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Robert Redford directs and also stars in the political suspense thriller, The Company You Keep, his first starring role since An Unfinished Life in 2005. Last Monday, Redford, Jackie Evancho, Stanley Tucci and Brit Marling, appeared at a press conference at the Parker Meridien Hotel to talk about their new film.
Redford, now 76, still has his signature golden thatch and ice blue eyes. He looks great, and he still feels passionate about making films.
Annette Insdorf, from the film school at Columbia University, moderated the 45-minute press session that started very late; Redford gave at least 30 interviews that day.
Before the 45-minute press conference began, Redford requested coffee and asked his co-stars what they wanted. “Just a martini,” Tucci chimed.
Redford portrays a former member of the 1970’s radical anti-war group the Weather Underground, a fugitive wanted for murder for a crime he has not committed. He’s lived underground for more than 30 years under an assumed name (Jim Grant), is now a lawyer and single widowed father, who has a young daughter (Jackie Evancho) to whom he’s devoted. Shia LaBeouf plays an ambitious rookie reporter, who uncovers Grant’s past.
LaBeouf’s name was dropped off the press list only two days earlier; possibly he didn’t want to field any more questions about being fired from Orphans or his tweets about conflicts with Alec Baldwin. (Later that evening at the film’s premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, LaBeouf, who sported a bushy beard, hobbled down the red carpet wearing a medical boot.)
The rest of the cast of The Company You Keep, is starry, including Julie Christie, Sam Elliott, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson, Terrence Howard, Susan Sarandon and Chris Cooper.
There were the usual sometimes long-winded and meandering questions from the press, which Redford always answered with aplomb and grace. To a journalist who went on at length about Redford’s films over the past half-century, and how they related to this film, Redford responded, “That’s such a great question I’ve forgotten it. Go back.”
Here are some highlights from the press conference:
Redford on what attracted him to the project, and if it was the book by Neil Gordon or the script by Lem Dobbs: I was drawn to the book because it was a wide-ranging. It had a lot of plotlines. It had a lot of e-mail stuff going on…there was something in the core that kept my attention, so the next four or five years was shaping that material in what could be a film.
Brit Marling (“Arbitrage,” “Sound of My Voice”) on what interested her about the film as opposed to low-budget Indies:
For me it always comes down to the story…when I read the script I was really moved by the idea of the Weather Underground and how it’s not set back then but it’s set in the present day.
They’re looking back and wondering about the wisdom of the radicalism of their youth, and did they make the right choices and would they do it differently now, which I think my generation is grappling with a lot of the same ideas.
Stanley Tucci on how he approached playing the role of a “hard-boiled newspaper” editor:
He’s the sort of classic, curmudgeonly, exhausted editor. I think particularly in this day and age, he’s an interesting character because he’s the last of a dying breed.
Robert Redford on working with Stanley Tucci:
My dear friend, what’s his name? (Laughter) Stanley and I have some history together. We go a ways back, and like Brit, obviously I’m very indebted to people who come in for no money at all and volunteer their services to help me with a non-profit…There’s no money in film these days. It’s shrunk down to a nub, and you have to depend on the kindness of, not strangers, but colleagues to come in and help you, and I was blessed by having a wonderful cast…Stanley coming in, he didn’t have to. There was nothing in it for him except the joy of working with me. (Laughter).
Redford on the dynamics of watching scenes between LaBeouf and Tucci:
Shia has a fast mind and a fast tongue and for Stanley to work with that and still be the character that he had to play, he had to be a man in control with an industry that was going out of control…The fact that he could manage the energy by creating a counter energy, that as Shia got more crazed Stanley – if you watch the film - Stanley goes the other way. It creates a dynamic. As Shia slows down Stanley goes for his throat. I just enjoyed watching that. (Laughter.)
Redford on casting Jackie Evancho, a young singer who appeared on the television show “America’s Got Talent” and has released five CD’s:
This is one of those stories where you take a risk and it pays off…I was in Vancouver getting ready to film and I couldn’t find the young actress, the 11-year-old, to play my new daughter. Kids in films to me have always been a pretty big deal. Because I want to see a child just be, not act. I was frustrated in the interview process because I was interviewing girls who were lovely…and their mothers were dressed like they wanted a part in the movie so there was that, but the kids were too busy acting.
