Ben Lipitz plays Pumbaa, the warthog, in “The Lion King,” at the Pantages Theatre through Jan. 12
When Ben Lipitz trundles onto the stage as Pumbaa, the malodorous but genial warthog in the hit musical “The Lion King,” the character and his meerkat pal, Timon, stumble across Simba, the dejected lion cub who has fled his kingdom because he erroneously believes he has killed his father.
“You’ve got to put your behind in your past,” the malaprop-prone Pumbaa advises the cub. Then Timon and Pumbaa school Simba about their personal motto: “Hakuna matata— it means ‘no worries,’ ” Pumbaa explains as he and Timon burst into song. “I’m a sensitive soul, though I seem thick-skinned./And it hurt that my friends never stood downwind,” Pumbaa sings of his previous mentality. But now, he says, “Hakuna matata is our problem-free philosophy.”
Decked out in a fanciful costume featuring protuberating tusks and a 1-foot-high spiky wig made of yak- and horsehair, Lipitz provides much of the comic relief in “The Lion King,” Disney’s long-running and beloved mega-musical now at the Pantages Theatre through Jan. 12.
It’s Lipitz’s 11th year portraying Pumbaa on the show’s continuing national tours (he also played the role on Broadway in 2009) and he’s clocked well over 4,000 performances as Simba’s porcine sidekick. But he still delights in his time on stage. “The essence of Pumbaa is that he’s the walking embodiment of hakuna matata: Just live for the moment and don’t stress out,” Lipitz said. “He’s not a great character of action; he just goes with the flow. But he’s a great teammate, a great friend, a character who loves unconditionally, and these are all qualities we want to possess. He’ll do whatever he’s asked by his friends, because that’s what you do for your buddies.”
Lipitz as Pumbaa
As for Lipitz’s own favorite sequence in the play, it’s the scene in which “Mufasa [Simba’s father] removes his royal headdress “to speak to the cub as a father and not as a king. Especially since I became a father, it’s the most emotional moment for me in the show.”
In “The Lion King’s” opening number, the characters celebrate what they refer to as “the circle of life.” Lipitz’s own memories of his son’s birth — just six months before his father’s death in 2005 — made that scene distinctly personal for the actor. “My dad was 81, he was on dialysis and had congestive heart failure, and he finally went into a hospice,” Lipitz recalled. “But we did have five days when we got to spend time with him down in Florida, and he got to hold his baby grandson. In that moment, I was looking back on what it meant to be a son and looking ahead to what it might be like to be a father, which I experienced in the most vivid way.”
The show also resonates for Lipitz, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish home in Cherry Hill, N.J., where he was active in the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and United Synagogue Youth and, for a time, aspired to become a rabbi. “It’s the idea of tikkun olam, of giving yourself over to something larger than yourself,” he said. “Simba’s journey is about finding himself so he can take his place in his community, so he can lead and give back to his [fellow citizens].”
Lipitz does his part by reaching out to Jewish Federations in various cities on the tour, offering assistance for fundraising and other endeavors. He’s also a fundraising coordinator for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, having helped raise millions of dollars for the charity.
Now 49, Lipitz attended CalArts and starred in such productions as “The Producers” and “God of Carnage” as well as on episodes of TV shows like “The Sopranos” and “Law & Order”; his five auditions for “The Lion King” finally paid off 11 years ago.
“They were looking for a certain physical size; a lovable, gruff voice and demeanor; as well as a measure of heart,” he said. “And I knew I could do that.”
Not that there aren’t challenges inherent in the role. Lipitz’s Pumbaa costume weighs 48 pounds — the heaviest in the show — and is 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. “It’s in two pieces: The torso, which has the ribs and hind legs, sits on my shoulders and waist like a harness,” he said. “Then the face is a mask that clips to that.” Lipitz works with a physical therapist three times a week to prevent shoulder and back problems due to the cumbersome costume. “Fortunately I’ve avoided most of the major injuries sustained by previous Pumbaas,” he said.
He makes sure to keep his performance fresh for eight shows a week — even after more than a decade as the warthog. “It’s my sense of responsibility to make sure I’m creating the show as if for the first time every time I step on stage, and that I’m not phoning in a performance that’s tired or on autopilot,” he said.
“ ‘The Lion King’ is the kind of theater that really does transform lives. It’s such a fantastic piece of storytelling, and I don’t take it for granted.”
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Joey deBettencourt is the adult-hating orphan boy who eventually earns the name Peter Pan in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” arriving at the Ahmanson Theatre on Dec. 3.
As a child, you think it would be fantastic to be Peter Pan,” the effusive, droll Rick Elice, playwright and lyricist of the “Peter Pan” prequel, “Peter and the Starcatcher,” said in an interview from his home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
“You’d have no bedtime, no homework, you get to fly around and do whatever you want. But now at 56, I realize that had I never grown up I would never have fallen in love, had sex or written works that I care about. There is so much that Peter will never know, like a flower that never has a chance to bloom.”
Elice — who earned a Tony nomination as co-writer of the hit musical “Jersey Boys” — infused those bittersweet thoughts into “Peter and the Starcatcher,” which won five 2012 Tony awards and arrives at the Ahmanson Theatre on Dec. 3 as part of its first national tour.
Based on the best-selling 2004 children’s book, “Peter and the Starcatchers” (Elice dropped the plural for the play), by Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson, the fanciful production serves as a prequel to J.M. Barrie’s lauded 1904 play, “Peter Pan.” Elice’s version spotlights a nameless, adult-hating orphan boy as he accompanies a feisty girl named Molly to the treacherous island of Rundoon. There they battle an oversized crocodile as well as savage natives — all the while pursued by the vicious pirate captain Black Stache (so named for his hirsute face). Their mission is to destroy the magical “starstuff” coveted by Britain’s arch-villains, and so ensure the safety of the world. Along the way, the ragamuffin boy learns to fly, to become a leader and earns the name — Peter Pan.
