Jennifer Lopez on Playing Leslie Rodgers in ‘Parker’

Jennifer Lopez in Parker

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

Jennifer Lopez has been so deeply involved in the music business for the last few years to where it is easy to forget she is also an actress. Now that her stint on “American Idol” is over, she gets the opportunity to be an actress again in Taylor Hackford’s “Parker.” In it she plays Leslie Rogers, an unsuccessful real estate agent and recent divorcee who has been dealt an unlucky hand in life and is forced to live with her overbearing mother Ascension (Patti LuPone) almost against her will. While “Parker” itself is not a great movie, it allows Lopez to give her best performance since she acted opposite George Clooney in “Out of Sight.”

The part of Leslie Rogers came to Lopez while she was filming a season of “American Idol,” and it made her realize what was missing from her life at that point. In talking with Nina Terrero of NBC Latino, she explained how she was drawn to “Parker’s” screenplay, and being on the set of this movie made her realize how much she wanted to go back to doing this kind of work.

“To be honest, I had been doing music, releasing two albums,” Lopez said. “And when I got the chance to do this movie between two seasons of ‘Idol,’ I realized how much I really missed acting; I hadn’t done enough of it over the past few years.”

“When they offered me a third season of ‘Idol,’ I just had to say no,” Lopez continued. “I made the decision that I was going to go back on tour and after that focus on film for the next few years. It’s just the perfect time in my life with the things that I’ve lived and the things I’ve experienced. I have so much to offer as an actor at this point in my life. I’m going to make music and I’m going to focus on my artistry.”

Filming “Parker” came also came around the time Lopez was divorcing from her husband of seven years, Marc Anthony. Now many have been quick to dismiss Lopez’s performance here as they have gotten so used to seeing her being so glamorous whenever she is in public. Regardless, she has been through a rough and tumble time, before and after she became famous, which people in general are not quick to acknowledge. She explained this in more detail during her interview with Terrero.

“We’re both human beings who’ve gone through hard and difficult times,” Lopez said of the similarities between herself and her character. “At this particular time, she’s recently divorced, a little desperate. When I was filming this role, I had similar feelings. I had recently decided to divorce and it was hard to get out of bed and go to the set every day. I knew what those feelings were, to feel your world was falling apart.”

Hackford himself had zero hesitation about casting Lopez in “Parker.” While it might seem rather odd to see this particular superstar playing a down on her luck character, Hackford had known her long enough to be aware of how she had to fight hard to get to where she is now. He made this clear to me during my one-on-one interview with him.

“I know who that person is, she’s for real,” Hackford said of Lopez. “You see the glamorous person out there in the world of entertainment, rich and famous and a lot of times you get a bad rap because people are jealous. But Jennifer’s the real person. She was a dancer and they can just work and work and work.”

“I trusted the fact that she was good, but I didn’t realize how good she is. She’s a fantastic actress. She walks on the set, she frees herself of all of that Jennifer Lopez stuff and she embodies the character,” Hackford continued. “You tell Jennifer a note and BANG! It’s there in the next take. Not partially there, it’s there. You think, my God she got it, she understood it. Now part of that’s me because if you can’t explain what you want, how do you expect someone to do it? But the other part of it is she’s got an instrument that is real and very developed. She’s a much better actress now that she ever was before, and she’s also gone through some things in her life. She’s got some miles on the treads of those tires, and ultimately she’s incorporated that. I think she’s terrific in this movie.”

Still, Lopez did show some hesitation in her scene with Jason Statham, who plays Parker of the movie’s title, where she has to strip down to her underwear to show him she is not wearing a wire. Even though Lopez said she spent a lot of time eating right and working out before filming this sequence, she is no less nervous about doing stuff like that today than when she first started out in movies.

“Doing scenes like this one are so nerve-wracking,” Lopez said. “You have to get mentally ready because it’s a vulnerable state, being in front of a crew having to do a scene like that. My heart beats getting ready for it, but you know at the end of the day it’s part of the job.”

Now many may still not be willing to give Jennifer Lopez the credit she deserves for her performance in “Parker,” but this will end up saying more about her critics than it will about her. Lopez actually proves to be quite believable as a divorcee who is trying to put her life back together with varying degrees of success, and she proves to be one of the things in this movie which actually works. At this point, her career can go in many different directions, and she is excited about the opportunities which are ahead of her.

“I always want my fans to be happy with what I do,” Lopez said. “But I don’t want to choose my projects based on what I think will please them. I choose projects that are I can excel in and that are real, not stuff that’s fake or forced. I don’t consider genre so much as having a great script, great director and great actors to play off of. Doing an intense drama scene can be as much fun as a romantic comedy. I enjoy all of it!”

SOURCES:

Nina Terrero, “Jennifer Lopez talks ‘Parker’ and her return to acting: ‘I have so much to offer,’” NBC Latino, January 22, 2013.

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Taylor Hackford on Parker,” We Got This Covered, January 25, 2013.

Ewan McGregor on Surviving ‘The Impossible’

Ewan McGregor in The Impossible

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written back in 2013.

