Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
William Peter Blatty was a Georgetown University student in August 1949 when he came across a front-page story in the Washington Post titled “Priest Frees Mt. Rainier Boy Reported Held in Devil’s Grip.” Blatty, a devout Catholic, was fascinated by the accounts of the 14-year-old’s bed violently shaking and torrents of curses in Latin whenever the exorcist commanded the demon to leave the boy.
Two decades later, Blatty recalled this case and others to create his 1971 iconic supernatural suspense novel, “The Exorcist,” in which a 12-year-old girl named Regan is possessed by a malevolent spirit. The novel became a best-seller and was turned into an Oscar-winning film, an international sensation that had patrons fainting in the theater as the Regan character spewed thick green vomit, turned her head around 360 degrees and masturbated with a crucifix.
Blatty has insisted that he never intended to terrify viewers: “What I thought I was writing was a novel of faith in the popular dress of a thrilling and suspenseful detective story — in other words a sermon that no one could possibly sleep through,” Blatty wrote in a piece for Fox News last year.
Even so, his screenplay for William Friedkin’s 1973 movie adaptation proved so startlingly horrific that it spawned sequels and prequels as well as a genre of films spotlighting the demonic — from “The Omen” franchise to the upcoming “The Possession,” which draws on the Jewish legend of the dybbuk, a spirit that possesses a person.
Now Blatty’s novel has been adapted into a play, “The Exorcist,” by John Pielmeier (“Agnes of God”), which will have its world premiere at the Geffen Playhouse on July 11. Starring Brooke Shields and Richard Chamberlain, and directed by John Doyle (“Sweeney Todd”), it revisits the story of Regan; her mother, Chris (Shields), a movie star and self-described atheist; Father Damien Karras (David Wilson Barnes), the Jesuit psychiatrist suffering a crisis of faith; and chief exorcist Father Merrin (Chamberlain), who is called on to cast out the demon in the climactic sequences at the end of the play.
But if you expect the new drama to have the movie’s grisly effects, think again. “From the start I said I have no interest in trying to reproduce the movie on stage — this should be a piece that is very much of the theater,” Pielmeier, 63, said in an interview at the Geffen on a recent morning. “We didn’t want green vomit or spinning heads, otherwise we risked getting into the arena of camp.”
The set is simple — just a table and chairs — and the dialogue spare in order to spotlight the story and to allow viewers to use their imagination. Unlike the casting in the film, Regan will be played by an adult actress, avoiding the controversy that erupted when 13-year-old Linda Blair portrayed Regan in the movie. “You don’t want a child cursing and grotesquely arching her body, because then there are people who are going to say, ‘How come her parents let her do that?’ ” Pielmeier explained. “You don’t want it to break the fourth wall, or rather, the fifth wall, because we’re already breaking the fourth wall in the play.”
Story continues after the jump
Video by Naomi Pfefferman; Edited by Jeffrey Hensiek
Early in the production, Merrin addresses the audience, describing the history of the concept of Satan, which in Hebrew “means adversary, one who opposes,” he says. And while the play is set in the world of Catholicism, its themes should also resonate for Jews and other non-Catholics: “It raises the question of the existence of evil, and certainly Father Merrin comes down very strongly on the side of yes, it does exist,” Pielmeier said. “The opening line of the play is when Merrin says, ‘For anyone who doubts the existence of the devil, as I once did, I have three words: Auschwitz. Cambodia. Somalia.’ Even nonbelievers can accept the devil as a metaphor, for all the bad, dark, horrible s—- that happens in the world,” Pielmeier said. “What interests me is how, in our moments of despair, the demonic — or whatever you want to call it, the dark side — can come to us.”
One nonbeliever involved in the show is Teller, of the magic team Penn & Teller, whose father was a Russian Jew but who is such a staunch atheist that, among other endeavors, he has attempted to debunk religion as well as the supernatural on the duo’s “Penn & Teller: Bulls—-” TV series. As the creative consultant for “The Exorcist,” he may be responsible for illusions such as Regan levitating; although he has to keep mum about his work, he will say that supernatural events will be represented through elements of church ritual, often with a disturbing twist. As for why the atheist was drawn to such a religious story, Teller said, simply, “I’m a nut for a good horror yarn. This story is essentially the supernaturalization of the idea of the play ‘The Bad Seed’ — it really is about how frightening children can be to their parents. The demon child has always been a very powerful image, and you’ve also got the devil here, which is very powerful as well.”
Pielmeier — a compact man dressed casually in jeans, a pink-and-white striped shirt and magenta socks with his sneakers — spoke thoughtfully of his interest in religious themes. He says he was a devout Catholic from childhood until his senior year at a parochial high school in Altoona, Pa., when, while reading Thomas Hardy’s “Return of the Native,” he was shattered by a section of the story in which a woman is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies. “It was a fictional character, but [her death] bothered me deeply and threw me into a place where I started asking why God would allow such things to happen — ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’ ” said Pielmeier, who nevertheless went on to Catholic University in Washington, D.C. “I became very worried and depressed for a time.”
