Here is a short profile piece about an Omaha couple whose lives revolve around film and family, Mauro and Christine Fiore. He’s an Oscar-winning cinematographer who works on A-list projects. She’s a costume designer and the producer of an in-development indie feature based on the best-selling novel The Persian Pickle Club. They met on the set of a film they both worked on. They have three children together. Whenever the film Christine is producing ends up shooting, Mauro will light it. That’s keeping it in the family. Mauro is a native of Italy who moved to the States with his family when he was young. Christine is a native Omahan. The couple have made their home in Omaha for the last several years even as Mauro’s career blew up. She and the kids often travel to his far-flung sets. They also travel as a family to his small hometown in Italy, where he has many relatives and where they regard him as a kind of hero and superstar. It may surprise some folks to know that Mauro is one of three Oscar winners living in Omaha. He won his for Avatar. Then there’s recently retired editor Mike Hill, an Omaha native who won his for Apollo 13. And then there’s Omaha native Alexander Payne, who won his writing Oscars for Sideaways and The Descendants. This article never made it into the local magazine it was written for, so I’m publishing it here for the first time.
Omaha couple Mauro and Christine Fiore forge a union based on film and family
©by Leo Adam Biga
The metro’s small but robust cinema community includes Film Streams and the Omaha Film Festival along with several working industry professionals, among them Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore (Avatar). He’s among three Academy Award recipients residing here. The others are editor Mike Hill (Apollo 13) and filmmaker Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants).
Fiore’s most recent director of photography feature work came on The Equalizer last summer in Boston, The projected 2015 release reunited him with Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington from Training Day.
But Fiore, originally from Italy, isn’t the only film pro in his own household. His wife Christine Vollmer Fiore, a native Nebraskan, is a costume designer and the producer of an in-development feature adaptation of the best seller, The Persian Pickle Club. Mauro’s slated to light it.
The couple actually met in 1997 on an independent picture largely shot in Neb., Love from Ground Zero. At the time each lived in L.A., traveling wherever projects called them. Christine finds it “ironic” the film that brought their itinerant lives together happened in her home state. They settled here after marrying. He regularly goes off to do commercials and features.
They are the parents of three children – Olivia, Tessa and Luca. The Fiores view Neb.’s as a healthy grounding from the hustle, bustle and hype of L.A., where they also have a home.
“We knew we didn’t want to raise kids in L.A.,” Christine says. “It’s kind of nice to be here and have blinders on and not be affected by what’s out there.”
It’s a stable sanctuary the can count on.
“It’s nice to have a firm place and not really worry about Christine when I’m gone because her family’s here,’ Mauro says. “I feel really safe there’s somebody here to support her. I’ve come to really appreciate it because when I’m here it’s all about the family and helping Christine any way I can.”
During his absences Christine runs a tight ship.
“I’m very schedule and routine-oriented,” she says.
She purposely doesn’t make a big deal of his departures.
“It’s kind of no-nonsense, no tear because it’d be too much tough emotionally. It’s like, ‘Dad’s leaving but he’s going to come back and now I need help around the house from all of you.’ Then when Mauro comes back home we still have the same routine. Dinner’s at 5:30. I think it makes it easy for Mauro to kind of slide back in.”
The family visits his far-flung movie locations, such as Puerto Rico.
His Hollywood colleagues are surprised he lives far afield from film industry centers.
“They find it very odd,” he says. “But with Alexander Payne Neb. sort of has a mystique. They appreciate it’s a different way of living, more old fashioned or traditional.”
That normal, laidback lifestyle is what appeals to the Fiores.
“Omaha is manageable,” Christine says. “It’s easy to go to the airport and to the zoo…”
“It’s easy, it’s familiar,” Mauro adds. “We’ve found several friends around the community of schools the kids attend.”
They enjoy, too, how much more house they can afford here. They lived in Hawaiian Village before moving into their present home last year. The ranch-style in Elkhorn sits on a 6-acre lot with a view.
“We really love the property,” Mauro says. “It has a piece of land that stretches out to the river. You don’t really find that too much anymore.”
They appreciate the open floor plan, banks of tall windows and homey features.
He says, “It’s just the uniqueness of the place and the fact we can really grow into this and make it our home.”
“It’s not like a builder’s model home,” Christine says. “It’s different, it has personality.”
They’re now updating the downstairs to accommodate a craft room for the sewing Christine and the kids do.
In her spare time she wears her producer hat trying to get Persian Pickle Club financed. Setting up a film is a new experience for them.
“It’s been a great learning process to see the inner workings because I never really knew what it took. I’m never on that side of it,” he says.
He admires how “Christine’s done it all from here – figuring out ways to push it along.”
They’re admittedly anxious to start production because making films is what they know best.
Mauro eagerly shares his expertise. He photographed an Omaha Film Festival promo. He’s served as a panelist-presenter at OFF and Film Streams. The couple support the opera, the symphony, Kaneko and other local arts-cultural offerings they find on par with anywhere.
Follow her project on Facebook or at http://www.thepersianpickleclub.com/.
Review his credits on the Internet Movie Data Base at http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0278475/.
Native Nebraskans’ own many Hollywood-made-good stories. One of the best belongs to Gabrielle Union, who sort of fell into acting by way of modeling and hasn’t looked back since in building a significant career in television and film that shows no signs of slowing down and that in fact appears to be getting richer and deeper with time. Here’s a preview of my new story about her for The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/). It will hit newsstands and the paper’s website Dec. 10-11. The Being Mary Jane star talks about her popular BET series, the hot new Chris Rock film Top Five she has a supporting role in, an upcoming Lifetime movie she produced, the impactful documentary series Half the Sky she participated in. Now married to longtime boyfriend NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, she is loving being a step-mother in addiiton to being a doting daughter and sister. You can find on my blog my earlier stories about Gabrielle, whom I’ve been covering since the early 2000s.
Gabrielle Union having it all between her own series, new film, producing, marriage and family
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (http://www.thereader.com/)
My, how time flies. It seems only yesterday Omaha’s own Gabrielle Monique Union first caught our attention on the big screen with her scene-stealing turn as the diva rival to Kirsten Dunst in the wickedly funny high school cheerleader comedy Bring It On.
Hard to believe that was 15 years ago.
Now 42 and firmly established as a Black Hollywood star, red carpet fashion plate and natural beauty spokesperson, Union’s at a career apex few native Nebraskans ever reach in the business. In 2014 alone she starred in her own hit BET series, Being Mary Jane, co-starred in the successful film Think Like a Man Too and produced a Lifetime movie. Oh, and on a personal note she married longtime boyfriend, NBA star baller Dwyane Wade in an American royals-style wedding.
A definite presence at her hubby’s Miami Heat games, she caused a buzz when she jokingly interrupted a recent live post-game interview Fox Sports did with him. He’d returned from the injury list to score 27.
“It was OK,” she deadpanned about his performance to the bemused sideline reporter and to viewers, while styling a black fedora over her long black locks to match her basic black dress. “I mean, a hamstring pull, wow, to come back with 27 points. We’re going to talk about the free throws (he was 5 for 9) later. But he did good for an old geezer.”
Wade appeared to take the upstaging and teasing in stride.
Gabrielle and her superstar husband Dwyane Wade
She’s lately been propping her new film, the acclaimed Top Five from Chris Rock. which has opened to strong box-office.
“I shot that movie last summer in New York right after we did Think Like a Man Too,” she says.
Originally titled Finally Famous, its story centers on Rock’s character Andre Allen, a standup comic-turned actor who, ala Joel McCrea’s idealistic director in the Preston Sturges classic Sullivan’s Travels comes unhinged after going all serious. With Allen’s pretentious new film a dud, he feels dislocated from his true identity. The recovering addict feels pressure, too, from a reality TV crew covering him and his celeb fiance Erica, played by Union, as their planned televised wedding draws near. Then there’s his instant relationship with a reporter, Chelsea (Rosario Dawson), with whom he finds In the space of a few hours more truth than the surreal media circus his life’s become.