While we endlessly applaud Naomi Watt’s emotional powerhouse of a performance in J.A. Bayona’sThe Impossible,” there’s no leaving out Ewan McGregor who is every bit as good. McGregor stars as Henry, husband to Watt’s character of Maria and the father of three young boys. After the Thailand beach resort they are staying at is laid waste by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, Henry goes on a desperate search for Maria and his eldest son Lucas who are separated from him in its aftermath. McGregor convincingly portrays a man physically and emotionally battered by this horrific tsunami which destroyed thousands of lives, and he gives the movies of 2012 one of its most heartbreaking moments with a cell phone call back home.

I got to catch up with McGregor at the Los Angeles press day for “The Impossible” which took place at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. While there, he said what made him want to do the movie was the script by Sergio G. Sánchez which he described as “an amazing read.”

“I didn’t know that it was a true story when I read it but I was grabbed by how there was something very honest and true about it,” McGregor said. “So, when I found out that it was a true story, it wasn’t a surprise. Some of the lines of dialogue were very extraordinarily accurate and powerful.”

Now whereas Watts got to meet Maria Belon, the tsunami survivor her character was based on, McGregor admitted he did not get to meet his real-life counterpart before shooting began. While this might have put the actor at a disadvantage, he was still able to use his imagination for the role and did get the opportunity to talk to other survivors as well.

McGregor in real life is the father of four girls, and we could not help but wonder if he thought about what he would do if they were caught up in the tsunami. Acting sometimes has you asking questions you may not want to know the answers to, but those questions are still hard to ignore. McGregor’s performance feels so emotionally honest to where it seems like he did ask himself that question, but when we asked him if being a father affected his work here in any way, he made it clear to us what his acting process is.

“Well I suppose you’re always acting from two things: your imagination and your experience in life. But it’s not very nice to think about those things and I tried not to make myself think about my kids because I wouldn’t do that,” McGregor said. “But I had these great little boys, these three fantastic kids that Naomi and I were lucky to work with. I was able to think about them and we created this family that I believed in, and it felt that there was a reality to what we created that I was able to use. I just thought about them really and how desperate it would be to be in that situation.”

Speaking of which, McGregor considers his role in “The Impossible” to be the first film where he explores what it is to be a parent. Now while he may have played a dad in other movies, none of them spring to mind as quickly or are anywhere as memorable as this one. McGregor talked about this in more detail with Damon Wise of The Guardian and told him the only other film he could think of where he played a dad was “Nanny McPhee Returns.”

“I’ve certainly never made a film that felt to me like an exploration of that, of what it means to be a parent and that love you have for your kids,” McGregor told Wise. “This is something I’ve been experiencing for 16 years of my life, and it’s not in my work really anywhere. I thought – albeit a really extreme version of that – it was a nice way to look at that specific and unique love you have for your kids.”

“The Impossible” has been criticized in recent months for focusing more on an English family when the real-life family which inspired this movie was Spanish, and for also leaving the Thai people on the sidelines. Those who have seen the movie, however, can verify this criticism is not true and is deeply unfair to the filmmakers who have made a movie which is actually about many families and not just one. McGregor, in his conversation with Wise, was not the least bit surprised by this criticism and went on to describe it as being “not very clever.”

“The truth is it’s a story about this family, this western family, who are on holiday there. And that story is many, many people’s story,” McGregor explained. “But to say that it doesn’t tell the Thai people’s stories … Naomi’s character is saved by a Thai man, and taken to safety in a Thai village where the Thai women dress her. It’s one of the most moving scenes in the film, really. In the hospital they’re all Thai nurses and Thai doctors – you see nothing but Thai people saving lives and helping. Most of the survivors we spoke to had nothing but amazing things to say about the Thai response to the tsunami, in that they mobilized themselves very quickly.”

Ewan McGregor’s defense of “The Impossible” speaks volume of how emotionally involved he became with the film’s story, and it resulted in one of the very best performances he has given to date. Whether or not he gets serious Oscar consideration for his work, you will never be able to forget the impact he has on you here. And once again, the scene where he’s on the cell phone will break your heart.

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview With Ewan McGregor On The Impossible,” We Got This Covered, December 19, 2012.

Damon Wise, “Ewan McGregor: ‘The Impossible is my first film about being a parent,'” The Guardian, December 27, 2012.

Jessica Chastain on Portraying an Infinitely Determined CIA Agent in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

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

It’s utterly fascinating to watch Jessica Chastain go from playing the embodiment of grace in “The Tree of Life” to portraying a willfully determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The role of Maya represents a huge change of pace for her as she gives this character a razor-sharp focus as she relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice, and she is riveting to watch throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. After watching Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film, I am convinced she can play any role given to her.

I was lucky enough to go the “Zero Dark Thirty” press conference which was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Chastain said she had three months to prepare for this role, and she went through the screenplay with its writer Mark Boal throughout the production. She ended up nicknaming Boal “the professor” as he had spent several years doing research on the Bin Laden manhunt, and he clearly knows as much as anyone should on the subject. But the real challenge Chastain faced in playing Maya was the fact this character was based on a woman she could not meet, and this forced her to get especially creative.

