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.

Exclusive Interview with Dylan McTee About ‘Wrong Turn’

The latest “Wrong Turn” installment is now available for all to watch, but while some of the filmmakers remain the same, almost everything else has changed. Directed by Mike P. Nelson, this film acts as a reboot of the “Wrong Turn” franchise as we follow a bunch of young adults who are going on a hiking trip up in Virginia. But instead of running into bloodthirsty cannibals, they run into a clan of self-sufficient people who have lived in the mountains for years and do not take kindly to outsiders. What results may seem like another horror slasher extravaganza, but unlike its predecessors, it is grounded in a reality we all know and understand, and this makes this particular reboot stand out in the overcrowded horror genre.

Among the young adults in the cast is Dylan McTee who portrays Adam Lucas, the loudmouth jerk of the group who never knows when to shut his mouth. But while Adam may sound like the typical clichéd you find in the average horror film, McTee invest this character with intelligence, thoughtfulness and a physicality which is on full display throughout. Born in Los Angeles, California and a graduate of USC, he played Wyatt Long in the CW show “Roswell: New Mexico,” and he also co-starred in “The Wind,” a horror film which belongs on my “Underseen Movies” list.

I spoke with Dylan about the making of “Wrong Turn” and how it differs from the average film, and we also discussed other things like training at USC and why he is so inspired by Daniel Day Lewis’ acting.  

Ben Kenber: How familiar were you with the “Wrong Turn” franchise before you got cast in this reboot?

Dylan McTee: I was, and part of the reason why I wanted to do it was because it (the first “Wrong Turn” film) was one of the first horror movies I ever saw. As a kid, I remember watching it with my older brother who had, obviously without my parents knowing, had turned it on. It scared the shit out of me for months and probably messed up my brain for maybe the good, right? Because I’m in the new one (laughs).

BK: I had talked to Adrian Favela recently and he said he also saw it when he was a kid and it messed him up pretty good.

DM: Yeah. I think a lot of us were the same age as kids when the first film came out, so we were given a too early exposure to it.

BK: Well, its better seeing the original “Wrong Turn” at a young age than the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

DM: Oh yeah, that was on too. I saw all of them. I watched “The Exorcist” when I was way too young. Way too young.

BK: As the movie goes on, we learn Adam and the other young adults are not all they appear to be and prove to be more intelligent than they appear on the surface. They are more complex than I expected. Did this aspect appeal to you?

DM: Yeah, of course. Certainly, there are archetypes. This isn’t like a character drama or anything. This is still a pretty classic horror slasher film, but you are very right. I play Adam who is definitely the difficult one and why I wanted to play him was because of the fact that he is the guy who, whether or not it is socially right to do so, says the truth or at least what he believes to be the truth, and he’s not afraid to fight about it. That’s sort of what the film is about. At its heart it’s a fun, fun slasher just for you to have fun while watching, but it is also sort of about social issues that we have today like division. I think that we’re all quick to judge, and in the universe of this film that is exactly what gets you killed. I think that was really fun to explore.

BK: In other interviews, you have said you are attracted to very challenging roles which explore the darker side of humanity, and we definitely get to see Adam’s dark side when he is forced to defend himself in the worst way possible. What was it like portraying that?

DM: That’s so true. I love playing the darker side of humanity for sure, just like playing the joy and all that. Adam was a particularly interesting character because he is so erratic. You don’t really quite know what’s going to happen next to him. He is deeply selfish and violent, and then he is caring and comforting, and then he lies and then he tells the truth, and to me that’s exciting when you don’t know what’s going to happen next with someone. But at the end of the day, obviously it can be argued that he is not the best person. I love to think there is a part in all of us that is deeply just mental and is willing to fight and violently fight for those assumptions we have of others. That’s, in my opinion, the lesson. It’s the weaker route to take. It’s harder to take a step back and say, well where are these people actually coming from? Where am I coming from? It’s much easier to just assume something about someone, and then that’s the job, right? At least my job in this film was to show this aspect of humanity which unfortunately we all have.

BK: Yes, we do make assumptions about people even when we shouldn’t, and this is what gets the characters in trouble.

DM: Yeah, so I really like that (Alan B.) McElroy added that. He is also the screenwriter of the original film, and I am glad that he brought that in.

BK: McElroy also was the screenwriter of “Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers.”

DM: That’s right! Oh my god, I forgot about that.

BK: It must be nice to work with writers and filmmakers like McElroy who are working to freshen up the genre if only by a little bit.

DM: Yeah. This is my third film ever, so I am not going to pretend like I’m some sort of veteran. In many ways I’m starting out, but this was definitely a different experience and definitely my first experience where I realized the horror genre has really changed. I find the audiences are more sophisticated than ever before. If you are going to go about rebooting something that people like, you need to push the envelope. Sure, there’s gonna be people who are upset that maybe Three Finger is not in this iteration, but I just really respect the fact that we just did something no one is expecting really. I think that’s fun to watch, and to me that’s worth it.

BK: Another movie you were in which I really liked was “The Wind.”

DM: That was a cool movie.

BK: That’s kind of a wilderness movie as well. Were there any similarities for you in filming “The Wind” and “Wrong Turn?”

DM: Oh god, they were so different. I had a fairly small part in “The Wind,” but the characters are just opposites. In “The Wind” I was a very subdued and quiet, late 1800’s city boy. In this one, I was, well, a very violent, fighting city boy, so there you go. They were both city boys (laughs). “The Wind” was very quiet, eerily so. This one is more running and trying to solve problems and action and movement and then just fighting for survival. So (they are) very different films even though they are in the same genre. But I love Emma (Tammi) and Caitlin (Gerard). They were just genius.

BK: Speaking of running and jumping, you and the rest of the cast did a lot of that in “Wrong Turn.” How physically demanding was shooting this movie for you?

DM: Incredibly. In any film, it’s how ever much you want to put in it, and for me, at least in my experience, I put in a lot. I want it to be authentic as possible, and really at the end of the day the only way to do that is just to do it. Obviously, we followed all of the safety protocols, but I was really dragged by a chain and I really fell down a hill. I am fairly equipped just from my own experience. I am a black belt in karate, I like fight choreography, I love all that stuff. It was actually something I looked for. So, for me at least, it was a huge part of the attraction to this role and this film really.

BK: I read that you studied martial arts. Which of them would you say you are proficient?

DM: Just Kenpo, a Japanese karate, and then I also do boxing and obviously some stage combat which is very like, I’m a thespian! (Laughs) But that’s not real fighting. And then at school I got in fights, but I’m not like an MMA guy. That would be cool. Maybe I will do that for the next role.

