Trek series there was a Vulcan but no Klingons on the crew. Then on Next Generation, Worf became the Klingon who was as critical to his ST universe as was Spock to his generation.
As separate from the real world the Star Trek universe is, Worf and his Klingons were so important that they spawned a fan base determined to flesh out his culture and world. That was an amazing thing as the ever growing Star Trek canon became. Though geek cakes to appreciate how significant that was with Worf one of the ten most important Trek characters, there was debate that justice still wasn’t done.
For the last few years, Trek alumnus Dorn has been pursuing various avenues to get a new TV series centered on his beloved character Worf into production.
Worf has spent more hours on screen than any other character in the history of the franchise. Even now, after more than 13 years since his last appearance, he remains a fan favorite and a sci-fi icon. Yet, despite Dorn’s Trek pedigree and the worldwide love for his surly Klingon, CBS has not budged on green-lighting "Captain Worf.”
Back in the ’60s, an historic letter writing campaign succeeded in saving the original Star Trek series from an untimely cancellation after the first season.
With reboots of classic series at an all-time high, including the return of The X-Files to network television, and the Trek brand still going strong in the form of fan-made films and hugely attended events, it seems time for that series to have its own development opportunity.
In order to do so, a core team surrounding the 63-year-old veteran actor have come up with a campaign to press the new work to produce the series. This campaign will send the message that Star Trek is ready to return to its TV roots.
And that there is no better helmsman for the task than a man who shares Roddenberry’s hopeful vision of the future and will bring that philosophy back into 21st century storytelling.
So for him to have this bid kicked off, the campaign wants fans to send mini-muffins to the powers that be this summer. To prove the same fan-fervor exists , the goal is for an unprecedented one million muffins to be sent to the CBS offices with a note saying, “We Want Worf.”
In order to increase a-worf-ness, Dorn has been conducting a series of exclusive phone interviews with journalist-trekkers — including this one — to bring the cause to the pop culture forefront.
Q: Your character is one of the most fascinating in Star Trek’s history and that’s because Klingon culture turns on several classic human cultures, whether it’s Roman or Japanese or others. What did you think it was? What did you draw on and what did others think you drew from?
MD: Well, it started out as the Russians and that was who they were. When the show was going on, the [Berlin] Wall had come down before then, so we got an eye into the Russian culture. We got a good look at them and knew they weren’t all evil and bad.
I then brought into it, in terms of deeper things, the Samurai warrior code. [The writers] basically had nothing until the character Worf [was created] and we went into these different areas of the Klingon culture. I told them, “Look, they’re like wild people. Whenever they fight they’re screaming and yelling and all this other stuff, I think it gets a little crazy. Why don’t we do something a little more controlled, yet still aggressive; [why not] make it more like the Japanese samurai?” So we added some of the Japanese samurai [thinking], some of Chinese martial arts, and other things, and put it all into [Klingon] culture.
Q: Once there was a debate as to whether Klingons were like the Romulans. The Romulans were more Roman and the Klingons, like you said, were more like Japanese. while the Romulans were more the opposite of Vulcans, Klingons were the fighting side of cultures. Was there a discussion about how Klingons and Romulan culture distinguished the one from the other?
MD: They never discussed that with me, or if there were discussions, I never heard them. Because the character of Worf was on the show, they had to make a distinction with a lot of things. But I don’t think they really had much discussion on how to keep things separate. They always had an idea of who the Romulans were, who the Klingons were, and “neither shall the twain meet” as they say, and that was evident. The cultures did not overlap at all.
Q: Maybe twenty people have had an opportunity to play a character that has had so much growth and been seen by so many generations of people -- and even be a Shakespearean sort of character. That cultural depth must be mind boggling at times, I can see why you don’t want to squander that.
MD: The way television is going right now, with all the formats between Netflix and Amazon, and the cable shows and all these things, there’s so much of an opportunity. If you’re going to do a show, it has to be an intense, dark show like Game of Thrones or Spartacus, all these shows that are out there. They’re dark and some are even soft porn.
The Klingon Empire is a dark empire itself. It’s about assassinations and coups to take over the government and all the things that are the mainstay of television these days.
Q: Speaking of soft porn, there have always been fans who have fantasized about that side of Trek. You hit on an important sub-text. Have there been discussion about envisioning scenes of Klingon sex life?
