Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“There are a couple of Jewish jokes that I think are just great,” actor Paul Rudd said, eagerly, leaning forward on a couch at the Four Seasons Hotel, where he was recently promoting his new Judd Apatow film, “This is 40.” “This Jewish kid asks his dad, ‘Can I borrow $30?' And his dad says, 'Twenty dollars? What do you need $10 for?'” And Rudd – a startlingly boyish-looking 43 -- throws his head back and laughs like a kid.
On YouTube you can check out a video of Rudd, when he really was a kid, decked out in a yellow tuxedo shirt, joking around and playing DJ at a bat mitzvah years before his performance in 1995’s “Clueless” made him a breakout star. Since then, Rudd’s become one of Hollywood’s go-to comic actors, especially for Apatow, who’s previously cast him in films like “Knocked Up,” “Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and “I Love You, Man,” starring Jason Segel.
In “This is 40” – Apatow’s comedy drama about mid-life angst, billed as a “sort of sequel" to “Knocked Up” -- Rudd plays Pete, a lovably childlike Jewish record label owner, father and husband to Apatow’s real-life wife, Leslie Mann. Pete’s career and marriage are on the rocks; among other indignities, he’s appalled when the only reporter who turns up to interview his star client is from the Jewish Journal. (Thanks, Judd!) Pete is also caught avoiding his family while playing Internet Scrabble in the loo, farting in bed and urging wife Debbie (Mann) to check out a growth on his derriere.
“It was embarrassing to do a lot of those scenes,” Rudd admitted during our interview. “Look, I’m sitting on the toilet playing Internet Scrabble; I’m getting a hemorrhoid looked at – none of these things are fun to film. But if you’re going to try and make something comedic, you’ve got to throw vanity to the wind. I would never do those kinds of scenes just for the shock value, or if it wasn’t conducive to the story and the character. It’s not gratuitous comedy. Judd had said, ‘Let’s make a movie about marriage and the things that we fight about – kind of a real, warts and all view of it.’ And sometimes you do need to ask your wife if there’s something on your [backside].”
Here are further excerpts from our interview, when Rudd described growing up from the age of 10 in a very non-Jewish neighborhood in Kansas City, Kansas; how that helped turn him into a comedian, and why having your wife examine your tush can actually be kind of romantic.
Q: What was it like growing up Jewish in the Bible Belt?
A: I always felt a little bit like an outsider, not only because I was Jewish, but because my parents are European; they’re both from England. And we moved around a lot because my father worked for TWA; TWA’s hub was in Kansas City, which is how we ended up there. I didn’t go to a school where there were a bunch of Jewish kids, and I realized growing up that my way of not getting beaten up was to try and make people laugh -- and to deal with any kind of trauma was to make people laugh. That’s still at work; it’s still very much part of my psyche.
I did kind of realize at a young age that if I made Jewish jokes about myself, that a lot of kids in my school would laugh, like harder than other stuff. I never quite realized that maybe that was a little messed up.
Q: Your character of Pete is nominally Jewish. What’s your own Jewish identity today?
A: My whole family is Jewish; my wife, Julie, is Jewish – there isn’t anyone in my family who isn’t Jewish. I was bar mitzvahed Reform; we were pretty laid back, but it’s like, oh yeah, I went to synagogue. I know what it’s like to look for matzoh (laughs). I know the culture and I know the food. I know what a Haggadah is! I know these things, and I did a play many years ago [in 1997] called “The Last Night at Ballyhoo,” which was a new play at the time, about Eastern European Jews and the anti-Semitism they faced by German Jews in the South. Alfred Uhry, the playwright, became somewhat of a surrogate father to me in New York – I live in New York still and he does, too. And every seder at Alfred’s house he would say, “You know, if you are Jewish, it almost doesn’t even matter how religious you are. If you’re Jewish, it’s just in the marrow of your bones.” We have a lineage that is so many thousands of years old, that you just relate. It is a tribe; it’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s my team,” and I feel that for sure.
Q: You and your wife participated in conversations and videotaped improv to help create some of the situations in “This is 40.” What, if anything, from the movie, comes from your real married life?
A: Actually, there were more specifics in “Knocked Up.” When Judd was writing that movie, my wife once said, “I’m so sick of looking at your back,” because I was just on the computer all day, checking my fantasy football scores.
Q: You’re whispering right now. Is your wife in the next room?
A: No, but I’m certain that she can probably hear me somewhere (laughs).
Q: There’s a scene in “This is 40” where your character and a friend are fantasizing about their wives’ deaths and becoming sexy widowers.
A: Not that I would ever fantasize about my wife’s death, but I think everyone has those moments where you play out the death of your spouse -- and I thought that could be funny but also incredibly raw and exposed and hopefully not offensive, though I’m sure it will come off that way to some people. It’s just [mining] the things you would never say, and then turning them into a conversation. You could create laughs about how attractive you would look to someone if you were in mourning (laughs). I know that sounds horrible.
Q: What about the hemorrhoid scene?
A: Sometimes in a real marriage, it’s about asking your wife to look at this and what does that look like? While it’s not traditionally romantic, I would say it’s arguably romantic in its intimacy. The idea that a couple can do that for each other is very romantic. I also think that in a strange way, being able to fart in front of each other – that’s a very sweet gesture! (Throws his head back, claps and laughs.)
Q: I heard you improvised farting in a scene in bed with Leslie Mann – and her character isn’t pleased.