BK: You have said you are very inspired by the acting of Daniel Day Lewis. Is there any specific performance of his which you really like?

DM: One that really hit me was “In the Name of the Father.” There’s a scene where he’s talking to his dad in a jail cell, and just the way in which he lets it rip… He’s not afraid to look ugly. That’s just something I look up to. He just gives his heart and soul, and that’s what we want to watch. That’s so inspiring to me.

BK: Yes. There are many actors out there who just want to look cool onscreen, and then there are those who are more than prepared to dirty themselves up if the role calls for it.

DM: Yeah, totally. I think most of the actors that reach the top or the ones I look up to are aware of the fact that they are servants. It’s not about me. We are here to serve the story and to represent something that someone maybe is actually watching and saying, that’s me. There is a huge responsibility to acting in my opinion.

BK: You trained at University of Sothern California (USC). What classes did you benefit most from as an actor there?

DM: My favorite class was dialects. The fact that you could find movement and bring that to the voice and how you can watch videos of people and all the research involved of finding a certain specific southern accent or Northern Irish or Southern Irish or New York or Bronx and all these different things and just how you can bring it into your body. That was huge for me and so much fun. I definitely want to do more of that character stuff. I love that element of acting.

“Wrong Turn” is now available on VOD, Digital, DVD and Blu-ray. You horror fans be sure to check it out!

Dave Bautista on Playing Brass Body in ‘The Man with the Iron Fists’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2012.

David Bautista has made a big name for himself during his time in World Wrestling Entertainment where he became a six-time world champion. Like many major athletes, he has since turned his attention to acting, and he gets one of his biggest roles in RZA’s “The Man with the Iron Fists” in which he plays Brass Body, one of the main antagonists and a mercenary who can turn his body into metal. This makes him almost completely invulnerable; much like Bautista seemed like whenever he was in the ring.

While at a press conference for “The Man with the Iron Fists” which took place at the House of Blues in Los Angeles, Bautista talked about what it was like making the movie. Co-starring alongside him was Cung Le who plays Bronze Lion and was also at one point a major kickboxing champion. Bautista was asked what it was like working with Le and if he had ever fought with him “in the cage.”

Dave Bautista: I never fought with him, but we actually trained a lot together in China (where the movie was made). I wish we had some scenes together. I’m determined in my life to do a movie with Cung Le just so I can get that fight scene with him just because he’s so dynamic and so intense. So, we never fought together but I picked up a lot of good things from him.

Bautista said he accepted the role of Brass Body without even reading the script and that the character originally only had one or two lines as it was more of a physical role. This soon changed once he was cast. The biggest challenge for him, however, was filming the fight scene between Brass Body and Blacksmith who is played by star and director RZA.

Dave Bautista: The fight scene itself took days and days and it was just a pain in the ass. It was cold, it was brutal, and RZA had those damn iron fists on and they were just killing my arms because he was hitting me. I had scratches and I was bleeding. We actually started the fight scene a few days after I arrived in China, and then we had to go back to it at the end and finish it because it was so drawn out. The two characters (the Blacksmith and Brass Body) were so strong and kind of invincible that we really didn’t know where to go with the fight scene. We really went without a plan and thought we could wing it and ad-lib and come up with stuff here and there, so that was really a challenge in itself.

One of Brass Body’s other big scenes comes when he viciously attacks one of the female characters, and Bautista said shooting it was “awkward.” He described himself as a “passive” person especially when it comes to women, and since this was essentially a “rape and murder scene,” it became very uncomfortable for him to do.

Dave Bautista: I kept coming out of character because my first instinct was to tell the actress, are you okay? But she actually made it a lot of fun for me because I had this little thong on and I was freezing because the set wasn’t heated. Even when I picked her up, I didn’t know where to touch her, so I picked her up and threw her over my shoulder and I’m trying not to grope her because I don’t want to make her uncomfortable. Then RZA stepped in and said ‘you gotta make it look more real. Grab her over her ass because it’ll help her out because it will cover some of her stuff up.

The actress Bautista was working with thanked him for doing her that favor.

In addition to wrestling, Bautista is also a skilled mixed martial arts fighter. The first martial art he learned was Kali which comes from the Philippines and emphasizes weapons-based fighting with sticks, knives and other weapons. When asked if he tried to influence his fighting style in this movie, Bautista replied he did to a certain extent but that it only went so far.

Dave Bautista: The stuff that we were doing just didn’t translate as well as we thought it would on film, so we had to switch it up a lot and bring Corey Yuen (the movie’s fight choreographer) in to help us through this. We wanted this to look like a traditional kung fu fight movie especially with the characters being so strong, but I did utilize a little bit of my Kali.

Those who have seen “The Man with the Iron Fists” can agree Bautista is perfectly cast as Brass Body as he truly comes off as a badass who cannot easily be defeated. When asked if he shares any similarities to his character and if he could offer advice to those of us who are not as athletically inclined as he is, Bautista’s response was actually quite surprising.

Dave Bautista: I never felt like I was invincible. Throughout my whole life I always felt like I was an underdog. It’s kind of hard to relate to a kung fu action hero. I was trying to stay in character to where he (Brass Body) would always feel invincible and how he would react when he realized he wasn’t invincible and started to break down. I tried to get that in my head and I tried to make it come out on film, but not being the best actor made it kind of a challenge for me. I wouldn’t be the best person to give advice on how to be invincible because I’ve never felt that way. Everything’s a challenge for me, but I’m a hard worker.

Before he concluded his time with us, Bautista was asked what his dream role is.

Dave Bautista: I hate to sound cliché but I’ve always wanted to do a vampire movie. Any kind of superhero stuff, that’s what I’m a fan of. I wouldn’t mind doing that, I just don’t see myself as a leading man type character. I like the drama; I just don’t know if I fit that type of role. But that’s the kind of stuff I like to watch though.

Jim Kirkwood, An Extraordinary Mentor to Many

WRITER’S NOTE: I wrote this article exactly ten years ago in the year 2010.

It was just another day at the office for me, staring at a computer and taking calls, when I got a message from my good friend Shane whom I hadn’t seen for a while. He informed me our acting mentor from Diablo Valley College, Jim Kirkwood, had passed away at 5 a.m. this morning. For the past year or so, Jim had been fighting cancer and had to endure an operation to remove a tumor which lasted several hours. Hearing this news was a blow to me and everyone else who had the unique privilege of having taken an acting class taught by him.

