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Oscar-nominee Meryl Streep Cooks Up "Julie & Julia"

Looking very Julia Child-like, actor Meryl Streep, the latter half of Julie and Julia, stepped up to the press conference table in a long grey dress cut to mid-calf, wearing a string of pearls. Her screen husband, Stanley Tucci, wore a sport coat and a white open-collar shirt. At this event, held close to the original release of the film, Streep was her usual effervescent self, while Tucci performed as the snarky comic counterpoint. They both seem to have enjoyed playing these characters so much that it's no surprise that her starring role in Julie and Julia recently won Streep a Golden Globe Award and another Oscar nomination.

Though Streep went on to get hosannas for It's Complicated  — another film in which the 60-year-old actress plays a vibrant woman who transcends the implication of her age — and for her voice work in the animated Fantastic Mr. Fox, it's the twists and turns provided by director Nora Ephron in n Julie and Julia that makes the intertwined stories of seminal French chef Julia Child and her fan Julie Powell the best of the bunch. 

The wife of a diplomat in 1949 Paris, Child wonders how to spend her days. So she tries hat making, bridge and cooking lessons at the Cordon Bleu school. There she discovers her passion and eventually creates her landmark book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, leading to a career that in the 1950s and '60s made her the first star chef on television.

In 2002, writer Julie Powell (played by the endearing Amy Adams), about to turn 30 with an unpublished novel and working aimless jobs, decides to cook her way through Child's book in a year and blog about it -- which became the book, Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen. With their sympathetic, loving husbands in tow, the film undulates between these two stories of women both learning to cook and finding success through it. 

Streep has approached her career with a similar passion that was unexpected at first. From her first film role in, ironically, a film titled Julia (1977), Streep transferred her ample skills as a Yale Drama School alumna and has gone on to be nominated for the Academy Award an astonishing 16 times, with two wins so far.

Q: Because Julia Child was such a character, is there a challenge of not doing an impersonation that might veer into parody — Nora Ephron said that you did Julia for her one night after Shakespeare in the Park...

MS: Well, I bet everybody in this room could do their version of Julia Child. To everybody that voice was so familiar, and then how do we know whether we're doing here or Dan Aykroyd's version of her? Everyone can pull that Bon appetit! out there. When Nora gave me the script, sometime over a year ago, I just thought that it was so, so beautifully written.

It was an opportunity to not impersonate Julia Child, but to do a couple of things. For me, embodying her or Julie Powell's idea of her, which is what I'm doing — I'm doing an idealized version, but I was also doing an idealized version of my mother who had a similar joi de vivre — [is to show her] undeniable sense of how to enjoy her life.

Every room she walked into she made brighter. I mean, she was really something. I have a good deal of my father in me, which is another kind of sensibility, but I really, all my life, wanted to be more like my mother. So this is my little homage to that spirit. That's more what I was doing than actually Julia Child.

Q: The romance between Julia and Paul is so dynamic; it's touching to see what you're doing.

ST: Well, it's pretend.

Q: How did you create this organic-looking relationship; what research did you both do before stepping into their skins?

MS: Stanley and I are often on opposite sides in a very famous charades game every Christmas. We've been at each other's throats like married people for a really long time, many years [laughs]. We knew each other in that way and I just sort of am in love with him from afar anyway with the totality of the man, from Big Night (1996) to his acting and directing work and in every way. So does everyone who knows him. He's just real treat to work with. It wasn't a tough job to imagine being in love with him.

ST: We have to go now. We are in a hotel. Thanks for coming [laughs].

For me it was easy, too. Probably like most people in the world, ,I, too, have been in love with Meryl Streep for many, many years. We'd done The Devil Wears Prada together, which was really fun, and we knew each other a bit socially before that and so for me it was awesome. It was incredibly easy.  [To Streep] You also make it easy because you're so comfortable. I'm always a little nervous when I start shooting and I was very nervous to play around with that.

MS: We're you nervous when we started?

ST: I was so nervous. I was. You made me feel so comfortable. It was nice.

MS: You know what Nora did — she did what she called a costume test, but it was really sort of introducing us to our world. She took us up to the rooms which they built in the Paris apartment that she built in Queens, or wherever they were, and let us walk around in our clothes. In isolation in your Winnebago, or whatever it is, you kind of have a hard time convincing yourself that you are who you say you are.

When you walk into this world and the light comes in a certain way and the landscape of Paris — a photograph but still — and here's the man of your dreams, it all came together before we had to actually [do it]. That was a big day.

ST: Yes, I remember. Those actual physical elements really helped a great deal.

Q: What would you have asked the people you played in this film if you had the chance?

ST: I'd like to ask them how they lived so long eating what they ate. I'm convinced that they both had two livers. I'd just be curious.

I can't say that I know what I would've asked them, but what I would've liked to have done is watch the interaction between the two of them in that little kitchen  — either in Paris or in Boston  — because to me that was the most interesting thing. When you see that kitchen — we recreated it in the film — it was so casual and really very intimate. I would've just liked to have watched that, watch them put together a meal. That would've been a great thing.

MS: I would agree. I would've loved to have heard Paul's voice. Julia's is so vivid and she left behind such an articulate trail of her journey in the book that she wrote with Alex [Prud'Homme] and in My Life In France and in her cookbooks. Her voice really comes through. I would've loved to have heard him because he was a great storyteller and his interests ranged across a wide variety of topics, and I'm sure that he was sort of a really interesting person to hear.

Q: Julia Child went through so many challenges in the beginning of her career. What were some of the challenges that you both went through as you started out as actors?

MS: Well, my challenge was committing to acting, thinking that it was a serious enough thing to do with my life. What are you going to do with your one wild life? I just didn't think it was… I don't know. I thought it was sort of silly and vain, acting even though it was the most fun [thing] that I had ever done. It remains that, ergo it can't be good for me. It was just deciding. I remember thinking the first time that someone said, 'Well, what do you?' and I said, 'I'm a… I'm an, uh, actor.' Then I had committed, I realized, but it took a long time.

