The impoverished, self-styled aristocrat who mentors Jonathan Ames’ alter ego in his novel, “The Extra Man” (now a movie starring Kevin Kline), thinks women should know their place. “The women I like best are the ones in Williamsburg. The Hasidic women,” the imperious Henry Harrison opines in Ames’ 1998 novel. “They seem to have the right touch. They wear gingham gowns like Mary Pickford. But I don’t like the men’s costumes at all. It’s not very attractive to wear your hair in pigtails, and the black hats aren’t very good.”
Ames’ alter-ego, Louis Ives, a blond, self-loathing Jew, reflects: “I was relieved that he had said something positive about Jews….I felt more desirable as a roommate if I were viewed as an Aryan. It is a weakness of my character that I always think to hide my Jewish identity.”
The novel is now a movie by the Oscar-nominated husband-and-wife filmmakers Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini (“American Splendor”)—with Ames as the co-screenwriter and executive producer. Like all of Ames’ work, the movie involves eccentricities—including unfortunate incidents with brassieres, cross-dressing, people who are “tri-sexual” and other fringy New York characters. (Ames is also the creator of HBO’s quirky detective comedy, “Bored to Death,” which returns for a second season on Sept. 26.)
Last year, Ames told me that, like the fictional Louis in his novel “The Extra Man,” he once followed a pursuit he describes as “religious cross-dressing:” primping his blond hair and donning blazers to “infiltrate WASP society” in his 20s. While at Princeton University, Ames had become smitten by what he calls “the aesthetics of the WASPy young gentleman” as depicted in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald. And when this charade put him in hearing distance of an anti-Semitic remark, he often said nothing, hoping to “pass” and to be liked. “I had my own interior Jewish self-prejudice,” the 46-year-old writer said. Ames based “The Extra Man” on his relationship with a mentor and roommate he had as an impressionable youth in Manhattan, who contrived to live the high life by acting as an “Extra Man,” i.e. an escort to wealthy elderly women.
While Ames was busy preparing for the second season of “Bored to Death,” I caught up with Pulcini and Berman to discuss the movie version of “The Extra Man” and how they were initially drawn to the project.
Naomi Pfefferman: The last time we spoke was about your 2003 film, “American Splendor,” about the brilliant but cranky comic book icon Harvey Pekar. Do you have a predilection for characters who are “out there,” so to speak?
Shari Springer Berman: We started out in documentaries, so we have the documentary instinct for extreme characters. We didn’t make political documentaries; we made character documentaries like “Off the Menu: The Last Days of Chasen’s” and we did one about the Hollywood Forever cemetery called “The Young and the Dead,” so we’ve always had this fascination for really extreme, interesting characters.
NP: How did that interest translate into your feature films?
SSB: I’m less interested in making movies I know Hollywood likes to make – movies about good-looking people who’re having dating problems; or a guy who can’t get laid or whatever. Those people aren’t extreme enough for us to sink our teeth into.
NP: Did you know Ames’ work before you received the offer to adapt “The Extra Man?”
Robert Pulcini: Honestly, we weren’t aware of his work at all. But Jonathan’s manager kept trying to get his work to us because she thought we would respond to his talent. Jonathan’s talent is very specific: He’s got a very unique voice; he’s got this very gentle way of telling stories, but I love his sense of humor and it just clicked with us.
SSB: His work is very literate, very intelligent and bawdy.
RP: But never unkind or judgmental. Jonathan is very generous; no matter who the person is or how strange their kink is, he has a love and affection for them. So we got “The Extra Man” on a weekend read and I loved it; I was laughing out loud. I said, “Shari, you have to read this”—and she read it and felt exactly the same way. And then we found out that [our manager] had meant to send us something else by Jonathan – my manager said, “Don’t read ‘The Extra Man,’” but we said, “It’s too late, we’ve fallen in love with it.” And we found out it was available, and so we decided to option it. We had no idea there had already been many incarnations of people who had attempted to make it into a movie before we came along. But we were very optimistic and we worked with Jonathan on the script and it all came together very quickly.
NP: Did working with Harvey Pekar prepare you for working with Jonathan Ames?
SSB: Nothing compares to Harvey. There’s only one Harvey, and there’s only one Jonathan Ames. But Jonathan is very functional.
RP: I don’t know how functional he is in his personal life, but [professionally] he’s disciplined and he’s a writer and he wants to get things done. You know, Harvey is just on his own wavelength; he plays by his own rules completely.
