Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
It was the first day of spring, and Jeffrey Tambor was sitting in his car in the snow near his New York home, conducting an interview while his 6-year-old daughter — one of his four children, ages 3 to 8, including twin toddlers — was taking her piano lesson. “Daddy is tired, but I’m a lucky guy,” he said in his signature baritone. Life is good for the 68-year-old actor, not only in terms of his family but also in the realm of his career: In May, Tambor will reprise his role as George Bluth Sr., the Machiavellian patriarch of a dysfunctional Jewish clan when “Arrested Development” makes its much-anticipated return with 14 new episodes on Netflix.
And, on HBO through April 27, he’s appearing in the TV biopic “Phil Spector,” playing the flamboyant lead defense attorney in the legendary music producer’s murder trial, a project written and directed by Tambor’s hero, David Mamet, and starring Al Pacino and Helen Mirren.
The film opens in 2003, when a past-her-prime B-movie actress named Lana Clarkson is discovered dead in Spector’s gothic Alhambra mansion. Spector (Pacino) insists she put one of his many guns in her mouth and pulled the trigger, but the police suspect murder. Enter attorney Bruce Cutler (Tambor) — who is as known for his dapper two-tone shirts as he is for having defended Mafioso John Gotti. Cutler insists that Clarkson, a depressed celebrity wannabe, committed suicide, but he’s stumped as to how to shape Spector’s defense, fearing the jury may convict the eccentric, wig-coiffed producer because he had previously threatened women with guns — and simply for being, in their eyes, “a freak.”
And so Cutler brings in another star attorney to help — Linda Kenney Baden (Mirren), who initially thinks Spector committed the murder but after a time comes to believe that he is innocent. Even so, their best efforts result in a mistrial, and after a second trial, in 2009, Spector was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 19 years to life in prison, where he now resides.
Mamet has described his movie as a “mythological” version of the events, and the film opens with a disclaimer stating that the film is “a work of fiction … not based on a true story” — which is startling given that the script uses real names as well as some dialogue from real court transcripts.
A media backlash has ensued, critiquing what one reporter called a “mealy mouthed” approach to the truth and the wisdom of fictionalizing a notorious court case — especially since the film insinuates that Spector was convicted despite Mamet’s suggestion there was a generous amount of reasonable doubt.
Tambor strongly disagrees with the media criticism: “There’s the disclaimer,” he said, “and I think David has been acutely truthful about what he is trying to do. We’re not trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes. But then again, I’m an actor, not a politician, and I’m so proud of the movie and the questions it raises. I’m not saying whether Spector is guilty or not guilty, but I’m wildly against prejudice of any kind, and I believe that Spector experienced prejudice [in his trials] for being, essentially, a weirdo.”
Tambor didn’t always feel that way. Back at the time of the trial, he said, “I assumed Spector was guilty because I saw all his freakishness.” But participating in the movie, he added, has opened his eyes to the possibility that jurors were so turned off by Spector that they may have ignored any reasonable doubt raised in the courtroom. “I know the prejudice that was in me at the time of the trial, and if was in me, it was in other people,” he said.
Tambor traces his feelings about prejudice to an incident when he was a boy in San Francisco; he was driving in a car with his mother when another driver shouted out that she was a “kike.” “I didn’t know what that meant, and she told me and I was horrified,” he recalled.
Then there was his trip to Auschwitz some years ago, when Tambor was so overwhelmed, he said, “every nerve was just deadened and I felt numb. Much later when I was actually therapizing over this, I really hit a grief point. I’m getting emotional just thinking about it,” he added.
Tambor grew up with Orthodox, Yiddish-speaking grandparents from Kiev and a Hungarian-Jewish father who, according to family legend, was a boxer who once sparred with Joe Louis, “which is why he could only breathe out of one nostril,” the actor said.
As a boy, however, Tambor was ambivalent about his Judaism: “I was bar mitzvahed at gun point,” he joked. “My cantor was great except he chewed cottage cheese sandwiches for his snack while he was teaching me my Torah portion, and every time he made a ‘chuch’ or a ‘chech’ sound, curds would go flying and I would walk out looking like one of those speckled ceilings in a new house.”
Even so, he said, “I’ve always been Jewish, and I always feel my roots.”
He’s played a number of Jewish characters in a career that has spanned half a century — ever since Tambor was first drawn to the stage while watching theater rehearsals in the drama department of San Francisco State University when he was a boy.
