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/.
Bwiti ceremony using iboga
The Film Dude, Nik Fackler, Goes His Own Way Again, this Time to Nepal and Gabon To Shoot Psychotropic Documentaries About a Young Buddha and the Bwiti Culture’s Iboga Initiation
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Fresh off the warm reception to his debut feature, Lovely, Still, Omaha‘s Film Dude, Nik Fackler, is unexpectedly making his next two film projects documentaries.
Following the path of cinema adventurer Werner Herzog, Fackler’s tramping off to shoot one film in Nepal and the other in Gabon, Africa, drawn to each exotic locale by his magnificent obsession with indigenous cultures and ways.
Fackler, Lovely producer Dana Altman and two other crew left August 11 for Gabon in west central Africa. They plan living weeks with the shamanistic Mitsogo, whose practice of Bwiti involves ingesting the hallucinogenic iboga root. The mind-altering initiation ritual is about healing.
“Part of it is you’ve got to prove yourself to the tribe,” says Fackler. “They don’t just give it to anybody, especially Westerners.”
The extreme project is based in a fascination with and use of ancient, underground medicines and practices.
“I have a great interest in dreams and a great interest in psychedelic experience. I’ve had a lot of healing I’ve gone through using silicide mushrooms,” says Fackler.
A heroin addict friend is along for this exploration.
Bwiti initiation ceremony with iboga
A quest for spiritual enlightenment brought Fackler and Lovely DP Sean Kirby to Nepal in May to film the end of a six-year fasting and meditative regimen by Dharma Sangha. The filmmakers followed Boy Buddha’s exodus, with tens of thousands of followers gathered, and plan returning in the fall.
Fackler is tackling the unlikely projects while awaiting financing for his next two narrative features: an untitled puppet film with illustrator Tony Millionaire; and a phantasmagorical mythology pic called We the Living.
The docs square nicely with Fackler’s eclectic interests in alternative therapies and philosophies.
“I’m always searching. There’s so many beautiful cultures out there. I have to explore and learn as much as I possibly can. I have to go out there to discover them, document them, before they disappear into the weird one-world culture we’re heading towards.”
Mere days before leaving for Africa he still wasn’t sure the Bwiti cultists were on board, but put his faith in miracles.
“I suppose I’m in the mindset of looking at everything in a magical way rather than an intellectual way. That’s sort of where I need to be to make a film like this.”
- Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe (wornjournal.com)
- Gabon leader wants Obama to spotlight Africa (sfgate.com)
- New search for missing US trekker in Nepal (sfgate.com)
- Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- African Shamanism (raymondjclements.wordpress.com)
Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice
Over the past 20 years I have had the opportunity of stumbling upon some filmmakers from my native Nebraska whose work has inspired me and many others. I first became aware of Alexander Payne back when I was programming art films in the late 1980s-early 1990s. This was before he’d directed his first feature. I read something about him somewhere and I ended up booking his UCLA thesis film, The Passion of Martin, for screenings by the nonprofit New Cinema Cooperative. Hardly anyone came, but his work was unusually mature for someone just out of college. That lead to my interviewing him in the afterglow of his feature debut, Citizen Ruth, and his making Election. I’ve gone on to interview him dozens of times and to write extensively about his work. I even spent a week on the set of Sideways. I almost made it to Hawaii for a couple days on the set of his film, The Descendants. I may be spending weeks on the set of his next film, Nebraska. It’s been an interesting ride to chart the career of someone who has become one of the world’s preeminent filmmakers.
More recently, I was fortunate enough to get in on the evolving young career of Nik Fackler, whose feature debut, Lovely, Still, shows him to be an artist of great promise.
More recently still I discovered Charles Fairbanks, a true original whose short works, including Irma and Wrestling with My Father, defy easy categorization. He is someone who will be heard from in a major way one day.
In between Fackler and Fairbanks I was introduced to Omowale Akintunde, an academic and artist whose short film Wigger became the basis for his feature of the same name. Akintunde and Wigger are the subjects of the following story, which appears in The Reader (www.thereader.com). The small indie film, made entirely in Omaha, is getting some theater exposure around the country.
This blog contains numerous stories about these filmmakers and others I’ve had the pleasure to interview and profile.
Omowale Akintunde’s In-Your-Face Race Film for the New Millennium, ‘Wigger,’ Introduces America to a New Cinema Voice
©by Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
After premiering here last year, and in limited theatrical release around the country, the dynamic looking and sounding film returns for a 7 p.m., July 28 red carpet screening at the Twin Creek Cinema. It’s back just in time for Native Omaha Days (July 27-August 1), the biennial African-American heritage celebration.
The film, definitively set in North Omaha, plays off a young white man, Brandon (David Oakes), so enamored with African-American culture he’s adopted its trappings. He pursues a R & B career amid skeptics, users and haters. His interracial relationships, both platonic and romantic, are tinged with undercurrents.
“He feels he has transcended whiteness,” says Akintunde, chair of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Department of Black Studies. “On the other hand, his father is a very overt racist who calls people nigger, talks about fags and Jews. He’s very open about his biases. So Brandon sees himself as disconnected from his father.”
Brandon’s best friend, Antoine, is black. As pressures build, the two have a falling out, each accusing the other of racism, unintentionally setting in motion a tragedy.
“There’s just some things you learn in a black household you don’t get in a white household, and vice versa,” says Eric Harvey, who plays Antoine and co-produced the film, “so that line between them keeps them from being as close as they really want to be. They’re both in denial of self-conscious racism.
“It’s not a bad thing, it’s a reality. We do things without thinking about it. Seriously, it’s been embedded for so long it’s just the norm.”
This is the prism through which Akintunde, who produced, wrote and directed the film, examines polarizing attitudes. Nearly everyone in the film exhibits some prejudice or engages in some profiling. Race and privilege cards abound.
“I thought this story…was the perfect premise to get into some real deep stuff,” says Akintunde. “It’s about these two characters with this improbable dream. This white boy who loves black culture and wants to be accepted comes from a background that says, why would you want to be like THEM? And then them telling him you’re not one of US. And how does one make that fit?”
The film suggests a post-racial world is a fallacy short of some deep reckoning or ongoing discussion. It’s message is that not confronting or deconstructing our racial hangups has real consequences. Akintunde can spout rhetoric with the best, but his film never devolves into preaching.
He does something else in offering a raw, authentic slice of black inner city life here with glimpses of Native Omaha Days, the club scene, neighborhoods, church. He avoids the misrepresentations of another urban drama set here, Belly (1998).
“This is the first film that really deals with North Omaha and attempts to make icons of the things that have become emblematic of it,” says Akintunde. “I really did want to show this city and that community some big love. It was very intentional I made the location a character in this film.”
