Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a recent Wednesday morning, Stuart Perlman wore paint-splattered clothes as he loaded up his 1999 Infiniti with art supplies and cans of low-salt Progresso soup before heading out on a painting excursion to Venice Beach. Over the past two years, Perlman has been spending two to three days a week on the boardwalk, creating dozens of close-up portraits of faces of homeless “regulars” there, a number of whom he’s gotten to know well in the process. On this day, he donned a black fedora hat — “half cowboy, half-Lubavitch,” he joked — to shield himself from the sun, and after a five-minute drive from his Santa Monica home, he was greeting transients who high-fived him and thanked him for his work.
Along a low, concrete wall lined with rusty bikes and makeshift shelters, Perlman stopped to talk to Vincent, homeless and an artist himself, who wore a hoodie over his dreadlocks and who enthusiastically accepted the acrylic paints and brushes Perlman had brought him.
A few yards down, Perlman hugged Gwendolyn, an African-American who thanked him for listening to her woes when he painted her recently. “I cried so much that day,” she told Perlman, 59, who in his professional life is a psychologist and psychoanalyst with doctorates from UCLA and the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute.
As Perlman searched for someone new to paint — he always looks for someone whose emotional tone matches his own on that particular day — he pointed out a bench where his late friend, Janet, a former prostitute and rape survivor, used to spend her days. Janet was whip-smart, compassionate and acted as a kind of social worker to the other regulars on the beach, he recalled. “But she was already coughing when I painted her a year ago,” Perlman added, his eyes filling with tears. “She died this past month of hepatitis, homelessness and heartbreak.”
Perlman’s work, which he does primarily for himself and not to sell on the boardwalk’s famous artists’ way, has nevertheless made him something of a celebrity among the habitués of the beach. So much so that a half hour later, he had no trouble persuading Trevor, 36, to pose for him atop the sandy knoll where the transient had set up camp under a palm tree.
Perlman told Trevor he would pay him $20 for posing — Perlman’s standard compensation — plus $10 more should Trevor provide him with an original poem or piece of artwork. Before long, Perlman was scribbling notes as Trevor told of losing his father to suicide when he was 5, of growing up in foster homes and taking to the streets at just 18. Perlman uses only his subjects’ first names to protect their privacy.
Eventually, Perlman set up his easel, preparing to paint Trevor’s face in his signature bold, raw brush strokes for two hours, before closing up shop and finishing the portrait at home. “The entire process takes 15 to 25 hours,” Perlman said, and he also types up a bio of each of his subjects and has videotaped interviews with one third of them; he plans to turn the interviews into a documentary.
This weekend, several of Perlman’s paintings will be on display at a conference of the Los Angeles County Psychological Association, and segments of his documentary will screen there on Sept. 29. Another 15 of his portraits also will be included in the exhibition “Faces of Homelessness,” presented by Home for Good as part of the Downtown L.A. Art Walk on Oct. 11.
“So many of these people are in so much pain; every person I have dealt with has survived significant traumas,” Perlman said. “My approach is to try to get them to open up about the horrendous things that have happened to them, and to validate their experience and their heroism.”
“My life is tikkun olam,” he said, adding that he will title an upcoming book on his project “Venice Beach Regulars: Painting the Unseen Faces Around Us.” “I want to paint what people don’t want to see, so they will learn what they need to see, so this world can be a better place.”
Given the approach of Sukkot, Perlman noted that the homeless remind him of the holiday’s “element of wandering in the wilderness and having to put up shelters by people who have been forsaken.” And just as Jews use palm fronds to thatch their sukkahs, he said, “people live at the beach under the palm trees, and actually sometimes use the leaves to make places to sleep. I feel they’re kindred spirits — part of my family and my people.”
In Perlman’s airy Santa Monica home, the more than 75 portraits he has painted since 2010 are stacked in corridors, in an office and throughout the living room, alongside photographs of his own family’s b’nai mitzvah and Jewish holiday celebrations. He said he’s made painting the Venice Beach homeless his passion project, and he uses his natural empathy to draw out his subjects’ life stories as he paints in an Expressionist style with vibrant hues. In the process, he’s heard tales of childhood sexual abuse, discrimination and struggles with alcoholism, as well as of college degrees earned and middle-class lives lost.
Many of his subjects — a number of whom have also become his friends — appear ravaged or stoic, and their visages are weathered by sun and neglect.
Stuart Perlman painting “Doc,” a former nurse, who acts as a kind of father figure to many of the grunge kids on the beach.
One painting depicts an elderly man known as “The Colonel,” a Jewish child survivor of concentration camps, whose teeth were knocked out while he served in the U.S. military during the Korean War and his legs blown up in Vietnam. Another spotlights Daniel, a former project manager for an architectural firm who spiraled into crack addition after losing his wife and children in a car crash 12 years ago. The portrait shows him appearing defeated, with a bedraggled beard, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
Sunny — who is also homeless and living on the beach — lost his wife, Jill, to breast cancer in Minneapolis some years ago. Soon afterward, he lost their their home, due in part to the staggering medical bills. His portrait reveals a bulbous, despair-ridden face reddened by years of drinking.
“Jill fought the [cancer] battle for two years and lost it, and I’ve been a piece of s--- ever since,” Sunny, who grew up in orphanages in the South, says in Perlman’s documentary film footage. “I just gave up. I’ve been a drunk; I smoke pot. … I can’t get over her. She’s still the love of my life.”
The film also shows Janet lugging her bedding to a sidewalk where she will spend the night, placing cardboard on the concrete to protect herself from the water the local businesses had sprayed to keep transients away. “I’ll be off this planet soon,” she tells Perlman on camera. “I’m looking forward to death.”