I’m sitting in the hotel room, depressed, kind of mindlessly surfing. Boom! There’s this vision on the screen, this angelic creature, 11 years old…She was singing Puccini. I was thinking, “Wait a minute! How does that work?” The camera pulls back and there’s this symphony hall, and this huge orchestra. And this creature just belted this music out that was so powerful and right away something just clicked into gear.
Somebody who has that composure and can do that from that kind of audience with that kind of register with that kind of complexity, maybe that could work…I contacted the agent, the casting person, I said find out this person where she is. They found out she was in Pittsburgh and living this normal life…they went down and taped her.
It was clear she didn’t know what was going on, and I thought, “I don’t know, there’s something, I’m going to take this chance.” She was hired on Tuesday. We filmed on Wednesday. We filmed the first day we met. From that point on, I figured I am one lucky man because she turned out to be absolutely lovely. We just played together and had fun together and improvised together.
Evancho was asked if she knew who Redford was:
My dad said he played a cowboy. That’s all I knew.
Tucci asked Evancho if she was nervous the first day on set:
I was extremely nervous. I didn’t know what to think.
Redford: She was so busy having fun that it disguised her nervousness.
On Redford’s political activism and what he’d like audiences to take from the film:
The first thing would be that they would think. Some films are like cotton candy. You have a wonderful ride and then they’re over. Other films are designed in a way to at least make you ask a question afterwards or think about what’s happened and maybe dialogue with somebody. That’s what I would prefer.
The second thing is a criticism I have of my own country, that I don’t think we’re very good at looking at history as a lesson to learn so we don’t repeat a negative historical experience. We’re not good at that.
When this happened I was of that age, I was of them in spirit. Because I was starting a career in the New York theater, and I was also starting to having a family, I was obligated to that task so I wasn’t a part of it but I was certainly empathetic to what they were doing because I also thought it (the Vietnam War) was a wrong war. I thought it was a war that was going to cost unnecessary lives.
Redford talking about the challenges of making a film that deals with journalism:
It’s tricky business when an artist tries to mess around with journalism. I’ve done that before. Basically I was protected by a story, which was written by somebody else…It’s tricky because I don’t know that if the media is comfortable being criticized by people that are not in their own world…Because I have such a keen interest in the media, because I think it plays such an important role in our society, I’m very concerned if it’s ever it’s threatened in any way.
Redford on whether he has any positive thoughts about journalism and the country:
Positive? I don’t know about positive as much valuable. Because I consider journalism so valuable, I would almost – I don’t want to have too much ego here – I would almost take it personally if journalism failed itself because that’s the one avenue we have to the truth, so if I’m going to portray journalism in a film, which is tricky business, then you want to at least give it its due and maybe describe the threats that are against it.
So in this case the idea of Shia’s character was to me more interesting if it was complicated by the fact that is he going after the story for his own personal aggrandizement? Is he going after it for the purity of just getting the story? You should dance between that as he moves forward, but then what should be unmistakable is what he learns about himself in his pursuit of finding something about somebody else.
Redford on his two favorite stories and how they related to The Company You Keep:
The two stories I loved as a kid, Phantom of the Opera, because I always wanted to play that part. [laughter]. No, I really did! And then Les Misérables. I saw similarities in that Shia’s character is Inspector Javert, and that I was Jean Valjean [in the film] in a sense that I go to prison for something I’ve done that’s wrong.
Redford on whether he’s had a chance to meet any of the radicals symbolically portrayed in the film:
No. I didn’t feel I needed to because I saw a documentary several years ago, it came to the festival, called The Weather Underground… and I felt that that documentary was very well made about the actual people, Mark Rudd, Bernadine Dohrn. I didn’t feel I needed to meet them. Also this was a piece of fiction that had to have the basis of truth to it but it was really about their lives later, so no I didn’t feel I needed too, but I did meet the son of Bernadine Dohnr and Bill Ayers, who lives here in New York and Chicago. He’s a teacher. And that was it. I figured I don’t want to go into far in this because this is a piece of fiction, dramatic fiction.
I’m happy to talk about this film. I’m proud of the actors who are in it. I was able to make the film I wanted to make the way I wanted to make it and I’m proud of that. But I think if you stay too long it’s not a good thing.
