Spotlight

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: John David Washington

Before the release of Malcolm X (1992), Denzel Washington was already a rising star and an Oscar winner. Under the direction of Spike Lee, he would receive widespread acclaim and yet another nomination for portraying the famed activist and minister. Yet the film marked the genesis of another, unexpected career. In one of the final scenes of the film, young Black students in a Harlem classroom come to their feet and declare with resolve and reflection, “I am Malcolm X!” Lee invited Denzel’s oldest son, John David, to play one of the kids, and his parents agreed. Lee saw it as an opportunity to enhance the young boy’s resume, but even he couldn’t have anticipated that John David Washington would be fated to have a career as great as the film he debuted in.

Washington is the son of not one but two famous parents; his mother Pauletta Pearson Washington is also an actress and Juliard-trained pianist that has worked on Broadway as well as in film.  Acting appealed to Washington from a young age; he recalls being enchanted by his mother’s music and his father performing Shakespeare in the park [1]. But he also wanted something for himself, far from the impressive shadows of his successful and talented parents. He found that independence in playing football. Washington soon established himself as a talented running back in high school, an All-American recruited by several FBS colleges. His choice to attend and play for Morehouse College was unexpected, but he held the record there for career rushing yards for seven years. Upon graduation, he suited up as an undrafted free agent for the St. Louis Rams, but never made it to the field. Instead, he spent some time playing in the United Football League and overseas. While training for an attempted return to the NFL, all his athletic efforts ended with a pop; he had torn his Achilles tendon, and with it went his football dreams.

Despite the inherent dejection, the injury gave him the push to pursue his acting ambitions. His mother took him to his very first audition, while he was still on heavy painkillers from surgery and in a boot [2]. The get-up probably made an impression because after multiple, grueling auditions he landed the part in HBO’s Ballers (2015-2019) alongside Dwayne Johnson. Considering his background, playing the role of a controversial football star seemed tailor-made and Washington excelled. He continued his work in Indie films, starring in Love Beats Rhymes (2017), Monsters and Men (2018), and All Rise (2018). While filming The Old Man and the Gun (2018), he got a text from Spike Lee. The director invited him to read a book about the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, who also managed to infiltrate the Klu Klux Klan. When he finished the compelling narrative and came back to report, Spike said, “See you this summer” [3]. Just like that, within 3 years of making a career change, Washington had the leading role in a historical drama that was nominated for Best Picture, for which his performance was universally praised.

John David Washington in a scene of Christopher Nolan’s Tenet | Warner Bros. Pictures.

As if that weren’t impressive enough, Washington’s next gig was the lead in a Christopher Nolan movie alongside Robert Pattinson, Elizabeth Debicki, and Kenneth Branaugh. The mind-bending spy-thriller Tenet (2020) is now playing everywhere that theaters are open. It proves that Washington has what it takes to be an action star, as his athleticism enabled him to perform many of his own stunts. I think it’s also worth adding a seemingly small detail about his performance in a Hollywood where most movies steer away from actresses that are taller than their male costars. Debicki, who is 6’3” without heels, walks tall and brings her acting A-game while Washington holds his own with the confidence necessary to be her costar. That presence, along with his killer fight scenes, is going to make him an international household name.

He’s still young in the business, but Washington isn’t taking anything for granted. And now that he’s proven how well he stands on his own two feet, injuries and all, perhaps we can see a collaboration within the brilliant Washington family. It’s plain to see he inherited talent, but the success he can claim for himself. What we’ve seen suggests there’s much more ahead for the second-generation actor; will he claim an Oscar, suit up as a superhero, or portray a historical icon? Whatever the endeavor, John David Washington won’t be filling anyone’s shoes; he’ll be taking to red carpets in a pair all on his own.

Citations:

  1. The Untold Story of John David Washington
  2. Mahershala Ali & John David Washington – Actors on Actors
  3. Conversations with John David Washington of BLACKKKLANSMAN

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Jamie Foxx

As a new comedian, Eric Marlon Bishop was making a name for himself in L.A. at open mic nights. His impressions and physical comedy would frequently draw standing ovations. However, his success was undercut by the comedians who controlled the set list; they weren’t interested in being upstaged by a newbie, so they’d keep an eye out for his name and keep him off the list. Bishop’s solution was to sign up with different stage names every time he performed, using gender-neutral names because he noticed that there were far fewer female comedians at open mic and they were more likely to get called up [1]. One of these aliases would become his identity in the entertainment world as he rose to A-list status not only in comedy but also in music and film. Now, everybody knows him as Jamie Foxx.

Bishop/Foxx was an eminently talented kid; not only was he a great student and the first quarterback at his high school to pass for over 1,000 yards, but at 15 he became the musical director for his Baptist church choir [2]. He attributes much of this to his grandparents, who raised him in a strict Christian household in Terrell, TX. Foxx credits his grandmother as being his first acting coach because she taught him to “act like you got some sense” and “act like you’ve been somewhere” [3]. But from a young age, Foxx was a class clown. His antics would get him in trouble, until a third-grade teacher decided to use his talents to her advantage. As a reward for good behavior, she would let Foxx tell jokes to the class on Fridays, mostly bits he picked up from watching Johnny Carson [4]. Even though he got a university scholarship for piano performance, Foxx left higher education to pursue comedy in L.A. and marked that departure with a new name.

Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in the 2004 film, Ray. His performance won Foxx an Academy Award for Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role.