Right now, my heart feels so heavy and I am wondering why tears are not coming out of my eyes. I want to feel this loss fully for Jim had such a profound effect on my life and so many others in Northern California. For many years he was an acting teacher at Diablo Valley College, and I enrolled in several of his classes during my time there before I transferred to the University of California at Irvine. Much had been said about him and how hard it was to get into his classes, and that he had studied with some of the greatest acting teachers including Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler. For those truly serious about acting, you could not pass up any course he taught.

When it came to my first class with Jim, I was nervous to say the least. The man was treated like a legend in the area, and it felt incredibly intimidating to be in his presence. Giving out grades was never a priority for him, and his one rule which stood out among others was if you missed three of his classes without informing him as to why, you were out. This was back in the day when those strict guidelines actually unnerved me.

Anyway, I came to this new place of learning straight out of high school where I did many plays and considered myself a really good actor. Of course, the whole thing about acting back then is that when you’re onstage and you have nothing to say, get off. That first day with Jim, he immediately gave you a sense of what acting was really about. It was about living in the moment, acting with purpose and having an objective in mind. You could not think too much about the outcome of the scene you’re in because it would just take away from the thing you are fighting for. Every character has something to go for, and this is what empowers the actor through the entire show. Even when you are onstage and have nothing to say, he made you see listening is a big part of performing as well.

Among the lessons I remember the most from his classes was when he explained you did not need to have preconceived ideas of how to play a scene or say a line. It was never about pushing for some grand emotion which spelled out award-winning to the audience; it was about letting the emotion come to you while you pursue your objective. To just deliver a line in a preconceived way would just kill the moment. You would just come across as lifeless and vacant, and your scene partner would suffer as a result.

Jim demonstrated the danger of preconceiving what you will do beforehand by giving different readings of the line “get the hell out of here!” The first one was angry, the next was dismissive, the one after that had him laughing like he was talking to a friend, I think he made it look like he was crying in another and so on. By the end, everyone in the class including myself were laughing because he made it all look ridiculous, and it was. By getting stuck in this way of acting, you were never really connected to the scene or those you are working with onstage.

Sooner or later, we came to see that we get our performance from the other actor in the scene. While this became more abundantly clear to me years later while I was a student at Second City, this lesson really originated in Jim’s classes. There was no “me, me, me, me, me, me” in his class because we were all put on the same level. No one was necessarily better than the other, so no prima donnas were ever present (thank goodness for that by the way).

For those new to Jim’s classes, his regimen was to break us down and get rid of all those high school emoting habits many of us had been stuck with for far too long. He could be brutally honest with you, but it was never in a Simon Cowell kind of way (I would have dropped out of his class were it the case). He wanted you to see what you did wrong and how you could improve on it for next time. Feelings did get hurt from time to time and our self-confidence took several direct hits at what seemed like point blank range, but it was never done out of spite or cold-heartedness. Simply put, we had a lot to learn and the road we were on was designed to be a long one and for good reason.

Of couse, he was quoted one time as saying the following, “Getting talent out of this person is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic!”

Another great lesson he taught us which has never left my mind was when he did the “pick up the pen” bit. With this, he went back to when he was an acting student himself and being taught by Lee Strasberg. Now Lee instructed him to pick up a pen which was laying there on the stage. Since he did not tell Jim how he should pick it up, Jim just walked up on stage like he was doing a happy skip across the park and just stumbled upon the pen. We were all laughing hysterically as he looked at the pen with a giddy look on his face, playing up the emotion of the scene as he picked it up.

Lee, however, was not impressed, and Jim said he was made to put it back up on the stage and pick it up again. This time he moved stealthily around and looked like he was about to steal the pen. In this moment, he made it look like he was waiting for the perfect moment and then found it by absconding with the pen just like Indiana Jones took off with the golden idol in the beginning of “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Lee again shook his head and told Jim he was still doing it wrong and to do it again.

Now Jim came onto the stage as if his leg were broken, and he was limping over to the pen. At this point, he tried, and failed, to make it look realistic when he was struggling to reach for the pen despite the injury he was faking miserably. Once again, he got the pen and went offstage. It was at this point that Lee was really losing his patience with him:

“Jim, did you hear anything of what I just said?!”

“Yeah, but what am I doing wrong?”

“I told you to pick up the pen!”

“I DID!”

“Well I didn’t tell you to go all over the place doing this big act around it, did I?”

“So, what do you want me to do?”

“JIM, JUST PICK UP THE PEN!!!”

“Fine!”

So, Jim just walked straight up to the pen and picked it up, and then he walked off the stage as quickly as he got on it. After that, the audience of his fellow students, one of whom was James Dean, applauded him loudly. Jim said he did not understand what the big deal was, and Lee, who also applauded, explained it to him:

“You followed through with the objective. You didn’t think about it, you just did it and with the same level of energy. You didn’t need to put on a big show, you just needed to just pick up the pen. In that moment, that was your only objective. This is the difference between a good performer and a great actor.”

This last sentence has stayed with me to this very day. It is easy to get up and put up a big act just to get laughs from all your friends, but it is another thing to be the character instead of just playing one. You never play the emotion, you play the action, and the emotion will come to you.

I went through a rollercoaster of emotions throughout my time in his classes. Back then I was trying to get all my general education courses out of the way so that, when I transferred to a four-year university, I could concentrate solely on my major. As a result, I did not always give his classes my full-on attention, and it did lead to me having a nervous breakdown one day. It felt like I was failing the class and myself, and while my fellow classmates were there to console me, I was a complete wreck. Jim took pity on me though, gave me a hug, and he always had everyone give their scene partners a hug before and after a scene, and urged me to not be so hard on myself.

But in the end, through all that emotional agony, we each came into our own and got to have that one moment where all the training and character work we did paid off. We had gotten to where we had studied the scene and memorized our lines so many times, we were no longer thinking about what we were doing. All that mattered was we went after our objective. Nothing else mattered. Getting a compliment from Jim was not always easy, but when you got it, you knew you damn well earned it. When we each got that moment, it wasn’t just a victory for us, but for the class as well. Each of us wanted the other person to succeed.

On the last day of Jim’s Advanced Acting class, we all chipped in and got him a plaque thanking him for all he had done for us. He looked at it and immediately burst into tears. It meant so much that we did this for him, and it was a symbol of the kind of people we were becoming thanks in large part to the time we spent with him. Everyone in the class came around to give him a hug, not wanting him to cry. Another guy, I can’t remember his name, offered him a bottle of scotch but then realized he had already drunk it.