Perlman grew up in a Conservative home on Long Island, N.Y., and said these days he celebrates the Jewish holy days with members of his wife’s Chasidic family. He also said he traces his choice of work to his commitment to helping others, a part of his Jewish heritage.
Perlman identifies with his subjects on a deeply personal level, as well. “My parents were loving and took good care of me, but I was also viciously beaten and pinched until I bled,” he said, and he has written of the violence in his 1999 book, “The Therapist’s Emotional Survival.”
“My father had been a professional boxer, and he would use those same fists on myself and my siblings. When he got really angry, he would kick me like a football up the stairs, or he’d take an 18-inch, razor-sharp lox knife and bang and shake it at me. I thought I might be gutted.”
Perlman traces his parents’ behavior to their own youthful traumas: His now-deceased father, a deli owner who was active in his synagogue and a confidante of New York Gov. Thomas E. Dewey, appeared to have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder since serving as a bomber during World War II. Perlman’s mother, who is in her 80s, survived a severely deprived childhood during the Depression, when she had to care for a starving baby sister with no food in the house.
Perlman said he survived his own childhood, in part, “by becoming my mother’s therapist. I was a bit of the parental child,” he said. “It’s like I’ve been in training to become an analyst from the age of 5.”
Perlman now practices in West Los Angeles, where he specializes in counseling trauma victims, and he just won a Psychoanalytic Electronic Publishing Award, which recognizes the top living downloaded authors in the field. He said he has himself been in therapy for the past 36 years: “In order to do what I really want to do in this world, I have to face emotions that I can’t face alone, which is why I stay in therapy,” he explained. “I realize there’s an element in my work in which I’m trying to save everyone, because I’m also trying to save myself and everyone else in my family.”
Perlman took up painting in earnest five years ago, when his father died, reminding him that life is short and convincing him to return to his youthful aspirations of becoming an artist. He initially took classes at Santa Monica College and the YWCA, but soon tired of painting the bored-looking female models who posed for the students. Then, in 2010, on a visit to Venice Beach, he found himself drawn to its many homeless regulars, whose faces seemed to tell a thousand stories. Nervously at first, he began asking people to pose for him — but was regarded with suspicion for months. “They thought I was an undercover narcotics officer,” said Perlman, who returned often seeking to convince them, achieving his goal by spending hours talking and getting to know people as well as by handing out food and cash.
The first “regular” to agree to work with him was William, a 60-ish African-American who always wore a wool cap and down jacket, even in the blazing summer heat. “He looked destroyed,” Perlman recalled, “but the longer I talked to him, the more articulate he became and the less disheveled he looked. I’ve since had that experience often. The attention and respect you give people is like watering a wilted flower — suddenly they appear to blossom in front of your eyes.”
Perlman would go on to create many more of the portraits, all 18 by 24 inches, sometimes while witnessing a drug deal, brawl or knife fight. At times he’s been threatened — once by a man he knew owned a gun. Undeterred, he’s continued to return to Venice on Wednesdays and weekends, each time spending three to seven hours talking to and painting his subjects, then taking the works home to finish, with the help of photographs, at his kitchen easel.
“Stuart is not just painting their faces, but their souls,” said Wendy Coleman Levin, a member of Home for Good’s business leaders’ task force on homelessness. “What comes through is the genuine humanity of these individuals. He’s not just painting what you see, but what they feel.”
“I feel incredibly blessed,” Perlman said of his own life. “It’s ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ We’re all just one step away from trauma and despair. The homeless are us, and we are them.”
For more information about Perlman and his work, visit stuartperlman.com.
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September 11, 2012 | 10:34 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
David Geffen, the notoriously press-shy billionaire Hollywood mogul, stared at me as if I had asked him to yank out a tooth. The setting was PBS’ summer 2012 press tour, on July 22, and Geffen was there to talk about the “American Masters” documentary, “Inventing David Geffen.” I asked him how his Jewish background had influenced his marked commitment to philanthropy.
The 69-year-old music and movie industry maverick brusquely replied that his parents had met in Palestine, his mother had arrived in the United States in 1931, and that his parents “were socialists. … I was bar mitzvahed, but we didn’t have much of a religious life at all.
“Does that not answer your question?” he added, icily. When I pressed him further, he snapped, “My parents were poor. They weren’t into philanthropy.” And also: “I would think that everybody’s childhood is an influence on what happens in their future, don’t you think?”
Just then, Susan Lacy, the creator of the “American Masters” series and the filmmaker behind “Inventing David Geffen,” mentioned a story she wanted to tell about Geffen’s mother, Batya. “She wants me to talk about how my mother’s family was killed. Let’s not,” Geffen said. Lacy managed to get in that the perpetrators had been the Nazis, before Geffen cut her off and moved to other questions — a number of which he also dismissed.
After the press conference, I met with Lacy, 63, who had gotten Geffen to open up significantly about numerous subjects in her fine documentary — including the gay mogul’s torrid heterosexual relationship with Cher.
Lacy said she had very much wanted to interview Geffen about his family’s wartime experience, in part because her own father’s German family had died in the Shoah. “Growing up I was obsessed, and I still am obsessed, with the Holocaust,” Lacy said. “I had nightmares for a long, long time; I would see the Nazis coming to get everybody. It had such a profound impact on me that I thought it might also have had an impact on David.” Was the subject too painful for Geffen? “Whether it was or not, he wouldn’t talk about it, and I respected that,” Lacy said. “I got him to talk about almost everything [else],” she added.