ST: I took it too seriously at first and it took me a long time to understand that you have to be serious about what you do but you mustn't take yourself seriously. That way you'll be happier and ultimately you'll be more successful. You'll be better at what you do.

I think the challenges for me at the beginning… Well, it was much easier after I lost my hair, to tell you the truth. I started to work constantly once I started to lose it. So I'm thinking about losing the hair on my whole body. [jokes] That's disgusting.

MS: That's going to be repeated everywhere now and come back to haunt you.

Q: What were some of the best bonding experiences you had over food either on this movie or elsewhere, and if you could hang out with any character you've ever played who it would be and why?

MS: Well, we bonded. I mean, I knew Stanley, but I thought, "Well, I might as well invite him over for dinner." So he came and I decided I'd make blanquette de veau, and it was not quite done when he arrived, and so he came in and completely took over in the kitchen.

ST: It's untrue.

MS: It's totally true.

ST: We tried to do it together, but we'd had too much wine. "Why are you doing that way?"

MS: "Is that what you're going to do?" Seriously, I'm just asking. [laughs]

ST: Why do you hold it that way?

MS: "Can I just… it's okay. I can show you an easier way." Boom. It was out of my hands. He's just a great chef and I'm a cook.

ST: You're very kind. It was a fun night, but we didn't eat until about 11 or so. My wife Kate came and said, "What time are we eating?" I said, "I think we'll be done cooking about eight." She [Streep]  goes, "We're not going to make that."

Q: What were your favorite food memories, chefs and restaurants?

MS: Great, great tomatoes, but my mother [had] The I Hate to Cook Book cookbook [by] Peg Bracken. Do you remember that? No. Not in your family. I remember when I was 10 going up to a little girl's house up the street and she and her mother were sitting at the table and they were doing something to tennis balls and I said, 'What are you doing?' They said, 'Making mashed potatoes.' I said, 'What do you mean? Mashed potatoes come in a box.' They were potatoes. They were peeling potatoes and I had never seen a real potato. So my mother's motto was, 'If it's not done in 20 minutes, it's not dinner.' She had a lot that she wanted to do and cooking wasn't one of those things.

My food memories, I mean I think Julia Child really did change the whole. I recently found my knitting book at the bottom of a knitting bag from 1967. It wasn't a knitting book. It was a magazine that had some knitting patterns in it and it was called Women's Day, from 1967. It's filled with recipes and food ads and it's all Del Monte [brand] canned peas, Del Monte canned corn, Del Monte peas and corn, green beans, and all the recipes are, like, "Take ground meat and put in artificial mashed potatoes, layer it, top it off with tomato sauce out of a jar, put it in the oven and presto it's dinner." This is how we ate. People forget. Julia changed the way that people thought about cooking. It was great.

Q: if you had the opportunity, what chefs would you like to have over, and what would you like them to cook for you?

MS: Dan Barber [from the Manhattan restaurant Blue Hill].

Q: and what would you have him make for you?

MS: Anything that was fresh up there.

Q: And Stanley?

ST: My grandmother ...  she was an extraordinary cook. ...But Mario Batali, I think in a lot of ways… yeah, Mario.

Q: Did you do your own Julia imitation?

ST: No. I never did. I would've been fired.

Q: Meryl, you said that you had a hard time committing to acting. What were some of the other things you were taking seriously at that time?

MS: Well, when I was in drama school I was obsessed with Jonathan Schell's book The Fate of the Earth. I've always been interested in environmental issues and I still am. That seems to me be worthwhile work, but over time I understood, just what I think from other people's work, we need art as much as we need good works. You need it like food. You need it for inspiration to keep going on the days that you're low. We need each other in that way. So, yeah. I've reconciled myself to the fact that you can make a contribution. I've even reconciled myself to the fact that even my children might choose this profession. They seem to be, and now that's okay. Really, I was pushing the sciences but it's just not going to happen.

Q: Meryl, how hard or easy has it been to stay focused with all the success you've had in recent years?

MS: You know what, I didn't think about it. I really didn't think about either sustaining my career or my voice. I haven't really thought about it. I'm like every other actor — I've been unemployed more than I've been working because of the nature of what we do. We just have a lot of downtime, even though it seems like you're working, working, working. So I've never gotten used to either being working or being out of work. It's a very uncertain life and there are only a few people that would sign up to be married to someone else doing that. My husband is an artist and he understands that, the vagaries of the job. I just take it as every day is a miracle and I'm really glad that I'm still working and that people are not sick of me. Even I'm sick of me a little bit.

Q: You're now a box office star –- has that changed anything about the choices that you make now?

MS: I seem to have more choices in the last five years, in the previous five years, maybe. I really don't know why that is, but part of me thinks it has to do with the fact that there are more women executives making decisions because everything starts with what gets made and where the money comes from. I'm sure that they've had more to do with that really than I have.

Q: How do you deal with all the accolades?

MS: Well, fortunately, the blogospshere supplies you with the other side of all the accolades [laughs]. Just sign on and get humble.

[Photos by Brad Balfour]

Filmmaker Shahar Cohen's Romantic "Souvenirs"

Five years ago Israeli filmmaker Shahar Cohen lacked a resume, romantic prospects and career recognition beyond "bum" when he set out to retrace his father's World War II campaign across Europe six decades prior. Cohen père, Sleiman, had fought with the Jewish Brigade, the British Army battalion that trumped the Nazis in the war's waning months, and later smuggled refugees and survivors to Palestine and formed the Israel Defense Forces. At Sleiman's suggestion, the thirtysomething Shahar — who'd had a peripatetic career as a musician and actor, dabbling in screenwriting and film editing — began considering a documentary about those real-life "inglourious basterds."

It didn't fire him up, though, and despite his lingering underemployment, Shahar wasn't particularly jazzed to make that film. But then he learned at a Brigade reunion that he may have half-siblings — "souvenirs" of Sleiman's service — in Holland. With co-director Halil Efrat, Shahar crafted a road movie of father and son's spirited ribbing while hurtling down memory lane of both asphalt and bonding.