“Because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions,” Chastain said. “I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.”

One of the most talked about elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” are the torture scenes which have given some the impression that Bigelow has made a pro-torture movie (she has not). Acting in those scenes could not have been much fun, and Chastain acknowledged this in an interview with Christine Kearney of Reuters. In talking about her experience, Chastain makes it clear nobody was about glamourize this part of the story and how it made her fully aware of the differences between her and Maya.

“We filmed in a real Jordanian prison, in the middle of nowhere. The environment wasn’t great, especially as a woman,” Chastain told Kearney. “They had a lot of trust between the actors, nothing was dangerous or unsafe. There was a lot of discussion to make sure that we weren’t doing something that was going to be salacious. They just wanted it to be accurate.”

“I know I am playing a character who has trained to be unemotional. But I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything,” Chastain continued. “There was actually one day that we were doing a scene, and I said, ‘I am sorry’ and I just had to walk away, and I just started crying … it was a very intense experience.”

Chastain is a classically trained actress who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the United States. Now I have heard people say how actors can get trained too much at schools like this one to where they can’t appear natural in film and television. I am always annoyed to hear someone, let alone anyone, say this, so it’s great to see Chastain prove them wrong with her Oscar worthy performance. While at the press conference, she explained how being a student at Julliard prepared her for a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that,” Chastain said of the screenplay. “Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.”

What’s beautiful about Chastain’s performance is not just how she takes Maya from being out of her element to becoming an obsessed CIA agent, but also how she imbues the character with such a strong humanity. Chastain also makes us respect not just Maya, but all those who worked diligently alongside her behind the scenes to bring down Bin Laden and continue to fight against terrorists both foreign and domestic. In talking with George Pennacchio of ABC News, Chastain sees her performance as a tribute to the real-life person her character is based on.

“She worked for a decade; she gave up so much. She basically became a servant to her work,” Chastain told Pennacchio. “In a way, making this movie is like acknowledging the sacrifices she’s made and thanking her for what she’s done.”

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Jessica Chastain, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow On Zero Dark Thirty,” We Got This Covered, December 18, 2012.

Christine Kearney, “A Minute With: Jessica Chastain on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” Reuters, December 19, 2012.

George Pennacchio, “Jessica Chastain compares herself to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ character,” ABC, December 19, 2012.

Naomi Watts on Portraying a Tsunami Survivor in ‘The Impossible’

Naomi Watts in The Impossible

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

Australian actress Naomi Watts gives an emotionally pulverizing performance in J.A. Bayona’sThe Impossible,” a film which chronicles one family’s struggle for survival in the aftermath of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. In it, Watts plays Maria, a doctor who is staying with her husband and children in a beautiful resort in Thailand for the Christmas holiday. This vacation comes to a horrific end when the tsunami decimates the country’s coastal zone and separates Maria and her son Lucas from the rest of her family. The role has Watts dealing with her fear of water, playing a character based on a real-life person, and the immense difficulty of shooting in not one, but two giant water tanks.

While at the movie’s press conference which was held at The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, Watts described playing Maria as being “the most physically, emotionally draining role” she has ever taken on since “King Kong.” Considering she has played such equally draining roles in “21 Grams” and “Mulholland Drive,” that’s saying a lot. After doing “King Kong” she said she would never take on a role like that again, but even she couldn’t say no this script or working with Bayona who made the acclaimed horror movie “The Orphanage.”

Unlike the tsunami sequence in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter,” the one in “The Impossible” was done with real effects and no CGI. This makes the sequence all the more harrowing to watch, and seeing Watts hang onto a tree for dear life while water keeps rushing furiously by here makes for one of the most emotionally intense sequences in any 2012 movie. In an interview with Steven Rea which was featured on the Philly.com website, Watts talked about what it was like shooting the sequence which itself took four weeks to complete.

“I didn’t know it was going to be so difficult,” Watts told Rea. “They had it all very well prepared – we had allegedly the second largest water tank in the world, and they had these giant cups that we were anchored into . . . so you were just above water level, you could use your head, and you can use your arms so you looked like you were swimming. . . . And you’re on this track, and then a giant wave was coming towards you . . . and then side pumps were shooting more water, and all the garbage and debris. . ..”

“So, it got increasingly difficult, and then we noticed that we couldn’t actually act, or speak,” Watts continued. “We were lucky if we could get one word out, and that word would be ‘LU-CAS!’ It was tough, and then the underwater stuff was even more difficult. That was very scary.”

You have to give Watts a lot of credit not just for the brave performance she gives, but also for how making this movie made her deal with her fear of water. This was not the result of watching “Jaws” several dozen times, but of a near drowning accident she had when a teenager. She related this story to NPR’s Melissa Block.