Joey deBettencourt is the ragamuffin Boy and Megan Stern is feisty Molly in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” based on the similarly titled best-selling children’s book.
But even as Peter learns what it is to become a man, he is doomed to remain forever a boy; Elice regards him as “a kind of Moses-child denied entrance to the Promised Land. The Promised Land is not eternal youth, but adulthood. Peter remains the eternal outsider, who doesn’t have a place at the table.”
Elice said that as a Jew who has experienced anti-Semitism, he connected personally with the character’s “otherness”: “I’ve felt it in the coldness of a handshake,” he said. He also recounted how, in the early 1980s at Harvard University, a man barred him from entering a prestigious club, proclaiming, “No Jews allowed.”
“My Judaism is very central to who I am,” said Elice, who grew up attending the Utopia Jewish Center in Queens. Until age 15, he said, he aspired to become a cantor, and was transfixed by his synagogue’s music and the way the cantor used his tuning fork to prepare to sing haunting a cappella nigunim.
Elice became emotional as he described how, some 25 years ago, his husband, Roger Rees (the co-director, with Alex Timbers, of “Peter and the Starcatcher”), converted to Judaism, seeking in the Jewish community a sense of belonging he had lost with the death of all members of his immediate family.
“He didn’t tell me about his conversion until he came back from the mikveh,” Elice said, adding that they both are now members of New York’s Congregation Rodeph Sholom. “I was so moved that I wept.”
Despite Elice’s early cantorial aspirations, however, the theater beckoned; he fell in love with the stage when he saw “My Fair Lady” on Broadway when he was just 3. As an adult, he earned a master’s degree from the Yale School of Drama and spent 18 years marketing Broadway productions.
In 2002, Elice’s career took a turn when some producers asked him if he would like to create a musical based on the songs of the 1960s band the Four Seasons. Intrigued, he asked his poker buddy Marshall Brickman (co-writer of such Woody Allen films as “Manhattan”) if he would collaborate in developing the idea.
“We were the unlikeliest pair to embark on this project,” Elice said. The band was made up of working-class natives of New Jersey, while he and Brickman “were these overeducated, overanalyzed and, dare I say, a bit snobby New York Jews,” Elice said. They shared the usual stereotypes about New Jersey, he added.
But when Elice and Brickman met with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudi, two of the original Four Seasons, Elice said, “Our preconceptions disappeared.” He and Brickman were riveted by the pop-classic band’s largely unheard-of backstory: “Some of them had committed crimes and had done time in prison. They were pursued by the mob, and they weren’t the glamorous rock stars who were written about in magazines,” he said.
The idea of a musical revolving around such marginalized characters appealed to Elice’s Jewish soul, he said.
How he became involved with “Peter and the Starcatcher” was almost by accident. Roger Pearson had the idea for the book during a trip to Disneyworld with his then-8-year-old daughter, who had asked him, “How did Peter Pan meet Capt. Hook?” Elice said.
Eventually Disney Theatrical Productions optioned the book and asked directors Rees and Timbers to adapt the novel into a play; on a lark the directors asked Elice to write a few scenes for a workshop in New York, in 2007. The authors of the novel happened to be in the audience, and when, at the end of the sequence, they asked who had written the material, Elice said he was so intimidated that he didn’t raise his hand until they said they liked the scene. On the spot, Elice was asked to write the entire play.
As research, he read Barrie’s plays as well as the author’s letters, speeches and other works. From Barrie’s writings, he said, he brought to his play a share of “alliteration, puns, anachronisms, songs, high comedy and lowbrow humor.” There’s even a mermaid revue — in drag — at the beginning of Act 2.
Elice also sought to “connect the dots,” so to speak, between Barrie’s play and the novel, “Peter and the Starcatchers,” answering such questions as how did Black Stache (the future Capt. Hook) really lose his hand? What is the origin of Tinker Bell? And how did Peter learn to fly?
And rather than follow the novel’s character arc for Peter, where the boy is a ringleader from the beginning, Elice transformed the urchin into “a feral, silent, nameless [creature] who, through Molly, would evolve into a heroic figure. By the end of the story, he’s journeyed a great distance, emotionally and psychologically.”
Molly, as well, was transformed from a puppy following Peter into “a young woman who is smart, proto-feminist, empowered and who, through her own strength, teaches Peter how to become a man,” Elice said.
“As much as anything else, it’s a story about girl power,” Elice said.
For tickets and information about “Peter and the Starcatcher,” visit centertheatregroup.org.
Actor Bob Odenkirk seems to be everywhere these days, on screens large and small. Having burst into the comedy zeitgeist with series like “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Saturday Night Live,” he’s best known for playing Saul Goodman, meth-cooker Walter White’s sleazy but scene-stealing attorney on AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” (No, Saul isn’t Jewish – he just changed his surname from McGill because, as the character put it, “The Jew thing I just do for the homeboys. They all want a pipe-hitting member of the tribe, so to speak.”)
Now Odenkirk, 51, is finally getting his own show, “Better Call Saul,” a “Breaking Bad” spinoff that was recently green lit by AMC; he’ll also star in FX’s limited series “Fargo,” inspired by on the Coen brothers’ esteemed 1996 movie. And on Nov. 22, Odenkirk will hit theaters in Alexander Payne’s acclaimed new film “Nebraska;” the movie spotlights Woody (Bruce Dern), a curmudgeonly alcoholic who is erroneously convinced he has won a $1 million publishing house sweepstakes and insists on collecting the prize in person. A road trip ensues in which Woody’s sensitive younger son (Will Forte) drives him from Billings, Montana to Nebraska to collect his “prize;” Odenkirk plays Ross, Woody’s ambitious, angrier older son, who is aghast at the idea of the trip.
Last week I spoke to Odenkirk by phone from his Los Angeles office, where he discussed everything from working with Payne, why he’s shocked that everybody loves Saul and his own Jewish wife and kids. Here are excerpts from our conversation:
Q: What’s your personal connection to the character of Ross in Nebraska?