MD: There have been discussions, but we haven’t gone into it with any depth because I think we’re living in the moment and when it gets done we’ll see what works. The thing I don’t care about, and I don’t think it’s necessary, is that television feels it has to go way out there.
I disagree. I don’t think you have to. It’s a little for shock value. But if you got a great story, we don’t really care about that. I think it’s just that a lot of these shows are just going for shock value. “Oh my god, did you see that?” But it doesn’t really add anything to the overall story or feeling of the show.
Q: In Star Trek: Next Generation, you were never thought of as being a “black actor” because you were a Klingon. You suffered less of the sensationalist attention that Nichelle Nichols endured in the first season of the original series. But now is the time now that we need more black actors to be the lead in sci-fi or action shows. It seems like something people will accept and gravitate to like never before. Do you hope that, at this time, this show might be possible?
MD: I think you’re right, hopefully. Like you said, they don’t look at Worf as being black. They’re not going to say “oh wow, let's have some more Klingons on television” or something like that. But I do think that any time you can show that there’s money to be made with you, they’re willing to do anything. I don’t think that it’s a matter of racism or anything. It’s purely financial.
If they think they can make money and there’s a market for it… you see it more today. If you look at commercials, I did commercials when I first started, so I know this first hand: there would be one, maybe two commercials a year where you might see a black face. If you watch commercials now, they are inundated with them. I don’t think that was an altruistic decision. They realized there was an audience and money to be made with these products in the black community. So they started doing more. I think that’s what it’s going to be.
If this show becomes successful and it’s a highly rated show and critically acclaimed and they’re making money hand over fist, me being a black actor can’t do anything but help other black actors coming up, or at least have them say, “hey, this guy did it, let’s try it with this guy.” There won't be a hesitance to it.
Q: Do you have a wish list of actors you’d like to show up, like James Earl Jones or old actors or new actors that could make a cameo, like you made in Ted recently?
MD: What I do wish for is that I want every part to be a great part. I don’t want it to be a cameo or stunt casting. I want it to be a great part even if it’s 10 or 15 minutes onscreen. I can go down the list of people we would have on the show.
Of course, all the Star Trek alumni can do the show. There are certain characters that can’t show up because they’re dead or whatever is the case, but those actors can still do parts on the show. The wish list is too long to imagine. I hadn’t even thought about James Earl Jones, but he’s definitely… I think Laurence Fishburne is wonderful. The list goes on and on and on.
Q: There are great Star Trek actors who are typically known as “character actors”, but they play their parts -- like the guy that played The Doctor on Voyager, Robert Picardo. Before that, he was a great character actor, but after that it makes you appreciate him even more. or the guy that plays the Ferengi, Armin Shimerman, is a great Broadway actor because you see how different he is. There’s something about being in Star Trek that lends a certain quality to actors. The same goes for Rene Auber
MD: The whole point is that there’s a dearth of actors that fit that bill. Armin Shimerman, who played Quark, is a wonderful actor. He’s so identified as Quark that it would be hard to bring him back as Armin, but I don’t think he would mind coming back and doing a great role as Quark. it’s a job.
What you’re saying is something we’ve discussed and thought about. It just got overwhelming for us because there were so many actors and so many facets to bringing these characters back and how we do it? Do we bring back the character or just the actor as themselves? It goes on and on.
Q: Have you had much interaction with JJ Abrams and how his Star Trek universe connects with yours? It’s exciting how there’s a relationship.
MD: That’s why the Klingon thing is perfect because it has nothing to do with what he’s doing. I’ve never met JJ, but they’re very clear about keeping the TV and movie things separate and not getting in the way or having them cross over, or getting someone mad at us for doing something. They’re keeping it very separate.
Q: What did you think of their version of Klingon culture?
MD: There wasn’t much to it. I couldn’t say anything about it, it was just a cameo for Klingons.
Q: Are you going to produce and direct as well as act?
MD: On the pilot I’m going to be producing and directing, but that’s it. When it goes to series I’m not going to be producing. I’m trying to do as much directing and acting as I can.
Q: With regard to the Klingon cultural development, I want to see more of that shown. Re-elaborate about the idea behind your show and how showing the cultural development of the Klingons relates to the Federation.
MD: The A story is that the Klingon culture is on the verge of dying because it’s so homogenous. They don’t allow anything except for Klingons. There’s no allowance for any other culture or any other way of thinking to go in there. It’s almost like having a culture that only has one type of individual in it. At some point it’s going to die out.
