Michael Rooker on ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place in 2011.

Actor Michael Rooker appeared at the Egyptian Theatre for the 25th anniversary screening of the film in which he made his acting debut, “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Even with the passing of time, it remains as infinitely disturbing as it did when it was first released. Rooker discussed how he got cast and of what went on during its making. He also told the audience this was the first time he had seen the film since it first was released back in 1986.

Rooker said he started out as a theatre actor in Chicago after graduating from the Goodman School of Drama. At the time casting began for “Henry,” he was in a play called “Sea Marks,” and the director was doing the prosthetics for it. Rooker said he didn’t care if the screenplay was good or bad because he just wanted to do a movie. Doing “Henry” was a test for Rooker to see how working while shooting out of sequence would work for him.

For research, Rooker said he read several books about serial killers which were written by doctors, but he found them to be “mostly crap.” He ended up getting more from the Texas Rangers who interviewed the man this film was more or less based on, Henry Lee Lucas. Also, the director, John McNaughton, asked him and the other actors to write character sketches. Rooker said he did not want to do that though because he did this endlessly in college and was now “sick of writing stuff down.” Instead, he recorded an audio tape of himself speaking in character.

During shooting, Rooker said he tried staying in character all day long. This led to a lot of strange times on set as actors and the crew were not sure if they were talking to him or Henry. McNaughton also got him a room for him to hide out from the actors and crew, and it was filled with mirrors which Rooker later covered up with trash bags. He stayed in the room all day until he was called to set.

The budget for “Henry” was a mere $120,000 according to Rooker, and the guy selling him cigarettes towards the film’s end was the one who financed it. Being an independent film, the filmmakers had no permits and had to hide whenever the cops were in the area. Once they were gone, the crew went right back to filming. They did, however, get busted during a pivotal scene in which Henry is shown throwing a body into the river. While shooting, four police cars came out of nowhere, and one policeman got out and asked, “Are you throwing bodies into the river?”

Once they looked in the bag Rooker was about to hurl over the side, they started laughing uncontrollably and ended up leaving the crew alone.

“Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” opened up a lot of doors for Michael Rooker, and it even scored him a role in John Sayles’ “Eight Men Out.” His terrifying performance is still embedded in the minds of so many who dared to view it either on the silver screen or on their own television sets, and they still cannot get it out of their heads. Since then, he has had a great career which has allowed him to play both good and bad guys with relative ease. Michael still has many great performances left to give, but don’t count on him doing a “Henry” sequel unless he can be convinced it can be turned into a musical.

Joaquin Phoenix on His Brutally Physical Performance in ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

It has been two years since we saw him in “I’m Still Here,” the mockumentary on his alleged retirement from acting and bizarre transformation into a hip-hop artist. Now, thankfully, Joaquin Phoenix has returned to acting in Paul Thomas Anderson’s cinematic triumph “The Master.” Justin Craig of Fox News calls Phoenix’s performance “brutally physical,” and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone says the actor gives “the performance of his career” as Freddie Quell, a deeply disturbed World War II veteran. Just watching the various movie trailers for “The Master” reminds us of how emotionally raw Phoenix can get whenever he is onscreen, and it is both amazing and scary as there is no doubt as to how far he will go in preparation to play a character.

It turns out Anderson had Phoenix in mind when he was writing the role of Freddie, and he admitted to being amazed at Phoenix’s acting abilities and of his discipline while on the set.

“He’s like Daniel Day-Lewis in his level of concentration. He just got in character and stayed there-for three months he didn’t stop. Joaquin is very unpredictable. A lot of the time I didn’t know what he was going to do,” Anderson said.

Phoenix himself only says so much about how his preparation for a role as he compares actors to magicians in that they “don’t talk about how their tricks work, because people would go, ‘Oh, that’s all you do?'” He did say, however, how Anderson set up two cameras for certain scenes between him and Philip Seymour Hoffman who plays the charismatic Lancaster Dodd. This allowed both actors to “be in the moment and not be worried about shooting the one side and then re-lighting and shooting from the other side.” Phoenix described this as making a huge difference for him while portraying Freddie.

There is also the story of how Anderson showed Phoenix a video of a monkey falling asleep and told the actor the monkey was him.

“Paul called me Bubbles on the set,” Phoenix said. “Bubbles was Michael Jackson’s pet monkey, and I was Paul’s pet monkey. The key to Freddie is an animal, just pure id. For the scene where he’s arrested and put in jail and all that, I just watched videos of wild animals that get into suburbia. If you’ve seen video of a deer or a bear that finds its way into suburbia and the cops have to tranquilize it, it seems as if the brain stops working. If they’re cornered, they’ll slam into walls, or one leg tries to go left while the other is going right. Its complete fear and chaos. They can’t control themselves at all. That was the key to Freddie. And Paul certainly called me his pet monkey.”

