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For a newcomer like Gabourey "Gabby" Sidibe to find a starring role in any film was beyond comprehension. But to find one where her ultra plus-sized frame proved to be an asset was more than extraordinary. Nonetheless, this daughter of R&B/gospel singer Alice Tan Ridley and Senegalese father Ibnou Sidibe got the lead role in Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire and is now being touted as an Oscar contender.In director Lee Daniels' devastating yet ultimately hopeful film, the adult Sidibe plays the 300+ pound, 16 year-old Claireece Precious Jones, who has been abused and raped by both her mother and father. Though she has two children by her father and is near-illiterate, several adults throughout this saga recognize her potential, and through hard work and a survivor's determination, Precious rises above her miserable situation to look towards the future.Besides the uncanny find of Sidibe, Daniels also got remarkable performances out of other cast members such as Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz and Mo'Nique. And he has managed this before; Mo'Nique starred in his hard-hitting directorial debut Shadowboxer; Carey was in Tennessee, a film Daniels produced. Daniels has tackled controversial projects that sit outside the box; the first film he produced, Monster's Ball, dealt with an interracial relationship (and won an Oscar for lead Halle Berry) and the second, The Woodsman offered a sympathetic portrayal of a pedophile (played by Kevin Bacon).Harlem resident Sidibe never expected to pursue acting let alone be in such a bright spotlight, first as the audience award winner at 2009's Sundance Film Festival then the winner at The Toronto International Film Festival. But now, a myriad of festivals later — including a big premiere night as the New York Film Festival centerpiece and as the Denver Film Fest's opener — the accolades, including a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, and intense reactions are still rolling in.Q: How did you connect with your character Precious?GS: I felt like she was in my family, she was my friend and was with people that I didn't want her to be friends with. I realized that I had judged this girl and had stopped being friends with this girl over and over again. I actually felt a lot of guilt behind it. So I think in reading the novel it gave me more compassion and it opened my heart to more cases like Precious.When it came time to film, and to actually take on the role of Precious, I felt an immense responsibility to do it justice, to do justice for the girls who have gone through it, to do justice for the men who have gone through things like that [as well].I felt a responsibility to these people as well as to Sapphire the writer, and to Lee Daniels, the director. He plucked me from obscurity and put me basically in the same room with Helen Mirren, with Halle Berry, with all these people that I idolize, and I didn't want him to be wrong in choosing me.Q: What gives you such a sense of confidence and composure?GS: I'm 26 years old. I'm a grownup. So when I got the role I was 24-years old. It wasn't very hard for me to play a 16 year old. I only operate at about a 19-year old level anyway. So my sense of self comes from being a grownup.I know who I am because I've lived with myself for 26 years. That's really where it comes from. In turn, I know Precious because I know who I am. Does that make sense?The lines don't blur because I know exactly who I am and I knew who I was before I started.Q: Since she is so thoroughly depicted in Sapphire's book, how did you bring this character to life so distinctly? What was it in you that you homed in on to bring her to the screen?GS: As I said, I had a lot of guilt because I'd walked past this character. I had walked past Precious and a lot of different people before in my life, and I felt like I owed it to the people out there who hold this kind of pain, who live this kind of life. And, I felt a lot of responsibility to the writer, to Sapphire.Q: You've talked about the pomp and circumstance around the movie, but what about the negative things that have surrounded this project for you?GS: Some of the negative stuff — things that have hurt my feelings, which I stopped reading — are when people comment on clothes that I've worn or whatever. That's weird, because it's my own style and I've been dressing myself for a very long time and I wear clothes that fit me, things that I like.But people expect more because they think I'm rich or think that someone else is pulling strings around me. No.It's always weird, when someone [says], "Someone needs to get that girl a stylist." It's like, "No." I tell me what to wear. That's the negative part, when people expect something different from me.Also, people expect to me be a role model, which is cool. But I am a role model because I have 13-year old sisters and I have a 20-year old brother, because I have siblings and cousins, that's why I'm a role model. Not because I'm in a movie. My first responsibility is to my family and to myself.It's so weird to turn on a switch and be the role model for all women, for all African-Americans. That doesn't happen that easily. It does not. So I don't act up in public and don't do anything weird, because my sisters are watching me. Not because the world is watching me.Q: There are so many positive African-American stories out there. Why do you think this story needs to be told?GS: I think this story needed to be told because no one has told it and it's reality. When I actually did research — these numbers change from month to month — but when I [looked], seven out of 10 children were physically abused, sexually abused. And out of those seven, one in three were victims of incest. That's too many people.Think about how many people you walk by, how many people you know, and you don't know what their story is because no one is saying anything and because it eats at them inside. That type of secret eats away and destroys a human.This story needed to be told because it starts a dialogue. It says that it's okay, that you're not the only one that's been hurt, that you can get past it, you can talk about it, and that it can possibly save another life.Q: Your mother, Alice Tan Ridley, once said she was offered Mo'Nique's role but that it was too hard for her to do because of the reality behind the story itself. Did that makes it too difficult for her?GS: My mom found it to be really, really hard and heartbreaking. But another reason why she didn't want to do it is because she's not an actress and she's not famous worldwide the way that Mo'Nique is. She was afraid that strangers wouldn't be able to differentiate between her and the role.Also, my mom has been a teacher since she was 12 years old. That's crazy in itself, but my mom loves children and she's like, "There's no way I can do that. I can't even act like I'm going to harm a child." She just couldn't do it.Q: You didn't have that fear that when you took on the role that people would liken that portrayal of what you're doing to your reality?GS: No. I've been in a million situations since filming where people have seen it and seen the trailer and they think that I'm that girl, but all it takes is for me to say hello because I'm so very different. The difference between her and me is so distinct that, in a word, that I'm [very] different.Q: After working with Mo'Nique, you two had to bond in such an emotionally charged project. What was your relationship with her like as you worked together and what is your relationship with her now?GS: Mo'Nique is so full of love. I've been describing her all day as being like the tree in Pocahontas. She's really wise and she's so loving and she is everything.Mary [the mother] is not. Mary is there to degrade Precious. Mo'Nique is there to uplift. Precious and Mary are enemies. They're in a constant fight and they've always been in a constant fight. So when the director says action, we're fighting because we're Precious and we're Mary.When he says cut, I certainly go back to being Gabby and she goes back to being Mo'Nique; we hug each other and we love each other. We really do have to love each other so much more, because while the tape is rolling we hate each other.