In the end, Jim’s classes were never about becoming a star or a celebrity. His classes were about how an actor must live life to the fullest and be serious about their art and their individual craft. It was about getting better and taking on new challenges throughout our lifetimes, and to never be complacent as artists. The life of an artist, be it an actor or director, is never meant to be an easy one. But then again, how else could you learn and grow? It’s like what my brother keeps telling me, “If life were easy, no one would bother showing up.”

I loved how I got to make Jim laugh. I was in his directing class and did this one scene where I used magazine covers with gorgeous women on them as stand ins for a couple of characters. He got a kick out of the fact one of them was an issue of Playboy Magazine with Pamela Anderson, and he jokingly asked me if he could borrow it. Being the embarrassingly literal-minded person I was back then, I thought he was being serious and handed it to him earnestly. Along with the class, he was in utter hysterics.

Then there was another time where we were working on scenes and voicing out what was going through our minds in order to keep us in the moment. Be it if you didn’t know your line or were frustrated and had to vent it somehow, we needed to be there fully and not let all these distractions cloud our ultimate goals. For me, my chief distraction involved a comedy album I bought a few days earlier from a nearby record store. It got to where I could no longer resist it:

“DAMN IT!! I GOT STEVE MARTIN’S NATIVE AMERICAN SINGING GOING THROUGH MY HEAD!!!!”

Jim got a kick out of that and would never let me forget it. It’s nice to have such memories of him this way.

Now Jim is gone, and this loss is deeply felt by all those who were lucky to be in his presence. I write this with a heavy heart, and it will still take some time to accept the fact I won’t get to see or talk with him ever again. It didn’t matter how old he was, he left us way too soon. The last time I saw him was at a Christmas party with friends from his class, and he dropped by and was endlessly interested in what we were all up to. His words of kindness meant a lot to me and I will never forget them.

I thank him for all those lessons on character development, understanding a script and the character’s place in it fully, and of the passion he brought out of all of us. We did not just come out of his class as better actors; we came out as better people. Much of what he taught still comes back to me every once in a while, so I know I am still growing as an artist.

I miss you Jim. Why did you have to leave us now? Leonard Cohen was right; this is no way to say goodbye. But what you taught will live on through all of us for you touched so many lives, and everything you taught will be passed on to future generations. You will live on with us always.

I still wish you were here though. It feels very empty here without you.

‘Hamlet 2,’ A Most Unusual and Unexpected Sequel

WRITER’S NOTE: Eddie Pence selected this as his Video Vault pick on the August 15, 2020 episode of “The Ralph Report.” But while the host of the podcast, Ralph Garman, was not particularly crazy about it, I think it is better than Garman gives it credit.

“Hamlet 2” starts off with an invisible voice telling us that to be an actor, you have to live in a dream. But dreams do die however, and the question posed here is this: Where dreams go when they die? Well, if you are Dana Marschz (played by Steve Coogan), then you go to Tucson, Arizona to spend the rest of your life teaching high school drama. Being an actor myself, there is something quite scary about the fate of this particular actor who is best known for his herpes medication commercials. Here in Arizona, he hopes to pass on his love of acting to high school students, and this is the thrust of the plot which powers up a motion picture dealing with one of the most unlikely sequels ever to be created.

“Hamlet 2” was a big hit at the Sundance Film Festival, and while it didn’t quite live up to the hype in my eyes, it was still a very clever movie which kept me entertained from beginning to end. It is a hilarious look at how art can never truly be suppressed, and this includes art which was never all that good to begin with.

We meet up with Dana Marschz sometime into his career as a high school teacher, and he only has two students, Rand Posin (Skylar Astin) and Epiphany Sellers (Phoebe Strole), who really seem to care about drama and acting. His latest class, he discovers, is largely populated by Latino students who are in attendance because their other electives have been cut, and drama is the only one left. It reminds me of all those high school kids with who were in drama class because was the only one they could get an easy A in other than physical education. Dana, however, is convinced this is being presented to him as a challenge he must face with no fear. While these students may seem unenthusiastic about drama, he is determined to change their minds.

Dana’s existence is a recovering alcoholic with a wife named Brie (played by the great Catherine Keener) who drinks a margarita from a gigantic martini glass. They also have a boarder, Gary, (David Arquette) who is sleeping with Brie while Dana rollerblades to school because he cannot afford a car. His gift to the high school is plays he wrote which are direct adaptations of the movies “Erin Brockovich” and “Dead Poets Society.” Still, they get ripped to pieces by a young critic who shows no mercy for Dana’s passion. Dana’s basic cry for all the negative criticism is, “He fisted us!”

Dana ends up conversing with this unsympathetic teenage critic to seek inspiration, and he suggests to Dana that he write something original and put everything into it. Thus, he comes up with what in many ways is a completely unnecessary sequel to one of William Shakespeare’s most famous plays, “Hamlet.” There is a rather large problem though as just about every character dies at the play’s end. But Dana, still up for an artistic challenge, remains undeterred by this, and he comes up with a device to solve this problem in the form of a time machine. Upon discovering the rather racy nature of the play, the most suburban students do everything they can to keep it from being performed, but Dana ends up proving to everyone that you cannot stop art.

It’s a little hard for me to critique “Hamlet 2” objectively because Dana’s fate is one I hope to avoid. It is made clear from the outset that he is not particularly talented, and we get a montage of scenes featuring him as an actor. The funniest one is a commercial he did for Herpes medication as he tells us, “Right now, I am having a herpes outbreak. But you wouldn’t know it!”

In the process of writing and directing his sequel play, it gets banned from being performed at the high school, and Dana ends up inspiring the Latino kids to put it on at another location. He even gets help from the ACLU to keep his play from being censored. Talk about free publicity!

“Hamlet 2” is a terrific star vehicle for Coogan, and he is never afraid to make himself look completely silly. He shows no fear in portraying Dana as a complete failure both as an actor and a drama teacher. That he somehow inspired these students who have grown up in a far different environment than his is pretty amazing. But in the end, it doesn’t matter if Dana is really bad or good because he gets the play up to the excitement and infuriation of everyone in Tucson, Arizona, the city where dreams come to die. Coogan proves to be a brilliant comic actor here, and he still is all these years later.

The director and co-writer of “Hamlet 2” is Andrew Fleming, and he does a good job of not taking things too seriously. Fleming started off his career as the writer and director of the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” wannabe, “Bad Dreams” (this title tells you all you need to know). From there, he went on to direct “Threesome,” “The Craft,” “Dick,” and “Nancy Drew.” Suffice to say, he has been around for a while, and this film proved to be one of his stronger efforts.