A: We were doing that scene and I wasn’t going to fart, but I felt like I probably could at the moment. [Normally], you would never do that because anybody with any decency would never do that; you certainly wouldn’t ever do it when you’re shooting a scene in a movie. But again, it was that thing of well, that’s what marriage is. I also think farts are funny, just at a very basic level. I’m not trying to deconstruct that scene too much – farts are funny – but I do remember kind of deconstructing, if I do it, that’s what the movie is about, so why not, and just see what happens?
Q: You drew the line of having the hemorrhoid scene on the movie’s poster, however.
A: Yeah, I didn’t want it on the poster. But by the way, I wasn’t so excited when the poster we went with shows me sitting on the toilet, because you’re not seeing it in the grand scheme or the context of the movie. It’s not my proudest moment.
Q: How has starring in this film about a real-life marriage affected your own relationship with your wife?
A: It’s a little bit like couples therapy, except it’s happening in front of millions of people.
“This is 40” is now in theaters.
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December 19, 2012 | 4:41 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
“I insult myself all the time in my movies, so why not you?” comedy mogul Judd Apatow joked during a recent interview.
He was addressing my question about a scene in his new movie, “This Is 40,” where a shlubby journalist wearing a yarmulke shows up to do an interview and is described as being from the “Jewish Journal” — much to the chagrin of Pete (Paul Rudd), a record-label owner whose career and marriage are on the rocks. The only reporter who’s shown up to profile Pete’s star client, rocker Graham Parker, is (gasp!) from the Journal. “Apparently old Jews are the only ones who still buy hard copies of records. ... Because they don’t know what downloading means,” one of Pete’s employees explains.
“Why is this album different from all other albums?” the reporter, played by Rolling Stone journalist David Wild, asks Parker. “It isn’t,” comes the tart reply.
So what gives, Judd? “I’m sure this scene makes no sense to the reality of the Jewish Journal, or who reads it,” he said, with a laugh, during our meeting at the Four Seasons Hotel. “It’s just a general, ‘We didn’t get Rolling Stone to cover this.’ It literally came from the fact that it just sounds funny. And while there’s been many great Jewish rockers over the years, you don’t instantly think that our people are rocking that hard, even though the truth is they probably are.”
Watch the Jewish Journal's trailer for "This is 40."
So why is this movie different from all other movies? “It doesn’t have a Hobbit in it; it doesn’t take place in France; we don’t kill Bin Laden, and it does not have a tiger in a boat,” he quipped, referencing this season’s slate of holiday films. “But actually, it’s just one in a series of my movies that explores different periods of life that interest me. I guess I’m going through every stage, from high school to college, having babies, getting married, sex and mortality. I don’t know what else to write about. I’m not that interested in murder, although I guess at some point I’ll kill somebody [onscreen].”
Apatow, 45, has taken this cinematic journey in the four films he has directed, including “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Funny People,” along with the many films he has produced, from “Superbad” to “Bridesmaids.”
In person, he didn’t seem so much a Hollywood icon as the scruffy, affable Jewish guy next door as he scrambled to clear off a couch littered with clothing and swiped up a belt that had fallen to the floor. “I’m starting to look like a rabbi,” he said, glancing in a mirror and stroking his salt-and-pepper beard.
He was wearing a red string around one wrist, which he assured me was “not a kabbalah thing. My youngest daughter, Iris, made it for me, and now it’s like a good luck, bad luck thing; I can’t take it off.”
The conversation then turned to his teenage daughter, Maude, who had been cursing a bit at home, as she does in her role as Pete’s daughter in “This Is 40.” “I tell her, ‘You don’t sound smart,’ ” he said. “And she’ll say, ‘Well, you swear all the time in your movies!’ I say, ‘Yes, but I’m trying to show that these people are not smart.’ ”
“This Is 40” is a family affair for Apatow; it stars his wife, Leslie Mann, as well as their two daughters as Pete and Debbie’s kids — all shot in a home located just nine houses down from Apatow’s real home in Brentwood.
“All sorts of funny and terrifying things were happening in our house; there were so many tensions and obstacles to being happy,” he said of the impetus for the movie. So Apatow decided to reprise the characters of Pete and Debbie from “Knocked Up” to explore some of his own midlife angst over family, work, marriage and sexual insecurities.
While the mishaps in the movie are exaggerated for comic effect, he said, some of Pete’s flaws reflect his own, like “being emotionally detached, not tuned in, not in my body and focusing on other issues while not dealing with the emotional problems I should be dealing with.”
In one scene, Debbie accuses Pete, who is holed up in the bathroom playing Internet Scrabble, of retreating to the loo to avoid the family. Apatow admits he does tend to retreat to the bathroom, in his case to read the Huffington Post: “Leslie never opens the door, but I know she’s timing me,” he said.
The bathroom trick is a tactic he learned long ago to hide, at times, from his own Jewish relatives: “People joke about Jewish guilt, yet there is some aspect to Jewish culture where we take care of each other, but some of the time that turns toxic,” he said.
Apatow’s childhood home was filled with strife at the time of his parents’ divorce when he was in junior high in New Jersey. “Also everyone was an atheist,” he said. “After the Holocaust, it felt like the attitude was, ‘Our families died in Europe and I’m not buying religion anymore.’
“When I said I wanted a bar mitzvah, my parents said no, which was a dark thing; it didn’t give me any spiritual grounding. What’s left after that is just need and emptiness, which turns you into a comedy writer. You’re looking for your own answers to the big questions in making jokes and seeing the absurdity in life. But you don’t feel safe, which is why you go into the bathroom, because you just need to shut down when things become overwhelming.”
The toilet scene is played, in part, for laughs, as is another sequence in which Pete asks an appalled Debbie to examine a growth on his bum (it turns out to be a hemorrhoid). “On one level, these scenes are silly,” Apatow admitted. “But they’re actually about something that’s real for people. You do get lazy, and then intimacy disappears.”
