J.K. Simmons on Whiplash


J.K. Simmons in Whiplash
J.K. Simmons in Whiplash (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics)
We’re wired to feel a vicarious thrill as we watch a young protagonist become the hero he was meant to be. Whiplash hacks into this quirk of brain chemistry and gets you rooting for all the wrong things. Music student Andrew Neyman aches to earn a place in the pantheon of great jazz drummers. Terence Fletcher is respected and feared as the iron-fisted instructor who handpicks the school’s top talent and leads the jazz ensemble to competitive victory. He teases Neyman with a fleeting interest, then belittles him and withdraws. Neyman yearns for the golden ticket that Fletcher has the potential to give, and when it’s finally handed to him, we share his elation despite every indication that it will lead to very bad things.

Tapped to push Neyman — played by gifted up-and-comer Miles Teller — well beyond the breaking point is journeyman actor J.K. Simmons. As Fletcher, he’s Neyman’s perfect dysfunctional complement. Obsessed with finding the next Charlie Parker, he’s happy to torture the full potential out of the right willing candidate.

You might not know him by name, but one look at Simmons’ face sparks a sense of familiarity and respect from just about everyone who’s watched TV or movies for the past 15 years. Adept at channeling brutal, compassionate and everything in between, he’s played a complex and vicious neo-Nazi on Oz, a loving and insightful father in Juno, an ever-exasperated assistant police chief on The Closer, and a pitch-perfect J. Jonah Jameson. And with his fierce performance in Whiplash, the Oscar buzz has begun — an especially satisfying development for longtime Simmons fans like me.

When I attended a Whiplash press event in Beverly Hills recently, I was particularly looking forward to hearing Simmons’ take on the project — a film which will likely bring him the attention and accolades he’s deserved for over a decade.

Simmons submits that Whiplash writer-director Damien Chazelle’s point was “to inspire discussion and debate and not decide — are we happy for Andrew Neyman or are we lamenting his loss of humanity? I think, based on the reception and the discussions that we’ve been involved in so far, that’s exactly what he achieved. Plus, it’s just awesomely entertaining. The end of the movie with a 10-minute drum solo!”

Neyman sloughs off all possible distractions, including his budding romance with Nicole (a charming Melissa Benoist) by letting her know that she doesn’t even rank on his list of priorities. It’s a moment of heartlessness emblematic of his single-minded symbiosis with Fletcher. “The debate I love,” Simmons says, “is how far is too far? How much is too much? Is it worth it? This kind of relentless abuse might be necessary and appropriate if you’re training Navy Seals, but I don’t know if it’s appropriate in a music school. But it’s there, and it can be productive; there’s no denying that. From my own perspective, I’d rather have a pretty girlfriend than go work with this guy and have my hands bleed all the time. I would have made a different choice.”

With 19 days to shoot, opportunities for rehearsal were apparently off the table, which was perfectly fine for Simmons. “I actually prefer to work that way,” he says. “Whatever the role is, if you’re working on an accent or a dialect or a specific skill set that your character has that you don’t necessarily have, like playing the piano, then that’s the kind of preparation that I find absolutely necessary. For me, if the words are good on the page, the rest of it just comes from spending some time with the script. Not [in terms of] learning lines, but absorbing what the script has to offer.”

Noting that “collaborative” is his “favorite word in moviemaking,” Simmons is particularly appreciative that the flexible dynamic on the Whiplash set offered opportunities for improvisation. “The freedom to occasionally depart from the page a little bit and just throw the ball back and forth, and throw each other a curveball, was an added part of the fun,” he says. “And the fact that Damien is self-confident enough to not get his ego damaged by, ‘Oh, wait a minute. You didn’t put that comma in that sentence, or you said “perhaps” instead of “maybe.”‘ That’s always a beautiful amount of freedom to have as an actor.”

One of the things that’s always drawn me to Simmons’ work is his ability to bring his singular brand of charisma and humor to such a wide spectrum of personalities — from the warm and kind to the downright despicable. As he explains, it’s been a conscious decision to maintain his impressively varied portfolio.

“I’ve been so blessed to have the opportunities that I’ve had,” Simmons enthuses. “If somebody asked me to play a Terence Fletcher-esque character next week, I would be reticent to do so. Part of the joy of doing what we [screen actors] are all fortunate enough to do here, is you get to do something different every time out. I learned that at the very beginning; I’ve been doing theater for 20 years, but when I first started doing camera acting, really, Oz was my first big thing that a lot of people saw. And I knew going into that, that it was a potential trap — that I could be playing the Nazi of the week on TV for the rest of my life. And from nowhere, all of a sudden Law and Order called and said, ‘Hey, would you like to play the shrink on Law and Order?’ — and it was like this perfect yin-yang that I had at the very beginning, so that I was perceived as a guy who could do a variety of things. That’s what we all want to do. We all want to not repeat ourselves constantly, and explore the limits of our capabilities. So, I just want to do something different than whatever I just got done doing.”

Aubrey Plaza on the Healing Power of Zombies


Aubrey Plaza | Life After Beth | Parks and Recreation
Aubrey Plaza (photo by David Shankbone*)

In addition to analyzing my every social interaction and meticulously outlining how each of my decisions will end in catastrophe, I also maintain an ongoing concern that a zombie horde will inevitably begin its slow, trudging march directly toward my apartment, their decayed psyches convinced that mine will be the tastiest brain of all. I’d like to have the fantasy where zombies are after everyone and I join up with a ragtag band of reluctant heroes to save humanity. But no, the zombies are just after me.

Only self-centered people can be paranoid, and it’s that piece of hard truth that makes me determined to get out of my own head — which is one of the many reasons I enjoyed what the inimitable Aubrey Plaza had to say about the free-form nature of zombie narratives at a recent press event in West Hollywood. She was discussing her latest film, Life After Beth, a bittersweet romp into darkness that follows a young woman’s mysterious resurrection and slow descent into demonic decomposition. Featuring a cherry-picked collection of talent including co-star Dane DeHaan, as well as John C. Reilly, Anna Kendrick, Molly Shannon, Paul Reiser, Cheryl Hines and Matthew Gray Gubler, the film offers Plaza and co. an unusual amount of artistic freedom.