“Hamlet 2” also features a terrific performance from Elisabeth Shue who plays herself here. In this movie, she has given up on acting and appears to be much happier working as a nurse in a sperm bank. Dana goes gaga over Shue and invites her to speak with his class, but they have no idea who she is. We all remember her from “The Karate Kid,” and she earned a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her unforgettable performance in “Leaving Las Vegas,” but over the years her star has not ascended in the way we thought it would. Still, she works constantly and is always on the verge of giving us her next memorable performance. And, as “Hamlet 2” shows, she has a great sense of humor about herself.

Anybody who has ever been involved with community theater or in high school plays will get a kick out of this film. In retrospect, the high school students were the ones who manage to get the show up and running, and this is shown here. That Dana manages to inspire these kids through his embarrassing ways is astonishing. When you are already deep into the production of a show and your director flakes out or becomes useless, you can’t just give up. As Dana’s personal life hits rock bottom, it’s those kids who pull him up from the abyss.

I also like how “Hamlet 2” got into the conflicts Dana has with the school and parents because everyone in these situations always acts in an overly conservative way. As time goes on, I get more interested in what does not offend people because it seems like we are always looking to get mad about something. Granted, you can see why people might object to Jesus Christ kissing Satan or with a song entitled “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” a song which was criminally robbed of an Oscar nomination. But everyone in the end is saved due to the protected freedom of the 1st amendment of the Constitution. That pisses a lot of people off, but that’s their problem.

The ACLU eventually gets involved when the show is threatened to be shut down, and a lawyer comes to visit Mr. Marschz to lend her help. She is played in a kick ass scene stealing performance by Amy Poehler. Her character of Cricket Feldstein is a ball buster about protecting the production, and she makes sure everyone involved gets to put it up. Her disinterest in whether or not the play is any good (“It’s irrelevant,” she says) is hilarious, and Poehler continues to show why she is one of the funniest actresses ever.

“Hamlet 2” is a lot of fun to watch, and the play which comes out of it is a hoot as it is a quasi-musical in which Hamlet and Jesus team up to change the past. Granted, they take all the drama and tragedy out of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” but it is a little hard at times to argue with Dana who calls the play “a real downer.” In addition to “Rock Me Sexy Jesus,” there is another song called “Raped in The Face” which is Dana’s stab at the critics who keep taking apart his plays based on movies. The song title alone demands your complete attention.

All the same, I wished the filmmakers had pushed the envelope a bit more. Seriously, you have to expect some envelope pushing when one of the writers, Pam Brady, is from “South Park.” I’m not saying “Hamlet 2” had to be insidiously evil, I just wished the satire in parts was a little sharper. Or perhaps I got a little depressed with Dana’s station in life because it is one I hope to avoid in my own life, and this made it hard for me to be more objective about what I saw. Still, this comedic film has stayed with me since I first saw it, and at some point, I need to watch it again.

Shakespeare once wrote about how all the world is a stage, and he was absolutely right. We are all merely players in this crazy thing called life, and “Hamlet 2” plays with this to such an enthusiastic extent to where I wonder if another “Hamlet” sequel is in our future. Or better yet, maybe we can get a “Romeo & Juliet” sequel as young love does not have to be so infinitely depressing. Seriously, everyone deserves a second chance.

* * * out of * * * *

Michael Stuhlbarg on Managing an Unstable Genius in ‘Pawn Sacrifice’

WRITER’S NOTE: This interview took place back in 2014.

Ever since he made his cinematic breakthrough in the Coen brothers’ “A Serious Man,” actor Michael Stuhlbarg has presented us with an array of characters he completely disappears into in movies like “Men in Black 3,” “Lincoln,” “Seven Psychopaths,” “Blue Jasmine,” “Cut Bank” and “Steve Jobs.” In “Pawn Sacrifice,” the Julliard trained actor portrays Paul Marshall, the manager and attorney to chess prodigy Bobby Fischer (played by Tobey Maguire). Bobby proves to be a hard man to get control of, and Stuhlbarg makes you see how exhausting it was for Paul as he was determined not to lose his most famous client even as the chess genius descended into madness

Stuhlbarg was at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California for the “Pawn Sacrifice” press day, and he talked in depth about he prepared to play a character who is based on a real-life person. Always a daunting task for any actor, Stuhlbarg appeared to handle this task with what seems like relative ease.

Ben Kenber: Your character of Paul Marshall reminded me a bit of Paul Giamatti’s character of Jerry Heller in “Straight Outta Compton” as both men are managers and forced to manage their clients under increasingly difficult circumstances. In your research, did you look a lot at different managers and how they worked with their clients?

Michael Stuhlbarg: Not so much. I stuck primarily with who Mr. Marshall was. It seemed to be enough. And also, particularly with what the script was asking of the dramatic situation, I just sort of threw myself into it and sort of said how can I get him into the next room if I need to get him there. And how can I please him as much as I can? Because it behooves all of us that he gets where he needs to go and he gets what he asks for. I tried to reason with him and just sort of placed myself in that dramatic context, so that was the dramatic result.

BK: Like Edward G. Robinson (whom he plays “Trumbo”), your character is based on a real-life person, but it’s a person most people don’t know as well as Bobby Fischer. Did this make your job as an actor harder or easier?

MS: The job is the same either way. I imagine I didn’t have to necessarily push myself to behave too much like Paul Marshall because not too many people, I believe, out there would have known him or perhaps fewer people would have known someone like him, Bobby Fischer or Edward G. Robinson. So I didn’t worry about that too much, but on the flipside of that is I tried to get as much video on him as I could so that I knew who he was, and I could listen to his rhythms and hear where he came from and try to embody it is truthfully as I could. At the same time, I was trying to be truthful to the situation.

BK: As an actor, would you say it’s more like working from the inside out or the outside in?

MS: I guess it has to be a marriage of both honestly. You ask questions enough about what you would do in a particular situation that a character finds himself in and you go from there. If he wore a particular pair of glasses which Paul did, it’s then let’s put on those glasses and how does it make me behave. Does it make me behave differently? Perhaps it does. Perhaps I hold my head a little differently. There are the outside influences that will change the way I behave, and there are questions that I could ask that he may have had to ask in his life that may also change me internally. So, I guess it’s always kind of a combination of the two for me.

Like the best character actors working in movies today, Michael Stuhlbarg shows no signs of slowing down as he has a number of projects coming up. It will be fascinating to see which role he will bring to life next.

Pawn Sacrifice” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.

PLEASE CHECK OUT THE VIDEO INTERVIEW I DID WITH STUHLBARG WHICH I DID FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW:

La Vie en Rose – Marion Cotillard is Beyond Exquisite

This review is for my friend Cordell as he begged me to watch this movie constantly.