For more by Brad Balfour: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour
Is Al Jaffee, creator of Mad magazine's "Fold-In" and "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions," one of America's most beloved cartoonists? No, he's actually one of America's most beloved car tuner-uppers. No, he's actually one of America's most beloved guys who writes and draws funny pictures. No, you're confusing him with that Middle Eastern cartoonist, Al-Jaffee.Ah, my. He has only himself to blame. Until his "Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions" started its decades-long run in Mad and in eight original paperbacks, with Jaffee winning a National Cartoonists Society award for the feature in 1975, sarcasm may as well have never been invented. And inevitably, these and other such accomplishments have taken the 88-year-old humorist down the sordid road of talks, book signings and lectures at such seedy venues as Columbia University's Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. There, at the college's Schermerhorn Hall on Dec. 9, 2009, he appeared with host/moderator Danny Fingeroth – himself an author, comics historian, comic-book writer and a former editor of Marvel Comics' Spider-Man line – in an interview and Q&A to coincide with the release of Tall Tales (Abrams Books), a collection of 120 examples of Jaffee's 1957-1963, vertically printed comic strip syndicated out of the New York Herald Tribune.Jaffee was born March 13, 1921, and after a peripatetic childhood wound up in the first graduating class of New York City's High School of Music & Art. Breaking into comic books in the early 1940s, he soon found himself working under editor Stan Lee at Timely Comics and Atlas Comics, the '40s and '50s precursors, respectively, of Marvel Comics. There he created the funny-animal feature "Ziggy Pig," which he soon paired with his "Silly Seal" to form the Abbott & Costello of anthropomorphic duos. Leafing through the Summer 1946 issue of All Surprise Comics one audience-member has brought, he supplies a little-known bit of comics history: "See that 'SL-166'?" he notes of a tiny inventory number attached to the first panel of a "Silly and Ziggy" story he hadn't done himself. "That means Stan Lee wrote it" during a time when creator credits weren't routinely given in comics. (The respected comics historian Michael J. Vassallo, without the benefit of having been at Timely, says the SL prefix appears in the inventory number of some of Timely's "Hey Look" one-pagers that were written and drawn by future legend Harvey Kurtzman. But the SL prefix appears on only 15 of Kurtzman's 130 pieces for Timely, and editor-in-chief Lee would have had the prerogative, if he had chosen, to write some material for freelancer Kurtzman to illustrate.) Jaffee debuted in the satirical Mad in 1955, soon after it had transitioned from color comic book to black-and-white magazine. When founding editor Kurtzman left to start-up the short-lived humor glossy Trump, Jaffee went with him. After a second, similar venture, Humbug, failed, Jaffee again approached Mad, where eventually, in addition to his many other contributions, he created the Fold-In in 1964. That venerable feature of the inside back cover continues to appear to this day.Jaffee's connection to the late Kurtzman also continues to this day: At the Columbia event, Charles Kochman, executive editor of the Abrams imprint Abrams ComicArts, presented Jaffee with comicdom's Harvey Awards. Jaffee had been unable to attend the October ceremony, in which he was honored in absentia as 2009's Best Cartoonist, and was also bestowed a Special Award for Humor in Comics.Pretty snappy, that. No question.
Danny Fingeroth: You were born in 1921 and raised in Savannah, Ga., Lithuania, and The Bronx. How'd you end up spending the first two years of your life in Savannah? Al Jaffee: Well, it started by being born there. (audience laughs) I only spent six years there when my mother became nostalgic for the small-town Europe where she grew up and she decided to take us – me and my three younger brothers – on a trip to visit her family. I think it was supposed to be a short visit but it turned out to be something like six years. So I became a reverse immigrant when I came back to America, and that's how I inflicted myself on the rest of you. You spend six years in Lithuania. What did you do there?Well, it was an education in its own right. It was a very, very crowded village, and I just learned all the things you learn in a small town: how to make things, how to fish, how to make your own fishing pole and your own fishing line. It was really an exciting way of life, but I yearned to come back to America. Savannah was my home from the time I was born until I was six, and I really loved Savannah. I did the best I could in Lithuania, but in 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, my father came and sort of forcibly took most of us back; my mother did not come back.How'd you end up coming to the Bronx instead of back to Georgia?My father was a manager of a department store in Savannah, but he lost his job because of the family problems he was having; he was preoccupied with rescuing [the remaining family] from Europe. So the only thing he could do was come back to New York, where he had once worked in the Post Office, and he managed to get a job in the Post Office.Did you have trouble catching up in school?I did. I was 12 years old when I returned and I was put in the third grade. …After six years in Europe and with no one speaking English except my family I started to pick up local [Lithuanian-Jewish] accents. I tried to emulate the children of the Bronx but I don't know how successful I was. The only way I could integrate myself into their good graces was by drawing pictures on the sidewalk with chalk – Mickey Mouse and Little Orphan Annie and stuff like that. That did save me, being able to draw, because the bullies stopped being bullies when they started to admire what I was doing.
