Andra Day Interview

Andra Day recently achieved the rare honour of earning an Academy Award nomination for her first movie role.  I had the chance to speak to Andra about her wonderful leading performance in The United States Vs. Billie Holiday.

Matt:  Many people will know Andra Day as an acclaimed singer-songwriter but this is the first chance we get to see Andra Day the movie star.  Were you a film buff growing up?

Andra:  Yeah, I’ve always loved movies.  I didn’t know I was going to be in one though!  Up until now, I’ve been a happy consumer of film and TV.  I’ve become a big action person in the last few years of my life because it allows me to disappear into whatever crazy explosions are happening on screen as opposed to the explosions that are happening in my life.

Matt:  If that’s the case, we’ll have to see you a James Bond film or similar at some point?

Andra:  Listen… you speak it, I receive it (laughs).

Matt:  It can take a long time for some people to find their feet in Hollywood but here you are breaking through and receiving huge acclaim for your first acting role.  Take us back.  How did you first learn about the project and what made you decide to become involved?

Andra:  At first, I didn’t want to be involved because I wasn’t an actor.  I also love Billie Holiday and I didn’t watch to be a part of botching her legacy.  I thought I would ruin everything.  Further, I didn’t want to remake Lady Sings the Blues because I thought Diana Ross was amazing even though I know that movie didn’t provide the full accurate picture of who Billie was.

Ultimately, I met with Lee Daniels and fell in love with him.  He’s a visionary and there’s no other way to describe him.  He’s supported and stood for black stories for so long.  We shared insecurities and we shared how we felt about this movie.  I learned from him this wasn’t a retelling of Lady Sings the Blues but that we would be talking about the government going after her and crafting the war on drugs to stop her from singing Strange Fruit, a song about lynching black people in America.  It felt the film would be vindicating of her legacy and as a fan of hers, that pushed me into the audition.

Matt:  What was the preparation like in terms of rehearsal?  I believe you were working with both an acting coach and a dialect coach?

Andra:  It’s funny because I’m a researcher.  I did tonnes of reading and listened to her music.  I’ve been a big fan of her since I was 11 years old.  Lee and my acting coach, Tasha Smith, had to teach me how to act in a very short period of time.   They were like “Andra, we love the research but acting is about more than that – we have to inform that research with a real human being.”  They taught me how to be extremely vulnerable and bring certain emotions to the surface.  They also taught me how change “at the drop of a dime” for the director.  She prepared me great in that way.

With my vocal coach, Tom Jones, it was about finding Billie’s voice.  What muscles do we train?  Where does she speak from?  I found her though her laugh.  Tom would always say to me that Billie chases her breath when she speaks. 

There was also the physical transformation.  I lost a bunch of weight, I cut off my hair, I started smoking cigarettes and drinking.  Lee didn’t have me do that.  I did that.  I didn’t want to “half way” do Billie Holiday.  That’s part of who she is and you’d be hard pressed to find a photo of her without a cigarette or drink in her hand.  I needed to feel that in my own body.

Matt:  Did any of that take a toll of you?

Andra:  Yes.  I think I look 10 years older than what I did before the movie (laughs).  It has taken a toll on my vocal cords that my ENT doctor isn’t happy about.  Those things can be nursed though.  I understood the advice others gave to me about taking care of my voice because I’m a singer.  It was totally sensible and logical.

However, I realised that God had brought me to this role and I remembered something my dad had taught me – “you’re either in or you’re out.”  I can’t save myself for a long-term singing career that might not be there.  I’ve got to be here and give everything I can right now.  That’s all that really matters.

Matt:  You already have background knowledge of Billie Holliday having sung a cover of Strange Fruit back in 2017.  How did you see Billie Holiday growing up and did that opinion change much in making this movie?