Pielmeier stopped attending church while in college and never went back, although, he added, “I’ve remained fascinated with Catholicism and the richness of that tradition, just as the tradition of Judaism is incredibly rich.”
He wrote his play “Agnes of God,” as well as the screenplay for the 1985 film version, in order to explore what might happen if someone who might have been considered a saint in medieval times was transported to the 20th century — would they have been deemed godly or insane? When producers approached Pielmeier to adapt Blatty’s novel “The Exorcist,” he saw another opportunity to examine the argument of faith versus Freud.
Pielmeier traveled to Blatty’s home in Maryland to pitch his idea: “It was basically to have no extraordinary special effects, a small cast who are on stage all the time, very Brechtian in presentation, with the demon present on stage,” he said. “I didn’t just want a voice coming out of a little girl; I wanted the demon to be present, as this is in many ways a debate between the demon and
Father Karras, like ‘The Devil and Daniel Webster,’ ” he said. “And I didn’t want [Karras] debating with some growling voice coming out of an actor who was trying to lip-synch with a pre-recorded voice.”
It was Doyle — who is known for his minimalist productions — who suggested that the demon be portrayed not just by one actor, but by four members of the ensemble, who also play other roles. To embody the fiend, they don priests’ cassocks as their voices boom like a Greek chorus, “which enhances the notion that the demon is faceless, and that he can be anywhere,” Doyle said.
Shields, who is known predominantly for her comic roles, said she was looking for a dramatic piece when “The Exorcist” came her way, even though, she said, “Part of me was hoping I wouldn’t like it, because it’s hardly a light topic to do eight times a week.” She was drawn, however, to the poetry of the text and to the themes of good and evil, faith and doubt, courage and despair, as well as motherhood on the edge.
But rehearsals have proved grueling — “harder than I had imagined,” she said. The atmosphere is meant to be stifling for the audience, with no intermission for respite, and Shields feels the claustrophobia as well.
The exorcism scenes, in particular, have been uncomfortable: “It’s so creepy; just being in that rehearsal room is eerie,” she said. “The language is rough and things are said that are vile. But there is also such a lyricism in the way that John Doyle directs; you feel the power of the characters of faith that allows them to face this horror.”
“Deep down we realize how fragile everything in our lives is, including our culture and our religions — everything in civilization is just skin deep,” Chamberlain said. “It just takes a bit of pressure — not enough food, for example — to turn us into beasts.” And herein lies our enduring obsession with the demonic: “We enjoy seeing the mayhem personified,” Chamberlain said, “because it’s cathartic.”
Tickets to “The Exorcist,” which plays at the Geffen July 11- Aug. 12, are available in-person at the Geffen Playhouse box office, via phone at 310-208-5454 or online at www.geffenplayhouse.com.
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June 25, 2012 | 3:30 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
I spoke to the Grammy-winning hip-hop singer and violinist Miri Ben-Ari a few minutes ago, just as the Israeli-born artist was about to take the stage at Boston Symphony Hall to perform for President Barack Obama and a sold-out crowd of 1,800 viewers at an Obama Victory Fund 2012 reception. Here’s what she had to say about her presidential gig:
Q: How did this all come about?
A: Last year I performed at the White House for First Lady Michelle Obama, where I was honored as part of Women’s History Month. I performed a song that was a special request by the First Lady: “The Symphony of Brotherhood,” and we kept in touch. When this campaign and this event came about I was approached to take part in it and lend support.
Q: Why is this event important to you?
A: Because I consider myself as part of the American dream; I came to New York—to America—from Israel, with no money, no family and I hardly spoke any English. I just came here with my violin and a dream and I would like to make sure that Obama is successful, to keep this dream going. And I think that Obama is the only one in this race with a vision of moving this country forward.
Q: Are you concerned about all the criticism the president has received from some in the far-right pro-Israel community?
A: Not at all, because he is a great friend of Israel and he has demonstrated that above and beyond. And what really matters to me is the action he has taken: for example, he has increased Israel security funding, and he’s been working to prevent Iran from compiling nuclear weapons—so his support for Israel is without a doubt. As for any of his critics, people criticize things all the time; you just have to fight for what you believe in.
Q: What will you be performing tonight?
A: I’ll do some of my original music and of course “The Symphony of Brotherhood,” which features Dr. Martin Luther King and his “I Have a Dream” speech. I am so honored and so looking forward to performing for the president and to be a part of this campaign, and helping to bring his message before the American people and also the Jewish community in America.