His gift for hilarity eventually enabled him to join the cast of In Living Color (1990-1994), a sketch comedy series that launched the careers of Jim Carrey and Jennifer Lopez. Foxx’s first movie role was soon to follow, making his debut alongside comedy legend Robin Williams in the movie Toys (1992). For his first few years, it seemed that comedy would define him; he was passed up for the role that won Cuba Gooding Jr. an Oscar in Jerry Maguire (1997) [5] and instead went on to play a character named Bunz in the much-maligned movie Booty Call (1997). His first dramatic role came as a struggling quarterback alongside Al Pacino in the sports drama Any Given Sunday (1999). Later he portrayed Drew Bundini Brown, trainer and cornerman in Ali (2001) with fellow comedian-turned-actor Will Smith in the titular role. He was critically praised for his performance as a day-dreaming taxi driver whose life derails when he picks up a hitman (played by Tom Cruise) in the thriller Collateral (2004). These, together with his talent for music and impersonations, laid the foundation for his critically-acclaimed role as Ray Charles in the biopic Ray (2004). His work won him the Oscar for Best Actor, not to mention the SAG, Critic’s Choice, BAFTA, and Golden Globe awards for the same category. Recently, he began work on a biopic for his friend Mike Tyson, with himself playing the much-debated boxer. The project is years in the making, but Foxx is already bulking up for the role, sharing his progress on Instagram.

From left to right: Ansel Elgort, Jamie Foxx, Eiza González, and Jon Hamm in a scene of Baby Driver (2017) | Sony Pictures Releasing.

Despite his accolades, his detractors often claim that Jamie Foxx plays himself in every movie he stars in. While I wouldn’t call him chameleonic, I will defend the depth he brings to his characters. While still maintaining aspects of his signature charm, Foxx manages to pull off a menacing criminal in Baby Driver (2017), a cynical sports reporter in Valentine’s Day (2010), a U.S. President in White House Down (2013), a homeless musician with schizophrenia in The Soloist (2009), an all-in Marine staff sergeant in Jarhead (2005), and an freed slave bent on revenge in Django Unchained (2012), among his aforementioned projects. When he plays a record executive in the movie Dreamgirls (2006), he flawlessly transitions from likeable chum to sleazy dirt-bag. Even if his persona never fully disappears, I feel that his storytelling abilities are undeniable. Despite his talent for impersonations, I can’t think of an actor/comedian/musician to compare him to; he is simply his own category.

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I’ve chosen to focus on Foxx’s film career, but his career in music is no less impressive, and he has a Grammy to prove it. But if you feel like a laugh, then I recommend you watch “Wheel of Musical Impressions with Jamie Foxx” [6]. I’m pretty sure Jimmy Fallon created the game with Foxx in mind, and I can almost guarantee it will make you laugh at least once. If you’re in the mood for more dramatic performances, Foxx recently starred in Just Mercy (2019) as the wrongfully-convicted Walter McMillian and Project Power (2020), which is now streaming on Netflix. Though I wonder if there’s anything he can’t do, I believe Foxx’s x-factor is not his talent, but his personality. His free time is spent throwing wild parties, playing celebrity basketball, and shooting the bull with those in the biz [7]. In almost every interview, whether he is a guest or the host, Foxx begins by complimenting the person sitting across from him on their recent work. Though he may not be doing stand-up, his comedic timing enables him to make memorable connection with both viewers and his peers. The day he wants to take over late-night television, all he has to do is say the word. For now, I’ll just look forward to his vocal talents in the upcoming Pixar film Soul (2020).

Citations:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h63FotmAN_c
  2. https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/foxx-jamie-1967/
  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y2a1nzAciMc
  4. https://therake.com/stories/icons/jamie-foxx-goes-off-script/
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWxB-T-KgFk
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGidYBqBHVw
  7. https://theundefeated.com/features/jamie-foxx-baby-driver/

Robin Bissell: An Unexpected Path to the Director’s Chair

Robin Bissell and Taraji P. Henson on set of The Best of Enemies (2018).

Movies are the creation derived from the dreams, inspiration, ideas, and hard work of countless minds and hands. If you stay at the end of each movie as the credits begin to roll, you’ll get a glimpse of just how many people it really does take to bring a movie to life. The name Robin Bissell might not sound entirely familiar to the casual movie fan, and it might even elude some of the more self-declared cinephiles, but without a doubt it is a name you’ll want to follow in the Hollywood industry.

Have you ever heard of Pleasantville (1998), or Seabiscuit (2003)? How about The Hunger Games (2012)?—only the third highest grossing movie at the domestic box office in 2012, grossing over $408 million. Bissell served as an associate producer and executive producer (respectively) on all three of these films (among others). But Bissell’s path to Hollywood was an unexpected one to say the least.

Bissell’s upbringing exposed him to theater and plays, but it was at the end of his freshman year at the University of Maryland that Bissell discovered his ability to write music. This discovery inspired him to drop out of college during his sophomore year and head west to Los Angeles in pursuit of a career in either music or acting, both equal passions of his. Friends and family admonished him to choose one and focus on that—and he chose singing/song writing. Bissell was able to form a band and land a record deal with A&M Records, only to see that deal nullified once PolyGram bought out A&M Records. This didn’t stop Bissell and his band, Everything, from pursuing their love of music and playing shows all over town.

Robin Bissell, co-lead singer of the band Everything, playing a show in 1995.

After a few years of playing music, Bissell felt ready for a change; a new adventure of sorts. Bissell’s love of film had never diminished, and ultimately, it was Bissell’s connections that he had made through music that landed him an opportunity in the film industry. Bissell’s friend, agent Melanie Ramsayer, lined him up an interview as an assistant to a movie writer who was about to direct his very first film. This new director had fired his last three assistants, and Bissell went in to interview for the opening. Even after being warned at how awful this assistant position was going to be, Bissell persisted and never wavered during the interview. When the interview concluded and Bissell was making his way to back to his car, he realized he had forgotten to ask for a script of this new movie. So Bissell went back into the building only to run into the new director himself, Gary Ross, who then hired him on the spot. This new movie being made was Pleasantville, starring Jeff Daniels, Reese Witherspoon, and Tobey Maguire.