“I really like how when you do a zombie movie, you can come up with your own rules about what your zombies are like because there’s no set thing, and it’s anyone’s interpretation,” she says. “There are things that people think of when they [picture] zombies, but you could really just make up whatever you wanted. I thought the script was really clever in coming up with some rules that we haven’t seen before — like zombies love smooth jazz! I’ve never seen that in a zombie movie before and I thought that was kind of a fun characteristic. And I also really liked the idea of seeing someone slowly transform into a zombie. Normally, they burst out of the grave and they’re immediately a zombie, but this was cool because it was like a slow burn.”

Plaza, best known for her role as April Ludgate-Dwyer on NBC’s Parks and Recreation, has amassed an adoring legion of fans with her elevation of sardonic deadpan to high art. She doesn’t paint by numbers, she’ll say what she darn pleases and she gets away with it with a bat of her big brown eyes. She was the perfect person to remind me that nothing — not even a long-held sense of personal, zombie-fueled doom — is set in stone. I also enjoyed hearing how she practiced her zombie moves in private.

“I did do that a couple of times by myself in the bathroom,” she recalls, and continues with a laugh, “I would look at myself and freak out — and I’d be like, ‘That was a great freak-out! I could use that tomorrow.’ Or I would do it at red lights just to freak people out.” When asked what her parents would do if she ever actually became a zombie, she replies, “I think my mom would probably cut off her fingers and let me eat them. I think any mom would! My dad would probably just shoot me in the head.”

In her signature style, Plaza steers the conversation toward an oddly calming place when asked if she would recommend zombie roles to her peers. She replies, “Yes, I would recommend them, I think they’re great and fun and very therapeutic. You don’t always get to play a physical role where you get to act like a lunatic and grunt and make weird noises and attack people. So if you feel like you are holding anger, or anything, inside, it’s a really great way to let it all go.”

So not only do I have free rein to change the unhealthy narrative in my head, but even if the zombies do come knocking, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. And as the vibe gets decidedly tranquil, Plaza is positively Zen when she reveals what she does to relax. “I’m pretty good at just staring at a wall and going into nothingness,” she says. “Nothingness calms me down the most.”

I felt a glimmer of peace, though even in a moment of ease, worries don’t disappear entirely. But they can be tucked out of sight with just the right encouragement, and Plaza serves it up. How would she do in a real zombie apocalypse? She grins. “I think I would be great in it because I’m a really good shot and I’m not scared of anything — so bring it!”

Written and directed by Jeff Baena, Life After Beth is now in theaters.

*Photo by David Shankbone, used under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

How Moby Taught Me to Stop Worrying and Love the Apocalypse


Moby (photo copyright Eleanor Stills)

In the midst of working on a top-secret photo album for my girlfriend’s birthday, I noticed the time and sped off to a 7pm screening of the new Jake Gyllenhaal art-house film, Enemy. It was a jarring transition to leave my half-built microcosm of love, memories and pink polka dots for an aggressively puzzling universe of dualities, enigmatic motivations, and the demise of everything as embodied by a big, creeping tarantula. A familiar ball of angst began to grow in my chest after the credits rolled, as I headed back to the office for a frenzy of late-night, heartfelt scrapbooking. When my girlfriend texted me to come home I couldn’t tell her what I was working on, nor did I know quite how to explain the visions of spiders now haunting my thoughts.

I got back before midnight and we snuggled up to watch the Olympics on DVR. My arachnid ruminations began to wane. The following day I drove into the hills to retrieve my medical records from my retired doctor and ended up spending an hour trying to help him fix the Wi-Fi connection on a computer nestled below a display of fossilized horseshoe crabs. I failed as tech support and was now officially late, navigating rush-hour traffic to get home and prep myself for opening night of Moby’s art show, a photo exhibit called Innocents, a companion piece to his 2013 album of the same name. There was the possibility of interviewing him. Thirty minutes later I was on the couch with my laptop, reconnecting with the sounds and images of the symphonic maestro, breathing deep to mantric repetitions, the words and notes layered and revisited. The spell broke as an email popped up from a scientist friend, a link to an article about the impending collapse of the California almond industry, and the doom that awaits the unsustainable agricultural system we’ve built in a desert. With frightening ease, my mind circled back to looming disasters colossal and small. What if I’d broken my doctor’s computer? The spiders were back.

I tamped it down the best I could as my girlfriend and I donned our finest rocker duds and drove to Project Gallery in Hollywood, where the exhibition surprisingly mirrored my state of mind. Moby’s photographs were a compelling homage to the apocalypse: dark clouds over Los Angeles, people in unsettling masks posed serenely against a backdrop of society’s end. Moby gets it, I thought. We’re barreling toward catastrophe.

After posing for cameras, Moby mingled with the growing crowd. I saw an opening and reluctantly approached. I’ve never liked guerrilla interviewing and I was sure this would blow up in my face. I pulled out my recorder and inquired if I could ask him a question or two. Moby looked at me like he’d just had a great idea. “Sure,” he said. “Why don’t we go in the back and talk?” And just like that, I was in a small, darkened storage space with the global superstar of electronic music. He told me we were there both because he likes talking to people and he really wanted to get out of that loud room. I was his excuse for solace, which I was more than happy to use as an opportunity to talk with him about the end of the world.

My first question was about finding beauty in the apocalypse and I learned that his outlook was far brighter than the gloom I’d projected onto his work. “There’s a conventional Judeo-Christian pejorative judgment of the apocalypse,” he said, and explained that the “connotations of destruction and death” were constructs added after the fact, and that “etymologically in ancient Greek, ‘apocalypse’ just means a revelation.” He offered the theory that over the past 200 years or so, the greatest threats to humanity have shifted from “big scary things that were out of our control, like bears or dental problems” to “problems that humans have created for themselves. So my hope for the apocalypse is that we start being less stupid and stop creating so many problems for ourselves. It seems like it’s so easily within our grasp.”

Offering specifics, he said, “Should we get our energy from the sun, which is free and ubiquitous? Or go a few miles underground, dredge up black sludge, refine it and make toxic byproducts and then burn it? I’m not a crazy hippie, but one seems sane and the other seems insane.”