June 20, 2012 | 12:04 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Alex Kurtzman is one of Hollywood’s go-to scribes for science fiction and superhero fare. Along with his writing partner, Roberto Orci, he’s penned blockbusters like “Transformers,” a couple of “Star Trek” films, one of them upcoming, and “Mission Impossible III.” His office suite on the Universal Pictures lot is filled with mementos of these testosterone-fests: a model of the Starship Enterprise, for example, as well as framed posters of all his movies vying for space on the wall of a screening room. But the 38-year-old filmmaker, whose earnest dark eyes shine behind black-rimmed glasses, is making his directorial debut with an intimate character study titled “People Like Us,” which has nary a robot nor a spacecraft in sight.
“But,” he said “it reflects me in a deeper way than anything I’ve ever done.”
Loosely based on Kurtzman’s own family history, the drama is the story of Sam (Chris Pine), a narcissistic young man who, after the death of his estranged father, a music industry legend, is charged with delivering $150,000 in inheritance money to a half sister, Frankie (Elizabeth Banks), he never knew he had. As their relationship unfolds, Sam is forced to rethink everything he thought he knew about his family, as well as his own life choices.
The film’s conceit stems from an unexpected encounter Kurtzman had seven years ago at his aunt and uncle’s 50th wedding anniversary party, when a woman suddenly approached him and said, “Hi, I’m your sister.” Actually, it was his half sister, but Kurtzman had never met her before. Even so, he saw his father’s features in her face. “I was in shock,” he said. “My brain just shut down. I couldn’t process what I’d been told, and at the same time I had so many questions I didn’t know what to ask first.”
Unlike the fictional Sam, Kurtzman knew from childhood that he had a half sister, as well as a half brother somewhere out in the world. On his fifth birthday, his father, a dentist, sat Alex down and told him that he had older children from a previous marriage that had ended in divorce. But thereafter, the matter wasn’t discussed in the Kurtzman household in Santa Monica, nor did the half siblings attend the family’s Jewish and other celebrations. “We just never talked about it,” said Kurtzman, who was raised culturally Jewish and who had to think hard to recall whether he had even seen a photograph of his older siblings as a child. “We were separated by age and geography,” he added.
“I spent my life having moments of wondering where they were and what they were like, and at one point I started to feel that more acutely,” he said. “My wife and I were talking about the possibility of children, and that obviously brings up a lot about family and where you come from.”
One day, a cinematic image flashed into Kurtzman’s mind, of siblings who met only as adults discovering home videos of themselves playing together as children, a lost memory.
It was that very night that Kurtzman serendipitously met his own half sister, which sparked a series of heartfelt discussions. “It became about filling in the blanks,” said the filmmaker, who declined to reveal more about his sister save that she is around 50 and “incredibly brave, super-athletic, smart, thoughtful and understanding.” “We compared notes about where we’d been at different points in our lives, so we could do the math and figure out what our trajectories were.”
Kurtzman also asked his relatives why the families had remained separate, but declined to elaborate on the answers in an attempt to protect their privacy. “There isn’t a color of emotion I haven’t felt,” he said, when asked if he had felt angry about the separation. “But the most overwhelming feeling that both my sister and I had was a sense of lost time; we wished we could have been there for each other. And the deep gratitude of finally getting to know each other, with the hope that it’s never too late.”
The experience proved so life altering that Kurtzman instantly knew he wanted to make a movie about it, albeit highly fictionalized, and enlisted Orci and a college friend, Jody Lambert, to help him write the film.
The movie also draws on Kurtzman’s youthful aspirations of becoming a writer of independent films like Steven Soderbergh’s “Sex, Lies, and Videotape.” He said he carried that screenplay around in his backpack at Crossroads School, where he met Orci, in a French New Wave cinema class, during his senior year. Orci happened to have the same script in his own book bag, sparking a friendship and collaboration that led the partners to earn writing positions on J.J. Abrams’ “Alias” while still in their 20s.
Writing “People Like Us” wasn’t easy—and not only because the filmmakers couldn’t just cut to a shot of an explosion to create cinematic tension. Kurtzman feared his own family story simply wasn’t dramatic enough to sustain a feature film.
As it turned out, Orci had his own family secret: His great-uncle had had a clandestine second family—“He even named the children the same so as not to make mistakes,” Orci said in an interview. “So the mixing of our two family experiences seemed like a good way to dramatize the shock of encountering family you’d never met before.”
While Sam’s parents are nothing like Kurtzman’s, the character and his creator share some emotional truths, particularly “the sense of longing, that they’re missing something—it’s like a phantom limb—which is very authentic to my own experience,” he said.
What’s different is that the film’s half brother and half sister have both been made to feel broken by their aloof father, “and they have exactly the same armor to deal with that—humor and lies—they just do it in different ways,” Kurtzman said. “But all their armor turns out to be totally useless against each other.”