They realize this, so they start allowing other cultures and species into their culture, painfully at times. It’s the growing pains of this culture that I’m interested in showing. And Worf is at the forefront of that because he’s the guy that’s supposed to bond other races and [he is] one of the unique individuals in Klingon culture that can talk about that. He says we have to look at this as learning, take the best from other cultures to make our own culture better.
The B story is that Worf is on a spiritual journey himself. He is trying to find out who he is, which he has been doing for the past thirty years.
Q: In a way, even though Worf and you were in more episodes than many other characters, it always felt like Worf was reacting to other characters and we didn’t get enough of his perspective. Not that he didn’t have moments. I can’t say I’ve seen all 167 episodes. Is it 167 episodes you were in?
MD: With Next Generation it’s 170, then I did 100 with Deep Space 9.
Q: Though I’ve seen a lot of episodes, I can’t claim to be that thorough. But it always seemed Worf was more often reacting than leading, so this seems like a great idea and that you should have this opportunity. Worf wasn’t treated as secondary, but he didn’t get as many pivotal roles as Data or Troi.
MD: I definitely have to agree with you. I was always cognizant of the fact that on Deep Space, even if it was supposed to be a Worf episode, everyone was doing more talking than I was. I don’t know why that it is. It could do with something about the edict behind the show and how they want to portray Worf. But I think you’re right, and this is an opportunity where people will finally get those episodes.
Q: When you were starting out as an actor, did you think you’d get so immersed in this character and universe? There’s no question that this role changed the course of your life. If you hadn’t played it, you might have been a great actor in a lot of different ways, but this is something that will live way beyond you.
MD: Unless they have the biggest ego in the world, I don’t think anybody thinks they’re going to be a character like what Worf is to a culture. I don’t think anybody expects that.
I just wanted to have the freedom to do a bunch of different jobs, whether it’s movies or television, just do something really interesting. I always wanted to be an interesting actor and I didn’t really think much further than that.
But I never denied myself the fact that I love science fiction, have always loved science fiction, and that I would love to do science fiction. You can’t dream about something like this. The thing that you have to realize is that even if you’re on a show like Star Trek, that doesn’t mean your character is going to be as popular as Worf is. It’s a real special thing and it’s an amazing time for me.
Q: Your cameo in Ted 2 was a sort of commentary on the comic and geek culture. Did you have any input on that or did you just throw yourself into the role?
MD: The only thing I told them was that I really wanted the makeup to be not even close to Worf. I wanted it to be so bad that it wouldn’t be an imitation of Worf. There was no beard, the uniform looked nothing like mine. I thought that would be very funny and Seth agreed.
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For another 70-year old, kicking it out on stage for three July nights at 54 Below under the banner of “A Little Bit Broadway, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll” might seem like a daunting task. Yet given Micky Dolenz’s uncanny history, it’s not surprising. Produced by label exec Van Dean —directed by Dean and Dolenz — and under Michael J. Moritz, Jr.’s music direction, this show demonstrates a love for both Broadway stylizations and rock ‘n’ roll without comprising either form.
In three intimate concerts on July 7th, 10th and 11th at 7 pm, the singer/multi-instrumentalist includes some of the Monkees greatest hits, a few songs from previous musical roles and rarities he’s rarely performed before from shows he loves. Having seen an intimate rehearsal before a small audience, the raw performances — with an insider’s look at the process of refinement suggests that “A Little Bit Broadway, A Little Bit Rock ‘n’ Roll” will more than please; it should arouse a demand for it to be extended here and beyond New York.
But this eternal Californian has the experience having starred as a kid in the television series, Circus Boy, to being the drummer and lead singer of the hugely successful rock ‘n’ roll band, The Monkees, which originated from the classic ‘60s TV show of the same name. It debuted on NBC to incredible success where ratings remained high for two seasons. Then Micky and the band starred in their own feature film, Head, a 1968 psychedelic romp co-written by a young Jack Nicholson, becoming a cult classic.
Ultimately, The Monkees sold over 65 million records, toured the U.S. and much of the world many times. Dolenz has also starred in musicals on Broadway, the West End, and in national tours including: Disney’s AIDA (Broadway), Pippin, Hairspray (West End), Grease, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Tom Sawyer, and more. Besides two solo albums (Remember and King For A Day) and a memoir, Dolenz recently appeared in the world premiere of the new play Comedy Is Hard (Ivoryton Playhouse) by four time Emmy winner Mike Reiss (The Simpsons).