Rare for any small independent, even more so for a locally produced one, Wigger is managing theatrical bookings at commercial houses, albeit mostly one-night engagements, coast to coast. In classic roadshow fashion, the filmmaker is brokering screenings through his own Akintunde Productions. He pitches exhibitors and when he sells a theater or chain on the flick he often appears, film in hand, to help promote it. He often does a post-show Q & A.
The success is the latest affirmation for Akintunde, who has a solid reputation as a serious artist and scholar. His 2009 nonfiction film, An Inaugural Ride to Freedom, which charts the bus trek a group of Omahans made to the Obama presidential inauguration, won a regional Emmy as Best Cultural Documentary.
The Alabama native has heeded his creative and academic sides for as long as he can remember. “I always wanted to be a university professor and I always wanted to make films,” he says. “I wanted to make films because there are so many people who will never attend a university, who will never be involved in a high level ivory tower discussion, and movies reach everybody. What I always wanted to do is to meld those two worlds — to use film to teach academics.”
In a career that’s seen him widely published on issues like white privilege and diversity, he’s penned academic texts, short stories, a novel and a children’s book. He says he always conceives his stories cinematically. Well into his professional career though, the cinephile still hadn’t realized his dream of filmmaking.
“It was one of those things you always wanted to do but everyone discouraged you from because they felt you needed a real job,” he says. “No one ever thought that was a credible goal. I finally reached a point where I realized credibility was determined by me, and if I had a passion for filmmaking I needed to do what…makes me happy. That was one of the missing things in my life.”
During a sabbatical he attended the New York Film Academy‘s Conservatory Filmmaking Program. His thesis project was a short version of Wigger. Another of his shorts, Mama ‘n ‘Em, was selected for the Hollywood Black Film Festival.
An expanded Wigger script became his feature debut. He and producer Michael Murphy financed the film themselves. Akintunde imported principal cast and crew from outside Nebraska, including film-television actors Meshach Taylor (who was in the short) and Anna Maria Horsford, cinematographer Jean-Paul Bonneau and composers Andre Mieux and Chris Julian.
“I didn’t follow any of the traditional methodologies in terms of even making Wigger, much less how I promote it and get it out there.”
Kim de Patri (Kim Patrick), who plays Antoine’s girlfriend Shondra, says the script’s unvarnished truth grabbed her.
“It said every single thing most people think (about race) but would never actually say. It was the way it was said and the voice it was speaking from, these characters. It was so real and so honest and it came from a very genuine place.”
Taylor, a big advocate of Akintunde’s, says he likes how the film “challenges people’s concepts of what racism really is” by dealing with “the reality of institutionalization racism,” adding, “It’s not an overt thing, it’s really built into the system.” He says he and Akiintunde just click. “I like what he’s trying to do. It’s really wonderful to have someone who has an intellectual approach to filmmaking but still has the artistic sensibility to make it fun and interesting to watch.”
To date, Akintunde has arranged limited bookings in mid and major markets, ranging from Minneapolis and Birmingham to Denver, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. It’s one continuous run was at the Edge 12 in Birmingham, the home of Tim Jennings, who has a supporting role. Akintunde says an Edge Theaters official “became a big fan and supporter” of the film and offered a one-week run.
Future screenings are scheduled in Chicago, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and New York City. He’s negotiating with Edge for new, multi-date runs.
Kim de Patri (Kim Patrick)
With Wigger, he’s taken a subject and set of conventions rife with stereotype and exploitation possibilities and dramatized them as an extension of his scholarship. His goal is as much to frame a dialogue as to make a profit.
“My biggest objective here was to really put a story out there that would compel people to talk about institutionalized bias in a way that I don’t think we’ve had. I really wanted to have a national conversation about this.”
In the tradition of Do the Right Thing and A Time for Burning, which was shot in Omaha 45 years ago, Wigger makes a full-frontal assault on our expectations.
“Obviously, I chose a very provocative and incendiary title because I want it to evoke a very strong, visceral response. I want to incite people. I want to grab America by the collar and just shake them,” he says. “The title itself is very problematic for people because we live in a society where we won’t even pronounce the word nigger. It becomes the “n word” in any context in which we use it.
“In many of the (Q & A) discussions we talk about why I gave the film such a provocative title — it’s because I want people to stop and think. Certain words are simple, symbolic representations of a much deeper social problem that we tend to mask by using silly euphemisms, as if we do not know what they mean, instead of looking at why the actual word bothers us.”
The film deftly handles topics usually glossed over or overdone without becoming pedantic or sensationalistic, though it does get melodramatic. As an “ethnic” genre pic, it draws largely black audiences, but enough of a mix that Akintunde is able to gauge how it plays to black and white viewers.
“There has not been a huge disparity in response and I think that’s because Wigger takes on multiple kinds of institutionalized biases. What I find is people see in a sense the mirror being held up to themselves.”
If nothing else, he hopes the film encourages viewers to see past the taboo or race.
“In our society we’re taught the way you demonstrate you’re not racist is to pretend you don’t know race exists. Because of this color blind mentality we’re all supposed to be adopting, we have come to a point where we can’t discuss the 600 pound gorilla in the room, and what Wigger does is give people an opportunity to discuss the 600 pound gorilla.
“But it goes beyond that — to our gender, our class, our sexuality, our religious beliefs. These are so interwoven and so inextricably bound that it is impossible to construct yourself in any of those domains without taking into consideration the others.”
Wigger shows how racism, sexism and other isms thrive in both white and black culture. Everyone is guilty of some kind of bias.
“I try not to make a compelling argument of black versus white,” says Akintunde, “but about what it means to be either and how we can transcend these boundaries, these ridiculous social constructions, these radicalized expectations that keep us divided. I believe we have the ability to cross these boundaries and truly become a society resolute in its solidarity.
“I think the reason people don’t leave that film feeling as if they’re more divided is because of the way the film is structured. I think you cant help but see how really alike we are. It’s hard to walk away from this movie seeing the world in, no pun intended, black and white.”
Relegating someone to a narrow category or box, he says, diminishes that person and in the process only widens the gulf between individuals and groups.
“I don’t think they are things that exist on their own. I don’t think people are born heterosexist or are racist or Christian. We are taught these positions, we are taught these ideologies, and we reinforce them in our social context in such discreet ways that we’re formed and shaped into opinions and ideas long before we understand that’s what has happened to us.
“Nobody can be plugged comfortably into one of these slots. It ain’t that damn simple. It never has been that simple. It’s a very complex thing.”
The film unabashedly “goes there” by unearthing the fear and anger alternative lifestyles generate, from gay revelations to interracial affairs to wigger mainfestations.
“Society paints a picture of what it wants to see and some people just don’t want to see certain things,” says de Patri (Patrick).
Overcoming these barriers, in Akintunde’s view, starts with recognizing them for what they are and how complicit we are in maintaining them.
“The thing I want to get across to people is that it’s all of our problem. Even if you think you’re just a victim, you’re not, you are a participant. It’s not a white problem, and it’s not a black problem, and it’s not a gay problem. It is a human problem.”
