Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Listen to the podcast below.
The kosher Porky Pig was up for an Emmy Award on Sept. 18. Bob Bergen, a nice Jewish boy from Woodland Hills, was nominated in the voice-over category for his performance as America’s favorite traife hero on “The Looney Tunes Show” on Cartoon Network. And while he lost to “Futurama’s” Maurice LaMarche, he said, “I’m thrilled just to have been nominated.” He was, after all, the underdog—er—pig.
Bergen, 47, received the nomination for the episode titled, “Jailbird and Jailbunny,” in which Porky must testify before a judge after Daffy Duck gets arrested for littering at the Grand Canyon. (Naturally, Daffy tries to blame the infraction on Porky and Bugs Bunny.) The judge asks the stuttering character why he isn’t wearing pants, an issue Bergen joked he has brought up with animators.
Besides LaMarche of “Futurama,” which also won the best animated series Emmy, Bergen competed against Christopher Plummer, who narrated TCM’s “Moguls & Movie Stars” series, Brenda Strong for her voice over work as Mary Alice Young on “Desperate Housewives,” and the animation performers Seth Green (“Robot Chicken”) and Dan Castellaneta – the guy who voices Homer Simpson – D’oh!
When the hilarious, affable performer came to the Journal offices for an interview on Sept. 16 (listen to the podcast on the right), he regaled us with the sounds of Porky, Marvin the Martian, Sylvester, Tweety and other Looney Tunes characters he has voiced. He also demonstrated the range of background voices he has done for films such as “Tangled” and “Up” – crying babies, buzzing flies and barking dogs that sounded uncannily real (and delightfully surreal) coming out of a person’s mouth.
Bergen (in his own voice) pointed out that he is not the first kosher Porky. The first, of course, was the late, great Mel Blanc, who voiced all the Looney Tunes characters and who was Bergen’s childhood idol. “I wanted to be Porky Pig when I was 5 years old, and my mom said you can’t be Porky Pig, you’re Jewish,” he recalled. Even so, Bob spent countless hours practicing the pig’s voice—even figuring out the pattern of Porky’s stutter—to his mother’s chagrin.
In grammar school, he got in trouble for saying the “Pledge of Allegiance” in Porky-speak. More discipline ensued when he answered teachers’ questions as the porcine character while attending Portola Junior High (now middle school) in Tarzana, Stephen S. Wise’s religious school and Taft High in Woodland Hills. “I got in so much trouble,” he said. Even the Passover seder wasn’t immune: “Why is this night different from other n-n-n-neh-n-n-evenings,” he demonstrated.
But Bergen wasn’t without ambition. By his early teens, he was spending hours thumbing through the yellow pages, calling every animation studio in town, figuring out how to break into the voice over field. Eventually, he studied with legends such as Daws Butler (the voice of Yogi Bear, Snagglepuss and Huckleberry Hound), and took classes in comedy improv and acting. Bergen even finagled a way to watch his idol, Blanc, record in the studio.
His Jewish mother was initially heartbroken when he chose not to attend college. But Bergen’s chutzpah again paid off after a friend sent him an autographed photo of Casey Kasem for his Taft graduation. Bob promptly mailed Casey a thank you note with his phone number, stating that he hoped to work in cartoons; to his shock Kasem phoned with offers to help. A homemade demo tape of 85 voices that the teenager sent Kasem led Bob to snag his first agent when he was 18.
Within five years, Bergen was working full-time as an actor; in between commercials for McDonalds and such, he landed his dream job – voicing Porky as well as other Looney Tunes characters – in 1990, the year after Blanc’s death. He’s done Porky in everything from the film “Spacejam” to Cartoon Network’s “The Looney Tunes Show,” which premiered this summer.
Among other endeavors, he has also written and performed a one-man show, “Bob Bergen: So, Here’s the Deal!” which he describes as “the story of a nice Jewish boy who wanted to be Porky Pig.”
These days, Bergen remains a staunch Porky fan. During the holiday season, he dresses a figure of his traife hero in a Santa Claus suit, which graces his front yard. And now he has an Emmy Award nomination under his belt—Mazel Tov, Bob!
For now, as Bergen himself told us, “That’s all, J-j-j-j-j-Jews!”
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September 19, 2011 | 4:18 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
On a recent afternoon, Mayim Bialik, having finished rehearsing a scene for “The Big Bang Theory” — the CBS comedy about a clique of uber-geeks that premieres its fifth season this week — had retired to her dressing room for a bit of Talmud study and to begin planning her kosher vegan menu for the High Holy Days. The 35-year-old actress, who plays the brainiac Amy Farrah Fowler on the show, will chant the haftarah on Yom Kippur morning at UCLA and blow the shofar for the campus services, which are conducted by Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller and are open to the community.
Bialik, who grew up Reform but now considers herself “Conservadox,” became known for her role as the eponymous “Blossom” on TV in the 1990s. After taking more than a decade off to earn her doctorate in neuroscience at UCLA, she has re-emerged as the newest member of the “Big Bang” posse, while also serving as “celebrity spokesmama” for the Holistic Moms Network, as an advocate for attachment parenting and writing her debut tome, “Beyond the Sling” (Simon & Schuster), which will hit stores in March. In her Warner Bros. dressing room, copies of the Mishnah and the Gemara shared coffee table space with her “Big Bang” script.