After all this eternal Monkee has the endurance to not only survived being a rock star — a mega-pop star at a time when excess and self-destruction was the norm — but proven to be an incredible multi-hyphenate in ways that few singers or actors rarely are. The veteran Californian has had a comprehensive career encompassing not only a range of musical styles, but creative activities as including directing, writing, producing a bit of design and furniture making as well.
Of course being best known as a Monkees — transforming the faux band into a crack quartet capable of world tours and songwriting performed as well as the studio musicians who initially backed them on their songs — raises all sorts of good questions and more. But when you’ve had such a remarkable career as Dolenz has had, while remaining a friendly, and thankfully for this interviewer, open subject, it garners great Q&A material. And it didn’t hurt that we discussed it all in such a fine restaurant as Midtown’s Palm.
Q: If all these digital tools had been available to you when you did the band, how different would it have made things? Are you glad that you came out of a world that had that sort of naive experience of rock and roll?
MD: That’s a good point. I suspect at the time there was somebody that would ask me, “Can you imagine what it was like when there was no recording, or you were recording on a wire recorder or a wax cylinder?” Up until the ‘50s there was only mono [monaural]. My first tape recorder was mono.
I remember when stereo came along, and the first stereo albums [came out]. I remember clearly my father saying, “This is [in] stereo,” and I said, “What do you mean?”
He put it on our home system, a big vinyl thing. It was a sound effects kind of album, and it had a train going from left to right. We were like, “Ohhh, wow….” You could hear the bass over here and the guitar on the right.
So the recording process was much more difficult [then] than it is today. It was expensive, it took a long time, you didn’t have the options, you didn’t have the editing [available]. You had to do all your work before you got to the session.
That’s why the musicians like the Wrecking Crew, who of course you must have heard of — have you seen the documentary? You should, I’m in it.
Denny, the guy that made it, his father was Tommy Tedesco, the guitar player. And he has taken 20 years to get that thing off. I am so glad they finally got the recognition that they deserve. Because everybody, as you probably have heard by now, used the Wrecking Crew — the Byrds, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, the Association — everybody.
The reason was not that these people couldn’t play. But playing live, and playing in a very, very —as I said — expensive, now rather sort of primitive, environment, was a very different gig. And these studio [cats], that’s all they did. They could keep the dynamics the same, they could read the charts and just knock it out in one or two takes. But these people also never went on stage. They never played live, except for, I guess, Glen Campbell, who is the only one I can think of.
Q: They never toured.
MD: Oh, no. They’re not live performers. When you are onstage live, you’ve got to perform. They were not performers. They sat there like this [demonstrates] and played. They read the docs and played.
Q: Has anybody ever proposed making — not so much a documentary but a feature film — like this Beach Boys movie, Love & Mercy, about the Monkees? The Monkees story is so unique. It’s fascinating how ubiquitous the name “Monkees” is known no matter what generation someone if from. A lot of people don’t really get the uniqueness of the story. In those days they would create a manufactured band, but the people were interchangeable. Here was a created band that actually became an organic whole; no one ever thought was possible.
MD: Mike Nesmith used to say it was like Pinocchio becoming a real little boy. Well, at the time, nothing like that had happened. Now, of course, you have it happen frequently. I think the closest thing that has come along in years is “Glee”. They go on and perform, but it was a TV show about an imaginary glee club. And “The Monkees” was a TV show about an imaginary band.
Q: You guys got to contribute and take it even further because you actually put your own wacky personalities to work in it. Would you want to have a movie like this made?
MD: Well, there actually have been a couple of little things, television things. VH1 did one years ago called Daydream Believer. Not bad, not a bad film. There has been talk about it. You know, I am so close to it, I’m probably not the person to ask because I am too close to it, really.
Q: It’s also interesting how most of you stayed in touch. You had that group with David Jones and have toured with Peter Tork…
MD: Well, we had our own solo careers, but it does tend to always come back to that, yeah.
Q: Like seeing you and Peter playing together at the Rockers On Broadway.
MD: A two-dog monkee.
Q: In this current show, you revisit your own personal history and reflect on it with this musical expression. What led to doing it?
MD: I was asked. [laughs]. The Broadway producer Van Dean, who also owns Broadway Records, resurrected that. We met a couple of years ago. He is from Connecticut and he was doing a benefit for Sandy Hook, for the kids. He got in touch with me and knew I had done some Broadway stuff. I did the benefit for him, sang a few songs.