Omowale Akintunde reviews script with cast
Akintunde enjoys the canvass film provides for expressing multi-layered themes.
“I’m very attracted to film as a way of telling that story because I think it allows you more complexity.”
Wigger marks the beginning for what he hopes is a string of films, but for now, he says, “it’s the fruition of my life’s work.” He’s justifiably proud the film’s getting seen.
“For an independent filmmaker to even get a film to run continuously anywhere for any length of time is an extraordinary achievement, and I got that to happen.”
The exhibition schedule is being revised as new screening opportunities surface.
“I had this carefully laid out plan, man, with absolute linearity, and instead things are happening in the moment.”
He says the film’s well received wherever it plays and is invited back in some cases for additional screenings, including Las Vegas and Birmingham.
“Obviously, I would love to see the movie in an even larger roll out and I think that that is happening,” he says. “I didn’t plan that Edge Theaters was going to pick up the movie. I didn’t plan these people in Vegas and Birmingham would want me to come back. I’m going to go with what happens in that moment and just enjoy it. I’m sort of like riding the wave.”
He says there’s been preliminary talk about Rave Theaters pickiing up Wigger. He’s also following up a lead about potential interest from BET in acquiring the film for network broadcast. Wigger will eventually go to Blu-Ray and DVD.
“I am still seeking a distribution deal.”
Considering its small marketing budget, he’s pleased with the film’s performance.
“We sell out the house wherever we play. I’m not making a killing, but certainly making back the money invested to bring the movie to these theaters. I have a real job, so for me it’s not so pressing my movie makes a lot of money, Of course, I want it to make money if for no other reason then to allow me to make more films.”
His unpublished novel, Waiting for the Sissy Killer, is the basis for a new feature he’s planning. The partly autobiographical story concerns a young black man trying to cope with identity issues in the 1960s South. Akintunde hopes to begin pre-production in the fall. He plans shooting the project in his native Alabama.
Omaha rapper ASO headlines the 6:30 p.m. Wigger pre-show at Twin Creek Cinema. Performing at the Blue Martini after-party is co-composer Andre Mieux.
Tickets are $20 for the screening, pre-show and party and available at http://www.WiggerThe Film.com, Youngblood’s Barber Shop, Loves Jazz & Arts Center and Twin Creek.
- Back in the Day, Native Omaha Days is Reunion, Homecoming, Heritage Celebration and Party All in One (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Walking Behind to Freedom, A Musical Theater Examination of Race (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- A Rich Music History Long Untold is Revealed and Celebrated at the Omaha Black Music Hall of Fame (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Rev. Everett Reynolds Gave Voice to the Voiceless (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omahans Take Stock of the African-American Experience in Their Hometown (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Native Omaha Days: A Black is Beautiful Celebration, Now, and All the Days Gone By (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Luigi’s Legacy, The Late Omaha Jazz Artist Luigi Waites Fondly Remembered (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Enchantress “LadyMac” Gets Down (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Get Crackin’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Arno Lucas, Serious Sidekick (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- The Film Dude, Nik Fackler, Goes His Own Way Again, this Time to Nepal and Gabon (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Vincent Alston’s Indie Film Debut, ‘For Love of Amy,’ is Black and White and Love All Over (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
One of my favorite “discoveries” from the past decade is fellow Omaha native Yolonda Ross, a supremely talented actress whose work back here has gone largely unnoticed for some reason. I caught up with her the first time, for the story that follows, not long after her breakthrough starring role in the HBO women’s prison movie Stranger Inside brought her to the attention of the television/film industry and just before Antwone Fisher was released and her small but telling role as Cousin Nadine made an impression. She’s proved a daring artist in her choice of material and is exploring writing-directing opportunities in addition to acting gigs. My story below appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com) and a later profile I did on her for that same publication can also be found on this blog.
NOTE: More recently, Yolonda’s had a recurring role as Dana Lyndsey on the acclaimed HBO drama Treme. Another Omaha actor of note, John Beasley, just nabbed a recurring role on the same series. Small world.
Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader
With her sweet-sassy voice, orange-tinged Afro, almond-shaped eyes, real-women-have-curves bod and cool hip-hop vibe, Yolonda Ross gets her groove-on exploring a seemingly boundless creativity.
The Omaha native left town soon after graduating Burke High School in the early 1990s to work in the New York fashion industry before carving out a career on stage and in front of the camera. This rising young film/television actress with a penchant for essaying gritty urban sistas is on the verge of break-out success between her acclaimed star turn in the 2001 HBO women’s prison drama Stranger Inside and supporting performances in two new high-profile films slated for release this winter. Due out first is Antwone Fisher, the directorial debut of Oscar-winner Denzel Washington. Next, is The United States of Leland, a project produced by Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey. She’s now looking to develop a script she wrote into a feature she would also appear in.
Whatever happens with her career, this confident woman of color has an array of artistic flavas to explore. “I like creating in a lot of ways — writing, painting, making clothes, singing, acting,” the New York resident said upon a recent swing-through Omaha to visit family. It was that way even growing-up with her three sisters. “I’ve always been into fashion. I would be up in the middle of the night making things to wear to school the next day. It’s a creative thing to be able to start and finish something and say that you made it. It’s just something I really like to do — that and interior design.” And music. “Me and all my sisters were always musical. I always liked to sing. I didn’t get really serious about it until I was in New York. A roommate who’s a producer had me cut a Billie Holiday cover.” Before long, she said, Ross had her own three-piece band and got offered a Motown demo deal. “I didn’t go for it,” she said. “They were trying to change my jazz into something else.”
New York sustains and energizes Ross. “When you’re in New York you’re always hustling, you’re always doing a variety of things to see which breaks. There’s always stuff happening and you can just literally walk into things,” she said. One gig would lead to another, making her early years there “growing and learning…not really so much struggling.” Prior to 9/11 she lived near the World Trade Center. She was in L.A. when the tragedy occured and took her time moving back. New York is where she feels “at home” again. “I like being on the street with people. I hate driving. I like walking and being a part of it. I’m a downtown person. It works for me.”
When she first went to the Big Apple, she didn’t know a soul there. Undeterred, she stayed to fulfill a long-held vow “to go to New York.” Within a few years there she transitioned from working as a buyer for trendy Soho botiques to modeling (Black Book) to fronting her own band in Greenwich Village gigs to appearing in music videos for the Beastie Boys, L.L. Cool J and Raphfael Saadiq and D’Angelo.
After honing her dramatic skills in classes, she began acting in small theater productions, appearing in recurring roles on Saturday Night Live and daytime shows and getting guest leads in TV series (a cop in New York Undercover, a beleaguered mother in Third Watch). She said she learned more about acting from singing than formal training.