Were you at school with Will Elder at that point?Yeah; when I got into middle school, I met him there. … The two of us, we were brought up into an art class and we were told to draw something, and … we each drew a picture … and then they informed us that Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia had created a new High School of Music & Art, and that we were chosen because of this slipshod contest that we were involved in. (audience laughs) But it was a turning point. We were sent down to the principal's office – we were usually there for other reasons (audience laughs) – I guess we thought it had some connection to what we had just gone through with the drawing and everything, but I still had no idea. And Willie turned to me with a thick Bronx accent and said, "I tink dere gonna send us to AHT school." (audience laughs). And sure enough he guessed right. And they told us about the mayor's new school and it was really a turning point in our lives, because our other choices were academic, at which we were absolutely total failures, or industrial, which we didn't care about, or a trade school…. These things were so unappealing to us that when the principal said it was an art school we were just blown away.You went to Music & Art with a bunch of other [future EC and Mad artists].Harvey Kurtzman was there. Al Feldstein, who later replaced Harvey Kurtzman as editor of Mad. John Severin and a lot of younger ones. Because I was in the first class I was a senior, but there were lots of freshman and juniors whom I didn't get to know who later went on to become very well known in the comic book field and other fine arts.Did you know the other guys in high school as well? Did you know Kurtzman there?Yes, I knew him. He was a freshman when I was a senior, so I knew him a little bit, mainly because people pointed him out to me … because of the work this kid was doing. And he was brilliant.After high school you went to work for Will Eisner, who created The Spirit.I briefly worked for Eisner. Most of us didn't know what to do with ourselves, because getting into an advertising agency as an artist was very difficult. For one thing, there was a certain amount of prejudice; people with Jewish names or African Americans would have difficulty getting into lily-white ad agencies. And there were certain class distinctions as well. So most of us gave up trying for that. Some of it had to do with the fact that we weren't good enough. But then came the comic book industry which was created to a large extent by Jews, and the feeling was that there wouldn't be any anti-Semitic problems, so that was an opening for many. Not having a lot of original ideas I decided to do Inferior Man, which was a real rip-off of Superman. So I took Inferior Man to Will Eisner and expected him to kick me out of there, but he said, "I think this is a very funny idea," and he hired me to do it as a filler in his comic books; a one- or two-page filler, which I did for a while. And then I went on to glory. (audience laughs) I went on to be out of work I think.Stan Lee gave you work.AJ: Yes, Stan Lee was my big break. I took these few things that I had done for Will Eisner up to Stan Lee; someone tipped me off that he had replaced [Joe] Simon and [Jack] Kirby. Stan Lee was a year younger than I was – I was about 19 and he was 18 – and I showed him Inferior Man and he pulled out a script and threw it at me and said, "If you can do this, I'll give you more work," and it was a feature title 'Squat Car Squad', and it was about two bumbling policeman. So I did it and then he said, "Alright, you did a funny job, now start writing scripts and illustrating them." And he never even edited the stuff; I just brought it in and it got published. And we had a very good relationship. (audience laughs)Then you did "Ziggy Pig & Silly Seal."The thing that an editor likes more then anything else is for people to take away problems. So if he could say to me, "Write this feature and draw it," and not have to edit it, that was one comic feature that he didn't have a problem with. So he figured he could get another one. He said, "Why don't you create an animal strip?" So I tried to think of an animal that no one had used, and Silly Seal was the one I came up with; no one was doing a seal. Of course the whole thing was ridiculous, because all the characters were fighting the Nazis, and the notion of a seal fighting the Nazis (audience laughs), there was something ludicrous about it. There was a rumor that submarines were in our waters so Silly Seal made a boat out of ice with an ice cannon that shoots snowballs. I mean, how can you live with yourself? (audience laughs) But for some reason it not only caught on … [but Stan] then said, "Create another one," which was Ziggy Pig and the whole thing was getting crazy. But it came time for me to go into the service, and I noticed that once I was in the Air Force the PX was flooded with comic books. Apparently, there weren't that many soldiers who had gone through college and who were that literate, and … when I saw how they were churning out Silly Seal and Ziggy Pig by the millions, I felt somewhat cheated because I was having to learn to fly an airplane while these guys were making all that money. Even after I returned from service they were still publishing these creatures.I enjoyed doing [Timely's] "Super Rabbit." I did not create "Super Rabbit"; Stan gave it to me and I enjoyed doing it because I had free rein to write stories with more realistic plots where Super Rabbit had problems that ordinary people have, such as his uniform didn't come back from the cleaners in time to fight crime. Stan Lee did a lot of that stuff later on, with superheroes.And you also did [Timely/Atlas' teen-humor franchise] "Patsy Walker.""Patsy Walker" was the yoke around my neck. Y'know, I enjoyed writing "Patsy Walker" but writing for teenage girls just wasn't my métier. I did it for about five years and it was pretty popular.
Then you got involved with publisher William Gaines and the Mad crew. How did you end up going to Mad?Kurtzman tried to recruit me to work on Mad when he first started Mad, but despite the fact that "Patsy Walker" wasn't really the kind of work I would prefer to do, I was making pretty good money at it. I did two comic books a month, writing and drawing, and it paid pretty good. But I really envied Kurtzman and my old friend Willie Elder and all the guys who were working for Mad because that stuff would have been more comfortable for me. However, I got into a little contretemps with Stan Lee and we kind of parted ways. Nothing serious; I think we had both reached a point where it was time to change. I called Harvey up and said, "Harvey, I quit ‘Patsy Walker' I'm coming to work for you," and he said, "I just quit Mad.' And that's how he informed me he was going to work for [Hugh] Hefner, and produce Trump which lasted only two issues. And then we did Humbug.
Why did Trump only last two issues?Hefner was an admirer of Kurtzman's Mad, the comic books, and he kept after Harvey and said, "If you ever want to do a real classy magazine like ‘Mad' but with full-color and all the production, just let me know." So Harvey got into a bit of a conflict with Bill Gaines, the details of which I'm not that familiar with, except that I think Harvey wanted more money and he wanted to operate the magazine, and either Bill didn't want to pay more money or he was satisfied with the magazine he had, and so Harvey I guess, having a commitment from Hefner in his pocket, he decided to leave. But Hefner had to discontinue Trump because the magazine business went into a tailspin at that time. A number of big American magazines like Colliers and a few were in very big trouble and the banks aren't advancing money. Of course Hefner was working with nothing but bank money; he would put all the profit he made from Playboy right back into the magazine to make it even better, so he was overextended. The banks called in his loans, so Trump fell by the wayside and we were out of work. That's when Harvey talked us into investing our own money into Humbug and we went broke. And this is a success story. (audience laughs)You were never out of work.I was never out of work but I was out of income.How'd you end up back at Humbug?