“It’s really the story of the upside and the downside of fame and chasing fame,” says Union, who sports blonde hair, big glasses and gaudy bling in the role. “The story follows a day in the life of Chris’ character and it just happens to be when he’s got to kind of look at some hard truths and decide how does he really want to live and why that is and he kind of gets lost in himself.
“It sounds really deep and at times I think it very much is but it’s also really, really funny.”
Tracy Morgan and Cedric the Entertainer co-star and Jerry Seinfeld, Adam Sandler and Whoopie Goldberg make cameos.
Despite going way back Union and Rock never worked together before the project.
“I mean, Black Hollywood is pretty small, so we all kind of run into each other and know each other and definitely Chris and I do. With him being such a huge Knicks fan I’ve run into him many times over the years (at Heat games). We have a lot of mutual friends as well,” says Union, who among basketball wives is the queen bee now that Eva Longoria and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker have split.
Seeing Rock at work on the set gave Union a new appreciation for him.
“Chris was not only acting but he wrote it and directed it as well, so watching him put all those hats on was amazing and very inspiring. But honestly I felt bad for the man because it’s like he never got off work. But he handled it all very, very well.”
She says the the spirit of Rock’s free-wheeling, anything-goes standup act infuses the film, which has received glowing reviews since its September Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
“I think people are going to be surprised. It’s a different kind of role for him, even though it might seem playing a standup comedian would be easy for him. But I really watched him blossom as an actor and as a director as well on the set.”
She feels he brought out in her emotional notes and layers she hadn’t accessed before on screen.
“Sometimes when the leader’s been where you’ve been as an actor they know the right things to ask, they know how to finesse a situation, they know how to get the best out of you as an actor because they’ve been an actor. That’s really what Chris was able to bring to me that was unique from other directors. He had a different perspective of each scene I found very, very helpful. He also challenged me in a way other directors haven’t.”
Just as Rock didn’t need to research the capricious nature of fame, neither did Union. They both live it. The heat of celebrity for her is more intense than ever now that she and Wade are married. Just last summer, while the couple honeymooned, nude pictures of her and other female celebs were hacked and posted online. Where she’s taken a diplomatic stance about intrusions of privacy, she’s gone on the offensive this time. She penned a Cosmopolitan essay equating the pandering and profiteering of private nude images to sex crimes and called out feminist groups for not protesting their release. “The silence has been deafening,” she recently told Meredith Vieira, adding that celebs like her are subject to “victim-shaming,” something she can’t abide having survived rape as a college student.
Much like the characters she plays, Union can be bold in speaking her mind. Mary Jane Paul is very close to her in that way. In season one the trials and tribulations of her title character – a successful single black female struggling to balance work demands and romance issues – became the stuff of countless Tweets, chats, blog posts and Facebook shares. After a 5 million viewership pilot debut and consistently strong ratings over its 12-episode run, BET recently renewed the series. Season two premieres February 3.
“I couldn’t ask for a better reception to be honest,” Union says. “We knew we did great work but it doesn’t always translate and to have the audience respond so well and to basically blow up social media every week was awesome.”
Mary Jane’s the latest in a long line of strong, smart, confident characters played by Union, who is a women’s rights advocate.
University of Nebraska at Omaha dean and professor of communication Gail F. Baker says, “Gabrielle Union occupies a unique position among African-American women in media – one she has carved out for herself. She has ‘quietly’ established an exceptional career across myriad platforms – movies, television, advertising – while playing a smart and independent woman. Union brings a special blend of savvy and sophistication to each role. She¹s a trailblazer on many fronts.”
Those qualities are precisely the ones Union says her mother, Theresa Glass Union, instilled in her and her two sisters.
“Having three highly successful daughters is a testament to the job she did,” she says.
Union enjoys how Mary Jane’s story speaks to her own life and the lives of many women she knows. Just like her character, Union knows what it’s like dealing with family pressures and expectations, the ticking biological clock, the dating scene, romantic commitment and standing firm to do the work and to follow the path you want, not what others want. Making the show relevant means a lot to her.
“I’m proud of it,” she says. “It’s the most I’ve ever worked in my life being the star of the show and having lots of other responsibilities but I love it, and I love doing it. I love the writing, I love the direction, I love how it looks stylistically. I’m really pleased.
“For us being their (BET’s) first original dramatic series we’re all sort of learning together and it’s been a great partnership. It’s not my way or the highway, it’s very much a collaborative effort and BET’s been pretty patient in launching this as their first dramatic series. So I think we’ve all kind of handled it well.”
She’s glad to portray a character and front a series that transcend black women stereotypes, which she feels have limited opportunities for female artists of color on screen and behind the camera She acknowledges “we’ve seen improvements,” noting the breakout success of Shonda Rhimes, producer-creator-writer of mega-hits Grey’s Anatomy, Private Practice and Scandal. But, she says, “it goes in waves,” adding, “Like right now we’ve got a lot of women heading up their own shows” – herself, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Jada Pinkett Smith, Taraji Henson – “so it’s improving, but if any of these shows fail then next year we’ll kind of be back at the drawing board.”
Mary Jane marks a major step for Union. For starters, its powerhouse creators Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil (The Game) developed it for her. Now that she and that husband-wife producing team have a popular series together they’re likely to collaborate again. Next, the show gives Union her first successful starring platform on TV after the misfire of her previous (ABC) series Night Stalker, in which she co-starred with Stuart Townsend, and her recurring roles in the equally short-lived Life and Flash Forward.
Then there’s the fact Union clearly carries this series. Its success rides almost entirely on her performance and on the writing.
“It’s tough to turn out 12 episodes of exciting, engaging material and we absolutely have done that. It’s been looking good and I’m pleased with the writing for sure.”
Mara Brock and Salim Akil with Gabrielle
The key to any episodic series enduring is developing different, deeper shades of its main characters. Union’s satisfied she’s getting to plumb the depths of one complex sister in Mary Jane, whose tough as nails exterior covers a fragile interior.
“The writers have been absolutely brilliant at pushing her buttons. They give me a lot of different places to go with the character. She’s definitely not Johnny-One-Note, which I’m excited about.”
Now that Union’s proven she can hold an audience week after week network and studio execs may be more willing to have her head-up a future series or movie. That’s important because until Mary Jane it’d been a while since she got top billing. She’s at an age, too, when actresses get passed over for younger women, though her youthful, glam looks – she’s fronted several beauty brands – are an asset.
It doesn’t hurt being part of a power black couple who by making it official in August consolidated their mad pop culture currency. During her series hiatus Union and Wade said their I-dos at a lush outdoor ceremony in Miami that saw John Legend perform. A much-seen photo released by the couple, who began seriously dating in 2009, pictured them with his two sons from his first marriage, Zaire and Zion, and a nephew, Dahveon, he’s been raising. They looked every bit a family.
Wade authored the 2012 book, A Father First: How My Life Became Bigger Than Basketball. He supports numerous programs for kids and families. Union wrote the foreword to Hill Harper’s 2008 book Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny. With both acutely conscious of their role model status, their party days may not be completely behind them but when not working these two are domestics focused on family.
Union, Wade and theri instant family at the couple’s wedding
After taking a time-out in their relationship a year ago or so, the couple worked it out and things culminated in the wedding Gabrielle’s mother describes as “wonderful, beautiful and poignant – full of both loving personalities,” adding, “I was happy that Gabrielle was happy.” Long before the marriage, Theresa saw her daughter’s maternal instincts kick-in:,
“Gabrielle has embraced the role of the adult female in Dwyane’s household to his two sons and to his nephew.” Now that Nicki, as her family calls her, is married, Theresa says, “I feel she has taken to parenting as the capable person I know her to be.”
Union had no children with her ex, former NFL player Chris Howard. Union’s hinted she and Wade plan having a child together.
Besides being a wife and mom, she’s branched out into producing. Her first project as an executive producer is the upcoming Lifetime movie With This Ring. Jill Scott, Eve and Regina Hall play three single friends who vow to get hitched after attending the wedding of a mutual friend. The movie’s adapted from the book The Vow, which Union optioned five years ago and sold to Sony Pictures Television for Lifetime.