“Judaism is a huge part of my life — it is absolutely inseparable from who I am,” Bialik said, as the conversation turned back to the Jewish New Year. “There is a spiritual dimension to this month, and one of the beautiful aspects of Judaism is that there is a rhythm to our year that holds a mystical significance. Rosh Hashanah was the day that the world was created; it’s a time that feels ripe and pregnant with possibilities.
“So I feel this tremendous sense of anticipation, but also a healthy anxiety,” she said of her synagogue duties. “I feel a very positive sense of obligation, and that I take on joyfully, but I’m very hard on myself.”
Until her parenting responsibilities precluded all-day shul duty — her sons, Miles and Fred, are 5 and 3, respectively — Bialik served as cantor throughout the High Holy Days. This year, the actress, who also plays trumpet, will practice daily to get her mouth muscles in shape for the shofar blasts required for Seidler-Feller’s services. She says she already knows her haftarah well because she has chanted it at Seidler-Feller’s invitation for more than a decade.
Although Modern Orthodoxy is the denomination to which Bialik aspires, she chooses not to use that term to describe herself because she says her practice is not strictly Orthodox. After all, the practice of chanting in synagogue is forbidden to women according to Jewish law.
Yet doing so links her to her grandfather, a lay cantor in Poland who later served as chazzan to a congregation of Holocaust survivors in San Diego. “I’m part of thousands of years of people chanting this section of haftarah,” she said of the words she’ll chant on Yom Kippur. “I feel very connected to a community when I get to chant on their behalf. I praise God privately whenever I pray, but it’s very powerful to do it in a public way.”
Bialik was down-to-earth and good-natured as she showed a visitor her Tiffany Star of David — a gift she received from her parents when she was 19, just after “Blossom” wrapped, and which she wears daily. She explained that she will need to take it off to tape her “Big Bang” scenes, although this season, the set decorators have added an empty maroon velvet tefillin bag to the décor in Amy’s room. “For all I know, she may be Jewish; I’m still holding out hope,” Bialik said. (The show’s co-creator Bill Prady said in an interview that Amy is not Jewish, so the reason for the tefillin bag remains mysterious.)
Bialik has not publicly worn pants since 2007, when her continuing studies led her to increased Jewish observance, including aspects of tzniut, or modesty. “I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to wear skirts as Amy,” she said. “They dress her frumpily and in layers because they want her very asexual, so my curves are protected. I work in an industry where everything is very external — and in a good way, it has to be; we’re entertaining people with what is presented. But something really resonated about having a lot of positive control over how I present myself.
“It’s an interesting bind as a woman in Hollywood, where being classically attractive is still very valued,” added Bialik, who blogged on Kveller.com about her search for a dress to wear to last weekend’s Emmy Awards, which she dubbed “Operation Hot and Holy.”
“For those of us who are labeled character actors, because we don’t fit that mold, it can be a challenge. I come from the Barbra Streisand-Bette Midler concept of Jewish actresses, who are very recognizable by their look. Even the Jewish community is constantly torn by how to handle the concept of how we find women desirable,” Bialik said.
Bialik got an in-depth education on how actresses should look when she returned to show business, rather than pursuing a career in academia, after her younger son was born in 2008. The actress and her husband, Michael Stone — who parent without nannies or housekeepers — had determined that a television job would allow Bialik more flexibility for their 24/7 attachment-parenting style.
To jump-start her TV career, Bialik signed up to appear on the TLC makeover show “What Not to Wear,” whose producers “chose me to ‘fix,’ ” she said, with a laugh. They encouraged her to be “sexy” and to not hide under her clothing, but “I feel much more comfortable with what I call ‘subdued sexy,’ ” Bialik said. “The idea that you have to be sexy at all is kind of amusing, but part of my job description is to do publicity events where I look competitive. If you want to get more work, you need to be valued the way other actresses are valued. Even when you get auditions for roles that call for the homely girl, you still have to show your assets in a positive way. But I can only do that within the limits of what I find personally appropriate.”
When Bialik auditioned for “The Big Bang Theory” two years ago, it was perhaps another asset that helped her land the part of the asexual girlfriend to the obsessive-compulsive physicist Sheldon, played by Jim Parsons, who just won his second Emmy Award for the role. After Bialik had delivered the three lines her character was to utter in the third-season finale, she recalled that co-creator Prady scanned her resume and asked if she really did have a doctorate in neuroscience.
It also helped that Bialik had watched YouTube clips featuring Sheldon: “I had been told that they were looking for a female Jim Parsons, so I just did my best mimicry of what looked like a pretty socially challenged guy,” she said.
“Mayim is a very bold and fearless performer,” said Prady, whose writers made Amy a neuroscientist, like Bialik. “She never does anything with just one toe in the water. Whatever you ask her, she dives in.”
Bialik’s Amy, as a female nerd, is far more interested in social bonding than Sheldon, and her blunt questions about sexuality have been sidesplitting. “I’ve said the word for every piece of genitalia: uterus, breasts, areolas, buttocks,” Bialik said, demonstrating Amy’s flat affect.