Rudd said it could be awkward, even embarrassing, to shoot some of those raunchy scenes, but he doesn’t think they’re gratuitous. “Marriage is sometimes about asking your spouse to look at this, and what does that look like,” he said. “And while that’s not traditionally romantic, I’d argue it’s romantic in its intimacy.”
The interfaith dynamic of Apatow’s own marriage (he’s Jewish, Mann is Lutheran) also surfaces at times in the film. “For me, sometimes, it’s like a variation of the joke in ‘Annie Hall’ where Woody Allen is eating with her family, and he envisions himself like a Chasidic Jew,” he said.
At one point in “This Is 40,” Pet’ees mooch of a father, Larry (Albert Brooks), accuses Debbie of picking on him because “you hate Jews,” prompting Debbie to retort, “Don’t play the ‘Jew card, Larry.’ ”
The “Jew card,” Apatow explained, “is the sense that ‘we’ve suffered and been mistreated so you have to cut us extra slack,’ and I thought that was the ultimate inappropriate way for Albert’s character not to take responsibility for his own part of the equation.”
Later, Larry assures Debbie that Pete loves her, and that loyalty is “in our [Jewish] DNA.”
Apatow appears to follow suit. “God bless the Jewish Journal,” he said, accompanying this real Journal reporter to the door.
“Remember, I only make fun of the people I love.”
“This Is 40” opens Dec. 21.
December 18, 2012 | 8:22 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Screenwriter Dan Fogelman took a two-week cross-country trip with his mom six years ago as research for “The Guilt Trip,” which stars Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen as a fictional (and seemingly Jewish) mother and son taking their respective meshugas on the road. Recently, I caught up with the 36-year-old Fogelman (“Cars,” “Crazy, Stupid Love,” ABC’s “The Neighbors”) to talk about Jewish mothers and sons, Babs, and, of course, tribal guilt.
Q: So why the title “The Guilt Trip?”
A: I was really close with my mom, but even then your mother has the ability to revert you to the bratty, 13-year-old version of yourself, no matter what your age is. It’s the ultimate, underlying subtext of any Jewish mother-son relationship -- which is a son always getting annoyed and wanting to explode prematurely and holding it back, but at some point he loses that battle and says something nasty to her and then feels terrible about it. And then he walks away from that dinner or that visit feeling that he should’ve been nicer to her and it’s too late.
When I watch friends with their mothers, I’m constantly horrified at how short their fuse is with these women who seem, yeah, a little bit comedically a pain in the ass but not that bad in the grand scheme of things; yet with your own mother it’s amazing how quickly you can react to anything that pushes a button.
Q: How’d you get the idea for the movie?
A: I’d always wanted to do a kind of mother-son movie; there hadn’t been a lot of them done and it was territory I wanted to explore. Then my mom died about a year after we took the road trip – she was only 60 – and we hadn’t known she was ill. It was just kind of sudden and tragic: complications from surgery to remove a tumor. My mother was not a pop culture addict, but Barbra Streisand for this Jewish girl from Brooklyn was her icon of icons. So this movie became a mission for me; come hell or high water, I was going to get this movie made.
Q: How close is Barbra’s character to your own mom?
A: Barbra had her take on the character, but it’s really heavily my mom. The character’s name is Joyce, like my mother; my mother was also obsessed with collecting frogs, and had a kaffeeklatsch of yenta friends and she was very thin, like Barbra, yet she was obsessed with food and, later in her life, with Weight Watchers. She would sit and eat a 72-ounce steak, like Barbra does in the film, and order the salad with the dressing on the side. And she was obsessed with drinking large amounts of water and refilled her water bottles from the tap, so she wouldn’t waste money on buying new bottles. She considered tap water in a bottle “bottled water.” (Laughs.)
My mother also grew up with very little money and didn’t have a lot of money as an adult, so she was notoriously thrifty; but I realized later in life that that was about control and a little bit of neuroses and less about cheapness in some ways.
Q: You kept a diary of everything that happened on the road.
A: My friends thought I was crazy to take a cross-country road trip with my mom; part of what became the movie was that every night during the trip I would send an email out to a massive group of people who were all curious about how it was going. And my mom was like, “You’re making a movie about this?” She couldn’t quite wrap her head around this in its entirety, but she knew it was a research trip. In fact, the [producers] gave us a stipend to use, so my mom was collecting receipts the entire time to make sure we didn’t go one penny over budget.
Q: How did the two of you drive each other crazy on the trip?
A: The relationship that Seth and Barbra have, especially for the first half of the movie, is kind of my mom and I at our worst points. My mom was a bit insane in the best possible way. She drove me crazy comedically.
The biggest fight that we had on the road was when we got lost and it’s like that age-old husband and wife fight: I don’t want to ask for directions, and she’s going “There’s a gas station right here…” and finally I say "GO! Go inside!” And the tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife. And she’s like, good, because she has to go to the bathroom like every five minutes. But I can’t take it anymore and she goes inside, comes back out and gets in the car and I pull away. And I say, “So, where do we have to drive?” And she starts crying and says, “I forgot to ask for directions!”
Q: Did you really listen to “Middlesex,” the book on tape, along the way?
A: Yes, and it was a strange experience to listen to some of the sexual stuff, with your mother. You cringe, and you actually just try not to make eye contact to get through it.
Q: Was it difficult to get Barbra Streisand to commit to the film?