Redford on selecting photos of himself for the film and if it’s a “wink” to some of his earlier movies:
[Redford laughed] You think that’s a wink, huh? [laughter]
Redford on the difficulties of culling pictures from old movies and aging:
I just had to go through archival stuff and find old photos of myself and be depressed. [Laughter]
Redford on casting Julie Christie and what he will do about getting her an Oscar nomination:
I would never try to get somebody an Oscar nomination. That’s not my business. Awards are not my business. But Julie became my business. I saw her because I knew her when she was younger and we both had film exposure around the same time, and I realized that she was radical then and assumed she might stay that way. That would be something to draw on, but I had no idea beyond that.
She seemed to disappear from the face of the earth and then she showed up in a film about Alzheimer’s, and I thought, well unless that was a real life thing for her maybe I should call. It took a while to get her. She’s in a remote area of Spain and sometimes London. It took two months of conversations, first of all trying to find her, then secondly, listening to her tell me why she shouldn’t do it, on and on, didn’t want to do it, didn’t think she could do. But perseverance ruled the day.
Redford’s next film is All Is Lost, J.C. Candor’s follow-up to Margin Call. The film, out this spring, is an adventure survival story in which Redford seems to be the only actor.
Then in 2014, in the feverishly-awaited Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Redford plays the head of the espionage agency S.H.I.E.L.D.
“It’s going to be very different,” Redford said about the role.
After a long press day, I saw Redford at the film’s swanky afterparty at Harlow on East 56th Street. Redford mingled with Chandor, Tony Shaloub (Monk), Zosia Mamet (Girls) and director Oren Moverman.
Redford slipped out at midnight, shaking hands and smiling at guests, as he exited through a side door.
Never one to shy away from experimentation, Michel Gondry's (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) latest film, The We and the I, chucks out the usual over the top visuals his previous films have been associated with in favor of a more low key setting and cast. Gondry started an acting workshop in the Bronx where he scouted local teens with little or no acting experience for his new project: a film that takes place almost entirely on a bus as high school freshman go home after their last day of class before summer vacation.
While the performances fluctuate and the story veers into melodramatic after school special territory, there is an earnest quality to The We and the I that makes it very charming. At Lincoln Center, cast members Alex Barrios, Michael Brodie, Teresa Lynn, Raymond Delgado, Jonathan Ortiz, Brandon Diaz, and Meghan Murphy, along with screenwriter Jeffrey Grimshaw, talked about the strange experience of making a film in one setting with a cast that has never been in a film before.
Q: How did you get involved with this project?
RD: I was a part of this acting group and we would act around the Bronx and New York and do acting at The Point. They said they were having a movie night and showing Be Kind Rewind, so I saw it and this French director popped out and said “We’re doing a movie! Do you want to be in it?”
BD: I got word of it because I was doing community service in another area and they got word of Michel coming to The Point and doing this workshop thing and they told us and took us down. Michel did the Be Kind Rewind screening and asked us if we wanted to be a part of it and that’s how it got started.
JO: I got involved because I was working at The Point as a student activist.
MB: Same here, I was working with Jon as a student activist and our group leader told us Michel Gondry was having a workshop and showing his movie, Be Kind Rewind. I’ve been acting since high school, so I was interested.
MM: For those of you that don’t know what The Point is, it’s a community center in Hunts Point, just to clarify a bit. I got involved with this movie after my friend, who portrays my best friend in the movie, she was telling me about these acting workshops at the community center and that they’re really cool and I should get involved. So it sort of snowballed into this big project.
TL: It was the same thing [for me]. I’ve been going to The Point since I was five, so that’s how got involved. It’s an awesome place.
Q: Had any of you acted before?
MB: Like I said, I’ve been acting since high school. I got into acting in my sophomore year and basically did a lot of plays. I was in a playwriting workshop in my junior year and we all wrote our own plays and they were entered into a contest where the winning play got casted, performed with a professional director. I’ve been doing a lot of stuff like that. One of my classmates plays One and I got casted as one of the main cast members and we went to Broadway. I forget the theater, but Billy Elliot was playing there and I got to meet Hilary Swank and it was a great experience. I’ve been acting for a long time.