After a long wait to get it made, she found the producing role fulfilling.
“I mean, to finally get things off the ground is very satisfying. Being able to be in a position where you can put talented people to work is incredibly satisfying. It’s just a different struggle as a producer than it is as an actor. It’s a different conversation. I’m still learning, I’m a novice, so I’m trying to say less and learn more.”
Union anticipates developing more projects, perhaps ones to star in. She’s only prepared to wear so many hats behind the camera though.
“I absolutely don’t want to direct. I want to produce though for sure. I’m definitely going to be up for opportunities that challenge me and inspire me and tickle my fancy. So maybe a year from now after we’re (Mary Jane) syndicated I can think about trying my hand at something else.”
Besides being well-liked in the industry, Union’s well-connected. In addition to her association with the Akils, she’s aligned herself with another major industry player, Tyler Perry, two of whose franchise films, Daddy’s Little Girls and Good Deeds, she’s appeared in. Her best friend in the business is actress Sanaa Lathan, Then there are all the ensemble pieces she’s been in with Morris Chestnut, Regina Hall, Taraji Henson and Kevin Hart from the Think Like a Man movies.
Union says it’s a bonus “anytime you can work with your friends and we’ve been friends, the vast majority of the cast, like for well over a decade. We just have a lot of fun. To get paid to do what we want and to hang together, well, it’s like stealing from the studio.”
In 2012 she stretched herself to serve as a celebrity advocate for the multi-platform PBS documentary series Half the Sky that examined the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The title came from the best selling book by New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn.
Union in the documentary Half the Sky
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam’s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.
The actress got especially close to Nhi, whose father forced her to sell lottery tickets, a time consuming job that interfered with her education. Union came away inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.”
She’s discovered that her segment made an impression on people and she leaves no doubt the impact it made on her.
“When people come up to you you never know what part of your work kind of resonates with them or that they connect with. But I’m always pleasantly surprised when people ask me about Half the Sky. They’re usually interested in if I know whatever became of any of the subjects. Since I left Vietnam Dwyane and I have sponsored Nhi’s education. I know you’re not supposed to get personally involved with the subjects but we couldn’t help ourselves. There was no way I could leave Nhi there with her dad, so Dwyane and I pay for her schooling.
“She’s a bright girl and she’s doing well, she’s thriving. We’re happy about that.”
Union’s passion for children extends to the new siblings she gained a few years ago when her mother adopted three children a relative could not care for herself. Keira (8), Miyonna (6) and Amari (4) are being raised by Union’s mother, who recently moved with the kids from Omaha to Arizona, where one of Gabrielle’s sisters lives and where more Union family members have since moved. Gabrielle’s enjoying the new family dynamic.
“It’s like we’re starting over and I’ve kind of come back to be in big sister mode again, trying to get another set of young people and mold them and try to provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we are our brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down. Where other people might say that’s the next man’s responsibility my mom feels like our family is our responsibility and you try to do your best for your family.”
Gabrielle and her mother
Union admits she enjoys spoiling her little sisters and brother.
“The gifts arrive and then my mom kind of filters them out, not as they arrive but sort of as good behavior happens, so they’re not fully getting all of my spoiling. They’re great kids, I really love them.”
About her daughter’s generosity, Theresa says, “She does a lot for us as a family. She has smanaged to make the birthdays for each child special. My daughter gave me the Kentucky Derby one year as a birthday present. That is the most marvelous party in the world.”
Now that her mother’s no longer living in Omaha, it’s an open question when Gabrielle might next make it back for the biennial Native Omaha Days or the annual Bryant-Fisher family reunion and its Dozens of Cousins. Union’s ridden in the Omaha Days parade. Union and Wade showing up, as they’ve done, would cause a stir. She says no matter how famous they get though it doesn’t change how they roll.
“Not to us, maybe for other people who aren’t expecting to see us at a restaurant or something. I’m lucky that my family’s really down to earth. They know that when we come to Omaha we don’t want to be treated any differently than any of the other cousins. I think it’s more how other people perceive us. But for us it’s just nice to get out and see family and catch up. We’re definitely not trying to make spectacles of ourselves by any stretch.”
Upon discovering there’s a networking group for Nebraskans in Hollywood called the Nebraska Coast Connection it’s not surprising for someone to ask, There are Nebraskans in Hollywood? Yes, and a lot more than you might think. The fact is there have always been Nebraskans in that strange and alluring land of make-believe. A surprising number of natives of this Midwestern state have played and continue playing prominent roles there, both behind the camera and in front of the camera, all the way from the motion picture industry’s start through the advent of television and more recently the dawn of multi-media platforms. The story that follows is my profile of the Nebraska Coast Connection for an upcoming issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Much of my story is based on interviews I did with the Nebraska Coast Connection’s founder and president, Todd Nelson, a Holdrege, Neb. native who’s been doing his thing in Hollwyood for 30 years. His group’s monthly Hollywood Salon has become its signature event. This part social mixer and part professional seminar allows folks to tout their projects and to hear featured speakers, such as Oscar-winner Alexander Payne. I also have insights and impressions about the organization from three of the biggest names from here in Hollywood: filmmaker Alexander Payne, whose new film Nebraska is sure to fare well at the Oscars; writer-producer-director Jon Bokenkamp, whose hit new NBC series The Blacklist has elevated him to the prime time A-list; and former network executive and script writer Lew Hunter, who’s retired from the craziness but knows where the bodies are buried. All speak glowingly about the nurturing nature of the group and how it offers a home away from home environment in what can be otherwise a cold, harsh culture for those working in the industry or aspiring to.
I can speak to the warm hospitality offered by the group based on two recent experiences I had with it. I was there for the Sept. 9 Hollywood Salon featuring Payne and for a Nov. 16 screening of Payne’s Nebraska at Paramount Studios. I was also the featured speaker for its Nov. 11 salon. Todd Nelson was my gracious host each time.
This blog is filled with stories and interviews I’ve done with film figures, famous and not so famous. Much of that work as well as related activity I’m now purusing will feed into an eventual book about Nebraskans in Hollywood, past and present. I am the author of the current book, Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film.
Todd Nelson generously provided a set of photos for my story taken by homself and some other NCC stalwarts.
photo credits:TIM WOODWARD, TRAVIS BECK, TODD NELSON, DAVID WILDER
Nebraska Coast Connection: Networking group ties Nebraskans in Hollywood
©by Leo Adam Biga
Soon to appear in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Todd Nelson interviewing Payne at the Sept. 9 salon
Dreamers from Neb., as from everywhere else, have flocked to Hollywood since the motion picture industry’s start.
Softening the harsh realities of making it in Tinsel Town’s dog-eat-dog world, where who you know is often more vital than what you know, is the mission behind the Nebraska Coast Connection. This networking alliance of natives already established in Hollywood or aspiring to be is the brainchild of Todd Nelson, a Holdrege son who’s been in Hollywood since 1984. A former Disney executive, his company Braska Films produces international promos for CBS.
Early in his foray on the coast Nelson was aided by industry veterans and once settled himself he felt an obligation to give back.
His own Hollywood dream extends back to childhood. He made an animated film with his father, created neighborhood theatricals and headlined a magic act, ala home state heroes Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett, that netted a recurring spot on a local TV show and gigs around the state.
“I guess I didn’t know any better and nobody ever told me I couldn’t do it, so I just kept at it,” Nelson says.
As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln theater and broadcast journalism major he made the then-Sheldon Film Theatre (now the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center) his film school.
“To see classic movies and to meet the filmmakers behind some of them was just a fantastic experience and a real eye opener for me.”
Frustrated by limited filmmaking ops at UNL, he talked his way into using Nebraska Educational Television production facilities to direct a one-act play for the small screen. He also worked as a KETV reporter-photojournalist in the ABC affiliate’s Lincoln bureau.
He was an extra in Terms of Endearment during the feature’s Lincoln shoot.
An internship brought Nelson out to the coast, where he worked behind-the-scenes on a soap and later served as personal assistant to TV-film director Paul Bogart (All in the Family). After five years as a senior project executive at Disney he left to produce and direct the documentary Surviving Friendly Fire.