He told me that after tearing his rotator cuff, he began to compare the apocalypse to “going to the chiropractor’s. Day after day, year after year, you get your posture out of whack and stuff isn’t working that well, and it takes movement to readjust everything, like a tectonic shift, and that’s what I hope is happening with our apocalypse.”

“Think of our culture now,” he suggested. “We have an African-American, progressive president who listened to punk rock in college, we can get healthy, organic food almost everywhere, and most countries are not at war with each other, which they were 50 to 100 years ago. Gay marriage is being legalized. The atrocities in the Ukraine are being documented immediately, with immediate repercussions; stuff that would have been done in obscurity 50 years ago and now people are shining the light of day on it with social media. I feel like we’re generally moving in a more rational, benign direction. So that’s my theory, that there is this change. It’s almost like humanity, at this point, can be broken down into the people who are accepting this change and then the people who are very attached to the atavistic status quo of the way things have been …”

He had me at “my hope for the apocalypse.” The tempering of my worries led me to ask about the calming nature of his music, and why he tends toward repeating lyrics and patterns that seem like a meditation.

“Part of it is, subjectively, I find repetition to be quite comforting,” he replied. “Maybe it’s why I gravitated toward a lot of electronic music; electronic music does tend to be repetitive. Also, when I was really young I studied classical music and I had a music teacher who only liked very complicated music, and he hated repetition. So when I was, like, 13 or 14, part of my rebellion against him was loving simplicity like Neil Young and John Lee Hooker and the Ramones, and also loving repetition. Other people are driven crazy by repetition but a repetitive piece of music or repetitive motif within an art show, I don’t know why, it’s very soothing to me.”

I told him that I find it mantric, to which he said that his understanding of a mantra, “at least according to the TM people, is to liberate the tight grip of consciousness, and so maybe intuitively, unintentionally, that’s what I’m doing.”

I had more to ask, like whether he experiences the same emotional trip when he’s creating his music as his listeners do when they hear it, but someone was knocking at the door. I fell back on my standard final question. “What do you love about what you do?” I inquired. He answered that his “favorite thing about music or art or literature is it’s a way to express things in a nonlinear — or at times nonlinear — way that helps me to better understand the world in which we live, and my experience of it, if that makes any sense. I honestly don’t know how I could exist in our world with some degree of perspective and sanity if I wasn’t able to express myself.” And, he added, he enjoys figuring out “how to turn weird, exhaustion-addled perception into something that someone else might like.”

I thanked him and departed, feeling an awful lot better. Maybe everything isn’t a catastrophe waiting to happen. The birthday scrapbook was a rousing success, I still haven’t received a phone call telling me I owe someone a new Dell, and Moby was perfectly happy to answer my questions. And though the California drought might be the catalyst for a downward spiral and all manner of disasters may lie ahead, it’s also simultaneously possible that I could run alongside one of those spiders I think is chasing me, grab hold, and ride it Slim Pickens-style straight into the business end of the apocalypse and be the better for it.

The exhibit runs at Project Gallery through March 30th. For Innocents photographs, music and videos, visit www.innocents.co.

System of a Down’s Serj Tankian: Upgrading the Dynamic of Art and Audience


Serj Tankian | Orca | Jazz-iz Christ | System of a Down
Serj Tankian (Photo by Robert Sebree)
I’m still running iOS 5, which means I have ad-free YouTube, native Google Maps, and a smartphone experience that’s more like playing with bubbles than sifting through index cards — which would you rather do? It also means my outdated phone isn’t compatible with many of the latest apps and I wasn’t going to be able to use it at Serj Tankian’s multimedia exhibit, Disarming Time, last month, which required iOS 6 or higher to experience his latest piece of innovation: an art show where each painting is intertwined with a piece of music. Though I refused to budge on my increasingly irrational anti-update stance, I was determined to fully experience the event that had gathered this eclectic crowd. You know something interesting is going on when Tom Morello, Moby, and Richard Dekmejian, a world expert on the history of genocide, are all in the same room.

So I promised my friend an enormous sandwich at Fat Sal’s if he would forego the full-immersion element of the show and lend me his iPhone (that was no longer compatible with his snap-on charger since his iOS 7 upgrade, which, I felt, further validated my decision to live in the past). Upon our arrival at the bustling Project Gallery in Hollywood, however, he’d realized he had forgotten his new iTunes password and sat down to figure it out. Luckily, I’d brought a backup friend. This one had a rickety Android with 20% battery life that couldn’t handle multimedia texts, which he handed to me with a gracious, hopeless smile. I downloaded the app, plugged my iPhone headset into the foreign device, and with childlike faith aimed the camera at a painting.

A sound crept in, smooth and low, and the clamor of 100 conversations melted away until all that remained was the painting, the music, and me. The back-up friend was definitely getting the sandwich. Once “Space Clock (Green)” — a burst of emerald shades, quicksand-like enveloping a handless clock — had taken me with a softly wandering beat, I moved on to “Space Clock (Blue),” which mirrored the previous with the addition of what I can only describe as audible snowflakes, or maybe stars. Nearly all of the 22 multimedia pieces featured deconstructed clocks surrounded by color and abstract shape, with companion musical compositions that varied as wildly as the moods and hues of the respective paintings. “Timeless” and “Self Portrait” were fast and fun, “Grieving Banner” evoked a jarring sadness, and I found myself at their mercy. Continue reading

A Reflection of Modern Times: An Insider’s Take on The Knick

We’re progressing so fast that the technology of a decade ago seems laughably quaint. We can’t imagine living in the dark ages of 15 years back, and the immediate future is an expanse of exponentially unfolding possibilities so broad that it feels like anything can happen — a great leap in evolution or maybe the end of everything. The steady build of excitement and dread emblematic of our modern age is likely how our forebears felt at the turn of the 20th century, which is why now is the perfect time to revisit 1900, a similar age of ingenuity overdrive.