SSB: Harvey kept saying, “I just care about the bread, man.” Like all he wanted was just to get paid…. I love Harvey, he’s one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met, but when it came to artistic collaboration on writing the script and stuff like that he was like, “I trust you, man, I just want my bread.” Jonathan is an artist and he’s got a vision and a perspective. It was great to work with him and he definite cared; he didn’t just want his “bread.”
NP: In the novel, “The Extra Man,” the character of Louis is overtly Jewish – or rather trying to hide his Judaism – but that’s not the case in the movie.
SSB: Yes, there is a lot of that in the book, but we all agreed that there was no room for it in the movie. There actually is a subplot in the novel about Henry making anti-Semitic remarks and Louis, who is Jewish in the book, lets him do it and sort of accepts it and tries to pass himself off as German. It was really interesting but such a deep, psychological thing that we thought it would be too hard to fit into the film. In the movie, you don’t know whether Louis is Jewish or not.
NP: You did keep a version of the lines from the novel in which Henry says he likes Hasidic women – he thinks they “get it” about how submissive women should be.
SSB: I thought that was the funniest thing, because it was just so weird and specific. And what is it that he thinks Hasidic women “get?” I think he’s saying they’re more old-fashioned…
RP: That they have a definite sense of gender roles, which appeals to Henry. But the thing is, Henry has these opinions that he blurts out quite confidently, but who knows what he’s thinking when he says them. That’s kind of the fun of Henry: He just powers through, he’s very determined in his world view and just keeps going forward with it. But a lot of his ideas are quite hollow when you really pull them apart.
SSB: One of the things I found really funny about the [Hasidic] line—which is one of my favorite lines in the book and the movie—is actually imagining Henry hanging out with a Hasidic woman –imagining the two of them like going out to lunch or something.
RP: Kevin [Kline, who plays Henry in the film] always compares his character to Falstaff [from Shakespeare’s plays]. He said Falstaff was an inspiration for him – in the character’s determination to survive and his commitment to his persona.
NP: Since you live in Manhattan, did you consider Henry Harrison a kind of archetypal New York character?
SSB: Absolutely. Go to any free screening at the Museum of Modern Art, and you’ll see people who have gone to every single free event where there’s free food. We always say Henry was in it for the cheese platter – like he’d go to the opening of an envelope, if it came with free cheese. I had a great-uncle, Arthur, who reminded me a lot of Henry. He wasn’t an “extra man,” although it wouldn’t have surprised me if he did that at some point in his life. He was kind of the black sheep of the family, so I didn’t get to know him until he was in his late 80s. One day my mother called and said he lived about three blocks away from us on the Upper West Side. We ended up becoming good friends of his and helped take care of him before he died.
NP: How did Uncle Arthur remind you of Henry Harrison?
SSB: He was a failed poet.
RP: He had an apartment he rented for $125 a month – a one-bedroom walkup.
SSB: In a brownstone.
RP: It was a disaster inside.
SSB: His apartment was far more extreme than Henry Harrison’s. Uncle Arthur was also obsessed with books.
RP: He always wore a tie.
SSB: Once I went to visit him in the hospital after he had had a heart attack, and it was the cutest thing—I’ll never forget he was walking down the hall to get his New York Times, since he couldn’t live without his Times; so he was walking with like an IV to get his Times and he had a tie on – he put a tie on with his hospital gown. And he was a man of letters, never married….And he would go to the museum, and sort of lived on the fringe of culture. He was one of those invisible people in New York that really do exist: They live in walkup apartments and they want to be playwrights or artists or poets and it just doesn’t work out for them. But they still haunt the museums and you see them walking around, eating the freebies – and Uncle Arthur was always there for a freebie.
NP: What were you able to bring from your uncle to Kevin Kline’s character?
RP: It was certainly this immediately recognition that what Jonathan was writing was authentic.
SSB: Uncle Arthur was also Jewish, by the way. He was born on Allen Street on the Lower East Side, and his family was very religious. But he was not a practicing Jew.
NP: When you were adapting “The Extra Man” into a screenplay, how did you handle the sexual strangeness of the story – Louis’ penchant for cross-dressing, for example, or Henry insisting that the most interesting people are “tri-sexual?”
SSB: Of course people can be heterosexual cross dressers, and that is what we determined was going on with Louis. But we also felt that Louis was very confused and Jonathan seemed to have been that way [as a young man] as well. Jonathan said in the book, and in talking to us, that there was a loneliness he felt; that he wanted love and he didn’t have it. And he confused dressing like a woman and looking at himself in the mirror as seeing love—actually having love from a woman. It came from his own insecurities and issues and fears of rejection. So we tried to understand, and to work with what was going on with Louis in the same way.