“When I was about 14, my family emigrated from England to Australia, and we decided to stop in Bali on the way through. And having grown up in England, we were not great swimmers and knew nothing about riptides,” Watts told Block. “Anyway, we got caught in a riptide, and I didn’t know what to do other than swim against it, and got to the point of exhaustion, and then just about gave up. But then my mother, somehow, miraculously found sand beneath her feet and just managed to pull me in. And so, as a result of that experience, I’ve always been afraid of the waves and strong currents, so it’s quite interesting that I ended up doing this.”

It’s very interesting indeed, and it makes you admire Watts all the more for playing this character. After learning about her near-death experience, it becomes clear the fear which crosses the actress’ face onscreen was not at all faked.

Another big challenge for Watts in playing this role was it was based on a real-life person, Maria Belon, who, along with her family, amazingly survived the tsunami which claimed thousands of lives, and she herself suffered some serious injuries which had her at death’s door a few times. It’s always intimidating to portray a person from real life, especially one who’s still alive and has been through an experience we are grateful not to have gone through ourselves. While at “The Impossible” press conference, Watts talked about what it was like to meet Belon.

“Originally when I met Maria, I was incredibly nervous and I didn’t know where to begin. I felt like, I’m just an actor and you have lived through this extraordinary horrendous thing, and I just don’t know where to start,” Watts said of their first meeting. “But we sat there in front of each other for five minutes, she didn’t feel the need to speak and I couldn’t, and then she started just welling up and the story was told just through a look. I started welling up and then we just thought okay, let’s get on with this, and she continued to speak for three and a half hours and time just went by like that.”

“She stayed with me the whole time,” Watts continued. “I don’t just mean physically, but we were connected. We sent emails back and forth, and she would write endless letters about all the details that took place. The thing that she talked about was her instinct and her ability to trust herself which I think we lose so often. I feel like I am full of self-doubt and second guessing which is why this story becomes an interesting one because you wonder how you would deal with this.”

Naomi Watt’s performance in “The Impossible” deserves a Purple Heart as much as it does an Oscar. As an actress, she appears to be plumbing the depths of her soul to pull off roles like this one, and I think she’s one of the bravest actresses working today. While she may be yearning to stay away from roles like this in the future, it’s hard to think of many other actresses who can go to the places she goes to portray raw emotion so honestly.

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Naomi Watts On The Impossible,” We Got This Covered, December 19, 2012.

Steven Rea, “Naomi Watts endured physically harrowing work for ‘The Impossible,’” Philly.com, December 20, 2012.

Melissa Block, “Naomi Watts, Mulling ‘The Impossible,’” NPR, December 12, 2012.

Ultimate Rabbit Exclusive Interview: Bryan Fogel Talks about ‘Icarus’

Bryan Fogel Icarus photo

Actor, writer and filmmaker Bryan Fogel first came to the world’s attention with “Jewtopia,” a play he co-wrote and starred in which went on to become one of the longest running shows in off-Broadway and Los Angeles history as it was seen by over a million viewers. Now he is set to reach an even larger audience with his documentary “Icarus” which will debut on Netflix on August 4.

Icarus documentary poster

“Icarus” follows Fogel as he went on a mission to investigate doping in sports. Like Morgan Spurlock in “Super Size Me,” he becomes the main experiment of his own documentary as he dopes himself with performance enhancing drugs to observe the changes they have on his body, and to see if he can avoid detection from anti-doping officials. By doing so, he aims to prove the current process of testing athletes for performance enhancing drugs does not work in the slightest.

During this process, Fogel comes to meet Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, a pillar of Russia’s “anti-doping” program who aids the filmmaker in avoiding doping detection through various processes which include being injected with various substances as well as collecting daily urine samples which will be smuggled from one country to another. But as Fogel becomes closer with Rodchenkov, he soon discovers the Russian is at the center of his country’s state-sponsored Olympic doping program. From there, “Icarus” goes in a different direction as it delves deep into Russia’s program and discovers the illegal activities go all the way up to the country’s highest chain of command which includes Vladimir Putin. The deeper this documentary goes, the more aware we become of how truth can be an easy casualty as others die under mysterious circumstances.

I had the opportunity to speak with Fogel about “Icarus” while he was in Los Angeles to promote it. He spoke about the documentary’s evolution from being a simple exploration into sports anti-doping programs to becoming a geopolitical thriller where witnesses are forced to go into hiding. Also, he spoke of how Lance Armstrong’s admission of using performance enhancing drugs was merely a needle in the haystack as many athletes were utilizing the same chemicals and threw him under the bus to save their own careers.

Check out the interview below.

Exclusive Interview with Kim A. Snyder about ‘Newtown’

I got to speak with Kim A. Snyder recently while was in Los Angeles to discuss her documentary “Newtown.” The documentary looks at the aftermath of the largest mass shooting of school children in American history which took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. The school was located in Newtown, Connecticut, and we watch as the adults who tragically lost their children attempt to move on with their lives. But since this tragedy, these adults look to be stuck in a moment they may never get past. What they are left with is profound grief and memories which will now be forever tinged with sadness.

“Newtown” is certainly one of the most emotionally devastating documentaries to come out in some time, but it is not without hope. Not once is the killer’s name mentioned or his face shown as Snyder’s real interest is in the townspeople who struggle to move on despite all they have lost. As painful as their stories are, these are the stories which need to be heard as the media often tends to focus on the shooter more than anything else.