When Humbug folded, and with having borrowed on my life insurance policy and every penny I had in the bank to put into Humbug and we worked on 11 issues without a single penny of payment, so all of us – a couple of people did get a little bit of money because otherwise they wouldn't have been able to work at all – but most of us borrowed. So when it got to the end of it, we had to go out of business. What do you do at that point? You sit down at your drawing table and say, "What am I going to do now?" and I had on me a whole batch of scripts I had written and I decided to bite the bullet and call our competitor, Mad, Al Feldstein, and I said, "Al, please don't hang up on me because I went with Harvey," they were at loggerheads, and he said, "I'm not going to hang up on you," and I said, "I wrote a lot of scripts for Humbug that we couldn't use. Would you be interested?" And he said, "Come on down." The minute I came down there he bought every script; 11 scripts, he bought them all on the spot and then ushered me into Bill Gaines' office and Bill sat me down and went through every issue of Humbug and wanted me to point out the ones that I had written ... and when we finished he walked into Al Feldstein's office and said, "Hire this guy."
"Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions": How did you come up with that concept?You don't sit down and say, "Today I'm going to come up with a blockbuster idea." That gets you nowhere. I was working in the creative trades, so I was aware all the time of any idea floating out there. In my case with "Snappy Answers," I lived on Long Island and we had periodic storms which knocked down our TV antenna…. First you look at the television set and you see jagged lines, and then you go outside and wonder why, and there's this antenna hanging over the chimney. So I borrowed an extension ladder, I'm terrified of heights, I get up there, two stories, and I'm juggling this thing and trying to straighten it up, and I've got pliers, and I hear the thump of footsteps on the ladder. And finally, I can feel someone's hot breath right behind me and it says, "Where's Mom?" "I have killed her and I'm stuffing her down the chimney." (audience laughs) My son didn't speak to me for the rest of the week. And I thought about this. I came up with this under duress. I began to think about things that people ask where either there's no possibility in the world that you will have the answer to that question under the circumstances, or the answer is so obvious that the question is superfluous. You know, like you're standing, there's a line of people and a big sign that says "bus stop" and someone comes over and says, "Does the bus stop here?" We all go through this. So I did sit down at that point and try to think of things like that that were more common than someone fixing an antenna. Other things, like, "Are you asleep?" (audience laughs) I just did samples of it and Feldstein loved it immediately and assigned me to do a bunch more, and that was where it started. And then I milked it.Where did the Fold-In come from? The first one actually was so simplistic that I'm almost embarrassed. It was supposed to be a gag commentary not so much on the subject matter, but on the ridiculous fold-outs. The most popular one at the time was the Playboy fold-out of naked ladies, but then other magazines, like National Geographic, Life magazine, even Sports Illustrated – I subscribed to all these magazines and I noticed that one by one they were starting to do this fancy, colorful fold-outs. Today "colorful" doesn't mean much to you because you can get color on your computer, but way back then in 1964, color in a magazine was such an expensive process. Mad didn't have any color. So it automatically got me to thinking in reverse again, the way I did with Inferior Man, which is the reverse of Superman, so I said to myself, "They're all doing this fancy color fold-outs that involve three pages of a magazine. Why doesn't Mad do a cheap, black and white fold?" And I did a sample and the sample was, as I said, very simple; it had Richard Burton, who at that time was rumored to have an affair with Elizabeth Taylor, it had Richard Burton on the left and Elizabeth Taylor on the right and you think it's going to fold in to Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor…oh the question was something about who's going to be the next love interest for Elizabeth Taylor? Because she'd had so many. And it turned out to be some young man in the crowd. I mean that was the whole simple idea. It was one gag making fun of Mad itself trying to emulate the expensive trends that were in other magazines. I never expected another one. Suddenly, I get a call from Bill Gaines: "How would you like to do another one?" So I said, "Well, I don't know if I can come up with anything else; that was the only one I could think of." And I came up with [the second one, "Who Wants to be President More than Anything?"]That was 1964, so you came up with a few more ideas since.I've gotten one in every issue except three issues, and the reason for [those exclusions] was that they needed the inside back cover for something else. Oh, and one other reason was that I did a Fold-In front cover and they wouldn't pay me to do two.How long does it take you to do one of these?I usually came up with an idea – in recent years, they supply the idea, because they have a conference where they wanted to deal with subject matter that was hot, and I might come up with something bout the stock market. I used to have to come up with an idea and then make a sketch and try to sell them on the idea and the sketch, and then get to it, and that would take a total of about two weeks. Now the actual artwork takes me about a week to 10 days, depending on how complicated it is.Your Mad paperback books are new material, not collected material.All my paperback books are new material. I have to tell you why I had to write my own material: because I couldn't sell my artwork. (audience laughs) I'm not kidding; when I first started out I would come and peddle my funny cartoons and I thought, "Gee, funny drawings, everybody's gonna love them. All they have to do is give me a script and I'll draw funny cartoons." Nobody was interested. When I sat down and wrote my own script, then they would say, "Oh, well, go ahead and draw it," and that's how I was able to break in. The only [time otherwise] was when Stan Lee gave me that Squat-Car Squad story and said, "See what you can do with it." But he had me write them from then on; he only gave me one.[DF shows photos of Jaffee receiving the Reuben Award, flanked by fellow Mad artists, including Jack Davis]AJ: Jack Davis … is a phenomenal artist, and also the fastest artist I've ever seen in my life. I was on a "Mad" trip with Jack – he was my roommate, I think – and he was late for breakfast or something, and what had happened was that he had been drawing a "Time" magazine cover on the bus, and when the bus stopped he went into the post office to mail it to "Time" magazine. He was such a phenomenal artist. How did the comic strip Tall Tales come about?Again, the life of a freelance is really quite insecure, especially when you have the whole catastrophe of a wife and children and a mortgage and all that. You cast about all the time for ideas, and in my early years the road to security was a newspaper feature. There you got contracts and if they sent the stuff out and it was successful you got more and more papers, you made more and more money. Sparky [Charles] Schultz, who did Peanuts, he started that way, and his feature, Peanuts, was almost dropped because they had a meeting and found out they only had about six newspapers after about a year and they felt they were not going to go anywhere with this thing. But one of the salesmen told me a couple of people had said, "It's such a delightful feature, let's hang it another six months and see what happens," and of course, as they say, the rest is history and it started to become popular. And at one point he was making more money than Oprah, which is an achievement.