“I’ve taken classes…but it was like being on stage with people you didn’t really like and saying words you didn’t really feel. When I started singing is when I understood that key of emotion and emoting through different characters. Behind everything I do is music. Now, when I do something, it’s not me anymore. I mean, you get a little bit of me with it, but I’m just the conveyor of the writer’s and director’s vision.”
Then along came the part of her young life. On the strength of her TV work, the script for Stranger came her way and after reading it Ross felt the role of Treasure Lee was meant for her.
“I thought it was amazing. I understood it so well. I knew where she was coming from and everything. I was like, I’ve got to get this part. I went in and auditioned. There were a lot of other girls there. I just did my thing and left and I got a call back. I ended up getting a call back three times. The producers flew me out to L.A., where it was like a month of auditioning, and I ended up getting it.”
Written and directed by black-lesbian filmmaker Cheryl Dunye, Stranger takes the conventions of Hollywood prison films and applies a feminist-dyke twist to them, offering a raw depiction of women’s life inside the pen. Ross portrays the troubled Lee, a desperate young woman trying to forge a bond with the mother she never knew, Brownie, a lifer and queenpin behind bars. Her work earned her the 2001 IFP Gotham Award for Breakthrough Actor, a Best Debut Performance nomination from the Independent Spirit Awards and an Outfest Screen Idol Award nomination for Best Performance By an Actress in a Lead Role. In 2001, she was named one of Variety’s “10 Actors to Watch.”
While never tackling a role as large or demanding as Treasure before — in one scene she endures a full nude body search and in another is pleasured with oral sex by a fellow inmate — she embraced the challenge, fully aware of just how juicy a part it was.
“To be able to do Treasure and to do everything that was in that script — I welcomed it — I really did — because I knew I had this chance that a lot of people don’t get and I wasn’t about to mess it up.”
Making the part resonate for Ross was its reality.
“Treasure, to me, was like a real person, not just a movie person. With a lot of scripts you read the characters don’t really evolve. The thing I like about Stranger is the characters aren’t one-dimensional. They’re good, strong female characters that let you see other sides.”
She said playing a profane, violent, overtly sexual woman was liberating. “The freedom to be able to get things out through her and to stretch through her was something I looked forward to. As Yolonda, I’m not going to act the way Treasure would — not that I don’t have it inside me — but I need to get those things out and use them and caress them and fine-tune them.”
Researching the role brought Ross to some California women’s prisons, where she met inmates. The film was shot at the “eerie” abandoned Cybil Brand Prison. Rehearsals lasted four weeks, which she welcomed. “You see, I’m not one of those ad-lib people. I like to know exactly what I’m doing. Sometimes, in rehearsal, little things come up and you find things. I feel once you hit it, you should leave it alone until you shoot it.”
She said filming was such a blast “I didn’t want it to end.” As for the finished film, she feels Dunye captured the truth without compromise. “It wasn’t glossed up. It didn’t get sliced up. All the emotions came through. I thought it was a great job and I’m proud of it.” The only downside to making Treasure her first lead, Ross said, is that without much of a track record behind her casting directors “didn’t know how much of it was acting and how much of it was me.”
Even though it meant playing another “bad girl,” Ross jumped at the chance to be in Fisher. The film is based on the best-selling book, The Antwone Fisher Story, in which Fisher, who adapted his own book to the screen, details his real life odyssey of childhood abandonment, foster care abuse, adult rage and — with the help of a good woman and a psychiatrist (played by Washington) — overcoming trauma to emerge a successful husband, father and artist.
Ross portrays Cousin Nadine, a foster family abuser in Fisher’s life. When she read the script, she said she doubted “if I can do this. But the negative things my character does you don’t actually see, and so once I figured that out then it was all right. I sent in my audition on tape. I was out in L.A. to do a 24 and one day I get a call on Melrose, and I’m trying to hold the reception. I’m like (to passersby), ‘OK, wait, I’ve got Denzel on the phone — walk around me. I’m not moving. I’m not going to lose this one.’ He called to say he loved it (her audition),” hiring her on the spot. “Oh, man, that was crazy.” The film was largely shot in Cleveland, where the events depicted actually took place.
On working with Washington, she said, “He’s so focused…He knew what he wanted. He had his vision and he just did it.” With no rehearsal this time, she discovered the character of Nadine on the set. “We just did the scenes and did ‘em different ways and he used what he wanted.” Of Fisher, she said, “He is the sweetest man. Soft-spoken, low-key. His family is beautiful.” She avoided reading his book before filming “because I didn’t want to try to be exactly something that he wrote. I wanted to come to it with what I have. The crazy thing was, after reading it, my interpretation was just like the character.”
The film, which follows Fisher up to his being reunited with his biological family, is ultimately an inspirational story. “Out of what he endured in his life…all this positive has come out of it,” Ross said. She likes how the film doesn’t sensationalize the events it dramatizes but rather shows them as part of a whole. “It isn’t like a Hollywood movie even though Fox Searchlight did it. It’s like how life is. How a lot of times not much is happening but then some craziness will happen and then, like, OK, you’re back to this place.” The film, starring newcomer Derek Luke, features unknowns, which she feels works to its advantage. “Because you’re not having stars shadow the story, the story is the star. It just works beautifully.”
Besides a one-act play she’s preparing to appear in in New York, Ross awaits her next acting job. Hardly idle, she’s busy schmoozing-up a production deal for her script, which she describes as “a slice of life set in New York” dealing with the romantic entanglements of two couples.
“It’s one of those things where you’ve been with somebody for a while and somebody just comes out of nowhere and blows your mind. Is it real? Is it not? Do you jump and go off with this person or do you stay with your steady in a not so happy but safe relationship?”
She wrote it because “there just aren’t a lot of great parts out there for black women. I mean, you’re the crack head or the welfare mom or the girlfriend. It’s like you can never just stand alone and be a character. So, if there’s something I want to do and I can write it, then I might as well do that. Why wait?”
In United States, premiering at Sundance in January, Ross plays the girlfriend of Don Cheadle in a story examining the impact a death has on a community. Her part was added after principal photography wrapped. She also appears this fall on PBS in an American Film Institute short, The Taste of Dirt. Meanwhile, she’s campaigning for the role of jazz singing legend Billie Holiday. “There’s an amazing script out there I really want. It’s not at the point where there’s anybody behind it, but I’m trying to make sure I’m more than in the running when it comes to that.”
So, how does a young woman from Omaha stay real in the spotlight? “My sisters. My sisters keep me real. They won’t go run and do stuff for me. It’s like, ‘No, do it yourself.’” What’s important to her? “My family — we’re really close. My health. Paying attention to things around me and appreciating them. I’m very much an earthy kind of person.” Still, as her marquee value rises, Ross has her eyes fixed on the perks fame can bring and, for now anyway, forgoes thoughts of long term romantic attachments, saying unabashedly, “There’s things that I want, and I need to get them, and I can’t let things get in the way of that. I’m so focused on working.”