A: Barbra doesn’t work a lot, so it’s a big process to convince her to do something like this. She’s in every scene of the movie except for the very beginning, so it’s a lot of work for her, and Barbra is very focused on her charities and her life and she’s not somebody who seeks out being on camera. Fortunately, I had a director who was unwilling to ever let it go; and I rewrote for Barbra a bit once she came on board to adjust the things she wanted to be adjusted -- especially the scene where she and Seth have a big fight in the middle of the movie, which is kind of Barbra’s big scene. We spent a lot of time crafting the dialogue for that and I have mounds and mounds of notepads of us just going back and forth and trying to get the rhythm right.
Q: Was it intimidating to work with her?
A: Barbra’s as big as you get and this movie was very important to me, but she puts you at ease. I like to describe her in this way: Imagine your own mother, just with unlimited wealth, talent and fame.
Q: You and your mom were already very close, but did the road trip transform your relationship in any way?
A: There was a point where I had the experience that Seth has in the film, where you start seeing your parent not just as a parent, but also as a human being for the first time. What the gist of the movie is about is that moment when a kid starts seeing their parent as more than just a creature who exists to parent them, and the moment when a parent starts seeing their son or daughter as a grownup who’s not just this thing that needs to be cared for by them. That’s what the journey of the movie is in a way.
Q: Almost five years after your mom’s death, is it bittersweet to finally have finished the film?
A: I’ve been on this quest to get the film made and I’ve shut off the emotion to be more focused on it, and at some point, I’m sure it’ll catch up with me. I’m sure it’s all repressed, like any good, unhealthy male and it will come out at some point.
Q: Your next film is “Last Vegas,” starring Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman and Kevin Kline.
A: It’s about four buddies from Brooklyn who are now in their 60s. Michael Douglas, who plays the bachelor in the group, calls his buddies to say he’s getting married and they’re going to do one final bachelor party, for him, in Vegas – the last bachelor’s party they’ll ever do.
Q: Do you see anything of your dad in these characters?
A: We did take my dad out to a nightclub in Vegas where it was just thumping music; it was funny watching him sit there in all of it. So there’s a lot of that vibe in the first half of the movie of these guys trying to figure out how to operate in the world of Vegas, then learning to own it and have fun with it.
“The Guilt Trip” opens Dec. 19.
December 13, 2012 | 10:35 am
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
In the first image of Travis Fine’s heartrending new film, “Any Day Now,” set in the 1970s, Marco (Isaac Leyva), a 12-year-old with Down’s syndrome, roams the streets of a city, lost, bewildered and clutching a child’s doll. The film then flashes back to tell of how Marco was taken in by Rudy and Paul, a gay couple played by Alan Cummings (“The Good Wife”) and Garrett Dillahunt, after his junkie mother abandoned him; a custody battle erupts that cannot help but reflect on gay rights issues today. The film has already swept up audience awards at festivals from Seattle to Tribeca.
Fine, a 44-year-old actor (“Young Riders,” “Girl, Interrupted”) turned commercial airline pilot turned independent filmmaker, is straight, married with three children, and active at Temple Beth Ami, his Conservative synagogue in Santa Clarita. “I didn’t set out just to tell a story of gay rights and gay adoption, but also a human story about human rights, and my firm belief that nobody should stand in the way of anyone who has love to give to another human being,” he said of the film.
“Any Day Now” came about when Fine had funding in place for a new movie after returning to show business with 2011’s “The Space Between,” starring Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (“The Fighter”). The problem was finding a story, said the filmmaker, who had read and rejected about 50 screenplays when he came across a 1980 script by Arthur Bloom.
“My music supervisor, PJ Bloom, who is also an old friend of mine from Beverly Hills High, told me that his father, Arthur, had written this script about a man named Rudy, who had lived near his apartment in Brooklyn in the late 1970s,” Fine said. "Rudy was a flamboyantly gay man with a sassy mouth, the kind of guy that everyone in the neighborhood knew. And in Rudy’s apartment building there was this 12-year-old kid who barely spoke, barely could say his own name, who wore a diaper and crawled around. The kid had a mother who was a pretty horrific drug addict, and Rudy kind of took the boy in and looked after him, got him into school and really tried to be the kid’s parent. And George was so inspired by their connection that he wrote the original script.”
“It was the only script I read where I kept saying, ‘There’s some connection to me in this story, something that moves me,” Fine added. “But it didn’t reveal itself to me until my daughter’s 16th birthday, when I found myself on the floor of my closet in my bedroom, sobbing hysterically.” At the time, Fine was acutely feeling the distance that had developed between himself and his oldest daughter, his child by a previous marriage -- distance that was a byproduct of his divorce.
“Once I wiped my tears away, I grasped the real understanding and compassion I had for my lead character,” Fine said, meaning Rudy’s angst upon being separated from Marco. “And I understood that I wanted to tell a story about what it means to be a family. I didn’t want to make sweeping political statements, but rather wanted to explore a love story between three unlikely people.”
Here are further excerpts from our interview:
Q: You originally wrote the character of Marco as ill tempered. How was it that you decided to change the character into a gentler soul?
A: Isaac Leyva had auditioned for us on videotape and when I finally met with him, I asked him to do the scenes driven by conflict, which included foul language and throwing things and being belligerent. But he just wouldn’t do it; he emotionally and physically would not go there.
Then I had an interesting conversation with the man who runs the school where Isaac studies acting; he said Down’s Syndrome kids generally shy away from that kind of thing; they’re not going to throw things and scream and yell and cuss, because that generally makes them very uncomfortable. So I said to my wife, “Maybe Isaac’s not our kid.” And then she said something very smart: She brought up the young man who played Michael Oher from “The Blind Side;” how silent he was for so much of the first half of the movie and how that made viewers want to know more about what was going on inside of his head. She suggested that I do the same thing with the character of Marco; that I allow his silence to be something that prompts us to want to learn more about who he is. So I stayed up until about 4 a.m. that morning, in March of 2011, and rewrote the script, then went back and had Isaac read the new scenes. He was wonderful.