Making a movie based upon his own experience has been cathartic for Kurtzman, who with Orci is now penning the sequel for the upcoming “The Amazing Spider-Man” and rebooting “The Mummy” franchise for Universal.
“What I’ve learned is that judging people for their choices is in some ways the easiest thing to do, until you’re in their shoes and faced with the same [dilemmas],” he said, adding that his family has been supportive of the film. “There are so many things in life where people ask, ‘Why’d you do that,’ but the truth is you had your reasons, right or wrong.”
“People Like Us” opens June 29.
June 17, 2012 | 9:05 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Adam Sandler’s raunch-fest “That’s My Boy” hit theaters in time for Father’s Day, starring Jewish icons Sandler and Andy Samberg (“Saturday Night Live”) as the reconciling father and son. And not unexpectedly, critics aren’t exactly embracing the film, while acknowledging the humor will hit the sweet spot for Sandler fans who appreciate his puerile man-child shtick.
The film begins as Donny Berger (Sandler), who names his kid Hans Solo Berger after siring him at 13 with his middle school teacher (Susan Sarandon), reenters sonny’s life seeking cash: If he doesn’t come up with $43,000 pronto, he’s going to jail for tax evasion. Donny immediately wreaks havoc with his boy, now renamed Todd and a rich hedge fund manager, just in time for Todd’s wedding to a high-maintenance princess (Leighton Meester). Jokes ensue about everything from masturbation to feces.
USA Today critic Claudia Puig didn’t appreciate the antics: Sandler “is hellbent on perpetrating and repurposing his annoying brand of moronic, preadolescent shtick,” she wrote. “Worse, his lowbrow comedies seem to be sinking even lower.”
Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman was gentler: “Watching Sandler in …his latest assault on subtlety, good taste, and other values that a critic like me is supposed to trash the star for dumping on, I can’t say that I laughed a lot (though when I did laugh, it was big and loud),” he wrote. “But on some level I marveled at the conviction that Sandler pours into playing a character like Donny Berger, a boneheaded, loud-mouthed alcoholic loser.”
Time’s Mary Pols also admitted she laughed during parts of the film: “The movie is so disgusting it is worthy of the Farrelly brothers,” she opined. “It contains the longest simultaneous joke about child rape and its effects on the victim (drug abuse, alcoholism, etc.) ever made. Call me a prude, but you know, little Donny was raped….But again,” she added, “I did laugh. It’s not so much the jokes as written but the go-for-broke performances.”
The New York Times’ David Dewitt wasn’t entirely turned off, either, noting that the film’s “busily plotted second half approaches involving. It leads to a big payoff wedding, after all, and it has a large ensemble for support…Mr. Sandler manages a frame or so of genuine sentiment, and the caricature is so ugly it’s cute.”
The Washington Post’s Michael O’Sullivan disagreed, describing the comedy as “long, choppy and deadly dull, despite sporadic efforts to defibrillate the audience back to consciousness with jokes about incest, pedophilia, incontinence and geriatric sex…So is the movie itself funny? Some people – including me – managed to appreciate a dumb joke or two. Sandler has his partisans, but the aggressive awfulness of ‘That’s My Boy” seems calculated to test even their patience.”
Some reviewers did appreciate Samberg, whose “sweet embodiment of this poor schlub is one of the few thing here that the script’s general air of hyper-sexed misanthropy can’t spoil,” Justin Chang wrote in Variety. “He even manages to bring out an element of likability in Sandler’s Donny. This is no small feat.”
Chang summed up many of the reviews I read when, while calling the film “a shameless celebration of degenerate behavior… and staggering moral idiocy,” he immediately added: “All in all, it could have been worse.”
June 13, 2012 | 1:35 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Five years ago, at Sadie Sandler’s first birthday party, at the estate of her father, Adam Sandler, filmmaker Adam Shankman was sitting in a plastic toddler’s chair when he was startled by another guest who sat down beside him.
“He said, ‘Hi, I’m Tom Cruise,’ and I freaked out,” said Shankman, whose movie “Rock of Ages,” based on the Tony-nominated musical and starring Cruise, opens June 15. “I whipped around, and in my head I was hearing just this crazy white noise, because I’m just Adam Shankman, and I couldn’t understand why he wanted to meet me.”
Cruise proceeded to compliment Shankman on his 2007 film adaptation of the musical “Hairspray,” explaining that he and his daughter, Suri, had watched it dozens of times. “I just got so weirdly spooked that I excused myself to get some food,” Shankman recalled. And I stood up and the chair stuck to my [rear end].”
Out of that embarrassing moment came “the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” Shankman said. Thereafter, every time he saw Cruise, the superstar would ask him, “So when are we doing our musical?”