Nelson formed NCC in 1992. A couple years later he befriended fellow Nebraskan Alexander Payne, then gearing up to make his first feature, Citizen Ruth. Payne was looking for an L.A. apartment and Nelson leased him a unit in the building he managed and lived in. The neighbors became friends and the Nebraskans in Hollywood community Nelson cultivated grew.
“He’s a terrific guy,” Payne says of Nelson “He is, as they say, good people.”
In 1995 Nelson inaugurated NCC’s signature Hollywood Salon series. He knew he was onto something when the first event drew hundreds. His strong UNL ties brought support from the school’s foundation.
The monthly Salon has met at some iconic locations, including the Hollywood Athletic Club and CBS sound stages. Its home these days is the historic Culver Hotel in Culver City, Calif., whose namesake, Nebraskan Harry Culver, attracted the fledgling movie industry to his city in the 1920s. Many Golden Era stars kept residences at the hotel, which purportedly was owned by a succession of Hollywood heavyweights. In this ultimate company town, the hotel is next to Sony Pictures Studios, giving the salon the feel of an insiders’ confab.
The group boasts a mailing list of more than 1,000 and nearly as many anecdotes from those who’ve found fellowship, employment, even love, through its ranks.
Payne likes that NCC affords a kind of Neb. fraternity in Hollywood.
“It’s wonderful and hilarious. It’s hilarious in the way that being from Neb. is hilarious. Maybe people from other states do the same, but I know the Neb. version of how they seek one another out in other cities. I know there’s a Neb. club of some sort in New York City. The state’s members of Congress host a Nebraskans breakfast in D.C.
“Nebraskans feel comfortable with one another outside of Neb. and I am no exception, I enjoy the group, we have a shared sensibility, a shared sense of humor, shared childhood references. And Todd is a forceful personality. He’s the most benevolent, charismatic cult leader one could imagine,” he says with a wink.
According to Nelson, “There is something really unique about Nebraskans. We belong together in this way that no other place does. I have watched other groups come and go trying to duplicate what we do and every group without fail has just fallen apart, and some of them are from the Midwest, so it’s not just the Midwest thing.”
Payne’s far past needing the NCC’s connections but he says, “I’m very happy to continue my participation as an occasional guest speaker.”
Bokenkamp does the same. The Kearney native parked cars when he first got out there. He did have a script but no idea how to get it to anyone that mattered. At Nelson’s urging Bokenkamp entered a screenwriting contest. He won. It got him an agent and eventually jobs writing features (Taking Lives) and even directing a pic (Bad Seed).
Nelson enjoys aiding folks get their starts in the business.
“There’s definitely a thrill watching new people realize their own potential,” he says. “Jamie Ball from Grand Island wanted to be an editor. I’ve given her a chance and she’s working in the big leagues now as a video editor, making a substantial living and finding she really enjoys living her dream. I love being a part of making that happen.
“But I also get the benefit of her good work and it’s enabled me to get home to see my son more often and to take a sick day once in a while. It’s a huge help to have her on my team.”
Against all odds small population Neb’s produced an inordinate number of success stories in film and television, including several legends. The star actors alone run the gamut from Harold Lloyd and Fred Astaire to Robert Taylor, Henry Fonda and Dorothy McGuire to Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift to James Coburn, Sandy Dennis, Nick Nolte and Marg Helgenberger. At least one major studio mogul, Darryl Zanuck, originally hailed from here. As have leading composers. cinematographers, editors, writers and casting directors.
Payne heads the current crop, but he’s hardly alone. Most homegrown talents are not household names but they occupy vital posts in every facet of the biz. For each hopeful who makes it, such as producer-writer Timothy Schlattmann (Dexter) from Nebraska City, many others give up. Having a sanctuary of Nebraskans to turn to smooths the way.
Nelson credits former UNL theater professor Bill Morgan with sparking the concept for NCC.
“He was the one who really put the idea of a Neb. connection in my brain. I would always visit with him when back home for Christmas and he would pull out a stack of holiday cards from all his old students. I’d say to him that I don’t know so-and-so, they were before or after my time. He would write down their contact info and nudge me to get in touch with them. He just thought we all should know each other. And inevitably when I did follow up, they would always welcome me into their lives because we shared Dr. Morgan…even if it was from a different era. That was the seed of the NCC right there.”
Among those UNL grads Nelson looked up was the late Barney Oldfield, a Tecumseh native who was a newspaper reporter and press aide to Allied commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower during World War II before becoming a Warner Bros. publicist and independent press agent to such stars as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Taylor. In his post-Hollywood years he worked in corporate public relations and became a major philanthropist.
“Barney was an amazing guy. He became a big supporter of the Coast Connection,” Nelson says. “We hosted his 90th birthday party at CBS on the big stage. He regaled us with stories of his old PR days and knowing everybody under the sun.”
Another of the old guard Nelson called on was Guide Rock native Lew Hunter, a former network TV executive and script writer whose 434 Screenwriting class at UCLA became the basis for a popular book he authored. Hunter, who today leads a screenwriting colony in Superior, Neb., offered a model for what became the salon.
“He used to do what he called a Writer’s Block when he still lived in Burbank,” Nelson says. “It was a kind of salon. He’s seen that our salon continues that, so he’s a big supporter.”
Hunter says, “Todd and I often thought and spoke about a similar monthly gathering of Nebraskans and he pulled it off. It has been a wonderful spin and he really is the father of it all.”
But what really compelled Nelson to form NCC was the stark reality that even though hundreds of Nebraskans worked in Hollywood, few knew each other and there was no formal apparatus to link them.
“I’d been working in Hollywood already 10 years and meeting a lot of Nebraskans and nobody seemed to know each other. We needed to have access to each other.”
Thus, the all-volunteer Nebraska Coast Connection was born.
“People teasingly called it the Nebraska Mafia, but it was kind of like that – we could take care of each other.”
Variety managing editor Kirsten Wilder, yet another Neb. native in Hollywood, has a warm feeling for the group and marvels at its founder’s persistence.
“The NCC is near and dear to my heart. The reason the NCC is so successful is because of Todd Nelson’s staggering devotion to keep the group alive and thriving.”
Nelson defers credit to the natural conviviality of Nebraskans.
“You get these people that come out here from Neb. and it doesn’t matter where they’re from in the state, it doesn’t matter that they don’t have a direct contact with someone else, the fact that you are from Neb. is an instant welcome. It’s not entirely universal. I met Nick Nolte at the Golden Globes one year and I told him about our group and I said we’d love to have him come and talk to us sometime and he said, ‘Why would I want to hangout with a bunch of Nebraskans? I got away from that place.’ That’s a rarity, once in a while you run into it, but most of the time we find that everybody just connects instantly.”
A tribute screening of silent screen great Harold Lloyd’s work brought inspired NCC members to don replicas of the icon’s signature horned-rim glasses
Nelson says that in what can be a cold, rootless town NCC provides “a safe haven” that comes with the shared identity and experience of being among other Nebraskans .
“We call it Home Sweet Home in Hollywood and it has that quality to it. You need a home base I think if you’re going to do this kind of hard work of always having to put yourself out there and come up against the sharks of the world. I don’t think growing up in Neb. especially prepares you for how hard it will be to actually make it while you ply your trade and build your career. Hollywood just isn’t very nurturing. You can really use a community out here to help you get your bearings and give you a leg up. Or at least some friendly faces to be yourself with as you make your way.”
Bokenkamp admires what Nelson and the group provide.
“His love for Neb. runs deep, and he’s found a way to channel that love into a really positive networking group with the Nebraska Coast Connection. NCC is a warm, energetic and creative environment. Todd just wants to see people succeed.
“Thing is, in a land as strange as Hollywood, it’s just nice to have a place to go now and then that feels like home. NCC is that for a lot of Nebraskans.”
Payne says he can appreciate how NCC makes negotiating Hollywood less lonely and frightening for newcomers.