I asked him, “Do you want to star in my film?” and he nodded really vigorously, yes. Later on I heard him crying in the corner of the room; there were tears streaming down his face. I asked if he was OK; his acting teacher was holding him, and when he finally wiped the tears away he looked at me and said, “The dream of my life just came true.” It was a beautiful moment.
Q: In your film, Rudy is an aspiring singer who works as a drag queen to earn a living. Does he identify with Marco because as a gay man, he, too, feels marginalized by others -- a kind of social outcast?
A: Absolutely. There was a monologue that ultimately we took out of the film, in which Rudy explains to Paul what his life was like growing up with parents who didn’t accept him; there were kids who would beat him up and he had to run away from home at a young age. But we felt at a certain point that the monologue was a little bit too on the nose in trying to draw those connections to Marco. My hope is that people will get that Rudy is a guy who clearly had lived on the fringes of society and had to fight his way to get anything he’s had. So I think there is a deep connection and understanding on his part of this kid who no one wants.
Q: Why did you choose to set the film in the 1970s?
A: The first reason is that it’s based on a true story that really did happen in the 1970s. The second is that I’m a huge fan of ‘70s cinema, and I wanted to tackle that visually: Could we make the film using modern digital technology to create not only the wardrobe and sets but also the look and texture of a ‘70s film using certain color choices and palettes? Also, by setting the movie in the 1970s, it allows contemporary viewers to look back and see where we were [in terms of gay rights], and affords us an opportunity to ask ourselves if we’re really in a different place.
Q: How was it that you cast Alan Cumming as Rudy?
A: He’s not only a great actor but he has great performing and singing capabilities; he’s also been knighted by the Queen of England for his work on behalf of LGBT rights and equality through the arts. This is a guy who’s not only talked the talk of gay rights but he’s really walked the walk. He has the same agent as Melissa Leo, who had starred in my last film. She told her agent, in her own colorful, expletive filled way, that she blanking loved my blanking writing and of course he should read my blanking script and she passed it along to him right away. It was a matter of days before Cumming read the script and said he wanted to be a part of this.
Q: What Jewish values do you perceive in the film?
A: The sense of ethical mitzvot. When Rudy sees that child he has two choices; he can either help or not. And he does the right thing.
“Any Day Now” opens Dec. 14.
December 12, 2012 | 3:16 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Who is Bette Midler? There’s her onstage alter ego, The Divine Miss M, the brash and bawdy chanteuse with risqué sequin-clad décolletage she invented back in the 1970s at Manhattan’s Continental Baths gay spa. And the hilariously over-the-top characters she’s played in such films as “Ruthless People,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “The First Wives Club.”
But in a telephone interview from her New York home, the 67-year-old Oscar-nominated actress and Grammy-winning performer came off as low-key, no-nonsense, almost aristocratic, eschewing the vaguely New Yawk accent of her comic characters for crisp thespian tones. Midler can certainly be amusing: Ask about the secret to the success of her 28-year marriage to former commodities broker Martin von Haselberg, and she quips: “Be away a lot.”
“ ‘Home Alone’ for grandparents” is how she describes her new movie, “Parental Guidance,” in which she and Billy Crystal play a couple unexpectedly asked to baby-sit their estranged grandchildren. (The film opens Dec. 25.)
But as she speaks, Midler seems settled into her role as a homebody: as a longtime wife and mother to her 26-year-old daughter, Sophie, as well as an avid reader, gardener, cook, philanthropist and Twitter enthusiast. Last Passover she tweeted: “The brisket’s in the oven and the Alka-Seltzer by the sink! Charge!”
She also seems genuinely pleased, even honored, to hear she is considered a Jewish icon of sorts. Midler once told Johnny Carson that she had a Venus flytrap: “I don’t have any flies, so I gave it bacon. It spit it out! A Jewish Venus Flytrap, I suppose.” In another gag, she claimed to be working on a sequel to the X-rated film “Emmanuelle,” which would feature lots of kissing of mezuzahs as well as a risqué encounter with a kreplach.
“I’m glad I’m called any kind of icon,” she said with a throaty laugh. “It’s very sweet, very nice for people to want to claim me. Much better than the other way around, like ‘Uch, she doesn’t belong to us.’ ” Midler once aspired to become a legend: “Ambition used to eat me up alive,” she recalled. “But with age, things change. Certain things come to the forefront, and others recede.” From 2008 to 2010, Midler headlined in “The Showgirl Must Go On” in Las Vegas — a city she dubbed onstage as “the only town that could teach Kraft something about cheese” — but she admits her film career has been one of the casualties of age. Back in the 1980s, Midler was reportedly one of the highest-paid actresses in Hollywood, but the calls from producers have not been coming as much in recent years.
Then came the chance to star in “Parental Guidance,” a Fox studio film directed by Andy Fickman. “I loved the script,” she said. “It’s a kind of second-chance movie — the idea that there’s this man who’s so self-involved that his own daughter won’t even let him in the house near her children. He goes, against his will, kicking and screaming, to meet these dragons, who are really his grandchildren. And then he has to go through this journey where he comes out on the other side transformed into the good person his wife always suspected he could be.”