The Cinemax series The Knick, directed by Steven Soderbergh, explores the achievements, exploits and improprieties in and around a fictionalized version of New York City’s Knickerbocker Hospital at the dawn of the surgical revolution. Dr. John Thackery (Clive Owen) has just taken over as chief surgeon after the suicide of his mentor, Dr. J.M. Christiansen (Matt Frewer), and faces the jarring reality that Dr. Algernon Edwards (André Holland) — a black man with an M.D. from Harvard and European training — will be the new assistant chief surgeon. The show takes the opportunity to investigate this period of great upheaval, when innovation was mushrooming and a move toward racial and gender equality was quietly and slowly beginning.

“We are living through a time of great technological change,” notes Steven Katz, supervising producer and a writer for The Knick, during our recent chat. “Like our ancestors — they didn’t know where X-rays and things like that were going to lead, and we don’t really know where things like the Internet and social media and all these other cutting-edge technologies are going to take us.”

The turn of the century was the heyday of the Wright Brothers and Einstein and saw the invention of the first motion-picture camera. Germ theory had been formally proven by the likes of Louis Pasteur just a few decades earlier, and along with Joseph Lister’s pioneering of antiseptic surgery, it was possible for “an infinite variety of surgeries to take place that were not possible before,” says Katz. “Most people probably thought of a visit to the hospital as a death sentence, but this actually made it possible to do some really radical things. As Thackery says in the pilot, more discoveries were made [during] the turn of the century than in the previous 500 years.”

The Knick, created by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, begins with a failed experimental placenta previa surgery presented in graphic detail. The subsequent pursuit of perfecting that technique reveals a dark side of the medical progress of the day. Surgeons depended on human subjects with terminal conditions, most of whom died as they provided data for the next attempt. “It does seem like you probably could expect to be treated a little bit like a lab rat when you went into a hospital at the time,” confirms Katz, yet the cold truth was that patients with no hope of survival provided essential learning opportunities.

With Soderbergh’s handheld shots and dimly lit sets instilling a prevailing sense of apprehension, the show takes on racial issues as well. Thackery at first dismisses the idea of accepting Edwards as an equal. He is infuriated upon discovering that Edwards has converted the hospital’s basement into a clinic and operating room for African-Americans who are institutionally denied treatment at the Knick, yet he starts to come around when he sees the groundbreaking work that Edwards is doing — like the development of an electric suction device and a silver-wire suture technique for a new hernia procedure.

“I think [Thackery is] the kind of person who admires talent and brains first and foremost,” Katz suggests. He explains that in the original drafts of the episodes he wrote, Thackery was more of an abjectly racist character, yet “one of the interesting things during the course of the production has been watching Thackery develop, especially under Clive’s interpretation of the character. What you see now is a far more complicated character with definitely racist attitudes — but are they especially virulent, or are they simply a reflection of the times? It’s hard to tell. Clive is a very smart actor and he’s made the character seem so intelligent, and it seems like this is something the character is actually wrestling with as we watch him develop.”

Katz is quick to note the parallels to the current day, pointing out that “the country is still going through it. Turn on the TV. It’s shocking that all these years after the Civil War, we’re still wrestling with these racial issues. The thing that really strikes me about this stuff is that it has so many echoes now — to use [historian and author] Barbara Tuchman’s phrase — it’s like a ‘distant mirror.’ It’s a little bit spooky. One of the things [that happened] at the end of the Gilded Age was everybody felt pretty good about themselves, but there was a lurking fear that something bad was going to happen. And something bad did happen — World War I. I think you get that sense now in the world.”

Having pursued several historical New York City projects through the years, Katz is thrilled to be working on The Knick. “It’s great to see an early 20th-century New York project actually exist,” he enthuses. “I’ve worked on a lot that didn’t come to fruition; it’s not a cheap period to evoke [on screen]. I love this period; I love the city of New York. I’ve lived here 30 years. It’s also an incredible pleasure to be working with Steven Soderbergh and sitting in a room and having script discussions with him, and watching him shoot. I used to play this game whenever we were shooting, to try to predict how he would shoot a scene, and I never got it right. It shows you how unexpected [his work can be] and what an extraordinary visual imagination he has.”

Adina Porter on True Blood and The Newsroom


Adina Porter | True Blood | The Newsroom
Adina Porter (photo by Nick Horne)

If you’ve watched HBO’s True Blood since the early days, you know what kind of mayhem Adina Porter can whip up. With a vicious combo of spite and manipulation, her character, Lettie Mae, makes life hell for all involved. Meet Porter in real life though, and it’s a different story. She’s fun and charming and will tease you mercilessly if you still haven’t married your girlfriend of three years. The very opposite of the oppressive negativity that’s made her character a fan favorite, Porter has a grace and charisma that I’m convinced played a part in the decision to finally make her a series regular.

Ending last season with a disturbingly intimate scene where Lettie Mae offers her own blood to feed Tara (Rutina Wesley), her daughter-turned-vampire, the show has returned with Tara’s death and Lettie Mae’s relapse. Except it’s not booze anymore for Lettie Mae — it’s V. After several seasons sating her addictive drive with a hateful brand of religious fervor, she has succumbed to the lure of vampire blood, which she believes is linking her to Tara’s tortured spirit.

Amid the supernatural pandemonium, the True Blood crew is periodically kind enough to give Porter the day off so she can lend her talents to season three of HBO’s The Newsroom — and she’s also gearing up to play a warrior queen on The CW’s post-apocalyptic drama The 100. With her hectic days it was no surprise that it took a bit to schedule our chat, and once we were on the phone she was open and honest as ever. “It was very, very exciting,” she recalls of learning about her bump in status. “I’ve never been a series regular, so it was definitely something I had been looking forward to.” When I ask if it seems like old times now that she’s back to her season-one-style hours, she replies, “Every time I have worked on the show, it’s always felt like coming home. True Blood has been like a security blanket that I’ve had for a long time — seven years.”

The sun is setting on the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps as True Blood gnashes through its final season, and Lettie Mae is definitely back home and killing it as one of TV’s most awful moms. “I think that’s why I’m there, that family dynamic,” Porter slyly remarks. “There’s that expression, ‘If it’s not one thing, it’s your mother.’”

Porter reveals at the time of our interview that neither she nor Wesley had watched their final scene from season six when Lettie Mae offers her own blood. “It’s not what I’d call a pleasant memory,” she says, “but it was pleasant to take whatever grief you have and use it, and leave it there, and be able to walk away from it, and know that it’s in a safe place, being used constructively.”