Andra:  Growing up, I saw her as a deeply emotional person who had experienced a lot of pain and then sung about it.  In my late teens, I did more research and my appreciation for her got even deeper.  It also got me thinking about her fight.  She was singing Strange Fruit prior to the civil rights movement and it was like a solo mission for her.  She was wiling to give up her life for it.  It made me want to take a page out of her book and understand that’s what it takes when you really want to see lasting change.

Matt:  Tell us about director Lee Daniels.  How did he help you in creating such a memorable performance?

Andra:  Lee is the genius at the centre of it all.  Coming into the film, I was like “if I can cry on screen then it’ll be believable and realistic” but I learned through Lee that just being sad doesn’t make people want to root for you.  He wanted people to be strengthened by my performance and to fall in love with Billie as we had.

He was so specific.  He said he didn’t want her to be a victim.  It was so much so that we had to put crime scenes back into the film because we were like “she’s too hard now”.  Lee is collaborative and a visionary.  He’s totally in service to the moment and that is invaluable.  He’s not going to move on unless he “gets it”.  He’ll also spontaneous and will do whatever it takes to get the right emotion and the accuracy of a scene.  He’s not afraid to toss something in at the last minute.  It’s like the scene where the dog runs in – that was random and unplanned.  He’s committed to getting an honest reaction.

Matt:  It’s a shame the film will be skipping cinemas and going directly to streaming in some countries due to the impact of COVID-19.  How has the pandemic been from your perspective and how big an impact has it been on your own professional career?

Andra:  The movie theatre thing is really challenging.  It’s amazing that Hulu picked it up and we were able to get it out there on so many more screens but at the same time, the movie was intended for theatres.  Lee shot it on film which is expensive to do.  From my perspective, I missed him and the rest of the cast after the end of the shoot.  The pandemic has made me much more grateful.  It made me realise the things I hold on to that aren’t that important and vice-versa.  At the end of the day though, I’m not choosing between food and shelter like many other people are.  I’m trying to stay grounded throughout all of it. 

Matt:  What was it like showing the film to friends and family for the first time?  What sort of reaction did you receive?

Andra:  My dad was the funniest.  He watched the film and when it came to the sex scenes, he goes “hey you know when something is burned into someone’s memory forever… well it’s not burned into mine because I didn’t watch it.”  I was like “I’m glad you didn’t!”  They loved it and were really proud.  My family is an interestingly grounding force.  Others are like “this is amazing” and my family are like “hey, that was great… can you pass me a bottle of water?”  I love my family.  They’re so nonchalant about life.

Matt:  I’m not sure how closely you follow it but you’re part of one of the most interesting Oscars race in recent years.  Carey Mulligan won the Critics’ Choice Award, Viola Davis won the SAG Award, Frances McDormand won the BAFTA, and you won the Golden Globe Award.  What are your thoughts going into the upcoming ceremony?

Andra:  People ask me what it’s like to be competing against these women and I don’t see it that way.  We’re just representing different women in different communities.  Two black women are nominated in this category for the first time since Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson were nominated back in 1973.  There are other historic nominations this year with women directors.  I feel nothing but love for all the incredible women in my category and I’ve been moved by their performances.

Kelly McCormick Interview

Nobody is an action-thriller with an unlikely hero played by Bob Odenkirk.  I recently had the chance to speak to producer Kelly McCormick about the project…

Matt:  For the most part, Australia has been on top of the COVID-19 pandemic and cinemas have been open here but I know cinema managers and the public have been disappointed by the lack of product coming out of Hollywood.  Nobody was originally scheduled for release in August 2020 so what’s behind the decision to finally push the button and get it out there?

Kelly:  You can’t wait forever and I think people are really wanting new material.  Universal has been bullish in making sure there’s a theatrical release for this.  It’s a great film to experience with an audience.  We expect that a lot of people will come to theatres for something like this and for those not yet comfortable, it’ll be released on streaming 3 weeks later in the U.S. and they can watch it in their own homes.

Matt:  You’ve been involved in a few action films like Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, Hobbs & Shaw and Shadow in the Clouds.  In your eyes, what are you looking for if producing an action flick?