Just as Midler’s character of Diane, the generous grandmother, has overtones of the Jewish mother, Midler has often used her Judaism as part of her persona. But her tribal sense of humor – and identity – was honed in a distinctly non-Jewish milieu: a low-income part of Honolulu, where Midler grew up in the only white, or haole, family in the neighborhood. “I did feel very much alien, an outsider,” she said of her time there. “People knew what a white person was — they didn’t like them — but they had no idea of what a Jew was. In fact, when my father made us stay home for Yom Kippur, the school wouldn’t allow it because they thought it was some kind of fake, made-up holiday. I’m sure if people had known what a Jew was, things would have been worse,” she added.
Midler got by because her mostly Asian and Polynesian classmates assumed she was Portuguese. “Not to stereotype, but the Portuguese were very outspoken people who talked a lot and really loud, and I did the same thing,” she said.
Even though her home was mostly non-religious, she continued, “In the seventh grade, I was struck by Judaism. I took Hebrew lessons and tried to get through the five books of Moses. I think it was hormones,” she joked, before adding, “at some point you do have a kind of awakening, and wonder who and what you are.”
While outdoors the landscape was “paradise,” she said, “indoors, not so much.” Her father, a housepainter, was controlling and a screamer — “I was afraid of him until I turned 14, and then it was just silly,” she said, adding that she later cared for him as he was dying of heart issues in the mid-1980s, while she was pregnant with Sophie.
Midler’s mother, an avid movie-star fan who named Midler after Bette Davis, was a timid soul who tried to shelter her three daughters and developmentally disabled son from the world. “My mother’s family was incredibly superstitious,” Midler recalled. “They were old-country Jews who never laughed, because, they said, ‘You’re going to attract the evil eye.’ They’d been through two world wars, the Depression and the Nazi slaughter in Europe. So my mother was an extremely frightened person, almost to the point where it was crazy, and I picked that up as well. I think I’ve allowed myself to be isolated as a person of note, or whatever you want to call me, for a very long time, and I’ve realized that’s terrible; I’ve got to learn how to do things for myself. … I also tend to imagine other people’s reactions when they’re not really thinking that sort of thing at all; it’s called over-thinking.”
Despite — or perhaps because of — her own problematic childhood, Midler developed what she calls “tremendous perseverance.”
“I discovered that if I stood up for myself, there weren’t that many people who would try to stand me down.”
She got one of her first breaks rising from the chorus to play Tzeitel, Tevye’s oldest daughter, in “Fiddler on the Roof” on Broadway in 1970 — no matter that the casting director had initially deemed her, bizarrely, as too Jewish for the part.
When roles dried up, Midler burst into the popular culture at the Continental Baths in the basement of Manhattan’s Ansonia Hotel, where her torch songs lured the gay patrons — many of them wearing only towels — from more carnal activities and solidified what would become her gay fan base.
Then came her first album, “The Divine Miss M,” released in 1972; Midler’s Oscar-nominated turn as a self-destructive rock star in “The Rose” (1979) was followed by more than 30 other movies, including the sudsy “Beaches,” in which she played a self-centered singer opposite Barbara Hershey.
As for why Midler identified with the Janis Joplin-esque character she portrayed in “The Rose,” she said it was, in part, “Your parents telling you you’re never going to amount to a hill of beans, and don’t do this or that, and you’d better be a teacher so you have something to fall back on.”
She described her own parenting style as firm and loving, but not overprotective, and perhaps as a result, her daughter is “fearless,” she said. Sophie skydives, rides dirt bikes and even trekked through China for three months on her own. And even though Midler told Sophie as a child that she would never speak to her again if she went into show business (“I wanted to spare her the pain,” she said), her daughter is now studying drama at an Ivy League school. “But don’t say which one,” Midler asked, slipping into protective mode for a moment. “It would kill me.”
December 8, 2012 | 12:02 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
November 21, 2012 | 2:44 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Erich Bergen identifies easily with the brash, impetuous character of Billy Crocker, the romantic lead Bergen plays in Cole Porter’s insouciant 1934 musical “Anything Goes,” which opens at the Ahmanson Theatre on Nov. 28.
“I’m horrible at waiting for auditions,” the 26-year-old actor said during a phone interview from Wilmington, Del., where the show was playing recently as part of the national tour of the 2011 Tony Award-winning Broadway revival production. “I’ve waited outside casting directors’ doors. If someone won’t see me, I’ll finagle an invitation to a party or somehow find a way to get myself in front of that person.”
And when it comes to love, he said, “I don’t really have a middle ground; I have a zero and a 10. I’ve jumped on a plane after a show in Las Vegas and flown to L.A. to surprise my girlfriend at her door and loved that rush. I’ve written and videotaped songs to women. My whole album ‘Vegas Sessions’ is like that.”
The musical’s director, Kathleen Marshall, calls the 6-foot-3 Bergen (best-known for “Jersey Boys”) “tall, dark and handsome,” with “the deft comic touch of a young Cary Grant.”
That comes in handy in his portrayal of Billy, an ambitious stockbroker who stows away on an ocean liner to woo his beloved, Hope (Alex Finke) — never mind that she is already engaged to a wealthy aristocrat. With the help of his gal pal Reno Sweeney (Rachel York, in the role originated by Ethel Merman), Billy eludes the watchful eyes of the ship’s purser by disguising himself as a sailor and a gangster. High jinks on the high seas erupt in Porter’s lavish, Art Deco musical, which was written as escapist fare during the Great Depression and is jam-packed with leggy dancers as well as well as classic Porter standards like “You’re the Top,” “It’s De-Lovely” and “I Get a Kick Out of You.”