Every once in a while, you witness a performance so utterly brilliant that it leaves you in a state of total awe. It’s the kind of performance which really blurs the line between the actor and the character they are portraying. You don’t see any trace of the actor because they have succeeded in fulling inhabiting a character as opposed to just playing one. Mickey Rourke pulled this off in “The Wrestler” as did Heath Ledger in “The Dark Knight,” and this goes for every role Daniel Day Lewis played in his entire career. An actor’s job is never as easy as it looks (if you are serious about the craft of acting that is), and it involves tearing down all those protective layers we surround ourselves with to protect us emotionally. To do this requires an immeasurable amount of bravery, and if they succeed in what may seem impossible to some, they will leave you believing no other actor could have played such a role as good as they did.

You can add Marion Cotillard to this list after witnessing her extraordinary performance as Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan’s “La Vie en Rose.” She plays Edith from when she was a teenager to her death at the age of 47, at which point she looked more like she was elderly. It’s surprising to learn Cotillard was in only her early 30’s when she took on this role, and it is a performance which feels flawless from both an emotional and a technical point of view. She gives a performance bursting with emotion, and her portrayal of Piaf at the latter part of her life is never less than believable. Her Oscar win for Best Actress was seen as a surprise by many, but this is probably because they never bothered to watch the movie when it was released.

Watching Cotillard play Edith in the different stages of her life instantly reminded me of the opening shot of Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” It showed Robert DeNiro as Jake LaMotta in his post-boxing years, overweight and smoking a cigar while he runs through his standup act before going on stage. It then goes from there to when LaMotta was in his fighting prime with DeNiro a lot slimmer and in better shape. I remember watching this transition and almost having to remind myself it was the same actor playing LaMotta. Cotillard accomplishes this feat as well in “La Vie en Rose” as she portrays Edith Piaf from when she was young to where her life was fading all too slowly. This is also in part due to the equally brilliant job by the makeup artists who were also deservedly rewarded with Oscars as well.

“La Vie en Rose” does follow the similar path of biopics as we see Edith Piaf from her lowly beginnings as a child, and of how those experiences end up informing the rest of her life as she grows up to become the singer we were so moved by. Dahan does not try to sugarcoat Edith’s life as it was not exactly an enviable one. We see her as being more or less neglected by her mother, and then later by her father when he leaves her for a time in a brothel which ironically gave her some of her happiest memories as she is cuddled constantly by the prostitutes who work there. When we are presented with a childhood which is absent of parental guidance and neglect, we know this is a life which defines the word “dysfunction.”

Edith as child is played by two young actresses: Manon Chevallier at age 5 and by Pauline Burlet at age 10. Both are wonderful, and their performances are not your average child actor performances that are full of over emoting and forced reactions. I point this out because it is incredibly difficult to pull off performances like these for young actors, and both do great work as they chronicle Edith’s young adventures and her inevitable heartbreaks as reality eventually comes crashing down on her.

Dahan moves the story back and forth in time which, in another movie, might seem distracting, but it helps break up the usual rhythm of your average biopic to where it doesn’t feel so much like others we have seen before. In seeing Edith confined to a hospital after her morphine addiction has long since ravaged her already fragile body, we know full well her story is not going to have a happy ending. Still, it made me wonder how Dahan was going to end the movie. Would it be at Edith’s dying breath, or at some other point in her life? I leave it to you to find this out.

Seriously, I cannot get over just how amazing Cotillard’s performance is. She brilliantly captures the stage fright which threatens to keep Piaf from going onstage, and we see how she slowly overcomes it through her first performance. We then see her move on to bigger houses to sing in, and it’s almost like she is becoming a different person in front of our eyes. From when she becomes an acclaimed star of stage and screen to her tragic demise, Cotillard nails every moment she has in the movie perfectly and never misses a beat. Watching her go from what seems like infinite happiness when she finds who she believes is the love of her life (the look in her eyes is beautiful) to the tragedy which takes it all away is simply enthralling. I am still thinking about her performance long after the movie ended, trying to figure out how she accomplished all of this without falling into the trap of playing a caricature.

Even as we see Edith’s body giving out, and her looking 20 years older than her actual age, Cotillard makes you believe you are seeing someone who has lived and experienced much more than the average human being does. This could have been where her performance would have suffered from overacting, but she keeps us entranced throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time.

But a lot of credit should also go to Dahan for making one of the best biopics ever, and he surrounds Cotillard with a wonderful cast who does their best to hold their own in the wake of her ultimate tour de force. Gérard Depardieu has a nice supporting role as Louis Leplée, the nightclub owner who discovers Edith singing in the streets and gives her the opportunity to perform in front of a big audience. I also loved Emmanuelle Seigner’s heartbreaking performance as Titine, the prostitute who desperately wants to adopt Edith regardless of the odds never being in her favor.

“La Vie en Rose” may tread the familiar ground of many film biographies, but this one has an immense power all its own, and it stands way above many other films in its genre. Cotillard gives, as Peter Travers of Rolling Stone wrote, “a performance for the ages.” I can’t stop gushing over just how phenomenal she is here. I am so glad she got the Oscar.

* * * * out of * * * *

Heather Langenkamp Reflects on Acting and ‘The Butterfly Room’

The Butterfly Room poster

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is based on a screening and Q&A which took place back in 2014.

The Butterfly Room” is one of those movies which is being released under the radar. It just debuted at the Laemmle NoHo 7 without much in the way of publicity, and this a shame because this thriller directed by Jonathan Zarantonello proves to be a real treat for horror fans as it features several actors we affectionately remember from various horror and cult classics. Among them are Barbara Steele who is best known for her work in a number of Italian gothic horror films like “Black Sunday,” Ray Wise who left an indelible impression on us with his performances in “Robocop” and “Twin Peaks,” Erica Leerhsen who survived a few ill-fated horror movies like “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2” and the remake of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” Camille Keaton who suffered such unforgivable brutality in “I Spit on Your Grave,” Adrienne King who memorably decapitated Jason Voorhees’ mother in “Friday the 13th,” and P.J. Soles who showed us things we really liked in John Carpenter’s “Halloween.” Looking at this cast, you might think this was another version of “The Expendables” but with horror icons.

Another big horror favorite in “The Butterfly Room” is Heather Langenkamp who is still best remembered for her role as Nancy Thompson in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Here she plays Dorothy, a single mother who has her own reasons for keeping her son away from butterfly collector Ann (Barbara Steele). As the movie goes on, you find out exactly why Dorothy has such a bone to pick with her, and it is not worth spoiling here.