Suvenirim (English title: Souvenirs) took Best Documentary Feature at the Israeli Film Academy's 2006 Ophir Awards, Best International Feature at the American Film Institute/Discovery Channel's 2007 SilverDocs Festival and the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature at the 2007 San Francisco International Film Festival, among other laurels. reached Shahar in Jerusalem on the eve of this year's Ring Family Wesleyan University Israeli Film Festival (January 28 - March 4, 2010), where this interviewer is a guest speaker.

Q: First things first: How's your father?

SC: Okay, but he wouldn't have the strength to do the trip today as he did four years ago. He turned 87 in November. He no longer has his balance, and needs to be steadied. I see him every day and take care of him. Suddenly he became a sort of celebrity. He walks down the street and people recognize him.

Q: You were blasé about doing a film on the Jewish Brigade until learning at a Brigade conference that your father may have left a "souvenir" behind. What was the exact "aha" moment where you realized you had a story to tell?

SC: It was clear to me that the conference wouldn't lead to a film; it was just a bunch of old people. But then I found out about the pregnancies and thought it was a solution to the nagging issue of grandchildren.

Q: It's almost hard to believe that the camera was there to capture Sleiman's revelation.

SC: I was really surprised at the conference. This wasn't the first time I had heard [about his WWII philandering], but I had never fully believed him. It was as if he was waiting to talk about it till the moment it would be filmed.

This wasn't necessarily a conscious thing on his part. The presence of the camera, and the fact that his son was doing a film pulled other things out of him, and led to a degree of exposure. The camera does something to people. So he must have felt it.

Q: So hearing actual names of past girlfriends was what crystallized the project for you?

SC: Now for the first time he mentioned names. Without talking about the girls, there was no inciting event. They provided the pretext of the film. It wasn't enough that dad wanted me to do a film on the Jewish Brigade.

Q: Though your film is a documentary, it's structured like a fiction narrative. How did you get reality to cooperate so smoothly?

SC: I don't come from the documentary world, neither in my studies or otherwise. I was always much more interested in feature films. That may also explain the structure of Souvenirs. I even wrote a script with dialogues for potential sponsors and also with the idea of understanding what we were going for — and which topics we would explore —  in each of the places we would be in.

Q: Can you give an example?

SC: For instance, when we're going to meet Anne-Marie Zwart at the end, we already knew she was the girlfriend we were looking for. And when I tell Sleiman that another woman, Maria, had died early, that was just to give a fake ending, to mix in the technique of the preplanned script. We knew she was the wrong person. Things were very planned, though there was room for spontaneity.

We always managed to wrest humor from the scene. I know my father very well and could anticipate what sort of thing he'd say. We didn't bring the script with us, but we tried manipulations.

Q: Talk about a theme you wanted to highlight that took some engineering.

SC: The idea that he wasn't such a hero, that he had tried to get out of active combat in the field.

Q: And how did you stage this?

SC: I knew we'd be in the Senio...

Q: As in the Senio River Valley, the Italian Front where the Jewish Brigade faced down the German Army in late winter and spring of 1945, correct?

SC: Yes, and I knew that we'd have something of a fight in that I'd criticize him for not really fighting. That provoked his criticism of me, to stimulate the tension between us. It kicked up his feeling of, "Who are you to criticize me?"
Q: Meaning, you who had gotten out of army service?

SC: Right.

Q: Yet even though you left the service, you prized the idea that your father was a war hero. What was it like for you to pop his warrior hero myth?    

SC: In his heart of hearts he doesn't think he's a hero, but that he was part of a period, linked to a certain situation and did his little role.
Q: Still, was it hard for you to reconcile the "souvenirs" of embellished memory with historical truth?

SC: There's a certain duality in the film. I try to confront my father's past as a hero as I saw him as a child, and to square it with the fact that he wasn't such a hero after all like I thought. It partly disappointed me, but I also discovered that we're more alike than I thought. He too is a man of freedom who didn't go to the battle. Both generations have a different kind of consciousness.

Q: How did the film change your relationship?

SC: To some extent it was about function in situ. The director is the one who decides, so that power game prevailed throughout. He wanted to be the good soldier who did what was required. He had an awakening to cinema. There's something very mysterious and compelling about it.

Q: So the role reversal came as much from the myth-busting as from your billing as director?

SC: My father didn't come from the world of cinema, and somewhere the authority I had in my hands brought about a reversal of roles. Here he couldn't argue with the fact that I had a language that he didn't speak. He gave me a lot of credit and respect in this, and it created a reversal in our balance of power that continues till now.

That's something that transcends cinema, and exists between any son and father. Some of the resonance of the film is that every son in some place takes over the role of authority. This is the crux of the film's father.

People have come up to me with tears in their eyes after screenings and said, "What a privilege that you managed to do with your father what I didn't get to do with my father." The film manages a kind of closing of a circle that every son would want to close with his father.

Q: Did you set out to close this circle?

SC: Yes, it was an issue to give him the power to continue onward. Even with healthy older people, the moment they lose curiosity, and don't have the coach of life, this can begin to bring them down. I sought something that would give my father life.

Q: And vice-versa?

SC: Yes, he gave me the push in my professional career. I was pretty unemployed in the beginning of the film. His perspective at the end of the film changed and he saw that I could do something. The most important critics and awards very much made him believe in me. He trusts me more now.

Q: Isn't it ironic that it took your "manipulations" to enhance his trust?

SC: Most of the tension of the film is that my father is doing a historical film but the detective film is hidden from him. The film works because of this twist. In a certain sense I'm betraying him, duping him. But it let him free himself. He wouldn't have allowed himself to do it had he known I was searching out the relationships he had left behind.

He, out of sacrifice for me, gave all of himself so that I would succeed in the film. He wasn't even necessarily aware of this issue not being closed or resolved in his life. He actually never really dared to talk about it beyond the opening scene.

But I think he is full of gratitude for it. He won't say it in plain language, but he does say it was a dream for him to return to those places of war. It's tough for him to talk about intimate things. He's pretty closed.