(Left to right) Robin Bissell, Reese Witherspoon and Paul Walker on set of Pleasantville (1996).

Bissell’s hiring came two months before principal photography began for Pleasantville, and with no experience and no idea how to actually do his job, Bissell became a sponge, soaking up as much knowledge as he possibly could. He worked long hours and took on more responsibilities, and during the extensive fifteen-month post-production of Pleasantville (while other producers left to take care of other projects), Bissell picked up the slack and made his worth known to Gary Ross as well as others; Ross ended up making Bissell an associate producer for Pleasantville.

And thus began his new journey in Hollywood.

Bissell would go on to be hired as a full-time producing partner for Gary Ross and Larger Than Life Productions, and would be part of the making of such films as Seabiscuit, The Tale of Despereaux (2008), and The Hunger Games. When Comcast bought Universal Studios back in 2010, they ended up buying out the contract that Universal had with Larger Than Life Productions. Gary Ross, Bissell, and co. were still able to make The Hunger Games, whose financial success allowed Bissell the flexibility to set off on his own in pursuit of a project he had been thinking of making for a number of years.

Sam Rockwell and Robin Bissell on set of The Best of Enemies (2018).

It was back in 2005 that Bissell came across an article in Time Magazine about two individuals back in the 1970’s that were on opposing sides of civil rights activism occurring in Durham, NC; Ann Atwater, a Black woman and civil rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a White man and president of the KKK chapter in Durham, NC. This story grabbed Bissell’s attention, and years later would end up being the passion project that put him in the director’s chair of his very own movie titled, The Best of Enemies (2019). This story is explored in detail on episode 110 of the Backseat Directors Podcast. Bissell’s journey from college drop-out, to musician, to an assistant, to associate producer, to executive producer, to a writer and director of his own movie was likely the most unexpected journey he could have imagined. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from Bissell’s career is to follow your heart. Even if the path before you is uncertain and obscure, the only way to know is to take that leap and move forward. I encourage all readers to listen to the rest of his story and learn more about the man, and the movie fan, Robin Bissell.

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Charlize Theron

I’ve always been interested in the stories of how movie stars are “found”; it always seems a perfect blend of hard work, sacrifice, and a little dumb luck. Charlize Theron’s moment came from inside of a bank in Los Angeles, where a teller had just refused to cash her check. Broke, far from home, and desperate to pay the rent, Theron found herself yelling at the bank teller, begging him to find a way. Prompted by her pleas, a man in line behind her offered his assistance, and eventually the check was cashed. [1] That man was John Crosby, a talent agent who helped her get connected in the industry and land a part in her very first movie, Children of the Corn III: Urban Harvest (1995).

Only a few months earlier, she’d been an 18-year-old looking down at her one-way ticket, worried that she was going to the wrong place because it said “Los Angeles” and not “Hollywood.” She hadn’t planned on being an actress; she came to New York from her native South Africa to study at the Joffrey Ballet and chase her dream of being a dancer, only to be told that said dream was no longer possible due to her persistent knee injuries. [2] But here she was, in a bona fide Hollywood picture! Her appearance was little more than a gross death scene where she’s mutilated by a Stephen King monster, but it was so important to her that she spent precious money on a brand-new pair of shoes for filming. Not only were her shoes ruined by the fake blood and muddy terrain of the corn field, but when she went to see the movie in theaters, she realized that her voice had been dubbed and she wasn’t listed in the credits. [3] It was clear that the interest was in her visage, but she didn’t want to be pigeon-holed because of her looks or her thick South African accent. She knew she could be more.

A side-by-side comparison of Charlize Theron: on the left, Theron poses with her Oscar for “Best Actress in a Leading Role” and on the right, Theron as Aileen Wuornos in Monster (2003) | Newmarket Films.

“Range” became the name of the game for Theron. Beginning in 1996, she appeared in at least two movies a year, everything from critically acclaimed dramas like The Cider House Rules (1999) to panned comedies like Waking up in Reno (2002). Even if the movies bombed, her stardom was on the rise. Then, she had a breakout year. First, she joined the popular caper The Italian Job (2003), which showcased her ability to hold her own in a star-studded cast. Then, she took the lead role in Monster (2003), a Patty Jenkins biopic about serial killer Aileen Wuornos, a mentally ill prostitute targeting former clients. She gained significant weight and shaved her eyebrows, disappearing in both features and physicality to morph into a different person altogether. Film critic Roger Ebert hailed her work as “one of the greatest performances in the history of the cinema.” [4] It made her the first South African to win an Oscar for acting and proved her versatility once and for all. No one would ever mistake her for just another pretty face again.

Theron continued to challenge herself with a myriad of characters: a victim of workplace sexual assault in North Country (2005), a police detective in In the Valley of Elah (2007), and an exhausted mother of three in Tully (2018). Her marketability has helped to fuel box office smashes like The Fate of the Furious (2017), Hancock (2008), and Snow White and the Huntsman (2012), and her comedic chops continue to surprise in A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) and Long Shot (2019). The voice that wasn’t good enough for Children of the Corn was cast in Astro Boy (2009), Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), and The Addams Family (2019); she was able to showcase her transformative abilities yet again in Bombshell (2019), where she was unrecognizable as Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly. But perhaps her most well-known films are her action flicks. Despite Aeon Flux (2005) being a notorious flop that almost paralyzed her, [5] Theron returned to the genre with a vengeance in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) as the now cultural icon Imperator Furiosa. She’s also had to learn fight choreography for Atomic Blonde (2017) and most recently The Old Guard (2020) (which is now available to stream on Netflix). And that’s less than half of her filmography from the past 25 years.

 

Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde | Focus Features.