“L.A. is such a scary place to approach when you’re young and want a career in film or television. Everyone is telling you you can’t make it, perhaps you’re even telling yourself that, but you’ve giving it a try anyway. Add to that the fact you’re from Neb. and have no connections. Well, it turns out there is an organization that welcomes you and has people in exactly the same boat there to commiserate with. It’s a wonderful, caring organization.”
Nelson says without the NCC it’s easy for some to give up their dream.
“I’ve seen many people go back home after a few years of waiting for their break and not getting very far. Pressure from parents and friends is part of it. People in Neb. don’t really get how long and hard these careers can be to get started. There’s no distinct ladder to climb, no road map, lots of horror stories and kids here can run out of money or run out of steam. That’s when a ‘safe’ job back home near the folks looks more and more attractive.
“I’ve had many parents tell me they wouldn’t let their kid try it in Hollywood without the safety net we give them.”
Nelson says NCC offers a way to make foot-in-the-door contacts that parlay a kind of pay-it-forward, Neb.-centric nepotism.
“I know the NCC works because I see it over and over. People are constantly making job contacts, finding support, getting roommates, attending each other’s performances, hiring actors and crew for their films. It is going on all the time at every Salon. Hopefully it will happen even more with the interactivity built into the new website. Our goal is to have a kind of virtual salon to help everyone stay in touch with each other in between salons.”
“Even after some folks reach some level of success they come back often and say it gives them a friendly home base.”
Real jobs result from NCC hook-ups.
“As a producer who has hired or recommended over a dozen people to work at CBS-TV over the years, including a young Jon Bokenkamp, I know this group to be a huge resource of great talent. I don’t ever need to go elsewhere to find the best people,” Nelson says.
Nelson’s quick to point out he’s not alone in his home state loyalty.
“Jeopardy executive producer Harry Friedman is from Omaha and he is famous for hiring Nebraskans on his shows. Many others out here from Neb. recommend Nebraskans first. Why wouldn’t they? It always makes sense to hire people you know, or know where they came from, and Nebraskans are almost universally loved for their work ethic, responsibility under pressure and humble ‘get it done’ spirit.”
Nelson says he’s pleased the NCC, which rated a fall L.A. Times feature article, has made it this far.
“I don’t think if you told me 21 years ago that we’d still be going this strong I would have believed it. In fact, it’s kind of moving into some new levels. For example, with the Nebraska screening at Paramount I was able to reach out to all these folks who’ve been salon guests and they were very excited about it.”
Besides Nelson and Payne, attendees at the screening included Bokenkamp, Chris Klein, actor Nicholas D’Agosto and actress turned-mystery author Harley Jane Kozak.
Celebrating success stories like these is part of the deal. But Nelson says the heart of the NCC “will always be a group focused first on the kid that’s been out here for a week, that drove out in his dad’s car full of stuff, is staying on somebody’s couch and has 500 bucks to his name. I mean, that’s really what we’re here to do and that’s going on every month at the salon – somebody showing up for the first time who’s in that circumstance. That’s the way it works.”
Cinematographer Greg Hadwick showed up like that out of Lincoln, recalls Nelson. “I think he drove all night to make it to the salon.” No sooner did Hadwick arrive then he learned Nelson and his then-very pregnant wife were due to move that weekend and he volunteered to help.
“He was just a trooper,” says Nelson. “He rented a truck and stayed late. He was such an incredibly hard worker. He didn’t ask for any money and he wouldn’t take any. The next salon I told the group what he did and somebody who was looking for an assistant hired Greg based on my recommendation, and that kid has gone on to work his butt off in Hollywood, He just showed up, open, ready to jump in. He’s now started his own production company and brought guys out here from his hometown in Neb., so he’s kind of doing his own giving back.”
Nelson says he can usually spot who has what it takes.
“I’ve seen a lot of those kids who try to make it for awhile who don’t stick. Then there’s the ones that right away I know, Oh, yeah, they’re going to do it. There is a certain confidence, I don’t think you can make it in this town without that confidence. But there’s so much more to it than that. In so many ways it’s about, Do they have something to give? There’s a lot of people that come out here and they think, Well, what can I get out of this? Almost without exception the ones who make it are the ones who want to give back.
“I’ll back these people a hundred percent and help them on their way because that’s what you do here, that’s what it’s about.”
The reciprocity continues. Nelson and Payne attended the dedication of Bokenkamp’s restored World Theatre in his hometown of Kearney. Nelson says, “It was a great celebration of Jon’s good work.” Nelson also organized a group to attend a screening of Bokenkanp’s documentary about the waning days of drive-in theaters, After Sunset. Bokenkamp returned the favor speaking at the October salon. The home state contingent turned out in force for the Paramount Nebraska screening. And so it goes with the Coast Connection.
“There’s never been a time when it’s felt like a one-way street,” says Nelson. “It always comes back.”
Follow the Coast Connection on Facebook or at http://hollywoodsalon.org/.
As indie filmmakers go, Dan Mirvish occupies an interesting space. His micro-budgeted features get far more attention than the vast majority of like projects because his films are so singular and he’s such a good promoter. Mirvish is artist, huckster, provocateur all in one. He and his new film Between Us are the subjects of the following piece I wrote for The Reader (www.thereader.com). The film is playing one night only, Aug. 1, at Film Streams in Omaha. Mirvish will speak after the screening. Omaha’s produced few filmmakers over time, most notably Joan Micklin Silver and Alexander Payne, and more recently Nik Fackler, and as my piece suggests Mirvish may be the most interesting among them for his sheer audacity in getting projects made and seen and talked about.
Dan Mirvish Strikes Again: Indie Filmmaker is Back with the New Feature ‘Between Us’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Oriignally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Once dubbed a “cheerful subversive” by The New York Times, indie filmmaker Dan Mirvish uses his skills as a provocateur and promoter to get his obscure work noticed by the very mainstream whose noses he sometimes tweaks.
He’s in rare company as a Nebraska native feature filmmaker. There’s only a handful whose feature work has gotten anything like fairly wide distribution. Joan Micklin Silver is the matriarch. Alexander Payne, the big name. Nik Fackler, the promising newcomer. But the L.A.-based Mirvish may have the most interesting story. His new feature Between Us is a faithful adaptation of the off-Broadway play of the same name by Joe Hortua, who co-wrote the script with Mirvish.
The film stars Taye Diggs, Julia Stiles, David Harbour and Melissa George.
Principally shot in L.A. and New York City, Between Us features pick up shots of Omaha and rural Nebraska to cover the story’s partial Midwest setting. An opening montage shows off the local riverfront.
After playing two dozen festivals around the world the pic is in the midst of a limited theatrical release, including an August 1 Film Streams screening at 7 p.m. followed by a Q&A featuring Mirvish. The film has an Aug. 16-18 run at the World Theater in Kearney, Neb, and will likely make its way to Lincoln at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center. It’s soon to be available via NetFlix, Amazon, et cetera,
Mirvish first attempted the project seven years ago. He was coming off his 2004 real estate musical comedy Open House, a super-charged homage and parody of Hollywood musicals. It got press when he openly campaigned to get the film nominated in the long dormant Best Original Musical category. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences changed its rules to block his brazen maneuver.
Outside interest in adapting Open House to the stage brought Mirvish to New York to meet with theatrical agents. Always searching for material, he asked to read play scripts and discovered Between Us, a dark satire about the shifting relations within and between two couples contending with marriage, life and career conflicts. Suppressed tensions and jealousies get expressed and fireworks ensue.
“I decided to do Between Us because it spoke to me emotionally. It was about married people with young children and it dealt with issues of artistic authenticity that I could relate to,” says Mirvish, who’s married with three young children. “A lot of people can see themselves through the eyes of those characters, I also thought for practical purposes it could work as a low budget movie if it had to be done on a low budget. It’s essentially four people in two rooms.”
He and Hortua did the adaptation, retaining almost everything from the original but adding new material that opened up the piece cinematically, including visualizing things only talked about in the play and using flashbacks to move time and space.
There seemed to be momentum behind the project but then stuff happened.
“We thought we were going to make the movie in 2008 for $2 or $3 million,” says Mirvish. “I got some great producers on board, we were getting these great actors reading the script and then the economy collapsed in the fall of 2008. No one was giving money to make movies. So we put the project on hold.