[continued next page]


Q: And you? Were you comfortable as an on-camera protagonist?

SC: Personal exposure is very hard for me. At the beginning I thought I'd only film Sleiman. But slowly with the evolution of the film we understood that the interaction between us would be the backbone of the film. It required entering very personal areas.

Q: Why do you think he broke down at the sight of the Jewish Brigade memorial in Italy?

SC: It was especially about longing. The memorial was like a seal, a stamp of his youth. He was a very formal man — a sports instructor and an educational figure who raised generations of Jerusalemites. When he sees something written, it's a proof for him. Suddenly he saw something written in Hebrew in Italy, and it was authorization that they were there: the thing actually happened.

Sleiman is a Yemenite Jew, and he brings to bear a particular sensibility and tradition that may be different from the European Jewish experience. His grandfather arrived 130 years ago in Israel, but he still identifies as a Yemenite.   

Q: What was the biggest challenge for you in making the film?

SC: Finding the balance between being true to the film and its success on the one hand and between my place with my father and how much I'm willing to sacrifice on the other. It was very hard to come to terms with the possibility that we'd find a family member like a brother. It was a big risk.

Q: Was probing into Sleiman's relationship with your absent mother a risk?

SC: More than anything it's a film about a father and son — a father who stayed with his son after divorce, which isn't typical since usually kids remain with the mother. A very specific set of relations developed with me and him, so it was very natural to enter into the issue of the mother. We shot scenes with my mother before the film and intended to shoot more afterwards. But when we came back from Europe, we saw that we had the material we needed and there was no room for more.

Q: The film opens with the car that would accompany you on your journey. Talk about this 1981 Autobianchi, and why it was such an important character.

SC: In the beginning you see that the car is full of dust. Though I call it my "bonboniera," it was a sign of humiliation. I take her and make of her something that we can look at.

Sleiman was embarrassed about his car. But the moment he saw it renovated in Italy, which was where it was from, he understood that actually the car both symbolized our relationship and his situation. He often said the car looked like him.

My resurrecting it made him think that the car's story returned to the road and was younger, just as he too returned to his youth and became full of energy. So he returns to the place where he was during his peak, and the car returns to its original home. It has a new engine just like he has a new engine.

Q: Now that we're on to your technique of goosing the narrative, I wonder: did the car actually stall back at Sorek Brook?

SC: Okay, it didn't actually get stuck. Halil Efrat, my co-director, warmed up my father. He said, "I told Shahar not to use the car," so my father would get angry at me. Halil and I met in kindergarten, and our relationship is very familial. He fulfilled a very important role with my father. He's more responsible and he found his place in the world faster than I did, so for my father he's more of an authority. We exploited this to get things out of my father.

Q: You and your father sing a favorite Jewish Brigade song at Sorek Brook, with the lyrics, "daddy is kicking out mommy." The tune echoes throughout the film. Is this a musical wink to the Brigade kicking out the Nazis?  

SC: The whole story of my mother conflates with the story of the film. The moment my father brought the film to Sorek Brook, I connected with (composer) Shai Bachar, who lives in New York. We told him to write a bunch of variations on the theme. I love it when source music mixes together with the soundtrack, and that's how we worked. I even played the flute in the film.

Q: What's the update on Anne-Marie? Are she and your father in contact?

SC: He would like to stay in touch with her. Just now we have a friend from Holland visiting. She saw the photograph in the newspaper about the premiere of our film, just like Anne-Marie had seen our photograph in the newspaper. She came to the screening. Now she's here; she arrived yesterday.

Q: So maybe you, too, will have a Dutch girlfriend?
SC: It's an option, but now we're in an encounter to see where things could go.



Native American Actor Wes Studi on "Avatar"

For actor Wes Studi, being a Native American has been a driving force for his career — whether in terms of the characters he has played or the issues they have addressed. Usually his performances are charged by a strong, almost arrogant stance, as if expressed by a man who is proud to have not only survived but thrived.

So it was no coincidence that he was cast an the tribal leader Eytukan in director James Cameron's Golden Globe-winning Avatar or as bounty hunter Sam, the lead character in Kevin Willmott's The Only Good Indian. From his Dances With Wolves days with fellow Native American Graham Green, Studi's become a go-to guy for authentic characterizations. And though he has often played parts that had nothing to do with his heritage, his passion and commitment have made him immediately recognizable.

Vietnam vet, sculptor, musician, author and activist, Studi caught the attention of Hollywood and the public in director Kevin Costner's 1990 Oscar-winning Best Picture Dances with Wolves. He's appeared in more than 50 film and television productions, including Last of the Mohicans (1992), Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), Streets of Laredo (1993), Mystery Men (1999), The New World (2005), Seraphim Falls (2006), Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (2007) and Comanche Moon (2008). He recently starred as Tony Hillerman's Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn in a series of PBS specials produced by Robert Redford: Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time and Coyote Waits. Before this opportunity to join the blue-skinned cast of Avatar,  he played General Linus Abner in last year's NBC series Kings.

Born in Norfire Hollow, Okla., this fit six-footer exclusively spoke his native Cherokee language until beginning school at age five. A professional horse trainer, Studi began acting at The American Indian Theatre Company in Tulsa, leading to his shot in Hollywood. But Studi and his wife Maura Dhu never became Californians; they live in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and perform in the band Firecat of Discord.

In Avatar, he plays a character who comports himself with a dignity becoming of the values and strength of the Na'avi tribe he leads — the one that resists the human invaders who threaten to destroy his community's way of life. In the upcoming indie The Only Good Indian, he takes on a very different character, that of an Old West Indian who is stalking his own people — in this case, children who as being taken from their tribes and forced to be Christianized around the end of the 19th century.


Q: Each of these films have their own little pleasures and difficulties. What were they for each?

WS: The pleasures of course were working on a huge blockbuster— and I don’t think I’m premature in saying that’s the case with Avatar. But of course, it had many difficulties. That world's language, for one, was fairly difficult in that it’s a made-up language.

