Generic: Alicia Keys (2008)

Generic: Alicia Keys (2008)

I spent quite a bit of time on the set of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s poignant adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s best selling novel, “The Secret Life of Boys.” Given the task to produce the behind the scenes footage and content for this high profile project was both enviable and fulfilling. Impeccably cast with such luminaries as Queen Latifah, Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, and Dakota Fanning, I sat down with all of these formidable talents on set on some cold and rainy days in Wilmington, North Carolina in 2007, later following up with them at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival.

I’ll never forget that beautifully designed pink house, the centerpiece of Monk Kidd’s historical novel chronicling the life of a young white girl on the cusp of womanhood and the effect her housekeeper, and especially, a family of three beekeeping sisters have on her life. Projected against the canvas of the Civil Rights era in the Amercian South, the layers on which the narrative is told still resonate today, perhaps even more so. 

The interviews with the cast had to encompass a dialogue on racial and gender equality, a conversation that has lost none of its power or importance today. At the time of principal photography, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton were both seeking the Democratic Nomination for president. It was a time of great hope and wonder, at seeing history happen before our very eyes. It was an inspiring force, particularly for the cast who were essaying roles set in an era of great pain and suffering in a war for societal change. 

Grammy winner Alicia Keys was at the peak of her popularity when she signed on to star in “The Secret Life of Bees” in 2007. Still a vocal activist and philanthropist today, I chose this interview as the second installment of “Generic” as a means to bridge our conversation in 2008 with today’s dialogue on fighting to protect and promote gender and racial equality. Keys has not given up the fight in 2017, as heard through her artistry and public appearances. Neither should any of you.

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 6.13.26 PM
Alicia Keys as featured on Season 12 of the NBC music competition series, “The Voice.”

The Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto
September 8, 2008

Few recording artists today have the incredible staying – and selling — power like that of Alicia Keys.

Instantly setting herself apart from her rump-shaking contemporaries upon her 2001 debut, Keys’ smooth blend of old school soul and rhythm & blues continues to court global favor. With 11 Grammy awards on her shelf, as well as more than 20 million albums sold worldwide, the musical life of Ms. Keys is without compare. So, why the eagerness to extend her artistic reach into acting where so many others have been met with deaf ears? The answers were direct and simple.

Performance for Keys comes from the same place and she is more than up for the challenge of voicing new words without music. However, what matters for this artistic hyphenate – which continues to extend with new titles – is that what she is saying is something of worth. And in 2008, Keys proved she had quite a bit to say through several mediums, beginning with her most challenging motion picture effort to date, an acclaimed role in the hit screen adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s “The Secret Life of Bees.”

Citing the novel as one of her favorite books, Keys was eager to portray “June Boatwright,” the strong protector of a trio of beekeeping sisters living in 1960s era rural American south. What drew Keys to the project was that the character of “June” more than understands the racial strife of the outside world and its threat to the idyllic Eden of her family home. It is no coincidence that the character’s ability to express a softer emotion is through playing the cello, something Keys, already trained musician in her own right, sought to learn to give realism to the role. It is a scene-stealing performance, in spite of formidable work from co-stars Queen Latifah, Dakota Fanning, and Jennifer Hudson. Yet, it was the experience of making her third film, in advance of the most historic moment in African-American history that offered Keys the most gratifying and educational experience of her career.

In discussing this latest chapter in her life, the 27-year-old native New Yorker proved as passionate and focused as she sounds in such hits as “No One” and “Fallin’.” Those smoky tones are no studio-enhanced trick, something I commented to her during our chat at the Toronto Film Festival for “The Secret Life of Bees” earlier in September. Shamelessly, I said it was a “drop-drawers” kind of voice. I got a flash of that amazing smile and a husky laugh.

It is encouraging to know that film will continue a role in her life, whether on screen or by contributing music. In addition to “Doncha Know (Sky is Blue), the end credits song from “The Secret Life of Bees,” Keys can also be heard with Jack White (of The White Stripes) tearing through “Another Way to Die,” the theme to the new James Bond film “Quantum of Solace.” Even with just being nominated for a few more Grammy Awards for several tracks off her recent “As I Am” album, art will have to share space with her most serious endeavor, working tirelessly as a global ambassador for Keep A Child Alive, a non-profit organization that provides life-saving AIDS medicines directly to children and families living with HIV/AIDS in Africa. Yes, this Julliard-trained hyphenate knows no bounds this year, one of the 2008’s most important personalities.

Without further delay, a confession that is truly in the key of Alicia.

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 5.40.54 PM
(L-R) Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Tristan Wilds, Dakota Fanning, Jennifer Hudson, producer Lauren Shuler Donner and Nate Parker from the film “The Secret Life Of Bees”, pose for a portrait during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival at The Sutton Place Hotel on September 6, 2008 in Toronto, Canada.

JORGE CARREON: It can be said that each of the woman in “The Secret Life of Bees” represents a different facet of what it is to be a woman. Would you agree with that?

ALICIA KEYS: I would. I really do see the many variations of beautiful women in this film. They come in all styles, shapes, sizes, colors and all types of pasts; things that we’re recovering from and going through and embracing. So I do agree.

CARREON: Regardless of the film’s time frame and issues, is it really hard to be a woman?

KEYS: I think it is. It’s the most beautiful thing to be on the planet, so that’s first. But secondly, it is difficult to be a woman because we carry a lot on our shoulders and we are very, very strong. Sometimes we make it look really easy, but it’s not always easy. I think another thing we do as women is we hold things inside of us because we have to keep on pushing and keep going. Keep going for our family, our kids, for the ones that we love, you know? Sometimes that does weigh heavily on us. But I think that we are the most resilient and we are definitely just beautiful creatures. I love being a woman. I love it very much.

CARREON: Do you think such gender driven a story like “The Secret Life of Bees” has a place in contemporary entertainment that extends beyond a female audience?

KEYS: There are so many wonderful women in the world and we have to be represented properly. So, yes! It is time to tell more interesting stories about the many variations of women.

CARREON: Men are thinking, “How does this relate to me?”

KEYS: I think ‘The Secret Life of Bees’ is something that will relate to a lot of men. In fact, all the men that I spoke to were like, “I’ll tell you what. I thought it was a ‘chick flick,’ but I really loved it.” They can see in the women their mothers, their sisters, lovers they know. They can see all the women that they know and they can see their own experience being a young person displaced and trying to find their way through it all. It’s not really about color and it’s not about gender. It’s about the experience of finding your place in this world and I think that’s something that everyone can relate to. It’s a story about the human condition. We can all relate to love, family, defeat, and fear. And, we can all relate inspiration, hope, and faith. These are all the themes that are inside the movie.

CARREON As you continue to evolve as an artist, what made this filmmaking experience important to you?

KEYS: This experience is what I expected it to be and more! I learned that it’s just incredible to be around such fascinating women. I learned that it’s amazing to be directed by a woman like Gina (Prince-Bythewood), who was the screenwriter as well. I learned that when you put a whole lot of great women in one space, it’s a wonderful outcome.

CARREON: Faith continues to be a buzzword in the media of late. It seems entertainment is not shying away from addressing such themes, either. Why do you think faith and family have to go hand in hand?