Lacy had learned a bit about the Geffens’ experience from other sources: “David’s mother, I think, had gone out of town, when the Nazis were marching into that part of Russia; and as they were coming, the townspeople rounded up her whole family and shot them,” Lacy said. “David’s mother ended up going to Palestine and didn’t know for a very long time what had happened to her family; but there was a sister who also survived who [told her]. And when his mother got the news, she had a bit of a breakdown for six months, when David was a little boy. And David just doesn’t like to talk about it; for one reason or another he’s uncomfortable.”
Geffen did talk about the issue in some depth with Tom King, author of “The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood” (2000); it’s a biography Geffen initially endorsed before abruptly canceling further interviews, King writes in the introduction to his book.
The biography recounts how Geffen’s mother worried when her parents did not answer letters she mailed from New York to their home in Tiraspol, Ukraine. After the war, Batya’s sister, Deena, phoned from the Soviet Union with unsettling news: “I am the only one alive. Everyone else is dead,” she said. Most of their relatives had been shot in the September 1941 massacre at Babi Yar, the enormous ravine outside Kiev that had become an infamous execution site. According to King’s biography, Batya did not tell David and his older brother about the tragedy, but repressing the news eventually led her to have the breakdown, requiring her to spend months in the psychiatric unit at Kings County Hospital. She eventually recovered and became a successful businesswoman.
Of Geffen’s Jewish identity, Lacy said, his family members “were Jews, and everybody in his Brooklyn neighborhood was either Jewish or Italian; that’s the only thing he really talks about. He’s culturally Jewish but he’s not [religious], which is true of a lot of people.”
September 11, 2012 | 9:29 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Just after Kevin Macdonald won the 2000 Academy Award for his searing documentary, "One Day in September," an expose on the Munich Olympics massacre of 11 Israeli athletes, I spoke to him for two hours by phone from his home in the UK about the controversial film and how he got the story -- including an interview with one of the terrorists -- which unspools like a John le Carre novel. On this, the 40th anniversary year of the Munich tragedy, I've reprinted my piece, originally published on Sept. 7, 2000: below:
Kevin Macdonald never expected his documentary "One Day in September" to win the 2000 Academy Award. Wim Wenders' "Buena Vista Social Club" was the docu favorite, while "September" already had raised eyebrows.
An exposé of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games massacre of 11 Israeli athletes by members of the Palestinian group Black September, the movie answers questions that have puzzled investigators for decades. But even before the stunning, suspenseful film was widely viewed, it was controversial.
Some Israelis were disturbed that "September" included the Palestinian point of view, courtesy of the sole surviving terrorist, whom Macdonald had tracked down in hiding.
The director says his film also angered the Germans, who are accused of bumbling incompetence during the hostage crisis. When the Palestinians and their captives fled the Olympic Village for the airport, the movie asserts, no one bothered to warn the authorities there were eight terrorists instead of the presumed five. No one called ahead for armored cars as the terrorists raced toward their jet to Libya. The Germans mustered only five sharpshooters, none of them in radio contact with each other. And at the last minute, the policemen - disguised as crew members aboard the jet - voted the plan "too dangerous" and aborted the mission.
No wonder some Germans saw red. "One Day in September" was turned down by German distributors and attacked in the German media, according to Variety. And Macdonald, for one, was "shocked" when the film was rejected by the Berlin Film Festival. "Not only did they turn it down, they hated it," he says. "They made it clear... they were appalled by the film and found it unfair. We were so devastated," he adds.Nevertheless, he stands by his research, which he says was gleaned from high-ranking officials and internal police documents, among other sources. "Some people say I've made an anti-German film, but I didn't set out to do that," he insists. "I set out to make a film about a terrorist attack. But the facts speak for themselves."
At first glance, Macdonald, who is in his early 30's, seems an unlikely filmmaker to attempt a movie on the Israeli tragedy. He was only 4 during the 1972 Olympics, after all. And he was raised on a sheep farm in the Scottish countryside, in a community virtually devoid of Jews.
Then again, his grandfather was the Hungarian-born Jewish screenwriter Emeric Pressburger, who created legendary British pictures such as "The Red Shoes" with collaborator Michael Powell. "I knew he fled the Nazis," Macdonald says. "I knew I had cousins in Israel. And I was well aware that I had Jewish blood while growing up in my small, rural community."
Pressburger, a small, shy, retiring figure, was fascinating to the young Macdonald, who viewed him as "a slightly enigmatic, exotic character." The boy listened raptly as he spoke of living as a tramp in 1920s Berlin, where he slept in the park and wrote his first short stories on forms in the post office.
Macdonald still has the Nazi letter Pressburger received from a large German studio stating that the company could no longer employ Jews. The day after a colleague warned him he was to be arrested, "my grand-father packed one bag, left his key in his apartment door and took the train to Paris," Macdonald says.
But even in the U.K., the director asserts, Pressburger never felt quite at home. Macdonald believes residual British xenophobia is the reason Powell remains better known in England than his grandfather.Upon his grandfather's death in 1988, the Oxford graduate vowed to write a book about him. The well-received tome led to documentaries on filmmakers such as Howard Hawks, the majority of them for television.
But by 1997, Macdonald says, he had wearied of directing TV documentaries. He longed to make a cinematic docu that would push the boundaries of the form, a movie that felt more like a thriller than "60 Minutes." He had a vague concept - something about Israel and terrorism in the 1970s; when a producer friend suggested the Munich massacre, Macdonald jumped at the idea. Of course, his investigative journalism experience was nil, he admits. "I had to learn by doing, and it was very, very tough," he says. "People weren't talking to us and everyone was closing down. I despaired a lot. There were times I would have given up if I could."