So security was in newspaper work, so I tried to figure out how I could get in. And someone told me that you could only get into newspapers by pushing out another comic strip, and that's not that easy to do. The other information I got at that time – this is in the 1950s – was that newspaper space was condensing, and it was becoming more and more difficult to sell comic strips because of shrinking newspapers. So I tried to figure out what kind of space can I get into that isn't being used, like the want-ads and other undesirable spots, and a one-column thing would do it. And the Herald Tribune took it on immediately and they did sell it to a lot of these dead-end spaces. Then we started to pick up a lot of foreign papers because [the strip] didn't have any words, it was all pantomime, and I had a bigger list abroad than I had in America. And then the manager of the syndicate, whose name I will not say, came to me and said, "You know, Americans don't like comic strips without words. You have to put words in them." So I forced words in and immediately lost 35 foreign papers and I didn't pick up any American papers. But it did last about six years, so it paid the bills.
…Audience question: Can you talk a little bit about the [1950s] comic-book bans and hearings that resulted in lots of popular titles disappearing or being "cleaned up," and how that affected your career?The people who really suffered that were the people who were, well, Bill Gaines, who was doing horror comics: Tales from the Crypt and [others]. Bill Gaines went out of business; Mad saved his neck. But a lot of other outfits that were doing, not specifically horror, but [comics that] had a lot of violence in them, whether it was Westerns with lots of shooting and killing, after the psychologist Dr. [Frderic] Wertham came out with a book, Seduction of the Innocent, and the [U.S. Senate's] Kefauver Committee investigated and connected juvenile delinquency with comic books, the comic business could only save itself by creating a censorship board – the Comics Code. … I wasn't affected because at first I was doing "Super Rabbit" and, y'know, little animal things, although (jokes) there were rumors about Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal (audience laughs). And then, of course, I did the teenage stuff like "Patsy Walker," which basically was a rip-off of Archie Comics, just another aspect of it. So I was working all the time; I didn't have a problem. And Mad was alright – although the head of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, had a complete file on Mad and everyone in it. But I wasn't there at the time. I would have been proud to have a file. (audience laughs)Audience question: Did all you guys working at Mad in the ‘60s realize how cool you were?How cool? Or how cruel? (audience laughs) I thank you for the compliment, because I certainly thought it was cool, personally, but as to how other people felt, you never know. I heard from a lot of grown-ups that they wouldn't let their children read it because it was attacking our institutions, among them advertising. It took a long time for people to grow up and realize that making fun of things that deserve it, or that are really begging for it, that that's legitimate comments. But there were a lot of grown-ups who were very uptight about it and I was very proud to be in league with the children; I thought more along their lines than I ever did with adults, and I think it goes for today too. I mean, I think the kids are way ahead of the adults in knowing what's funny.Audience question: A lot of the comics creators in the ‘50s or even the ‘60s wouldn't want to say they were in comics when they were socializing. What did you say when you were out socializing with your family and your wife and people said, "What do you do for a living?"AJ: You're absolutely right. A lot of my friends would refer to themselves as illustrators instead of cartoonists. It's fine to be an illustrator, and everybody would like to be Norman Rockwell, but Rube Goldberg was just fine, too. I would get into arguments [when] some people said they wouldn't allow their kids to read comics; they would prefer for them to read fine literature. I said, "Your first job is to worry about your kid learning to read. [audience laughs] And your kid will learn to read a lot faster by letting him read what he enjoys reading. And then he'll move on to literature." Children aren't idiots. I mean everybody's read comics and then they go to classics. I was never ashamed to admit that I did this stuff. [Audience question about why Trump folded after two issues]AJ: I think Trump had problems which surpassed just the problem of the funding. Harvey Kurtzman, bless his soul, was a good friend of mine, he was just a smart guy and had a brilliant career at Mad magazine. But I think he just wanted to move up and become America's Punch magazine or an illustrated New Yorker magazine, and it was the wrong time with the wrong product. The reason Mad was successful right from the beginning was that it stirred the rebelliousness that was inchoate in a lot of people at that time. There were wars going on, there was a draft going on; colleges were decimated by the draft, or potentially decimated. There was McCarthyism. We were going through some really bad times in the ‘50s. And here comes this cheap little, rebellious rag on cheap paper and it's making fun of our institutions: It's making fun of politics, it's making fun of advertising, it's making fun of itself. It's making fun of radio shows, it's making fun of movies, and it's making fun of comic books, of Superman, of Batman. It was rebellious through and through, all just for the fun of it. And it was 25 cents – it was 10 cents to begin with, then it was 25 cents. I think this had great appeal. And Hefner decided we were going to do this for the upper class – put out a 50-cent magazine, all slick with fancy color like Playboy. But it wasn't going to fly, I think, even if he didn't get into trouble financially; it just wasn't going to have the rebellious feel that it needed at that time. And he also interfered by telling us that the funny stuff Kurtzman was doing at Mad, he would ask for that to be toned down or taken out because it was a little too kiddish; he wanted it to be a bit more for the grown-ups. In my view, that's the whole story.