KEYS: Faith brings the family together. And through all of the things that families go through, it’s the faith that we keep that allows us to know that we’ll make it through everything. You can’t do it on your own, even if it’s just one person; you need someone that has that faith with you.

CARREON: Do you find yourself thinking about your life’s journey after being part of a project like a film as opposed to music?

KEYS: Very much so. Always. Especially now, I am definitely searching for my place, my stability, what I’d like for myself. It’s a good journey because sometimes I just dig and find and figure it out. That’s what I think they’ve all done in “The Secret Life of Bees” and I’m doing it, too.

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 5.44.17 PM
Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson and Alicia Keys in Fox Searchlight Pictures’ The Secret Life of Bees (2008)

CARREON: Is there any coincidence that three of the film’s leads are actually musicians in their own right?

ALICIA KEYS: No! (Laughs)

CARREON: As your career continues to evolve, do you feel different about music and acting in a movie? Is it exercising the same muscle or is it nice to switch it up a little bit?

KEYS: Well, for me, acting and music do come from the same muscle in regards to tapping into something that’s honest and pure. You’re expressing it with abandonment, and in that way, it’s very much the same. The difference is, obviously, you are in a film. You’re becoming a different person from yourself, so you’re expressing another person’s story. With music, I’m expressing my story but it’s so similar because you’re empathetic, you understand it and you can connect. What I find about “June,” I can connect with every part of her. I understand her from a woman’s perspective, from a transitional perspective, from growing from one kind of part of your self into the next. There’s so much of me in her.

CARREON: “Bees” director/writer Gina Prince-Bythewood gave the cast an amazing amount of resources to feel connected to the period of the film. Why is it important then, Alicia, to continue to look back to honor the struggles of one time and how they parallel to our own contemporary experience?

KEYS: That’s something that we discussed a lot. Gina has been phenomenal in providing us with a multitude of ways to dig out who our characters are and where they sit amongst society and what’s happening in the society at this time. The NAACP and SNCC and all of these organizations that were coming up were really fighting powerfully for a major change with the opportunity for Black people to be able to vote. It’s an incredible history. Sometimes we go on in life and don’t realize the amount of struggle that it took to just get to the point of where we are. You know how many people say, “Oh, I’m not voting, it’s rigged anyway.” How many people struggled, fought and died for that and you take it for granted as if it’s not important to utilize your voice when that’s all we wanted? To have a voice? It’s important to remember and understand things like that. To understand where we have come from and to realize that we, honestly, haven’t even come that far, which is the sad part. You know what I mean? Because you think about the state of the world today and I think about where we are in this film, and it’s almost parallel. Major change, radical change, much struggle and fighting needed to just demand something different.

CARREON: The film offers your first of two new songs bearing your voice this year. What was the inspiration for the song featured in “The Secret Life of Bees?”

KEYS: I love the song in the film and it really represents it perfectly. Just the fact that sometimes you might feel down, you might feel like the world is on your shoulders, but have a little faith in you because the sky is blue.

** My interview with Alicia Keys was conducted on September 8, 2008, at the Toronto Film Festival for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.

“Of spare parts and DREAM Acts 2.0: La Vida Robot Revisited” — #SaveDACA

“Of spare parts and DREAM Acts 2.0: La Vida Robot Revisited” — #SaveDACA

In my first conversation with President Trump on Inauguration Day, I thanked him for the positive things he had said about the Dreamers. He looked me in the eye and said: “Don’t worry. We are going to take care of those kids.”

Despite many of the terrible immigration policies this Administration has put forward, I have always held out the hope that President Trump would keep his word and “take care” of the Dreamers. After all, the President told America, “we love the Dreamers.”

But today’s announcement from Attorney General Sessions was cold, harsh, threatening, and showed little respect, let alone love, for these Dreamers.

Starting this countdown clock will require Congress to act fast to stop rolling mass deportations of hundreds of thousands of young people—students, teachers, doctors, engineers, first responders, servicemembers, and more. Families will be torn apart and America will lose many of our best and brightest unless Republicans join with Democrats to right this wrong immediately. I first introduced the Dream Act sixteen years ago to ensure these young people could stay here, in the only country they’ve ever known. Now Congress must act on this bipartisan bill, and act now. These families cannot wait.  

— A statement from U.S. Senate Democratic Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), ranking member of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration. 

The intent of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy signed by President Barach Obama in June 2012 was to allow undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit. As of 2017, an estimated 800,000 young people, also referred to as “Dreamers” (after the failed DREAM Act), enrolled into the program. As for September 5, 2017, DACA is no more. Now, they face an uncertain future, whether they enrolled into the program or are no longer eligible for its protection.

FullSizeRender
Political Cartoon by artist Lalo Alcaraz, 2017

Living in fear as an undocumented individual is just one of the many realities faced by millions of people living in the United States today. Historically speaking, to be an immigrant is to be responsible for all the societal ills and woes of a nation. We’ve seen what humanity can do when it vilifies and turns against “The Other,” that group of people who become the target of genocides and “final solutions.” How anyone can venerate such monsters, as witnessed in Charlottesville, Virginia last August is beyond the pale. Yet, we have only begun to see the ramifications of a president who has inspired those living with white privilege to exact a sense of revenge, of taking back a country they feel has gone to the dogs. That’s what many of us are to certain sectors of America, animals unworthy of being deemed human.

Since Trump took office, he’s made an art of playing to the cheap seats, that coterie of angry trolls sporting those damn red caps with the legend “Make America Great Again.” His propagandist rhetoric continues to target journalists, Women, the Muslim community, Black Americans, the LGBTQ community, the Latino Community, anyone who just isn’t white. He targets anyone with a brain able to deduce just how dangerous his screaming brat mentality really is for us all.

Trump wants to be worshipped, not challenged, even by those he chooses to marginalize. He demands your respect, although he’s done nothing to earn it. To challenge him is to stir his pitchfork mob of fans while most the members of his political party of choice opt to stick its head in the sand or stay silent. All fear to lose their moment of power, even if it means sacrificing the greater good of the nation. I often wonder who will stand up for anyone if most of the nation is excluded from the bullshit Trump country club our president and his acolytes have chosen as its manifest destiny for our nation.

Our most treasured national icon, the Statue of Liberty, is an ageless beacon, offering shelter from the storms of inhumanity elsewhere. Trump has turned our borders into the frontline of class and racial warfare, its motto is “Keep Out. You Don’t Belong Here.” If we are now known for turning people away, mercilessly deporting the rest, how will that not stop the war on terror? How will it not inspire new groups to target this great nation with their own brand of wrath? We cannot keep punishing the many for the sins of the few who refuse to honor decency and peace.

This entire nation owes its very identity and soul to the millions of other immigrants who have risked life and limb for decades to secure a better life for themselves and their families. To believe otherwise is absolutely un-American. Perhaps if those who fear “The Other” understood that not everyone who dares to call America their new home is a criminal run amok. Perhaps they need to be reminded of the ones who come here for a specific reason, to find their version of the American Dream. Like my parents. Like many of my friends’ parents and families. Who knows what immigrants can offer this nation in terms of innovation, inspiration, and beneficial to us all lucky enough to be citizens of the United States. Perhaps they need to know that not everyone who comes here is looking for a handout or abusing the social welfare system. I offer one reminder for your consideration.