Does this conflict with Bialik’s ideas about modesty? “I had a quite religious rabbi point out that I’m just acting,” she said. “And some friends of mine actually thought Amy was shomer negiah [observing the practice of not touching the opposite sex], because Jim and I almost never touch.
Bialik does share one trait with her character: “I’m a meticulous person,” she said. “I like science, and I like halachic Judaism. As a performer and as an actor, I tend to be a perfectionist,” she added.
That trait will apply to chanting the haftarah and blowing the shofar in shul: “It’s what makes me dedicated and consistent.”
September 8, 2011 | 6:44 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In a back booth at Canter’s, Seth Rogen is digging into his matzah ball soup with gusto as his close friend, screenwriter Will Reiser, sips a glass of club soda. In person, Rogen — who has emerged as one of the leading comic actors, writers and producers of his generation — offers up the same rumbling laugh (think a Jewish Santa Claus) and humorous banter as the stoner-slacker characters he plays in such films as “Knocked Up” and “Pineapple Express.”
Reiser, part of Rogen’s “Jew Tang Clan” entertainment posse since the two met on “Da Ali G Show” eight years ago, is quieter and thoughtful, even as he and Rogen seamlessly finish one another’s sentences on this late afternoon.
The same dynamic appears in the best friends who make up the heart of their new movie, “50/50,” which is loosely based on how Reiser’s life and relationships — including his friendship with Rogen — evolved after he was diagnosed with a cancerous tumor of the spine in 2005.
In “50/50,” which is by turns poignant and hilarious, Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a 20-something writer for public radio who has an artist girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a pothead-jokester best friend, Kyle (Rogen). But early on, it’s clear all isn’t well with Adam, when he fatigues while jogging and complains of worsening back pain. When Adam finally visits a doctor, the news is shocking: A tumor is snaking alongside his spine, with the almost unpronounceable name of neurofibrosarcoma, or malignant schwannoma. And his MRI — actually based on Reiser’s own MRI — indicates he has only a 50 percent chance of survival. A life-threatening surgery is his only option.
Adam is by nature emotionally repressed and stoic, and as he struggles to come to terms with his cancer, his friends and relatives respond in disparate ways: His girlfriend is unable to deal with the illness and cannot even bring herself to drive Adam to his chemotherapy sessions. Kyle, after an initial freakout, wants to use Adam’s sympathy card to score chicks. Friends say exactly the wrong things, and Adam’s mother (Anjelica Huston) is supportive but smothering.
As Adam’s health deteriorates, help arrives in the form of a novice oncology psychotherapist (Anna Kendrick) assigned to him by the hospital. “She is young and unable to face what she is dealing with — just like Adam — which creates a strong connection between them,” said the film’s director, Jonathan Levine (whose credits include “The Wackness”).
There is levity amid the drama, much of it akin to the raunch-fests-with-heart for which Rogen, and his comedy mentor, Judd Apatow, are known. In the scene where Adam shaves his hair before it can fall out due to chemotherapy, Kyle reveals that his razor has been used on hairs other than from his head. “It’s inevitable, it’s just where my head goes,” Rogen said of the joke.
Online, some individuals have critiqued Rogen for even attempting to make a comedy about cancer, stating that their experience with dying loved ones was anything but funny — some even went so far as to write, “F—- you, Seth Rogen.”
“I’m used to people hating all my s—- before they watch it,” Rogen said. “But I think we did the movie honestly and respectfully and based it on our own experiences.”
Levine, who has helped care for relatives braving cancer, agreed: “It’s not just because I’m Jewish and I own a bong that I relate to this,” he told the producers while lobbying to direct the movie.
“What this film does with character and pushing the boundaries of comedy is incredibly resonant and important. The salient theme is: What does it mean to be young and facing this disease? What does it mean to be facing the end of your life before you’ve really lived it?”
Rogen, 29, and Reiser, 31, met when they were the two youngest staff members on the American version of Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Da Ali G Show.” “I remember feeling threatened that there was another young dude working on the show,” said Rogen, who was recently named by Forbes as “the hardest-working man in Hollywood.”
At the time, Rogen shared an office with his current writing and producing partner, Evan Goldberg (“Superbad”), a friend since being in the same bar mitzvah class at their Reform synagogue in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Reiser, who had his bar mitzvah at a Jewish community center in White Plains, N.Y., remembers being envious of Rogen and Goldberg, who were staff writers while he was an associate producer. “Our office was divided by just a window, so we could see each other all day long,” Reiser said. “In their office, they’d be joking, imitating Sacha’s accents, shouting in Kazakhi [a reference to Baron Cohen’s character of “Borat”] and running back and forth, and I would be on the phone, really stressed out, on the verge of having a nervous breakdown, trying to book guests.”
Rogen and Reiser quickly bonded, however, in part because of their similar ages; they were the only staff members who smoked (both have since quit). Since they couldn’t light up in the show’s skyscraper offices, they’d have to trek down to the parking garage, which provided a nice break from the office intensity. “You needed a reason to leave, and the only reason to leave was to smoke, so we would go smoke cigarettes all the time,” Rogen said.