While Phoenix still says he experiences problems with acting, it does look like he has rediscovered his love for it in “The Master.” Hearing him talk about being an actor shows how much he has struggled with his gift to where he had to rediscover a whole new way of doing it.

“Part of why I was frustrated with acting was because I took it so seriously,” said Phoenix. “I want it to be so good that I get in my own way. It’s like love: when you fall in love, you’re not yourself anymore. You lose control of being natural and showing the beautiful parts of yourself, and all somebody recognizes is this total desperation. And that’s very unattractive. Once I became a total buffoon, it was so liberating.

“I’d see child actors and I’d get so jealous, because they’re just completely wide open. If you could convince them that something frightening was going to happen, they would actually feel terror. I wanted to feel that so badly. I’d just been acting too long, and it had kind of been ruined for me. I wanted to put myself in a situation that would feel brand-new and hopefully inspire a new way of approaching acting. It (“The Master”) did do that for me.”

SOURCES:

Justin Craig, “Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in ‘The Master’ has Oscar written all over it,” Fox News, September 13, 2012.

Peter Travers, “The Master” movie review, Rolling Stone, September 10, 2012.

David Ansen, “Secrets of ‘The Master’,” The Daily Beast, August 20, 2012.

Jessica Winter, “‘The Master’s’ Joaquin Phoenix on Animal Inspirations, Curb Your Enthusiasm and the Pleasures of Discomfort,” Time, September 13, 2012.

Jake Gyllenhaal on His Intense Police Training for ‘End of Watch’

As Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officer Brian Taylor, actor Jake Gyllenhaal finally gets to play a cop for the first time in “End of Watch.” Written and directed by former South Central Los Angeles resident David Ayers, the movie follows two young police officers played by Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena who are marked for death by a notorious cartel after they confiscate money and firearms from them. Although it was shot in 22 days on a budget of just $7 million, Gyllenhaal did not skimp on the details and went through a seriously intense preparation which extended far beyond him simply getting a buzz cut.

Gyllenhaal underwent five months of serious training with the LAPD, and this included going on 12-hour ride-alongs through various crime-ridden neighborhoods. These ride-alongs had a schedule which started at 4:00 p.m. and went through to 4 a.m., and he went on them as much as three times a week.

“On my first ride-along in Inglewood, someone was murdered. We were the second car on the scene,” Gyllenhaal said of his experience. “That was definitely a wakeup call. We were involved in stolen vehicle chases. You see domestic violence, disputes that turn violent. You really see your city differently after that.”

Gyllenhaal admitted to getting a little nervous at times as he and the police rode up on crimes involving domestic disputes, attempted murders and stolen cars. The actor pointed out, however, that he was with some pretty amazing officers who made him feel very protected in such a dangerous environment. In addition, he went to a dojo in the mornings for fight training and also got a lot of exposure to weapons and tactical training as well.

“We did training with live ammunition and training with the SWAT Team a few times a week for six-hour sessions,” Gyllenhaal said. “We had to learn tactic exercises and moving exercises with live ammo and then we did fight training in Echo Park. David Ayer, our director, his best friend has a dojo, so we trained there in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting too. Eventually, after getting the crap beaten out of you and being on the street, you start to actually come into the role and feeling like you really can play the part.”

But one of the most interesting stories regarding his preparation to play Officer Brian Taylor involved him getting shot by a taser.

“I did get tased. We were at the police academy, and they asked us if we wanted to try it out and me being me said, ‘Yeah, of course, yeah!’ Actually, they gave us a choice between pepper spray and being tased,” Gyllenhaal recollected.

When it came to choosing getting tased or pepper sprayed, Gyllenhaal’s decision proved to be a well-informed one:

“Pepper spray is long and painful, it lasts for like 45 minutes and the taser just lasts for five second,” Gyllenhaal said. “But afterwards it’s actually kind of relaxing. After you’ve had thousands and thousands of volts of electricity going through your body.”

It looks like Gyllenhaal’s preparation for “End of Watch” has really paid off as he is getting some of the best reviews of his career. It is clear playing a police officer has had a tremendous impact on him as he talked of the stigma cops constantly deal with when they are out on the street in uniform. He has also gone on to say how the experience of making this movie has completely transformed not just his idea of law enforcement but of Los Angeles as well. When all is said and done, watching this film will do the same for the audience.

SOURCES:

Colin Covert, “Jake Gyllenhaal’s education on the mean streets,” Star Tribune, September 22, 2012.