In 2005, writer Joshua Davis penned an extraordinary article for Wired Magazine chronicling the lives of four undocumented teen boys from Arizona. What made them unique? They bested universities such as MIT and Harvard to win a robotics prize at UC Santa Barbara. Titled “La Vida Robot,” Davis’ meticulously written story of Cristian Arcega, Lorenzo Santillan, Luis Aranda and Oscar Vazquez’s journey to victory was truly the stuff of Hollywood films. A decade later, that film, rechristened “Spare Parts,” was produced.

The Carl Hayden Robotics Team and Coaches
From left: teacher Allan Cameron, Lorenzo Santillan, Oscar Vazquez, Cristian Arcega, Luis Aranda, and teacher Fredi Lajvardi. Photo: LIVIA CORONA

Directed by Sean McNamara and starring George Lopez, “Spare Parts” benefited from the momentum of the early DREAM Act (DACA) era, when the Latino voice had never been more urgent in terms of our national narrative. While the film relied on the “feel good” tropes of the underdog story, it did not shy away from the fact that these “illegals” are not the enemy in this ugly, paranoid era of fear mongering and reactionary politics.

La Vida Robot Revisited -- #DACA
Writer Jorge Carreón with Oscar Vazquez and his wife Karla on the New Mexico set of “Spare Parts” in November 2013.

I had the privilege of meeting journalist Joshua Davis and the real boys of Carl Hayden High, interviewing them and their cinematic counterparts for Pantelion Films. Along with producer and star George Lopez, they first expressed the importance of the Latino imprint in terms of mainstream films. However, their ultimate goal was to not only provide quality entertainment, it was to also illuminate an essential community still undervalued or unfairly marginalized by some Americans.

“Spare Parts” opened in January 2015, renewing attention on the lives of Vasquez, Arcega, Santillan, and Aranda. Over the course of a decade, the group from Carl Hayden High School inspired countless newspaper and magazine pieces. Writer Davis followed up his “La Vida Robot” article with a book, also titled “Spare Parts,” catching up on the lives of the boys. Director Mary Mazzio was inspired by the Hayden students to create the documentary “Underwater Dreams.”  The quartet was also included in “Dream Big,” an IMAX feature-length documentary about engineering achievements. Even the team’s famed robot Stinky had its moment when it was put on display at the film’s premiere at the Smithsonian.

“When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”

— President Donald J. Trump during a campaign speech, June 16, 2015. 

Yet, with all the attention and praise for their underdog story, life after high school for Vasquez and several of his classmates has not been without its complications. As of 2014, Vasquez was able to secure his American citizenship after a challenging decade that saw him return to Mexico at one point. His return to his homeland meant a 10-year ban of re-entry to the U.S. It was or the assistance of Senator Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who helped overturn the ban, allowing Vasquez return to the States with a visa. Enlisting in the U.S. Army, Vasquez saw combat in Afghanistan before returning and finishing his college education. Now a U.S. citizen, he and wife Karla moved to Texas with their family, where he works in an engineering-related job with BNSF Railroad.

Dreamers in Action
Photo: Livia Corona

Aranda was already a citizen when the team won the robotics contest. Arcega and Santillan both attempted college careers but ultimately were forced to drop out due to the changes in Arizona state law that required all students without legal status to pay out-of-state tuition fees. Today, Santillan runs a catering company with former classmate Aranda, appropriately called Ni De Aqui, Ni De Alla. Translation? “Neither from Here Nor from There.”

“The Making of ‘Spare Parts'” featurette produced by Jorge Carreon @ Monkey Deux, Inc., edited by Steve Schmidt and Drew Friedman for Pantelion Films.

The effect of this unilateral executive amnesty, among other things, contributed to a surge of unaccompanied minors on the southern border that yielded terrible humanitarian consequences. It also denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens. —

From U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions statement on the Trump Administration’s rescinding of DACA, September 5, 2017, 

As of  September 2017, the more than 800,000 undocumented children brought to the U.S. by their parents are awaiting the other chancla to drop now that “President” Donald J. Trump has announced the end of DACA. Its effect will be catastrophic, breaking families apart and ending opportunities, like finishing an education or gainful employment, that have been hard won. What we stand to lose as a nation, however, is on par with a lobotomy.

Screen Shot 2017-09-06 at 2.53.33 PM

The hope generated in 2012 when President Barack Obama signed this bold piece of legislation into effect was designed to protect them from a growing sense of paranoia and fear stoked by members of the GOP, and especially, Trump. They don’t know who are the Dreamers affected, nor do they care. Trump’s campaign engaged classic fear-mongering tactics, stoking the fires of intolerance with his supporters. It didn’t matter if the facts were true or not. The lack of employment, our border safety, our homes, our lives, we were all under attack by this scourge of evil from Latin America or elsewhere. We smirked that Trump could never be elected on such a brazenly racist and xenophobic platform. No one was laughing as the election proved otherwise. Now we have the sound of fear and it is palpable. (That American-born Latinos even voted for him because they deemed “her” unpresidential and untrustworthy is a testament to self-loathing that deserves its own essay. I say to them now, “Look what you’ve done to your brothers and sisters in blood. Shame on you.”)

As the child of immigrant parents, I am beyond angry. As an American citizen, I am ashamed. I wasn’t raised to hate people. I was raised to believe in the innate good of humanity, because good can flourish, even in the direst of times. Yet, to be told that I’m not good enough to be an American because of my Latino heritage or my sexuality is enough to make me want to take up arms. This is not the America that raised me and I’ll be damned if I let it harm anyone else out of fear and intolerance. What Trump offers is not the American Way. It is HIS way. That’s not good enough, not for this beautifully diverse nation.

Immigrants are not here to eradicate white history or white privilege. Nor are they here to tear this country asunder. That is a total lie to keep the status quo of xenophobia. We excuse the horrors of white terrorism, but movements like Black Lives Matter are deemed dangerous, inspiring legislation to declare such movements as being illegal.

American history was never just white. It is every color and creed and orientation, no matter how hard people try to obfuscate it. We are at a crossroads that will have consequences for generations to still to come. What we lose by excluding the many undocumented individuals now forced to live in the shadows again won’t be felt immediately, but it will be felt. Nothing stirs up a public more than paying for the poor decisions of our leaders. And we will pay for the loss of DACA is many ways, socially, morally and economically.

We are deporting the wrong groups of people. To be silent is to be complicit in this cruelly interminable series of unjust and un-American traitorous political acts. If we continue down this path of eradicating those deemed unworthy of citizenship, we will cease to be the United States of America. We will become the Dishonorable States of Trump, a soulless and rudderless nation offering nothing but a smirk, hatred, and violence to the world that once looked to us for guidance, protection, and inspiration.

Screen Shot 2017-09-07 at 10.38.45 AM
Ana Rice, 18, of Manasas, Va., holds a sign that simply reads “SHAME” outside the White House. Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post

**Now that the DACA program has been shut down, here is a breakdown of the Trump decision and what people should know:

Some DACA recipients won’t lose their DACA on March 5, 2018: People who have DACA now and whose DACA doesn’t expire until after March 5, 2018, will continue to have DACA and the work permit that comes with it until the expiration date of their DACA.