It also remind[ed me] that all these things were a very real thing to my ancestors. And then, in a way, we’re reminded that indigenous cultures many times fall under the manifest destiny of those who would gain something from our suppression. So it’s always a difficult and sad reminder that life is not as equitable as it could or should be.

Q: By becoming a successful actor and getting to be in a movie like Avatar — where you are able to convey a message in a variety of ways is that part of the way you turned your anger into something positive?

WS: Right. Exactly. That’s the whole thing in that you can't allow the anger to hold you in a state of mind that would prevent you from doing anything positive about it.

Q: Avatar's native characters have some characteristics like those of the indigenous peoples of Africa, but they seem so connected to Native American traditions — the relationship with plants and animals, especially to the horses. Did you have an opportunity to infuse some of your own experience or ideas in the process?

WS: I think a lot of the research had been done on the part of the writers themselves already. But yes, I could certainly relate to what was on the printed page, and I think they had a good understanding of the situation from a general viewpoint.

And the idea that Native Americans are perhaps more connected to nature is reflected in the Na'vi connectedness of the tree and the roots that expand everywhere. And it’s a Native American premise to life that everything is connected and that we’re all related in one way or another and it's a matter of cause and effect.

You know the old story about the flapping of a butterfly in China has an effect on things that happen in Maine or someplace. It’s all an interconnected being that we're a part of.

Q: How did you get involved with Kevin Willmott, director of The Only Good Indian?

WS: I had met a couple of his producers, Scott Richardson and Greg Hurd, earlier. Then they got in touch and said they had a script that they'd really like me to consider.

I was working on Avatar at the time. I took a look at it, and sure enough, it has a story that totally piqued my interest because of the content. So we made arrangements to actually do it, and the rest is history.

Q: How long was the shoot and how close was it to where you live?

WS: It’s actually about a nine-hour drive from where I live, but I was commuting from Los Angeles because we were shooting Avatar at the time.

I had about a nine- or 10-day break from Avatar when we got started on the first part of the script in Wichita. Then I had to go back and finish up Avatar, and came on back to Kansas and we finished it within a matter of, I think it was a seven- or eight-week shoot.

Q: What were the challenges with The Only Good Indian?

WS: I'm at a loss to see it from the outside. I'm a product of those kinds of policies that led to the kinds of physical and emotional abuses that occurred during the transition from the 1800s into the 1900s. It’s always been a reality to me; it exists at all times, it didn't just go away.

And I’m at a loss to see it from the perpetrator’s side of the whole thing. I can only see it from our side of the fence.

Q: In The Only Good Indian, you had a more direct influence by being the executive producer. At what stage did you do that?

WS: The intriguing part of the whole story to me, which I was part of bringing forth, was the idea of the vampire and how it spreads itself and continues to just grow and grow and grow when it's either accepted and/or adhered to.

When we first see me, I am totally working toward becoming that which is the oppressor. [I have] decided that the old ways are of no use, and so why not, if you can't beat them, join them. I have known many people like that throughout my life, and I wanted to be able to show that this kind of effect can be rampant.

It’s like that Stockholm syndrome thing, in that we become one with our enemies, our oppressors. That is a reminder that we need to stick with the strength of that which we at one point believed in.

Q: You've been a carrier for your culture and other times had roles that were not necessarily reflective of that culture. Is it still hard to not be typed? Do you feel that it's important to be able to play those characters rather than let somebody else who didn't come from that culture?

WS: It's [important] to me to be able to play those other characters, because even then I've continued to carry the banner. And that’s not just with American Indians. Actually, what it comes down to is that it’s brown people; it’s the fact that we see some brown people on screen. It’s a matter of people of color is what it really comes down to, and anytime a guy like me winds up in a film like this, it's very good for people of color.

Q: Good thing you mentioned color because they were blue in Avatar.

WS: It’s still a color, isn’t it?

Q: So when you saw Avatar completed, were you amazed, were you glad, did you have a whole different emotional experience?

WS: I was overwhelmed by the technology; I really was overwhelmed by the amazing 3D of it all. The story, yes, absolutely — I think it’s a very old story, but this time told in a technologically new way that makes it even more acceptable for audiences.

It’s a great pleasure to be a part of something that is not only technologically advanced to the point of amazement, but also one that carries a message that it does and acceptance of one group by another.

Q: How is it to have all those things stuck on you? And were you able to play that character while playing with the other actors, or do you do that individually?

WS: No, you play with other characters. The only thing that you have to be careful of is the camera that sits right in front of your face and the light. But once you become accustomed to that, it’s acting in the grand old fashion.

Q: Are you upset when your character dies in movies?

WS: Well, of course I'm upset when he dies. I would rather have lived to see a sequel. Many times it’s a matter of providing the drama of a death that adds to the film. I've died many times in film and television.

Q: At least you get to play the leader; that’s something. You were the sage, or you’re the great father or whatever.

WS: But in The Only Good Indian, I live. And live gloriously, at that.


Q: It must astound you when you look at it from the other point of view, the incredible arrogance. Is there ever a point when you can understand what was the thinking? Or is it just that you can only be angry about it?

WS: No. It's actually a curse to be able to understand that our people were somewhat imperial in their movements at times. I'm Cherokee, and there were times when social expansion was something that is needed by a cultural group or a national group.

I can understand that to a certain extent, but the arrogance of it is something that amazes me. And to use the use of religion or belief systems that contribute to the attitudes that came up with manifest destiny, that kind of thing, as well as the need for fuel that is apparent in Avatar.

All of these things come to mind. And while it’s amazing, it’s also a very sad thing that we actually can allow ourselves to become a part of something that is destructive to others.

Q: When you work on movies like these, do you get angry? Or do they make you feel that now you’re at a point where you're able to get the message out?

WS: In a way, that was the case with the story of The Only Good Indian as well. Anyone in other places who gave a shit probably didn't know what was going on in the West at the time. Just as we may be a planet removed from what was happening on Pandora, anyone who was of any social conscience probably was unaware of what was going on out West as we portrayed in The Only Good Indian.