Reiser, who at 24 was already a workaholic and always the first person in the office at 7:30 a.m., initially dismissed his early cancer symptoms as stress-related. “I had no energy and my knee kept swelling up with fluid,” he recalled. “[Eventually], I could not stay awake, and I was having these horrible night sweats, where I would wake up and my shirt would be drenched, like I had just gone swimming.”
“Your skin just got bad,” Rogen said of the “Ali G” days. “It was like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when those people were melting. … Will began looking worse and worse, but of course we had no idea how sick he was; we just thought he was working too hard. We’d always joke, ‘The hours are killing him.’ Sacha would say, ‘Should we tell him to go home?’ ”
Click here for the rest of the story.
“50/50” will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 12 before opening in theaters on Sept. 30.
August 30, 2011 | 11:57 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
When Sam Worthington (“Avatar,” “Terminator Salvation”) walks into an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel, he looks nothing like the tormented Holocaust survivor and Mossad agent he plays so soulfully in the spy thriller “The Debt,” opening Aug. 31. His short-cropped hair and clean-shaven mug has given way to long, scruffy locks and a wild reddish beard he’s grown to shoot “Drift,” a surfer drama set in the 1970s in Australia. When asked about the bracelet he’s wearing, embossed with the letters “C-H-E-W-Y,” the Aussie actor laughs and explains, “It’s because I’m hairy, like Chewbacca [in “Star Wars].”
He adds of the “Drift” filmmakers: “They said to grow everything out. So I look like Zach Galifianakis at the moment.”
In “The Debt,” 35-year-old Worthington plays David, one of three Mossad agents sent to East Berlin in the 1960s to kidnap and bring to Israel for trial an infamous Nazi doctor, dubbed the “surgeon of Birkenau” (Jesper Christensen). His comrades are Rachel (Jessica Chastain) and Stephan (Marton Csokas), an ambitious agent who hopes the mission will boost his career.
David, who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, is motivated by the debt to the 6 million; he is determined to bring the war criminal to trial, in a civilized fashion, so that the entire world can learn of his deeds. But when the plan to kidnap Doktor Dieter Vogel goes wrong, the repercussions haunt and threaten to destroy David. When a lie the agents tell about the mission threatens to emerge in Tel Aviv in 1997, another kind of debt must be paid.
Each character is played by two sets of actors: Worthington, Chastain and Csokas are the agents in the ‘60s, while the older thespians Ciarán Hinds, Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson, respectively, portray the characters three decades later.
Worthington is best known in this country as an action star, but “The Debt’s” director, John Madden, saw the actor differently when he flew to the “Terminator” set in Albuquerque to convince him to play David. “James Cameron’s ’Avatar’ had not yet come out, nor had ‘Terminator Salvation,’ although the Cameron film was breaking a lot of ground and bringing Sam a lot of attention,” Madden recalls of the time. “But I had seen Sam in this little Australian film called ‘Somersault’ , and he popped into my head for ‘The Debt’ because he has this unusual quality that you don’t see very much in the movies he’s made since. He is very masculine; he’s got a very powerful, heroic presence, but he’s also got a hidden kind of emotional fragility about him, which he is not noted for, particularly, but it’s definitely there. That was what I noticed immediately about him in ‘Somersault,’ and I thought you needed both sides of that coin for the character of David.
Worthington was impressed that the British director had traveled all the way to New Mexico to pitch his film: “I thought, ‘Any man who’s willing to fly to f——-g Albuquerque, how could I not sign on?’ John is an eloquent man and a great storyteller; his work is quite diverse, from ‘Shakespeare in Love’ to ‘The Debt,’ which I found interesting. So it was quite an easy sell, to be honest. And so I said, ‘Why not?’”
When I asked Worthington about the so-called “Holocaust fatigue” experienced by moviegoers, given the plethora of such films, he said he doesn’t view “The Debt” as a Holocaust movie. “It’s about guilt,” he said, “and carrying a weight and a burden, and the ramifications of your actions when you harbor something like this secret and live off that secret for the rest of your life. Can you get away with it? And when it does bite you in the butt, how do you handle it?
“You can read a mountain of books on the themes of the Holocaust and tracking down war criminals,” he added, “but the movie is much broader and bigger than that. It’s a taut thriller that delves into the repercussions of one’s actions, whether it’s a Nazi war criminal or a brilliant African drug lord. It’s about any kind of event that ripples throughout your life.”
Here are more excerpts from the interview:
Q: How did you prepare to play the role of David?
A: I tend to do my research off the scripts; everyone’s process is different. Me and Ciaran [Hinds, who plays David as an older man] met, and I said, ‘Here’s how I’m looking at the character: He’s a ticking time bomb; he’s the quiet one of the group, he holds his losses inside of him, but he has the most passion. Therefore when he lets Vogel get to him, and they can’t finish the mission, that starts him on a downward spiral.’”
Q: You rehearsed and shot the scenes in which the agents hold Vogel hostage in an East Berlin apartment on a set inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon.