It’s too late to apply for DACA: The president ended the program so from Wednesday (September 6) on no more applications for DACA are being accepted.

A deadline that shouldn’t be missed: People whose DACA expired Tuesday, September 5 or will expire Wednesday, September 6 through March 5, 2018, can renew their DACA, but they must apply by October 5.

The ball is in Congress’ court – or Trump’s?: Between now and March 5, 2018, Congress can draft legislation to revive DACA, come up with a substitute or even do away with what the administration has put in place. Some opponents of DACA disagreed with the program being authorized by the president but may support a congressionally created program. Late Tuesday, Trump tweeted that he may “revisit” the DACA issue if Congress doesn’t act.

Legal challenges could play a role: There’s always a possibility of a court case. President Donald Trump came up with the DACA phase out plan under threat of legal action by a group of state officials. A young immigrant and immigration group filed a lawsuit in New York Tuesday challenging Trump’s action. There could also be discrimination lawsuits as a result.

 

Generic: Vin Diesel (2008)

Generic: Vin Diesel (2008)

 

Fun fact: Since 1999, I’ve been hailed around Hollywood as “The Generic Guy.”

Now, in entertainment industry parlance, that means I’m the one studios call to handle their “generic interviews.” These were either fashioned into featurettes or similar “behind the scenes” programming, as well as feature stories planted in specifically chosen print or digital sites. Such a job did have an enviable quality as I would usually get a lot more time than most journalists, as well as travel wherever the talent was best available. Junkets, film festivals, film sets, these interviews were never boring and the best part? It was always an adventure. 

This is no longer the case in 2017 since my focus is strictly placed on creating original content for broadcast, home entertainment and, mostly, online platforms. But those early, palmier years had me interviewing more celebrities than Barbara Walters at her peak. It was like having the jet setting talk show of my dreams, without an audience knowing who the hell was asking the questions.

Being a producer in this capacity fulfilled my biggest dream of becoming a journalist, despite its also being an extension of my career as a publicist. That I was firmly embedded with the International film publicity teams was just one of the many blessings. They were fantastic colleagues and collaborators, all of whom treated me with great respect, care and trusted my ability to do the best job for their films and tv series. Why I was able to last as long as a “generic interviewer” was because I aimed to avoid asking generic or gossipy questions.

I believed then and now in the power of conversation, even in a junket setting, which was can be as in depth as speed dating. The rewards are so much greater when you just relate to the person in front of you. It takes about 30 seconds for most people to either be engaged or write you off. We all get a few talent who prefer to be in lock down mode or rip the mic right off, or just sit there taking up oxygen. Fear of libel prevents me from naming names. I’d rather focus on the positive anyway.

A lot of candid and entertaining chatter has happened over the years and I’ve often thought about collecting the best interview transcripts into a book. I even have a title: Generic. Envision a brown paper cover on the outside, a Hollywood life chronicled on the inside. 

So, why not test run a chapter?

Thanks to Facebook, I was reminded of an August afternoon in 2008 when I went face to face with Vin Diesel. He was promoting the infamous futuristic thriller “Babylon A.D.” What makes this interview interesting was knowing he was about to return to “The Fast and the Furious” after a run of flops that slowed down his momentum as a box office draw. The swagger that was hallmark was tempered a bit, most likely from his also being a new father at that time. Regardless, the ensuing conversation was one I won’t forget as it was referred as a “fireside chat” by the studio’s publicist. Adding, “All that’s missing are the brandy snifters and the velvet smoking jackets.” 

If only.

Yet, we did talk about the fear of building walls at our borders, a key theme in “Babylon, A.D.”  Funny what can happen in nine years. Here’s more of what happened that August afternoon at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City

No matter the generation, when a film star is launched, audiences can’t wait for a second helping of what sated their hunger in the first place. But, pop culture is notoriously fickle, and people will move on to their next craving without mercy. It is a wonder why anyone wants to be an actor in the first place, but yet, the temptation is too great for some to ignore. And — which one of us can’t resist a delicious fantasy to post on our walls, computer screen – or beam down on us from a big screen at the multiplex?

Enter Vin Diesel.

Since hitting the box office lotto with THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, Diesel has become the ultimate representation of not only macho cool, but the face of a multi-cultural generation finally seeing itself on screen.

Born in 1967 as Mark Sinclair Vincent, Diesel was a product of the Love Generation. Raised in an artist commune in New York, Diesel was determined from a young age to express himself through the arts. Acting since he was 7 years old, he would encounter adult rejection because of his mixed heritage. Deemed either too black or too white or sometimes not enough of either, it was his supporting role in Steven Spielberg’s award-winning SAVING PRIVATE RYAN that would prove to be more than a lucky break.

As a counterpoint to his sensitive voice performance as the robot in THE IRON GIANT, it was Diesel’s brash confidence that proved the “Nos” to fuel such films as PITCH BLACK and XXX. With the box office returns to prove it, Diesel was being hailed as the arrival of a new kind of action hero.

And then the banquet became something less enticing.

For Hollywood pundits, his refusal to return for the FAST AND FURIOUS and XXX sequels was on par with career suicide. Then, the head scratching decision to star anew as PITCH BLACK’S Riddick in the epic CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK with mild success. Perhaps in a bid to stave off further disappointments, Diesel went the route of The Rock in playing rock hard and cuddly with THE PACIFIER. While a surprise hit, Diesel seemed to be enduring an identity crisis on screen.

Seeking real challenges and opportunities to add new ingredients to his own screen recipe, Diesel showed great dramatic prowess as real-life mobster Jack DiNorscio in Sidney Lumet’s FIND ME GUILTY. Despite receiving acclaim for his performance, the film offered disappointing returns – and an uncertain future for Diesel himself.

I sat down with the actor for a one-on-one interview during a press tour for his latest film effort — French director Mathieu Kassovitz’s wildly controversial BABYLON A.D. A bold take on the dystopian future personified by such films as BLADE RUNNER and THE FIFTH ELEMENT, Diesel anchors the film as a soulless mercenary for hire named Toorop. Engaged by a crime lord to escort a mysterious young woman to New York, their danger-filled journey reveals the girl actually harbors the power to save a desperate world from itself.

After serving as executive producer on last year’s HITMAN, it appears Diesel enjoyed the chance to engage in the aesthetics of another French auteur. To hear him discuss BABYLON A.D., however, it comes as no surprise that Diesel is a real Showman, as brash and confident as the anti-heroes he’s played over the last decade.

However, I was surprised to find that Diesel is less concerned about trying to replicate any kind of prefab formula. He just doesn’t give a shit as to any labels the industry/media have, as he is content with his life:

He’s a new father.

He’s got a new film that sated both his comfort zones in action and drama.

He knows success and failure and he’s fine if either strike at any time.

I often wonder why every comic wants to be a serious actor, and why action stars want to be more than just brute muscle. I also don’t know why audiences can’t seem to want to see their favorite star recipes tampered with. What I enjoyed in our conversation was that Diesel is determined to give people what they want, but on his terms.

He’s a man of action for a reason.

JORGE CARREON:

You seem to be content with following your own path, despite people wanting to keep you locked into a certain type. Why return to this particular genre now?