“In my head, I was like, never,” Shankman said in a phone interview during New Line Cinema’s “Rock of Ages” press tour in New York. As far as he knew, Cruise could neither sing nor dance. “And what were we going to do — a remake of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’?
“But then the studio said they wanted to replicate the model of ‘Hairspray,’ which was to get big movie stars in a musical, and I said, ‘Oh my God, I think I know somebody.’ And I talked to Tom, and he was floored that this kind of weird notion was suddenly even possible.”
Cruise shows off his newly trained four-octave range in “Rock of Ages” — a heavy-metal saga set on the Sunset Strip in 1987 — as he belts out ditties by Guns N’ Roses and Def Leppard while decked out in lace-up leather pants and a vintage coyote-fur jacket over his bare torso.
Cruise plays the fading rock god Stacee Jaxx, who gets a creative boost from two young ingénues (Julianne Hough and Diego Boneta) as Christian crusaders (including Catherine Zeta-Jones) protest against the evils of heavy metal.
It’s Cruise’s first musical ever: “I got like a bubbe; I was very protective of him,” Shankman said, adding that his own gay and Jewish sensibilities inform everything he does. For “Hairspray,” which tells the story of a zaftig teenager who just wants to dance in 1960s Baltimore, he turned John Travolta-in-drag “into a Jewish mother,” Shankman quipped. When he directed “A Walk to Remember,” starring Mandy Moore as a Christian teenager, “I thought it was hilarious that I was this big, gay Jew making this Christian movie.”
Shankman also admitted that he’s a worrier on par with Woody Allen, having viewed himself as “a bit of a hack” until co-producing the Oscars boosted his confidence in 2010. “If Hollywood was handing me the biggest night of the year, there’s got to be some good here,” he said, adding “You can’t live in that kind of self-loathing.”
Shankman, 47, traces his insecurities to “early shame about the gay stuff.” Growing up in a traditional Jewish family in Brentwood was less fraught, even though, he said, the Shankmans were one of the few Jewish families in the neighborhood in the early 1970s. Young Adam, however, made plenty of Jewish friends attending Hebrew school at University Synagogue — including his “Rock of Ages” production designer, Jon Hutman.
And his penchant for worrying didn’t prevent him from displaying a modicum of chutzpah when he auditioned for Juilliard with nary a dance lesson under his belt.
He lied his way into his first choreography gig in 1989: “I was in my roommate’s production office, bitching about how I wasn’t getting work because I wasn’t cute and blond, when suddenly a production assistant literally ran into the room and said, ‘We have an emergency — we just lost our choreographer — does anybody know one?’ ” Shankman recalled. “And without missing a beat, I said, ‘I’m a choreographer,’ which was completely untrue.”
Shankman was hired on the spot and went on to choreograph numerous videos and films before snagging his directorial debut, “The Wedding Planner,” starring Jennifer Lopez, in 2001. Even so, he said, he mostly played things rather safe with his career until “Hairspray,” his first full-scale musical, which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Then he chanced to see the Broadway musical “Rock of Ages” several years ago and was stunned by all the straight guys rocking out in the audience.
“I thought, ‘If I can make a movie musical for straight guys, I’d be like a rock god,’ ” Shankman said.
For inspiration, he drew on memories of visiting his father, a rock ‘n’ roll manager, at his offices at 9200 Sunset Blvd., and of an iconic Sunset Strip that included landmarks like Filthy McNasty’s, the Rainbow Bar and Grill, and the Whisky a Go Go.
Yet Shankman’s worrying took a high note when he had to figure out whether Cruise could actually carry a tune. “To be perfectly honest, we kept avoiding the ‘Can you
sing?’ conversation,” said Shankman, who was relieved when Cruise revealed untapped talent during a session with Axl Rose’s former vocal coach, Ron Anderson, and practiced five hours a day for months to prepare for the role.
Then it was a matter of creating the Jaxx character, which Shankman did, in part, by sending Cruise an unusual screen-captured image from a costume fitting. “Tom was arched back in this slinky, weird, very un-Tom Cruise-y posture that was oddly sexual, and I e-mailed it to him and said, ‘This is who I want you to be,’ ” the director recalled. “He’s just this person who basically lives from his crotch.” It’s a debauched image that nevertheless conjures memories of the young Cruise in his underwear rocking out in that iconic scene from “Risky Business.”
There’s a melancholy to Jaxx as well as an over-the-top, sexual kind of comedy: While singing Foreigner’s wistful “I Want to Know What Love Is” with his love interest, played by Malin Akerman, the couple share the tongueiest kiss ever. “It’s not like I was going, ‘Go get her, tiger,’ ” Shankman recalled of shooting that scene. “It was more like, ‘Oh, that’s so gross, let’s move on.’ “
“Rock of Ages” opens on June 15.