A: We had a very intense rehearsal period and then actually shot those scenes in order, like on a stage, so it felt like a little play. But by the time we finished we felt like rats kind of crawling to get out of the house. We all wanted to knock the whole place down, which kind of helped, because the characters are supposed to feel claustrophobic. We’d been in there for five weeks; we’d gone from playing happy family to this guy is sh—ing and peeing on the floor. So the reactions are true, and that’s what I liked about it. I wanted out; I didn’t like being there.
Q: What was your approach to the scenes in which the Nazi doctor taunts your character as a Jew?
A: John [the director] said, “Just keep it really contained, don’t do f—k all. Whatever you’re feeling, whenever this guy’s attacking you, don’t move a muscle; just sit still. You do stoic better than any other f—ing actor, so we might as well exploit it instead of you getting burned for it for once—we’ll try and get you commended (laughs).
Q: You learned the Israeli martial art, Krav Maga, for the role.
A: They trained us a lot but I find any physical action quite easy, to be honest. I found it interesting that Krav Maga is an attack form of defense. You fight people who are going at you; you might get struck in the head four times but it doesn’t matter. If you are taking on a guy with a knife, the chances are you’re going to get knifed. Krav Maga is a forward-thinking action, and that, to me, is also a way of understanding how the Israelis think. It’s a forward way of thinking; it’s what they believe in; they believe their belief is correct and they go straight for it, so I found that parallel interesting.
Q: What was the biggest challenge for you on this film?
A: The accent. I always struggle with accents and everyone bags me for it, but that’s something you just keep learning. It’s a weird accent because we’re doing German dialect with an Israeli accent on top of an Australian accent in my case. So the voice coach got us all together and we found a kind of solid, universal sound we could all aspire to.
Q: There’s a remarkable story about how you accidentally became an actor – as a result of accompanying someone to an audition for drama school.
A: I was a bricklayer; I built houses. And I did go an audition with this person for moral support, except that I got in, and she didn’t. In hindsight, it’s because I was willing to do anything. And it beat mixing cement for the day.
Q: Where does the future of the new “Avatar” films stand right now?
A: Jim [James Cameron] has told me the idea for films two and three, and it’s fu—ing huge. I think the plan is to shoot both at the same time, because then everything’s in place, but it’s massive. At the moment, I know he’s doing a lot of other things. But this is monumental, and he’s not going to start it until he knows he can really push the envelope again.
Q: When you do something like “Avatar,” with all the special effects, and then something like “The Debt,” which is so gritty and tactile – which kind of experience do you find more rewarding?
A: Each movie is its own beast, its own kind of journey. I don’t mind green screen, I don’t mind working with nothing, and I don’t mind doing smaller movies like this that I grew up on in Australia. Each job has its own challenges, and its own kind of joys.
Q: Was it easier working with Jessica Chastain in the upcoming film, “The Texas Killing Fields,” after acting with her on “The Debt?”
A: In “The Debt,” we’re scared young lovers, in the beginnings of a potentially blossoming romance. And in “Texas Killing Fields” we’re at the end of a relationship; we’re divorced. Jessica and I have had this film kind of relationship, and we’ve also become friends, so it was easier for me.
Q: What is John Madden like as a director?
A: He has an ease with direction. He lets you do your work, he trusts you, he hires you for a reason. Some directors hire you and then try to mold you, which is ridiculous. I was hired because of 15 years in this industry and 30-odd movies, so I know what I’m bringing to the table. John lets you do it and if he does have any sense of direction, he does it in such a tactful, easy way that you kind of don’t even know he got you there. It’s like a cat with a bit of tin foil: it’s beautiful.
August 23, 2011 | 6:33 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
As Jessica Chastain was preparing for her role in the Mossad thriller “The Debt,” her voluminous research led her to the story of a survivor who witnessed the destruction of her entire family in the Holocaust. “It was a woman’s memory of something she had seen as a young girl,” said Chastain, a 30-year-old Juilliard graduate who has turned heads for her performances in “The Tree of Life” and “The Help.”
Chastain used the memory as the back story for her “Debt” character, Rachel, a Mossad agent sent in 1966 to kidnap and bring to trial in Israel a notorious Nazi, dubbed the “surgeon of Birkenau,” who was living in hiding in East Berlin. “Because the memory was so devastating, and because it is real, it helped me understand a character who essentially is willing to martyr herself for her country,” Chastain said. “Rachel wonders why, if her family was killed, does she get the opportunity to live? And because she has that opportunity, how must she live to be worthy of that gift?”
The debt owed the 6 million haunts the film, which follows Chastain and her fellow agents, David (Sam Worthington of “Avatar”) and Stephan (Marton Csokas) as they stalk the Nazi Dieter Vogel (Jesper Christensen) in decrepit East Berlin. The action cuts back and forth from those events to Tel Aviv in 1997, when the agents — in these scenes played by Helen Mirren, Tom Wilkenson and Ciarán Hinds — are forced to confront a secret they have long harbored about Vogel.
Based on a 2007 Israeli film, “HaHov,” “The Debt” is the latest drama to delve into the emotional aftermath of the Holocaust, joining such recent films as Gilles Paquet-Brenner’s “Sarah’s Key,” in its exploration of survivor’s guilt.