VIN DIESEL:

I was talking to my father last night, who was in the screening. I always act like I don’t know what movie he’s talking about when he talks about a movie, ‘cause I want to get as much as I can. I said, “So it was packed with action?’ and he said, “Yes, it was.” I said, “So, Dad, so this other studio wants to move forward on this action film. Would it be too soon? Should I go back to the dramatic thing right now, and then do an action after?” He said, “Vin, your action film audience can’t get enough. “ There’s something about the action film genre. When you’re a fan of action films, you can’t get enough. It doesn’t matter how old you are. And he then went on to tell me a story about the guard that lived in our building. And he said, “Yeah, Vin’s got another movie coming out.” This is a guy that knew me as a child. And he goes, “Is it action?” And my father said, “Yeah,” he said “GOOD! And I’m there!” I probably never considered it as much as I did just last night talking to my father, how loyal and almost fanatic we are about action movies. We need to have them and expect to see them and make an event out of them. When I go to see an action movie, I get that charge, you know? I was raised to study the craft intensely from a very young age. You’d almost think well action movies are action movies. First of all, “action movie” is a new term, okay? Films like THE WILD ONE, GONE WITH THE WIND could be called “action movies” since they were made with the best effects that technology could provide at that time. It wasn’t until the Arnold generation that this title of action movies even came about. So every movie that I approach, every character I approach, I approach with the same conviction and the same attention to the craft, whether it’s a dramatic piece by Sidney Lumet or whether it’s an action piece.

CARREON:

What’s your take on Mathieu Kassovitz’s vision of the future in BABYLON A.D.?

DIESEL:

The thought of this was taking something that had the action component and then string it together if you will all these sequences with this real French auteur style, you know? That’s what the fun of doing this film was and the challenge of doing this film and what was attractive about doing it. I had just come off this incredible experience with working with Sidney Lumet. I was hungry for different kinds of directors. The fact that it was an action piece was a comfort zone. That was the easy part, so to speak. And I was going to go. What was attractive was having a visceral take on an action movie.

CARREON:

Do you have faith? Do you have faith in humanity?

DIESEL:

Yes, I do have faith in humanity. And I will guard that faith against any cynicism to my dying day. But, I’m the son of an idealist. I’m the son of artists. I am an artist! I think by being an artist, you have to have some kind of faith in humanity otherwise you wouldn’t be an artist. You wouldn’t expect anyone to get what you are saying in your art.

CARREON:

Do you have a spiritual faith, or a faith in yourself?

DIESEL:

I have a spiritual faith.

MJ:

That’s interesting in the context of the film because you are a man of blank morality.

DIESEL:

You are so right, you are so right. Fascinating and interesting about playing that role, but the real me? Very strong on the spiritual faith. It’s interesting because part of the subtlety of the Michelle Yeoh character was that representation of that kind of spiritual faith.

CARREON:

Mélanie (Thierry, Diesel’s co-star in the film) was saying, in her mind we are not too far away from the world that is presented in BABYLON A.D. Do you share the same belief?

DIESEL:

I don’t know. I know that when we were making this movie, we were making this movie about a character having to export somebody through borders around Russia. I would pick up the New York Times and you’ve got borders increasing around Russia. Specifically Russia and Georgia and all that. And you see the seeds of something that is scary.

CARREON:

I guess we’re not too far after all, Vin you’re scaring the shit out of me!

DIESEL:

No, I’m just saying in the general sense. I have my own philosophy about how the border thing is working and how it’s…

CARREON:

And how it’s not.

CARREON:

And how it’s not and where we’re going to be in a few years with borders. But everyone might think I’m crazy.

CARREON:

We’ll have to look at this ten years from now and see if you’re right. I hope not.

DIESEL:

It’s a tricky thing because the borders will be increased and strengthened in a way no one will recognize. No one will ever see them being built. The walls of China, so to speak, that are going to divide our world are going to be constructed while we’re not paying attention. What we’ll be focused on is the virtual world where there are no borders. So the physical world is going to build its borders while we indulge further into the Internet, into a world where there are no borders. When you are locked in front of that screen you’ll never see the wall being built.

CARREON:

And they’ll be surprised.

CARREON:

And they’re going to be surprised.

CARREON:

Which did you find more challenging, the physical or the emotional aspects your role in BABYLON A.D.?

DIESEL:

Both are challenging in different ways. I become the character. As crazy as that sounds, live in that character and I don’t think of anything as being more challenging than the other. Might not be the smartest thing because when I’m in character I jump off the roof, I jump off the roof. It’s less of a specific thing that’s more challenging. The more you delve deep into a character, the more exhausting it is on you, right? You know, you hear all the time about actors that go and do these really deep performances and than need a year to try and detox and cleanse. Because, if it is done right and done with integrity, becoming a character is a heavy deal.

CARREON:

It ain’t easy.

DIESEL:

It ain’t easy. You live in that space. That’s if you are striving to do something significant in your craft. You end up living in a space and that space ain’t always a comfortable space.

CARREON:

Why do you think the multi-cultural face enhances this move?

DIESEL:

For me, any film that has a multi-cultural face is enhanced, personally. But I think it plays to this movie in a really good way. You know, Michelle Yeoh was originally written in the book as an old French kind of typical nun. And I think by casting Michelle Yeoh in that role, as opposed to the traditional, she was able to bring an unspoken spirituality. A spirituality that you didn’t have to really talk about too much, but she brought it to the screen, she brought it to the role and it helped the overall picture.

CARREON:

And Mélanie is interesting as well.

DIESEL:

So exciting! She’s one of our big finds in the movie. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of Mélanie.

CARREON:

You have a huge vested interest in this. Why?

DIESEL:

I’ve done enough movies now. You reach a place where you realize dreams which is surreal. It’s a surreal experience. I want my work to be significant. I take great pride in the art. I come from artist housing. It was government subsidized in New York, which were basically projects for artists that made less than ten thousand dollars a year. That’s the environment in which I was raised. That’s kind of affected me in Hollywood because sometimes I don’t take the big Hollywood picture payday thing and that causes a ripple because the studio needs that thing and I’m too idealistic. And the script isn’t good! And no one really gives a shit whether I think the script is good or not, but they care when they know I care, that I’m invested in a movie. I’ve had my challenges with that because sometimes I can be too precious and too involved, but I stand by the work that I do and I stand by the films that I do. And my philosophy about making movies is that everybody included in that process of making a movie should feel that way. I feel like the third wardrobe assistant should feel just as accountable for the movie as the director. That’s my own thing.

** This interview with Vin Diesel was conducted on August 20, 2008, at the Loews Regency Hotel in New York City for 20th Century Fox International. It has been edited from the original transcript.

“The End”

“The End”

“The American people are turning sullen. They’ve been clobbered on all sides by Vietnam, Watergate, the inflation, the depression; they’ve turned off, shot up, and they’ve fucked themselves limp, and nothing helps. So, this concept analysis report concludes, ‘The American people want somebody to articulate their rage for them.'”

Diana Christensen (as written by Paddy Chayefsky) in “Network” (1976)

“Military solutions are now fully in place, locked and loaded, should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path”

— As Tweeted by Donald Trump, “President” of the United States (2017)

 

11/20/1983

“It seems fitting to begin with the end.”