Despite her status in the upper echelon of acting and activism, I find the most compelling characteristic of Theron’s persona to be her relationship with her mother, Gerda. She is mentioned in almost every interview, appears as Theron’s date to award shows, and is constantly acknowledged as a co-parent in the raising of her two adopted grandchildren. She’s been there from the beginning: a cheerleader in Theron’s ballet classes, modeling gigs, and movie roles. But her daughter grew up with an unpredictable, alcoholic father—and Gerda was there when an incident of domestic violence resulted in Theron’s father’s death. [6] Theron was only 15 at the time, and firmly asserts that her mother’s actions saved her life. While some may point to such trauma as the fuel for what she has become, I think Theron’s success should not be attributed to tragedy. Hers is the kind of depth earned not only with experience, but also an inexhaustible work ethic and enthusiasm.

When I see Charlize Theron, I am reminded of the artist P!nk: the toughness and edge of someone who’s bigger than their problems, accompanied by the vulnerability necessary to talk about therapy, darkness, and heartache. She’s a renowned action star, so it might not be surprising to learn that she’s a UFC fan and can eat hot wings with levels of spice that nobody has any business trying to eat. [7] That commanding presence is evident on screen, and yet, there is a level of raw complexity in her performances that humanizes even the superhuman. Not everyone likes her tough exterior, her sarcastic sense of humor, or her candor, but in those traits I can’t help but see resilience and resolution to play a better hand than the one she was dealt. Rather than being intimidated, I choose to be inspired by the idea that we can live indefinable—despite trauma, struggle, and how others perceive us.

Citations:

  1. “Oprah Talks to Charlize Theron”
  2. Charlize Theron Biography
  3. “Theron’s Film Debut Pride Ruined By Dubbing”
  4. “The Warm Embrace of Charlize Theron”
  5. “Charlize Theron Has Seriously Damaged Her Body More Than Once During Filming”
  6. “Charlize Theron Details the Night Her Mother Shot and Killed Her Father: ‘I’m Not Ashamed'”
  7. First We Feast

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Spike Lee

Film director, Spike Lee.

My first memory of Spike Lee was following the 91st Academy Awards. Upon the announcement that Green Book (2017) had won Best Picture, the acclaimed director reportedly rose from his chair and angrily attempted to leave the Dolby Theater. It wasn’t uncommon for nominees to thinly veil their disappointment, but the idea that he would storm out because his movie didn’t win set me against the acclaimed director. As such, my first ever Spike Lee Joint was only two months ago when I finally got around to seeing the film he had so badly wanted to take home with the Best Picture honor: BlacKkKlansman (2017). Making my way through his filmography has convinced me that there is more to Lee than being a seemingly sore loser. So here is what I’ve learned about the man named Shelton Jackson Lee or (as his mother took to calling him) Spike.

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Spike Lee’s mother was a teacher of arts and Black literature. “She was the one who introduced me to film,” he says of Jacquelyn Shelton Lee. “My mother had the vision to introduce all her children to the arts…. but she never got to see my success” (1). She died during his sophomore year at Morehouse College. He would later continue his education with a Master’s in Film and Television from NYU, where he is currently a tenured professor. He has used his powerful storytelling to change the perspective on historical figures, as in Malcolm X (1992), or to tell criminally untold stories, as in BlacKkKlansman and most recently Da Five Bloods (2020). He cares for these stories as if they were his own, like many of his joints are. His filmography feels at times like a biography, as the experiences and places that formed him permeate his narratives: the innocence of childhood and maternal loss in Crooklyn (1994), the portrayal of social issues within the Black community in School Daze (1988), and the racial tensions and gentrification of Brooklyn in Do the Right Thing (1989). Lee makes his movies even more personal by starring in many of them himself. In fact, every member of his immediate family has participated in at least one of his projects; his father, a jazz musician, recorded the music for Lee’s first four films, including Mo’ Better Blues (1990). Spike Lee co-wrote Crooklyn with his siblings Cinqué and Joie, and his brother David has done the still-photography for almost all of Lee’s films.

Director Spike Lee on location for the filming of Do the Right Thing (1989).

For me, Spike Lee Joints stand out as unsatisfying—not in quality or content, but in terms of the feeling that sits in my gut when the credits roll. He doesn’t shy away from displaying brutality, violence, and overt racism (as a result all but two of Spike Lee’s films have an R-rating). But what sets him apart is his determination to deny any resolution to the discomfort. Lee creates this feeling of unease not only with subject matter and dialogue but also with camera angles and movements. His signatures are a double-dolly shot where characters appear to be floating, and the simple direction of having characters break the fourth wall; but they aren’t looking at the camera—they are looking at you. The implied sense of obligation or responsibility for what is going on, especially when the subject matter is so jarring, isn’t pleasant. It’s impossible to watch Lee’s films and feel that everything is hunky-dory in the world and that there is no need for outcry. It’s why his films have become the standard for education on the social issues at hand.

Common criticisms of Lee include that his work can be heavy-handed and transparently political, and I don’t think he would disagree. In an interview with Piers Morgan, he said, “I know I have a reputation, but I’m always being put in this position [where] I have to speak on race… on behalf of 45 million African Americans” (2). He takes that responsibility seriously. For one, the name of his production company is “40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks”, referring to what was promised by the federal government (but never given) to newly freed slaves following the end of the Civil War; a reminder of what Black Americans have suffered at the hand of systemic injustice. In almost every one of his films a character says, “Wake up!”, sometimes repeatedly and directly to the audience. He’s been openly critical of directors that he believes are misrepresenting Black people, including Clint Eastwood, Tyler Perry, and Quentin Tarantino. He felt that Do the Right Thing was passed over in favor of a more polite and comfortable narrative in Driving Miss Daisy (1989), which was showered with praise, even the Academy’s top prize. When asked about his apparent agitation over Green Book’s similar victory, Lee responded, “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose” (3).