One of his iconic characters is Hank Kingsley, Garry Shandling’s buffoonish sidekick on HBO’s acclaimed “The Larry Sanders Show,” from the 1990s. But Tambor is even better known for another character, who becomes observant for dubious reasons: George Bluth Sr. on “Arrested Development,” who finds religion for a time after he is sent to prison for security fraud during the show’s previous three seasons on the Fox network from 2003 to 2006 — he even crafted a yarmulke from his shoe. “Every day George has a different scheme,” Tambor explained. “I wouldn’t call him spiritual unless he has to be; I would call him a Darwinist.”
Bruce Cutler, the real defense attorney Tambor plays in “Phil Spector,” also happens to be Jewish. (“If I played the pope, he would be Jewish, Tambor quips — and in fact an Internet piece comparing him as a doppelganger for the new Pope Francis recently went viral.)
But per Mamet’s instructions, Tambor did not research Cutler, sticking to whatever nuances he found in the script to create his character. “David told me, in a text message, that if he had wanted the real Bruce Cutler, he would have hired Bruce Cutler,” Tambor said.
For encore episodes of “Phil Spector,” which premiered on March 24, check HBO listings.
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March 20, 2013 | 7:26 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Two minutes into a telephone interview, actor Jeremy Piven riffed on his Jewish background: “I grew up Reconstructionist, so my father used to joke that we prayed to ‘To whom it may concern,’ ” he said, then paused as if for a rim shot. “I’m waiting for the laugh to die down,” he quipped. “That’s how hams work.”
Throughout the eight seasons of HBO’s hit series “Entourage,” Piven played one of the most outrageous hams ever to appear on TV, stealing practically every scene he was in. His character of Ari Gold, the manic, merciless pit bull of an uber-agent to a young Hollywood A-list movie star and his posse of libidinous pals from Queens, N.Y., made him an iconic image of Hollywood excess.
The mercurial Ari also hammed up his Judaism, throwing a lavish bat mitzvah for his daughter; sneaking a cell phone into synagogue on Yom Kippur (to his wife’s chagrin) in order to close a lucrative deal; and proclaiming in another scene, “It’s all gonna be fine … the Jew has arrived.”
No wonder Ari’s aura has been hard to shake for the 47-year-old Piven, who is still approached by fans who affectionately attempt to grip him in an Ari-style headlock and spout Ari-isms such as, “Hug it out, bitch!”
Even when Piven met Britain’s Prince Harry at a recent polo match, Harry, an avid “Entourage” fan, kept calling him “Ari.” “It was cute,” Piven recalled, sounding not too convinced.
The actor said he is grateful for the chance to return to TV in a very different, albeit equally larger-than-life role, this time in the “Masterpiece Classic” eight-episode period drama “Mr. Selfridge,” about the wheeling-and-dealing entrepreneur who pioneered the modern department store, premiering in the United States on PBS SoCal on March 31. Looking dapper in a top hat and tails, Piven portrays Harry Gordon Selfridge, the exuberant, Chicago-born retail magnate and womanizer who in 1909 had the chutzpah to open a palatial (some said crass) shop in the oh-so-proper milieu of Edwardian England.
“Harry’s goal was to make shopping as thrilling as sex, and he was all about glamour and razzmatazz,” said Piven, adding that the idea of going shopping as a leisure activity previously did not exist. “One of his heroes was P.T. Barnum, and he thought of himself as a bit of a performer and his theater as his shop.”
Selfridge invented the idea of ornate window dressings and browsing, which at the time was considered uncouth, as well as the saying, “The customer is always right.”
“It was his idea to move makeup, formerly considered only for showgirls and prostitutes, to the very front of the store,” Piven said. “And he even convinced Louis Bleriot, the French hero who was the first person to successfully fly over the English Channel, to display his airplane in the shop.”
On display, along with the lavish merchandise, are all of Harry’s flaws, which Piven compared to those of his “Entourage” character. “Both Ari and Harry ruled with an iron fist, but Harry’s bite ultimately was much worse than his bark, whereas Ari’s bark was much worse than his bite,” Piven said. “Ari was a monogamous guy who was seemingly a pig, while Harry was a man who could be so inspiring in business, but also had this other life where he was a risk addict and loved his gambling and his women.”