June 13, 2012 | 12:55 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a sunny morning at Jerry’s Deli on Beverly Boulevard, Lisa Kudrow was laughing about the narcissistic shrink she plays on her improvised Showtime dark comedy, “Web Therapy.” “Isn’t she awful?” said Kudrow, who burst into popular culture in 1994 playing the kooky masseuse Phoebe Buffay on NBC’s megahit “Friends.” Despite her fame, the 48-year-old actress, wearing black jeans and a white blouse, didn’t attract attention even in a front booth; her low-key glamour and quietly subversive sense of humor as she dug into her oatmeal made her seem so, well, normal. Which, she drolly acknowledged, is, “thanks to therapy.”
Not from the likes of her character, the dubiously credentialed Dr. Fiona Wallice, thankfully. Wallice — as in wall-of-ice — is the planet’s most self-absorbed, money-grubbing shrink, dispensing dismal advice as she touts herself as the creator of the three-minute iChat therapy session, the better to cut through trivial issues such as patients’ thoughts and feelings. “It’s so much fun to play Fiona,” said Kudrow, whose own appealing qualities make Wallice watchable. “It’s fun to make fun of things that are stupid and merit ridicule.”
As the show’s second Showtime season premieres on July 2 (the DVD of season one hits stores June 19), Fiona is finagling to hawk her memoir, which she’s plagiarized from her doormat of an assistant (played by Dan Bucatinsky, who created the show along with Kudrow and Don Roos). She’s also trying to steal the limelight as her husband, Kip (Victor Garber), runs for Congress on the Republican ticket — requiring damage control as a result of his sexual proclivities. Meryl Streep plays Kip’s “rehabilitation” therapist; Rosie O’Donnell is a conservative Catholic publisher who hates Fiona’s book; Lily Tomlin portrays Fiona’s mother, who hates Fiona; and Conan O’Brien and David Schwimmer (“Friends”) are two of her hapless patients.
While some of Kudrow’s “Friends” co-stars have continued to embrace similarly lighthearted fare — Jennifer Aniston has become a staple of romantic comedies, and Courteney Cox stars on ABC’s guilty pleasure “Cougar Town” — Kudrow has gleaned kudos for taking on riskier characters. In addition to starring in independent films such as “The Opposite of Sex,” she earned an Emmy Award nomination for her turn as a faded sitcom star desperate to return to the limelight in HBO’s mock reality series “The Comeback.” And Webby Awards have been amply bestowed upon “Web Therapy,” which began as an Internet series on iStudio before being picked up last season by Showtime, joining the network’s slate of shows spotlighting edgy protagonists such as “Shameless” and “Nurse Jackie.”
You could call Kudrow the Opposite of Phoebe: “Life can be absurdly horrible, and I like to poke fun at the absurdly horrible,” she said. “Not everyone’s a monster — but potentially [they are]. I think it’s these extreme perceptions that fuel people’s comedy. It’s almost a neurotic thing that I have.”
“Lisa can be complicated,” Roos said in a telephone interview. “She’s certainly aware of the inequalities in life, all the systems we have that separate men and women, blacks and whites, rich and poor, Jews and non-Jews. I don’t think she has a rosy view of human relationships. Not that it’s a pessimistic view; it’s realistic.”
“Lisa’s comedy is an odd pairing of quirky and intellectual,” Bucatinsky said. “There is an edgy, irreverent point of view, and yet also a sort of conservative prudishness. Lisa is very devoted to her family and values her privacy. She is also sensible, reliable, whip-smart and a very loyal friend. I look to her a lot for advice and counsel.”
In person, Kudrow appears practical, empathetic and down-to-earth. Unlike many of her former co-stars, she has not been fodder for the tabloids, escaping that glare, she said matter-of-factly, “because I’m dull.” She thinks it helps that she’s been married for more than 15 years to a non-celebrity, the French businessman Michel Stern; they have a son, Julian, who is now studying for his bar mitzvah, she said, proudly.
Kudrow is equally direct when asked about complaints from some Jewish critics that characters played by Cox and Schwimmer on “Friends” were Jewish (or half-Jewish) in name only. “I don’t know how funny it is to say, well here we are Jews, sitting around in Central Perk,” she said, referring to the coffee shop hangout in the show. “It’s not out of hiding; it’s just, to me, there’s no full acceptance or equality until there’s no spotlight on a character’s religion, until it just is.”
“The Comeback” was born of Kudrow’s observations about the train wreck of reality television. “I couldn’t fathom the level of humiliation that people were signing up for in order to be famous for I don’t know how long,” she said. “And what’s happening to us that we’re just sitting around watching people humiliate themselves, and that’s our entertainment? Uh-oh.”