Langenkamp dropped by the Laemmle NoHo 7 for “The Butterfly Room’s” opening night to participate in a Q&A with the movie’s second assistant director Brian McQuery. When asked how she became involved with this production, Langenkamp explained it all started with a journalist friend of Zarantonello’s who introduced the director to her while at a horror convention.

Heather Langenkamp: This journalist friend was my introduction, and I noticed that Jonathan was lurking in the background (laughs) for several hours. Finally, we struck up a conversation and he gave me the script later. I have to say that when I read it, I felt that the part of Dorothy was one of the better parts that I’ve read in many, many years. I think, from what you see on the screen, she’s a very strong woman and she’s a very fierce mother and I really enjoyed playing such a part. I remember we got together at this restaurant in Santa Monica, and I think I shocked Jonathan a great deal by telling them how much I liked it and how I really loved this idea that this horror movie focuses on an elderly woman which is something that is really rare.

In addition to all the horror icons, there are also several child actors here who play kids that become way too friendly with Ann. Now there is a saying, the things to avoid while making a movie are working with animals and children, but Langenkamp found working with child actors like Ellery Sprayberry and Julia Putnam very informative and fascinating.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s kind of a lesson every day in how to be so natural and so in the moment, and I always get a lot of inspiration from children like Miko Hughes (who appeared opposite Langenkamp in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”) who was like that for me. You just zone in with them as they really experience the movie in a different way I think, and it is really refreshing. Ellery was really fun to work with, and I remember this one day when she had to go too long here to short hair too long hair and everybody was panicked. But Ellery was just smiling and taking it all in stride, and we had a lot of fun on the set as I remember.

Ever since her days battling Freddy Krueger, we have not seen much of Langenkamp. Acting for her has since become a part time job as she spends most of her days running AFX Studio, a Special F/X Make-Up studio in Los Angeles, with her husband David LeRoy Anderson. One of her more recent acting roles was as a character named Moto in “Star Trek into Darkness,” but her role as Dorothy in “The Butterfly Room” is the biggest one she has had in some time. This led one audience member to ask her if coming back to acting was like getting back on a bicycle to where everything comes back to you quickly.

Heather Langenkamp: I would have to say not at all like riding a bike. I think that you’re much more self-conscious about how you’re doing as you get older especially if you’ve taken time off. I was really worried a lot of the time about whether I was going to be able to get my chops back up to speed, and I’m happy with the way the movie looks on the screen. I’m much happier than I actually thought I was at about 6:45 tonight (the movie started at 7:40 pm) because I get a lot more critical of myself too as I get older. Both of those things combine actually, making for a very uncomfortable day today, but now I can relax. I don’t think it’s like riding a bike. I wish it was more like that.

But even after being away from acting, Langenkamp still has a great love for it. She explained why and also talked about what it was like working with Steele who is probably the biggest horror icon in this cast.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s probably my favorite thing to do. I think one the most creative things that a person can do is bring a script to life and think of the character and think of how you’re going to interact with someone like Erica. Those scenes were a lot of fun and especially all the scenes with Barbara Steele. She is one of my personal heroes and someone that I greatly admire, so I often watched her. She’s a very elegant woman and she’s very powerful, so sometimes I would just watch her and try to learn from her in the thing she did to be kind of a majestic creature in the film. I learn a lot from the people that I work with and I always and see what their techniques are and how they get prepared, and I take whatever I can from people like that.

Like many horror movies coming out today, “The Butterfly Room” was shot on a very low budget and had a tight shooting schedule. Moreover, Zarantonello started filming this movie back in 2010, and it is finally making its premiere four years later. With little time to make this movie, actors do not have the same luxuries available to them on big budget studio productions. Langenkamp described the pressures she faced and how she learned to deal with them.

Heather Langenkamp: It’s always difficult especially with wardrobe and hair when there’s really not enough time to get all that is necessary, and maybe there’s not enough personnel to take care of everybody. There are four or five ladies sometimes who all need to be ready within an hour of each other, and so we had very quick moments in the makeup chair sometimes (laughs) and you just have to put your vanity aside. That’s the hardest thing for an actor to do, but you realize you’re not going to get the hour in the chair that may be would make you feel more comfortable. In the end I really do feel like naturalism is the rule of the day, and looking as natural as possible as much as an actor. Maybe you don’t love it, but I do think that it adds to the reality of filmmaking. So, every time I didn’t get enough time in the chair, I would say in the end that it’ll be better for the film.

It is really great to see Heather Langenkamp back on the big screen after being absent from it for what feels like years. She may not be interested in stardom and is not looking to make a big comeback in movies, but she is still very much interested in giving the best she can as an actress. While she may forever be linked to “A Nightmare on Elm Street” to where many cannot see her as anyone other than Nancy Thompson, she can still hold our attention whenever she appears in a movie. Clearly, she is more comfortable these days running a special effects studio, but I do hope we get to see more of her on the silver screen sooner than later.

Elisabeth Shue on Arriving at the ‘House at the End of the Street’

House at the End of the Street Shue Lawrence

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

Do not worry about actress Elisabeth Shue because she is doing just fine. To say she has been making a comeback would not be altogether fair as she has never really stopped working. While it has been some time since her heyday in the original “Karate Kid” and her brilliant Oscar-nominated turn in “Leaving Las Vegas,” she has been keeping busy with “CSI” and movies like “Piranha 3D” and “Hamlet 2” among others. But now she gets the opportunity to act opposite one of the hottest movie stars at this moment, Jennifer Lawrence, in Mark Tonderai’s horror movie “House at the End of the Street.

Shue stars as Sarah, a recent divorcee who has just moved with her daughter Elissa (Lawrence) into a new home which they later find has a ghastly history. What makes the dynamic between Shue’s and Lawrence’s characters especially interesting is how they keep trying to figure out who the mother is in this relationship. Shue described Sarah as being a “rock-and-roll groupie type” who is more of a child than Elissa.

“Mark was really wonderful. We worked on the script to create a mother who’s a little more complicated than what was originally on the page,” Shue said.

Having already acted in horror movies, Shue is no novice to this endlessly popular genre. The actress also makes it clear she “definitely likes to be scared” and counts “The Silence of the Lambs” as one of her all-time favorite movies. She also likes how her role in “House at the End of the Street” contrasts to the horror films she previously appeared in.

“Hopefully, this is a bit more real,” says Shue. “I really like the tension in the film, and the way the characters are allowed to live and breathe, so things aren’t jumping out at you all the time.”