Then about a year or so ago, he got in touch with me and said, “There’s this club called 54 Below, and we have recorded a few acts there for the record company. We’d be interested in talking to you about it.” He had come up with the idea, he knew I had done Broadway, and of course, knew I had done rock and roll.
He said there was a Monkee tune Neil Diamond wrote for us called, “Little Bit Me Little Bit You”. So he said, “We’ll play off of that and call it, “Little Bit of Broadway, Little Bit Rock and Roll.”
It intrigued me. I said I could really be into that. I had been doing a lot of theater, and of course I had had all those hits. It took us about a year to pull it together, just to get the dates from 54 Below. And to get the band, and [musical director] Michael Moritz, and VMD to get his band available.
Q: So that’s the regular band he works with?
MD: Yeah. He has lots of musicians that he works with, and these are, I think, [the] core people. And really that’s how it happened.
I wasn’t available last year because I was on tour. And then this year, he said “Can you do it in July?” I said “Yeah”. We wanted more than one date because if you are going to record a CD, too risky. So we waited until 54 Below came up with three dates, and here we are. Simple as that.
Q: It was brilliant that you invited people to your rehearsal the other night, having an audience there. Did that help you in certain ways?
MD: Yeah, it’s why I requested it. It was my idea. I could not have gone onstage cold and never having sung these songs [before an audience. Not the Monkee songs, because all the Monkee songs and those stories I have done a million times. It was the half-a-dozen [or so] Broadway tunes, most of which I had never sung before in front of an audience, ever. Ever.
No, I would say out of all those Broadway tunes, there is only one that I have sung, and that’s “G W Washburn,” because it was a Monkee hit and that’s the cross-over tune. But all those other songs, I’ve sung around the house, I’ve sung at auditions, like “Don’t Be the Bunny”, which I mention. But no, I have never sung them before an audience before, or told any stories about them in front of an audience.
So when we started rehearsing, I said, “I can’t go onstage at 54 Below on opening night never having performed these songs. So that’s what that rehearsal was last night, and tonight is just to get me comfortable with singing those songs and telling those stories in front of strangers. I told some of them in front of my family, but I have never sung any of those songs in front of [strangers]. Last night was the first time I have sung “Pure Imagination”, “Don’t Be the Bunny” or “Evening Cellophane”.
Q: Obviously, it was very effective. It has a complete freshness. It’s interesting to think of these choices you made, and also to hear you sing in these different voices — to see how someone who sings rock and roll can re-interpret a Broadway song, or how you use your Broadway background. I loved you singing your mother singing Billie Holliday — that was great.
You talk about being a public person and a private person, and where the lines are between public and private when you are exposing yourself. But rock and roll is hyper-intensive. Even when you are interpreting someone else’s song, you have to throw yourself into it in a physical way that is not like a Broadway song.
If you hadn’t been a Monkee, would you have still gone into rock and roll, or music, or would you have been an architect like you had originally planned after you had been a child star — in the tv series Circus Boy?
MD: If I hadn’t gone into that audition [for the Monkees], I would probably be an architect, and we wouldn’t be sitting here.
Q: Or you would have invented some kind of technology.
MD: I don’t know. It’s a good question. It’s kind of moot, unless you believe in parallel universes. Like the thing I mentioned last night [at the rehearsal].
The showbiz thing has always [been in my life] but there’s the showbiz, and there’s my real life. I got it from my parents, who were also like that. My father was an actor and he was off the boat from Italy. We never lived in the Hollywood-Beverly Hills-showbiz-y kind of world, ever. No friends from that world, really. We lived out on little ranchettes in the [San Fernando] Valley and had horses, chickens, all that.
So it was like, Daddy went to work, and came home and cleaned the pool. I would win my first series, “Circus Boy”. I would go do “Circus Boy”, come home and clean the pool. So I’ve got to credit them mostly with — as much as you can have in a showbiz world — a very down-to-earth family life. Very down-to-earth, very no-nonsense. They never pushed me into the business, never like the traditional stage mom type, “Eyes and teeth, honey, eyes and teeth”.
They did just by virtue of the way they acted. I noticed very early on that there is a difference between the person and the persona. I don’t remember them saying this to me in so many words. But I remember when I was ten years old, I saw my father on the set playing an evil Mexican general killing people, and he would come home and tickle me on the living room floor. So even from very, very early on, I got that that was the character, that was the act.