Q: Do you find that this movie was raising consciousness of people that might not be aware of it?

WS: I like to be able to raise people's consciousness, yes. And to remind that those of us involved in the receiving end of the oppression, we have a duty. What they really make up is a prophecy of, "Why should we continue to do what we’ve always done? Can't we do it in different ways?"

Like the characters that Sigourney [Weaver] and Zoe [Saldana] play, in that research is one thing, and perhaps that would lead to a better kind of conciliation between the two groups if it wasn’t just the out-and-out use of "might is right." It’s something that, unfortunately, we as a human race haven't really learned up to this point.

Q: So what was the best experience that came out of each movie? I guess you didn't have to shoot Avatar on location.

WS: All the locations were in the computers. One day before we started work, the actors were standing around there waiting, and James Cameron came walking up. I saw his shirt and I thought, "Boy, I like that shirt he’s wearing." I said, "James, wow, that’s a great-looking shirt, I really like that," and he just took it right off his back and said, "Here, have it." And I still have the shirt.

Q: And working on The Only Good Indian?

WS: I think it was learning to ride the vintage bike. It really is just a bicycle with a motor installed and a leather drive. We had to find a real one we could use for long shots, but the one that I rode was actually built to the specs of the original bike.

Its drive was a leather belt, and you know how leather reacts to heat, it stretches out. It was very hard to always be able to take off on, so we had to have another one built that worked off a different principle. I don’t remember any funny anecdotes about the whole thing, but it was a pleasure to work on throughout.

Q: That subtle hit to Hollywood in The Only Good Indian: "Now I’m going to move to Hollywood and play a cowboy." One of the great pleasures of making this film seems to be that irony. 

WS: Absolutely. Irony is one of my favorite aspects of life.

Q: You've been able to play a Native American in a lot of different contexts. Do you feel that there are still other kinds of roles that you want to do and stories that you want to tell?

WS: There are more — perhaps more to the point, the kind of stories I would like to be able to tell. What I’d really like to say is that these, if you will, "Indian Wars" have never ended. They’ve been a continuation ever since we first met, ever since the creation of the United States.

It's been a continual warfare and a struggle to exist for most of the nations here in the United States, and it continues to this day. I don’t really see an end to it because it’s always a clash of cultures and interests here in this wonderful nation that we live in.

Q: Were you surprised to find somebody like Kevin Willmott wanting to make a movie like this?

WS: Kevin surprised me a little bit, but no, I think he has a mindset that agrees with my own outlook on life. Sometimes it’s a matter of the better alliances to make in terms of what kind of story you want to tell. I think it was a great meeting of the minds and I think we both learned a few things from one another that can help us with our individual struggles in life.

Q: You’ve worked with, it seems, every major director that has touched onto the subject in one way or another in the last 20 years, so you must have probably one of the best surveys of directors. Who has inspired you?

WS: I don't know about inspiration, but I’ve taken away something positive from each and every one that I’ve ever worked with, I believe. I think one of the great pieces of advice I ever got from a director was from Walter Hill. He [told] me, "Talent is a wonderful thing, and it’s something to be used and abused in every effort of storytelling. However, one of the things that we all need, those of us that are making movies, what we really need is stamina — emotional, physical, and stamina of the soul as well."

Q: And you've had a chance to work with some of these directors more than once?

WS: Oh yeah, I’ve worked with a number of them several times. I’ve worked twice with Walter Hill: Geronimo and Undisputed (2002). And Michael Mann with [The Last of the] Mohicans and Heat (1995). In fact, I saw Michael at the premiere; he’s wild about the film.

Yeah, it’s a business of creating relationships, you know. I’d like to work with James Cameron again, and of course we practically plan on working on something with Kevin again. It’s good to work with people that you know how they work and they know how you work. It’s mutually beneficial.

Q: You — and, I would say, Graham Greene — are probably the two best-known Native Americans actors working regularly. Both of you are in the two biggest blockbusters of this season — he is in New Moon, and you're in Avatar. Both films in some way draw on the value, or the importance, of being connected to this cultural heritage. Has that had some larger resonance, or did you even think about that?

WS: I’m glad that Graham and I made it into a couple of films in 2009. It’s kind of indicative, I guess, of the amount of interest and influence we have in contemporary and futuristic endeavors in Hollywood.

Q: That is a good thing. To think at one time they were having non-Native American actors playing Native American characters and making them villains, and 50 years later the most heroic figures in two of the biggest films of all time are Native Americans.

WS: Yeah, I think it's definitely a positive move; it's a move in the right direction. And hey, I'm catching some optimism.

Q: There's been an effort to have an activist African American actors' community. Do you feel that it’s the same thing with the Native American community of actors?

WS: Yes, there is an American Indian community of actors, and fortunately we're getting to the point where we don’t all know each other on a first name basis anymore. I would probably be referred to as the old guard at this point. A lot of younger people are coming along these days that are beginning to make waves and that's a great thing.

The doors have been opened and more and more people are deciding that they would like to step through the threshold. The activism I would leave to those who are younger than myself and have more energy to devote to that endeavor, and I applaud them for it. It’s something that's needed.

Q: Are there stories that you still feel need to be told from the Native American experience, and are there stories you want to be a part of that don't involve it necessarily?

WS: One of the things that I would work toward is telling a contemporary Native American story that is of real consequence in contemporary times. It's always going to be a matter of connecting with the past and thinking about the future, but we also have to work on the really great contemporary Native American story. We haven’t found it yet but that's what we're looking for.

Q: Are there particular Native American stories or books that you hope to see made or that you want to make?

WS: Yeah, I would like the story about a bicoastal Indian, maybe one who lives and works and functions in places like New York City or Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles — perhaps Tokyo; the world. Because that is the fact.

The fact is that we are citizens of the world as much as anyone else. A story that reflects that, I think, is something that we’re really looking forward to being able to produce and throw up on the screen. And eventually, an Academy Award for Wes Studi.