A: I relate to it very directly. My father had an alcohol problem and the character of the father in “Nebraska” also is an alcoholic, and a kind of difficult, challenging guy. People in the family aren’t at peace with his crotchety nature and there’s a lot of anger brewing, certainly with my character, who is less forgiving of the father. The feelings of frustration around family are recognizable to me; family can be a really difficult place of contentious interaction, but also a place for a kind of forgiveness and acceptance. And all of that is in the movie.
Q: Did you achieve that kind of acceptance with your own father?
A: Unfortunately, no. He left the family when I was about 13, but when I was 21 he developed terminal bone cancer and he came home. I did try to connect with him, but it just didn’t happen. I don’t think there was an overlap in anything that we really cared about in our values or our natures. But I was just a kid, so I wonder if I got to meet him again as an older man I would maybe be able to make some kind of a connection with him.
Q: What themes does the film explore?
A: It examines how we don’t always know each other -- even people who are close to us – our fathers or our mothers and siblings; there might be challenges in their lives that they haven’t shared with us. In “Nebraska,” we learn more about the father and the challenges he grew up with, and I think it leads to an empathy from the brothers. That may have been true in my own life; maybe if I’d gotten to know my own father better I would’ve developed some empathy towards him but I didn’t have the opportunity to find that out.
The movie is also about learning people’s stories, even people close to you, and how much you can ask a person to change and how much you have to accept them. It’s about the value of accepting people and their dreams and who they are in the moment and not always wanting them to be better or more than they are.
Q: How is Alexander Payne unique as a director?
A: I made another film called “The Spectacular Now” that came out this past year, and the director, James Ponsoldt, only shot very little coverage – which means you don’t need different angles to cover the scene, you commit to one angle. Alexander did that to an extent I’ve never seen before. And what it does is it encourages you to take every single take extremely seriously, because that could very well be all you get to do of the scene. It means that you’re performing in a two-shot or a group-shot, so that the energy between the actors and the characters is preserved onscreen, not so much from being pasted together in the editing room. But it takes a lot of confidence for a director to do that, and after all the movies that Alexander has made he’s gained it. It’s a kind of calm assuredness that he has; he’s just extremely aware.
Q: There’s a funny story about how you landed the role of Saul on “Breaking Bad.”
A: I got a phone call from [the show’s creator], Vince Gilligan, and he was telling me about the character; he said his name was Saul Goodman and he went on and on and at a certain point I stopped him and said, “You know, I’m not Jewish, though my wife and kids are.” And Vince goes, “No, no no, Saul isn’t Jewish; he’s Irish. That’s just a last name he took to appeal to the homeboys he services, that he’s a prototypical lawyer.” It’s like if your lawyer’s not Jewish, he’s not really a lawyer – that’s how I think Saul perceives taking on that name.
Q: What kinds of things did you personally contribute to the character?
A: As soon as Vince described Saul to me -- literally in that first phone call -- I said, "I already know what he looks like, and if you’ll allow me, I’d like to have a comb-over and a mullet in back and cleaned up on the sides." And Vince laughed and said, “That sounds awesome.”
Q: What do attorneys tell you they think of Saul?
A: They always tell me the same thing: They say, “I know guys just like Saul“ -- of course implicitly implying that they are not a person like that.
I’m very surprised that people actually like Saul. I stop people who love Saul and I say, “Talk to me, tell me why you love him?” And they always say that he’s funny, he’s good at what he does, they like how his brain works – it works fast – and he’s fun to watch; he makes a lot of jokes. It’s surprising to me because he’s totally self-interested; he’s absolutely a selfish guy, although as the show went on he revealed that he’s capable of having a conscience.
Q: How do you feel about the character of Walter White?
A: I totally was rooting against him in the last season and a half; he’s just crazed, his ego is so out of control! The character of Walter White is just an awful person; he is so desperate to make his power known and recognized. And in the end, he sacrifices his family for his own ego.
Q: What’s your connection to the Jewish community?
A: I was raised Roman Catholic – I’m half Irish and half German – but I married a Jewish woman, Naomi Yomtov [17 years ago] and our two children are being raised as Jews. I did not convert, but when we were looking for schools for the kids we went to the Purim carnival at Temple Israel of Hollywood and I just loved the energy and community there, and that’s where we sent our kids. I liked the school and I liked Reform Judaism and I like it even more now. It’s a connection to the ancient principles and beliefs that hold a lot of truth to us now and a belief in God that is complicated and complex and ever changing and growing in the way that a person over a lifetime who’s paying attention will also grow. So it’s thriving and challenging and I get it. It’s a little hard for me to connect to the ritual aspects, although they are also constantly being studied and brought into the light as it were, just because you need to grow up with them to have them connect with you on a real organic level. But we observe a lot of the holidays, Pesach and certainly Chanukah, and both my kids were bar and bat mitzvahed, which I found to be really rewarding and deeply meaningful and moving – more than I ever imagined.
Q: What do you hope to see happen to your character on “Better Call Saul?”
A: I’d like to actually have a reason to like him as a person. You can really take almost any person and hear their story and maybe develop some empathy for them and what they’ve been through, which has made them who they are. Saul is just such a wildly self-involved, self-promoting, self-engaged person, I’d like to think that there’s something outside of himself that he has feelings for. I’d like to see a richer character, but I’m sure that will happen because Vince Gilligan and [the show’s co-creator] Peter Gould are great writers and together they are going to fill that character out and we’re going to learn new things about him.
From left: Tim Cummings and Bill Brochtrup in “The Normal Heart” at the Fountain. Photo by Ed Krieger
In 1981, Larry Kramer, the author and gay-rights provocateur, became alarmed as he witnessed large numbers of gay men become horribly ill and die in droves of a mysterious illness. The New Yorker was enraged that the government and the media seemed to be ignoring what had been dubbed the “gay plague” — and that many gay men appeared to be in denial — so he co-founded the Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) to tackle the disease that would become known as AIDS.