[Audience request for a story about Mad's famous vacation trips]Well, I think the funniest one was really Mad's first trip. How that came about, I don't know. I suspect it was because a man by the name of Lyle Stuart was a publisher – he put out sex books and stuff like that – [who] was a good friend of Bill Gaines, and he took his people on an all-paid vacation once a year, and somebody said to Bill, "Why don't you do that with your group? They'll get to know each other and become friendly and all that." So our first trip was to Haiti. (audience titters) Well, it's kind of funny now to think of going to Haiti – that would be a typical Mad kind of thought: Lyle Stuart's taking them to Paris –we'll go to Haiti. (audience laughs) But I have to be honest with you, that wasn't the reason. Haiti was peaceful and really quite beautiful at that time; 1963, I believe. It was run with an iron hand by [dictator] Papa Doc [Duvalier], so it was peaceful – peaceful because there was a Nazi at every corner. But the hotel was well-guarded and everything was beautiful. And Bill hired four jeeps for us to take – one driver and three other people – and go drive around. And one of the things that was suggested, that Bill had in mind, he said, "We had one subscriber in Haiti, and he didn't renew." (audience roars) So four jeeps pull up to [his house], Bill walks up and says [to him], "You had a subscription. Why didn't you renew?" (audience roars) "All right, I'll give you a year's free subscription!"I went on a total of 30 trips. I was on every one of them; I and one other guy were the only two on every one. It sort of made a family out of freelance people. You know, they had a small staff and the bulk of the staff was freelance; we would never get to know each other because you're coming to deliver your work and no one else is there, just the staff. But going on these trips coalesced the whole group and we all became distant friends from then on and we had some wonderful, wonderful trips. And for that I am very grateful to Bill. I enjoyed those trips.One of the things we did when we came back from a trip is we gave a party for Bill Gaines. And it was in a funky little place down in the Bowery, a very nice little restaurant, a seafood restaurant And we would go there and we were supposed to bring all the photographs we took on the trip. And then we started the policy of creating an album where everyone who was on the trip did something in the album: If you were a writer you wrote something, like a little funny essay; if you were an artist, you did a cartoon, whatever you wanted. Even photographers, too. Then we had a trip to Russia and I can only tell you what I did. Bill Gaines was a notorious slob; I think he travelled on these trips with one set of clothing, the one he was wearing. … When we were in Russia, what was happening to all of us was that people on the street, it was still the Soviet Union, people on the street were coming up and one guy sidled up to me and told me he would give me 50 rubles for my shoes, which happened to be Pierre Cardin, because it was going out of business and I bought them for about a tenth of what they cost. But still, these Russians knew, they knew the stuff. So he comes up to me and he says, "I'll give you 50 rubles for your shoes," and then he said, "60 rubles for your jacket." And everybody experienced this. So when it came to drawing a picture for the album, I had one guy with a Russian who comes up and says, "I'll give you 50 rubles for your shoes." A second [Russian] comes up and says, "I'll give you 60 rubles for your jacket." And a third [Russian] comes up to Bill Gaines and says, "You give me 50 dollars and I'll give you my clothes!" (audience laughter)
Interview transcription by Allie Finkel.
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When actress Maggie Gyllenhaal talks about Crazy Heart (see our review, here), she does so with a passion that's both endearing and contagious. Certainly, she did this movie as much for her soul as for the paycheck and acclaim. And all that has paid off with Oscar nominations this year for herself and co-star Jeff Bridges. In this roundtable interview for the film, Gyllenhaal freely muses on motherhood and on the role that got her into the Academy's category of Best Supporting Actress.
In telling the tale of down-and-washed-out country musician Bad Blake (Bridges), who is now reduced to playing bowling alleys, the film amply details the collapse of one career. But in intersecting his decline with novice music journalist Jean Craddock's (Gyllenhaal) own attempt at a career and at personal ascension beyond being just another struggling single mother, it caps a dual redemption.
Native New Yorker Gyllenhaal has played such deliverance roles before, and not always so successfully, as in the young drug addict of Sherrybaby. (Still, that role earned her a 2007 Golden Globe nomination, as did her 2002 screen debut in Secretary.)
Her signature strength and vulnerability, tempered with forthrightness, are a combination the thirtysomething thesp genuinely possesses — yet also wields as a laser to heighten the characters she plays. In Craddock — a single mom whose uncle owns the Santa Fe bar where Blake plays and who hopes to write about him to jump-start her journalism career — Gyllenhaal has found a worthy focus for her beam. The character imagined in the Thomas Cobb novel, Crazy Heart, and directed by filmmaker Scott Cooper poses an acting challenge if only for her crazy choices.
Q: You're a mother both in real life and onscreen here. What were the similarities, and was your character drawn from your actual child-rearing experience?
MG: I've played mothers before I was a mother and, I think, successfully — sometimes anyway. I've also played heroin addicts and have not been a heroin addict, but for me, in this particular movie, my state as a mother when I made the movie is a huge part of the movie for me. It's also a huge part thematically of what happened to Jean.
My daughter was almost two when I made this movie, and I was having that feeling that I think parents must have intermittently throughout their children's lives. I had it for the first time, like I had been focused almost completely on my daughter, on being a mother, and I had this surge of a feeling that I needed to do something for me. I was also a woman and an actress and not just a mother. I worked.
For some reason [maybe] in the production notes or something, it said that this was the first movie I've made since she was born. It's not, but everyone all day has been saying that to me.
I did The Dark Knight when she was seven months old and I also did Away We Go, but Batman was literally 15 days over eight months. It was very different. It was difficult, but my focus was on my eight-month-old. As much as I could, it was impossible for me to take my focus from her.
[The time it took to do] Away We Go was three days. So, this was in some ways the first thing [I've done]. If I say that I needed something for me it was this movie. I had so much built up and kind of welling in me that needed to be expressed after having become a mom. And it's in the movie.
Basically that's what's happening with Jean. I think she's been trying to be a good mom and pull it together after what must've been a complicated beginning with this child. I think she's at an emergency state of what I'm describing and I think she just feels like, "I need something for me. I need something that feels good to me. I don't care if it's bad for me. It's better if it's bad for me."
Q: How did it feel to take these intense emotions for your own child and apply them to some little boy actor that you've never met before?
MG: Well, I don't think it's that simple. I think it's the feeling of wanting to be free and to be an individual and be...
Q: Coming into your own...?
MG: That's sort of more where it resonated. I didn't feel anything like what I feel for my daughter for Jack Nation, the little boy who played my son. It's not like that for me. It's sort of a little more trippy or something. It's more that on a sort of bigger level I think these things were sort of very simpatico.
Or for example, like the scene where he's writing a song on my bed and I get upset, I think that scene is actually not anything that's actually expressed. It's not about what I'm saying. It's actually about...me kind of saying, "I'm completely screwed here. I'm in love with you already. It's over. It's done. It isn't good for me but there's nothing that I can do about it. It's over."