Q: Do you think it was always inevitable that the Native Americans were going to lose, or do you think there was a point when they could have defeated the invaders?

WS: I think Tecumseh had a really good idea, to tell the truth. A unified front at that point maybe could have stopped expansion at the Ohio River Valley or at the Mississippi River, something like that.

As a matter of fact, I read a book a number of years ago that was called The Indians Won, [by Martin Cruz Smith] which was a science-fiction at that point and time, but would probably put us at just where we are now. It was that coalition of Native nations had been able to stop the westward expansion and claimed an area within the confines of North America.

It was a nation divided; they were on the coasts, and then the Native Americans occupied an area in between, and we were on the point of shooting for the moon with rockets. It was an interesting story that I’d like to find again and maybe find the rights to it.

Q: Do people expect you to be able to use all these Native American weapons and ride? Are you a good rider?

WS: The first job I ever got out of Los Angeles was dependent on the fact that I could ride a horse, shoot a bow and a gun, and speak a language other than English, simultaneously. So I got the job.

Q: Are there any other Native American languages that you speak?

WS: Not fluently, no. Just un poquito Español.

Q: The Only Good Indian has appeared in festivals, but this is an unusual effort that you’re self distributing it to a degree. Was there any frustration about getting it out there, or you just wanted to control it?

WS: It’s really a matter of control. We don’t want to bend over as much as distributors would like to have us do. I think it’s a better choice to contain control of it on our part at this point.

Q: Did you ever think of writing a book based on your experiences?

WS: I think I’m probably working on my memoirs as we speak, yes.

Q: You better make sure you add in this interview once it gets posted.

WS: I would like to be referred to as the 20th-Century Electric Indian.


For more by Brad Balfour:

Oscar Alumni Joel & Ethan Coen Make "A Serious Man" No Laughing Matter

Oscar alumni Joel and Ethan Coen... Oy those two, oy. What an elusive duo they can be. Like it was surprising they even sat down with us, at a roundtable no less, to talk about their latest pic, A Serious Man. But at the end they allowed no photo...? They don't want us to show their shana punim? Perhaps they are stacking Oscars like so many Torah that they want something to remain elusive about them.A Serious Man

After having riddled their films with the snarky sort of humor that could sometimes be tagged as Jewish -- a bit sardonic, something unforgiving yet with a heart and soul beneath the hardened crust — the Coen boys strip away the goyish drapings (witness The Big Lebowski or Fargo) and reveal their Yiddishe kop through this decidedly Hebraic film.

However tribal, it got this directing and writing sibling team yet another Oscar nom for Best Picture, and a whole slew of other trophies to boot. But ain't that the Coens! They did it in 2008 for No Country For Old Men and virtually shaped a new genre. Though called auteurs, the brothers make films that actually sell tickets and draw huge followings. No less a talent than Jeff Bridges was rallied by the Coens' directorial embrace, and he's been quite the dude ever since. 

Balancing a love for black comedy with a skill for telling homage-laden crime tales, the 50-something Coens' catalog undulates between the two genres. As for this year, A Serious Man appears to be their most autobiographical comic turn, yet one that draws on their dark vision-making as well.

Opening with a sequence entirely spoken in 19th century Russian shtetl, Yiddish, the film shifts to mid-20th century America and to physics professor Larry Gopnik (Tony Award nominee Michael Stuhlbarg) who has just been told by his wife Judith (Sari Lennick) that she is leaving him for the pompous older neighbor Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed). With a household full mishegosh -- there's Larry's unemployable brother nebbish Arthur (Richard Kind), pot-smoking pisher son Danny (Aaron Wolff) who's screwing up his bar mitvah lessons, and nudnick daughter Sarah (Jessica McManus) kvetching about her nose more than her family's trauma -- this schmendrick fantasizes abut screwing his sexy goyish neighbor while schvitizing about his pending tenure hearing and ever-growing complications.

Q: What were your bar mitzvahs like? Do you remember the passage you had to read?

EC: God no.

JC: No.

Q: So what was the experience like for you guys? Did you read just the [Haftorah]? Or did you read from the Torah too?

EC: You didn’t read all the Torah portions. One or two; I can’t remember.

JC: But it was pretty typical, conservative congregation, circa 1967. I don’t know what they do now, to be honest with you. I mean I’ve been to a few in New York; they’re not that different. There wasn’t anything out of the ordinary...I with I could say something interesting happened.

Q: You didn’t feel the competition to see if you got more presents than the other kids? 

EC: Yeah, with your peers you compare what the haul was.

Q: And between the brothers as well?

EC: No because there are three years' difference, so not so much. As in the movie, we each got a kiddush cup from the Gift of the Sisterhood.

Q: Do you still have them?

EC: Joel has his. I don’t know what happened to mine.

Q: You love using local actors rather than the better known New York/LA ones. How do you think that added to the feel of the movie?

EC: Midwestern Jews is a different community, is a different thing than New York Jews, LA Jews. It’s just different. It’s the whole Midwestern thing. It isn’t just about a Jewish community. The geographic thing is kind of specific, so that was important to us.

JC: That area happens to be a place where you can find lots of good local…it’s not true everywhere. But you can find lots of very, very good local actors there. So there’s a practical reason as well as an aesthetic reason.

EC: Yeah, it’s a largely local cast. Sari Lennick, who plays the wife, she’s great, she lives there. Ari Hoptman, who plays the head of the department, all the kids were local.

Q: What about Michael Stuhlbarg -- he's like a local New York actor known in theater, but another unknown in general.

EC: Well Joel knew him, slightly. We’d both seen him in a few plays, and you knew him from the project, right?

JC: Yeah, I knew him from stuff he’s done in theater and from the Second Street Project.

Q: Are you involved in that as well?

JC: Well I’m not but my wife  [actress Frances McDormand who has starred in several of the Coen's films] has been involved with it for 20-something years.

Q: They went up to your place in the country?

JC: Yeah. How did you know that?