Kramer’s in-your-face tactics eventually clashed with his less-militant GMHC colleagues’ approach, and after Kramer published a seething call to arms in the New York Native, in 1983, the organization promptly ousted him. (He went on to help create the famously aggressive ACT UP in 1987.)
Kramer, now 78, was devastated at the ousting, and set off on an extended trip to Europe to lick his wounds. While in Germany, the Jewish writer chanced to visit the concentration camp of Dachau. There, he was stunned to learn that the camp had opened in 1933, five years before the onset of the Holocaust, and that even in later years the American government, as well as American Jewry, declined to aggressively confront Hitler.
The parallels he saw between that inaction and the response to the AIDS crisis spurred him to write his landmark play “The Normal Heart” (1984), which spotlights an author much like Kramer, whose ham-fisted tactics alienate him from his fellow activists, even as his own lover, Felix, becomes ill as a result of the virus.
“The Normal Heart” opened with fanfare in 1985 at Manhattan’s Public Theatre and went on to be performed in numerous productions around the world, notably a 2011 Broadway revival directed by Joel Grey and starring Joe Mantello. An HBO film version is now in production, starring Mark Ruffalo. And for the first time in 15 years, a separate revival has come to Los Angeles, running through Dec. 15. It is directed by Simon Levy and stars Tim Cummings, and it has drawn critical acclaim at The Fountain Theatre.
In the production, Ned Weeks (Cummings), Kramer’s alter-ego, is explosive as he compares the AIDS disaster to the Nazi persecution of European Jewry: “Do you know that when Hitler’s Final Solution … was first mentioned in the [New York] Times it was on page 28,” Cummings thundered during one recent performance, throughout which the audience gasped and sobbed. “And on page six of the Washington Post. And the Times and the Post were owned by Jews. What causes silence like that?! ... Everything was downplayed and stifled.”
When Felix counters that anti-Semitism was rampant during the 1940s, Cummings posits that “everybody has a million excuses for not getting involved. But aren’t there moral obligations?”
“Ned Weeks is a quintessential Jewish hero,” Levy, 64, said during an interview along with Cummings recently at the Fountain. “It’s his knowledge of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust that gives him his awareness of the possibility of extinction, and that drives his politics.”
Levy, who said he makes a point of directing socially relevant plays, can relate to Kramer’s experience. He grew up in a liberal Jewish home in a gay enclave of San Francisco. When the AIDS epidemic began in the early 1980s, “It was really up close and personal,” he said. At the time, Levy was directing a musical revue, “Beach Blanket Babylon,” and before long five members of his cast had died of AIDS — as well as 10 more of his friends and colleagues.
“It got to the point where it was hard to go to the hospital again, or to people’s homes who were ill,” he said.
When Levy saw the first San Francisco production of “The Normal Heart,” in 1985, he appreciated the play as “agitprop — as a call to arms.”
But when he saw the play again last year at the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C., what struck him most was the romance between Ned and Felix. Levy had been reading dozens of plays over the past year, searching for a piece that wedded social action with a love story, and, “Within 10 minutes, I knew I had found what I was looking for,” he said.
After wrangling for seven months to secure the rights to the play, Levy’s biggest challenge was to present it in a way that would not come off as a screed. “I decided that while the format of the play would be agitprop, internally it would be about relationships,” he explained. “In every scene we would focus on the interior life and dynamics between the characters.”
For example, the sequence in which Ned draws parallels between the Holocaust and AIDS is as much about Ned’s fear of intimacy with Felix as it is about politics.
Even so, Levy said, he instructed his actors to perform “right on the razor’s edge, even with the danger of the foray into melodrama. It’s a very fine line, but when it works, it’s thrilling.”
One of Levy’s best assets is Cummings, 40, a bearded, intense actor who said he brings his own personal passion and outrage to the character. Growing up in Brooklyn, the gay son of an Irish-Catholic New York City fire chief, he said he and his best friend, who was Jewish, were mercilessly bullied by local jocks.
And Cummings still remembers the acute fear of AIDS he felt as a gay student at New York University in the early 1990s: “We didn’t have a sexual revolution; we had a sexual repression,” he said. “It took me a really long time to feel OK about being sexual.”
He regards the fictional Ned as the most difficult role he has ever tackled. “My character is based on Larry Kramer, who was famously unlikable and in some ways repugnant,” he explained. “But I didn’t have any interest in playing the George Clooney version of Ned Weeks. The point of the play is, it’s got to be in your face. There’s an entire generation of men who died of AIDS, and their friends and families are still holding onto that pain. I want to channel that.”
Cummings also based his portrayal on observations he made watching interviews with the famed activist, who was recuperating from surgery as the Journal went to press and was unavailable for
“In some of the interviews, you see Larry Kramer very calm, logical and smart — and then there were other times when he screams maniacally, terrifyingly,” Cummings said.
“But then again, he was very aware of his own flaws; in the play, he repeatedly states that he’s afraid of his anger, and he even says he knows he’s “an ass----.” So I want my performance to be mercurial, ever-changing, and definitely in no way anything that is safe.”
With emotion, Cummings noted that audience members have found him on Facebook to write about people they’ve loved and lost. “I print them all out, and I save them,” he said. “They are such a gift.”
Geoffrey Rush and Sophie Nélisse in “The Book Thief.” Photo courtesy of 20th Century Fox
Markus Zusak still remembers how his mother, a German Lutheran immigrant to Australia, vividly described the day she saw the Jews being marched to Dachau in her hamlet near Munich.
“There was an old, emaciated man who couldn’t keep up with the others, and a teenage boy ran up and gave him a piece of bread,” said Zusak, a youthful 38, during an interview at the Four Seasons Hotel. “And the old man, who could barely walk, fell to his hands and knees and grabbed the boy’s ankles and just cried into his feet. But then a soldier came, ripped the bread away, and whipped the man and the boy.
“It’s a story that’s always stayed with me, because it shows the pure beauty possible in humanity on the one hand and the pure destruction on the other,” Zusak explained. “You bring those two opposites together, and it encompasses all of us.”