Zac Shull, “Q&A: Jake Gyllenhaal Talks ‘End of Watch,’ Training with Police & If He Gets Pass for Speeding,” Baller Status, September 21, 2012.

Justin Harp, “Jake Gyllenhaal: ‘I was tased while preparing for End of Watch,'” Digital Spy, September 18, 2012.

‘Hard Candy’ Strikes You Right At The… Well, Just Watch The Movie

Hard Candy” is a low budget psychological thriller released back in 2005, and it was one of the many movies which I rented from Netflix which has gathered far too much dust before I finally took the time to view it. But view this movie I finally did, and shame on me for putting it off for so long. These days, it feels so rare to find a thriller which touches on such controversial issues like pedophilia or the uncertainty of online dating. I mean, do you have any idea who is on the other end of the computer screen? Aren’t you afraid to find out? I’m not saying you shouldn’t go through with it, but after watching this movie, you’ll be going into it with extreme caution even from the waist up.

We see 14-year-old Hayley Stark (Ellen Page, now Elliot Page) meeting up with 32-year-old photographer Jeff Kohlver at a nice modern café. They have been communicating with each other via the internet, but this is the first time they have seen one another in the flesh. After the inevitably awkward introduction, they get comfortable enough to where Hayley goes back with Jeff to his house on the hills. In the process of having so much fun, however, Jeff passes out and awakens to find himself tied to a chair. Hayley has turned the tables and makes her intentions to him very clear; she accuses Jeff of being a sexual predator and is aiming to make him pay for the hideous crimes she believes he has committed.

Watching “Hard Candy” reminded me a lot of Ariel Dorfman’s “Death and The Maiden” which was later made into a Roman Polanski film starring Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley. Weaver ends up interrogating Kingsley because she believes he was the one who viciously tortured and raped her years before. The problem is she only has his voice to go on as she was blindfolded and never saw who it was assaulting her. You spend your time wondering if he is innocent or not, and if Weaver’s character is overreacting.

“Hard Candy” is a lot like “Death and The Maiden” because, until the very end, you are not sure what to believe. Hayley seems pretty damn certain of Jeff’s dark nature, but he is very convincing in proving to her and the audience that she has the wrong guy. But if Jeff really is the bad guy, you have to wonder who is the sicker of the two. Hayley is more than prepared to turn this guy into a late blooming opera singer with quite a falsetto, and her lack of hesitation in doing so suggests she is not mentally balanced.

When these two first appear onscreen, we know as much about them as they about one another, so we are put into their mindset as we try to figure out what their intentions might be. Can they trust one another? Can we? If so, which one should we trust more? “Hard Candy” teases us with the possibilities of what could go wrong with this date. It’s unsettling enough that you have a 30-year-old guy hanging out with a girl who’s not even of legal driving age, but how vulnerable will she allow herself to be around him? Then again, teenagers are not as dumb as many make them out to be.

“Hard Candy” is one of those movies which stayed with me long after I have finished watching it, and there are sequences that play more on what you think you see instead of what you actually see. The effect of those moments is truly unsettling to where I almost would compare “Hard Candy” to Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games.” Furthermore, the two main characters are not just two stock characters that could only exist in the movies; they are real people thrown into a situation which we ourselves hope never to get caught in. The questions it raises of justice, conscience, sickness of the mind, and others on top of them will have you delving into long conversations with those you just witnessed the movie with.

Now a 14-year-old person taking control of an older man and having a surprisingly strong knowledge of medical procedures may feel totally unbelievable as it may seem like something out of a John Grisham novel like “The Client.” This, however, just highlights the brilliance of Page’s performance as Hayley Stark. “Hard Candy” proved to be her big breakthrough in America, and she made this one before “X-Men: The Last Stand” and “Juno.” Page handles all the complexities of this character like a pro, making her seem all the more frighteningly real. The camera locks right into Page’s gazing eyes which show a determination of action she can never be easily pulled away from. She is truly amazing to watch here.

Patrick Wilson essentially plays the more reactive role, and watching him is painful as it truly looks like he is suffering more than he is acting. It’s not surprising to hear he passed out in one very intense scene (trust me, you will know which one I am talking about), and he gives an excellent performance in a role most actors are not necessarily in a hurry to play. Over the past few years, Patrick has given strong performances in movies like “Little Children” and “Watchmen,” but this easily stands out as some of his best work. You remain suspicious of his character throughout, but darn it, seeing him suffer makes you feel for the guy even if you don’t want to.