As for “Web Therapy,” she said, “I got the idea because it’s such a bad idea.” In the Internet oversharing culture, it seemed that perhaps the next ludicrous step might be the phenomenon of the Web shrink. “Then I thought about who might perpetrate this, and it’s obvious that she would have to have a lot of gall,” Kudrow said. “What makes me laugh about Fiona is just her brazenness; these horrible ideas that she just is very confident about. We wouldn’t have had the idea if we hadn’t already seen it in so many politicians who just say the most outrageous things but with a great deal of bravado.”
Kudrow grew up in Tarzana, where she first learned to perform improvisational comedy in a drama class while attending Portola Junior High School, but focused on biology at Taft High and later at Vassar College, aspiring to become a doctor, like her father.
Although her father is an atheist and the family did not belong to a synagogue, Kudrow chose to have a bat mitzvah “because I just felt like I needed to be counted ‘in.’ I’m Jewish, and that’s important to me,” she said. She still remembers the biography of Uta Hagen that her brother’s best friend, the actor Jon Lovitz, gave her for her bat mitzvah, inscribed with the words “to my fellow thespian.”
It was Lovitz who advised Kudrow to study with The Groundlings improvisational comedy troupe when she decided to become an actress after graduating college in the mid-1980s. Before long she was cast on the sitcom “Frasier” but was devastated when she was fired after just two days. Even so, she parlayed a one-day gig on “Mad About You,” a role so insignificant she was cast, simply, as “Waitress,” into a recurring role. Then producers came calling for “Friends,” the iconic sitcom revolving around six yuppies in New York that eventually earned Kudrow and her colleagues a reported $1 million per episode.
Kudrow credits her sweetly optimistic character of Phoebe with getting her to “loosen up, lighten up,” but the blast of fame that came with the series proved unsettling. “What I remember most vividly is when the six of us did our first big photo shoot. As we came out of the studio, there were so many photographers that it was blinding, flashing, and they were all screaming, impatient and angry to get your attention,” she said. “It just felt like an assault. But the great thing was that we could see each other every day and talk about what was happening; it was like therapy. Even at the time, we all said, ‘Thank God we can all do this together.’ “
As “Friends” entered its final seasons, her future career remained uncertain. It’s not that Kudrow didn’t try the romantic comedy route; she starred in the poorly received “Marci X,” in which she played a Jewish-American Princess who heads a controversial hip-hop record label. “That was the least happy I’ve been professionally, because you have to be adorable for [romantic comedies], and I’m not adorable; it’s just not who I am,” she said. “So I remember vowing, nobody’s ever going to hire me to do this again; I’ll try other things.”
Kudrow co-founded a production company in order to produce her own projects, took co-starring roles in films including “Wonderland” and “Analyze This,” and created NBC’s “Who Do You Think You Are?” a show she adapted from British television in which celebrities explore their ancestry.
Initially she was reluctant to trace her own ancestry, afraid that she would uncover details about family members who had died in the Holocaust. “I had been in complete denial about that,” she said. She also didn’t see herself as a big enough name for a segment of her own — the show was featuring artists like Sarah Jessica Parker and Spike Lee. Then a slot opened, and Kudrow found herself at the site of a vegetable warehouse in Belarus where her great-grandmother and family were forced to strip naked before being shot and falling into a pit, where their bodies were then doused with gasoline and burned. Kudrow went on to ask hard questions of the villagers — “Did you know any Jewish families? Where were your parents when this was all happening?” — as they squirmed with discomfort.
At one point while telling her family story, Kudrow said she became so emotional that she turned away from the camera. “Going to Belarus confirmed that, yes, it’s an ugly planet,” she said when we met. “But, in the second half of the show, I found a cousin of mine who is still alive in Poland, and that made me feel like there’s hope, and that good things can happen.”
Our conversation turned back to “Web Therapy,” specifically how, five years ago, she would get pitying looks when she would tell people she was working on an Internet series. Undaunted, she pursued the project as “a great experiment, because it was just two people talking at any time on computer screens.”
Today, Kudrow — who is on screen throughout almost the entire show — seems amazed that her experiment has paid off.
“The miracle of all this is that we’re on Showtime for a second season,” she said.
“Web Therapy” premieres July 2 on Showtime.
June 6, 2012 | 11:41 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Mia Schaikewitz parked her shiny black Mitsubishi Eclipse in front of her graphic design office in Pasadena, looking glamorous in her black leather jacket and purple eye shadow with matching fingernail polish. Then she opened her car door, lifted out a wheelchair and assembled it in 20 seconds flat. The chair was sporty, like her car, with a leopard-patterned seat that matched her purse. “I’ve got another chair at home that’s red and silver — it all depends on my mood and what I want to wear — it’s almost like an accessory,” she said, breezily.