Director Spike Lee, actors Topher Grace and Adam Driver on the set of BlacKkKlansman, a Focus Features release. Credit: David Lee / Focus Features

Despite losing Best Picture and Best Director, Spike Lee did not go home empty-handed. He won his first non-honorary Oscar for BlacKkKlansman’s adapted screenplay. The announcement was made by Samuel L. Jackson, who got his start in Lee’s films and has starred in six of them to date. At the news, Lee bounded onto the stage in a bright purple suit and leapt into Jackson’s arms, wrapping all four limbs around his old friend’s frame for a good few seconds before finally making his way to the microphone. The speech was characteristic of Lee: reminding those present that their country was built on the enslavement of an entire race and the genocide of the Native American people. As a fully committed people-pleaser, it’s hard for me to relate to someone so trenchant and passionate in their viewpoint. Like his films, Lee’s voice abandons subtlety and favors outrightness and unflinching sophistication. It may not be easy to hear, but without such a bold and unrelenting voice, would we see things the way we do now?

Citations:

  1. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=18ZPB_SvsKk
  2. The Atlantic: Spike Lee Interview
  3. Washington Post: Spike Lee’s Reaction to ‘Green Book’ Win

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Josh Gad

US actor Josh Gad poses on the red carpet as he arrives to attend the European premiere of the film Frozen 2 in London on November 17, 2019. (Photo by Niklas HALLE’N / AFP).

Before he graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, Josh Gad spent four years being roommates with a musical theater hopeful named Rory O’Malley, who became his close friend. A few years after graduation, both Gad and O’Malley were cast in a Broadway show called The Book of Mormon. It would go on to become one of the most successful musicals of all time and earned both roommates Tony nominations. O’Malley says of Gad, “I’ve certainly had faith in Josh…I always knew that he is a comedic genius and it was just a matter of time.” He added that Gad was a drama major and never in the musical theater program; he just sang on the side.

Though he got his start on Broadway, Josh Gad was born to be in Hollywood. He was actually born in Hollywood, Florida, the youngest of three brothers and raised by traditionally Jewish parents. Both of his older brothers became lawyers, but from a young age Gad knew he wanted to be an actor. As a kid in the 90’s, he was obsessed with Disney movies, his favorite of which was Aladdin (1992) because of Robin Williams’ performance as Genie. Little did he know that one day he would be a Broadway star living in the same building as Williams and get to meet him in person. Josh Gad himself is most famous for his own portrayal of a comedic Disney side-character: the loveable, magical snowman Olaf in Disney’s Frozen (2013) franchise. Apart from the success of the film and its effect on his career, Gad became the first actor ever to win two Annie Awards for Voice Acting, both for his portrayal as Olaf in Frozen and Frozen II (2019) respectively. The character even got its own float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and has appeared annually since 2017. He doesn’t let that go to his head though; he scored not one but two nominations for the Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Supporting Actor for performances in The Wedding Ringer (2015) and Pixels (2015). Ironically, he shares that accolade with none other than Robin Williams, who was also nominated twice in 1999. 

But even for someone that’s talented, trained, and motivated, finding success or even just work as an actor can feel impossible. A few years after graduating from Carnegie Mellon, Gad grew weary of rejection and decided he was going to quit and go to law school like his brothers. When he told his mother, he was shocked to hear her crying. “I’m disappointed with you,” he recalls her saying, “I’m disappointed because you’ve spent 15 years dreaming about doing something and only 3 years trying to live out that dream.” Gad credits that conversation with giving him the courage to fly out to New York and audition to replace a Tony-winner in a Broadway production called, “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. At the time, an episode of ER was his only professional acting credit, but he won the part.

Josh Gad sings in a scene of Beauty and the Beast | Walt Disney Studios.

It wasn’t too long after that that he exploded onto the scene as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon, and then made seemingly seamless transitions into television and film. One of his breakout movies was Love and Other Drugs (2010), where he played an awkward but entertaining brother of Jake Gyllenhal’s character. From there, he’s been in comedies, murder mysteries, dramatic biopics, as well as a long list of voice-acting credits. He’s gotten to use his Broadway-level singing voice not only in Frozen but also in the live adaptation of Beauty and the Beast (2017) as LeFou and as Birdie in Central Park (an animated musical sitcom that just debuted on Apple TV+ and is getting great reviews). As for movies, you can catch him as Mulch Diggums in Artemis Fowl (2020), which just debuted streaming on June 12 via Disney+.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the work hasn’t stopped for Gad. For kids, the “At Home with Olaf” animated shorts are fun and entirely produced from home by Gad and the animators, but by far my favorite is his “Reunited Apart” Youtube series where he brings together casts from classic films via Zoom in order to raise money for charity. Recently he brought together the cast of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and I loved every second of it. Despite it all, he still finds time to go on daily walks with his kids and read them the Harry Potter books (complete with his multitude of character impersonations, of course). I’m glad he’s had time to be home with his family, because his stardom train has been going strong for some time, and I don’t anticipate him giving up the spotlight any time soon.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: David Fincher

David Fincher (Merrick Morton, 2011)

If you look up any list of “The Top 10 Modern-Day Thrillers”, you’ll likely run into one of David Fincher’s films. Being that he only has 10 entries to his directorial filmography, I’d say that makes him noteworthy, and one of the most bankable directors in Hollywood today. That being said, some of his work has been underrated, so if this entry convinces you to visit or revisit any of his films, the Fincher fan in me will have done his job!