Creating his own, distinctive Billy became paramount for Bergen after Marshall cast him earlier this year. The actor had seen his friend Colin Donnell perform the part on Broadway but knew he had to take a different route. “I wish I could be as smooth as Colin is, but I’m not,” he said. “So I just had to figure out a way to make the role something I was comfortable with. What I discovered is that Billy is sort of a street kid, someone who talks his way to the top. He watches how the successful businessmen and playboys around him dress and walk, and he sort of found the right suit and talked his way into this job where he’s making $35 a week, which he’s very proud of.
“Our director was very specific that because the play is a farce — you can’t intentionally go to that place or everyone’s going to become a clown,” Bergen added. “So I’ve tried to keep Billy as real as possible, so he doesn’t become a caricature.”
Erich Bergman and Rachel York in “Anything Goes.” Photo by Joan Marcus
For Bergen, that meant going further than just watching MGM ballroom dancing classics starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. He studied photographs of stylish men in Manhattan in the 1930s and envisioned himself walking down those New York City streets.
Bergen also refused to dismiss “Anything Goes” as mere escapist fluff. He notes that Cole Porter was a gay man who married a woman in order to adhere to convention, and that the composer must have brought some of that romantic angst to his lovelorn characters. He thus brings a tangible longing to numbers such as “All Through the Night,” where his character yearns for an unavailable lover. “I remember listening to Ella Fitzgerald’s recording of the song and thinking, ‘You can really hear the sadness and the despair,’ ” he said.
Bergen was practically born to perform. His parents met as fellow students at the Actors Institute in Manhattan, and while they went on to practice other professions (his mother was an art director in the fashion industry), Bergen grew up among their theatrical friends in Manhattan’s Chelsea district. At age 3, at his parents’ dinner parties, Erich performed Michael Jackson’s 1980s peace song “We Are the World” — which featured the performances of more than 30 celebrities — doing all of the voices himself. He learned to read by studying the songs and record jackets of the family’s CDs and envisioned himself as King-of-Pop Jackson bursting through the floor (or descending through the roof) at the beginning of every performance. “I still do,” Bergen said.
While his mother is a nonpracticing Catholic, Bergen strongly identified with his father’s Jewish family, lighting the Chanukiyah every year as well as attending synagogue and family Passover gatherings. “I found the seder to be a fun, theatrical, improvisational experience that everyone could take part in,” said the actor, who identifies as Jewish.
He likens theater — including “Anything Goes” — to the Passover experience: “We’re all in one room together witnessing something that people for many years have done before us,” he said. “We are not new to this story, but we are experiencing it for the first time together. To me, that’s what I’ve found in the Jewish religion: that the tradition of keeping the story going is what’s most important — of making sure that everyone knows and is affected by the story.”
The national tour of “Anything Goes” isn’t the first time Bergen has performed in the musical. At 11, he was cast as the ship’s purser in a production at the rigorous performing-arts summer camp Stagedoor Manor, in New York, where child performers were treated like adults and Bergen got in trouble during the dress rehearsal. “There was a mishap where we were using a live dog in the show,” said the actor, who was supposed to carry the canine onstage in one scene but panicked when he discovered that Fido was AWOL. “I walked onstage in the middle of the show and yelled, ‘I can’t find the dog!’ And then I could hear the director screaming at me from the back of the theater. Someone actually had to take him out of the theater to calm him down.” It was Bergen’s first lesson in the old adage, “The show must go on.”
“Thank God we’re using a stuffed dog in this production,” he said.
The Stagedoor experience, however, gave Bergen an appreciation for Porter’s precise, sophisticated style; he still remembers dissecting the complex rhyme and meter in lyrics such as, “When every night, the set that’s smart/is intruding in nudist parties in studios.” “And of course, the songs can be extremely risqué,” he added. “The double entendres in ‘You’re the Top’ alone are scandalous. I don’t know what they were thinking, doing this with 11-year-olds.”
Bergen’s big break came nine years later, when he was cast as Bob Gaudio in the national tour of the Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.” He received kudos for his performance, he said, but, “I let it go to my head and behaved like an ass.” Three years into the run, his contract was terminated, he said, due to “toxic behavior on my part and others. I had been shot out of a cannon on the road at 20 without paying any dues in summer stock or regional theater, and I never learned the real way to behave in that kind of situation. At the end of the day, it was my fault, and I take responsibility for it now. But none of that has impinged on the love I have for the show.”
Nor, apparently, did it impinge on his career: Two weeks after he left “Jersey Boys,” Bergen was cast as a guest star on “Gossip Girls” and went on to appear on “Desperate Housewives” as well as in a film, “How Sweet It Is,” opposite Paul Sorvino and Joe Piscopo, before being cast in “Anything Goes.”
His current gig has come with a lion’s share of challenges: Several of the songs, if sung by rote, can come off as “lists” (“Think: ‘It’s de-lightful, it’s de-licious, it’s de-lovely,’ ” Bergen said.) The actor found his way into that ditty by envisioning himself as the suave Cole Porter at a dinner party, pretending to be making up the lyrics on the spot.
Then there’s the five-minute dance break in the middle of “De-Lovely,” “when we’re breathing hard, and we’re just exhausted, and I then have to run up a flight of stairs and start singing again,” he said. “The trick is how to make it look romantic, and that you’re in love with your dance partner. My way in was to just envision myself as Fred Astaire.”
Even so, he said, “Every night, I come off the stage spent. I’ve lost weight since the beginning of the tour: I was 192 pounds, and now I’m 177.”
And yet, Bergen makes it all look effortless, director Marshall said in an e-mail. “Erich is that rarity in theater — a genuine triple-threat leading man. He sings beautifully, dances with style and grace, and he is a wonderful actor.”
Finke said the actor brings an endearing quality to the subversive Billy. “He’s able to create this mischievous character who does some troublemaking but still has such a good heart,” she said in a telephone interview. “He manages to keep the audience rooting for him, despite all of his shenanigans.”