Kelly:  The company 87North, which is David Leitch and myself, are looking for iconic characters that are rich, detailed and complicated.  They go on a journey that’s relatable and the journey is heightened and improved with action moments.  I think Nobody has that in spades in that he’s an “everyman” and has a lesson to learn in that he needs to show up and be there for his family.  When Bob Odenkirk came to us with the idea, we were over the moon.

Matt:  I was going to ask where the idea first came from.  Did it come from Bob Odenkirk?

Kelly:  It did.  It’s based on a true story in his life.  His house was invaded and he wished he had acted in a different way.  I told him he probably acted in the right way in real life and it’s for the best that we live out this alternate version in movie form.  You can feel the passion in his performance.

Matt:  It is a genre that get stale and repetitive but writer Derek Kolstad gave us something fun and original with the John Wick franchise.  This is his first effort since John Wick so how did he get involved?

Kelly:  It’s his first produced since John Wick.  I’ll note that he has a lot of scripts in motion in a lot of places in town.  Bob’s dream writer was Derek.  Both Braden Aftergood and I had previous working relationships with Derek and so we could connect them.  Derek and Bob have become close friends and they did a lot of tailoring of the screenplay together.  It’s been a team effort and a wonderful experience.

Matt:  If you asked me to put together a list of actors who might transition into the action genre, I have to admit that Bob Odenkirk wouldn’t have been the first name that popped into my head.  I realise it was his idea but did he always know he would star in it himself? 

Kelly:  I don’t when he decided he wanted to become an action star to be honest.  Better Call Saul and Breaking Bad had action adjacent to him but he often wasn’t involved.  We at 87North are always looking for who that next “unexpected actor” would be that you could put into something different.  It allows you to do some unique things because they don’t look and seem like a typical action star.  That’s exciting.

Matt:  I don’t know a lot about Russian director Ilya Naishuller.  What can you tell me about his approach?

Kelly:  Ilya is awesome.  Biting Elbows is a great music video and then he also did Hardcore Henry which is inventive.  He’s bold, lyrical, organized and thoughtful.  He knew what he wanted and we loved the experience with Ilya.  He brought so much to the picture including some of the most authentic Russians in American action movies.

Matt:  I love the touch that the villain is a fan of karaoke and he opens with a musical number.

Kelly:  Isn’t it ridiculous?  I love it.  That guy, Aleksei Serebryakov, is a serious actor in Russia and then he comes over here to the United States and plays this fantastic villain.  He’s quite a performer.

Matt:  With any action film, it’s always a question about how far to push things when it comes to violence.  I’d say this film doesn’t overdo the gore but there are some moments that’ll catch audiences off guard and there are some “creative deaths”.  What was your approach in terms of that?

Kelly:  87North always works with the director to find the right style.  With the main character, we find out what they can do physically and then what they want to do physically.  We then create the energy and the choreography around that.  That allows you play.  For us, it’s not trying to shock every time but rather, it’s about what’s original and what hasn’t been done before.

Matt:  Without giving anything away, there was one moment with a drinking straw that will certainly stick in my head for a while.

Kelly:  That was actually Ilya’s idea and it was pretty intense.

Matt:  Nobody is an action comedy set in the current day but the soundtrack list includes Andy Williams, Louis Armstrong, Pat Benatar and Gerry and the Pacemakers.  What was behind that creative decision?

Kelly:  Isn’t that a cool throwback?  It was about “what does Bob hear in his head?” and “what informs us about who he is?”  He’s also a throwback character in the sense that he’s older and we thought – why not go with an old-school, classy vibe as he kicks ass throughout the movie.  It’s one of my favourite parts of the movie.

Matt:  Hopes to make a franchise out of this or is it intended to be a one-off?