“Luckily for me a little project I was doing on the side, the Martin Eisenstadt fake pundit project, a series of shorts and CDs and Internet satire, ultimately evolved into a book deal from this very fancy publisher, Farrar, Straus and Giroux.”
He and fellow filmmaker Eitan Gorlin concocted the elaborate Eisenstadt hoax that hoodwinked many major media outlets. The pair’s I Am Martin Eisenstadt novel did quite well critically, thus putting Mirvish in the unusual position of having duped the media and finding himself rewarded and celebrated for it .
“it got better reviews than any film I’ve ever done,” Mirvish says of the book.
Mirvish delights in giving the establishment fits. In 1993 he co-founded the Slamance Film Festival in response to Sundance ignoring smaller indie works. Then he made Omaha, the Movie, perhaps the first indigenous feature shot here by a local crew. He finagled getting VHS tapes of the hyper-kinetic farce into the hands of festival directors and reviewers.
Between Us principal cast Julia Stiles, Taye Diggs, Melissa George, David Harbour
Mirvish is nothing if not persistent and resilient. Several years ago he took a terrible fall from a ladder while remodeling his home. His leg snapped. Broken bones tore through the skin and he lost 40 percent of his blood. He was in the hospital six months, then in a wheelchair for six more and on crutches six months after that. He never stopped working and even fulfilled his Slamdance MC role while still in a wheelchair. The ever intrepid one later worked the experience of the fall and its aftermath into Between Us.
The USC film school grad was mentored by legendary director Robert Altman, whose grandson Dana Altman produced Omaha, the Movie and was an executive producer on Between Us,
After the success of his book Mirvish and native Omahan Sam Johnson, a veteran writer for episodic television, pitched Eistenstadt as a series.
Mirvish says, “We came close to a deal with Showtime. Ashton Kutcher was going to produce. Then a mid-level executive got fired and the whole thing collapsed, which sadly is fairly typical in Hollywood. It was two years of my life with that project.” That’s when Mirvish revived Between Us. He still liked the material and, he says, “it still had the advantage of lending itself to a low budget production.” He got friends, family, even crew, to invest and launched a modest Kickstarter campaign.
Before even most of the money was in hand, Mirvish set a start date.
“Having a start date is really a key thing, and this is something I learned from Robert Altman. If you actually set a start date you’re going to make the movie and you’re going to find a cast. It’s the train leaving the station theory. If the train’s leaving the station people want to be on that train.”
He says the production confirmed another theory he ascribes to that says “every element you have in a movie will at some point drop out – your cast, your camera, your financing, your distribution – but as long as they don’t all drop out the same day you’re going to be OK. And that’s exactly what happened in casting.” Only a few months before shooting he thought his cast would be Diggs, Kerry Washington, Michael C. Hall and America Ferrera. All but Diggs dropped out.
“Taye stuck with it, God bless him, and we built the cast up again.”
Mirvish and Hortua are pleased with the cast they ended up with, David Harbour actually did the play’s first reading and was in its first production.
But the biggest pressure was one that hung over the shoot the whole time.
“The bulk of our financing came from one investor whose check only cleared the third to the last day, which is not the ideal way to make a movie,” says Mirvish. “But you know there were enough people on the crew who were working for free up until that point who really had a passion for the project and the material. We were able to feed off that energy even if we couldn’t feed ourselves with much else.”
Just as he’s done many times before on features and shorts, he begged and borrowed equipment, got free crew, stole locations and did what he had to do. “You just have to have kind of blind faith in your own ingenuity and good luck that somehow it will all come together,” he says.
It’s a good bet that even should Mirvish, now working on a new script set entirely in Omaha, find commercial success he’ll always be a by-any-means necessary guerilla filmmaker at heart.
- Dan Mirvish: Hollywood Director Apologizes for Weiner Press Conference (huffingtonpost.com)
Michael Beasley Follows His Pops John Beasley as a TV-Film Actor, Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small and Big Screen Projects, including ‘Steel Magnolias’
Actor John Beasley is by now a fixture in television, film, and theater. What you may not know is that his son Michael Beasley is charting a career path that may soon surpass his father’s, at least on the small and big screens. I’ve been reporting and writing about the father for many years and now I see I’ll be doing the same with the son. There’s another son, Tyrone Beasley, who’s also an immensely talented actor. You can find my previous stories on John, his theater, and his family on this blog.
Michael Beasley Follows his Father John Beasley in Becomng a TV-Film Actor, The Son’s on a Roll with a String of Small Screen and Big Screen Projects
©by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Don’t look now but Michael Beasley is carving out a film-television career rivaling that of his powerhouse father John Beasley (Rudy, The Apostle).
The nearly 20 feature and made-for-TV pics he’s booked the last few years have him on the verge of being one of the industry’s next breakout character actors.
He’s doing it all too from his adopted home of Atlanta, Ga. and surrounding region, together known as Hollywood South for all the productions shooting there.
“It’s really happening here. A lot of work is moving down here,” he says. “I’ve just been blessed to be kind of the big fish in a small pond at the time when it’s starting to rise.
Papa John says, “He’s been doing quite well. I’m very proud of him.
Many of Beasley’s supporting roles have been in major Hollywood projects, including, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Contraband, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, I Love You Phillip B. Morris and The Great Debaters.
Smaller scale projects have included Mississippi Damned, American Violet, American Reunion and Hero.
Two of his biggest films, both helmed by name directors, have yet to be released. Flight, directed by Robert Zemeckis and starring Denzel Washington, is due out in November. The Bay, directed by Barry Levinson and starring Kristen Connolly, is slated for an early 2013 release. Then there’s Arthur Newman, Golf Pro .
He has the lead in a new indie film, Mystic Rising, still in post-production..
He’s also guest starred in episodic TV, most recently in USA Network’s Necessary Roughness. He has a recurring role in the Starz Channel’s series Magic City.
Sunday, October 7 is the world premiere of a much anticipated Lifetime movie he’s in, the all-black version of Steel Magnolias. The super cast includes Queen Latifah, Phylicia Rashad, Jill Scott and Alfre Woodard. He plays Spud, the husband of Scott’s character Truvy. He and Scott have some scenes together. He’s also a presence in ensemble scenes. At 6-foot-5, he’s hard to miss.
“It was an amazing experience working with all these legends,” he says. “The energy on the set was awesome. I feel we made another classic.”
Trading lines with big names is nothing new for Beasley, who’s worked twice with both Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg and shared screen time with Don Cheadle, John Goodman, Colin Firth, Jennifer Garner, et cetera.
“Being able to work with these actors and hold my own with them has given me total confidence I can do it in any setting. I know i can because I’m putting in the work to do what it takes to be prepared for whatever the role is.”
Beasley, who came to acting after a pro basketball career overseas, looks at every set he’s on, whether a commercial (he’s done one with Shaquille O’Neal, TV show or feature, as “a learning experience.” He’s learned the truth behind the adage there’s no such thing as a small part. Every line, gesture, expression counts.
“It’s exciting to me to get on the set. It’s not like a, Oh-here-we-go-again type of thing. It’s basically a feeling of, ‘Hey, I’m getting paid to do this?’ I think every set is important because I’m learning and building relationships, and so every chance I can be on the set helps me hone my craft.”
Sometimes he talks shop, as he did with Michael Caine and Luis Guzman on Journey 2. Then there’s the fountain of experience he draws from his father, whose extensive film-TV credits are two decades long.
“I’ve always got my father to fall back on and ask, ‘What can I do?’ and with his wealth of knowledge he helps. I was able to see my father’s career and whatever he did, good or bad, and say, ‘I can do this and do it different.'”
Father-son have worked together a few times, mostly at the John Beasley Theater & Workshop in South Omaha, where Michael’s brother, Tyrone, is artistic director.
Michael’s smart enough to know that when surrounded by serious, veteran talent it’s best to be a sponge.