“Debt” director John Madden (who is British and earned an Oscar nomination for “Shakespeare in Love”), was as daunted as Paquet-Brenner by the so-called Holocaust fatigue that has affected moviegoers: “I was very aware of not wanting to hitch a ride on those horrendous events in order to make a revenge thriller,” Madden said. But when he first viewed an early English-language adaptation of “HaHov,” “the material shot off the page at me,” he said. “While it worked like a thriller, it also had an emotional and moral complexity and could raise issues about justice, which seemed especially relevant at a time when we were seeking to kidnap and assassinate people like Osama bin Laden.”
Madden, 62, was born in 1949 in “the shadow of the war” and admits to having had as a boy a “grim fascination” with the Jewish experience. He was well aware that the Jewish students segregated into one entire house at his English school were victims of casual anti-Semitism. Madden is married to a Jewish woman and previously tackled issues of war and remembrance in his 1989 television mini-series, “After the War.”
Like that earlier project, “The Debt” “is not a film about the Holocaust,” he said. “But clearly, every single thing in it is governed by the notion of how people try to come to terms with that event and what that kind of extreme behavior says about us as human beings.”
As Madden reworked the script, a moral dialectic emerged between the male leads: There is the more cavalier and ambitious Stephan, who does not have the same painful history as his comrades, and there is David, who like Rachel is the sole survivor of his family and is obsessed with bringing Vogel to trial. “His motivation is standing for what Israel is and wanting to shape that nation and ideology into something that is a worthy recompense to the 6 million,” Madden explained.
“David is like a ticking time bomb,” Worthington said of his character. “He feels his debt to his people, and his family, and hopes to lay all those demons to rest. So when the plan goes awry, his demons explode.”
As research, Madden read about Peter Malkin, the agent who captured war criminal Adolf Eichmann on a street in Buenos Aires in 1960. “Eichmann was like a hunted animal,” said Madden, who brought that quality to his fictional war criminal. “My conversations with Jesper were about, how do we portray a person who is capable of these monstrosities? What arrangements has he made with himself, how does he continue to justify his actions, in a way that allows him to not just live but to be involved in a branch of medicine that is enabling rather than withholding life?”
Some of the most harrowing scenes are those in which Chastain spreads her legs in the stirrups in Vogel’s fertility clinic, pretending to be a patient while surreptitiously snapping photographs with a camera hidden inside her necklace. “Her position is not only physically humiliating, it’s terrifying, because he is a man who represents the destruction of her people — he is like the boogeyman,” said Chastain, who read about Nazi medical experiments and studied the Israeli martial art Krav Maga to prepare for the role.
For the claustrophobic sequences in which the agents are holed up with Vogel, who sits tethered and is force-fed gruel that frequently covers his body, the actors spent five weeks on a decaying apartment set inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon. “We really did feel like rats in a cage,” said Chastain, who conferred with Mirren to “match” the older and younger Rachels.
“Perhaps more than any other character I have played, Rachel broke my heart,” Chastain added.
It was Chastain who brought Rachel’s heartbreaking back story to Mirren, who agreed to use it in her own performance. “I don’t want to be too specific about it, because I believe an actor must have secrets,” Chastain said. “And also because it is someone’s real story, which I don’t want to betray.
The film opens Aug. 31.
August 9, 2011 | 6:23 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Daphna Edwards Ziman was in her Tudor-style Beverly Hills home, speaking urgently into the telephone to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Ziman’s organization, Children Uniting Nations, was about to hold its sixth annual conference in Washington, D.C., gathering lawmakers across the political spectrum, from Nancy Pelosi to Michele Bachmann, to battle the sex trafficking of children in the United States.
“Connie Rice, you can help change this with me,” said Ziman, who has been an indefatigable advocate for foster kids and abused children since rescuing her own daughter Michele, now 23, from a homeless shelter 18 years ago.
The philanthropist and activist recently has employed a novel technique to educate the public about minors forced into prostitution: She has written a thriller, “The Gray Zone,” about a fierce young woman who, after her mother’s murder, has survived horrific foster homes and sexual slavery. Now 24, the fictional Kelly Jensen has become a daring and seductive criminal — a master of disguise and identity theft — in order to protect the lives of her own two children and to bring down a ruthless operation subjecting foster children to sexual slavery. Ziman’s debut novel has made The New York Times and USA Today best-seller lists, among others, and she has appeared everywhere from CNN to LA Weekly to promote the book and her cause.
On a recent afternoon, she fielded calls in a den filled with photographs of her two adopted daughters, Michele and Ashley, as well as photos of herself with the rich and powerful — including Ziman presenting a copy of her book to former President Bill Clinton. On the walls behind her, almost incongruously, are two artistic renderings of Marilyn Monroe: “Marilyn was a foster child,” she explained. “It’s a reminder as to how vulnerable she was, and how vulnerable foster children are, and how they need love and support. At the end of her life, Marilyn had nowhere to go — even with all of her fame and fortune — and that’s what it’s all about for me.”
Ziman’s passion for the disenfranchised goes back to her childhood in Israel, where she learned that her late grandfather, who had been the mayor of a village near Vilnius, Lithuania, had been murdered during the Holocaust. “Actually, they chopped off his hands and legs and hung him in the gateway to his little town,” she said. “So my heritage is about the lack of consciousness that can develop when people lose sight of their humanity.”