Working with Lawrence proved to be a great experience for Shue as she found the “Hunger Games” star to be “incredibly grown up for her age.” This was certainly made clear to the world when Lawrence made a tremendous breakthrough in “Winter’s Bone” in which her character has to take care of her siblings when her parents prove to have more serious problems of their own. Shue has gone on to describe Lawrence as being “much more mature” than she was at her age.

“We didn’t get too much time together before we started filming, but we had some dinners and hung out,” Shue said. “I think we both share those long years of just being a normal person before getting into this business and I think that’s helpful. She never seemed insecure or needy or someone who wasn’t just very, very confident in herself. At that age, I wasn’t that way.”

It is always great to hear when Elisabeth Shue is doing another movie or television show. Those memories we have of her from “Adventures in Babysitting” and “The Karate Kid” have never gone away, and she continues to entertain us today in whatever she does. I think it is safe to say we can be sure will be seeing plenty more of her in the near future.

SOURCES:

Olivia Allin, “Elisabeth Shue on working with Jennifer Lawrence in ‘HATES,’” On The Red Carpet, September 22, 2012.

Nisha Gopalan, “Elisabeth Shue on ‘House at the End of the Street,’ Jennifer Lawrence, and ‘Savvy’ Starlets,” Vulture, September 20, 2012.

Mark Worgan, “Elizabeth Shue Interview: Jennifer Lawrence Was Always Headed To The Top,” Entertainment Wise, September 27, 2012.

Bob Thompson, “Elisabeth Shue is the comeback kid,” Dose, September 20, 2012.

Andy Serkis on Returning to Play Gollum in ‘The Hobbit’

Gollum in The Hobbit

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

It is a thrill to see Andy Serkis return to the role of Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey.” While we marvel at the special effects which gave Gollum his unique if wretched look, it was Serkis who breathed life into the character in a way no one else could. His success in “The Lord of the Rings” got him cast in “King Kong” in which he portrayed the big ape, and audiences were begging to see him get an Oscar nomination for his brilliant performance as Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Seeing Serkis return to the role that made him a star brings everything around full circle for the actor, and we are constantly fascinated at how he approaches roles that surround him with a wealth of special effects.

Serkis first played Gollum over a decade ago, and the character was 600 years old back then. “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” takes place sixty years before the events in “The Lord of the Rings” so he looks a little better here, but that is not saying much. But what has really changed about how Serkis plays Gollum is the technology involved in filmmaking. While “The Lord of the Rings” movies were shot on film, “The Hobbit” was made digitally. Serkis talked with Fox News’ Ashley Dvorkin about the differences this time around.

“So I was acting with Elijah Wood and Sean Astin and we would all play out the scenes together, so that hasn’t changed,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “But the thing that’s changed is that I had to then go and shoot it again on the motion capture stage. So I had to repeat everything twice. So I shot everything twice in effect. Whereas 12 years later, now we have full performance capture on set so I can just play the scene once – I’ve got a head mounted camera which is capturing all my facial expressions. The suit is able to act in a live action set and we just played the scene like, two conventional actors playing the scene with each other. So it’s much, much better.”

Gollum, be it in “The Lord of the Rings” or “The Hobbit,” has always resembled a heroin addict who is relentlessly eager for his next fix. In talking with Katy Steinmetz of Time Magazine, Serkis said the character’s physicality was “borne out of his addiction to the ring.” The way he describes it, this really was the best way for him to fully inhabit the character, and he talked about the inspirations which played a part in his performance.

“His personality, the involuntary way in which his body spasms when the word Gollum comes out of his mouth, is connected to the guilt that he carries with him in his throat from murdering his cousin,” Serkis told Steinmetz. “He is described by Tolkien in many different ways, as a puppy with Frodo and a spider and a frog. I based him a lot on Francis Bacon’s paintings, the agony and torture, which are in turn based on Eadweard Muybridge’s photographs. The references for me were very layered.”

Seeing Gollum move all over, as if he is completely incapable of staying in one place for more than a couple of seconds at a time, makes this seem like one of the most physically demanding roles any actor could take on in their career. I am constantly interested in how Serkis can keep his energy up while playing a character like this as he must get worn out often while on set. He went into more detail with James Rocchi of MSN Entertainment about just how physical playing Gollum is for him.

“It’s very physical. Gollum is an incredibly physical role,” Serkis told Rocchi. “And it’s a combination of physicality and of course vocal. They’re so entwined with each other, so meshed with each other. It’s a pretty exhausting role, but I had such fun playing it with Martin (Freeman who plays Bilbo Baggins). It (the cave scene where they first meet) was the very first thing we shot on the movie as well. It was day one of 276 days of shooting, and there was I was face to face with Martin finding his way into playing Bilbo. And we shot the scene in its entirety every single time. And then Pete would move the camera between takes and let us roll it again. We would just play the whole scene out. And it was really, really exciting when we’re doing it.”

After playing Gollum in several movies, you might think Serkis would be sick to death of this role by now. However, this does not prove to be the case as the character has had a huge impact on his life. He even told Dvorkin he has a full-sized sculpture of Gollum made by WETA (the digital visual effects company based in Wellington, New Zealand) sitting in his office at his home. Even he is not blind as to the positive impact Gollum has had on his acting career as a whole.

“He’s been like a watershed character for me twice in my life now,” Serkis told Dvorkin. “First of all because not only because he is an amazing character to play the first time around but it was also the beginning of this journey into a performance capture which has enabled me to play so many other amazing roles. By virtue of the fact of him arriving that whole other list of characters has been what I’ve been working on the last decade. And then coming back full circle to playing him again in ‘The Hobbit’ also has brought me to directing. So both times, he’s not only been this amazing creature and great character to explore, but has shifted my life.”

It looks like we will be seeing more of Andy Serkis as Gollum in the future as Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit” is now being expanded into three movies instead of just two. Many fans still have some issues with this as J.R.R. Tolkien novel is only 300 pages long, but Serkis is more than confident in Jackson’s ability to pull this particular trilogy off. Since the actor has already spent a number of years working with Jackson, his belief in the director seems more than justified.

SOURCES:

Ashley Dvorkin, “‘The Hobbit’s’ Andy Serkis has full-size Gollum sculpture in his house,” Fox News, December 14, 2012.

Katy Steinmetz, “The Hobbit’s Andy Serkis on Getting Inside Gollum’s Skin,” Time Magazine, December 11, 2012.

James Rocchi, “Interview: Andy Serkis of ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,'” MSN Entertainment, December 17, 2012.