When you have that feeling, and there is a four-year-old involved, the stakes are massively raised. And I just don't think that I could've understood that before I had a child. But in terms of like the everyday stuff, I think you can sort of fake that if you're not a mother. I'm not sure.
Like in Sherrybaby, for example, I played a mother, but it didn't matter because I wasn't really a mother. I mean that woman had never put a bag of Cheerios in her purse and had never put her hand in her coat and pulled out like a squeaking giraffe ever. She gave birth but that's it.
So it was almost better that I wasn't a mom. Actually, I just watched this recently, I watched it at the premiere, and when asked, "What's the most important thing about you?" I say, "I have a child." So for me in this case, being a mother and the way I am a mother are all tied up in the performance.
Q: Was your daughter with you on the shoot?
Q: If Jean weren't a mother, would she have stayed with and gotten into that destructive role, or did being a mother lead her to protect herself ultimately?
MG: Yeah, I think so. What's so nice about working on a script that's so good and with an actor who's so good is that you don't actually have to make a lot of choices.
I think if you're working with a weak script you have to solve things often, and if you're working with someone who's not there with you and going to respond to you, you do have to make a lot of sort of actor choices. If you're lucky enough not to be in that position and you know where you're coming from and what you want and all these sort of basic acting things, you can kind of just let anything happen.
Usually though, even with a really good script or something, there will be one thing that I'll kind of think, like, "Oh, that's something to avoid or something that I kind of need to think through," one thing that I'll hold onto. I remember thinking before we started shooting, like, "Okay, how does," and this was way before we started shooting. "How does a capable, smart woman fall for like a serious drunk?"
Obviously, it's a much more interesting movie if she is a capable and smart woman than if she's just like a wreck. So how does that happen? Then, you know what, I never thought about it again. I think that's how I did it. She's just not thinking. I am a person who uses my brain and I don't think, too. It happens to us.
Q: When your character meets this guy, she's apprehensive. He calls and says, "Do you want me to come over or not?" She hesitates...
MG: Yeah, but it's over. It's done. The second I walk in the room it's done. I mean, it's done and that's how it is. There are a few moments, I think when I say goodbye to him and we've spent the night together. I say goodbye in the driveway; I played that scene like, "This was crazy and goodbye. I slept with Bad Blake. How did that happen?" But it's also kind of over.
Q: Was it her desire for adult affection that made her vulnerable? That's what makes this film seem so authentic.
MG: This is the thing for me on this movie. When a movie works for me — whether it's successful to other people, there are movies that I've made that work for me — and...usually when I read them I know, like, "I have to do this movie." I don't usually know why until later and I'm just figuring out why for this one.
I think the reason is that I had that feeling, that I had to do this and wanted to see why. And then it's so different, this role, for me than some of the other roles that I've played that I'm proud of. The other ones, some of the others I think about, I think I was fierce. I was so fierce and kind of like a powerhouse in some of my other roles that I like and I think when I was a little younger I thought that was the idea, just be as strong as you can be and that you could fight anything that got in your way.
Like Lee Holloway in Secretary, she's the submissive but she's a fucking powerhouse. This woman is not like that. When I watched it, sometimes I watched some of the things that I did in the movie, and when I first watched it I watched it with my best girlfriend because my husband was away and I was so ashamed watching some of it. I thought, "God, she seems so weak." Then I was looking at my girlfriend, who's a professor, and she's so great and so awesome and strong and I thought, "She's weak, too and so am I." Sometimes I'm not.
I think it's only recently really, like in the past couple of months even, that I see the real power in feeling your feelings and being vulnerable and not being so ashamed of the weaknesses in you and to expose them sometimes. So that's what I learned here and I didn't know that. I knew it in my work before I knew it in my life.
MG: It haunts you, yeah and it goes so down and dark and terrifyingly dark and then brings you back up again.
Q: This movie has a remarkable sense of place, which helps with the character and her role in the movie. In that way it's similar to Away We Go.MG: I think so. We shot really quickly in Sante Fe. The movie takes place in Santa Fe and we didn't have to pretend that part of it. You get there and you're like high...
Q: From the good air?
Q: Did you have trouble with Sante Fe's altitude?
MG: See, I don't like the desert. It's not my thing.
Q: So you don't go to the Burning Man Festivals in the desert?
MG: [laughs] No. That's not my thing. I was a little bit afraid of going to Santa Fe and being in the desert, and I loved it. I loved it. I did. It just went along with everything else in this movie, which was so intense and so fast and so open. I mean that's what happened with Jeff [Bridges] and I.
I just knew that the movie wouldn't work unless these people actually deeply love each other. It wouldn't have and I think he must've known that, too and we just met, didn't have any time and we just sort of went, "My heart is open. I'm up for anything." And I felt exactly the same thing from him and we just did the movie.
Q: One reason your two characters worked together so well despite the 25-year difference is that she has had as much trauma in her life as he had in his, except in very different ways...
MG: Yeah, of course. I think that's true. That's the thing, what brings people together? My friend who is a screenwriter and really smart and great and who I love came to see the movie at the premiere and liked it a lot and said, "I watched you walk into the room and I thought that if these people were supposed to be lovers the movie isn't going to work. If they pretend that they're going to be lovers they're cheating. Then I watched it work." I think that, too. I love that about it because it does make you have to be compassionate about why people love each other. I don't know why they [get together], but you're right, it's all those things. You can be so attracted to the thing that makes you the sickest.
Q: She's relieved in a way, not even telling herself that once Bad does something in losing her kid she can never forgive him for it and will never get back with him.
MG: Well, I do think that if my friend is right that you begin the movie thinking, "No way they're going to work," and then you watch it work, and then at the end it can't survive -- then that's a good movie. I think at the end it really can't. I mean, how can you make the movie so that they end up together and it's right? You can't. I mean, I understand what you're saying, but no, I don't thinks he's glad. But I do think that it makes it a little clearer.
Q: What are her priorities?
MG: Well, not just what her priorities are but like it makes it… The thing is that if someone were a responsible parent who was not drinking and thinking carefully and the child got lost for a half hour they could end up together. Somebody said to me, "He only had a sip of that drink, that's all you saw."