This tale and others inspired Zusak to write his best-selling novel, “The Book Thief,” which has now been adapted into a film by the British director Brian Percival (“Downton Abbey”), opening in Los Angeles on Nov. 8. In the movie, as in the book, Death narrates the tale of Liesel Meminger (Sophie Nélisse), who loses her brother and then her mother, who had been targeted as a communist and so the girl goes to live with foster parents Hans Hubermann (Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush) and his prickly wife, Rosa (Emily Watson), in a town on the outskirts of Munich.
Liesel develops a penchant for stealing books, even from the embers of a Nazi book burning, perhaps to make up for all that has been taken from her. At first happy to don her Hitler Youth uniform, she becomes disillusioned with the Reich and commits acts of insurgence large and small as she bonds with the colorful characters of the town, among them her best friend, Rudy, who is obsessed with the black athlete Jesse Owens and tormented by the sadistic leader of his Hitler Youth group; and Max (Ben Schnetzer), a sickly Jew for whom the Hubermanns risk their lives by hiding him in their basement.
During the same interview at the Four Seasons, the soft-spoken, thoughtful Percival, 51, recounted how the voyage from novel to film began when the movie’s producer, Karen Rosenfelt, chanced to read about the book in a copy of The Wall Street Journal she picked up by chance at a coffeehouse. Screenwriter Michael Petroni whittled down the 539-page novel into a 100-page screenplay, which riveted Percival upon his first reading.
Percival, too, had grown up with stories of World War II; his father served in the Royal Air Force and his mother worked in the wartime factories in Liverpool, which was heavily bombed by the Nazis.
He arrived to his meeting with the film’s producers with a series of images that illustrated his visual way into the film: “Everything from a frozen wasteland to Nazi propaganda,” he said. “One of the things that really struck me were the Hitler Youth posters that, from a child’s point of view, seemed to promise this ideal life; that’s how, through words and images, Hitler managed to corrupt a generation.”
Both Percival and Zusak were well aware that depicting “good” Germans during the Holocaust might be controversial in some quarters, but, Percival insisted, “The most likely way of stopping this from ever happening again is if people become aware of what can happen to ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.” He cited a scene in which Nazis cart a Jewish merchant off to Dachau: “Their attitude is that it’s the right thing to do, and yet they’re the same characters that in previous scenes we felt compassion for, because they were scared that the bombs might fall. What I set out to do whenever I could was to challenge this perception of what ‘ordinary’ people do.”
On the set, Watson constantly wondered whether she would have had the courage to harbor Jews during the Holocaust: “I really hope that I would,” she said. “But at the same time, I have two young children, and if it meant that they would be killed as a result of my action, it’s a really hard call.”
One of the challenges of adapting “The Book Thief” for the screen was how to portray the character of Death, who is both weary and witty in the book; Percival’s solution was to limit the character’s narration so as not to pull viewers out of the story, and to use aerial shots to “subliminally remind viewers of his presence,” he said.
Rush noted that Percival had the actors rehearse on the sets “because he wanted as much veracity as possible. In the scenes in the kitchen, we were able to talk about how we lived in the space. And in the bedroom, I said to Emily, ‘What side of the bed do you sleep on, and where do you keep your teeth in the glass?’ ”
Percival also worked closely with the same historian who assisted Steven Spielberg on “Schindler’s List,” notably for the book-burning sequence that is at the heart of the movie. “What would happen is that the Hitler Youth toured the neighborhood to take away any of the books they felt were inappropriate because the citizens themselves were terrified to bring forbidden literature to the burnings,” he said.
The filmmakers had to obtain permission to hang Nazi banners on the set in Gorlitz, as such imagery is banned in public in Germany, and Percival found filming the book-burning sequence to be “chilling.”
“Our almost entirely German extras and crew — including our director of photography, Florian Ballhaus — had tears rolling down their cheeks,” he recalled. “You could see the sort of guilt on the faces of these people who felt such great sorrow for what their forefathers did, and still feel responsible for it.”
Daniel Radcliffe stars as a young Allen Ginsberg in “Kill Your Darlings,” opening Oct. 16. Photo by Jessica Miglio, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
The actor who played Harry Potter may be the richest and most famous human of his generation on the planet, but during an interview at the Four Seasons hotel, Daniel Radcliffe, now just 24, exuded none of the cockiness one might expect of a celebrity best known for demolishing Horcruxes and slaying an evil dark lord in the Potter films.
Radcliffe’s signature expressive, preternaturally blue eyes, as well as his pale, translucent skin and delicate features, suggest the aura of an iconic medieval saint (minus the Potter spectacles, of course). But his manner comes across as sincere, amusing and kinetic — he speaks a mile a minute and exudes a restless energy. And, as he is known to do, he humbly made a self-deprecating remark or two.
Radcliffe described how projects need to scare him a bit to prove challenging, and joked about his slight stature — 5-foot-5. Since he plays Allen Ginsberg, the gay, Jewish Beat poet in John Krokidas’ new film, “Kill Your Darlings,” opening Oct. 16, Radcliffe also described his own scribbling of as many as 100 poems while on the Potter set, an endeavor he now regards “with a mixture of slight embarrassment and the occasional pride. They were lots of romantic poems, not that I showed them to any of my girlfriends; I wouldn’t have dared,” he said with a laugh.
He did, however, publish several of those poems under the pen name Jacob Gershon, which he cobbled together from his middle name and the Anglicized version of his Jewish mother’s maiden name, Gresham (his father is a Protestant from Northern Ireland). He said he likes the similarity of “Gershon” to the biblical Gershom, Moses’ firstborn son, whose name in Hebrew means “foreigner.”
“In our home, there was no religion,” Radcliffe said, “but as a young child I was quite inherently religious, though it was mainly feelings of guilt that caused my fervor. It was while studying world religions around age 14 that I became an atheist. The word God doesn’t mean anything to me, and I’ve never had anyone explain it in a way that made any sense to me.”