“Hard Candy” marked the directorial debut of David Slade who made music videos for various artists including Stone Temple Pilots and Tori Amos. I liked how he captured the sterile appearance of Jeff’s post-modern apartment and of how it is forever changed by the vicious actions of these characters. He also maintains a strong level of suspense and tension throughout the movie, something which never seems easy to do these days. Since this film, he since gone on to direct “30 Days of Night” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” but I’m guessing neither have the power this one film has.

Made for around $1 million, “Hard Candy” is a very effective thriller for those willing to plumb its dark psychological depths. The power of suggestion of certain scenes will be more than enough to drive those lacking a strong stomach out of the room, but if you like this kind of movie, it no doubt delivers. It’s also a hell of an acting showcase for Wilson and Page, but even more so for Page who has since gone on to a great acting career. The movie leaves its mark on your consciousness and will stay with you long after the credits are done. There are only so many movies I can say that about these days.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Philip Seymour Hoffman Talks About Portraying ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012. Philip, you are still missed.

Oscar winner Philip Seymour Hoffman remains one of the best character actors in movies today, and his role as Lancaster Dodd in “The Master” is yet another brilliant performance on his never-ending resume. The movie reunites Hoffman with filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson who has cast him in five of his six movies. From the gay and painfully timid boom mike operator in “Boogie Nights” to the infinitely angry mattress store own Dean Trumbell from “Punch-Drunk Love,” Hoffman has gone from playing one unique character to portraying one who is the complete opposite, and makes one wonder how he goes about preparing to play each role he takes on.

In an interview with Rolling Stone film critic Peter Travers, Hoffman made it clear he was not out to turn Lancaster into some sort of bizarre human being with scary ideas.

“The thing is that this character needs to be as accessible as possible,” Hoffman said. “That when you meet him in the film and then when you get to know him in the film that you don’t judge him so much. I think we (he and Anderson) succeeded in that you actually take him in. He’s a real person, and you can almost see how he’s brought so many people close to him or been so successful. You could see how he can function in the world. You know he’s not too idiosyncratic or too eccentric even. He’s full of passion for his ideas, and some of his ideas are really good ones.”

Hoffman said it was those things he and Anderson wanted to concentrate on as opposed to the “oddity” of the character. When it came to Lancaster Dodd, he never looked at him as the head of a cult or even a religion. In his mind, the character was really the leader of a movement and not a fraudulent person.

Of course, much has been said about how “The Master” was inspired by L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology to where many are already nauseated at hearing this said over and over. When talking to the Wall Street Journal’s Rachel Dodes, Hoffman tried to clear up this issue as best he could:

“The idea that L. Ron Hubbard and that movement (Scientology) was the basis for some story in the film is accurate, but it’s really not a film about that, so it isn’t accurate enough for me to play L. Ron Hubbard. And so, I didn’t,” Hoffman said. “It wasn’t enough of that kind of story to do that. So, I wanted to think about other people because it was a fictional thing and the character is a very fictional character. So, I thought about other people who had that kind of charisma and moved people and people followed them, and what that meant for me. I steered clear of anything having to do with ‘The L. Ron Hubbard Story’ because it’s too specific and the film wasn’t going to support that, so I thought it would be confusing.”

From there, Hoffman was a bit cryptic as to what individuals he based Lancaster Dodd on. Dodes told him she heard Orson Welles was an inspiration for this role, but Hoffman said he never tried to emulate the “Citizen Kane” actor and director in “The Master.”

“It’s like when you are thinking about something, a lot of ideas go through your head, and references go through your head but ultimately you are just looking for something in yourself. There are certain behaviors, the way people sound. I didn’t really try to play anybody if that’s what you’re looking for.”

Like his co-stars Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, Philip Seymour Hoffman is getting serious Oscar consideration for work in “The Master.” The fact he already has one Academy Award for “Capote” doesn’t seem to matter to anybody because the general feeling is he will get a second one at some point in the near future. Whether he does or does not, it is for certain we can expect many more great performances from this actor as his attention to character remains impeccable.

SOURCES:

Peter Travers, “Philip Seymour Hoffman on New Film, ‘The Master’,” ABC News, September 13, 2012.

Rachel Dodes, “‘The Master’ Star Philip Seymour Hoffman: ‘It’s Not a Scientology Movie’,” Wall Street Journal, September 7, 2012.

Amy Adams Shows a Menacing Side in ‘The Master’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2012.

While Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman are getting some of the biggest raves of their career for their work in “The Master,” Amy Adams proves to every bit as good as Peggy Dodd, the wife to Hoffman’s charismatic leader of “The Cause.” From the outset, this looks like yet another role where Adams gets to be all sweet, but as Peggy, she proves to be tough and hotly determined to further her husband’s work and silence every single doubter who ridicules his beliefs. While the male characters revel in the effect they have on others, it is Peggy who exerts the most control over the people around her.