Snyder is an award-winning filmmaker and producer, and for a time she was a contributor to Variety Magazine. She made her directorial debut in 2000 with “I Remember Me” which chronicled her struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS). She also directed “Welcome to Shelbyville” which documented the intersection between race and religion in America’s Heartland. Her other works include the short films “Alone No Love,” “One Bridge to the Next” and “Crossing Midnight.”

While talking with Snyder, she explained why the shooter’s name was never mentioned in “Newtown,” why the term “gun control” was never used, of how Atom Egoyan’s “The Sweet Hereafter” proved to be a major influence on this documentary, and of how she managed to find hope in a story filled with infinite grief.

Check out the interview above, and be sure to catch “Newtown” when it opens in Los Angeles on October 14. Also, be sure to visit the documentary’s website at www.newtownfilm.com.

newtown_final_9_14

 

Food Waste Prevention!!!

Yours truly was recently involved in a video project for The Burbank Channel. It is a PSA called “Food Waste Prevention!!!” which starred myself as a man who had the nerve to throw away an apple because it was bruised, and Stephen Ferguson as a man who transforms himself from a trash can into a person eager to put an end to food waste. This PSA was directed by the very talented Walter Lutz, and it is part of the latest episode of Burbank On Demand. Please take the time to watch the video project above, and you can also check it out below as part of an episode of Burbank on Demand. There are truly many lessons we all can learn about not wasting food, and this video makes a solid case for this.

 

Exclusive Interview with Melissa Joan Hart on ‘God’s Not Dead 2’

Gods Not Dead Melissa Joan Hart photo

The 2014 movie “God’s Not Dead” only cost $2 million to make, but it went on to gross over $60 million and began a movement to strengthen the faith of Christians everywhere. That movement continues with “God’s Not Dead 2” which reunites director Harold Cronk with screenwriters Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, but it tells a completely different story. This time the action moves to a public high school where teacher Grace Wesley (Melissa Joan Hart) encourages her students to appreciate history. But after Grace gives a reasoned response to a question about Jesus, she becomes the center of an epic court case which could end her career and expel God from the public square once and for all.

We all know Melissa Joan Hart from her popular television shows “Sabrina The Teenage Witch” and “Melissa & Joey,” and she is a veteran of show business having started at the tender age of four. I got to speak with Melissa while she was in Los Angeles, California for the “God’s Not Dead 2” press junket. She talked about joining a sequel which had none of the main cast members from the original returning to it, how social media has both helped and hindered the Christian movement, how she had to do a lot of reacting in this sequel, and why she feels likes an anomaly in today’s Hollywood.

Gods Not Dead 2 movie poster

Ben Kenber: It’s interesting how your character talks about Jesus as a historical figure and not a divine person, and yet it somehow leads to this legal case which dominates the movie.

Melissa Joan Hart: Well someone did ask us today in one of our interviews, “Is Jesus a bad word, and why has Jesus become a bad word?” You say Jesus you make people uncomfortable, especially Christians. I have become very comfortable with talking about things within my religion and within my faith. I have been a faithful person my whole life, but only in the last 5 years have I started bible study and really, really studying the word. It’s a hard thing to feel comfortable in this day and age. It’s weird that it used to be such an easy topic, and now it has become such a difficult, strained topic. You say things like “God bless you” and they look at you sideways. It is a weird situation going on these days, and so I like to make sure when someone sneezes that my kids go “God bless you” or if they see a man in military fatigues to say “thank you for your service.” People find it a little disconcerting, but when you do it they appreciate it. I was telling someone earlier about the ten commandments and someone pointed out to me and said, “Which of the ten commandments doesn’t hold up today?” The only one that seems to be fading out slightly is though shall not take my name in vain, and so I make sure I don’t, in my work, say “oh my god” or “OMG.” It really bothers me when other people do now, but in my house they don’t. My kids’ friends come over there and they are not allowed to say it and I’ll tell them why. If I feel the need to pray on an airplane because I’m terrified of flying, I’m not ashamed of that. I cross myself right there in front of whoever is watching. I had some controversy over a Christmas dinner at my house about whether everyone should go to church, and my stepfather brilliantly pointed out if anyone had gone to a Passover or any other kind of religious ceremony or holiday, you would respect that person’s wishes in their home. If you did accept that invitation to go to that event, you would be a part of it and not mock it. We are PC-ing ourselves to death here, literally. I think that’s why Trump is doing so well because he’s not correcting himself and he’s not being politically correct. He’s being completely politically incorrect, and not that I think he’s the best choice, but I can see the draw.

BK: Trump is definitely not the best choice and the fact that he has gotten as far as he has is frightening.

MJH: It’s disturbing.

BK: This is a sequel which features the same directors and some of the same writers but none of the main stars from the original returned for it. Was that ever a concern for you?