Radcliffe said, however, that he is “proud to be Jewish,” that he has a Jewish humor book at home and that he loves Jewish jokes — when prompted, he told one about two elderly women who encounter a flasher and remark, of his coat, that the lining is terrible. “That’s an old joke from the rag trade that my grandmother used to tell,” he said, explaining that his Polish and Russian Jewish forebears practiced that trade and that his great-great-grandfather made his fortune by producing greatcoats for British soldiers during World War I.
To prepare to play the teenage Ginsberg, circa World War II, Radcliffe avidly read the poet’s diaries and work, and he cites Ginsberg’s “Kaddish,” in which the author laments the death of his mentally ill mother, as particularly inspiring. “I came to understand what Allen went through with his mum, and that he spent time with her in institutions,” he said. “It must’ve been quite frightening to see your mother like that, and that must’ve led to a sense of not wanting to see her, and then to a huge amount of guilt about those feelings.
“The mother relationship is always such a very important one for men, and particularly, it must be said, for Jewish men,” he continued. “The mother was such a strong figurehead in Jewish homes at the time and presumably must’ve been in the homes of Ginsberg’s friends. And for him not to have had that was one of the aspects that made him feel different from everyone else around him.”
Radcliffe said as a Jewish-Irish student in his thoroughly Anglican grammar school, he also felt uncomfortably “different,” which was one reason he was eager to escape to the Potter film sets.
Playing Ginsberg is a departure for the actor, his first major Jewish role, set during World War II and spotlighting the young Ginsberg as he leaves his childhood home in Paterson, N.J., for Columbia University, where he comes of age both artistically and sexually. The transformation comes courtesy of his seductive classmate, Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan), who introduces the awkward student to the downtown New York hipster life, to the future Beats William S. Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), as well as prodding him to buck authority in his poetry. Everything changes when Carr is accused of murdering David Kammerer (Michael C. Hall), an older writer who had a stalkerish infatuation with Carr, and the fallout thrusts Ginsberg into a moral dilemma that, as shown in the film, is the most difficult of his young life.
Also at the Four Seasons, Krokidas explained why he had sought out Radcliffe for the role: “Ginsberg, at the time, was the dutiful son taking care of his emotionally ill mother, Naomi, and he was always the good boy. And yet in his journals and inside his own head, he believed he had so much more to offer the world than people assumed. I thought that Daniel Radcliffe the person might identify with that.”
Radcliffe, who first got the role of Harry Potter at age 10, readily agreed: “I can relate to the idea that people know just a tiny part of you, or one aspect of your personality, and they think they know who you are,” he said with intense earnestness. “Basically, it’s a case of people being obsessed just by the icon. For example, I always get asked the question, ‘What did it feel like to have grown up on screen?’ But I didn’t grow up on screen; I grew up making films. The private moments of my growing up are all my own — none of them appeared on camera, thank God.”
Radcliffe has been anxious to prove that he can traverse the difficult terrain between child and adult star, a journey he began in earnest when he decided, at 14, while filming “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” that he wanted to make acting his lifelong profession. To that end, Radcliffe and his team of advisers realized that he needed to begin to take on new (and very different) roles even before the Potter series ended. And so, in 2007, the actor starred in the independent film “The December Boys,” as well as in a Broadway production of the stark psychological drama “Equus,” the latter requiring the boy wizard to perform grueling scenes in the nude.
He recalled, with a smile, that one headline in advance of the opening of that play read “something like, ‘Crash! What’s that? The sound of a career coming to a grinding halt’ ” — despite which Radcliffe’s performance earned glowing reviews. He then expanded his repertoire with the Broadway musical “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” the 2012 horror film “The Woman in Black” and “A Young Doctor’s Notebook,” a bitingly satiric British television series, now showing in the United States on the Ovation network, based on a short story by the Soviet Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov. In the latter, Radcliffe plays a morphine-addicted young physician opposite Jon Hamm, who plays an older version of his character and with whom he appears bathing in a tub in one scene.
The fiercely ambitious and prolific Radcliffe’s upcoming films include “The F Word,” a romantic comedy opposite Zoe Kazan, and the dark fantasy thriller “Horns,” in which his character literally sprouts horns.
“Kill Your Darlings” will further distance Radcliffe from Potter, as in it he appears in his first explicit gay sex sequence, which prompted The Hollywood Reporter to crow, “The boy wizard never pinned his knees behind his ears.”
“To be honest, that review did make me laugh,” Radcliffe said. But the scene was hardly gratuitous, he insisted. “John said he’d never really seen a very authentic loss-of-virginity scene for gay men on screen, and he wanted to get it right. So it’s not necessarily a steamy scene, as it’s being portrayed in some articles. It’s about vulnerability as much as anything else, and the fear and excitement that goes along with your first time.”
It’s true that Radcliffe has shed his trousers in a variety of recent projects: “If it’s called for, I don’t mind taking off my Keds,” he said, matter-of-factly. “It’s not something I seek out, but I’m not going to be one of those people who complain about not wanting to do what’s in the script.”
Krokidas, for his part, felt it was important to cast a Jewish actor as Ginsberg “because the film depicts one of Judaism’s greatest literary figures of the 20th century.”
But, he recalled, he wasn’t initially sure Radcliffe was a member of the tribe and panicked when he realized, “There’s going to be sexuality in the film and how am I going to have him take his clothes off if he’s uncircumcised? And, this is so mortifying — I actually texted Dan, and he confirmed that he is indeed Jewish from the waist down.”
There are also several sequences in which Ginsberg encounters anti-Semitism, including one where his Southern roommate declares, “You Hymies are really all about work.”
“John and I talked about the prejudice that Ginsberg would have faced on a very casual, day-to-day kind of basis,” Radcliffe said of those scenes. “In my mind, Allen’s response to that would be to just internally go to that place of, ‘F--- you, I’m smarter than you.’ That’s his defense mechanism, and it’s probably mine as well.”
Does he believe viewers ever will be able to separate him from his most famous character? “I’m always going to be associated with Potter; it was the way I was introduced to multiple generations of people,” he said. “So it’s going to be a while before people don’t associate me with that.