Peggy has been described by many as being a Lady Macbeth-like character as she is able to manipulate her husband into doing things he might not otherwise do. That this character cannot be mistaken for an easy pushover appealed greatly to Adams as well as the challenge of acting against Hoffman, whom she adores.

“It was fun to get to go toe-to-toe with him as a person of power,” Adams said. “In some past roles I’ve been a bit more submissive, so it was great to get to overpower Phillip in ‘The Master’ – because that’s the only time that’s ever going to happen in my life.”

Still, the role proved to be emotionally demanding for Adams, and she talked with Stephen Schaefer of the Boston Herald about why this was the case:

“I had to lose myself in a character to which any similarities I had were not similarities that I want to bring out of myself,” Adams remarked. “To lose myself in a character like that, well, it doesn’t feel as good at the end of the day. Let’s just put it that way.”

Of all the characters in “The Master,” Peggy proves to be the most mysterious as we never get much of a backstory on her or discover how she first met Lancaster Dodd (Hoffman’s character). In an interview with Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Adams explained how she went about playing Peggy and of what she brought to the role:

`”I tend to try to fill in the blanks as much as possible for myself,” Adams said. “One of the things that I really thought about was a long time ago I read a book called ‘The Feminine Mystique.’ In ‘The Feminine Mystique’ she (author Betty Friedan) talked a lot about women’s roles in World War II and sort of how that translated post-World War II. Their roles were a little less traditional than they’d been before, and then when the men came back, they sort of went into the background again. And I saw my character as somebody who was very focused on education, was very educated, very smart, but given the climate, felt like she was more powerful behind a man than in front of a man.”

Adams also made clear how Peggy is a true believer and not a blind follower like some might suspect her of being. Throughout the movie, Peggy does see the positive outcome of her husband’s philosophy, and she defends it without question. This leads her to be very hard on Phoenix’s character of Freddie Quell whose doubts and violent ways typically get the best of him.

While Amy Adams may still seem to us like America’s sweetheart, she has defied that image to give us some hard-edged characters like the one she played in “The Fighter.” “The Master” is the latest example of just how far her range as an actress goes, and hearing her talk about the similarities between her and Peggy shows there is more to her than her image suggests:

“I can be really steely, maybe not to such effect, but I’m definitely not always warm and cuddly and sunshine and lollipops, so it’s nice to sometimes get to bring that to a role. Although I do love playing characters with a sunny disposition, it just takes a little bit more energy some days.”

SOURCES:

Stephen Schaefer, “Amy Adams’ acting skills put to test by ‘Curve,’ ‘Master’,” Boston Herald, September 19, 2012.

Justin Harp, “‘The Master’ Amy Adams: ‘I adore Philip Seymour Hoffman’,” Digital Spy, September 19, 2012.

Scott Simon, “Amy Adams: A Steely Wife Stands Behind ‘The Master’,” NPR Weekend Edition, September 15, 2012.

Nick Nolte and Paul Mazursky on Mike the Dog from ‘Down and Out in Beverly Hills’

DOWN AND OUT IN BEVERLY HILLS, Nick Nolte, Mike the dog, 1986, on all fours

WRITER’S NOTE: As the first paragraph states, this article was written back in 2011.

As great as Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfuss and Bette Midler were in Paul Mazursky’s “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” they were almost completely upstaged by Mike the Dog. If there was ever an animal in movie history that deserved an Oscar, it was Mike. Forget Benji, Rin Tin Tin, and Lassie, Mike had them all beat in portraying the nasty and incredibly neurotic Scottish border collie Matisse. His reactions to his owners, the Whiteman family, and his affection for Nolte’s character of Jerry Baskin made him as much a character as anyone else in this classic comedy. Mazursky and Nolte were enthusiastic in telling stories about Mike when they appeared at the Aero Theatre on August 14, 2011 for this movie’s 25th anniversary screening.

One memorable scene had Nolte on his knees trying to get Matisse to eat his dog food by eating it with him. Determined to see this through, Nolte said he went to a nearby grocery store and bought all kinds of dog food, mostly of the meat variety. When he started dispensing it into different bowls, however, he noticed that to the side there were other dog bowls filled with peas and corn. Nolte went up to Mike’s trainer, Clint Rowe, and asked why these bowls were out. To this, Rowe replied, “Mike’s a vegetarian.”

OOPS!!!