Her awakening to the foster care crisis came, almost two decades ago, as she walked through a shelter in Santa Monica, to which she had written checks but had never visited. “There were these tiny cubicles, and in each cot there was either a mother with children or just children,” she recalled. “Then they took us into the kitchen, and amid the stench of cooking oil there was a little girl, with her hair in dreadlocks, sleeping on a bench. I looked at her and she opened up these piercing green eyes and stared at me. And she jumped off the bench and grabbed my hand.”
The girl was Michele, then 5, the daughter of a crack-addicted mother, whom Ziman initially hoped to help by sending to a rehabilitation clinic. “Michele had bruises all over her body, and at first I believed the mother when she said the child was clumsy,” the philanthropist recalled.
Then one night a call came from a hospital emergency room: Michele’s mother had nearly choked the girl to death. Ziman was able to take Michele home with her, but at the subsequent court hearing, a judge ordered the girl returned to her mother. “I said, ‘No way,’ ” recalled Ziman, who contacted every politician she knew who might help, from Hilary Clinton to Zev Yaroslavky. After much legal wrangling, Ziman was able to become Michele’s foster parent and, eventually, her adoptive mother.
Along the way, she became a major force on Capitol Hill, successfully lobbying to amend the Family Preservation and Reconciliation Act to ensure safety for foster children returning to potentially abusive birth parents. Ziman also founded Children Uniting Nations, a nonprofit that pairs thousands of foster children each year with caring mentors.
During a recent interview, Ziman peppered a conversation with stories about children she has known, both heartbreaking and inspirational: When she once asked a roomful of foster kids how many of them had ever had a birthday party, for example, not one of them raised their hand.
In Los Angeles, she added, 65 percent of foster children emancipate at 18 with no place to live, making them vulnerable to recruiting pimps and drug dealers; 40 percent of people in homeless shelters in California are former foster children.
Ziman incorporated these statistics into “The Gray Zone,” which she began writing as her 20-year marriage to billionaire real estate mogul Richard Ziman was unraveling several years ago. The Israeli émigré — a former model, record company founder, filmmaker and MTV consultant — was a widow when she met Richard Ziman in the 1980s; her first husband had died of leukemia when she was 23. “I really thought Richard and I would be together forever,” she said.
After they separated, she said, the pain was exacerbated when a number of Jewish organizations she had long supported virtually dropped her: “They would send invitations to Richard but not to me,” she recalled. “There is a tendency in the Jewish community to believe that the men matter and the women don’t.”
Feeling abandoned by the community, and in the midst of “a horrific divorce,” she said, she immersed herself in writing “The Gray Zone,” in part, “as an escape, and in order to live vicariously through my character. It was like therapy.”
The fictional Kelly faces challenges not only from without but also from within: “Severe childhood trauma impacts the vortex of the brain, which controls cognition and how we make judgments,” said Ziman, who has supported neurobiological research in the area. “Foster children are taken from their families and moved from foster home to foster home, through no fault of their own. Those who are more resilient are able to take risks more easily as adults, because they have adjusted to working with the unknown. The flip side is that they can develop an inability to create permanent bonds.”
Now that “The Gray Zone” is a best seller, Ziman notes, the Jewish community and other groups have come calling. “If you’re successful, then suddenly, you’re great,” she said, with an ironic laugh. “Everyone says, ‘I knew you could do it; I’ve always loved you.’ ”
According to Ziman, several movie studios are in a bidding war to buy the book rights, and actress Radha Mitchell has expressed interest in the central role.
Meanwhile, Ziman is planning to write her next book, a comedy-drama titled “How to Divorce a Billionaire.” “It’s a fictional novel based on a whole bunch of women that I am friends with who have divorced billionaires, and their stories are so similar it’s bizarre,” she said.
“The minute you divorce a billionaire, you become an industry. Within a day, every family lawyer you’re ever heard of in your entire life becomes your best friend. You now have forensic attorneys and accountants, therapists for your children, therapists for you, and the longer the divorce goes on, the longer everyone gets paid.”
Ziman said she hopes women will take inspiration from her own new career as an author: “There is life after divorce,” she said.
For more information about the novel, whose proceeds will help at-risk children, visit www.daphnaziman.com.
August 5, 2011 | 6:09 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Eric Greene is a civil rights activist and the regional director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice. But I didn’t first meet him as a result of my job at the Jewish Journal. Rather, it was the late 1990s and Eric was lecturing on the original five “Planet of the Apes” films at the Midnight Special book store in Santa Monica. My husband, Ron Magid, is an “Apes” and sci-fi aficionado, and we had arrived to hear Eric speak about his 1998 book, “Planet of the Apes as American Myth:” “Race, Politics and Popular culture (Wesleyan University Press). His 187-page tome is an analysis of the original films—made in the 1960s and 70s—as an allegory of racial strife during that time.
Eric was both an engaging and erudite speaker, and afterwards he was not above geeking out a bit by transforming himself into an “Apes” chimpanzee via a cool makeup demonstration.