While the victims' relatives were eager to talk, Zvi Zamir, then head of the Mossad, refused an interview for eight months, relenting only when producer Arthur Cohn ("Central Station") met with him personally.Dr. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former German interior minister who offered himself as a hostage in exchange for the Israelis, granted a 10-minute interview three days before the film was completed. A crew member on the aborted airport mission agreed to talk only if he were paid, Macdonald says.
Then there was Brigadier General Ulrich Wegener, Germany's anti-terrorism guru, who was surprisingly frank and open but "oddly nervous," the director recalls. Wegener laughs inappropriately and tells tasteless jokes on camera about the gun battle with the terrorists. He also indicates that Germany staged a fake hijacking to free the three surviving terrorists, ostensibly to assure German immunity from Arab terrorism."He was a key person," Macdonald notes. "I knew if we had him in the movie, being critical, no one could refute what was said." Since the interview, however, Wegener has told German journalists that the filmmakers misunderstood him, the director says.
Macdonald's greatest coup was tracking down the sole surviving terrorist, Jamal al-Gashey, who was a junior member of the Black September team. In the movie, he appears in an archival clip wearing a striped jacket and guarding a door on a first-floor balcony.
The Mossad managed to kill his two surviving colleagues; there had been many attempts on his life, but al-Gashey was still alive and living with his wife and two daughters somewhere in Africa. Macdonald finally contacted him through "a strange kind of 'Six Degrees of Separation,' " specifically through a Palestinian man who had befriended al-Gashey growing up in a refugee camp.
The interview was on again, off again. Just as Macdonald was about to board an airplane for an unknown destination in the Middle East, he would learn that al-Gashey had canceled yet again.
Finally, he found himself in a hotel room somewhere in the Arab world in April 1999, awaiting instructions. He had been ordered to bring a wig-and-mustache disguise for the terrorist to wear on camera. But he did not know his destination until al-Gashey's friend appeared and drove him to a small television studio.
Over the next six hours, al-Gashey spoke in fits and starts, sometimes angrily leaving the room or shouting and arguing with his friend, who conducted the interview. "He was extremely worried and paranoid," recalls Macdonald, who wasn't allowed to ask any questions. "After struggling for so long to keep quiet, I think he got irrationally upset and irritated when confronted with the camera."
Macdonald, who wasn't permitted to leave or make telephone calls, didn't know what al-Gashey had said until he returned to London and hired a translator.
"Emotionally, it was a very strange thing to be sitting in a room with this terrorist," the director says. "But I felt strongly that I did not want to demonize him. I wanted to present him as human being who did what he did for compelling reasons. Whether we agree with him or not is another matter."
September 10, 2012 | 5:00 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Q: What was the impetus for the story?
A: I’ve always been fascinated by theater people, and by the fact of my being Jewish, and those two things together led me to explore something that I’d never had any personal experience with, which is the Yiddish theater.
Not only do I have no experience in the Yiddish theater, I had no experience with the Yiddish culture whatsoever. I grew up in a very assimilated, well-off European family. My father was from Russia but his language was not Yiddish, it was Russian and he came from a wealthy background so he had English governesses and French tutors, who didn’t speak Yiddish. And my mother came from Germany, from a prominent family that traces itself back to Moses Mendelssohn. So she didn’t speak Yiddish; in fact her language was German.
For the past 11 years I’ve been writing and researching a book on Jewish history, and in the section on turn-of-the-century America there is a mere mention, a paragraph about the Yiddish theater, but somehow I started writing this family [the Isaacs]. As a writer you don’t necessarily write and plan things out; I like to see what flows, and out comes this guy, who tells a story that he, his father, his grandfather and his great-grandfather, were all in the Yiddish theater; that his great-grandfather was brought over with the Yiddish theater to America, when the czar stopped the Yiddish theater in Russia. And as I was learning more I was writing more, making [Isaacs] the central character, and this whole family comes from a certain tradition from Yiddish theater, and I was absolutely fascinated by it.
Q: Your own family has a unique history.
A: My father eventually became a prominent businessman and actually the person who was running the economy of the free state of Danzig, sort of like the minister of trade, and then when the Nazis came to power they wanted him to continue. And he said, “I’m a Jew, it’s not comfortable to be here, and I’m giving you six months notice.” And so they sent to Berlin and got back the word that they would make him an honorary Aryan if he would stay, and that’s when he told my mother, “It’s time to leave. If they want to make you an honorary what you’re not then it’s not good to be what we are, which is Jews,” and they got in the car and drove off to Poland, and took a plane to London, where I was born.
Read the rest of the interview here.
September 10, 2012 | 4:58 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It was a sweltering day on the North Hills set of ABC’s upcoming sitcom “The Neighbors,” as Clara Mamet opened the door of her trailer with a toss of her long, brown hair. The 17-year-old actress wore peach-colored satin trousers, a floral blouse and a devil-may-care expression as she settled inside on a faux-leather couch. Posted over a vanity table were photographs of her friends, along with one of her famous father, the playwright-author David Mamet. “I’ve got to get a picture of Zosh,” Clara said, referring to her half-sister, Zosia Mamet, 24, who stars as the naïve Shoshanna on HBO’s Emmy-winning, “Girls.” “We’re best friends,” she said.
Clara is the latest member of her clan to join the family business — her mother is the actress Rebecca Pidgeon, and Clara herself previously wrote two one-acts in which she performed at the Ruskin Group Theatre in Santa Monica in May. In “The Neighbors,” her first opportunity to appear on a major television network series, she plays Amber Weaver, the sullen, glowering eldest daughter of a human family that unwittingly moves into a neighborhood populated by aliens.