[Otherwise,] I am a very private person. When I’m home, I’m in my shop — I have a workshop, a wood shop. I have a business. My daughter and I have a family business called Dolenz & Daughter’s Fine Furniture. We make heirloom furniture. So I have always had that side of me.
Q: Do you think that helped you in maintaining your sense of authenticity?
MD: It must have, I guess. One of the things they did I think was very smart was after “Circus Boy”. It was a big show, a very popular network prime time show. But I was 12 or 13, so they took me out of the business entirely — back to school, public school. No showbiz, no acting.
So I missed that whole post-childhood success craziness — the disappointment, “They don’t love me anymore, Mommy.” Growing up and going through puberty is tough enough. But having that kind of “You’re a has-been at 13” is what I believe messes up kids like that and has done in the past.
We have even seen it recently, with the kid from Star Wars — the little kid who played Anakin [Jake Lloyd]. Because you don’t know who you are, you don’t know what happened, and all of a sudden you’re a has-been at 13.
So my parents wisely took me out of the business entirely. And I really didn’t get back into it until the Monkees, 10 years later.
Q: So with this process of putting this show together, and these different lives, do you have any reflections?
MD: Yeah. Finding and choosing the songs for the Broadway section was really an interesting process. I had assumed that this started with songs that I had sung in a show like “Forum”, like “Grease”, “Aida”, “Hairspray”, “Pippin” — we could have started with those. But none of them worked.
None of them worked because most songs in a Broadway show are part of the narrative of the show. That’s why they are a Broadway show. You have to be in the show.
Q: So their integrity lies in the context.
MD: Absolutely. That’s what Broadway shows are, where all the dramatic moments don’t turn on dialogue, they turn on a song. Like the old saying: in a Broadway show you talk and talk and talk until you can’t talk anymore, and then you sing. Those big moments, dramatic moments or comedy moments or whatever, turn on a song. That’s what makes them Broadway shows.
But the downside, if you are trying to find material, then [you have to] do songs out of Broadway shows that stand alone. And we can count on a couple of hands how many songs?
Q: “Cabaret” is one of the few.
MD: One of the few, until the Beatles did “Til There Was You” — I mean, very few, because they are part of a narrative. So doing a show like this, that was the problem we ran into. They are great songs. I wanted to do a song out of “Aida”.
Q: Now that you mention it, I notice you didn’t do any songs from the shows you were in.
MD: None. Not a one. We found songs that are stand-alone. But do they also speak to my narrative? “Cellophane” is a good example. We set it up with that story about sometimes you’d like to be invisible. It worked.
That was an interesting challenge, trying to find these songs. It took me about a year.
Q: How did you go about finding them?
MD: A lot of them recommended by Michael. Two of them came out of my childhood: “Some Enchanted Evening” and “But Not for Me”, [thanks to] my mom. And actually, a couple that I had been working on over the years as audition pieces. “Don’t Be the Bunny” got me three shows.
Q: Do you ever find it ironic that you did “Pippin” and then in the recently closed revival version — which is now on the road — incorporated that circus element?
MD: I haven’t seen that version. I hear it’s really good.
Q: You did an album of non-Monkee songs, right?
MD: Yeah, a guy in England came out with [one]. He compiled all these obscure tunes from the ‘70s that I did post-Monkees on MGM. I totally forgot I had even done them.
Q: That’s interesting timing, that it is coming out now in light of you reviewing your history.
MD: It’s not a one-man show or anything like that. I’m not that interested in myself. But I do love the fact that it is incorporating the two things I love most in music, which is rock and roll and Broadway.
Q: What did you learn about yourself as a singer or performer in terms of how you interpret Broadway or rock and roll?
MD: Well, I learned that many years ago, when I started doing shows. Like I mentioned last night, “The Monkees” was a little bit like Broadway on television, a little bit like musical theater on TV, like an old Marx Brothers movie.
After we were cast, they screened Marx Brothers movies for us, Laurel & Hardy, the Beatle movies. But I remember it was heavily weighted towards that Marx Brothers idea. Not the Three Stooges, we never beat each other up. [It was] One for all, all for one.
There’s an interesting book called The Politics of Ecstasy, written by Timothy Leary. When you go back, you will find almost a chapter devoted to The Monkees. Whatever you think of Timothy Leary, I don’t know, but…
Q: Oh no, I love Timothy Leary.