Mazursky had even more stories to tell about Mike and the big star he was. Reminiscing about an Air France jet he flew on to Europe, he saw Mike sitting in first class and reading a magazine (he didn’t remember which one). People ended up making their way up to first class just to see him. Things got even more bizarre when Mazursky got off the plane as there were photographers out in full force at the gate. Mazursky said he greeted them kindly, but they instead went right past him to shoot pictures of Mike.

Things eventually reached a final straw when Mazursky went up to his hotel room and found he was not in room 704, but 804. Guess who was there to greet him when he opened the door? That’s right, Mike. At this point, Mazursky looked him dead in the eye and said, “Out!”

Mike complied and ran off.

Mike went on to play Matisse in the short-lived TV version of “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and also appeared in various commercials. He has since passed away and is hanging out with Spuds McKenzie and the Taco Bell Chihuahua in doggie heaven. Still, his talent has never been lost on anyone who watched him in the 1986 comedy, let alone those who helped make it. Even during dallies, film editor Richard Halsey kept telling Mazursky:

“That fucking dog is stealing the movie!”

Elizabeth Olsen on Playing Zibby in ‘Liberal Arts’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2012.

After playing an escapee from an abusive cult in “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and a young woman terrorized at her vacation home in “Silent House,” actress Elizabeth Olsen finally gets to lighten up a bit in the comedy drama “Liberal Arts.” In the movie, she plays Zibby, a 19-year-old college student who ends up falling for 35-year-old college admissions officer Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor, who also wrote and directed it) over their love of literature. Critics have called Olsen’s performance in “Liberal Arts” enchanting, radiant and luminous.

Having seen Radnor’s last directorial effort “Happythankyoumoreplease” which she really enjoyed; Olsen was very interested in working with him on “Liberal Arts.” Her audition for him consisted of reading through every single scene their characters had together in the movie. She recalled it being a lot of fun to “just sit on the floor and read through the scenes with him,” and she really liked the way he wrote Zibby’s dialogue.

For Olsen, the role of Zibby offered a nice change of pace as she had just finished her third psychological thriller. In this movie, she got to play a character who is wise beyond her years and excited about being alive. It also gave her the opportunity to play someone whom she felt was closer to who she was.

“I just always wanted to rush things, grow up sooner, couldn’t understand why someone older couldn’t make a change,” said Olsen. “There’s something really honest and great about her. Also, I wanted to say those words really badly. The words on the page were so much fun to say out loud. That’s a really simple thing to say about wanting to do a script, but I feel like that rarely happens.”

Olsen herself is still a college student at New York University, and she still has a couple of more classes to go before she graduates. Like Zibby she shares a love of learning, and this love came to inform her character deeply. To hear her talk, Olsen has always enjoyed reading literature like Zibby does.

“I went to a really great high school and I took a few AP classes in literature and language and things like that,” Olsen said. “The only type of writing I like to do or enjoy doing is academic writing, so I’m already inherently that type of person. I’ll still remember that my senior year of high school I wrote an essay on Joseph Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’ that I’m still proud of to this day, so I’m already kind of a nerd when it comes to literature and theory. I wish I could have more of that in life, but I don’t because I’m always reading scripts or things to prepare for movies when I’m reading.”

Elizabeth Olsen not only has college graduation to look forward to in the near future, but she also has some exciting movies in store for her including Spike Lee’s remake of “Oldboy.” She has given us a number of wonderful performances so far and, after watching “Liberal Arts,” it is clear she still has many more to give.

SOURCES:

Matt Joseph, “Interview with Elizabeth Olsen on Liberal Arts,” We Got This Covered, September 13, 2012.

Christopher Rosen, “Josh Radnor & Elizabeth Olsen on ‘Liberal Arts’ & Why Being Earnest Is OK,” Huffington Post, September 12, 2012.

Adam Chitwood, “Elizabeth Olsen Talks LIBERAL ARTS, Reading as Entertainment vs. Enrichment, and More; Reveals Spike Lee’s OLDBOY Starts Filming Next Month,” Collider, September 11, 2012.

Cicely Tyson on Playing Nana Mama in ‘Alex Cross’

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a press day which took place back in 2012. RIP Cicely.

The great Cicely Tyson has worked only so much in movies over the years as she is strongly determined to play only strong and positive images of African-American women. In Rob Cohen’s “Alex Cross,” she finds a very strong character in Regina “Nana Mama” Cross, Alex’s grandmother who helps keeps his children in line when he’s not around. At a press conference which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Tyson explained why she took on this particular role.

Upon meeting James Patterson, author of the Alex Cross novels, he said out loud “we finally found Nana Mama.” Watching her in “Alex Cross” makes this crystal clear to those who have read Patterson’s books. While Nana is Alex’s grandmother, she’s really more of a mother to him as we learn how he lost both his parents at an early age.