About a decade ago, a forgettable, high school weekend spent binge watching cable (pre-Netflix) led me to my first Fincher film, Zodiac (2007)–one of the finest biopic thrillers of all time, and massively underrated (starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., and Mark Ruffalo). Jump forward… When I first decided to pursue movie-watching beyond just your regular pastime, I started by seeking out the directors of my favorite films, and then exploring their work. I knew that Fincher would be one of my reliable directors to look into further based off of Zodiac alone—and I was right! He did not disappoint as I was introduced to inevitable favorites like Se7en (1995), The Social Network (2010) and Gone Girl (2014). In every case I started to realize that you can expect a few things from almost any Fincher film: visceral realism, high octane, stacked casts, and rewatchability.

David Fincher got his start working on classic films like Return of the Jedi (1983) and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). Though having a solid foundation with his father also being a screenwriter, he had to go through some years of directing commercials and an almost “Josh Trank-esque” experience with his directorial debut. Though the Alien franchise had garnered considerable success up to this point and his start with Alien 3 (1992) was met with mixed reviews (along with an Oscar nod for visual effects), there was a ton of studio interference along with nine different writers. Fincher would go on to disown the film saying, “No one hated it more than me; to this day, no one hates it more than me.” Though I think it is far from the weakest in the franchise, it’s definitely not one of the strongest sequels.

Luckily, his films have only gotten better as he has since been given more management over them. Se7en and Fight Club (1999) found their way to many of those aforementioned best-thriller lists with their engaging stories, novel twists, and great performances from Brad Pitt (in both), Edward Norton (Fight Club), and Morgan Freeman (Se7en). Honestly, these flicks are quality, and if you want to see how Fincher’s talents developed over the years, watch his movies in chronological order.

More recently, his installments have gained significant commercial and critical success, grabbed the attention of award circuits, and have been heavily considered some of the best movies of the year in which they came out. In fact, it’s been preferred by many that The Social Network had beat out The King’s Speech (2010) for Best Picture at the Oscars. Other Fincher films that have received more recent notoriety includes The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and Gone Girl. I would strongly suggest that you watch the latter if you haven’t already. Rosamund Pike, Ben Affleck and even Tyler Perry give intriguing performances, and the story (written and based on the bestseller by Gillian Flynn) makes for one of the most jaw-dropping, entertaining, mind “messer-uppers” that could only be flawlessly brought to life through Fincher’s expert directing. 

David Fincher on the set of Mank (2020) | Netflix

Fincher’s next movie should be released this year (fingers crossed with COVID). It’s titled Mank (2020), which will chronicle a screenwriter’s battle with Orson Welles over writing credit for the movie Citizen Kane (1941), which many consider to be the greatest movie of all time. Being a big fan of The Social Network, and already seeing some striking similarities, I’m very much anticipating this release. Mank was actually written by David Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher, and is set to star Gary Oldman in the lead role. Keep an eye out!

Fincher has said that he was heavily influenced by Hitchcock, which shouldn’t be a surprise as most of his movies have a considerable touch of Hitchcock-like suspense, albeit modernized. Common throughout his films, the cinematography has a signature dark-and-musky shade. You’ll notice it (if you haven’t already) while watching his films—it’s like a desaturated, monochromatic coloring that really ends up reinforcing the usually dreary world that his characters live inwhat mostly comes to mind while explaining his style in Blade Runner (1982). Really, it’s a lot of that neo-noir, but without the sci-fi—and trust me, it works!

The funny thing is that there are many commonalities like this throughout his filmography, but he doesn’t seem to collaborate very much with the same people. The similarities in tone and style probably have something to do with the fact that he’s known for being a bit of a meticulous micromanager. Some of his lead actors (e.g. Jake Gyllenhaal, Rooney Mara) have spoken about their exhaustion from having to do retake after retake to get “the perfect scene”. But in turn, his perfectionism hasn’t been wasted as one of his editors said, “[It’s like] putting together a swiss watch… all the pieces are so beautifully machined. He’s incredibly specific. He never settles. And there’s a purity that shows in his work.” Honestly, in consideration of how much I love his films, I couldn’t be more grateful for the time and detail he puts into his work, even at the slight expense of his cast and crew. 

David Fincher

Below is my ranking of Fincher’s movies. Check them out, and leave me a comment on whether you agree or disagree with the ranks, or if you love, hate or don’t care about David Fincher!

  1. Gone Girl (2014)
  2. Se7en (1995)
  3. Zodiac (2007)
  4. The Social Network (2010)
  5. Fight Club (1999)
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)
  7. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
  8. Panic Room (2002)
  9. The Game (1997)
  10. Alien 3 (1992)

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Gal Gadot

Israeli actress Gal Gadot (2019)

Recently, I found myself watching Date Night (2010), a couple comedy starring Steve Carell and Tina Fey. At one point, they show up to a shirtless Mark Wahlberg’s house to ask for his help and expertise in evading the powerful mob boss they’ve accidentally provoked. In the course of their conversation, his girlfriend came down the stairs and I found myself exclaiming, “It’s Wonder Woman!” Sure enough, the girlfriend was played by Gal Gadot, six years before she became a superhero and before anybody knew she could have single-handedly taken down the mob the couple was fleeing. Looking back, it seems ridiculous to me that she could ever have been destined for anything but stardom. 

Gal Gadot grew up in a small city in Israel, where she loved to dance and play basketball. To earn money, she babysat and even worked at Burger King for a short time. What’s interesting is that she had turned down various offers for modeling gigs because she didn’t think she could live that life. (Just in case that didn’t register, she rejected modeling gigs and chose instead to work at Burger King. I worked at Burger King, too, but that’s about the only thing we have in common.) Eventually, Gadot’s mother entered her in the Miss Israel competition, which Gadot was surprised to have gotten into. Imagine how she felt when she won, and at 18 was invited to compete at the Miss Universe pageant. At age 20, she enlisted in the Israeli Defense Force as a combat instructor. Following her two-year service requirement, she enrolled at a university and married Yaron Varsano, with whom she now has two daughters.