When asked to describe her character’s evolution through the years, she hints at Lettie Mae’s ultimate trajectory. “If you’ve got that DNA,” she suggests, “you’ve either got to fight really, really hard or you’re going to come out the way the DNA was arranged. From beginning to end? Maybe sometimes it’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”

As to any more details she could provide about upcoming episodes, Porter replies, “It’s like a quilt. I know my square, but I don’t really know all the other ones. When I do ADR work, I’m like, ‘Whoa, that’s what we did?’ I’m always a little shocked when I see what was actually done with the raw footage that I shot. I’m very much enjoying going along with the ride with everybody else.”

And on the way, she’s also taking time to play supporting character Kendra James on Newsroom. It had looked for a bit like we’d seen the last of Will McAvoy and his band of idealistic elocutionists, but Porter never lost hope. “I knew that it would come back,” she says. “[Jeff Daniels] won the Emmy! You can’t win an Emmy and not give people a little bit more. Aaron Sorkin is a busy man and he has other projects to do, so I was relieved that it came back — but I knew that it would happen.” Porter is also glad to be back at work with a crowd she really likes, “hanging out with Sorkin at his house and [group trips to] baseball games. My husband was the dog trainer for the AD’s dog. [It's a] set where people hug each other when they arrive in the morning. What a close-knit group of people!”

You’d scarcely recognize Porter in her Newsroom role if you’re expecting someone similar to Lettie Mae. She’s polished, professional and quite becoming, and I talked to her about image and beauty in the entertainment world. As a woman of color, she feels “incredibly lucky to be an actor at this period in history. I’m able to work in this business, and look put-together, sexy even, with natural hair. We just lost Ruby Dee; she would not have been able to wear an Afro on television. There would have been no way. I know how lucky I am that I happen to be in the business as times change.”

I brought up her role in the 1998 TV movie Gia, starring Angelina Jolie, about the life of supermodel Gia Marie Carangi. Porter’s character lays into Gia about the fashion industry and its effect on young women’s images of themselves, and I asked her about that. “Every once in a while,” she says, “I’ll have an acting role that allows me to look at something in my life and work it out.”

Even in the face of tragedy, the loss of her husband last year, Porter has been a model of fortitude in maintaining her bustling career and raising a family. “It turns out that I am a resilient person,” she says when I ask how she’s doing. “My kids are resilient, I’m resilient, and I guess I am an optimist. That saying, ‘It’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all,’ is so incredibly true. I’m still standing and I’m kind of proud [of that]. So — I’m okay.”

Everybody Loves John Goodman


John Goodman
John Goodman (photo by Tom Sorensen*)
Interview conducted for Venice Magazine

John Goodman is a fixture in contemporary American cinema and television. Beloved for his rough-edged tenderness on “Roseanne” and idolized for his tyrannical loyalty in The Big Lebowski, he has a knack for cultivating hilarity in the darkest places and jubilance in righteous anger. He’s a master of the jovial veneer that thinly veils a percolating menace, and simply unrivaled at flying off the handle. The Emmy and Golden Globe-winning actor’s body of work is prolific to the point of common knowledge, as one would be hard pressed to find someone unfamiliar with him, and equally challenged to find a moviegoer who isn’t a fan.

Goodman’s role as Dan Conner on “Roseanne” served as the rock upon which he built his towering reputation and his alliance with the Coen brothers made him larger than life. A rare example of a character actor who rose to the heights of Hollywood luminary, Goodman bounded his way up with such turns as the jail-breaking Gale Snoats in Raising Arizona (1987); an unlikely monarch in King Ralph (1991); Charlie Meadows (aka Karl “Madman” Mundt) in Barton Fink (1991); the savior of 1920s baseball in The Babe (1992); the epic Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski (1998); the cyclopean, turncoat Bible salesman in O Brother, Where Art Thou (2000); the deftly exploited Detective Dehling in One Night at McCool’s (2001); and even as stone-aged family man, Fred Flintstone, in The Flintstones (1994). Always game for a laugh, Goodman became a “Saturday Night Live” favorite as he dolled himself up as Linda Tripp multiple times during the Clinton scandal. He also lent his talent to “The West Wing” as Acting President Glenallen Walken; the German historical drama, Pope Joan (Die Päpstin, 2009), as Pope Sergius; and “Waiting for Godot” as Pozzo on Broadway.

Goodman’s ability to illuminate the bright side of hardship, while playfully reminding us how deep in the gutter we’re capable of going, has earned him his place in the pantheon of screen legends. The venerated performer gave us a call from his adopted home of New Orleans on a Monday afternoon. The following interview took place in March 2010.

Your character in “Treme” seems to parallel your own life, in that he’s someone who wants to get the truth out about the events in New Orleans after Katrina.

John Goodman: Yes, the impotent rage that resides in me. [laughs] Snap a rubber on that and put it right!

Potential energy becoming kinetic. You’re getting it all out there.

Yeah, some of those speeches were fun to say.

How did you first become involved with the project?

I was doing a TV movie in New York last fall with Al Pacino, a famous Italian actor.

I think I’ve heard of him.

David Simon and Eric [Overmyer] came down one day, and they had an idea; they had shot a pilot for this, and I’d heard of it already. I was all for it because they’ve done such good work, and I thought, “Maybe somebody will do a good piece about New Orleans.” So they had this character and they wanted to go and re-shoot some stuff, and they offered it to me. And I said, “Yeah, whatever.” It was one of those deals where I was trying to act like I was holding three aces and not grinning from ear to ear. [laughs] They offered it to me and it worked out.
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Cult’s Robert Knepper on Method, Prison Break, and Unleashing the Dark Side


Robert Knepper | Prison Break | Cult | Billy Grimm | T-Bag
Robert Knepper

Robert Knepper has a particular aptitude for making the blood boil. Able to infuse an audience with hate, fear, and affection in one big jumble of conflicted emotion, the actor excelled as the infamous Theodore “T-Bag” Bagwell on the Fox series Prison Break. With vicious charisma, he made people feel for a cold-hearted killer by revealing glimmers of decency beneath what most would consider pure evil. Throughout the show’s run and long after its finale, Knepper has been stared at, confronted, and confided in by fans who watched him unleash his dark side every week — experiences that are coming in handy at his latest gig on The CW’s Cult, which features his portrayal of both Billy Grimm, a villain on a fictional TV show, and Roger Reeves, the actor who plays him.