Although Selfridge was said to be very much in love with his wife, Rosalie, he famously bedded the burlesque actress Ellen Love, as well as the dancers Isadora Duncan and Anna Pavlova, among myriad other mistresses. But his fortunes eventually waned, and after the death of Rosalie in the 1918 influenza pandemic, he spiraled downward into financial and personal ruin, ultimately dying virtually a pauper in 1947, at the age of 83.
“Harry’s is a true story, and yet it feels Shakespearean,” Piven said.
And there’s another bonus to playing the part: “Being on ‘Masterpiece’ is like telling your Jewish mother that you’re going to become a doctor,” Piven said. “ ‘Entourage’ was a male wish fulfillment show, so, did my own mother have fun watching the boys trying to get laid because their best friend is famous? I don’t think so. Does she enjoy a turn-of-the-century period piece about an American entrepreneur with all of his beauty, warts and eccentricities? She saw the pilot and was intrigued, so I’m pretty proud of that.”
Piven’s parents, both actors who studied with Uta Hagen, introduced him to the stage, courtesy of their Piven Theatre Workshop in Evanston, Ill., where students included John Cusack and Aidan Quinn. In between performing Chekhov and Shakespeare, the young Piven also aspired to become a star football player on his high school team — to no avail. “If you fail in your own eyes early on, it stokes the fires of ambition and led to a lot of my tenacious ways with acting,” he said.
That persistence came in handy as Piven toiled for years to make it in Hollywood, playing secondary characters in dozens of films, including “Old School” and “Black Hawk Down.” His big break came in 2004, when “Entourage” creator Doug Ellin cast him as the character based on executive producer Mark Wahlberg’s real agent, Ari Emanuel. “Ari Gold was a proud Jew, but it was difficult for him to play by the rules, which led to some of our best comedy,” said Piven, who won three Emmy Awards and one Golden Globe for his work on the series.
Even so, “Playing Ari was physically exhausting, and it took a lot out of me,” said Piven, who relied on his training in commedia dell’arte to portray the volatile character.
“Mr. Selfridge” creator Andrew Davies (“Pride and Prejudice,” “Bleak House”) said it was Piven’s performance in “Entourage” that led him to cast the actor: “All of us are terrific fans of ‘Entourage,’ and we thought Jeremy showed the kind of energy and outrageousness we needed for our character.” Davies said.
These days, Piven said he’s thrilled that an “Entourage” movie is in the works, but he also seems glad to take a break from Ari.
“The U.K. has really embraced ‘Mr. Selfridge,’ and in Britain I don’t see Ari attached to my name so much anymore. I’ve been typecast now as Harry Selfridge, which is really fun.”
March 13, 2013 | 4:24 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
The tribes in Nina Raine’s comedy-drama “Tribes,” now at the Mark Taper Forum, are Jewish, literati and deaf — all as perceived through the lens of one garrulous, even antagonistic British-Jewish family.
The patriarch of this argumentative clan is Christopher, an elitist, politically incorrect academic and writer who not only rejects his membership in the Jewish tribe but also attacks what he perceives to be conformity of any kind. He is thus appalled when his youngest son, Billy, who was born deaf but is expected to read lips, brings home a new girlfriend, Sylvia, who is going deaf and who is introducing Billy to sign language as well as to members of London’s deaf community. Christopher retorts that the deaf community is a cult “founded on exclusivity,” that the deaf are “the f-----g Muslims of the handicapped world,” and that making one’s handicap the center of one’s personality is ludicrous.
Adding to the raucous discourse are Christopher’s wife, Beth; his oldest son, Daniel, who suffers from auditory hallucinations; and his daughter, Ruth, a wannabe opera singer, as power dynamics in the family shift over the course of the play.
Speaking by phone from London, where she was directing William Boyd’s new play, “Longing,” Raines said “Tribes” is as much about what it means to be a member of a tribe as it is about how we hear each other, literally and figuratively.
Her own family tribe, like the one in the play, is verbal, cerebral and at times quarrelsome. Her father is Craig Raine, the famously acerbic British poet and academic; he is not Jewish, while Raine’s mother, Ann Pasternak Slater, is an academic who has taught Shakespeare at Oxford, and hails from a Jewish family — her mother left the Soviet Union to study medicine in Germany, then fled the Nazis to England.
“Some of my cousins are very observant and keep kosher, and some are completely lax, but they all have a slightly sarcastic opinion of each other,” said Raine, who is in her mid-30s and was alternately breezy and thoughtful during the course of a conversation. She noted that the fictional Christopher has no patience for a cousin who has become observant after marrying an Orthodox woman: “[Can’t his parents] just tease him out of being kosher?” he says.