“But,” he added, “I’m very proud to be associated with it. As long as it doesn’t prevent me from getting other work, then it shouldn’t be a problem.”
In the prudish 1950s, Virginia Johnson, a failed nightclub singer, caught the eye of St. Louis gynecologist William H. Masters, who was looking for an assistant to help him with his then-clandestine studies of human sexuality. At the time, Masters, a prominent fertility expert at Washington University, was conducting his research by spying through peepholes at prostitutes working in a brothel. He believed that a female partner might help to provide a glimpse into the mysteries of the female libido.
He found his woman in Johnson, then 32, twice divorced and with two children, who was candid about her forward-thinking attitudes about sex. Turns out she would have an intuitive streak when conducting interviews and a penchant for persuading people — including hospital staff and their wives — to participate in sexual experiments, both alone and as couples. Together, the team of Masters and Johnson, now the subject of a provocative new Showtime drama, “Masters of Sex,” went on to become trailblazing sexologists, overturning Victorian myths even as they conducted their own affair, they said, to defuse any sexual tension that might interfere with their research. (They ultimately married, in 1971, but amicably divorced 21 years later).
Lizzy Caplan, who portrays Johnson in “Masters of Sex,” which is based on Thomas Maier’s biography of the same name, has drawn kudos for her sexually frank turn as a vampire-blood-addicted vegan on HBO’s “True Blood” and as a promiscuous, foul-mouthed cocaine addict in the viciously comic 2012 film “Bachelorette.” Yet when she first read the “Masters of Sex” pilot, she said, she found the true sex story “astounding, even mind-blowing.
“If you were to walk into a hospital today and try to get doctors and nurses to sign up for a program that involved taking off their clothes, having electrodes taped to them and having sex in front of two other people, it would be scandalous,” the green-eyed beauty said in a telephone interview. “But Masters and Johnson managed to do just that — in the 1950s.”
Two decades before the women’s liberation movement, their conclusions were decidedly feminist: “A huge cornerstone of their early work was debunking Freud’s claim that a clitoral orgasm is immature, while the vaginal orgasm was the only type that a grown woman should be having with her husband,” Caplan marveled.
It was only natural that the 31-year-old Caplan was drawn to playing Johnson, who “made no apologies for who she was,” the actress said.
Caplan had previously carved out a niche as Hollywood’s go-to actress for playing bold women who are often as vulnerable as they are sarcastic. She turned heads (and stole scenes) as Lindsay Lohan’s caustic pal in the film “Mean Girls,” as a brittle attorney on TV’s “New Girl” and, of course, on “True Blood,” where her character met her demise while flying through the air. “I wasn’t naked in that scene,” Caplan said, “but that was one of the few.”
On a recent appearance on “Conan,” she regaled the audience with salty tales of secretly perusing her parents’ X-rated cookbook, with its recipes for breast-like tarts and meatloaf in the shape of a phallus.
Caplan wasn’t always so precocious, she said. As a teenager at the Jewish Gindling Hilltop Camp, she recalled, the boy-talk was “incredibly innocent by today’s standards.” For her disco-themed bat mitzvah at Wilshire Boulevard Temple, her mother, a political aide for Assemblyman Wally Knox, nixed her dream dress, a tight spandex number, in favor of a more demure outfit.
Caplan said she never intended to become an actress in those early years, preferring classical piano and attending Hamilton High School’s Academy of Music to further her studies. But she ultimately found that pursuit to be “both isolating and nerve-wracking,” so, at 15, she switched to drama and within a year had landed a gig playing Jason Segel’s disco-loving girlfriend on Judd Apatow’s TV comedy “Freaks and Geeks.”
The actress traces the ironic streak that would color her personality, as well as those of many of her characters, to her mother’s death from cancer, not long after Caplan’s bat mitzvah. “When something traumatic happens to you when you’re that young, it hardens you,” she explained. “My whole thing was never wanting anybody to worry about me, so I cracked jokes and put on quite a good show of seeming fine with everything.”
Caplan was often relegated to the role of the acerbic best friend rather than the ingénue. That’s shifted in recent years and the actress is now thrilled, she said, to have landed the role of Johnson, her first major dramatic turn.
As research, Caplan made a number of requests to meet with Johnson, but the elderly researcher declined, because “she no longer wanted to be in the limelight,” the actress said. Johnson died in July at the age of 88; Masters (played by Michael Sheen) died in 2001.
To tell their story, “Masters of Sex” depicts a jaw-dropping amount of nudity: “It was scary until I realized how protected you are in those situations,” Caplan said. “Nobody is sitting there judging your body; the crew are well-trained people trying to make you look and feel your best, so in a weird way it feels safer even than walking down the beach in your bikini.”
In one amusing sequence, Caplan thrusts a glass dildo in the face of the hospital administrator (Beau Bridges), who only reluctantly has funded their work. “[Beau] gives off the vibe of a friendly uncle, and I don’t think I would like to hold up a glass dildo to my uncle’s face,” she said of that awkward scene.
“But at a certain point you realize that our show is called ‘Masters of Sex,’ and if we’re just going to be babies about this dildo, then we should rethink what we’re doing here,” she added with a laugh.
“Masters of Sex” premieres on Showtime on Sept. 29.
Leslie Gordon, program manager of the Natural History Museum’s vertebrate live-animal program, shows off some of her charges from the museum’s new Nature Lab.
Leslie Gordon has worn a sling holding a baby opossum round the clock, imitating how the marsupial’s mama would have carried the critter around in her pouch. She’s driven throughout the night to Arizona and back to transport a red harvester ant colony to Los Angeles, as the stinging insects are too delicate to ship by mail. And she’s even gotten up close and personal with a 9-foot-long Columbian red-tailed boa constrictor named Peace: “She’s the nicest, sweetest boa I’ve ever met,” said Gordon, who is program manager of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County’s vertebrate live-animal program. “She’s an old lady, so she’s had medical procedures. I’ve had to give her an enema, I’ve had to take blood out of her heart to get a sample, and she’s never struck or bitten.”