Gal Gadot at the Red Carpet event just before the 92nd Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, CA.

Her first movie audition was to play the Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, all the while she was studying law and trying to build a “serious” future for herself. Despite losing the role to Olga Kurylanko, she fell in love with the profession. She left school and found work in Israeli television and film before getting her first Hollywood film credit in Fast and Furious (2009), where she plays Gisele Yashar. The role suited her well, as her previous military experience and love of motorcycles aided her in the stunt work. She went on to appear in the next three installments of the franchise, as well as taking smaller roles in comedies like Knight and Day (2010) and the previously mentioned Date Night.

But the success was costly. The repeated commute from Tel Aviv to Los Angeles just to audition and often be rejected was taking a toll, and Gadot was considering giving up on her acting aspirations. That is, until she got a call from Zack Snyder to audition for a “mystery role.” She packed up once again and made her way to Los Angeles, said some vague lines into the camera and made her way home. The trip proved successful because she landed the role of Wonder Woman in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), winning the part over Olga Kurylenko. Zack Snyder cited her “combination of being fierce but kind at the same time” as the reason she was chosen, and although her casting was met with some criticism of her physique, she was widely considered one of the best parts of the critically-panned film.

And then there was Wonder Woman (2017). Any doubts about Gadot’s abilities or appearance drowned in the waves of success that ensued. The film brought in $821 million worldwide and $412 million domestically, making it the highest-earning film with a solo female director. It holds a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critical consensus reads, “Thrilling, earnest, and buoyed by Gal Gadot’s charismatic performance, Wonder Woman succeeds in spectacular fashion.” For me, she has become Wonder Woman, so much so that whenever I see her on screen I call her Wonder Woman, even if it’s in Date Night. Barring further delays, we’ll see her reprise her role in the much-anticipated Wonder Woman 1984 in August of this year. Future projects include Death on the Nile and Netflix’s Red Notice, which also features Ryan Reynolds and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but was forced to halt production due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Gal Gadot in Wonder Woman (2017) | Warner Bros. Pictures

In a world where the beautiful and famous seem to represent the unattainable, the word I would use to describe Gadot is “inviting.” Whatever she achieves, she gracefully shares the credit without putting herself down or deflecting. Even when hailed as an advocate of women’s rights and empowerment, her statements seem to elevate and encourage everyone, rather than asking some to step aside. When exclusivity seems a prerequisite to popularity, she seems comfortable in treating any and all with respect and even warmth. Though her pageant days are in the past, Gadot remains Miss Congeniality.

DIRECTOR SPOTLIGHT: Akira Kurosawa

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa

As the son of a Japanese immigrant, Akira Kurosawa was embedded into my life at a very young age. Kurosawa has inspired some of the world’s most successful directors; he was highly regarded by Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, where the latter even referred to him as “the pictorial Shakespeare of our time.”

Background

Kurosawa was born in Tokyo, Japan on March 23, 1910 and was the youngest of four sisters and four brothers. His family could trace their lineage back to 11th century Samurai. As he grew older, he became close with his elder brother, Heigo. Kurosawa later said that he and his brother “would go to the movies, particularly silent movies, and then discuss them all day” (McDonald, William. The New York Times Book of the Dead: Obituaries of Extraordinary People. Black Dog & Leventhal, 2016).  Eventually, he started working as an assistant director right before World War II.

Directing and International Fame

Toshiro Mifune and Machiko Kyo in a scene of Rashomon (1950) | Daiei Film

He started directing films in 1941, but it was not until 1950 that he shocked the world with his film, Rashomon, about the psychological struggle over the nature of truth itself. Rashomon went on to win an Honorary Academy Award for ‘Most Outstanding Foreign Language Film’ and Akira Kurosawa’s name became forever embedded into history. Rashomon marked the entrance of Japanese film onto the world stage. This also came at a time where the United States had defeated Japan in World War II just six years prior.

After Rashomon, Kurosawa went on to direct The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Hidden Fortress and many more films. Over his 57-year career, Kurosawa directed 30 films and won over 50 awards worldwide for his cinematic work. Some of his accolades include a ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ Academy Award in 1976 for Dersu Uzala, a ‘Lifetime Achievement’ Academy Award in 1990, and a Directors Guild of America’s ‘Lifetime Achievement Award’ in 1992. 

His Style

Some may say that Kurosawa’s films can feel a bit slow because there are long periods between the main plot points. However, if one is only watching a Kurosawa film for the action scenes, they are already missing the point of the film—Kurosawa uses repetition in his films’ stories to show how life is cyclical. He also uses pauses internationally so the audience will analyze what has come before the pause and then understand the following results. Kurosawa’s most important theme is drawn from his personal belief that humans are fundamentally good. A film’s ability to affect the audience through its themes and messages are qualities of a good film. Kurosawa took that one step further and embedded that idea into his film-making process.

His Impact

George Lucas showing Akira Kurosawa details of a Snowspeeder during the making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Kurosawa is the man who opened Asian cinema to Western audiences. While some film junkies may not have ever seen his films, they for sure have seen the films he inspired, or other adaptionations that are based on his films. Rashomon has inspired numerous films such as The Usual Suspects, Gone Girl, Vantage Point, Hoodwinked, and several Quentin Tarentino films. George Lucas’s Star Wars was based on Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars starring Clint Eastwood is a remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. 2016’s The Magnificent Seven starring Chris Pratt is a very loose remake of the original 1969 The Magnificent Seven, which was a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; this film was also the inspiration behind Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life. Kurosawa has also influenced the film world in other ways, from editing to how a scene is blocked. Both current and future movie fans across the globe can learn a lot from Japanese cinema and other Asian films.