“Yeah, it’s a blessing and I look at it as basically on-the-job training. As soon as I shoot my scenes I run to the monitor to see what these guys are doing. John Goodman is amazing. I mean, I knew his acting was amazing but when you see him do stuff in person, it’s like, ‘Wow.’ It’s stuff you can’t really get in a classroom setting, I don’t think. These guys are actually doing it for real and it works for them.
“It’s seeing what their process is and how they pay attention to detail. They really bring a lot more to just the words on the page. Even working with my father it’s the same way. Unfortunately, I’m down here and he’s up in Omaha. We haven’t been on a set together as far as a movie (though that’s a goal of each).
Even when he’s not “working,” Beasley’s still working it.
“I’m always studying my craft. Even when I’m out in public I’m watching what people do and trying to take from that. I’ve always been like a student of the game.”
Steel Magnolias marked his second time acting with Woodard after American Violet, and his first with director Kenny Leon, who’s directed his father on stage in several August Wilson productions.
Leon says, “Michael’s a very talented young man, I guess it’s in the blood. He really delivered for me in the film. It’s a really honest portrayal. Everybody wants to know, ‘Who’s that guy? Where’d he come from?’” Leon says the apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree. “Both John and Michael are authentic. They both bring it from an organic place. They’re just being. There’s no tricks. They find a simplicity to the life of the people they portray. It’s honest, it’s real, and you can’t teach that.”
He sees big things ahead for the son. “Michael can do anything he wants.”
Every new relationship Beasley cultivates and every new credit he adds to his IMDB page only reinforces his reputation as the hardest working actor around. It’s been one project after another.
“That’s how it’s been. It’s been just like a major ride,” he says.
His goal’s to become a familiar face and name to TV-film viewers and an in-demand talent producers and directors seek out.
“I think I am on the radar. It only takes one movie for you to become famous.”
In no sense does he feel he’s arrived yet.
“Every year I’m like, OK, what can I do that I haven’t done to get me closer to my goal? Every day I try to figure out something I can do, even if I only have an hour to do it. I can read this book or I can workout to enhance my look or I can work on an accent. Whatever I need to I just find a way to do it.”
He hopes to inspire other others to follow their dreams.
“I want people to know it’s a matter of deciding, whatever your dream is, to just go after it and don’t be afraid of failure. That’s what I’m doing, I’m going after my dream, I’m not changing, and I’m going to get it.
“I just have this drive. Whatever it is I do I try to be the best at it. Otherwise, I’m wasting my time in my opinion.”
- 1989′s Steel Magnolia Remake (celebamnesia.wordpress.com)
Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’
Gabrielle Union. She’s hard to ignore because of her beauty, intelligence, confidence, grit, and good heart. All those qualities and more are on display in a new PBS documentary event, Half the Sky, premiering Oct. 1 and 2 that features her as one of six celebrity advocates who travel to different corners of the world to explore women and girls overcoming oppression. Those traits are reportedly also on display in her title role performance in the new BET movie, Being Mary Jane, that’s set to premiere early next year before developing into a series. My cover story on Union below is the latest among three cover stories I’ve done on the actress over the years. You can find the previous stories on this blog as well. I expect I’ll file more Gabby stories in the future as well.
Gabrielle Union Takes Serious Turn in BET Drama ‘Being Mary Jane’ and PBS Documentary ‘Half the Sky’
by Leo Adam Biga
Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gabrielle Union has reached a point in her film and television career where she’s doing more meaningful projects. Not by accident either. The maturing actress known for her assertive persona and frank views has been ever more deliberate about her personal and professional choices.
“Probably since 2006 I’ve been concentrating on making sure I’m happy and doing things for the right reason and surrounding myself with good, positive people and eliminating the rest,” says the Omaha native with mega family and friends here. “I’ve got a peace of mind I’ve never had and I’m just really happy.”
It seems hard to believe but this glam goddess is 40 now. She’s still enough of a pop culture presence and sex symbol to grace the cover of the new EBONY magazine. She’s the perfect age, too, for the driven title character she plays in the new BET movie Being Mary Jane. The drama, slated to air in early 2013, is leveraged to become the network’s first original dramatic series.
The movie premiered at the recent Urbanworld Film Festival in Manhattan.
Her character Mary Jane Paul is a smart, popular Atlanta TV host striving to have it all in a male-dominated field while her biological clock ticks.
It might as well be describing Union’s real life as a single black female juggling career, family, living large and causes. Mary Jane’s another in a long line of her together black women roles. As she puts it, “I don’t mind creating positive images for women of color.” She says she and her two adult sisters, both successful in their own right, are confident, capable people today in large measure because of her mother, Theresa Glass Union, a former social worker and corporate manager.
Gabby’s no stranger herself to career and relationship issues. After her marriage to former NFL player Chris Howard ended in divorce she was a free agent. Then she met NBA icon Dwyane Wade, whose own marriage dissolved. Since finding each other on the rebound they’ve become a favorite power couple in celeb circles.
But it’s a project that didn’t require Union to do any acting that may make her most enduring impression. She’s one of six celebrity advocates in the new PBS transmedia documentary series Half the Sky. It premieres October 1 and 2. Union and Co. serve as witnesses and guides for this sprawling, multi-continent media event that examines the oppression of girls and women in developing nations.
The despairing realities revealed are offset by the courageous actions of individuals and organizations, so-called agents of change, working to improve conditions on the ground.
The title comes from the best selling book by noted New York Times journalists Nicholas Kristof and Sherly WuDunn. The series explores how girls and women in poverty become trapped in family-society restraints that limit opportunities and enable abuse, servitude and discrimination. The film finds education the most powerful liberating force for freeing people from bondage.
Girls are often discouraged from completing their education and even if they do they must still confront serious obstacles. Some do. Many don’t.
Producers invited Union to participate along with fellow actresses Diane Lane, Eva Mendes, Meg Ryan, Olivia Wilde and America Ferrera. Each was assigned to travel to a separate developing nation (Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Pakistan) with Kristof. Their mission – to investigate what problems females face and report on proven remedies. Union and her peers acted as citizen journalists – their curiosity, empathy and questions complementing the professional reporter’s work.
Having a celebrity tag along is nothing new for Kristof.
“Nick has a history of engaging witnesses in his travels as a reporter,” says Half the Sky executive producer and director Maro Chermayeff. “He does his yearly Win-a-Trip where readers apply to go on an extensive journalist’s trip with him and he’s also traveled with Angelina Jolie and George Clooney (the actor intros the series). He has a very hard core following and what he’s often said about that is he wants to ‘bring fresh eyes.'”
In whatever corner of the world the celebrities, Kristof and filmmakers went they met females in distress as well as advocates working on their behalf. Chermayeff profiles select girls and women, whose stories become the prism through which we view the problems and solutions.
Union spent two weeks with Kristof and Chermayeff for a segment set in Vietnam‘s Mekong Delta. The actress got close with two girls there, Duyen and Nhi, both of whom contend with barriers to try and further their education.
“Their stories are amazing and their overcoming adversity kind of puts everything in perspective,” says Union.
During her Delta stay she met John Wood, co-founder of Room to Read, an NGO providing books and support to millions of children worldwide. It got its start in Vietnam. Duyen and Nhi are both Room to Read scholars. She also met a pair of Vietnam nationals who work as program facilitators with the girls and their families.
Half the Sky promotional materials brand the project’s ambitious aim as “turning oppression into opportunity” through programs and efforts that “seek to engage, educate and motivate the world to action.”
Union says the experience opened her eyes to the “very skewed idea Americans have of Vietnam.” She says she went “open to hearing the stories from the war and the rebuilding that happened after the war.” She adds she was most surprised by how “for the most part the Vietnamese are very openly welcoming of Americans.”
Chermayeff, who made the HBO doc The Kindness of Strangers in Omaha, says some colleagues questioned using celebrities
“But we knew celebrities could do two things. They could be fresh eyes and they could also shine a light, bounce a little bit of their ability to draw in a different audience on these very important issues.”
At a screening of the finished film she says skeptics acknowledged how effective the advocates are as “a bridge between the audience and the experience.”