What does the 20-something crave? “A place of my own in Manhattan. A house in upstate New York. To be settled…to be able to have a little bit under my belt. I’d like to be producing movies that I would be in.”
If Fisher nets the same enthusiasm it did in September at the Toronto Film Festival, where Ross said it got a standing ovation, then hers may soon be a household name. “Exactly,” she said, delighted at the notion of being THE new one-name soul sista. “Not Diana, not Halle…Yolonda. Mmmm, hmmm. We’ll see.” Go, girl, go.
- Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Kevyn Morrow’s Homecoming (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Another example of a talented creative artist from Omaha is Yolonda Ross, a superb actress who left her hometown years ago for New York City, and she’s carved out a very nice career in film and television. The following profile for The Reader (www.thereader.com) gives a good sense for this adventurous actress, who also writes and directs. This story appeared in advance of her role in the controversial film Shortbus, one of my provocative projects she’s participated in. I am posting other pieces I’ve done on Yolonda as well.
NOTE: More recently, Yolonda’s had a recurring role as Dana Lyndsey on the acclaimed HBO drama Treme. Another Omaha actor of note, John Beasley, just nabbed a recurring role on the same series. Small world.
Daring Actress Yolonda Ross Takes It to the Limit
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Gabrielle Union gets all the pub, but another film/television actress from Omaha, the righteous Yolonda Ross, consistently does edgy material far afield from Bad Boys II and The Honeymooners. Ross has played everything from a wannabe gangsta desperate for love to a string of lesbian characters to a child molester to a porn actress. She’s worked with everyone from Woody Allen (Celebrity) to Denzel Washington (Antwone Fisher) to Don Cheadle (The United States of Leland) to Vanessa Williams (Dense and Allergic to Nuts).
Last fall, she worked on a Leonardo DiCaprio-produced film, The Gardener of Eden, and has been in discussions with such A-list artists as Cheadle for other parts. But it’s a project she wrapped last summer, Shortbus, that should grab her some attention. The notorious new feature by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig and the Angry Inch), a maker of queer cinema, deals with transient artists looking to connect through sex in the malaise of a post-9/11 Manhattan languishing from ever-present anxiety, commerce, inflation and exhibitionism.
Whether Shortbus ever makes it to Omaha is anyone’s guess. Most of Ross’s film work, which includes several shorts, doesn’t make it here. An exception is Dani and Alice, a 2005 short directed by Roberta Marie Munroe that’s screening at the Omaha Film Festival. The film deals with the rarely discussed problem of woman-on-woman partner abuse. Ross plays the femme victim Alice to butch lover Dani in an abusive relationship in its last hours. Dani and Alice shows March 25 at the Joslyn Art Museum’s Abbott Lecture Hall in the fest’s 9 p.m. short film block and Ross plans to attend and participate in an after-show Q & A. For details, check the event website at www.omahafilmfestival.org.
Difficult subjects are the Ross metier, which keeps her work from being widely seen. Her Shortbus director, John Cameron Mitchell, had trouble financing that pic because of his insistence on lensing non-simulated sex scenes.
“Yeah, that’s true, the not-simulated part,” Ross said. “That’s why it’s taken him so long to get money for the movie. People were scared to put money into it.”
Ross was originally put off by the idea of “doing it” on screen and perhaps jeopardizing her career by blurring the line between adult and mainstream cinema. Then, she changed her mind, and was even prepared to partner up again with an old flame for some celluloid enflagrante.
“At first, I was like, I’ll work on it, but I won’t do the sex part. Then, a year later, when John still didn’t have money for it I told him me and my ex-boyfriend would do it — because he needed couples. At that point I was like, If Chloe Sevigny could suck off Vincent Gallo (in The Brown Bunny), then I’m sure I could do it with my ex in a movie. Right?! I said I would do that based on my complete faith that John knew what he was doing and would do something amazing with it, and not use it in a disgraceful way.” As things turned out, Ross didn’t have to get down and dirty for the sake of her art. “Everything turned out cool. The actual couples are still in it. But when somebody fell out of another part, I was re-cast in a role that does not require me to have sex on camera,” she said.
In a film full of non-actors, she plays opposite JD (Samson) of Le Tigre and Suk Chin of Canadian News. She’s not telling who does what on screen. “Dude, you’ll have to watch the movie to know who does and who doesn’t have sex,” she said, laughing.
In the film, she’s the lesbian rocker, Faustus. She attends a women’s support group whose members talk through the politics and emotions of being gay in a straight world. Shortbus is the name of the fictional salon where the insecurities and idiosyncrasies of the characters, including Faustus, intersect. Some go for readings or performances. Others, for therapy. Still others, to engage in public sex. The salon culture portrayed in the film, where sex is a ritualistic and nihilistic acting out mechanism, is based on actual Manhattan salons.
Mitchell and Ross had wanted to collaborate for some time and the two actually hooked up last winter for a Bright Eyes video he directed and she appeared in.
“It’s really a nice thing working with John. He’s so good with people, whether they’re actors or non-actors. He’s great at bringing out the most in them,” she said. “He’s really good at making people feel confident and at ease, while staying on track with what he wants. I think he’s ridiculously talented.”
Ross follows her own clear vision in trying to elevate her career to the next level. She’s well aware, however, of Hollywood’s feckless ways. It’s why she’s taking matters in her own hands and pitching scripts she’s penned in the hope one sells and provides her with a tailor-made part. One of those scripts is serving as her directorial debut, for the comedy short Safe Sex she plans shooting. The story explores how sexual preferences, once exposed, tend to define people.
“Sex fascinates me. It makes people do really stupid things and act in ways they probably never do otherwise. It’s about a lot of mind stuff and what we see as wrong with sex. People have their fetishes or what have you, but you can’t really judge a person by what they get off to. Different things turn different people on.”
Bold themes and choices mark her work. In her best known role, as lesbian inmate Treasure Lee in Cheryl Dunye’s 2001 HBO original film, Stranger Inside, she endures the humiliation of a strip search early on and, in a later love scene, enjoys being pleasured by an inmate going down on her off-camera. In the comic fable Hung, she’s among several gay women to grow a penis. Each owner of the new appendage has her own ideas what to do with it.
In the feature Slippery Slope, pegged for a fall release, she’s a porn star named Ginger who initially struggles adjusting to the higher expectations of a legit director slumming in the world of skin flicks. “Ginger’s been in the business a little while,” Ross said of her character. “She’s a bit set in her ways. She kind of only knows one way to act. She resists learning something new and then she kind of embraces it. She gets into it, actually — the idea of making better pictures. And she starts making her own pictures. It’s nice that she’s not a one note character.”
With Shortbus, Ross once again pushes the envelope as one in a gallery of exotics. Exposing herself emotionally and physically in a part doesn’t intimidate her.
“I have no problem with being a taboo character or doing taboo things or anything like that,” she said. “As long as I can physically do them, I’m going to get up there and do it. I want you to forget it’s me. I want you to be lost in that character.”