As is evident in the interview to follow, Knepper pulls no punches. He’s an intense guy with great stories, strong opinions, and not a hint of the malevolence many expect from the man who channeled T-Bag with such brutal realism from 2005 to 2009. Even Rockne S. O’Bannon, creator of Cult — as well as the classic science-fiction series Farscape and the upcoming Defiance — admits he had some apprehension about meeting the performer because of the “indelible impression” Knepper had made on him through his work on Prison Break. “Then I met Robert,” O’Bannon tells us, “this very warm, generous, talented artist. I knew I’d found my man, an actor who could brilliantly bring both [Billy and Roger] to life. He’s an actor who cares deeply about the work, but also approaches it with a wonderful sense of fun.”

So how is someone with such a friendly demeanor and positive outlook able to craft such finely tuned villains as the frighteningly complex T-Bag, the relentless and diabolical Billy Grimm, the mass-murder-obsessed Samuel on Heroes, or the intergalactic fiend Simeon on Stargate Universe? He studied hard, immersed himself in theater, and became great at what he does.

Knepper cut his teeth on shows like Star Trek (The Next Generation and Voyager); L.A. Law; Law & Order; Murder, She Wrote; Profiler; The West Wing; CSI: Miami; and Criminal Minds. He also appeared on HBO’s Carnivale and Showtime’s Shameless, and played Frank Sinatra in the French film Cloclo and Robert Kennedy in the TV movie Jackie, Ethel, Joan: The Women of Camelot. Next up is the big-budget supernatural action film R.I.P.D., based on the Dark Horse comic, with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds. Knepper took some time to chat with us recently, and here’s what transpired.

Having been an actor who has played some villainous characters, most notably T-Bag on Prison Break, is it fun to now be playing an actor who plays a villain?
Yes, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything like this before. I think for a lot of people in the business, you run the risk of saying, “Is what I do and how I live my life as an actor interesting enough for people to watch?” It’s really cool with this project to have certain attributes of Billy Grimm be the same attributes of Roger Reeves. Then you understand why Roger Reeves is playing this part. I hope it’s interesting and I hope it resonates with people. It’s kind of what I went through playing T-Bag in Prison Break, because I get to save a lot of money on therapy by wrestling with a lot of demons! [laughs] And then I get to walk down the street and have people be at once horrified by me and at the same time — T-Bag, for a lot of people, was really an alluring character [and] I get to see a wide variety of reactions to that. I remember this one couple came up to me on an airplane. [The woman] looked me right in the eye and said, “I really love T-Bag, and so does my husband. In fact, we love T-Bag so much that we switch parts. We decide who’s going to play T-Bag tonight.” I’m like, whoa! That’s pretty out there. The power of the imagination is pretty crazy, that you can affect people that way, to scare them so much and to turn them on at the same time. It’s probably the same emotion.

These are some of the ideas that are being explored on Cult.
Exactly! I’ve told a lot of these stories to Rockne [O'Bannon], and I swear I think he turns around [and] uses them, [but] tweaks them a bit.

So would you say that some of the things we see Roger experiencing on the show have come from your own life?
I would say if you’re a good writer — and I think Rockne’s a very good writer — you can’t help but take things that you hear or you see. I’m envious of writing. I can’t say I create; [as an actor] I interpret what’s already there. I think writers are sponges. I’m friends with “Swampy” [Marsh], who’s co-creator of Phineas and Ferb, the [animated show]. When you’re sitting with him, you know when you’re trading stories, that guy’s soaking them up and filing them somewhere in the back of his head, going, “I can use this!” [laughs] You always have to be really careful what you say around writers because I think they’re wonderful voyeurs, and I think they can spin it! I’ve never seen an actual story that I’ve told a writer used in an episode, but I’ve feel like I’ve come close to it.

What can you tell us about the motivations of both the actor and the villain you play in Cult? What do these two characters want?
I think Billy wants to maintain what he has. He wants to keep that little castle going on the top of the mountain, and he’ll do everything to protect himself, and surround himself with people from his “family” that will protect him. There must be something about him that can’t help but love the power that he has. These kinds of people are interesting to me because on one hand they offer you unconditional love; they’re so giving. You can fill in the blank; they’re either a preacher, a priest, any religious figure, or they’re a politician, a leader. They give people so much, and they’re a sponge, themselves, because they feed off of gifts that other people give them. That power must be pretty amazing. I think any great leader has to have tremendous ego, and when you are that confident, a lot of people find that really interesting to be around. There’s this glow about you. I know it; you know it, I’m sure. Certain days you wake up and you go, “I am feeling on top of the world right now!” These guys wake up and they’ve got to feel that way every day. They have a huge responsibility, and what if somebody tried to take that away from you? What if somebody said to you, “I want to bring you down”? Billy Grimm says, “Uh, uh! I’m not goin’.” So I think that goal is pretty self-evident; that’s him.