“I play an angsty teenager; it’s perfect, easy-peasy,” Clara said, during an interview, in which she came off as whip-smart, precocious, sly and slightly irreverent. “Amber’s just trying to get by, and a little grouchy that she has to hang out with aliens.”
“I don’t know if this particular teenager actually knows what her parents look like, or cares,” she added. “They haven’t had a lot of conversations other than screaming matches. She’s pretty much the surly teenager.”
Can Clara relate? “I’m definitely like that sometimes, for sure,” she said. Her father affectionately calls her Wednesday, after the subversive little girl in Charles Addams’ “The Addams Family.” “And I see other people be evil to their mothers and think, ‘God, how awful, that mom looks so nice,’ ” she said. “Then I catch myself doing it to my own mother, and I’m horrified.” She’s less prickly with her father, she said, “because he gets prickly back. … But they’re cool cats, my parents,” she said.
In fact, David Mamet, author of such legendary plays as “Glengarry Glen Ross” and “Speed-the-Plow,” encouraged Clara to become legally emancipated at 15 and to leave high school at 16 to pursue her career. “He was just overjoyed, so pleased with me, never been prouder,” she said. “He’s always said I don’t need school.”
Just as show business is part of the Mamet family legacy, so is Judaism. Clara knows well her father’s bold 2006 book, “The Wicked Son: Anti-Semitism, Self-Hatred, and the Jews,” which puts members of the tribe on the spot by asking, “Are you ‘In or Out?’ ” “Oh, I’m in,” said the actress, who moved from the Boston area to Los Angeles with her family when she was 7. “I grew up at a really wonderful synagogue, Ohr HaTorah, and a terrific rabbi, Mordecai Finley, who’s a great teacher.”
She said that as a child she attended temple weekly with her family and became bat mitzvah, which, she said, “was a great experience; for me, it was really a rite of passage, not just a party. I studied really hard for it, probably almost too hard. I don’t know if it was me becoming a woman, but it definitely was a big deal emotionally.”
Performing was also on her horizon. “I can’t even remember making a decision about acting; it was almost just written in the stars,” she said. She recalls standing backstage when her mother starred in her father’s play “Boston Marriage” at the Geffen Theatre, and writing down the notes her dad whispered to her during rehearsals.
Her father gave her a play a day to read when she was in seventh grade at Lincoln Middle School in Santa Monica — works by authors such as Arthur Miller and Terence Rattigan. His advice to her about acting was, she said, “ ‘louder, faster funnier,’ that old adage, and he likes to throw around the Jimmy Cagney sort of hit your mark and tell the truth, which I think is very true.”
But her father never gave her any of his own plays to read, which is surprising, even to Clara. “I think he’s a humble person at heart,” she said. “We are very close but we don’t talk about work, really. I had to find his plays on my own. I think he figured I’d read one or two of them eventually.”
She has now read all of them, having purchased them online on the Web site for Samuel French, where, she noted mischievously, her own name and work is listed above her father’s. Among her favorite of his plays are “Lakeboat” and “Oleanna,” as well as “November,” which will be presented at the Mark Taper Forum Sept. 26 through Nov. 4.
Clara wrote her own first produced play, “Paris,” last summer, while working as a production assistant on the set of her father’s HBO film about the renowned music producer Phil Spector. Because she wasn’t getting hired as an actress, she explained, she penned the piece as something in which she could also star.
Her inspiration? “This ass---- had broken my heart,” she said. To comfort herself, she wrote the 20-minute piece in one day, on scraps of her father’s “Spector” screenplay.
“ ‘Paris’ is a pivotal dialogue, if you will, between a daughter and her father, which takes place in the early morning in their kitchen,” she said. The father figure “is sort of a romanticized version of my dad — very smart, wise, kind of quiet, very loving and definitely acerbic. I was playing ‘Alice in Wonderland’ a little bit, in that I gave myself some advice about the breakup through his character.”
Clara co-wrote her one-act, “The Solvit Kids” — a comedy about jaded young movie stars — with Jack Quaid (“The Hunger Games”), son of Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan, whom she had met at an acting camp.
She said she was pleasantly surprised — startled, actually — when John Ruskin, artistic director of the Ruskin Theatre group, agreed to produce both one-acts last spring. But she bristles at any suggestion that her famous parents might have had anything to do with her opportunities.
The question of nepotism came up at a recent press conference for “The Neighbors,” where the show’s creator, Dan Fogelman, insisted that Clara got the job on her own merits. In an interview in his production office, he told a reporter he didn’t even realize that Clara was David Mamet’s daughter until after he had hired her.
“Casting a network show is a crazy process, and I just didn’t put two and two together,” Fogelman said. “But I went with Clara, because she was just so funny and perfect for the part.”
After the press conference, Clara said she called her older sister, who has been subject to the same charges, to commiserate. “I said, ‘It’s a good thing we have famous parents, because we are so untalented,” Clara said. “But I don’t really care too much — people can think what they want. I can’t help who my parents are.”
She’s pleased, however, by her parents’ response to the pilot episode of “The Neighbors,” which premieres Sept. 26 on ABC. “My dad really loved it, actually — he giggled like a little girl,” Clara said. “He said the great gag was that the humans and the aliens have the same problems.”
Don’t ask her whether the human-alien relationship serves as any kind of metaphor, however. “I don’t know what a metaphor means — I’m an idiot,” she quipped. “The characters just might be aliens. But I don’t tend to read much into things,” she continued, breezily. “My major argument about Kafka was that his ‘Metamorphosis’ was just real. And what if Kafka meant [his protagonist] actually did turn into a giant cockroach? My English teacher hated me,” she added.