Because Ross wants even fringe characters grounded in reality, she underplays what could be camp or superficial. “I like working subtly. The stuff that gets me is what happens behind the scenes and what people are really going through. Good, strong female characters that are real people,” she said. Not big on research, she relies instead on instinct and script preparation. “Know what you need to know, and then Iet the acting take over. I think what you need to be dead-on with are the emotions. That’s what makes me work better. If I know what my character thinks or feels in a situation, then that’s what makes me react in the right way.”
Her expressing the right emotion of a line is akin to when she sings jazz or blues, something she does purely for pleasure these days, but that she once did professionally in New York clubs. Music, she said, opened her up to acting, and she still uses it today to find the right notes and beats for her characters.
“When I started singing is when I understood the key of emotion. With every major character I’ve done there’s been music behind each one. From singing, I know there’s certain notes I hit or tones I make that, when I hear them, make me cry or make me feel some other way. Music can change my whole body and how I carry myself. If I’m listening to Ella, I’m not going to walk the same way I do as when I’m listening to Ray Charles. When I was doing Stranger Inside, there was a Marvin Gaye song, Distant Lover, in my head. OnShortbus, it was The Tindersticks’ Trouble Every Day soundtrack. Music keeps me relaxed or tense or whatever I need to be.”
In her early-30s, Ross is at a place in her career where she does a nice balance of little and big screen gigs capitalizing on her street smart persona, which finds her getting cast as beleaguered mothers, strung-out junkies, intense cops and bohemian types in episodic TV. But anyone who’s seen her work, such as her riveting turn in Stranger, knows she can play a full palette of colors and be everything from a hard-core case to a sweet, neurotic, vulnerable woman-child.
There’s a sense if she can just land one juicy part, she’ll be a major presence. Even if that doesn’t happen, she keeps adding to an already impressive body of work. Among her TV credits, are sketch comedy on Saturday Night Live, and high drama guest shots on 24, ER and Third Watch.
Part of why Ross hasn’t broken out big time in front of the camera, despite some heady props for Stranger and Fisher, has to do with the unsympathetic or peripheral roles she gets and the small indie projects she plays them in. One could argue that until now, while Gabrielle Union’s enjoyed the more successful commercial career, Ross’s has been more interesting. To be fair, though, Union has three films in the can that finally go beyond purely popcorn storylines and that for once hold out the promise of stretching her dramatic abilities.
But the point is Ross, an African-American contemporary of Union’s, has explored provocative subject matter for some time now without a fat pay-off. Union and Ross, who incidentally are fans of each other’s work, offer an interesting comparison. Each has defied the odds to carve out a nice career on screen. A key difference is perception. Union’s classic, wholesome beauty, with her smooth, soft features, put her up for positive roles and land her well-placed Neutrogena TV spots and endless glamour photo spreads in national mags. She comes across as sexy, brainy, full of attitude, but in purely non-threatening terms — as the love interest, friend or rival — and in widely accessible pictures, too.
By contrast, Ross’s unconventional but no less intriguing radiance has harder features, leaving her out of luck when it comes to girl-next-door or, for that matter, seductress roles. Spend any time with Ross, and it’s obvious she can play it all. She even does her share of glam, including a recent Bicardi Big Apple event in which she modeled an Escada gown. She’s a regular at New York premieres and other photo-op bashes. But in a town where they only know you by, What have you done lately? — perception, not reality, rules. Her performance in Stranger, a film/portrayal that became a cause celeb at feminist/lesbian festivals, was so on the mark, she’s been typecast ever since as a low down sista. In fact, she’s in high demand by women directors, whom she often works with.
Women confront stereotypes in the business, but Ross said black women must overcome even more. She said if you look closely, you’ll see that actresses with darker skin tones play “bad” while those with lighter skin shadings play “good.”
“Darker women are the cops, the crack heads, the hard asses. The darker the skin, the harder you’re going to be, the tougher you’re going to be. It’s very difficult for me to be seen as the cute girl next door or the nice mother or the love interest. I mean, it’s the craziest thing. Gabrielle’s about the same color I am, but she’s somewhat busted through,” said Ross, who surmises Union’s straight hair translates into less urban or ghetto in the minds’ of casting directors. “It’s about looks and name and face recognition. That’s what sells. Halle Berry can make bad movie after bad movie and have a Revlon contract. But why is it Angela Bassett isn’t working?”
Good women’s roles are hard to find, period, and even harder if you’re black. “Most scripts I read aren’t that good,” she said. “The characters don’t evolve.” Then there’s color-conscious casting that denies Ross, and even Union, a chance at roles deemed white or, God forbid, being part of an interracial romantic pairing.
That’s why Ross, who’s developed a working friendship with famed screenwriter Joan Tewksbury (Nashville) — “my second mother” — and Dani and Alice co-star Guinivere Turner, is trying to make something happen with projects she’s written alone or in collaboration. She despairs sometimes how fickle and slow the business is. “It drives me crazy. But I have to remember all the stories about other people where it took like 10-15 years to get something done. I know that the stories I have will have an affect on people. So, I keep that in mind.”
Until something breaks there, she’s waiting for start dates on two more features she’s cast in. Pearl City is a modern-day film noir set in Hawaii that lets Ross play sly as one of many potential suspects in a homicide investigation. Then there’s a new religious-themed film by Boaz Yakim (A Price Above Rubies).
Meanwhile, slated for a spring release is The Gardener of Eden. Directed by Kevin Connolly, the film co-stars Ross as one of many people crossing paths with a man so addicted to the props that come with being hailed a hero that he manipulates events to rescue others. The film also features Lukas Haas and Giovanni Ribisi.
Whatever comes next, Ross will take it to the limit.
- [Movies] Shortbus (2006) (geeky-guide.com)
- The Ties that Bind, One Family’s Celebration of Native Omaha Days (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Yolonda Ross is a Talent to Watch (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Film Review: Shortbus (thenakedtruth69.wordpress.com)
As noted here before, storytellers are drawn to boxing for the rich drama and conflict inherent in the sport. So when I learned that Holt McCallany, star of the new FX series, Lights Out, spent a formative part of his youth in my hometown of Omaha and that his mother is singer Julie Wilson, a native Omahan, I naturally went after an interview with the actor, and setting it up proved unusually easy. In wake of the series’ cancellation, I know why. Producers and publicists were desperate to get the show all the good press they could but even though the show was almost universally praised by small and big media alike it never found enough of an audience to satisfy advertisers or the network. Because I enjoy charting the careers of Nebraskans who make their mark in the arts, particularly in cinema, I expect I will be writing more about McCallanay, who is a great interview, in the future. In addition to his television work, which between episodic dramas and made-for-TV movies is extensive, he has a fine tack record in features as well. I am also planning a piece on his mother, the noted cabaret artist Julie Wilson.