MJH: Actually I thought that was pretty exciting. I can’t recall another situation where that happened where they didn’t try to get the original cast and didn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a sequel where the star didn’t go on. Well, maybe “Bruce Almighty” (laughs).

BK: There have been a few sequels like that such as “Son of the Mask” and “28 Weeks Later.”

MJH: But this is a completely different story. It’s not even the same movie. It’s a different movie with similar undertones and a few recurring characters, but really it’s a different story and so that’s kind of exciting and interesting. It was definitely a blessing to step into a leading role in a film that’s already well-established as a movement. The first movie ignited a movement across the country and I think it rallied together the Christian community, especially the youth, and they took to social media and started a movement.

BK: Speaking of social media, do you feel that it has helped the Christian movement or taken away from it?

MJH: I think it’s done both. I read somewhere that they say cell phones are the cigarette of the twenty-first century. They say that for health reasons but I think it’s toxic to families. I read a study where they were observing parents sitting in restaurants with their kids, and if they were on their phone they were more likely to be more violent towards their children and impatient and have outbursts towards their children than the ones that weren’t on their phones. I do think social media plays a big part in that because we want to be attached, but we’re not attached. I remember being in my house on a Thanksgiving and sitting around with everybody. We were watching TV and I made some comment about what was on the TV and I was like, “Can you believe he said that?” And I looked around and everybody was on their phone, but they justified it by saying, “Well we’re playing Words with Friends with each other.” And I said, “Well then why don’t we just play Scrabble?” So I do think that social media can be completely toxic. We feel like we are connected when we are totally not connected. We worry more about followers than friends. But in that way we have also found a fellowship out there of people across the world that we can relate to on certain subjects and certain topics, and Christianity is definitely a big one. I think the movement behind “God’s Not Dead” is doing amazing things on social media.

BK: You talked about how you had to do a lot of reacting in this movie, and that was great to hear because listening is one of the key things in African do especially when they are in a movie. How tough was that for you?

MJH: It was really a lesson for me. Obviously I’ve done reaction shots before, but usually I’m talking at a fast pace but trying to be funny. Usually when you’re the lead of the movie you just talk endlessly. Every other line is your line. So it was hard for me to sit there and just observe and then react, but it was also a great lesson for me to take a deep breath and enjoy not having to learn lines, but also being a part of the scene without having a voice in it and trust that the filmmaker and producers have you protected. It was a little bit for me to wrap my head around that the first week. I was like, “Well I’m not even saying anything. I barely talk.” I didn’t even realize until I get there and you start really reading the lines and you go, “I don’t have a line all day! I’m in every scene but I don’t have a line or I say three words and that’s it.” Jesse’s got six pages. It was hard for me to switch roles, but I’m excited I got the opportunity to do it obviously. If I get the opportunity to do that sort of thing again I know how to handle it better, and hopefully I’ll improve and hopefully with each project you’ll improve.

BK: The two “God’s Not Dead” movies have very different stories. It’s kind of like what’s going on with the two “Cloverfield” movies in that it deals with the same thematic elements even though they each take place on a different timeline. This makes the “God’s Not Dead” franchise seem more like an anthology than anything else.

MJH: Which is why I’m bummed because I know I won’t be in the third movie (laughs). But that’s exciting too because it gives the audience something else. They can come to the movie have knowing what to expect, but part of the fun of film beginning is not knowing the twists and turns and not knowing these characters and infuse it with some new energy. It’s about opening up the stereotypes because as Christians I feel like a lot of people, when you say Christian or the name Jesus, go oh you’re going to judge me now or I don’t go to church enough for you or I don’t know the verses of the Bible. People are always so afraid to be judged and I feel like a lot of Christian films do a little stereotyping, but I feel like in this case with this movie it’s really evolved to a place where these characters are complex. They are real people and these are real human experiences. People will hopefully relate to it more because they will find someone they identify with in this movie or they will identify with everyone.

BK: A lot of criticism that was directed at the first “God’s Not Dead” movie was that there were a lot of Christian stereotypes, but this one has characters that are a lot more complex which makes it more interesting.

MJH: Yeah, you don’t necessarily have a protagonist and an antagonist. I’m the victim in a sense, but not if you are an atheist. With Robin Givens’ character, we didn’t really know which way her character was going until the re-shoots. So I actually asked the director, “Is she bad or is she good? Is she on my side or are we hinting at that?” They decided to keep her a little bit more on the side of evil, but they do walk this nice line with everybody. It’s just a very realistic view of people, and you can’t put people in boxes and you can’t stereotype. I’m a conservative Hollywood girl, and yet I grew up in New York. I’m a Republican so I don’t really fit in with the liberal views of Hollywood, but I’m also anti-gun and pro-choice so I don’t fit into that spectrum. I feel like I’m an anomaly because people can’t figure out where to put me, you know?

BK: It’s interesting to hear you say that because in this day and age we have reduced so many things down to soundbites to where it’s far too easy to label everybody and anybody so broadly.

MJH: Yes. I said I was voting for Romney on Twitter years ago for the election, and instantly I got people saying you must be anti-gay, you must hate all other races, etc. Instantly it was like I just got pigeonholed into then you must be this way if you vote that way instead of just thinking maybe the other choice wasn’t so great (laughing).