For tickets and information, visit centertheatregroup.org.
November 21, 2012 | 1:50 pm
Posted by Naomi Pfefferman
Donald Margulies was in his New Haven study when a surprising call came from Gil Cates, the renowned artistic director of the Geffen Playhouse.
Cates — who died last November at 77 — had overseen four Margulies productions at the Geffen, had just directed the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright’s fanciful fairy tale “Shipwrecked!” and had in mind another family play for the author.
“He said, ‘Donald, how would you like to write me a Christmas show?’ And I was amused,” Margulies, 58, said, speaking at the Geffen just before a rehearsal of his new play, “Coney Island Christmas.”
“You don’t usually seek out a Jewish playwright to write you a Christmas show. So I said, ‘Gil, if I’m going to write you a Christmas show, you know it’s going to be a Jewish Christmas show, right?’ And he said, ‘Great!’ ”
Margulies’ response was hardly unexpected. Joe Papp, the late founder of New York’s Public Theater, dubbed Margulies “my Jewish playwright.” Throughout his more than 35 years as a dramatist, Margulies has often explored Jewish identity and family dynamics, from his early plays, like “The Loman Family Picnic” and “The Model Apartment,” through to later works, including his Pulitzer nominees “Sight Unseen” and “Collected Stories” as well as 2005’s “Brooklyn Boy.” In varied ways that have evolved over the years, he has, at times, drawn on his childhood in a tiny apartment in 1960s Brooklyn, where his father toiled as a wallpaper salesman and Holocaust survivors, with their mysterious and terrifying forearm tattoos, walked the neighborhood.
For Margulies, “Coney Island Christmas” represents a more ebullient return to Brooklyn, as well as a lighter take on what he calls the “ghetto mentality.”
Based on the short story “The Loudest Voice,” by Grace Paley, the comedy opens in the San Fernando Valley, as the elderly Shirley Abramowitz regales her great-granddaughter with a tale of how she came to play Jesus in her grammar-school Christmas pageant in 1930s Brooklyn. The action then shifts back in time, as the pageant is rehearsed and conflict ensues: Shirley’s mother sees the pageant and its implications as “a creeping pogrom” that will “make our children forget who they are”; Mr. Abramowitz (Arye Gross) argues for open-mindedness and contends that participation does not equal assimilation, while young Shirley longs only to perform.
Cates’ sudden death from heart failure last year, however, is what prompted Margulies, who was then preparing his play “Time Stands Still” for Broadway, to give himself a deadline of January 2012 to finish a first draft of the play, which he dedicated to his old friend. He remembers Cates as an “indomitable” figure and a “mensch” who identified strongly with the Jewish sensibilities in Margulies’ work. “His death just crushed me,” the playwright said, his voice hushed. “It seems quite hollow here at the Geffen without him.”
Cates envisioned “Coney Island Christmas” as becoming an annual holiday production at the Geffen. But if a yuletide pageant seems like something of a departure for Margulies, its themes fit snugly into his oeuvre. “I wasn’t invested in exploring Christmas, but rather in exploring the phenomenon of assimilation,” he said. He saw Paley’s story as “an opportunity to write about what it means to be an American, and to be of faith, any faith. The very comic notion of a Jewish girl asked to play Jesus is such a wonderful metaphor for lack of prejudice and a kind of ecumenical approach.”
Director Bart DeLorenzo said the play’s “central question” is, “Where is your allegiance?”
“Every character is trying to figure out where they stand — ‘Am I a Jew or a Christian or an American?’ — and a holiday like Christmas suddenly can make you feel you must choose some sort of side in this debate,” DeLorenzo said in a telephone interview.
Gross, who grew up in a Conservative home in Reseda, connects the characters to his late grandparents: “I can almost hear members of my family speaking the words as they are said in the play.”
Margulies said he based the characters and their worldview, in part, on his own beloved grandparents, as well as the immigrant and first-generation Jews of his childhood neighborhood, who saw America as a land of opportunity but harbored suspicions and distrust of non-Jews.
He was sitting in an upstairs office at the Geffen, where he wore a tweed jacket and round spectacles and exuded both the quietly confident manner of a successful artist and Yale professor.
Yet, at one point, the conversation turned again to his fraught childhood in Brooklyn, where his family “never had any money,” he said, and learning about the survivors in the neighborhood “was the beginning of my fear of Nazi persecution and a Germanophobia I still struggle with today.” As his alter ego, a newly successful novelist named Eric Weiss, says in “Brooklyn Boy,” he had to escape Brooklyn because he feared the chokehold the legacies of the Depression and the Holocaust had around his parents’ throats.
Margulies’ range of plays about Brooklyn, some written in the voice of a young man, others in the voice of artists in midlife, have helped him to exorcise some of those demons. “I’ve also been happily wed and well-analyzed,” he added, with a laugh. “But when I visit my friends in Park Slope, I still get a little creeped out. It’s just a primal feeling.”
It’s thus significant that Margulies set “Coney Island Christmas” in a more vibrant New York milieu decades before his time. “I had romanticized 1930s Brooklyn as being the golden years, of [immigrants] being new to America, when the country was still promising in a way it wasn’t when I was growing up in the 1960s,” he explained.
Not that the setting is without its share of urban grit. For visual inspiration, Margulies turned to the Depression-era paintings of Reginald Marsh, “where you can see the grime, the patina of urban dust,” he said.
And yet, overall, he said, “The play is very joyful. It’s life-affirming.”
For tickets and information about “Coney Island Christmas,” visit www.geffenplayhouse.com.