RD: I do stage acting and a lot of improv. Basically I also teach about HIV prevention when I do act. It’s about teaching how to protect yourself and other things that go on, so we use acting instead of just doing a speech about it. We act it out on stage.
Q: When you got with Michel, did he already have the idea about the bus, or did you all get together and figure it out from scratch?
JO: It took a long time, because there was no idea about a bus. It was just like we’ll sit all together and pretend like we’re acting, and we’ll put our stories together. That’s how it came about.
NM: We developed the idea for the movie over time.
Q: How long did it take?
NM: Technically, four years. It was spanned over my entire high school career. We started doing workshops and I met Michel when I was a freshman, and then we wrapped filming when I was getting ready to be a senior. So there was a lot of planning going on.
TL: The bus idea he had because he was on a bus and watching high school students interact, and that’s where he got the idea from. Then he just wanted to have Bronx students instead of French students, I guess.
MB: That’s where the workshops came into play because he used those times to kind of study us to get our stories out of us so we’d open up and get comfortable with him. Once we were comfortable we opened up and the real stories came out, like what you saw with Brandon. It was pretty comfortable.
JO: At the start we all came from different places. Even though some of us were from the same place and we were comfortable with and familiar with the faces, but having a whole bunch of other people come in, it’s new and a little nerve wracking because you’re acting with a bunch of people you don’t know, so it took some time. But during the workshops we played theatre games and thing like that, theatre techniques to feel each other out. And Michel, he’d see that we had our own little cliques, so when he did the workshops or when we had facilitators, they’d put us in different groups with people we didn’t know. They’d see us chill with them [people we know], so they’d put us with people we don’t know and see what chemistry is. That’s how it came into place. They’d see how we were as individuals then they came up with the concept of every character.
Q: Was Michel working with you all the way through or was there someone else you also worked with when Michel was off making a movie in Hollywood or something?
MB: We had a talent coach that helped us out with acting a lot and we wrote down in journals how to act and things like that.
Q: Was the movie shot in chronological order or out of sequence?
RD: The first day we did shoot it was the opening of us coming out of the school, which took two days to shoot, but you only see it on screen for a few seconds. One day we do one scene and the next day another scene. And when I see it I’m like “we didn’t do it like that.”
Q: When was it filmed?
RD: During the summer.
Q: How long was the shoot?
MB: Six weeks. They told us we had to keep our schedules clear. No tattoos, no piecing, the way they see you before everything starts, that’s the way you gotta come to set every day.
MM: During shooting we learned the definition of a long day, because was 7AM to 7PM every single day.
Q: Each of you drew on autobiographical elements, but how much of it was just completely made up?
TL: 95% of it was our real stories, but some people didn’t tell their own stores, some people told other people’s stories. Like my story wasn’t my own. But there were some parts that were invented, like the party scene, but there was always something that we experienced that was similar. So even if it wasn’t our own personal story, it was something relatable and something like that happened at some point in our lives.
RD: Also our personalities had to change. Us bullies aren’t bullies all the time, we had to change our personalities and act like jerks and stuff.
JO: My character is nothing like me. I’m really not a bully. I just did it because Michel thought it’d be really funny for me to be a bully. So I said I’d do it with the wig. It made him happy.
MB: I’m not really two-faced. If I’m your friend, I’m your friend. I’m actually a nice guy, I’m not gonna act like an asshole. What you see is what you get.
MM: A lot of the stories that were presented in the movie had some truth to them. The character I played was this really shy, sort of co-dependent servant to her best friend, and I guess that sort of speaks to the dynamic me and my best friend had when we started the workshop. Michel just took that concept and ran with it. It was really interesting to play myself as a freshman because we didn’t start filming until I was a junior. It was interesting to go back to that point in time and develop this character that was based on me when I was 14 years old.
MB: When we were shooting I was a sophomore in college, so to play a sophomore in high school was really funny. The time we stopped the workshops and began preparing for filming, we were all at different points in our lives. So when we got the final script and had to memorize the scenes, it was kind of hard because we couldn’t remember half the stuff we did in workshops because it was over a four year span. So when we came back we were all like “oh I wouldn’t say this, can I change this, can I change that?” Michel was nice enough to actually give us the freedom and pleasure to change things we didn’t like or switch it up or take it out.