Raine’s immediate family was hardly kosher: “We didn’t learn Hebrew, and we eat ham, but my mother felt like after the Holocaust you should be proud to be Jewish, and she named my brothers Moses and Isaac as if to say, ‘This is our heritage,’ ” she said. “And I don’t feel completely English, because I feel so connected to my family’s refugee history.”
Raine was one of only two Jewish students at her all-girls high school in London, during teenage years when “you’re quite vulnerable to feeling like you want to belong to something,” she said. She found that sense of belonging, in part, by attending synagogue and Shabbat dinners with her Jewish cousins, a practice she continues to this day.
“I also enjoy that game of figuring out whether people are Jewish or not,” she said, with a laugh. “It’s something I love to do, even though my boyfriend, who is not Jewish, just doesn’t understand why that is interesting at all.”
“Tribes” began several years ago, when Raine chanced to watch a documentary about expecting deaf parents who were elated to learn that their baby would be born deaf. “I was startled,” she said, “but then I thought that if I were to have a baby, and it turned out to have my nose and my blue eyes, it would delight me. There’s a kind of joy in putting an image of yourself out there in the world, of furthering your tribe, your family tree.
“Then I started looking around, and tribes seemed to be everywhere,” she said. During a visit to New York, Raine was fascinated by the Chasidim she saw walking the streets of Williamsburg, “who all wore a sort of uniform, like an extended family.”
“I realized that in the deaf community, everyone has opinions about whether you’re being deaf in the best way possible, a bit like I imagine if you decide to become an observant Jew, people are going to have opinions about how ‘kosher’ you are. It’s like intellectuals talking about other intellectuals, or even family members arguing with each other.”
It was Raine’s family that ushered her into the tribe of the theater; when she was 11, her parents took her to the opening night of the opera “The Electrification of the Soviet Union,” for which her father had written the libretto. “I remember meeting the director and wearing a pretty dress, staying up late and being allowed to have a bit of champagne,” she recalled. “I was quite young, and I found all that [glittering] stuff very cool and exciting.”
Raine began writing plays while studying at Oxford; when she couldn’t find a theater to produce her edgy 2006 play, “Rabbit,” she opted to direct it herself in a tiny theater above the Old Red Lion theater pub in the Islington section of London. She was rewarded for her efforts with good reviews and the Evening Standard Award — which came with 30,000 pounds — for most promising new playwright. Her play “Tiger Country,” which delves into the psyches of young doctors at a busy London hospital, also opened to good reviews in 2011.
It is Raine’s parents who have been among her harshest critics: “My mother can’t lie, so she’s crap at sugaring the pill,” Raine said. “But she never says things to deliberately hurt you, which actually is the most gutting thing. And my father is a brilliant editor, so he’s used to taking out his red pen.”
Raine admits to bringing a bit of her father to the fictional Christopher, but she disagrees with viewers who have perceived the character as monstrous. “Christopher loves his family, but he also worships the individual, and he would never assimilate into any kind of group,” she explained. “And he’s just a complete contrarian — to the point where if someone told him it was inappropriate to wear a colorful waistcoat to a funeral, he would say, ‘F--k it,’ and wear it all the same.”
Jeff Still, who plays Christopher, has even encountered viewers who have congratulated him for convincingly portraying “such an ass----, in their words,” he said. “They think they’re being complimentary, but I see Christopher differently. He is above all a family man but he has his flaws. He wants to be the star attraction in the room; he’s going to speak and he wants you to hear what he has to say, and he’s used to being right.”
Raine spent several months visiting hospitals in London to research “Tiger Country”; for “Tribes,” which debuted at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2010, she not only interviewed members of the city’s deaf community, but also attempted to learn sign language — an endeavor she found daunting. “I felt stupid, slow, uncomprehending,” she said. “I wondered, ‘Is this what it might be like to be a deaf person trying to follow a rapid spoken conversation?’ ”
In “Tribes,” she said, deafness becomes a metaphor: “It’s about communication, and what it means emotionally when we hear.”
For tickets and information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.
March 6, 2013 | 4:52 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
You might only know Alex Karpovsky as Ray Ploshansky, the caustic barista who fitfully romances the naïf Shoshanna on HBO’s zeitgeist-y hit, “Girls.”