Q: He's one of the Second Street Project guys. Do you have any more theater projects coming up [for example, Ethan had a set of three one act plays, Offices, directed by Neil Pepe and produced by the Atlantic Theater Company]?

EC: Yeah maybe; I don’t know. Yes, hopefully. But nothing definite.

Q: From growing up Jewish, and having friends and family who are Jewish, you learn a lot of cultural Judaism . But you also had a lot of authentic religious Judaism in the movie, really hardcore Jewish, insider information. How much of that is from your educational experience or did you have to research a lot of it?

EC: We didn’t do any research per say. Once the script was written, when we started actually making the movie, there were a couple of people who kind of were our Jewish technical advisors, helping us with language and liturgical stuff with the service and whatever. And of course a raft of translators for the Yiddish beginning of the movie. A raft of dueling Yiddishists; everybody had an opinion about what form of Yiddish we should use.

JC: We actually did have one problem we brought to a fluent Hebrew speaker, which was we had the specific problem of wanting to have a Hebrew expression, or translation of, “help me” that was exactly seven letters long. So that’s something that we came up with ourselves. We wanted it to be a phone number. That was the main thing really.

EC: There was a cantor and a rabbi as well, Dan Sklar, who helped us with that, and with a lot of stuff.

Q: So where did this fractured story come from?

JC: It’s always a really hard question to answer because you don’t really know, is the truth of it. You start to think back on it and you impose more order and rationality on it than actually occurred when you were thinking it up. I think it just came from, we had an idea a long time ago that maybe we would do something.

We were thinking about short films years ago and there was a particular rabbi in our town, not our rabbi, who used to meet with bar mitzvah kids after the bar mitzvah and he was sort of a sphinx-like Wizard of Oz type character, and we thought that might make an interesting short movie. This was years and years ago.

Somehow that idea found its way into this story. And there was another part where we were thinking it would be interesting to do something set in 1967 in that community. Then part of it came from thinking about the music of that period, and the combination of Jewish liturgical music and cantorial music and the Jefferson Airplane, we thought that was sort of interesting. Just a bunch of different thinks.

Q: Out of all their songs, why “Somebody to Love”?

EC: It could have been any of a number of songs I guess, we just kind of focused on that early because it’s so much of that time. I mean that time really specifically, not even just ‘60s but spring of ’67, it’s just so much of that, so smacks of the time. And also we use the lyrics, they kind of pay off in the end in a way that it became clear it was useful.

Q: Were you big Jefferson Airplane fans?

JC: Not particularly. I mean we listened to them. I wouldn’t say we were big Jefferson Airplane fans though.

EC: But obviously they were a big Top 40.

JC: Yeah we did listen to them on the radio.

EC: There was also, the rabbi’s rap at the ending with the kiddush cup, that was verbatim from our bar mitzvahs. It was the same thing every Saturday. Rabbi Arnold Goodman.

Q: One thing that underlies the film is this feeling of cultural shift. Like the Jewish neighborhood with the goyim moving in there was a shift. And as you pair the liturgical music to the Jefferson Airplane. there's the cultural shift of the ‘60s. What did you feel was important to say about that, particularly in a Midwest city like your hometown of Minneapolis, Minnesota.

EC: It was sort of the opposite in the Midwest. In the community that we lived in, the Jewish community was sort of centered in part of the downtown area for many years, and then it shifted out to the suburbs. So it wasn’t that there was a Jewish community in the suburbs and it became less Jewish, these new developments were sort of populated by Jews.

It’s also a mistake to say that the Jews were in any way a majority of even that community. I mean, we grew up in a community that was predominantly non-Jewish, it’s just that the Jews were a big and significant minority, and the community itself is one that is fairly cohesive.

The Jewish community was part of what was sort of bounding your experience. But yeah, you’re right, that idea of, well the way we had sort of talked about it is sort of the idea of the post war thing where populations, in terms of minorities in the cities, were shifting, and also culturally things were shifting, and that was sort of interesting. I don’t think we thought a lot about it but we liked that period in a general way for that reason.

Q: Was it like a Levittown situation which is widely regarded as the archetype for the explosion of postwar suburbs throughout the

EC: I guess a little bit. There were big developments that were being put up out in the suburban tracts of drained swampland or prairie.  That’s kind of how it was.

JC: Yeah, it was a little bit post-Levittown, but the same thing.

Q: You portray the Hebrew school as obviously a torturous experience of learning Hebrew. I don’t know if either of you went to Hebrew school, but were you engaged by anything from your Hebrew school or Jewish educational experience?

EC: Yeah that Hebrew school, that was it for us. After regular school you go to Hebrew school.

JC: Hebrew school was something we desperately tried to get out of for years and years and years, but it was a requirement.

Q: Your film moves Jewish issues to the center of the story. Is there a connection between this and the Yiddish Policemen’s Union, the  2007 detective novel by author Michael Chabon?

EC: That’s kind of a coincidence too that the producer Scott Rudin acquired that novel and then just hired us to write the script. Since we know and had done a movie with Scott I think we were the obvious choices for him. No, it wasn’t design on our part.

Q: Do you think you’re going to help people better understand the Jewish experience or do you think you’re going to confuse them further?

JC: Well it wasn’t really our intent to have people understand the Jewish experience exactly. It’s just a context for a story that we found very interesting because of our own direct experience with so much of where the story takes place and the kind of community and family that it takes place in. But you’re always trying to being specific, whether it’s about your own experience or whether it’s a context that you don’t have any experience in whatsoever. That kind of specificity is important for the story, and it becomes part of what the story is about, absolutely.

Q: In this film, Larry’s neighbor is seen hunting with his son. In No Country for Old Men, Josh Brolin is seen hunting at the beginning of the film. Is this a coincidence or do you guys have a love for hunting that you like to put into your films?

JC: No, it’s just a coincidence. Josh hunting antelope at the beginning of No Country for Old Men, we didn’t write that story; that’s in the book.

EC: The next door neighbor is just, hunting is a goyish activity.

JC: In the Midwest in that period; a lot of hunting.

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