“We knew we didn’t want the talent to distract from the stories or to be playing the role of an expert. They’re not experts. But we knew we were reaching out to women who were socially engaged, who had walked this walk and talked this talk before. They were working in this space. Gabrielle Union’s done extensive work with young women and girls on gender based violence in the States.”
Union’s heavily involved in supporting rape victims and raising money for cancer research. While a student at UCLA she was raped at the job she worked. From the time her film-TV career took off in the late 1990s she’s spoken candidly about what happened and she encourages victims to become survivors whose voices are heard. After close friend Kristen Martinez died of breast cancer Union devoted herself to spreading the word about the need for breast cancer screenings, which she does as a Susan G. Komen for the Cure ambassador.
When asked to carry her activism to Half the Sky she balked at first, only because she was coming off an especially busy period, but after seeing how it aligned with her own values and interests in empowering females, she signed on.
“I just couldn’t say no. i just wanted to be part of telling the story. It was incredibly humbling. I mean, I do a lot of work for women and girls on behalf of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Planned Parenthood, the UCLA Rape Crisis Center. I lobby state legislatures and the U.S. Senate and Congress to create funding for rape crisis centers. I’m on the President’s Committee to stop violence against women.
“I was happy to do be asked to take part in such a huge project as Half the Sky in bringing awareness to the issue of girls and women living in oppression.”
The much-anticipated series is the kind of prestige, serious endeavor that might gain her a whole new following. Most of her recent film work has been in black-themed soap operas featuring her niche as a sharp-tongued shrew with a heart-of-gold (Deliver Us From Eva, Think Like a Man, Tyler Perry’s Mr. Good Deeds) though those pictures do have wide crossover appeal.
While not apparent at first there’s a thruline from Half the Sky to Being Mary Jane to other work she’s doing because they’re all projects that matter to her.
Mary Jane is produced by Mara Brock Akil and Salim Akil, the hot writer-director team whose BET series The Game is a phenomenon. They’ve also collaborated on the network’s Girlfriends and the feature Sparkle.
Mary Jane Paul may be no stretch for Union, whose real life intelligence, strength and independence have sustained her in a rough business, but it represents one of the few times she’s gained the lead in a straight dramatic role. The Akils promise to give her more to work with than the bitchy divas she initially drew attention with or the stalwart, largely thankless wifely supporting parts she’s lately assumed.
She says she’s long wanted to work with the couple and recalls a conversation she once had with Mara Brock Akil about the types of roles and projects she desired. Ones with substance and relevance. She feels Mary Jane realizes those aspirations, saying it’s the best TV pilot script she’s read since Scandal, the ABC thriller series she wanted but didn’t land (Kerry Washington got the lead).
Besides the creative team behind it Union says what ultimately sold her on Mary Jane is its very real, true depiction of aspirational single black women just like herself and her friends. The dramatic situations, whether with family or romantic relationships or work dynamics, seem drawn from her and their own lives.
Not surprisingly, she often calls actor friends for feedback when weighing a possible career-changing role.
“Anytime I have a question about acting and should I do it, should I not do it, I call Sanaa Lathan (the star of Something Different).”
Mary Jane was such a natural fit Union didn’t necessarily need her friend’s counsel this time. She did on the underrated and undersign Cadillac Records (2008).
“I asked Sanna about it and she said, ‘Baby, if it doesn’t scare you, you shouldn’t do it.’ And if you look at her choices she definitely lives by that and I’ve tried to incorporate more of that. Even auditioning for things where I’m like, ‘Oh, gosh, there’s no way in hell I’ll get that,’ and most often I don’t but to even put myself in a position of trying and to stretch myself as an actor and to put myself out there as an actor and to take more risks feels pretty good.”
Union’s embraced her share of risks, too. In Neo Ned (2005) her character and a neo-Nazi played by Jeremy Renner fall hard for each other in the confines of a psych ward.
On the surface her Cadillac Records part as Geneva Wade, the girlfriend of Muddy Waters, may seem safe but she says it was a stretch because, “one, there was no glamour to it, and two, there was no humor.” Thus, it exposed her. “Yeah, it’s scary to not be able to have a lot of hair and makeup and to not look glamorous and to not always get the punchline, so it was a little nerve wracking for me.”
“And if you’re going to put people in victim or hero mode she was a bit of a victim of Muddy Waters,” says Union. “She took a lot of grief, she was the long-suffering partner but she stood by him and she supported him and she dealt with whatever came her way and she did it with quiet dignity and class.”
Union says, “It reminded me so much of my mother’s story and so many women of that generation or now who deal with that same thing, and I tried to portray it with as much respect as I could.”
The star’s parents divorced years ago.
Half the Sky took Union out of her comfort zone again. Minus a script. she wasn’t asked to be anyone but herself. No where to hide. Minus a wardrobe of styling outfits, she wore practical casuals for negotiating dikes and roadways and coping with rainy season downfalls and repressive tropical climes.
Chermayeff admires that Union threw herself into this immersion experience with poor working class families living on dikes in the delta.
“I love her, she’s a great girl.”
Dueyn’s family lives in a makeshift tent after their shack was flooded. Just to get to school is an epic journey for the girl, who must cross waterways in boats and then make a 17-mile trek by bike, each way. To appreciate how much effort all that takes Union retraced the route alongside the girl, including making the bike trip.
As Kristof shares in a voice-over, “Duyen is kind of a classic situation in rural areas where you have a girl who’s so bright and so capable but she’s a long way from any school…and that is far from unique in the developing world.”
Union explains in her own voice-over, “I think I realized just how long, how lonely her journey home is. Crap roads, crazy vegetation where anyone can hide. Anything could happen to her in 17 miles, and she’s just rolling by herself. I asked, ‘Does anyone ever bug you as you’re riding home?’ and she said, ‘Oh yeah… men have stopped me before.'”
Human predators prey on targets like Duyen. In certain parts of the world it can mean being sold or kidnapped into the sex trafficking underworld.
Sometimes the abuser’s right inside the family. Nhi is forced to sell lottery tickets by her father, whom, she reveals, beats her when she doesn’t sell her entire allotment.
“It’s probably a lot worse than even what she’s shared because she can’t control it,” Union tells the Room to Read facilitator. “With Nhi everything she’s feeling you can see. She’s trained by her father you don’t tell the neighbors what’s going on, you don’t tell your teachers, you don’t tell anyone what happens in this house but her emotions are betraying her.
“For a lot of children in disadvantaged situations and households education’s a safe haven. (School’s) a place where for the most part you can trust the people there and it’s a few hours every day where you are physically safe and good things are happening.”
“That’s a story that was very, very close to Gabby’s heart because Nhi was really working and struggling,” says Chermayeff.
As Union tells the facilitator, “When I was 19 and I left home I ended up getting raped…When you’re raped it’s the absence of control, so the one thing I could control was school and I just dove into my school work and I became an amazing student. So I can relate to Nhi being so driven in school and I just wish for girls who have to go through any kind of adversity that they have education as an outlet for healing.”
The actress says she came away from Vietnam inspired by “the perseverance of these young girls, who move hell and high water to get an education. If that means paying for it themselves, they pay for it themselves, if that means living away from their families they do that.” She says Nhi’s situation so moved her that she and Dwyane Wade have set up a scholarship fund for Nhi to complete her studies.
Union’s helping Wade raise his two sons and a nephew. She has three new young siblings to dote on now, too, since her mom, who lives in Omaha, recently adopted three pre-school aged children. The children’s biological mother is a niece to Glass and a cousin to Union.
“It’s like we’re starting over,” Union says . “I’m coming back in big sister mode trying to mold a set of young people and provide as much as we can. It’s kind of like we’re going back in time and we get to do it over and fix some of the mistakes we made in the past. My mom very much believes in we-are-our-brother’s keeper and you’re only as strong as your weakest link, and she refuses to let our family down.”
For more on the documentary, visit http://www.halftheskymovement.org.
- Girls Gone Global (thedailybeast.com)
- Will You Join the Half the Sky Movement? (blog-aauw.org)
- Join Six Amazing Actresses for an Inspiring Television Event | Independent Lens | PBS – Trailer (point4counterpoint.wordpress.com)