MD: He got it. He mentions things like that. I don’t remember his words — the irreverent, psycho-something jello — but basically what he said was, the Monkees brought long hair into the living room. Before that, the only time you ever saw young people with long hair on television, it would be an arrest. And it made it okay to have long hair and wear bell bottoms. I mean, the kids said “See, Mommy, the Monkees don’t commit crimes against nature, and they’re just having a good time.” [sings] “we don’t want to put anybody down”.
In a very similar way, I realized years later that Henry Winkler did it with the Fonz in making it okay to wear a black leather jacket. Until then, we were outlaws. We were Marlon Brando and the Wild [Ones], and you were a motorcycle gang thug, you had your hair like that with a motorcycle jacket.
And in another similar way, I thought, was the way that Will Smith made it okay to be a young black guy singing rap music in “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air”. The Monkees did that for the hippie generation.
Q: In some ways, in hip hop and motorcycle gangs there always was a level of not the noble outlaw, but the bad outlaw. But the hippie thing was never meant to be outlaw.
MD: No — well, not outlaw, but [the show] was never anti-Establishment. We still couldn’t do or say anything about the war, we couldn’t talk about anything controversial. The NBC censors were very, very strict. In fact, there is a great story.
There was one episode called “The Devil and Peter Tork” and it [was based on] the Faustian legend. Peter wants to learn how to play the harp, and says, “I’d give anything to be able to play the harp.” The devil appears and says, “Would you really?” and he says, “Sign here.”
Peter then suddenly can play the harp, and he comes back to the beach house and says, “Hey, guys, I can play the harp!” “How did you do that?” And he said, “Well, I had to just sign this…” I say something to the effect of, “Peter! You’ve signed your soul to the devil, which means when you die you will go to hell!”
This is in the script. They sent it to NBC, to the censors, before we were shooting. The censors came back and said, “You can’t say that on network television at 7:30 at night. You cannot use the word ‘hell’.” 1967.
Well, we didn’t say it. Bob Rafaelson fought tooth and nail — he said, “It’s FAUST!”
Q: They probably said you can’t say that, either.
MD: “Who’s this Faust guy? You send him over here.”
So Bob Rafaelson fights tooth and nail to get the word “hell” into the script. And they said no, absolutely not. So if you watch the episode, when that scene comes around, I say something to the effect of “Well Peter, you sold your soul to the devil, and that means when you die, you will go to that place we can’t mention on network television.”
Q: It’s amazing what you got away with then.
MD: We slipped some zingers in there, but it was tough. It had to go under the radar.
Q: The great thing was that you had all those layers, and the characters were unrealistic.
MD: You understand that “The Monkees” was not a band, it was a television show about a band. An imaginary band. On a set.
Q: An imaginary band that had no real connection to the real world. Where was the beach house, by the way?
MD: Malibu. Which begs the question, how could we have afforded it. We had a beach house, and we never worked.
Q: It was this absurdist show. That is what was so great about it.
MD: Yes, imaginary. It was a set — Stage 7 at Screen Gems. There were two or three other shows that were trying to be high level that year — music shows. I was up for them. There was one about surfing beach boys kind of thing. There was one like Peter, Paul and Mary — that actually did go to pilot, it was called “The Happeners”.
Then there was another show that had a whole big family thing in a bus, like the New Christy Minstrels kind of thing — “A Mighty Wind”. That became “The Partridge Family” years later, I think.
Q: But the thing about “The Monkees” was the amazing, unique combination of forces that made the show — you guys, Bob Rafaelson, who later on made a movie like Head, with Jim Frawley directing.
MD: Paul Mazursky wrote the pilot, with Larry Tucker, his partner. You know Bob and Bert [Schneider] produced Easy Rider. I’m in that book, also: Easy Riders and Raging Bulls. They used Monkee money to make Easy Rider.
Q: I don’t think that confluence of forces could ever come together again. That’s what made the show transcend its origins.
MD: Well, that’s what makes any show transcend, if you look at any show, or movie, or album. It’s just that what happens is the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Bob Rafaelson, years later, even said, “We caught lightning in a bottle.”
You can look at any show — like “Star Trek”. You can’t hang the success of the show on any one thing, like William Shatner or Gene Roddenberry or Leonard Nimoy, or the sets or the dialogue or the costumes. It doesn’t work like that. You can’t reduce that stuff down in any real scientific sense. You can’t take it apart.