It’s all part of a day’s work for Gordon, who cares for, trains and creates educational programs around all the museum’s vertebrates — animals with backbones. Her charges include up to 30 species of reptiles, amphibians and small mammals, most of them native or invasive species in Southern California. Think Western skinks, Pacific tree frogs, Western spadefoot toads, California newts, a Southern Pacific rattlesnake, gopher snakes, red-eared slider turtles, rats, and a bullfrog that Gordon calls “an adorable terror” because her invasive species tends to gobble up every smaller indigenous creature that crosses its path.
Not to mention 5-month-old Avocado, so named because that was the size the opossum was when she arrived at the museum after being rescued from a dog mauling, from which Gordon and vets nursed her back to health.
You can see many of Gordon’s charges in the museum’s new 6,000-square-foot interactive Nature Lab, which opened in June as part of a $135 million, multiyear redesign that doubled the museum’s program space and also includes a 3 1/2-acre outdoor Nature Gardens exhibition. Gordon was an instrumental part of the lab’s design team: “Basically, all the cages in the Nature Lab were created to my specifications,” the petite, 39-year-old said while breezing through the doors of the gleaming facility.
She paused by an enclosure in which a 5-foot-long rattlesnake, rescued from a drug bust and named Obsidian because of his unusually dark coloring, was coiled in repose; his cage, she said, was created with a range of available temperatures, climbing perches and enough room for the serpent to unspool his scaly length.
Nearby is the rat habitat, or “rattitat” as Gordon calls it: two Plexiglass towers connected by about 20 feet of clear tubing to imitate the kind of sewer dwellings the rodents might seek out in the urban wild. Inside are 14 female Norway rats whose twitching noses and whiskers seem to be protruding from every hiding spot. Here and there are special feeding devices — also designed by Gordon — sporting hidden treats the rats have to figure out how to release with their paws.
“Animals don’t generally thrive when their food is dumped in their bowl in front of them on a daily basis, so we’re stimulating them mentally by giving them something to work for,” Gordon explained. “Millions of years of evolution have essentially programmed them to solve problems, to find and seek out food. So we create enrichment toys. Our goal is to provide animals with the ability to exhibit species-specific behaviors and have as many of the comforts of their natural environment as we can possibly provide.”
Gordon is quick to respond to those who question whether it’s humane to keep animals in captivity: “I really do see these animals as ambassadors,” she said, adding that she’s thrilled if she can convince just one person to stop and look at a snake instead of reaching for a shovel. “[Further], life in the wild is brutal and painful. Animals live under constant stress looking for food and often with terrible diseases; hence everything that I bring in here from the wild is loaded with parasites. And I defy [critics] to find anyone who cares more about little creatures than I do,” she added.
"We have incredible specimens and a new, accessible approach to the way we convey information in our exhibits," said Dr. Jane Pisano, president and director of NHM. "But there's something magical that happens when our visitors interact with live animals and experience the presentations that Leslie makes possible. Those shows allow our science expertise to resonates in a fun, memorable way."
During an interview in her office at the museum, Gordon was casually dressed in jeans, funky blue glasses and matching earrings, her voice quietly intense as she discussed her love for her charges. On her desk is a sketchpad in which she’s drawing new designs for enrichment devices. Nearby is the shell of a Matamata turtle, “a very delicate animal,” she said, that she cared for and nursed in his last days. “I’m always sad when any animal dies, even now that I’ve had hundreds of them in my life,” she said. “But you know that somewhere there’s another little life coming along that needs you.”
Gordon traces her passion for animals to her mother, who worked as a secretary at the family’s Reform synagogue in Chicago; mom was a consummate storyteller “who taught me to love the underdog in any situation,” she said. “And now that I’m grown, I take care of reptiles and amphibians, who are nature’s underdogs; they are hugely important in the ecosystem, and yet they can be reviled by humans.”
Gordon’s childhood Judaism also reinforced her love of the natural world. Her father taught Hebrew school and sang in the choir at the family’s temple, where Leslie attended synagogue every Friday night, became bat mitzvah and marveled at the number of prayers that described nature. One of the family’s favorite songs was “Eli, Eli,” which speaks of “the sand and the sea, the rush of the waters, the crash of the heavens,” she said. Gordon also recalls her wonder at looking at the stars from her temple’s sukkah.
Initially she hoped to become a professional artist — with animal themes figuring prominently in her work — and so she earned a bachelor of fine arts degree from Loyola University Chicago. When a Hillel leader suggested she take up theater design, Gordon learned welding and carpentry to help create the sets in her school’s drama department. It was a skill set that proved invaluable when she got her first animal-related gig building habitats at The Nature of Wildworks in Topanga Canyon in 1998.
That led to a stint at the Los Angeles Zoo’s zookeeper training program the following year, when Gordon graduated with high commendation — and eventually to a job in the zoo’s behavioral enrichment department, where she designed toys for the elephants, among other creatures.
In 1999, Gordon also began working at the Natural History Museum, supervising what at the time was “just a little menagerie,” she said.
Over the years, she increased the collection from about 15 species to its current population, all the while establishing a professional health care and husbandry regimen as well as selecting further species for the museum. Along the way, she created daily live animal presentations and the Critter Club for preschoolers as well as co-founding, with entomologist Brian Brown, a program now called Rascals, which encourages people to document species of reptiles and amphibians found in their neighborhoods.
Gordon was also instrumental in picking additional species for the new Nature Lab, including the Mediterranean house gecko, a population of which was discovered by citizen scientists in Chatsworth. “These lizards like to hang out on your porch eating moths,” she said.
“I feel that I do God’s work here at the museum,” she added, while feeding Avocado a hibiscus blossom to help her learn that hands aren’t scary. “Just as my parents worked tirelessly for our temple … so do I for an institution I believe is teaching the moral principles of nature.”
For more information about the museum, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.
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