That’s how journalist Harry F. Waters’s cover story on “The Day After” for Newsweek began. I’ll never forget reading that piece, nor that opening line. The publicity machine over at the ABC network had been working overtime. TV Guide featured its own cover story and countless news reports added further momentum, worrying that the highly publicized telefilm’s depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear war on midwestern Americans would be too graphic and devastating for audiences, especially children. Others declared it was merely a leftist polemic for ratings. Yet, ABC did detonate one of the most watched television events ever with “The Day After,” a three-hour telefilm that answered of the ultimate “What if?” question. And more than 100 million people in 39 million homes tuned in one November night in 1983 to find out the answer.

Directed by Nicholas Meyer and featuring an ensemble led by such era heavyweights as Jason Robards, John Lithgow, JoBeth Williams, Amy Madigan & John Cullum, “The Day After” was actually conceived as a two-part event. In the end, audiences would witness a three-hour film chronicling the lives of several Kansas families as they deal with the horrific aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

Whatever its technical limitations, the irradiated images of blast vaporization, flash burns, radiation sickness and the futility of restoring even the most basic of societal structures burned into the consciousness of a generation. President Ronald Reagan, who viewed the film prior to its airing, credits the experience as being the reason why he reversed his stance on certain nuclear arms policies.  (Reagan wrote in his diaries how the film was “very effective” and left him “greatly depressed.”)

Broadcasting a political statement as “entertainment” into the nation’s living rooms remains its hallmark. It was polarizing, but we had to watch, my family included. I recall how we sat in the den, my Dad, my sisters, and I. Mom or my younger brother weren’t present. Maybe, maybe not? What I do recall was sitting on the floor, leaning against the sofa and whispering, “Here we go” as the movie began. And our collective nuclear fears hit an unforgettable peak for the rest of the decade.

And we are still here.

In the 34 years since “The Day After,” we’ve seen and heard elected officials, dictators, religious zealots, grandstanding fringe media show hosts and a rogue’s gallery of other malcontents wax lyrical about warmongering. Then America elected Donald Trump.

Flannel shirts. Will & Grace. Roseanne. David Letterman. Fiorucci. Nuclear war! Sooner or later, everything comes back in vogue. Even the end of the world. Or maybe that prospect has never left us?

To those who know me, I am obsessed with apocalyptic fiction. I don’t know where it began, but movies, novels, mini-series, I loved the idea of “the end.” Hell, I even read the endings of books and hit Wikipedia to see how other narratives end. Haha. So, “When Harry Met Sally,” yo.  I still joke that such eccentricities were preparing me for the inevitable. I’ve written about this before, stating that I watch films like “The Day After,” “Threads,” and “Special Bulletin” because no matter what we go through today, it still isn’t a nuclear wasteland.

I guess the jokes on us? Maybe?

 

Seriously, Trump is the quintessential rebound boyfriend, the one that is a huge swing away from the one who treated you well, but you broke up with anyway. He’s that loud mouthed douche who talks a lot of shit but can’t back any of it up. He’s the surprise date your friend brings to dinner and you all wonder, “The sex can’t be THAT good. Why is he with him?” At best, he’ll leave you with a case of crabs, but that can be treated. At worst, he’ll leave you with a scorching case of the uncurable herp. And let’s face it, America,  you can’t afford to be left with another social disease transmitted through “fake news” or abject hatred. Bad enough we don’t have the healthcare reform to treat it.

For those of you who lived through the Reagan era, the idea of witnessing a nuclear war was solid enough to kick start the low sweat stage in us all. Yet, how lucky to know we survived to see Trump engage in social media saber (i.e. penis) rattling. Now, I ponder whether “the end” as entertainment is no longer just a scary scenario. Can it manifest itself this time? And what does that mean for us all? It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I don’t feel fine after all.

At times, I wonder if we are better of being dust in the atmosphere, given what we’ve done to ourselves and our planet. Then again, I’m not ready for “The End.” I refuse to give up on my right to dream of a good boy or girlfriend, the one who makes us all think and laugh at the dinner table, the one who believes in justice for all. Let all the haters ride the bomb to oblivion. We can’t allow for stupidity to have its way again.

“Basic”

“Basic”

As defined in the Urban Dictionary:

1. Used to describe someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to.

2. Lacking intelligence and unable to socialize on even an elementary level.

3. Annoyingly frustrating because of the above

Oh her? Don’t even worry about her, girl. She’s so basic.

I think I preferred being gay in the 1990s. Well, sometimes I do.

That’s not an admission of not enjoying my gay life today. I enjoy it very much, although I probably hide out more than living out loud. Still, I honestly believe I am not alone in recognizing the limits that exist within the complex reality of the community today. Our tropes have been remixed, rebranded, shaken, and stirred into such a vast panoply of categories, it is no wonder we have begun to lose our connection to each other. It’s the same phenomenon of having too much choice. And while we continue to be political firebrands, I often feel it is hard to a distinguishing voice, one that embraces the entire group. Perhaps that’s an impossible task.

When I was sorting out my gay identity in the mid-80s to 1990s, I will never forget the fear and desperation I felt over what I perceived as a paucity of role models and resources with which to understand being homosexual. Yes, I loved watching old movies, Paul Lynde and broke my mother’s kitten heels as a kid, pretending that I was Ann-Margret in “The Pleasure Seekers.” Yes, I fell under the sway of Gershwin & Porter, Bette Midler, Linda Ronstadt’s “What’s New” and Joan Rivers’ infamous comedy album “What Becomes a Semi-Legend Most?” I wasn’t led to all of these places. Most happened by osmosis. Some of my favorite teachers, who probably felt I needed a little encouragement, steered me ever so gently towards some cultural touchstones. Bottom line, it all felt right, just like the crushes I felt for Han Solo, Steve Austin and Thomas Magnum, private investigator. However, as I poured through the oeuvre of Jackie Collins, Judith Krantz, and Jacqueline Susann, their depictions of homosexuality only left me titillated and confused. Man, I had questions and no one to turn to for answers.

As a teenager, you didn’t dare mention anything “gay” for fear of being ostracized or brutalized by the macho fucks who prowled the school hallways. Pretty much anything that did not look or sound like them meant “faggot.” Advanced vocabularies were a secret shame for us chubby, nascent homos. It was all closets, stereotypes, and slurs, as I am sure it was for many teenagers surviving the early 80s. It didn’t help that the HIV/AIDS crisis was being treated like a biblical pestilence by the media. But how else would you view the deaths of 40,000 people between 1981 and 1987 as anything but a genocide? Gomorrah was burning and it was devastating to hear from Anita Bryant and your own friends’ parents that being gay was the match that lit the fuse. Asserting your homosexuality at that time was not going to be like an ABC Afternoon School Special.

As I ventured to UCLA and beyond, I began to discover the resources with which to further define my gay identity. It was about being part of the “gay and lesbian” community, even if only the white gay male narrative was what clearly in focus. I still didn’t see myself in the growing media presence of gay men. Although, we have come a long way in that regard. In many ways, it still is a very white focus, regardless of the gender. Room for progress? Yes.