BK: “God’s Not Dead 2” was a low budget movie that was shot in less than a month. Did the speed of that help you at all?

MJH: The speed of a movie never helps. They are trying to make movies faster and faster and faster these days which ends up putting a lot of pressure on the crew. So when you do speed these things up, the process is not helpful to the production. They say it puts more money on the screen but I don’t think it does. I think time really helps especially the performances. It’s hard to rush a performance. It’s hard to be like, “Hurry up! Cry! Okay, next scene!” But I feel like working in television you get used to a very rigid schedule and a very fast pace which also kind of kills a performance because I’m used to trying to make sure I hit my marks so I get my letting right. I don’t bang on my microphone so I don’t ruin sound. But am I really think about my performance when I’m thinking about all these other things as well? Did I hit my mark? Am I in the light? My makeup artist is telling me to keep my eye open and to keep my head up. If we had more time to rehearse it and feel it out and do everything and go through it systematically performances would be better, so I think that’s the main thing that suffers, the creativity behind the film, when you rush through it. They save a lot of money and it does get you back to your family faster, but at the same time it’s like you still can only work 12 hours a day.

I want to thank Melissa Joan Hart for taking the time to talk with me. “God’s Not Dead” is now available to own and rent on DVD and Blu-ray. Please visit the movie’s website (www.godnotdeadthemovie.com) for more information.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2016.

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Exclusive Interview with Jonathan Gold on ‘City of Gold’

Jonathan Gold photo

For those of you who see Los Angeles as an infinitely shallow and superficial city bereft of culture, try looking at it through the eyes of Jonathan Gold. Food critic for the Los Angeles Times, LA Weekly and winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Gold is known for his robust writings of Los Angeles restaurants, and he has gone out of his way to review small family owned eateries in the city’s ethnic enclaves as well as the trendier eateries in Beverly Hills. In the process, his reviews have changed the lives of many immigrants who continue to cook the food of their countries, and they have provided readers with a deeper understanding of the cultural landscape of Los Angeles which continues to astonish new visitors and longtime locals.

Gold is the subject of the documentary “City of Gold” which was directed by Laura Gabbert whose previous works include “No Impact Man” and “Sunset Story.” It follows the award winning critic around Los Angeles as he checks out restaurants, and we get to meet many of the chefs whose careers really took off after he reviewed their restaurants. In the process, the documentary also comes to reveal Gold’s deep love of this city and of how it has brought many different kinds of people together.

It was a pleasure to speak with Gold during time off from his day job, and he talked at length about the challenges he experienced making this documentary and how it affected him as a food critic.

Ben Kenber: How were you approached to do this documentary? Was it something you were open to doing or were you hesitant about it at first?

Jonathan Gold: Oh I was absolutely not open to doing it. It’s a tradition of anonymous restaurant critics in the United States. I’ve been approached by reality TV a lot, but I always said no. The filmmaker, Laura Gabbert… It’s sort of a weird story. I donated a dinner with a critic to a silent auction at a school a friend’s kid went to and she bought it. We went out to dinner at the first iteration of LudoBites, Ludo Lefebvre’s pop-up restaurant, and she brought it up and I laughed it off, and she called and we had coffee a few times and it was still not going to happen. And then my kid ended up going to that school, and somehow when you see somebody every day at the drop off line it becomes inevitable in a certain way. I had been thinking a lot about anonymity. It had almost been an impossible concept at the moment, restaurant criticism, with the very, very, very few exceptions. The restaurants that really need to know who the critics are know who the critics are, and nobody stays anonymous for more than a couple of months. I had been reviewing restaurants for more than 20 years and I just figured that it was okay to give it up. It was less a question of actually being anonymous then pretending not to notice them pretending not to notice me noticing them and noticing me. Very meta (laughs).

BK: I have heard restaurant workers have a very high mortality rate. Is that a subject you have ever dealt with in your reviews?

JG: No, not so much, but it’s really physically demanding work. You get up really early, you’re on your feet all day, you are around things that are very sharp and are very hot, and you’re breathing in vapors and smoke and things all day. You’re in a place that has a ton of alcohol because that is why it exists. So I admire the people who could do it as much as a sports writer admires athletes. It takes a lot of stamina.

BK: In the documentary we learn early on you were originally a music critic and later became a food critic. What were the differences of being a critic for each?

JG: Well I’ve actually always done both. I would go to dinner on the way to the show, and then I would review the restaurant and I would review the show. That’s how I did it for years and years. I didn’t think they were incompatible at all (laughs). But one of the things I liked about writing about food just as a profession is that when you write about music you deal with layers and layers of publicists, and I remember I did a Rolling Stone cover on Snoop and Dre. I counted at one point because it started to get weird, but there were more than 1100 phone calls to the publicists. When you are dealing with the restaurant you just go to the restaurant, so it was easier that way. It was a good piece but man, it seemed like a full time job dealing with that.