Q: What was it like working with Michel as a director?
TL: He can come to my wedding. He’s just awesome. He’s just really down to earth and worked with us because, obviously we’re not like Hollywood, so we didn’t always know what we were doing. And when he did have us buckle down, we didn’t get upset with him for getting frustrated with us because he was down to earth to. So we didn’t mind when he got strict.
AB: His son is lucky to have him as a father. I’d love to have him as a father. He’d crack jokes, make people laugh. Sometimes when we were shooting scenes and he’d see people doing something that wasn’t in the scene, he’d be like “Alex, go shoot that” and put it in the movie. He was awesome.
MM: Michel is a great guy to work with. He’s eccentric, but it just felt like he was another member of the cast. He’s the antithesis of your stereotypical Hollywood director. He’d be like “how can we approach this” and ask for our input. Totally not the experience I was expecting to have when I was told we would be working on a movie. It was great.
JO: Michel was pretty cool because between shoots he’d mingle with us, he wouldn’t put himself on a pedestal. He knew how to work with us, so we got comfortable. So when real shooting begun and he had to get strict we were like “okay, you got Michel, you do what you gotta do, because you you’re cool with us.”
TL: The only time he really got mad was at the camera man.
MB: He got it the worst.
Q: When you started working with him, was it always definitely gonna be a movie?
RD: We were like, “we’re doing all these workshops. Are we gonna shoot now?” “No.” Constantly waiting and most of us were like “is this really gonna happen?” People went to college, people had babies, everything. When it finally came to shooting, it was about getting everybody in the same room because they all came from high school and after school and now we gotta work. It was hard getting everyone back together and when we did it was so weird because now the cameras are here. When it finally came together it was amazing.
AB: We really had to wait because when Green Hornet came out they had to put us on hold. The whole funding for that project stopped and we were just waiting until we got a message that they were gonna shoot this and everyone got excited.
Q: How was this movie written?
TL: We had journals we wrote in and basically those stories became part of the crazy process they [the writers] deal with.
JG: It was absolutely based on that. Michel always had a structure when we came in. The structure you saw there, the three parts that was kind of embedded from the very beginning, it was ending with those three kids on the bus. We interviewed and worked with the kids. At the end, the only scene that completely came from us was the one with the pizza and the kids getting off the bus. Everything else either came from the kids or was in Michel’s original treatment. He had a treatment that was about 24 pages long based on his bus rides in the South of France in the 70’s.
Q: It’s like a mélange of experiences.
JG: Lots of melanging.
MB: It was an interesting experience when I got the script and saw what they added, I was like “how is this gonna work? This sounds really stupid.” Then we started filming and I saw things come to life, I was like “oh that’s really hot.” When you read something, it’s different from when you see it put together.
Q: Was it always planned that the movie gets thematically darker and heavier as it goes along?
JG: That was also completely built into it from the beginning. That’s always what he wanted to do. I think in the treatment the titles were The Chaos, The We, and The I, instead of the The Bullies, The Chaos, and The I. He kept wanting it to end with that he told us were “philosophical discussions” and people changing. It drove us completely crazy. The physical darkness, he always wanted that as well. His original ending shot was going to be Teresa, who at that point was a different character, and Michael, walking down the street, and they would be kicking street lamps to make the bulbs go out, and he desperately wanted that. He wanted us to come up with a way to do that. We said it’s the last day of school, the first day of summer, they’re basically getting out at 12 o’clock, it’s a nine hour bus ride, minimum. So he just kind of went with it. The best solution we came up with, and I wish it was in there, was that we wanted to have a solar eclipse. We had written that in and it stayed in through inertia for about five drafts until he finally realized what it was and then it was gone. Our concluding shot in the first draft was kids who had gone into Manhattan to shop in SoHo were going to be on the Highline watching the solar eclipse with their backs to it on their cellphones. We had a song about it.
Q: How much of the dialogue was scripted?
RD: A lot of it was adlibbed. We stuck with the structure of the script and knew the structure of the script, but at the end it was like we wouldn’t say this, so they said change it into your own form of speaking, however you feel comfortable saying it. If it looks good, we’d go with it, so I adlibbed. It was like have a conversation, act like you’re on the bus, there are no cameras, and you’re just with your friends. And that’s how I came across.