While I stayed firmly in the closet when it came to my parents, I had no problems letting my gay flag fly elsewhere. After UCLA became an educational Waterloo, CSU Long Beach can take credit for leading me to the artistry Armistead Maupin, Charles Busch, Reinaldo Arenas, David Leavitt, Manuel Puig, Larry Kramer, Keith Haring, Joe Orton, Harvey Fierstein, Pedro Almódovar and so much more. Once I landed at Paramount Studios as an intern, I hit the mother lode (and not that stalwart WeHo bar.) Several of the men I worked with in the studio’s National Theatrical Publicity department presented themselves as being incredibly secure with their bad ass gay selves. It was the first of many safe and illuminating havens I experienced in terms of associating with professionals who were out in the workplace.  I was made aware just how gay men and women were the ones to make life and style synonymous terms. In this ACT UP era, it was time to understand we were “fierce.” More, I became hyper aware as to the debt attached to the attitude, parlance, and strength of the community, realities contributed by African-American, Latino and Asian queers. It all made for an intoxicating existence, especially when viewed on display at clubs Circus or Rosie’s or Jewel’s Catch One, where we embraced each other, fell in love on the hour and felt so invincible on the dance floor.

When I started writing this post on being “Basic,” it was meant to be another statement on dating today. That was before I sat down to watch the poignant if erratic “Strike a Pose” documentary. It is a “where are they now” piece that was produced by a Belgian-Dutch team, the film celebrated the 25th anniversary of “Madonna: Truth or Dare,” itself a cultural moment of considerable influence. The documentary regrouped seven of Madonna‘s unforgettable backup dancers, charting the course of their lives, trials, and considerable tribulations in the years since their co-starring in the Material Girl’s iconic 1990 Blonde Ambition tour. That zeitgeist moment, one that influenced so many young gay men and women, had a bittersweet impact on these men’s’ lives. How a defining cultural gift proved so challenging and heartbreaking for these incredibly talented men helped me broaden the context of what I wanted to say about this era of being “Basic.”

I was very much one of those fans who found refuge and pride in a movie theater during that summer of 1991. I instantly re-felt the impact of “Truth or Dare,” despite the difficulties faced by this group of men as chronicled by “Strike a Pose.” It was also like finding being a letter from a long-ago love. Witnessing these men, all nearing 50, still moving to their own music with purpose helped me understand the need to keep moving forward, of re-embracing my own strengths and colors. More, they inspired me to not feel adrift or isolated as a result of being 50 and gay in a world that still caters to the proverbial youthquake.

The first paragraphs on “Basic” were these:

When it comes to 21st century dating between men, two categories remain in play. The first group – or the Exceptionals – are men worth dating, but are most likely paired off or not interested in being a couple at all. This group does not include those who are in open relationships, a social phenomenon that is just more macho-induced “having your cake (or cock in this case) and eating, too. And then we have group two: The Basics. Oh, man.

Created by the internet, this constantly trending crowd thinks it’s redefining our world and perhaps they are with their throwback looks and sway back attitudes. They live for the now, even if they don’t know what that means.  It isn’t just millennials, either. Basicdom is spreading to all age groups like a virus as social media swallows the rest of us whole. And what’s in between is a collective of damaged goods spouting mangled psychosexual manifestos and more. It is no longer men you date or men you don’t. What we have today are next level distrust and basic human disconnection.

I couldn’t continue down this path, one I’ve covered before and a Bombeckian take felt trite and unnecessary. Instead, I wanted to focus on how unfunny being labeled “basic” is to those who wield it as a joke or a tone-deaf insult.

While I applaud how millennials have turned up the dialogue to address and give names to the many facets of out and/or queer life, they are still working on variations of a theme long-established. I don’t think today’s young gay men quite understand the debt they owe previous generations, their lives, struggles, deaths and everything in between. Gay is a living, breathing creature, one that can decide the color of its plumage without a care in the world. Hide it, suppress it, oppress it, this creature will fight its way forward to be seen and with even greater radiance. A context to our present is missing today, a respect for history and the sacrifices made for us all to be able to say, “Sissy that walk.”

You will find nothing “basic” about being gay, now or ever. But it pisses me off that we are quick to diminish someone for not possessing whatever trend or ideology that makes them “interesting” or “worth devoting time to” in this world.  We all can’t look like refugees from the Electric Company or Romper Room. More, we can’t let striking a series of selfie poses, drinks up and duck lips be what defines our sexual freedom!

We all will get older. We all will find how our experiences can impact the future if take our narcissism out of the equation. How we dare shame those who are poz or act like PrEP is the golden bullet that will keep us young and fuckable. How dare we ignore those who choose a unique brand of queer, or want to unleash their true gender identity, are older or chubbier or a different color or creed? Bad enough religious zealots want us dead, still! We cannot castigate or diminish our own brothers and sisters. Not now.

Homosexuality is a reality that was never about a life style choice because it sparks to life in our very DNA. We should remix “basic” and take the dialogue back to basics when we were all vital human beings living life on our terms: compassionate, honorable, forward thinking and positively sexy.

 

Key Photo: Art by Keith Haring

“Beautiful”

“Beautiful”

“Beauty’s where you find it
Not just where you bump and grind it
Soul is in the musical
That’s where I feel so beautiful
Magical, life’s a ball
So get up on the dance floor…”

— From “Vogue” by Madonna/Shep Pettibone

I started this entry with a basic question:

Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?

It was my intent to deconstruct that specific moment when you knew you could express yourself without fear of being called out for being “different.” It’s that version of yourself that is obfuscated by societal norms or misguided attempts from our parents to “protect” us from a judgmental world. This post was not supposed to be about outward beauty, although that is a prison of different making. As for the rest of us who haven’t scored big at the genetic lottery, we tend to water down the impact of the word “beauty” to its most superficial definition. What do we do with the concept of having a bold personality, of being able to express a powerful sense of verve when we’re young? Why do many of us spend much our adult lives, countless dollars and more trying to coax that child back into existence in the end? Does that qualify as being beautiful, too?

As I discussed this post with my boss and best sparring partner, I found myself unable to defend my position on what I felt meant being beautiful. He kept leading me outside of the boxed context of what I insisted was the point of this piece.  He led the debate beyond what is “pleasing to the senses or mind aesthetically.” Before I could even begin to write about “beauty,” he insisted, I had to dig deeper into the complexity of this word.

Greek philosopher Plato maintained that beauty is a universal construct. We may not always recognize beauty through our senses. Each individual’s reaction can be triggered through a different means: sight, sound, smell, etc. Perhaps when we acknowledge something as being “beautiful,” it is because it is a potent reminder as to how our souls possess a wonderful sense of mystery.

The late English art critic John Berger opined that “seeing comes before words. The child looks and recognizes before it can speak.” When we do begin to learn how to speak and we start amassing a vocabulary, we also start learning how to use these words to build declarative statements and opinions. These bloom into judgments, influenced and curated by those around us. From that point, how we “see” things in inextricably affected in the end by what we learn and by what we think we “know.”

Bridging Plato to Berger takes a bit more than the foundation I am laying here. Yet, I can see a link to a key moment in my childhood. Addressing the issues of the consequences of being bullied and the body dysmorphia/food addictions that continue to haunt me, which remain a key focus of this diary. So, my initial to my question was:

“I haven’t felt or deemed myself as being beautiful in a long time.”