Akira Kurosawa stands between George Lucas (left) and Steven Spielberg (right) after receiving his Honorary Academy Award at the 62nd Academy Awards

Early on in his career, Kurosawa had to overcome post-WWII sentiments and prejudice, specifically in the United States—anti-Japanese and anti-Asian propaganda was abundant. Much has changed since then; there have been two Academy Awards for Best Picture given to Asian directors (Ang Lee in 2013 for Life of Pi and Bong Joon Ho in 2019 for Parasite). Four Asian directors (including Kurosawa) have been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director (Ang Lee, Bong Joon Ho and Hiroshi Teshigahara). Both Ang Lee and Bong Joon Ho won the Oscar for Best Director for their aforementioned films. It’s safe to say that these modern directors would not have accomplished what they have without the foundations laid by Kurosawa. Progress has been made in recognizing quality filmmaking at the international level, but we still have a long way to go.

Kurosawa’s embedded themes still resonate with viewers today. If you have not seen any of his films, Throne of Blood, Ran, Kagemusha, plus the others mentioned in this article are a good place to start. If you’d like to check out Kurosawa’s entire directing work, click HERE to see the rest of his filmography.

How many Akira Kurosawa’s films have you seen? Let me know in the comments section or hit me up on social media.

ACTOR SPOTLIGHT: Alan Tudyk

Actor Alan Tudyk attends the premiere of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story at the Pantages Theatre on December 10, 2016 | (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)

At that pivotal time in high school when teenagers are desperately trying to figure out what to do with their lives, Alan Tudyk decided that he wanted to go into hotel management. After all, he was almost an assistant manager (maybe an assistant to the manager?) at Taco Bueno, so maybe he could make a pretty good life of it. But one encounter with his drama teacher changed his mind; she shot down his hotel management idea and told him he needed to become an actor. This must have felt strange to a kid who often couldn’t participate in school productions and competitions because of his failing grades. When he protested and asked why, she responded, “Because you’re different.” She cited how he would scrape up his knees skateboarding and just let the blood soak into his socks instead of cleaning them off. She also referred to his “lunch-lady appreciation days” where he would imitate their ensemble, right down to the plastic gloves. How those things are a clear sign that someone is meant to act is beyond me, but his drama teacher was right on the money. 

Born in El Paso and raised outside of Dallas, Texas, Alan Tudyk jokingly suggests that he might have peaked in Middle School. He knew he loved to entertain and had a mind for thinking outside the box but feared that pursuing acting would be an unconscious vow of poverty and loneliness. His career has certainly been filled with speed bumps and detours; he had exciting opportunities in stand-up comedy until somebody threatened to kill him at one of his shows and he abandoned the ambition. Though he made it into the immensely competitive drama program at Julliard, he struggled with their curriculum (his teachers weren’t big on comedy, anyways) and eventually left before graduating. But, as it is for most people, his struggles were key to his successes. Many of the accents he imitates in his films were fine-tuned at Julliard, and his improvisation skills landed him defining roles, including one in A Knight’s Tale. He plays the red-headed and easily-heated squire Wat, companion to William Thatcher (Heath Ledger) in his quest to become a Knight through his jousting talent. Though Tudyk’s role is mostly played for laughs, with him constantly threatening to “fong” people and getting teased by a quick-witted Geoffrey Chaucer (Paul Bettany), he manages to keep pace and enhance the performances of his well-known costars. I recently re-watched it in preparation for this article and cannot recommend it enough.

Alan Tudyk appears in a scene of A Knight’s Tale (2001) | Sony Pictures

For someone who is so gifted with physical comedy, some of Alan Tudyk’s biggest screen credits come from films where his face doesn’t appear at all. He’s played two humanoid robots in his career: Sonny from I, Robot and K-2SO from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He plays both roles with surprising subtlety and humor despite only having his voice and a motion capture suit to work with. In recent years, he’s become a staple at Disney animation studios, managing to land himself a role in all six of their films since he voiced King Candy in Wreck-It-Ralph. Those roles include both the Duke of Weselton in Frozen and Duke Weaselton in Zootopia—which feels like they’re just making up roles for him because they like having him around. But boy does he have a lot to give! He’s becoming for Disney animation studios what John Ratzenburger is for Pixar, but while much of Ratzenburger’s voicework is fairly similar, distinguishing Tudyk from his circus of characters is like playing “Where’s Waldo?” on a difficulty setting somewhere between “Extremely Difficult” and “Chuck Norris”. 

Alan Tudyk stands next to K-2SO, the character he brought to life in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story | Lucasfilm Ltd.

His filmography is too extensive to list here, but he has found consistent work in theater, television, and film over the past 20 years, so it’s likely he appears in at least one of your favorite shows or movies. Most recently you can hear his voice in Frozen II, which is now streaming on Disney+, as he voices four different characters—a guard, an Arendellian soldier, the Northuldra leader, and, of course, the Duke of Weselton. Hopefully we get to enjoy his talents in the next Disney animation studios venture, Raya and the Last Dragon, which is on schedule to be released this November. 

I chose Tudyk for a spotlight this month because I truly believe he is A-list talent with a B-list reputation. It takes a great deal of humility to voice a rooster in Moana after going to Julliard, but Tudyk describes it as one of the “funnest” recordings he’s ever done. It’s possible that he never outgrew the teenager that would wear a giant sombrero to school. That playful perspective, and appreciation for the art of entertainment, are pervasive in Tudyk’s demeanor on and off the camera. I’m not sure if the intention behind his drama teacher’s advice was trying to save the hotel management industry or enhance the entertainment business, but either way I’m grateful that she chose to say something and that he chose to listen.

Much of the information in this article was obtained from the following interview:

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