Canceled FX Boxing Show, ‘Lights Out,’ May Still Springboard Omahan Holt McCallany’s Career
©By Leo Adam Biga
As published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
Storytellers drawn to boxing’s inherent drama invariably find redemption at its soul and conflict as its heart.
Ring tales are on a roll thanks to Mark Wahlberg’s Oscar-winning film The Fighter and FX’s series, “Lights Out,” (the series finale airs next Tuesday, April 5 at 9 p.m.). Although FX recently announced it has decided not to renew the show for a second season, the show received favorable reviews from critics while generating more than usual interest locally, as it stars former home boy Holt McCallany in the breakout role of the fictitious Patrick “Lights” Leary, an ex-heavyweight champ attempting a comeback.
McCallany grew up in Omaha, the eldest of two rambunctious sons of Omaha native and legendary New York musical theater actress and cabaret singer Julie Wilson, and the late Irish American actor/producer Michael McAloney.
Like his hard knocks character, McCallany was truant and quick to fight. He was expelled from Creighton Prep. He says most of the “unsavory crew” he ran with outside school “wound up in jail.” At 14, he ran away from home — flush with the winnings from a poker game — to try to make it as an actor in Los Angeles.
“I was a very rebellious and a very ambitious kid,” he says.
In the spirit of second chances linking real life to fiction, he got some tough love at a boarding school in Ireland and returned to graduate from Prep in 1981, a year behind Alexander Payne, whom he hopes to work with in the future. McCallany, who’s returning to Omaha for his class’s 30th reunion in July, appreciates the school not giving up on him.
“I got kicked out but they eventually took me back, and they didn’t have to do that. Near my graduation I said to one of the priests, ‘Why did you guys take me back?’ and he said, ‘Because we believe in your talent, Holt. We see a lot of boys come through here and we believe you can be one of the first millionaires out of your class and a good alumnus.’ When you’re a kid you take that stuff to heart and it kind of stays with you, and if you believe it, other people will believe it about you, too.”
Tragedy struck when his troubled kid brother died at 26 in search of another fix. It’s a path Holt might have taken if not for finding his passion in acting.
“I felt like I had a calling. My brother didn’t have that, and my brother’s dead now, and I can tell you a lot of the pain and suffering he went through is related to this subject. When you don’t know what it is you want to be and you’re lost and you’re floundering and you’re going from job to job and kicking around and nothing really works out, it’s a very dispiriting place to be. It can lead to substance abuse and a lot of negative things.”
In the show, Leary’s a devoted husband and father trying to rise above boxing’s dirty compromises, but he and his younger brother get sullied in the process.
McCallany, who infuses Lights with his own mix of macho and sensitivity, is the proverbial “overnight sensation.” He’s spent 25 years as a journeyman working actor in film (Three Kings) and TV (Law & Order), mostly as a supporting player, all the while honing his craft — preparing for when opportunity knocked.
Everyone from co-star Stacy Keach, as his trainer-father, to series executive producer Warren Leight to McCallany himself says this is a part he was born to play. Why? Start with his passion for The Sweet Science.
“Boxing was my first love, and way back when I was a teenage boy in Omaha. My brother won the Golden Gloves. We had an explosive sort of relationship, he and I. We would often get into fistfights and all of a sudden he was getting really good.”
As for himself, McCallany’s a gym rat. He’s logged countless hours sparring — “sometimes those turn into real wars” — and training with pros. He appeared in the boxing pics Fight Club and Tyson. He’s steeped in boxing lore. He brought in his friend, world-class trainer Teddy Atlas, as technical adviser on Lights Out.
The pains taken to get things right have won the show high praise. The only critics who matter to McCallany are pugilists. “The response from the boxing community has been really positive,” he says.
“There are a lot of similarities I find between boxing and acting,” he says. “In the theater the curtain goes up at 8 and the audience is in their seats and you’ve got to come out and give a performance, and it’s similar in boxing — there’s an appointed day and appointed time when you know people are going to be there ringside and it’s time for you to come out and perform.”
In both arenas, nerves must be harnessed.
“The anxiety is your friend,” he says. “That’s what’s going to ensure you’re going to do what you’re trained to do and, as Ernest Hemingway said, ‘remain graceful under pressure,’ which is really what it’s about.”
As much as he admires great boxing films he says “Lights Out” is not constrained by the limits of biography or a two-hour framework.
“We have all of this time to explore in rich detail a boxer’s life and his relationships and his psychology,” he says. “With this character the writers and I have the freedom to really create and really see where this journey is going to take us, and that’s very exciting. I can’t tell you exactly what’s going to happen in season two because I’m not sure, and I promise you they’re not sure either. That’s what’s different.”
While they’ll be no second season now, McCallany’s up for a part in the nextBatman installment and has a script in play with
- Holt McCallany and Warren Leight Interview LIGHTS OUT (collider.com)
- Five Reasons to Watch Lights Out (seattlepi.com)
- ‘Lights Out’: A Total Knockout Of A Boxing Drama (npr.org)
- FX’s ‘Lights Out’ has more than punches to throw at viewers (latimesblogs.latimes.com)
- So long, “Lights Out” — you coulda been a contender (salon.com)
- Life is a Cabaret, the Anne Marie Kenny Story: From Omaha to Paris to Prague and Back to Omaha, with Love (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Girl Karrin Allyson Gets Her Jazz Thing On (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
- Home Boy Nicholas D’Agosto Makes Good on the Start ‘Election’ Gave Him; Nails Small But Showy Part in New Indie Flick ‘Dirty Girl’ (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)
Filmmaker Charles Fairbanks, aka the One-Eyed Cat, Makes Lucha Libre a Way of Life and a Favorite Film Subject
When I read about filmmaker Charles Fairbanks for the first time last year I was immediately taken by his story: how a rural Nebraska student-athlete turned artist become enamored with and immersed in the world of Mexican professional wrestling known as Lucha Libre, which he’s made the subject of some of his short films. Then when I delved further into his story, by exploring his website and watching some of his work, I knew I had to write about him. We met last summer, when his disarmingly sweet personality and thoughtful responses made me immediately like him. The following story I wrote about Fairbanks and his work appeared just before this year’s Omaha Film Festival, where one of his Lucha Libre films, Irma, was shown. Fairbanks is a serious artist whose work may or may not ever find a wide audience but is certainly deserving of it. I plan to follow his career and to see much more of his work as time goes by.
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
In the space of a few years Charles Fairbanks has gone from conventional prep and collegiate wrestler to one of the few gringo performers of Lucha Libre, Mexico’s equivalent of WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment).
Amid a world of masked figures with exotic alter egos, Fairbanks performs as the One-Eyed Cat. It’s not what you’d expect from this cerebral, soft-spoken, fair-skinned rural Nebraska native. Then again, Fairbanks is an adventurous artist and art educator, which explains why he’s devoted much of the last nine years to Lucha Libre’s high-flying acrobatics and soap opera melodramatics.