Kelly:  Lots of hope.  Derek planted a lot of seeds and Ilya allowed for them to grow.  There are a lot of different ways for it to take off whether it looks more at the family or Chris Lloyd’s character or the other mysterious characters in the middle of it.  What is this agency?  There’s a lot of things we can play with.

Matt:  I realise COVID-19 has made life difficult but is there anything you can share that you’re working on at the moment?

Kelly:  Yeah.  David and I are shooting a movie now called Bullet Train and it’s a crime caper set in Japan with Brad Pitt, Joey King, Bryan Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  We’re having a ball.

Florian Zeller Interview

The Father was recently nominated for 6 Academy Awards including best picture.  Back in November 2020, I had the chance to speak with writer-director Florian Zeller about his terrific movie…

Matt:  Your acclaimed play was first performed close to a decade ago.  Where did that idea first come from to tackle the subject matter of dementia and to do it in this particular way – through the eyes of the sufferer?

Florian:  I was raised by my grandmother, who was like a mother, and she started to suffer from dementia which I was 15 years old.  While I have a very personal connection with the issues, I realised early on that everyone is connected to it unfortunately.  When the play was on stage in Paris and then in other countries, I was surprised and touched to see the response from the audience was the same everywhere.  People were coming to us after every performance to share their own story and I realised there was something cathartic about it.  Art has the power to make you feel part of something bigger than yourself and that’s the reason why I wanted to make the film.

Matt:  At what point did you envisage that it could also work as a film?

Florian:  I kept the narrative of the play which, as you say, is to try to tell the story from the “inside”.  I wanted to put the audience in a very specific position as if they were in the middle of a labyrinth trying to figure out where they’re going.  I wanted The Father to be an experience as much as a story.  I wanted them to know what it’s like to lose your bearings.  It was a way for me to play with the audience and try to disorientate them. 

All of that is taken from the play but I didn’t want to just film a play.  I worked a lot with Christopher Hampton to make it as cinematic as possible.  For example, we worked a lot on the sets to increase the feeling of disorientation.

Matt:  And you serve as both writer and director here.  What lured you into the challenge of directing for the screen (I believe this is your feature film debut) as opposed to handing that responsibility over to someone else?

Florian:  From the very beginning, my desire was to direct the film.  I was familiar with the material because of the play and I was clear about the emotions I wanted to share.  Strangely, I also wanted to do it with Anthony Hopkins from the very beginning.  That’s the main reason I did it in English.  I’m French and it wasn’t an obvious decision but when I started to dream about the film, the one and only face that came to mind was Anthony’s. 

I spoke with my friends at the time and they were laughing at me because I’m French and this is my first feature film.  Most of the time, it’s us who close the door on what’s possible but this time, I followed my desire and my intuition and sent the script to Anthony Hopkins through his agent.  I waited a bit and one day, I received a call from an unknown number and it was the agent saying Anthony wanted to meet with me.  I took a plane to Los Angeles to have breakfast with him and this is how it started.

Matt:  How’d you get Olivia Colman on board with the film?

Florian:  I have always adored her as an actress.  She’s been the queen in my heart for years as I’ve known her through films and series and stage.  I really think she’s the greatest actress in the UK.  There’s something magical because you love her as soon as you see her on screen.  I don’t know how she does it.  It’s the same as real life.

I knew this film needed her because it’s not just the story of a man losing his bearings but it’s also the story of his daughter trying to save the situation and face this painful dilemma.  What do you do with the people you love when they are starting to suffer from dementia?  I needed someone you can instantaneously feel empathy with and she’s a genius for that. 

Matt:  It’s an interesting setting in that almost all of the movie takes place inside of the apartment but it feels like a character in itself in the way our view of it changes.  Can you talk about that and the approach to the cinematography and production design?

Florian:  You’re right, it’s like a character.  When I wrote the script, I also drew the layout of the apartment and so it was always part of the story.  When you start thinking about adapting a play into a film, the first ideas you have is always to write new scenes and stuff outdoors to make it more cinematic.  I didn’t want to go that way through.  I wanted to stay in the apartment and do the whole film in a single space so that it would be like a mental space.