These days, Clara’s having a blast playing Amber Weaver, which she describes as “great fun; it’s play-pretend, make-believe.” She’s also writing a film, a comedy-drama, which she hopes to one day star in and direct. Next year, she said, she’ll move out of her parents’ home in Santa Monica; she already has her own place in Venice. And she hopes to visit Israel for the first time soon.
“It would be good to get on over to Yerushalayim,” said Clara, who has also started attending Ohr HaTorah regularly again, where she enjoys the sense of community. “It’s a less lonesome feeling,” she said.
But no, she doesn’t feel any pressure to live up to the reputation of her famous parents. “I’m going to surpass them exponentially,” she joked. “They’re going to be so jealous.”
“The Neighbors” premieres Sept. 26 on ABC.
September 10, 2012 | 4:49 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When Dan Fogelman’s late mother moved to a gated townhouse community in New Jersey 16 years ago, he’d often stay with her in the shrine of a bedroom she kept for him, complete with his bar mitzvah guest book on display. “You’d see all these neighbors who never seemed to talk to each other rolling out their garbage cans and watering their lawns in almost synchronized form,” said Fogelman, 36, the screenwriter behind “Cars,” “Tangled” and “Crazy Stupid Love,” who’s created the sitcom, “The Neighbors,” which premieres on ABC on Sept. 26. “But my mother never spoke to any of them, and they never spoke to her. And one day I wondered, what if my sweet mother was living among aliens and didn’t know it? And then I took it one step further and said, ‘What if my sweet mother, but of my youth, had moved inside a community of aliens?’ ”
These thoughts turned into the jumping-off point for “The Neighbors,” which begins as the human Weaver family moves into a townhouse community colonized by spacemen, all named after famous athletes, who turn out to be as befuddled by the human’s ways as vice versa. The aliens look lizard-like, but publicly appear in human form, yet they are horrified by the concept of kids’ meals — “are they really made out of kids?” And they’re perplexed when they see human dads “spending 12 hours a day in the office, because the most important thing in your life is your family, but you have no time to be with them because you spend all that time in the office,” as Fogelman put it. “It’s turning a lens on the crazy human experience through the eyes of the aliens, who serve as a kind of tabula rasa, looking at us.”
“The show is also about my dysfunctional Jewish family,” the boyishly charming Fogelman added, with a laugh. “We were endearingly dysfunctional — just enough that everyone’s in therapy, but otherwise OK. Jewish people in my opinion have the same kind of full-core family dynamics as everyone else, but ours are sometimes just a little bit funnier.”
Fogelman described how his relatives adored lox but grew up too poor to eat much of the Jewish delicacy. By the time Dan was a boy, everyone was comfortably middle-class, but old habits died hard. “There was always this kind of pandemonium when the lox would hit the table; you could see everyone’s eyes turn into slits and start feeling the tension in the room,” he said.
Recently, Fogelman sat down to a meeting with Dustin Hoffman, where a Lucullian spread of smoked salmon graced a table. “But even two generations removed, I still couldn’t take my eyes off the lox,” he said.
Just as in Fogelman’s childhood mishpachah, the human mother in “The Neighbors” (Jami Gertz) wears the pants in the family, while the father, Marty (Lenny Venito), named after Fogelman’s own dad, “is kind of this puppy dog who doesn’t quite understand all the jokes his wife is making, but knows exactly how to push her buttons and fight back,” he said.
The Herculean spats between Gertz’s character and her onscreen daughter, played by Clara Mamet (see main story), recall the times Fogelman and his father would cower in the basement, waiting for the yelling to stop between his mother and his sister. Mamet’s character of Amber Weaver is “this kind of holy terror of a teenaged daughter that really existed in a funny way in our house — a whirling dervish of energy and neurosis and sexuality,” he said. “Nobody was really scared of my sister,” he added. “Well, maybe a little.”
Fogelman is a science fiction fan, and, he noted, other than “Alf” and “30 Rock” (and “Mork & Mindy”) , sitcoms have rarely veered into alien territory. He and his team spent days discussing how to make the creatures fun, but not too scary. “We’d literally be two hours into a meeting talking about how black to make their eyes,” said Fogelman, whose next project is a film, “The Guilt Trip,” starring Seth Rogen and Barbra Streisand, based on a road trip he took with his mother from her home in New Jersey to Las Vegas some years ago. “And I would say, ‘I’m so glad I skipped law school for this.’ ”
While he hopes the alien-human mix in “The Neighbors” will prove universal, Fogelman says, “The characters could be Jews and non-Jews living next door, or an American and an English family.
“I think people will recognize themselves, no matter who they are.”
September 10, 2012 | 4:36 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Early in Theresa Rebeck’s comic play, “Seminar,” four aspiring writers cower in an Upper West Side New York apartment as Leonard (Jeff Goldblum), their imperious creative writing teacher, scans just one page of a short story before lambasting its author. The short story’s heroine, and by extension its author, is “an overeducated, completely inexperienced, sexually inadequate girl who has rich parents who give her everything and who has nothing to say,” he sneers. “So she sits around and thinks about Jane Austen all the time. I don’t give a s--- about that person.”
Leonard, an embittered former literary star, has equally acidic words for the rising commercial author in the class: “You’re a whore,” he snaps.
It’s not until later in the play that viewers learn Leonard has a wounded bark beneath his bite; layers emerge to reveal his painful history, resulting in a transformation that may ultimately redeem him as well as his students.