“When I first got paralyzed, I used to count the seconds it took me to get into the car,” she said while hauling herself up a ramp with what looked like Herculean strength. “It was fun to see how many seconds I could shave off.”
The 34-year-old graphic designer is one of four women — all paralyzed from the waist or neck down — profiled on the Sundance Channel’s new documentary series, “Push Girls,” created by producer Gay Rosenthal (“Ruby”) and premiering this week. Schaikewitz, who is Jewish, has used a wheelchair since suffering a stroke in her spinal cord when she was 15; her good friends Angela Rockwood, 37, Auti Angel, 42, and Tiphany Adams, 29, were all paralyzed in car accidents more than 10 years ago.
In a trend of reality television that includes the sensationalist “Housewives” franchises, “Push Girls” stands out for its non-sensational depiction of women who can’t walk but are also gorgeous, athletic and ambitious. Rockwood is hoping to jump-start her former modeling career; Angel — reportedly the first professional hip-hop dancer to continue her professional career in a wheelchair — is trying to have a baby with her husband of five years; Adams is exploring a lesbian relationship after a bad breakup; and Schaikewitz is grappling with whether to stay with her boyfriend while reassessing her relationship with her mother and tackling competitive swimming for the first time since high school.
She agreed to participate in “Push Girls,” she said, “because I want to show people areas where they think we get stuck, and we don’t. But I also want to reveal the unsentimental realities of our lives, without being preachy. It’s answering all the questions people might be afraid to ask us: How do we go grocery shopping, go to the bathroom, go to clubs or the gym?”
In the premiere episode, we first see Schaikewitz as she is snuggling in bed with her boyfriend; the camera follows her as she nimbly transfers from her chair into the bathtub, where she showers sitting down with her knees hugged tightly to her chest. “The question people most ask is whether we can have sex, and the answer is definitely yes,” Schaikewitz told me. “And most people haven’t seen ‘sexy’ in a wheelchair, which is why they can’t fathom it.”
Schaikewitz attended a Jewish day school in Atlanta, where her father became Modern Orthodox after her parents divorced when she was 3. She still remembers her bat mitzvah speech at his synagogue, where she discussed Rabbi Akiva’s parable about how water can carve stone. It was a lesson in persistence Schaikewitz said she drew upon after she became paralyzed during her freshman year in high school.
The date was Oct. 27, 1993, when Schaikewitz, then a rising star on her school’s swim team, developed a pain in her side so sharp that it awakened her from sleep that night. By the time doctors took an MRI the next morning, she could no longer move her legs. The news was beyond unsettling: A defect in her circulatory system had caused a stroke in her spine, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
“At first I was devastated; I thought my life was over,” she said. “I even wrote in my journal, ‘I’ll never go out in public again,’ and I cried for two weeks straight. But that was the best part of it — the darkest part, but also the catalyst for me to realize that’s not a way to live.” She was inspired when the doctors reassured her that she could live independently, have children and participate in adaptive sports.
“We do learn to be reborn again,” she said of her three months in a rehabilitation hospital. “From sitting up in bed to getting dressed, you learn everything over again, and it seems daunting at first. But as you continue taking baby steps, you start to feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Her confidence grew as she was welcomed back at high school, then went on to become the first person in a wheelchair to join a sorority at the University of Florida, and, for a time, became religiously observant when a rabbi who shared her views about disability inspired her. “It has a lot to do with still having choices and control over your life,” said Schaikewitz, who still attends synagogue and Jewish events in Los Angeles, where she has lived for the past dozen years.
The day she graduated from college, Schaikewitz loaded her wheelchair in the back seat of a friend’s Saturn and drove out to Los Angeles to start her career in media production; she’s now a project manager for a graphic design firm. She met Rockwood — who was paralyzed on her way to a fitting for her wedding dress — when she enrolled in an acting class that met at the model’s Hollywood home. “Angela is a quadriplegic, but she still does everything she can do and lives life to the fullest,” Schaikewitz said of their connection.
It was Rockwood who invited Schaikewitz to participate in “Push Girls”; Schaikewitz signed on, even though she describes herself as “an intensely private person,” partly to shatter stereotypes about the disabled. “People think we can only date people in wheelchairs, that we’re lucky to get any guy, that we can’t be picky,” she said by way of example. On the show, she says she loves her freedom so much that she doesn’t want to settle down with just anyone, as well as frankly describing her preference for able-bodied men who can keep up with her.
Schaikewitz also decides on camera to swim again for the first time in 17 years; while she had previously participated in numerous adaptive sports, swimming proved too emotionally difficult, reminding her of the time she lost use of her legs. But her first trip to the pool proves triumphant. “I was just finally ready to do it,” she said. “It was time to just close the book, so to speak.”
“Push Girls” airs Mondays at 10 p.m. on the Sundance Channel.