When asked if she would describe Nana as feisty or cantankerous, Tyson said “she’s all of that and more.” But she also sees the character first and foremost as being a mother.

Cicely Tyson: To me it is the most important feature in her personality. Then add to that fact that if anything ever happened to her son, she would not only be grandmother but mother to his children. So, I was torn between his love for the work that he chose and the fact that any day he could not come home to me or his children. So that was extremely difficult for me.

It is the danger of Alex’s work which leaves Nana Mama is constantly on edge because there’s always the possibility he won’t come home one day. Tyson said Nana knows the facts of how not only Alex’s life is in danger, but also her own and his children’s.

Tyson had previously worked with Perry on several of his movies, and when Cohen offered her the role, she told him anything with Perry interested her greatly. When asked what it was like working with him on “Alex Cross,” she talked of how he heard him say time and time again, “I can’t believe I’m in a scene with Cicely Tyson,” and he at one point told Cohen he didn’t know how to act around her. In turn, she responded that she could believe she was doing a scene with Perry.

Cicely Tyson: We both had the same anxieties about working in this particular capacity with each other.

When it comes to choosing roles, Tyson made it clear she never takes anything offered to her at face value.

Cicely Tyson: I have always maintained one way of selecting a role that I play, and it’s through reading the script. If my skin tingles, I know it’s for me, and if my stomach churns it’s a pass. That’s my way of deciding.

When asked what made her skin tingle about playing Mama Nana in “Alex Cross,” Tyson said it was working with Perry.

Tyson said she would definitely love to reprise the role of Mama Nana if “Alex Cross” is successful enough to generate a sequel. Despite its somewhat middling opening weekend at the box office, a follow up does look to be in the works with Perry returning as Alex. Tyson herself looks to work for as long as she is able to, but did she admit there is a certain play she wants to do. Now she wouldn’t say which play, but she is intent on retiring once she does it. While she never expected this opportunity to happen, it is now a possibility she will do this play sometime next year.

From “Sounder” to “Roots” to “Alex Cross,” Cicely Tyson has given us one unforgettable performance after another. Here’s hoping she doesn’t retire just yet.

‘The Rules of Attraction’ Invites You to Look Beneath Its Seedy Surface

I was flipping through what was available to watch on cable one day. I rarely go there unless there is a television show involved. There were no good horror movies on, and I was hoping there would be, but then I came across one called “The Rules of Attraction.” Based on the novel of the same name by Bret Easton Ellis, it was written for the screen and directed by Roger Avary, the same filmmaker who directed a kick ass heist movie named “Killing Zoe.” While this one is not quite as good as “Killing Zoe,” it has a number of memorable moments and takes a lot of risks which many films don’t often bother to.

“The Rules of Attraction” ensnares the audience in a world of spoiled rotten brats who have been handed everything to them on a silver platter. Witness their insane antics as they spend their time getting high and hopelessly inebriated at endless parties which take place at their preppy New England college. Obviously, they don’t seem to realize they are not superhuman, nor do they care about what will happen to their shallow souls assuming they ever survive their infinite decadence. These selfish and spoiled characters are a common fixture of the Ellis’ work, and he has since proclaimed this film to be the best adaptation of any of his novels.

While I want to despise these characters for what they do to others and themselves, both Ellis and Avery show their inescapable humanity and consciousness which lies not all that far beneath the surface, and each of them desperately wants to open themselves up to another they cannot stop thinking about. It’s this humanity which gives “The Rules of Attraction” another dimension, and it kept me from being completely repelled by all the characters’ shenanigans. As much as you want to see these young adults get their just desserts, none of them really deserve the severe consequences they end up receiving.

This film certainly offered many young actors a much-desired opportunity to shed their nice or squeaky-clean images for something completely opposite. We have actors here from “Dawson’s Creek” and “7th Heaven” who are clearly desperate to break from the shackles of their all-too-polite characters before they end up becoming permanently inseparable from them. It is not surprise they want to be seen as more adult than their ages would suggest as no one ever acts their age. Then again, who wants to?

I do, however, have to be honest and say Fred Savage, who plays a junkie named Marc, feels a bit out of place here. Please don’t get me wrong; he has a great cameo here, but the image of him as Kevin Arnold from “The Wonder Years” is impossible to wipe from my conscious mind. While watching him inject something lethal into his veins, all I could think of was him getting back together with Winnie Cooper. Still, Savage is always welcome to prove to me there is far more to him than that classic show in the future.  