The 59-year-old Goldblum — who has appeared on Broadway in plays such as “Speed-the-Plow,” opposite Kevin Spacey, as well as playing a gay Jewish dad on “Glee” — has been a pop culture icon since his earlier roles in “The Big Chill,” “Independence Day” and “The Fly.” He has often portrayed flawed characters who nevertheless also exude a likeable vulnerability. Leonard is perhaps his nastiest protagonist to date.
“He is indeed a prick, horribly so,” Goldblum said in a recent interview about the role he took over on Broadway when Alan Rickman left the show. Goldblum will again play Leonard in the Los Angeles production at the Ahmanson Theatre, opening Oct. 10. “I’m a raging bully and abuser, but it’s because of my own underlying problems,” Goldblum said, who so fully identifies with the character that he speaks in the first person. He does so, he said as “a kind of overcompensation, in various ways, for my personal terrors, which I lay on all these other people.”
Goldblum has studiously worked on the role ever since his Broadway turn — even performing run-throughs with his own acting students in his Hollywood Hills backyard. “I’ve been experimenting, and the mystery of what makes Leonard tick has come together, like the pieces of a puzzle,” he said in his trademark staccato repartee. “The play is about the relationship of the marketplace and the creative sensibility — the so-called artist and success, and the seeming hotbed of sex and competition and power struggle that goes on in that world. But I’ve also come to believe that the play is truly about one thing, and that is fear. It’s a seminar for all of us about fear and how you can overcome it, and have it not hold you back in delivering your creative gifts and other passions.
“All the characters in the play are uniquely beset with chronic terror, and for Leonard it has to do with a hypersensitivity to criticism and failure,” he continued. “It’s a narcissistic egotism and self-loathing that’s caused me to be wildly afraid and to self-medicate with booze and drugs, ill-advised sexual adventures and unconventional and unethical treatment of my students.”
To better understand the play, Goldblum not only grilled Rebeck and the show’s director, Sam Gold, as well as prominent acting teachers, but also reminisced about his own days as an impressionable drama student. When he arrived from his hometown of Pittsburgh to New York at age 17, Goldblum lied about his age to enroll in Sanford Meisner’s legendary drama classes, which required participants to be at least 18. Like Leonard, Goldblum recalled, Meisner ultimately proved “beneficial in a sort of scary way. His attitude was that acting is not a casual endeavor; it’s very serious and very beautiful, and there ain’t no fooling around. His classes weren’t adult education; they weren’t for the dilettante or the faint of heart, and he did sometimes redline into the realm of the curiously harsh.”
During one exercise, Meisner ordered the quaking Goldblum to turn away from the class and to sprint toward the door when he heard a pencil being placed on a table. “I was super on-edge and I thought I heard something and I rushed to the door,” Goldblum said. “And Meisner slammed his hand down on the table and yelled, ‘Schmuck!’ at the top of his lungs. I was very susceptible to his humiliating yelling, but that was the point. An actor’s senses must be hyper-sensitized, and while some of his [techniques] were excruciating, he knew this stuff was not meant to be comfortable, and I’m still benefiting from his teaching even after all these years.
“I’m a craft geek,” he explained. “I’m nothing if not conscientious.”
In fact, Goldblum is renowned among film directors for his meticulous preparation for various roles, including catching a fly in a bag in order to observe it while working on “The Fly.” For his turn as a concentration camp inmate forced to behave like a dog in Paul Schrader’s “Adam Resurrected,” he spent “months crying and crawling around on all fours,” Goldblum said in a 2008 interview with The Journal.
Goldblum, who himself teaches acting in schools throughout Los Angeles, recently used one of his own classes as a kind of laboratory for “Seminar.” “I wasn’t nasty to the students,” he said, “but I’ve been teaching recently with an eye toward how it would impact my performance in the play.”
During one recent seminar, he instructed his students that if they weren’t willing to “go the distance,” that would “disqualify” them from pursuing an acting career. “I said, “Here’s what you should be doing, or get out,” Goldblum recalled.
When one young man said, with a so-what attitude, that he hadn’t bothered to wear the proper shoes to perform a scene, Goldblum promptly took him to task. “That’s not an actorly thing to say,” he told the young man. “If you’re not excited by the delicious, specific solutions that you can potentially come up with for a character, acting may not be for you.
“It was fun to poke at the students in a way that I thought was ultimately beneficial,” he added.
Goldblum grew up attending an Orthodox synagogue and now follows Eastern religions, and he said he sees something Jewish in Rebeck’s play. “It’s a profoundly spiritual story about the source of all creativity and the gift of being alive and right living with each other,” he said. “And if that’s not Talmudic, I don’t know what is.”
He also likens his backstage relationship with his “Seminar” co-stars to martial artists preparing to engage in a sparring match. “We bow,” he said, “and then we kick the s--- out of each other.”
For tickets and information about “Seminar,” which runs Oct. 10 through Nov. 18, visit centertheatregroup.org.
September 5, 2012 | 11:22 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
"My favorite kind of comedy is so wrong that it's right," actor Jared Gertner said.
So it's fitting that he's starring in the blessedly twisted megahit musical "The Book of Mormon," which after scoring nine Tony Awards and a reputation for almost impossible-to-snag tickets has embarked on a national tour opening Sept. 5 at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.
Created by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of TV's satirical "South Park" along with Robert Lopez of the naughty puppet musical "Avenue Q,' "The Book of Mormon" is a blasphemous-yet-endearing bromance story of two mismatched Mormon missionaries trying to convert villagers in war-torn Uganda. The show manages to skewer all things sacred while still coming off as oddly reverent.