We are in Anthony’s apartment but step by step, we are making small changes in the background.  You can’t tell what’s happened but you know something has happened.  We shot the whole film in a studio so it was easy to move walls, change proportions and change colours so you have this strange feeling that you know where you are but at the same time, you’re not quite sure where you are. 

Matt:  I like the use of music also.  It’s quite haunting and reflective in places.  Can you tell me about your approach with composer Ludovico Einaudi?

Florian:  He’s a fantastic Italian composer.  He did a very small composition for us and we also used music taken from a French opera by Georges Bizet.  The story is connected to Anthony Hopkins.  We were chatting before shooting the film and we discovered we were both in love with an aria taken from The Pearl Fisher by Bizet.

He discovered that piece of music when he was 30 years old and he was touring with a play in the UK.  He ran to the piano in the hotel trying to find the melody and everyone in the hotel went nuts because he played it for 3 days.  He said he’d always dreamt to make a movie one day with that music in it.  It used it 3 times in the movie to fulfil his dream because he’d fulfilled mine by starring in the film.

Matt:  The film premiered back at Sundance and it’s been touted as an awards season contender but clearly this has been a crazy year for films and movie theatres.  Has the release and promotion of the film been affected heavily by COVID-19?

Florian:  It’s hard to tell because we’re still right in the middle of it but up until now, everything has been virtual.  It’s a bit sad but we’re lucky that we can still stay connected to each other in this crazy world and to talk about what we have done.  I really hope people get a chance to see this in theatres because making a film is a lot about sharing experiences and emotions.

Lucas Hedges Interview

Lucas Hedges is just 24 years of age but he’s already had the chance to work under directors including Wes Anderson, Jason Reitman, Terry Gilliam, Kenneth Lonergan, Greta Gerwig, Martin McDonagh and Steven Soderbergh.  I recently spoke to him about his career to date and his latest performance in Azazel Jacobs’ French Exit…

Matt:  Over the weekend, people were reminiscing on social media about the most bizarre moment in Oscars history when Moonlight won best picture and La La Land was read out incorrectly.  You were there that night as a nominee for Manchester by the Sea sitting just a few rows back from the front.  What’s your memory of how it all played out that crazy night?

Lucas:  It’s so funny I was there and it was such a bizarre moment.  I remember that everything was going to plan with La La Land winning and then I heard somebody gasp and I saw people running back and forth across the stage.  It looked like something bad had happened but I didn’t know what.  Then I heard one of the producers say “we lost by the way”.

The night itself up until that point felt artificial.  There’s a lot of formality like not trying to step on each other and not getting make-up on each other’s shoulders.  The Oscars look much cooler on person than they are in person if I’m being honest.  However, that moment just blew a ton of fresh air into the room.  Suddenly, every single person was part of a real experience and it was like we were all going through a traumatic incident together.

Matt:  They often say that someone is only one great role away from making it in Hollywood and that felt like the case with your superb performance in Manchester by the Sea.  Did it open doors as easily as you thought it might?

Lucas:  It did but I didn’t appreciate how much of a “golden ticket” it would be.  After Manchester by the Sea premiered at Sundance, I thought I’d be going back to drama school and keep studying but the world definitely had different plans for me.  I started working a ton and I haven’t really stopped until the past year.

Matt:  There are actors like yourself and Timothee Chalamet and Zendaya and Florence Pugh who breakout and go from relative obscurity to people who are Googled a thousand times a second by a knowledge-hungry public.  We see it with professional athletes too.  Is it easy to still be your natural self or is there pressure to put up some kind of “brand” of what people expect Lucas Hedges to be?

Lucas:  I keep getting asked to play these very dramatic roles which is something I’d like to change but I think I’ve done a good job doing projects that haven’t pigeon-holed me too much.  It’s a little weird the extent to which people around the world have a relationship with me before I have a relationship with them but that’s also part of the gift of being an actor.  It’s nice being known.