But while shooting that show, Karpovsky also has managed to write, direct and star in two independent films that recently premiered at Lincoln Center in New York: “Red Flag,” a meta-comedy in which he plays a self-absorbed independent filmmaker named, well, Alex Karpovsky; and “Rubberneck,” a psychological thriller about a scientist who becomes dangerously obsessed with a co-worker.
And in December, Karpovsky will appear as a hopeless square (and wannabe bohemian) in the Coen brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis,” a folk music saga set in 1961.
Why so busy? “I just have a restless drive to keep working,” said Karpovsky, who begins shooting the third season of “Girls” this month. He does see a thread connecting the roles, however.
“I’m drawn to characters who are lonely, neurotic and on journeys of self-discovery,” he said. “Many of them want to become better people, but the road is often tortuous.”
Speaking by phone from the apartment he sublets in Brooklyn, Karpovsky, 33, frankly discussed his own neuroses, which he sometimes draws upon to create his characters. “I have an acute death anxiety,” he said. “ I think about death all the time. It’s the root fear that creates a lot of my day-to-day insecurities.”
Like his character in “Red Flag,” Karpovsky was once dumped by a girlfriend who was fed up by his refusal to propose. “The character feels that if he gets married, his drive and ambition will stagnate, which he sees as a form of death,” Karpovsky said. The actor also has had issues with that kind of commitmentphobia, which, he said, has even extended beyond relationships to housing arrangements. Karpovsky said because of this he tends to sublet apartments, sometimes for short periods of time, and to date has never signed a lease.
“I’m hoping to get a place in April, but it’s hard because I don’t have any credit,” he said. No matter that Karpovsky is among the stars of one of the most talked-about shows on television. “Most of the landlords in my area are Eastern Europeans, and they don’t watch HBO, never mind ‘Girls,’ ” he said.
The fictional Ray’s living situation is even more tenuous: On a recent episode of the show created by its lead actress, Lena Dunham, Ray admitted that he has essentially moved in with Shoshanna because he is homeless and living out of his Mitsubishi.
“I love the fact that all the characters are very authentic, and the relationships are grounded in naturalism,” Karpovsky said. “Viewers are much more familiar with comedies expressed in broader tones, with beautiful people, but we’re doing something much more raw, and, hopefully, reflective of the world we see around us in Brooklyn every day.”
Karpovsky grew up in Boston, the son of a computer science professor, where the décor in his childhood home included paintings of shtetls and other images of Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement. His parents are Russian Jews who immigrated from the former Soviet Union in the late 1970s: “They had endured anti-Semitism and the many limits and quotas the Soviets placed on Jews,” Karpovsky said. “They left to create a better life for themselves, and also for me.”
While in his 20s, Karpovsky assumed he would follow his father’s footsteps into academia, but he left his doctoral program in visual ethnography at Oxford University when he discovered his penchant for the theater. Back in the United States, he began making his own movies while working at a film editing company, where he was allowed to borrow the in-house equipment to work on his own projects.
It was while screening his third movie, “Trust Us, This Is All Made Up,” at the South by Southwest film festival several years ago that Karpovsky met Dunham, who promptly cast him as a self-centered beau in her acclaimed, low-budget 2010 film “Tiny Furniture.”
When Dunham hired Karpovsky to play Ray in “Girls” the following year, the actor immediately grasped what she wanted from the character: “Ray is a contrarian who speaks his mind and calls out the other characters on their b.s.,” he said. “He’s 33, a bit older than everyone else, and he feels this strange obligation to blurt out his perspective on what others are doing, even if it is misguided and occasionally perverse.”
This season has revealed that Ray’s cynicism “actually comes from a sad, lonely place,” Karpovsky said; viewers have learned that Ray is an orphan, with plenty of abandonment issues.
They’ve also learned that Ray isn’t Jewish: “In a recent episode, someone calls Ray a kike, and he responds by saying that he’s actually Greek Orthodox,” Karposvky said. “That was a surprise for me as an actor, and from I’ve read on Twitter, it was also a surprise to some members of the viewing public as well.”
What’s it like for Karpovsky to be a boy on “Girls”? “I feel like a voyeur at times, when I’m hearing three or four of the female characters talk to each other on the show,” he said.
“Every man has the secret desire to overhear the conversations of women, and to know what they’re really thinking — and that’s incredibly juicy, delicious information to get ahold of.”
“Girls” will air the final episode of its second season on March 17.