Gertner plays, in his own words, "the screw-up Mormon," a slovenly, insecure, "Star Trek"-obsessed schlub named Elder Cunningham, who is paired with a church golden boy, Elder Price (Gavin Creel), on their mandatory, two-year mission. They are sent to Africa, where they encounter villagers ravaged by AIDS along with a genocidal warlord with an unprintable name and a penchant for circumcising every female within reach. It's in this unlikely scenario that the nerdy Cunningham finds his mojo, converting the villagers by reinventing the Mormon story with pop culture references to "Star Wars," "The Hobbit" and, of course, "Star Trek."
One of the musical's most hilarious (and scandalous) moments comes when a tribesman denounces the religion and declares that he's off to copulate with an infant to cure his AIDS. "People back then had even worse AIDS," Cunningham replies, then goes on to improvise a hilariously profane story about Mormon founder Joseph Smith to suggest sex with amphibians actually cures the disease. When the formerly meek Cunnigham later sings, "like Jesus, I'm 'growing a pair,' " one wants to celebrate along with him.
Despite some initial concerns by the show's backers in New York, Mormon viewers have reportedly enjoyed the show. Gertner says even he was startled when he began perusing the script as an understudy for the role of Cunningham before the show's opening on Broadway last year. "I remember reading it and thinking, 'They can't say this!' " the 32-year-old actor said in a telephone interview from Denver, where the musical was playing to sold-out houses recently.
In fact, the cast and crew were given security briefings before the Broadway opening, in case angry patrons lashed out against the production. "We were warned to be careful as far as receiving mail and packages to the theater, because I think they expected the show to be more controversial," Gertner said. "But the fact is, we've been very pleasantly surprised, because people have really embraced us. And I think the show is so funny, has so much heart and so much to say."
The tone of the production is key to offsetting jokes about such things as maggot-infested genitals and pedophilia: "The best way to approach material like this is to keep it as honest as completely possible and not focus on what you're saying as blasphemous, or even on making people laugh," Gertner said, sounding as earnest as one of the doorbell-ringing missionaries in the musical. "Ultimately the show is not a platform for offending people; it's a story about two young kids who are unprepared for the horror they're about to see in the world, and how they deal with it defines who they are and who they want to be."
"My character is Mormon, but the religion doesn't really interest him," added Gertner, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in New Jersey. "He just wants to fit in, to have friends, to be part of things. He hasn't even read the Book of Mormon, though he was supposed to, and he doesn't really know how to be a missionary. And then he gets paired with this perfect Ken doll of a Mormon, who's ready to go out and change the world. So when they go to Africa and see all the devastation, they don't really know how to handle it, and Price, who's the 'perfect' one, kind of crumbles under the pressure. But Cunningham, to even his own surprise, rises to the challenge and is able to connect with and inspire people."
Cunningham — with his mop of unkempt hair and his gut practically bursting out of his clothing — is the fish-out-of-water among the other bright-eyed and bushy-tailed missionaries, who look immaculate in their black trousers, nametags and pressed shirts. Gertner notes that all of the actors who have portrayed Cunningham happen to be Jewish — including the Tony-nominated Josh Gad, who starred in the Broadway production before Gertner took over in June, and Gertner's own understudy, Jon Bass.
"Maybe if you're looking for people who are very different from an all-American, uptight, very white, very blond person, then physically you're going to look for a difference; maybe you're going to find a Jewish person," Gertner said. "And if there's any Jewish humor in the show, it's just humor that comes from us, because we actually all are Jewish."
Gertner's childhood home was "very Jewish," he said. His father served as president of their synagogue; the Gertners kept kosher for Passover, and young Jared attended Hebrew school as well as Hebrew high school. Then there was Gertner's Broadway-themed bar mitzvah: "We made the table centerpieces out of Playbills, so my elderly aunts and uncles sat at the 'Fiddler on the Roof' table, and my young female cousins, at 'Sophisticated Ladies,' " he recalled. His own centerpiece featured "Falsettos," a Broadway show he had unsuccessfully auditioned for not long before his bar mitzvah.
As a self-professed theater nerd, Gertner said he didn't fit in among his childhood peers; in this way he identifies with his outsider character of Cunningham.
"I've always been chubby, and I was one of, like, 10 Jews out of 450 students in my class, so I definitely remember feeling out of step," he added. Then he discovered his talent for making people laugh, "which helped me get through a lot of things, like gym class, which was always a disaster." Gertner found his niche onstage and while in his 20s went on to star in New York productions, including "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Ordinary Days."
His first job on "The Book of Mormon" was as an understudy for Josh Gad, although he was initially hesitant about accepting the gig. "I've never covered before because I like being onstage," he explained. But Gertner had friends who had participated in early workshops of the show — they said he just had to be part of it — so the actor went in to audition for the musical's creators with only the goal of making Parker and Stone laugh. He succeeded and got the call that he was hired the very next day.
To prepare, he began researching the Mormon religion in earnest: "The only things I had previously known about Mormonism came from episodes of 'South Park,' " he said, sheepishly.
But he insists the show doesn't disrespect any religion.
"The stories of every faith can sound a bit goofy if you've never heard of them before," he said. "If you took someone who's [unfamiliar] with Judaism, and you said, 'There's this burning bush and a parting of the [Red Sea],' they're going to say, 'Hold on, you're crazy.' The point is, you're brought up in a tradition and you learn its stories and you take what you can from them to become a better person."
The show is actually "very pro-faith," he added — if unapologetically outrageous. "It's so funny to take in the audience's reaction, because they're simultaneously delighted and horrified," he said. "You can hear people shriek and gasp and laugh because it's affecting them in such a visceral way. But there's so much joy behind it."
For tickets and information, visit www.BroadwayLA.org.