I think it makes absolutely no difference. If you're with someone who's a drunk they could be drinking and who knows, who fucking knows, maybe he only did have one drink. I don't know. He might've had one drink. He might've been drinking all day. He might've been drinking all the times in the movie that you think he's trying not to.
You just don't know and so it can't work because ultimately she knew. I mean, how about in the movie, which is so great what writer/director Scott [Cooper] did, where he firsts takes Buddy and she comes home and they're not home for two seconds and she thinks, she knows it's not safe and if she knows it's not safe then she can't do it. I don't know if I felt relief but I think it's just really terribly sad. At the same time they do reveal their love for each other, both of them, by not being with each other. I think she is loving him by telling him no.
Q: She can't find anyone else that she had that much fun with...?
MG: In order to be with him she has to not think, like I said, and that can't be good for anybody.
MG: Everyone was playing music all the time. Steven Bruton, who was[singer-songwriter] T Bone [Burnett]'s 's partner and passed away and to whom the film is dedicated, he was around and he and Jeff would sing "Falling and Flying" to me and it was just all the time happening. Everyone was practicing, playing. The musicians who were playing, most of them were real musicians and so music was really just a part of it.
Q: What did you talk about with the musicians?
MG: I did spend a lot of time with Bruton. The musicians, who were the day players... playing musicians in the movie, I didn't [talk to]. The only scene that I'm in is that one scene at night where I have another focus, which is really Bad Blake. But Steven and I did get to know each other really well and I hadn't listened to Lefty Frizzell before.
My husband [actor Peter Sarsgaard] listens to a lot of blues, which is actually where that question about Son House and Big Bill Broonzy came from because I'd heard a lot of that music. He played me music and we talked a lot about sort of some of the background of the music because I do think that Jean does listen to country music and knows more about it than I do, although not a great deal more. I think she does walk into the interview without a massive amount of information, but I think that's part of their connection, that she says, "I can feel that you must've liked Lefty Frizzell," not that that takes a genius, but it takes knowing more about music than just Hank Williams.
Q: Did you know who the late honky tonk-influenced country singer Lefty Frizzell — who is referenced in the movie — was before doing this movie?
MG: Did I know Lefty Frizzell as a musician? It's interesting that you ask me that because I actually to listen to country music and it completely came from me. I was born in New York and I grew up in California and I've lived here for fifteen years, in New York. There's no reason at all why I should like country music and I do.
The country music that I listen to though, I'm not sure what T Bone would think because it's not influenced by where I'm living at all and none of my friends listen to country. It's all my own thing. I didn't know Lefty Frizzell although I did listen to Merle Haggard and Hank Williams and some of the other old school guys that we talk about. I didn't listen to Lefty Frizzell until I started the movie and did the interview. But I do love Gillian Welch and Iris Dement, Emmylou Harris. I love The Dixie Chicks. I do listen to country music and I don't know why. I just like it.
Q: Did you ever go on the road with a band?
MG: No. No, I never have.
Q: Were you a big concert goer as a kid?
MG: Yes and no. I had a boyfriend who was really into music, very snobby about music and really kind of liked a certain indie rock thing and looked down on my CD collection. I was completely ashamed by it. I definitely thought at the time that my music wasn't cool enough.
Q: If you had a chance to do an interview with someone who would you like to talk with?
MG: That's one of the questions where later on I think, "Oh, I should've said...," but I have to say that I'd like to talk to David Lynch.
Photo credits: Brad Balfour
For more by Brad Balfour: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour
Born and raised in Portland, Maine, the hugely talented Anna Kendrick, now 24, was nominated for a Tony Award when she was only 12 for her work in the Broadway musical High Society. And her much-YouTubed performance of Stephen Sondheim’s Here’s to the Ladies Who Lunch in the 2003 indie movie Camp — a song written for a character twice her age — is a showstopper.The articulate and level-headed actress reprises her supporting role as high-school mean girl Jessica in the second Twilight movie, New Moon, and costars with George Clooney and Vera Farmiga in the upcoming Up in the Air, a serio-comedy about a corporate ax-man hired to conduct layoffs at companies all over the United States. Kendrick spoke about this and more at the Waldorf Astoria Towers Hotel in New York City.Q: Did you draw from your own memories of high school to play Jessica?AK: Jessica is just so different from me and so different from my high school experience. There's something very fun and liberating for me about playing a girl I would have seen as an enemy. And also about simultaneously playing the gossipy mean girl, but inevitably showing how needy she is and how desperate she is and how pathetic it all comes across. Because anybody that's doing that kind of [bitchy] thing is obviously very, very needy.Q: Maybe that vulnerability you bring out in her explains why audiences kind of like her.AK: Maybe. I mean, yeah, I think that's what [creates] the comedy; if she were particularly self-assured I don't think it would work. I think there's [humor] in her desperation.Q: In this second movie, does Jessica know Bella hangs with vampires?AK: No, no! None of the school kids ever, ever know anything about the mythology. That's true throughout the series. The young actors in the Harry Potter movies formed a bond of camaraderie and stay in touch. Has anything like that happened with the cast of the Twilight movies?I know that [for] the Harry Potter [movies], they have this big studio and they film in a lot of the same locations. For us it's a little bit more like going back to college, or like the first day of school where you see everybody again. You all hang out all the time while you’re there, and then it's like “OK, see you next fall!.” But it's nice. It's like returning to a place where you know what works and what doesn't… or at least hopefully you know what works and what doesn't. It's pretty rare to be able work with the same people again; so often you never see the people you work with [after the project is over], and that makes it very special.Q: What's next for you? Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has wrapped, right?AK: Yes. And I finished [the third Twilight movie,] Eclipse, so I think I’m done with the Twilight saga. There are four [movies], but I don't think I'll be in the fourth — my character isn’t really in that book. [Bella] graduates in Eclipse, so that's basically it.Q: See you next fall!AK: Yeah. So now I'm unemployed [laughs]! Interview courtesy Maitland McDonagh from MissFlickChick.com
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