Roger is like me, in a way. I am compelled to be an actor; I’ve been an actor since I was nine. You’ll discover a lot of [Roger's] back-story over the next several episodes. I think every actor’s nightmare is that none of us ever wants to be boring and we never want to be typical. [He started] in the right place years ago, in the theater — and I started in the theater [as well] — and you have a little bit of a chip on your shoulder when you start in the theater, because it is the most pure form of acting. To go from that, as you’ll see in the unfolding story, to great film roles, to a juicy television role, [and] you’re thinking, “Am I doing the best I can do?” Almost 30 years ago, I was sitting with my agent who had come to New York to see his New York clients, and I was such a purist back then. He sat there [and asked], “So what do you want to do?” I said, “I love the theater.” And he started twiddling his fingers on the desk, and he said, “What else do you love?” [laughs] Because he’s an agent, right? I said, “Well, in a pinch I would do film.” And he pounded his fist on the table and said, “You left out the number-one-paying job — television!” This was, like, 1982 or ’83, and I said, “Uch, television. I’m not a prostitute! I’m not a slut! I’m not gonna sell myself out.” Of course, television back then, you had Banacek, you had Mannix, you had Hawaii Five-0, you had these big, strong, beautiful hunks of men whose hair never moved. And that was what you played if you were going to do that. So I just thought, “I’m not gonna do this.” And I think, to a certain extent, Roger Reeves has grown up with that kind of mentality, and you see him shift in the series, going, “You know what? I’m playing a great part!” I’ve certainly gone through this. I had a pretty [rough time] by having a taste of success — a huge taste of success — playing T-Bag in Prison Break [and garnering] worldwide knowledge and love for what became an iconic character. You can get a little addicted to that kind of love, and then you have to go, “Wait a minute; why am I doing this? Am I doing this because I want this recognition every time I go out? Or am I doing it because I really love the work?” You’re going to get to see a little bit of that with Roger, as well. I think he’s questioning what his goals are. What does he want? Does he want fame or does he want to keep playing a great part? And, like any great part you play — specifically on television, because it is a long-running gig — it starts to mess with your head after a while. Because you can’t walk around in your real life being the character that you’re playing. There’s no way you can have that much power over people. Once in awhile, you’re going to have to cook your own dinner. [laughs]
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Sci-Fi Mastermind Rockne S. O’Bannon on Defiance, Farscape, Cult, and the Coming Revolution

Rockne S. O'Bannon | Defiance | Farscape | Revolution | Cult | Science Fiction
Rockne S. O'Bannon
I still remember watching an episode of the revamped “Twilight Zone” back in 1985, white-knuckled as the silhouetted killer from under the bed prepared to finish off the one kid who was supposed to be immune to the carnage of the Shadow Man. It was my first experience with Rockne O’Bannon’s addictive brand of storytelling, though I didn’t know it at the time — and given his long list of science-fiction creations, you’ve probably enjoyed one or two yourself. I’d still never heard of him when the honor students at my high school polled A.P. English class about whether the Newcomers on “Alien Nation” should have the right to vote. Yet by 2004 when “Farscape”‘s fans had amassed enough clout to bring their favorite space chase back from the dead, O’Bannon had earned an international reputation for crafting the kind of mythos that gathers a cult following.

Thus well versed in television fandom, in around 2006 O’Bannon conceived of “Cult,” an experiment in metafiction, a TV show about a TV show (also called “Cult”), whose rabid followers are being recruited into a mysterious cabal. After a series of development snags, including the collapse of The WB Network, the show finally debuted back in February on The CW. Though its symbols, clues, and repeating phrases — including the curious “Well hey, these things just snap right off” — were left frustratingly unreconciled upon its cancelation, “Cult” remains a unique moment in television.

Playing the dual roles of Billy Grimm, the villainous cult leader, and Roger Reeves, the actor who portrayed him, was real-life actor Robert Knepper, who himself is best known as the sadistic and perversely charismatic villain T-Bag on “Prison Break.” When I contacted him to ask about his experience working with O’Bannon, he let me know how grateful he was for the opportunity to play both Grimm and Reeves. “For me, they were the antidote to T-Bag,” he relates. “To play the monster, as well as the actor who plays the monster, mirrored my real life since ‘Prison Break’ days. My relationship with Rockne began with ‘Cult’ and will last a lifetime.”

“Cult” had received its green light, much to O’Bannon’s surprise, while he was hard at work developing “Defiance,” Syfy’s new flagship swashbuckling, alien-steeped action-adventure, which — in a groundbreaking move — was tied in from day-one with a multiplayer online game. And now that “Cult” is in the rear view and “Defiance” is in the capable hands of showrunner Kevin Murphy, O’Bannon is on to his new gig as executive producer for season two of NBC’s post-apocalyptic “Revolution,” which premieres September 25th.

I first met O’Bannon about 15 years ago in my PR days when I accompanied him to an interview on public radio’s science-fiction program “Hour 25,” and again at Comic Con 1998 where — thanks to some unexpected scheduling — everyone on the team had gone home but me, and I ended up presenting the very first “Farscape” trailer.  We kept in touch through the years, though it had been at least a decade since I’d seen him when we met up for this interview at Stefan’s at L.A. Farm in Santa Monica a few weeks back.

When you were asked to develop the “Defiance” universe, what did they give you as the premise that you had to run with?
They knew they wanted to have some sort of town with aliens and humans intermingling, but the other versions they had were all a little more amorphous, and I looked at it and said, I’d love to do something that takes on the classic tropes of the John Ford Westerns and television Westerns. I thought that was a great starting place for this, but not to play it like a Western at all. As I kept saying to everybody in production and to the writers — this isn’t retro. They’re not reverting to the 1860s. It’s 30 years in the future, but it’s a world where technology has been churned under, for the most part, or at least conventional technology. I came up with the idea that the town of Defiance is built on top of the old St. Louis. St Louis is down under us, so the St. Louis Arch, we’re not seeing the whole thing — we’re really only seeing the top portion of it. But it gave us opportunities for stories that would allow us to go down into subterranean St. Louis. And then there was Nolan as the sheriff. The different races were already established by the game folks, so then it was just a matter of plugging in who was doing what. The Tarrs — Datak, and Stahma who is the Lady Macbeth. I was involved for the first nine months and brought in the staff — and in the meantime, Mark Pedowitz took over The CW and he was aware of the script for “Cult” from when he was at ABC, and the first pilot he ordered as the new president was “Cult.” So suddenly I get a call saying the CW wants to produce “Cult” as a pilot, and I was in the enviable and not-so-enviable position of having two shows, both of which I loved, in front of me. “Cult” was my baby, so Syfy was very cool about letting me go. Kevin Murphy, whom I had hired as my number two, an experienced showrunner, himself, has done a fantastic job [taking over "Defiance."] So I transitioned over onto “Cult.”

Did you have any part in the casting of “Defiance”?
Grant Bowler is the only one. We had obviously looked at other names, but in terms of someone who is so poised to be a star of his own show, Grant was it. He’s a great action star, but his relationship with Irisa, his adopted daughter, is just fabulous. He carries the show!

Julie Benz is great as well.
I’m a big fan [of hers] from “Dexter” and “Buffy.” I had nothing to do with bringing her on, but when they hired her, I was thrilled.