MB: It was hard though, because even though you had to act like the camera wasn’t there, they was there.
Q: Did he have trouble understanding your slang?
RD: I liked it when he would say it.
JO: He’d try real hard to understand what we meant.
TL: He’d ask a lot of us to slow down, because as you can see, we talk really fast.
MM: I think we had a little bit more trouble understanding him most of the time. He has a very thick accent and at the time I had got Rosetta Stone for French and I swore that I would be able to speak French by the end of the summer and sometimes Michel would come and talk to me in French and I’d be like “uuuhh…”
JO: At the beginning it was like what the hell is this guy saying, but the longer you’re around him it starts becoming more clear and natural, it’s like you understand what he’s saying. When he tried to imitate us it was really funny, so we were just cracking up all the time.
Q: Do you guys want to keep acting? When you guys saw the movie for the first time, what was it like?
RD: I want to keep acting for sure, there’s no doubt about it. As far as seeing it, I cringed. I was like I hate hearing my voice and to see my big face crying on the screen. But after seeing for the sixth time, I got used to it, you can watch me cry.
JO: I was scared. Everyone’s always critical of themselves when everyone is watching them, especially on the big screen. We went to France and had the big premiere in the theater and it was nerve-wracking. We had seen it at the studios before in Manhattan. But when we seen it, everyone was there watching it, I was thinking I hope I look good. All these things you think about before you even see the film, so when you see the film you want to cover your face, walk out the theatre, run, just give up on life. It was crazy. I definitely want to keep acting, I like the hard work that goes into it, the dedication I have, and the dedication everyone else has as well. It’s very interesting to see how we open to [acting] coaches, and it’s great to see people giving such great feedback and caring even if they’re not from the South Bronx or not being from America. Seeing how people feel about the film is still something I can’t get over and it feels just great.
BD: Watching it for the first time it was only like half the cast and we were in a studio with headphones on, and when the credits went up and I saw my name, it was the most overwhelming feeling knowing that, even though it was a month, a whole month of 16 hour days, but seeing a whole month’s work put into an hour and 45 minutes is a real overwhelming feeling. It’s like wow. And after all four years of stopping and going and hesitating on the work, it added up, and when it was finished it felt real good.
AB: To me, when I see it, I feel like I did a horrible job, but then people started coming up to me and saying they like my character, but I don’t really like my character. I did a lot of cursing. If I could do it again, I would change that. It’s crazy, but I would love to keep acting.
MM: Part one of your question, I don’t know if I want to continue acting on film, but acting is really fun and I’d like to explore other types of acting. So maybe stage or something like that. We’ll see what’s in the cards. As far as my reaction to the movie, it’s a mixture of I wanna throw up, I’m so happy, I’m so proud of everyone, so it was kind of a jumble of things. You have a certain level of objectivity when you’re watching other people in movies, but when you’re watching yourself it’s a whole other weird experience and you have to have done it to know what it feels like. So that was really interesting and I enjoyed it.
Q: You all look so confident and sure of yourselves. Were you always like this, or did the movie change you?
MB: Honestly, before the movie and everything, I was kind of a quiet person. If I hadn’t done this movie, but had to stand in front of all of you, I’d be shaking, I’d be sweating bullets, things like that. Doing this movie boosted my confidence, it showed me what I gotta work at, and my reason for acting. It made me feel more approachable. I hung with these guys I normally wouldn’t hang with, meet new people, make friends, stuff like that. It was just great. I feel more humble, and definitely more confident. I’m used to talking in front of big crowds now, I’m not nervous, I’m outspoken.
JO: I see myself now as more of an outgoing person. During high school I just tried to stay by myself. I just wanted to do my time at high school, finish my four years, then go to college. Within the movie, notice how we had the cliques, the bullies stayed with the bullies and so forth? That’s how it was in high school. Now I’m more outgoing, I don’t look at anybody for no reason. Everything is open now, I’m free to do whatever. It really opened me up to the world. Everybody’s different, accept everything.
BD: To me it was a great experience and just doing it was good, and just seeing myself up there is amazing. But now when I ride the bus I still sit in the back.