People ask me this all the time, and as a scientist — and I consider myself a scientist — you can’t take it apart. It’s like taking a watch apart to see how it works. It won’t work anymore if you take it apart.
And even with The Monkees, I get asked, “Are you really like that?” No, I don’t run around, twice the speed of a human, backwards. There were elements of me in that character. But they didn’t want to hire pure actors, to play a part. Bob Rafaelson and Bert Schneider knew that to grab those kids, they had to have something [else] — that’s why they used our real names.
Q: Do you ever want to direct films?
MD: I did. Nothing you heard of — it was all in England.
The one film I did here was a movie of the week for Lifetime, starring Stephanie Zimbalist, actually — a typical Lifetime movie, female in jeopardy, called Malpractice. Over here I directed TV. I directed “Boy Meets World,” “Pacific Blue”… But I did a lot of stuff in England. I had been there for 15 years.
Q: Any regrets that those projects didn’t get seen here?
MD: It wasn’t really my call. They were owned by BBC and LWT. I tried to get a couple a change of format versions over here, but they were very British shows, so I’m not sure they would have translated. Some would, but there are not that many shows that have made it over here. A little more these days, but back then it was very unusual.
Q: Besides your daughter that you are working with, you have how many other kids?
MD: Three other — four daughters altogether. Ami — who is an actress, and she still does a little bit — has now taken to what she always wanted to do, which is illustration, children’ books illustration. Even before she was an actress, that was what she wanted to do. And she is doing quite well. She lives in Canada, Vancouver. She is studying at Emily Carr Art School, which is the famous Canadian art institute, and getting a certificate in illustrating children’s books. So we are going to write a book together and she is going to illustrate it.
Then my next oldest, Charlotte, just got married to a lovely guy. They are living in Vienna, Austria. He’s been posted there — he works in the State Department, and he is there for a couple of years. She works for the Clinton Foundation, CHIA, she’s a malaria officer for five African countries. From what I gather, they advise the local governments how to combat malaria in their particular region.
The next one is a preschool teacher and photographer. The youngest one, Georgia, is the one that I have the furniture business with.
So they are all doing quite well. A couple of production companies have approached us about doing a show. But we’ll see.
Q: So what more do you want to do?
MD: I would love to do more musical theater. I’d love to be on Broadway.
Q: Writing your own?
MD: No, not necessarily. Just some great part. I have a wish list of parts that I would love to do. I’d love to do Ternardier in Les Miz. I’d love to do the Wizard in Wicked, I’d like to do Amos in Chicago. I’d love to do Wilbur again in Hairspray, if that ever comes again. I just did that in the West End for about a year, in London.
I was offered shows that I couldn’t do for one reason or another. I was offered Drowsy Chaperone. There was another show, a national tour, and I couldn’t do it.
Q: You are in good shape. What do you do?
MD: No sex, no drugs, no rock and roll.
Q: And don’t eat…
MD: Both halves of this Philly cheese steak. No, I’m pretty active. I have a good metabolism. Frankly, working in the shop — it’s not running a marathon, but we’re on our feet sometimes eight hours a day, handling lumber and machine tools. I have a full-blown machine shop.
Q: Do you have accounts, or does someone hire you to design their living room?
MD: No, it’s all handmade for orders that are on the website. It’s specific heirloom pieces — a coffee table, a hope chest, sitting bench seat…
We have one line which is Shabby Chic stuff — we have three items in that line. And then we have three items in this redwood line, and there’s a cedar heirloom hope chest with brass fittings. We’re just coming out with a chess set next week that I designed. It’s all hand-carved, hand made, we sign everything and number it and brand it.
Known for his madcap action and vivid art, 2000 AD alum and creator of the comics anthology Deadline Brett Ewins passed away on February 17, 2015 after a brief illness, at the age of 59. Ewins influenced an entire generation of comic creators through his work on Judge Dredd, Rogue Trooper, and for having a hand in the creation of Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl. Ewin’s bizarre style lighted the minds of many comic fans, but he also deeply suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, and in January 2012 he suffered a heart attack and grievous head injuries after stabbing a police officer, for which he was arrested and subsequently released on bail.
Beyond the Longbox met with artist Simon Fraser (Nikolai Dante for 2000 AD, and Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor for Titan Publishing). Fraser had a few words on the art and legacy of Brett Ewins.
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