Darren Star doesn't want you to know that he spent a portion of his bar mitzvah money to buy himself a subscription to Variety, the entertainment industry's bible. It's been written about before, he claims. But it's just too good a story not to include it. Because somehow it sums Star up perfectly: The sweet 13-year-old bar mitzvah boy with his eye on the prize -- Hollywood -- even then. A far better investment than a pen set.
Star, the creator and executive producer of three of the last decade's most popular television phenomena -- "Beverly Hills, 90210," "Melrose Place" and the three time Golden Globe and Emmy Award-winning HBO comedy series "Sex and the City" -- is being honored Monday night with the Tisch Industry Leadership Award at the National Foundation for Jewish Culture's third annual Jewish Image Awards.
As co-creator and executive producer, Star is currently in production on "Miss Match," a romantic "dramedy" starring Alicia Silverstone, which makes its debut Friday, Sept. 26 on NBC. He is also adapting the memoirs of Jewish photojournalist Deborah Copaken into a feature film for DreamWorks.
Hollywood screenwriter Andrea King, a former journalist who grew up in Potomac, Md., with Star, spoke to him about -- what else? -- Jewish images in Hollwyood.
Andrea King: What impact do you think the depiction of Jewish characters on TV or in film plays in shaping our views of ethnic or religious groups?
Darren Star: It's easy to fall into a stereotypical depiction of a Jewish person. And when characters are identified as Jewish, it broadens peoples concepts and awareness of who Jewish people are. Living in large cities, I think we're under the assumption or misconception that these stereotypes are a joke, but in fact I think in areas where people don't know Jewish people their ideas of who Jewish people are often formed by the media.
AK: What are the hallmarks of a successful Jewish character?
DS: I think the hallmark of a successful Jewish character is not to think or define that person as Jewish. First, you want to create a well-rounded character whom people can identify with and find areas of commonality with so they realize that they have similarities as well as differences.
I think people are very familiar with the "Jewish stereotype." The challenge now to creating a Jewish character is to go beyond the stereotypes and try to define what identifies that person as being Jewish in a unique way (i.e., their values, etc.). To me the trick is to create an interesting character whose religion is another layer to who he or she is.
AK: Which Jewish characters in film and television do you think have been great?
DS: I like Tom Cruise in "Mission Impossible." That's my favorite Jewish character. I assume anyone that good-looking, smart and athletic has to be Jewish.
AK: Why do you think it is that film and TV seem better at conveying Jewish ethnicity than Jewish spirituality?
DS: Very little spirituality of any kind is conveyed in film and television. People are basically uncomfortable dealing with religious themes in entertainment. Entertainment is something that brings people together, thus spirituality in film and TV is presented in a broader context without being religion-specific. Unless we're talking about "The Exorcist."
AK: When you write or create Jewish characters are you more conscious of helping to define the "Jewish Image" in culture?
DS: I try to think about creating a good character first. It think it's dangerous to get too wrapped up in creating an archetypal Jewish character. Successful Jewish characters are successful Jewish characters. Period. I go out of my way to avoid creating stereotypical characters, but being Jewish myself, my values and my sensibilities inhabit the characters I create. And just because characters aren't necessarily identified as Jewish doesn't mean that they can't be Jewish. Your family, your past is always part of the characters you create. I came from a close family that has a great sense of humor, told a lot of stories, and I think that sense of family definitely is infused through my work.... Also, classic Jewish comedy of Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Jim Brooks has a huge influence not only over my work, but over everybody working in TV today.
AK: Why do you think the Jewish Image Awards are important?
DS: It's easy to fall into a stereotypical depiction of a Jewish person, and when characters are identified as Jewish it broadens peoples concepts and awareness of who Jewish people are. Living in large cities, I think we're under the assumption or misconception that these stereotypes are a joke, but in fact I think in areas where people don't know Jewish people, their ideas of who Jewish people are often formed by the media.
AK: Is there any Jewish content on "Miss Match?" [Samantha Daniels, whose life it's based on and Alicia Silverstone, the star, are both Jewish.]
DS: There's a universality about this character, she could be Jewish, but we've chosen not to make her religion a factor in the story.
As a storyteller, identifying a character's religion becomes an important part of what you are telling the audience about your character -- thus, sometimes it's relevant and sometimes it's not.
I don't think I win the award for creating the most Jewish characters, but growing up in an area where there were a lot of Jewish people, it feels very normal for me to populate my world with Jewish characters. I see them in my world and in my life, so it feels odd not to have them around.
AK: Carrie in "Sex and the City" seems Jewish because she's played by Sarah Jessica Parker, but she has no ethnicity. Was that a conscious choice?
DS: Yes, I feel that definitely, Carrie Bradshaw, in many ways, can be considered a Jewish character. She wasn't specifically written as a Jewish character, because there was a universality to her, but a lot of her qualities people would attribute to someone who is Jewish. But it wasn't necessary to define her as any religion.
The character I have most tried to break Jewish stereotypes with is Kim Cattrall's character on "Sex and the City" -- sex-crazed and blonde.... Now, there's a Jewish stereotype broken!