For me, the biggest surprise of “The Rules of Attraction” was James Van Der Beek who plays Sean Bateman, a drug dealer and distant relative of Patrick Bateman from “American Psycho.” Like the other characters, Sean is selfish, greedy and more worried about his own problems than anyone else’s. Throughout, Sean presents himself as an opportunist who preys on the weaknesses of others, but Van Der Beek makes you see him as someone desperately longing for something pure and someone to connect with in a world where everyone seems more content living in their own tiny bubble.

Van Der Beek was very believable in this role to me, and there was nothing of Dawson to be found throughout. Looking back, I bet he was just dying to play a character like this so he could shatter the image which could have forever defined him to millions.

I imagine this was the same case with Jessica Biel of “7th Heaven” fame. She has more than shed whatever nice girl image she had from that show, and I bet this film was her first real opportunity to do so. Biel plays Lara Holleran, roommate to Lauren Hynde (Shannyn Sossaman) whom shares a lot of experiences with, including snorting cocaine until their noses bleed (“rusty pipes!”). Lara comes off as the most shamelessly selfish character in this film as she manipulates both the men and women around her to get what she wants. Her comeuppance near the end was richly deserved and almost had me cheering in my apartment.

Shannyn Sossaman portrays perhaps the purest character in all of “The Rules of Attraction” in Lauren Hynde. Lauren is a virgin, and we see her constantly looking through a book with pictures of venereal diseases perhaps to protect herself by reminding herself of the consequences which could befall her if she does not play it safe. Sossaman is a beauty to behold but her beauty is toned down here to make her seem a bit more ordinary, and it works effectively in her performance.

And then there is also Paul Denton, played by Ian Somerhalder, a gay man more concerned about a date he has, or thinks he does, with Sean to where a gay friend overdosing on drugs is more of annoyance than a genuine concern for him. Paul thinks he knows how Sean feels about him, and he cannot get him out of his mind. But as selfish as Paul may be, to see him get his heart broken in two is very sad, and Somerhalder makes his heartbreak all the more vivid.

When it comes down to it, “The Rules of Attraction” is essentially a love triangle of obsession as we watch several characters desperately pine for another, and yet the one they are pinning is instead more interested in someone else. In an atmosphere filled with shallow pursuits, all of them want something purer, more honest and real than why they have already been given, and there is something about this which I cannot help but relate to. That they may end up never getting what they want, and I found myself terrified by this realization. In the end, they may have to reevaluate where they are in their lives where they can go from here.

If this film proves anything the most strongly, it is this: Unrequited love is a bitch! When you are young, those painful emotions can feel far too epic.

Avary hides no taboos here as there are drugs, drinking, sex, date rape, suicide, attempted suicide, etc. He uses a lot of split screens which are effective in separating different moods in the same scene. One moment has him bringing the split screens for Sean Bateman and Lauren Hynde together, and it is brilliantly seamless to where I would love to know how the filmmakers accomplished it.

I also have to say “The Rules of Attraction” contains one of the most emotionally devastating suicide scenes I have ever witnessed in a motion picture. As a result, I will never listen to the Harry Nilsson song “Without You” ever again without thinking of this scene. Seriously, it proves to be as scaring a scene as watching that horse drown in “The Neverending Story.”

The one thing Avary ends up overdoing here is the time reversal effect. He rewinds the film at given moments to get to another point or character in the same setting, and these moments end up going on for too long. After a while, part of me was saying, “ALRIGHT! WE GET THE POINT ALREADY!”

“The Rules of Attraction” received mostly mixed reviews upon its release back in 2002, and I can certainly understand why. People reacted negatively to the characters here, and it is true many of them have few, if any, redeeming values. Then again, do characters need to be likable in order for a film to work effectively? I think not. At the very least, we come to understand their desperate yearnings to where we cannot help but see ourselves in them. That’s why I think the movie works as it never supplies us with one-dimensional characters, but instead with ones we find ourselves relating to even if we are not quick to do so. Seriously, I can sum up the frustrations of the characters with the title of a Nine Inch Nails song, “I just want something I can never have. “

If I have made “The Rules of Attraction” sound like the average Lars Von Trier depression extravaganza, I apologize. While this is essentially a black comedy with some very funny moments, it does contain some very serious scenes which have burned into my memory. Granted, the scene with the two gay men dancing on the bed to George Michael’s “Faith” is a big highlight as well as the restaurant scene which follows it, but this movie is an acquired taste and is not about to appeal to a mainstream audience. But if you have the stomach for it and are into the black comedy, you cannot avoid or easily dismiss this particular motion picture.

It’s interesting to watch this movie after having watched “The Sopranos” series finale. Like that last episode, this movie comes to an abrupt stop. We will never know what happens to these characters when, and if, they ever leave college. Then again, what more is there to say?

* * * out of * * * *