RD: This whole experience did change me in a way. It did give me more confidence in front of a crowd. When I first came up I was like I’m so scared, what are they gonna say, what are they gonna ask me? But then when I got on stage, I was just like, just talk, it’s perfectly fine. It definitely made me more confident.
MM: My reaction to that question is you think I’m confident? Thank you. I’m totally fooling everybody. It was interesting to have this movie begin and end as my high school career began and ended. This movie is like a little fossil of my high school personality. It’s interesting to see yourself that way and getting to delve into my personality when I was a freshman in high school, it helped me learn from myself, so I guess that’s where any confidence came from. A lot of people who were involved in the movie feel the same way because we really got to discuss who we were. That’s something you sort of touch on in high school, but you don’t necessarily do it on that level, on the level we did. So that was good to do.
TL: The movie changed me, but I can’t really put a finger on it or give it a word. But I know during those six weeks I went through a total transformation. Like a completely different person from beginning to end.
In a fidgety, changeable word, it’s comforting to see that entertainment legend Danny Kaye is having a banner year. America’s twinkling star of motion pictures, stage, radio and TV has been dead for more than a quarter century--but not forgotten, if Dena Kaye has her way. Danny Kaye’s only child is fêting his 100th birthday with salutes ranging from a marathon of his films on Turner Classic Movies to The New York Pops’ gala at Carnegie Hall.
There’s lots to celebrate. Beyond his dazzlements as a performer, Kaye was also an accomplished pilot, orchestra conductor, golfer and chef, not to mention a UNICEF ambassador whose five-day, 65-city campaign in 1975 made the Guinness Book of Records. Surely the comedian also broke records for his trademark rat-a-tat delivered in a UN of faux languages yet true accents. Several bravura examples fetch up in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in which Kaye stars as a magazine proofreader who dreams of being heroic and finally gets his chance.
Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York recently showed this 1947 release as part of the Kaye centennial festivities. After the screening, FilmFestivalTraveler.com tapped Dena for a bead on her father’s life and work.
Q: How did Walter Mitty’s visions of saving the day resonate with your father?
DK: He felt fiercely proud of his work with UNICEF (though his involvement came after this film). He was awarded two Academy Awards for his humanitarian work.
Q: Have any comedians told you they’re influenced by your father’s physical comedy?
DK: No, but I once met Robin Williams at a comedy-fest and asked if he’d do a remake of [the 1956 musical comedy] The Court Jester. He said, “Are you kidding? I could never be Danny Kaye!”
Q: Did Kaye receive formal training?
DK: No. He couldn’t read music, but conducted the New York Philharmonic. And he never learned dance, but Fred Astaire-ed.
Q: Your mother Sylvia Fine wrote many of Kaye’s tunes. Is this year-long celebration also designed to revive her name?
DK: I'm hoping that when his movies are more available, whether on DVDs or iTunes, her work would be known. She was such a big part of his movies, writing songs in The Court Jester, Five Pennies and so many more.
Q: You can really catch her wit in "Anatole de France," the piece de resistance of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where she takes aim at hat designers.
DK: A hat that's "a two-story flat" says it all! But didn't only write funny numbers. Irving Berlin called “All About You”--which she wrote for Knock on Wood--a perfect love song.
Q: Speaking of Berlin, White Christmas is another Kaye classic. Was that a surprise for Brooklyn-born “David Daniel Kaminsky,” who entered show biz as a Borscht Belt tummler?
DK: It was just a movie role, no more or less emblematic than his playing the Jewish refugee in Me and the Colonel or Skokie. His passion moved him from one endeavor to the next, whatever he was doing in the moment.
Q: Was he also passionate about visual arts?
DK: I remember one day my mother bought a very abstract painting. My father looked at it and said, “What the hell is that?” So the painting was forever known in our family as, What the Hell Is That?
When The Sapphires director Wayne Blair joined actor Chris O’Dowd for a roundtable to promote this touching and groundbreaking musical film -- based on a popular 2004 Australian musical.
Extrapolated from a true story, it tells of four indigenous women, Gail (Deborah Mailman), Julie (Jessica Mauboy), Kay (Shari Sebbens) and Cynthia (Miranda Tapsell), who are discovered by a talent scout (Chris O'Dowd), and form a music group called The Sapphires which travels to Vietnam in 1968 to sing for troops during the war.