BK: Once filming began, did it take a long time for you to get used to the cameras following you around?

JG: I wouldn’t say that it took me a long time, but it may have actually taken me a long time. It was like one day a week, one day every other week, and Laura Gabbert, the director, would show up with the cinematographer and someone doing sound and they would crowd into the back of my pickup truck and we’d drive around and we’d stop somewhere. I didn’t really know what to do at first. It’s hard to talk freely when you just have a camera pointed at you and a boom microphone like tickling you, but I think over the course of filming it, it became a little less strange and a little more natural. The people I had lunch with and dinner with never got used to it quite as much as I did just because it was an inherently awkward situation. But it must be said that I laid down guidelines at the beginning for filming. I didn’t want her to fill me actually reviewing a restaurant. She would’ve liked that and it would’ve given the movie an arc, but I didn’t want to give her an arc actually because I didn’t want anything dramatic to happen. And I put down for a long time that she couldn’t film my kids because they deserve their privacy, and of course it turned out that they wanted to be in the film so they were. There were probably a few others, but with those boundaries drawn and the fact that I wasn’t actually going to have to interview anybody, I wasn’t going to act as a journalist and I was just going to be a person doing possibly journalistic things.

BK: The movie starts with you sitting in front of your computer and looking pensive, and then you begin to type something. Were you actually writing a review at that moment?

JG: Yeah. Actually I refused to have it staged and they shot it in a lot of different ways, but I was actually always writing a piece when I was doing it. Not necessarily the piece that was coming on the voiceover because… I don’t know if you’ve done it, but pretending to type looks like somebody pretending to type, and it’s always bothersome in movies.

BK: Did you have or want any artistic control over the documentary, or were you content to have Laura just have her way with it?

JG: I had essentially no artistic control over it. I’m the subject in the way that you are interviewing people. The people that you are interviewing don’t have any input into the story you are writing and they shouldn’t, and she was committing an act of journalism and I was the subject. I saw a rough cut of it and I’m not sure there was anything I objected to. Sometimes I wish I had combed my hair (laughs) and sometimes I wish I’d said something in a more articulate fashion, but I talk the way I talk.

BK: Was there anything taken out of the documentary that you wish had stayed in?

JG: There was a scene that I loved where I was giving a presentation at the MAD conference in Copenhagen, and that’s a conference that happens every couple of years. They couldn’t send anybody but they lent my daughter a camera and she took footage and she put it together in a certain way. It’s sort of a beautiful scene, but ultimately it didn’t really fit into the narrative of the film and it was cut. I will always become exercised on behalf of my children (laughs). I think it’s almost demanded.

BK: How would you say you ever evolved as a critic over the years you have done this work?

JG: I think I understand that there’s more and I think I understand that there is less. The more I do this, the more I write, the more it feels like I actually know.

BK: You are so good at describing things in your work to where you give the reader very vivid images of the stuff you are writing about. How do you accomplish that?

JG: Actually that was maybe one thing I worked at pretty hard. I thought that describing food was my one weakness when I first started writing about food. I was good at getting you into the room and I was good at describing the context and telling you why you were there, but sometimes my descriptions of the food were a little bit tough. I actually worked at it and worked at it, and I figure it’s like Kobe Bryant taking 1000 free throws a day. It’s like eventually he’s going to figure out where the basket is.

BK: Has doing this documentary changed the way you write about food at all?

JG: No, not at all.

I want to thank Jonathan Gold for taking the time to talk with me. To find out more about “City of Gold,” be sure to visit the documentary’s website at www.cityofgolddoc.com.

Exclusive Video Interview with J.K. Simmons on ‘Break Point’

It’s been a very busy time for J.K. Simmons ever since he won an Oscar for his truly frightening performance in “Whiplash” as he has not been lacking for work in the slightest. We watched him steal scenes from Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Terminator Genisys,” and now he steals the show yet again in the sports comedy “Break Point.” In it he plays Jack Price, a veterinarian, widow and father of two boys who were once a great tennis team but have long since become estranged from one another. When the boys decide to re-team to take one last shot at winning the grand slam tournament, Jack is pleased to see his sons playing together again. But will Jack be able to keep the peace when his sons inevitably clash over who’s the better player?

Now whereas many actors would take the father role and either overplay it or underplay it, Simmons finds a middle ground to where he makes Jack a believably down to earth guy who is relatable and someone you would really like to hang out with. He is such a wonderful presence in “Break Point” to where you want his onscreen sons to thank the lord they have such a wonderful father in their lives. The actor also brings his trademark deadpan humor to the role which is always a welcome addition.

Simmons sat down with me for an interview at the “Break Point” press day held in Los Angeles, California. He talked about his approach to playing Jack Price and how making the movie helped change his view on the game of tennis. He also talked about his experience making “Terminator Genisys” which allowed him to play the kind of character he usually doesn’t get cast as: a good guy.

Check out the interview above. “Break Point” is now available to watch on various formats. To find out how you can watch it, be sure to visit the movie’s website at www.thebreakpointfilm.com.

Copyright Ben Kenber 2015.

Break point movie poster

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