Fairbanks, whose pretty boy face and chiseled body are in stark contrast to Jack Black in Nacho Libre, is a photographer and short filmmaker who loves wrestling. Naturally, then, he combines his passions as self-expression. He’s gone so far as affixing a video camera to his mask to record the action.
“Oh, I look silly,” he says of his third eye. “Other wrestlers laugh out loud but they’re always very welcoming. I make sure to establish a relationship before I walk in with a camera on my head.”
His documentary short Irma, an Omaha Film Festival selection, lyrically profiles Irma Gonzalez, a hobbled but still strong, proud former wrestling superstar and singer-songwriter who befriended him at Bull’s Gym on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Last fall Irma won the Best Short prize at the Coopenhagen International Documentary Film Festival. It’s shown at festivals worldwide, as have other works by Fairbanks, some of which, like Pioneers, have nothing to do with wrestling.
Intense curiosity brought him to Mexico in the first place. Oddly, he’d just abandoned organized wrestling. He was a state champion grappler at Lexington (Neb.) High, where his artistic side also flourished. His mat talent and academic promise earned a scholarship to Stanford University, where he wrestled two years before quitting the team.
He was touring Mexico on a rite-of-passage mission of self-discovery and enlightenment when he saw his first Lucha Libre match. He soon started shooting and practicing. He made still images that first trip and has since used video to capture stories.
“I just fell in love with this spectacle,” he says.
Bull’s Gym, located on an upper floor of a hilltop building, is his main dojo, sanctuary and set. It overlooks a cinematic backdrop.
“There’s something powerful for me in looking out at the miles of humble cinderblock housing spread out and up the ridges around Mexico City,” he says. “That view is very beautiful. With all the pollution the sunsets are very colorful. The airport is nearby and so you see the airplanes taking off.
“For me all of this magnifies and modulates the gym’s energy, which is really pretty fervent. There’s often boxing and wrestling going on at the same time in the same room. With all the activity, the ambient noise is really a roar.”
Lucha Libre has a near mystical hold on him now but he admits he originally regarded it as a lovely though bastard version of the wrestling he grew up with.
“At the time, as most competitive wrestlers in the U.S., I denied the connection,” he says. “I said, This is totally different. Now I’ve gotten to the point where I can accept the real links between competitive wrestling and show wrestling.”
Fairbanks, a Stanford art grad with a master of fine arts degree from the University of Michigan, takes an analytical view of these kindred martial arts.
“There is a lot of overlap but at the same time I think they have very different philosophies embedded in them.”
Asking if Lucha Libre is fake misses the point. The visceral, in-the-moment experience is the only reality that matters.
“In my experience of Lucha Libre the matches themselves are not staged — you don’t know who’s going to win. You still maybe want to win, but it’s not just up to you,” he says. “You can’t just go for a pin. You really have to try to entertain. It’s very much like a dance. There’s a certain repertoire of moves my opponent and I know how to do together, and if I start to do one move you recognize this move and you actually respond in a certain way to help me do it more spectacularly.
“And then there are variations, where you’re doing something defensive that’s changing me, so it’s not my move anymore. As we go through this back and forth we establish these sort of rhythms.”
The unfolding dance, he says, is also “an improvised drama” marked by “waves of tension” and “a building of energies. One wrestler is dominating but then the tides turn and the other wrestler comes back. It’s not something scripted but you feel your way through.” The improvisation, he adds, extends to the referee, who “plays his part,” and to the crowd, “who play their part.”
Reared in the no-frills tradition of amateur wrestling, he says “it’s been really hard to learn this completely different way of thinking or feeling reality. I’m the first to say I haven’t mastered Lucha Libre. I’m not trying to make it big as a wrestler in Mexico. I’m trying to learn about wrestling.” He’s also a practitioner of Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
He’s learned about Lucha Libre’s “built-in codes of honor” and “certain ways people present themselves publicly or don’t.” The wrestlers aren’t supposed to reveal their identity outside the ring. He’s made himself an exception.
“I feel OK transgressing this because I’m already marked as Other.”
In his Flexing Muscles some native wrestlers half-kiddingly harangue this outsider. “It’s very important to me they’re calling me gringo and saying, ‘Go back to your damned country,” he says, as it makes overt his interloper status. As deep as he’s tasted Mexican culture he knows he remains a visitor and observer.
“I’m really conscious of my differences from most of the people there in terms of nationality and economics,” he says.
He’s acutely aware too of his privileged “ability to come in and do this and then leave and go back to the States and make art out of this experience,” adding, “With my movies in a certain sense I try to build in the story of my being there and my relationship to the subjects.” He’s struck by how generous his subjects are in opening their lives and homes to him even as they struggle getting by.
Stranger or not, he engages the culture head-on.
“I do try to immerse myself very much in that world I’m living in, but without losing who I am. I never try to pretend to be Mexican. I try to get as close as I can and I try to understand, but from my point of view.”
Despite the obvious differences between Fairbanks and his fellow performers, he feels a reciprocal kinship, adding, “there’s a certain kind of camaraderie I feel with wrestlers anywhere.” Wherever he’s traveled, including Europe and Asia, he’s wrestled.
Fairbanks has seen much of Mexico but is largely centered in Mexico City and Chiapas, where he teaches filmmaking. He says, “I love to stay with families, I love to have local people to learn from and to interact with.”
Moments of zen-like meditation and magic realism lend his work poetic sensibility and cultural sensitivity. Irma‘s tough title character sings a ranchero in the ring while her circus performer granddaughters romp. In Pioneers Fairbanks lays hands over his father’s ailing back in a shamanistic healing ceremony. Enigmatic stuff.
“I like to make movies that invite more questions,” says Fairbanks, who participated in Werner Herzog’s Rogue Film School and cut his chops working with veteran filmmakers in Brussels, Belgium. “I like to have the films be a process of discovery for the viewers — to not tell the viewers how to see this world — but also a sense of discovery for me as I’m making the films.”
Authenticity is his goal.
“For me it’s important I’m making movies in Mexico that convey a part of experience not covered by our news media.”
As for the future, he says, “I have very specific stories I want to tell in Mexico and in other countries, some related to wrestling, other types of wrestling, some not at all related to wrestling.”
Irma‘s Omaha Film Festival screening is 6 p.m. on March 3 at the Great Escape Theatre as part of the Striking a Chord block of Nebraska documentary shorts.
- WWE News: Has Mexican Lucha Libre Star Averno Signed with the WWE? (bleacherreport.com)
- Lucha Future Mexican wrestlers storm The Roundhouse (vidalondon.net)
- Behind the mask – lucha libre wrestlers tap into Kitsap (pnwlocalnews.com)
- Offbeat Wrestlers Celebrate Cinco De Mayo ‘Lucha Libre’ Style (weirdnews.aol.com)