Take us through the process of sitting in the room and sketching out the complex, interconnecting story arcs and back-stories that are played out on the shows you have worked on. Continue reading

David Cronenberg on Freud, Jung, and A Dangerous Method


David Cronenberg
David Cronenberg (photo by Alan Langford*)

Probing the secrets that thrive beneath the surface, David Cronenberg excels at exposing the hidden and repressed. Though often frightening in the light, the psyche’s inner workings are at the root of human behavior, and the director’s latest film, A Dangerous Method, delves into the lives of the scientists who first revealed them to the world. A great leap took place at the beginning of the 20th century with the idea that we’re only partially aware of what our minds are doing, and that our reactions, emotions, and decisions are the result of an interplay between what we know and what our brains have been brewing behind the scenes. Sigmund Freud’s theories of unconscious thought and its investigation through psychoanalysis provided a new way to treat the emotionally unstable as well as a broader understanding of humanity as a whole.

In 1904, a young Swiss psychiatrist named Carl Jung, who had been following Freud’s work, decided to try out the Austrian neurologist’s “talking cure” on Sabina Spielrein, an 18-year-old Russian patient at the Burghölzli hospital. Diagnosed with hysteria, Spielrein was nearly uncontrollable, yet when Jung sat with her and asked simple questions, she divulged the underlying causes of her ailment. As her emotions began to balance out, she revealed her own interest in psychiatry and Jung took her on as a research assistant. Graduating medical school in Zurich, she became a pioneer in the field and a prominent psychoanalyst, herself. Jung’s treatment of Spielrein was the reason he began corresponding with Freud, which brought the two men together as friends and collaborators. For several years Freud groomed Jung as his intellectual heir, until things went sour. Jung had grown close to Spielrein — with strong evidence pointing to a romantic involvement — and their turbulent relationship led to Jung’s dishonesty with Freud. This tension, combined with Jung’s resentment of Freud’s perceived arrogance and Freud’s disappointment with Jung’s introduction of spirituality into treatment methods, resulted in their acrimonious split in 1912.

The methods of Freud and Jung, the respective fathers of psychoanalysis and analytical psychology, have been practiced, debated, supported, denounced, and expanded upon to this day, while Spielrein’s accomplishments have remained in the shadows. She did groundbreaking work in child psychology and was a key player in bringing psychoanalysis to Russia. Her theory of sexuality as both a destructive and transformative impulse was a profound influence on Freud’s study of innate self-destructive tendencies, and her relationship with Jung was instrumental in shaping the mystically minded doctor’s concept of the soul. Her life ended at the hands of SS soldiers who killed Spielrein and her two daughters in 1942.

Keira Knightley channels Spielrein as the frenetic turmoil of her adolescence gives way to passion, grit, and noble ambition. Michael Fassbender presents Jung as a married man conflicted in his love and lust for Spielrein, and equally burdened by his need to leave Freud’s nest. As radical psychoanalyst Otto Gross, Vincent Cassel thumbs his nose at the idea that urges should ever be repressed and counsels Jung to do the same. Viggo Mortensen’s Freud is cautious in his alliances and places the integrity of his field and his colleagues above all else.

Based on the book A Most Dangerous Method (1994) by John Kerr, the film was written by Christopher Hampton who adapted it from his play, “The Talking Cure.” A Dangerous Method is right along the continuum of Cronenberg’s work in the dark reaches of the mind. The parasites that pared down the psyche to basest instincts in Shivers (1975), the psychiatric treatment that brought emotional trauma to the surface as body deformity in The Brood (1979), the anger and greed that could reach out and kill in Scanners (1981), the melding of perversity with technology in Videodrome (1983), and the devolution of a man in The Fly (1986), each represented the forbidden rising up and taking shape. And when examined, Dead Ringers (1988), Naked Lunch (1991), M. Butterfly (1993), Crash (1996), eXistenZ (1999), Spider (2002), A History of Violence (2005), and Eastern Promises (2007), all dipped into the mess of secrets, delusions, and impulses that define the human condition. We meet with the Canadian filmmaker to discuss Freud, Jung, Spielrein, and the historic first steps in the study of the unconscious.

In your film, Jung’s story is all about ego, id, superego, and reality, with Jung’s conflicted ego, Otto Gross as the unrepressed id, Freud as the superego father figure, and the reality of Sabina.

That’s right. Very Freudian. In fact, someone said, “You’ve used Freudian methods to analyze Jung.” [laughs] And I think there’s some truth in that.

Is that where you began when putting the story together?

First of all, it’s Christopher Hampton’s play. We have to give him credit for distilling a very complex era, the birth of psychoanalysis, down to about five characters, because there was a cast of hundreds of characters, really. But I noticed from doing panels with Christopher, and talking to him, that I don’t think he would have used a scheme like that. That’s great to analyze after the fact and it’s not that it’s inaccurate, but creatively it would hamper you, I think, rather than release you. It’s not something that you use creatively.

So that dynamic is something that emerged by simply telling the story?

Yes, because you’re trying to be faithful to these people, the reality of them, because they are so well known — at least two of them, and then two are obscure, Otto and Sabina — but we have endless documentation. They were obsessive about letter writing and they were obsessively detailed in their descriptions of their thoughts and their feelings and what they ate and what their dreams were. So we have tons of stuff, and for me the process was one of resurrection; I wanted them to be brought back to life. I wanted to see them and hear them, as close to what they would have been as artistically possible. So that means that you’re not coming with an agenda — pro-Freud or pro-Jung or anti-Jung or whatever — and you’re not really imposing a schematic structure on them. You’re imposing a dramatic structure, yes, but the drama was there in their lives anyway, so you’re kind of taking away all the peripheral stuff and some of the complexity to reveal this dramatic structure. But it was there, in reality. All of those things, really, were pretty much as they happened, as outlined in the letters. Otto Gross really did say those things to Jung, and Jung really did say [Otto is] very seductive and makes you think that he’s right and you’re wrong. All of those things happened, so you have to say it’s kind of an amazing coincidence that it has a perfect Freudian structure, because it is historically accurate. It’s not like we forced it into some scheme, but what you say is not inaccurate, either.
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