As Ron and I got to know him over the years, I was surprised that Eric was also quite involved in his Judaism, and even saw some Jewish values in “Apes.” The character of Caesar from the fourth film, for example, is a kind of Moses figure; and the chimpanzee class itself (compared to the gorillas and orangutans) embodies a liberal Jewish perspective, mirroring the Tribe’s participation in the civil rights movement.
Eventually, Eric went off to Stanford law school, then became a senior policy advisor at the ACLU of Southern California, where he worked on liberal social justice issues such as opposing the death penalty. About a year ago, he accepted his current job at the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice.
The Journal last wrote about Eric and “Apes” in 2001, when we asked him about Tim Burton’s adaptation, starring Mark Wahlberg, Paul Giamatti and Helena Bonham Carter. Even if it was not the most successful movie, it demonstrated how the Apes myth can be adapted to comment on the changing socio-political landscape, Eric said. In Burton’s version, it’s possible to see lingering concerns stemming from the beating of Rodney King by LAPD officers, and the ensuing Los Angeles riots, in the 1990s.
“The sense of putting yourself at risk for your principles isn’t only a very Jewish principle, it’s a very ‘Planet of the Apes’ principle, and I’m proud to embrace both,” he said last week, when we approached him for some modern Midrash about the latest “Apes” saga, Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which opened on Aug. 5.
The new film stars James Franco, Freida Pinto and John Lithgow, as well as Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance as Caesar, a chimpanzee born super-intelligent as the result of experimental drug testing. This new movie uses the “Apes” myth to reflect current anxieties about animal cruelty and scientific experimentation, among other issues. Here’s what Eric had to say after viewing the film for the second time.
And here are excerpts from our videotaped interview:
You can purchase “Planet of the Apes as American Myth” at http://www.upne.com/0-8195-6329-3.html.
August 3, 2011 | 2:47 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
After a screening of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (opening Aug. 5), my husband, Ron Magid, and I, were discussing Rupert Wyatt’s new film as Jewish parable – specifically a retelling of the biblical story of Moses—with Eric Greene, the Southern California regional director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance & Jewish Funds for Justice.
It might seem incongruous at first – a top Los Angeles civil rights activist (previously with the ACLU) who is also an internationally renowned “Apes” expert. But Eric is the author of “Planet of the Apes as American Myth: Race, Politics and Popular Culture,” and has widely lectured on how the original five films of the 1960s and ’70s served as an allegory of racial politics too taboo to directly address at the time.
Before you accuse us of geeking out, note that Entertainment Weekly, in its laudatory review of Eric’s book, advised readers to “Feel free to harrumph like Dr. Zaius, but Greene supports his arguments in interviews with the creators … after 187 well-considered pages, you’ll be scratching your head in humbled agreement.”
The post-screening discussion on the Fox lot was more tribal, since I asked Eric what Jewish values, if any, he perceived in the new film starring James Franco, Freida Pinto and Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings”), who portrays Caesar, a chimpanzee born hyper-intelligent—the result of laboratory testing of a new Alzheimer’s drug—who embarks on an epic journey.
Eric opined that “Rise” could be perceived as a retelling of the Moses story, with Serkis as a stand-in for the prophet. Like Moshe, Caesar is raised as a kind of pampered slave (in this case, by the scientist Will Rodman [Franco], who frequently leashes him), and is isolated from his own kind. He is horrified and enraged when he first witnesses the brutality with which humans treat apes (think Moses killing the Egyptian), and ultimately chooses to remain with his brethren rather than return to his previously comfortable life.
Story continues after the jump.
There’s a moment in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” in which Caesar actually turns his back on Franco: “It’s like Charlton Heston in the movie version of ‘The Ten Commandments,’ saying, ‘My place is with my people,’ ” Eric said, quipping that “as a Jewish community professional, I should note that the Book version is better.” (Heston, incidentally, played Taylor, the captured astronaut in the original 1968 film.)
“Caesar as a Moses figure is also a direct parallel to the character of the chimpanzee, also named Caesar, in ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ , ” Eric continued, referring to the fourth of the five original films. “The filmmakers clearly studied that movie well, because the action mirrors a lot of what goes on in the new movie.”
“Caesar in ‘Conquest’ is basically a pampered slave who lives with a human. When he sees the condition of his fellow apes as slaves he has to make a choice: whether to return to his former life or to stay with his enslaved brothers and sisters. He chooses to turn his back on privilege and throw in his lot with them, becoming a liberator and eventually leads a revolution. The character embodies Moses’ story, and ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ depicts the same evolution of the character.”
“Conquest” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes” may appear cheesy to non-“Apes” fans, but as EW said, “In [Eric’s] eyes, those violent, militaristic flicks symbolize the rise of the black-liberation movement and the resultant anxieties of white liberals. How’s them bananas?”
As we were walking out of the Zanuck Theater, one reviewer was loudly dissing the first “Apes” film as campier than Charlton Heston shouting, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty Ape!” I pointed this out to Eric, who shrugged, and said, “Some people vote Republican.”
Stay tuned to The Ticket for a video interview with Eric on “Apes” in the popular culture. You can purchase “Planet of the Apes as American Myth” at http://www.upne.com/0-8195-6329-3.html.