Born in October 1979, this Irish actor/comedian is best known across the Atlantic for his role as Roy in the Channel 4 comedy The IT Crowd. On these shores he has appeared in several Hollywood films, including Gulliver's Travels and most notably Bridesmaids. Following that star turn the 33 year-old County Sligo native recently starred in the hit HBO dramedy, Girls.
O'Dowd recently wrapped up promoting The Sapphires with director Wayne Blair, capping off a harrowing journey after shooting the film in Australia and Vietnam. Q: Welcome to America Chris… So what do you think of this country and city in particular? CO: Take what you can and get out of here [chuckles].
Q: Did you ever imagine that you would be doing a movie in Australia about Vietnam with Aboriginals co-stars performing Motown hits? CO: That was always on my mind -- to have done an Aboriginal musical. That’s a joke. Laugh whenever you feel like it.
I have never been to Australia. My sister just migrated there, so I just wanted to hang out with her. It was a good working holiday.
Q: How did you relate to your character? Were there any traits that you relate to, that you two shared?
CO: I used the same tighty whiteys [laughs]. Sleeping in a car or on a sofa and living like these people makes you feel connected to the character. Q: How did you get the part of Dave Lovelace? The Irish and Australians, there’s a close relationship between the two cultures.
CO: We are very similar. We like to ridicule and drink.
Q: And the film needed the Irish audience.
CO: The Irish are the highest cinema goers in the world because it's so bloody cold out there!
Q: Speaking of drinking what are your plans for St. Patricks Day? Are you staying in New York? CO: No I'm actually working. I will be salsa dancing for a movie I'm working on.
Q: Will you be sneaking in a pint of Guinness? CO: Because it's St. Patricks Day, I won't be sneaking it in. I will be bringing all kinds of controversy in front of them. Q: Were you at all familiar with Australian history -- especially what the white Australian settlers did in throughout their history of snatching indigenous children from their families and training them in British ways to eradicate their culture?
CO: I didn't know about The Stolen Generation. It was so educational and sad. More than anything it was ethnic cleansing, and this was not the 17th century, it's 1968, and we are trying to wipe out an entire society. So it was great to do a film that dealt with those things and still makes people laugh.
It kind of takes the pressure off you when you know it is more wide reaching then what you are personally bringing to it. If that make sense. I feel that this is a very important film.
Q: Are you more interested now in making more social conscious films?
CO: When I'm reading scripts now I am looking in more universal themes.
Working with these girls taught me brutal honesty. Not to take yourself too seriously or you may get murdered. Laughter is good medicine. Q: What music did you grow up listening to? CO: I was going through a phase listening to Sam Cooke. I'm a loud singer. What I lack in quality and tone, I make up for in volume. Q: Have you seen the Irish musical movie The Commitments about a soul band made of locals?
CO: If you were 13 or 14 years old when The Commitments came out in Ireland, soul music was the only music that mattered.
Q: Did you have your dance moves?
CO: I could bop my head. I have a good head of hair for swaying.
Q: Are you going to be doing any Irish Step moves? CO: Nobody wants to see that. Not even the Irish.
Q: Who was that one Irish step dancer that made it famous? CO: Michael Flatley [founder of Riverdance and Lord of The Dance]. He’s a hell of a beast.
Q: Will this lead to making music for you?
CO: No, but I want to do musicals like Rent. Q: Do you see yourself writing and directing?
CO: Yes, I'm writing a TV show called Moone Boy set in Roscommon, Ireland [a semi-autobiographical takes on a young boy growing up in Boyle, County Roscommon in 1989].
The first season is already on TV. As times goes by I will spend a lot more time removed from the camera, It’s a lot easier. Q: Are you living in LA, Westcommon or an aboriginal home?
CO: They have given me my own township, but I'm in London most of the time.
Q: What’s the next project that you are working on?
CO: A new series called Family Tree [an upcoming mockumentary created by Christopher Guest and Jim Piddock which will premiere on May 12, 2013, on HBO and the British network BBC Two, and the next season of Moone Boy. Q: Do you see a Sapphires 2 movie coming out?
CO: Well, yeah… The Sapphires go to Korea [laughs].
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