People like Timothee and Zendaya feel like superstar-level pop stars at this point whereas my life is more quiet and reserved.  That said, I haven’t been in public without a mask on for a whole year.  I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to be recognized which was happening regularly before COVID-19.

Matt:  Leading roles are what many dream of but you’ve had the chance to play supporting to the likes of Casey Affleck, Saoirse Ronan, Frances McDormand, Meryl Streep and now Michelle Pfeiffer.  What do you see as the secret to creating a great supporting performance?

Lucas:  Wanting to be there.  I’ve got to love the story I’m in and want to be a part of the movie.  I don’t think it’s possible to be good in a movie you don’t want to be in.

Matt:  I remember the late Peter O’Toole speaking at the Oscars about how he would draw energy from working with young actors.  Without making you sound too egotistical, do you ever get that feeling yourself – that these experienced, iconic actors love working with you as much as you love working with them?

Lucas:  I’ve gotten a sense from some of them that I’m fun to work with.  Others are more self-sufficient and self-contained and I haven’t felt like I was a huge disruption or inspiration to their acting process.  But yeah, I’ve also been good to the extent that I’m in awe of them and that makes it more fun from their perspective to be around me.

Matt:  Here in French Exit you’re playing Malcolm Price – a young man sticking by his self-destructive mother who is burning through money and doesn’t seem to have any plan.  It’s a very unusual relationship between parent and child and I’ve love to know how you’d describe the connection these two characters share?

Lucas:  I think they have a very codependent relationship.  Malcolm was sent to boarding school and wasn’t raised by his parents until he was 13.  I don’t think he thought of himself as a “real” person and he had no one to validate his existence.  His mum then comes into his life and is like a shooting star across the sky.

Despite how bizarre and self-destructive Frances is, she becomes the basis of his life.  The two are inseparable to the point when she runs out of money and moves to Paris, he chooses to go with her instead of his fiancé because she feels more real to him than his life independent of her.  I think it’s a story of codependence and awe and falling in love with a way of being that reflects a child’s dependence on his mother.

Matt:  Your role is one that doesn’t require a lot of dialogue.  It’s as much about reacting to Michelle Pfeiffer and her character’s eccentric way of doing things.  How do you approach that as an actor?  How do you how you to react and carry yourself in those scenes?

Lucas:  I did and I didn’t know.  I loved the writing so that’s what showed me the way but there were still question marks about the character that I didn’t fully understand.  I was willing to accept that because I loved the story so much.  To answer your question, what guided me most was the moment-to-moment storytelling laid out so beautifully by writer Patrick deWitt and then the thoughts of our deeply sensitive director Azazel Jacobs.

Matt:  And I’ve got to ask – you’re working with one of the best here in Michelle Pfeiffer who picked up a Golden Globe nomination for her performance.  Do you have a favourite memory or a favourite learning from the experience?

Lucas:  The thing that stands out most about Michelle is how much work she puts in and how these days were built on her back.  She carried us every single day without complaining once.  It was as if she was as quiet as an extra and it was amazing how little space she took up.  She knew what she had to do and she just did it.

Matt:  We know COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the film industry and movie theatres.  How has it been from your perspective as an actor?

Lucas:  I live a pretty isolated, hermit-like lifestyle anyway and so it hasn’t changed my life that much.  I’ve missed going to movie theatres.  I can’t speak to how it’s changed my life as an actor because I haven’t found a project I wanted to do and I haven’t worked during COVID-19.  I do hope to be on a set soon and to find a project that feels right. 

Matt:  The Golden Globes are today, the Oscars are coming up next month.  What have you liked over the past 12 months that you’ve love to see honored?

Lucas:  I loved The Dig with Ralph Fiennes and Carey Mulligan.  It’s incredible.  I really liked Malcolm & Marie and I thought Zendaya and John David Washington were great.  Those two stand out to me.