I reference that hat glorious Spanish summer of 2014. I felt in control of my self and my soul. I felt powerful and limitless, just like I did up until the 4th grade when I became aware of what I saw as being “me” was “different” from the rest of the pack. More, once I understood the hurtful words and opinions hurled at me through elementary school junior high from those who rebuked me mercilessly, I opted to hide much of what made me “me.” And I hurled those same words back to others weaker than me with decided force and intent. My concept of beauty, the image of myself, has never been the same since.

6115f92031a1a73e263ea8269ff2ac34

I think about the moment I thought I understood what beauty could mean. Given my middle class life, of course it was built around media. As I discovered much later, I wasn’t alone in my nascent gay self, pouring over Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Interview and New York magazines, drawn to the light of these glossy pages like a pilgrim making the journey to Lourdes. It is no coincidence that I hid here as much as I did in the literary and musical testaments to cafe society that I regularly snuck into the house from the library. Dad worked in textiles, which first opened a window into fashion, then all things New York City, for me. It didn’t take much to to begin whispering the names of photographers, editors, models and designers with solemnity of a prayer during Sunday mass: Avedon. Penn. Elgort. Newton. Scavullo. Saint Laurent. Givenchy. Dior. Lacroix. Lagerfeld. Halston. Versace. Ellis. Dovima. Turlington. Evangelista. Campbell. Tilberis. Vreeland. Wintour. They were all what I deemed as being “beautiful.”

I felt so superior in thinking that no one knew who they were in Pico Rivera. In reality, this world shielded me from those who tormented me in the hallways of South Ranchito and Meller Jr. High. I knew one day, I’d be able to move amongst them, the ultimate smalltown boy revenge. What it really meant was that I had capitulated to bourgeois materialism in the guise of being cultivated.

39ab7d81aeefec97573cdd734f8e2a3c

Looking back at this now, was this fascination (obsession), really the best definition of “beauty?” Wasn’t this realm of artifice derived from fashion and fashionistas merely examples of what is simply “pretty?” Did it fall under the tenets of beauty attributed to Plato? What did it reveal about me at a young age, chubby, acne’d and peculiar in terms of my own personal code of aesthetics? Was I merely wading into this pool of superficiality, engaging in a clichéd game of middle class rebellion because I hated NOT being one of these people? Perhaps. Oh yes, perhaps. Misguided or not, memorizing the pages of Judith Krantz’s “Scruples” or Jackie Collins’s “Hollywood Wives” left me breathless and eager to get the hell out of the SGV as soon as I could. Needless to say, I sold myself short.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It is no irony that I became a publicist, that messenger of all things glittering and glamorous. I battled with never being as cool as the message, even at the peak of years at 20th Century Fox. I lived and died at the altar of the Hollywood experience. I needed not have bothered. What we should find is truly beautiful is not always the thing we see outwardly. Yet, we continue to bandy about with words that act more as hyperbole than being catalysts of profundity.

I continue to grapple with long cycles of depression, excess eating and overindulgence, which includes the manner I continue to spend my money on material things. It would be easy to fault a steady diet of glitz and glitter as the source of my demons. I won’t, because I still admire the craft of couture, which is a true art to me. I knew what I was doing then and now. As to when I’ll take firm control of those urges, I won’t ever stop trying to compartmentalize them until they torment me no more. Yet, after the debacle of “Fatlanta,” I am still faced with that blasted question: “Do you remember the last time you felt beautiful?”

Now that this conversation has started, I realize I have much to learn and understand about what is “beautiful.” It is more than my long held ideal of becoming a gentleman in the style of my cinematic hero Cary Grant. As for the current state of fashion and fashion magazines, the joy is less apparent in this renewed era of status mongering and greed. Nor can my definition be something on par of Madonna’s exquisite paean to other icons of film glamour, “Vogue.” But a singular truth can be found within these beats, “beauty is where you find it.”

As I begin to redefine my own standards of beauty, I realize something is happening at long last. I am finding myself again in these discussions that stir my collective senses.  I am learning again thanks to an evolving family of friends who choose and want to think beyond what is accepted or acceptable. This time feels so much like Spain. The arrested development that I’ve allowed to set in has no place in this quest for wellness. Perhaps what makes us beautiful is believing in the desire to grow and to be challenged by a world, even one in flux.

Given our current political state of ugly at the moment, we have to train our eyes to see beyond what lies what ahead or even what we think we’ve learned about people, even ourselves. Perhaps beauty is the possibility afforded by being better and stronger and willing to accept our flaws, to finding the willingness to build them into strengths.

Only when we allow for acceptance and tolerance can we best repel the rhetoric from people who dare keep us asunder in a state of homogenized hatred.

Only when we begin to understand the true nature of beauty will we be able to say, “Life’s a ball!” and just fucking dance already.

We are forever accountable for our journeys and decisions. Perhaps that’s what I’ve come to finally learn:

Be your true self. Be beautiful.

Cary Grant photo by Richard Avedon

Dovima & Ray Bolger photo by Richard Avedon

Kristen McMenamy & Nadja Auermann photo by Richard Avedon

Gia Carangi in YSL photo by Helmut Newton

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — “Eugenio & Salma”

Diary of an Angry, Hungry, Fat, Gay Mexican — “Eugenio & Salma”

 

 

“Every man carries a bit of the personality of the Latin lover inside. If you have the energy, if you have the inner self-confidence, you can be a Latin lover. It’s not a stereotype. It’s a way of living!”

— Eugenio Derbez on his role as Maximo in “How to Be a Latin Lover”

¡Viva Mexico!

It was a sensational opening weekend for HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER at the box office. The bilingual comedy lead by Mexican comedy titan Eugenio Derbez, Salma Hayek, Rob Lowe, Kristen Bell and a multi-cultural/multi-generational ensemble cast debuted in second place with $12 million from just 1,118 theaters. With Latinos comprising an overwhelming 89% of the audience and a “A” CinemaScore grade, this “Latin Lover” has plenty of seduction power and swagger to fuel its momentum.  

My colleagues at Monkey Deux, Inc. and I had the distinct privilege of working on the campaign for HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER, crafting the broadcast and online publicity materials that began during production last Spring 2016 in Los Angeles. It is by far the most entertaining film that Pantelion Films, the Latino division of Lionsgate (with Televisa) has produced and perhaps the most enjoyable project we’ve collaborated on to date.

 As an American-born Latino in Hollywood, the opportunities to work on films that reflected my Mexican heritage were far and few in between. Since my association with Pantelion began in 2013, the door that opened into this world of Latino entertainment has been one of the best things to ever happen in the near 25 years of my career. Meeting and working with some of the most formidable Latino artists working today continues to add an exciting layer to my role as a producer/interviewer. More, the chance to express myself in two languages has allowed for opportunities I never thought possible.

I had to share a little of the memorable experience in speaking with Derbez and Hayek about the making of HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER, interviews which were used to create the featurette that is running online and the production notes given to the press covering the film. I’d like to see how any wall would dare to keep out the unbridled creativity and cultural pride shared by Derbez and Hayek. If anything, their recent appearances on several leading morning and late night shows translated into something for everyone to enjoy at the movies.

 As we venture through a divisive time, where isolating those who are deemed not like “us” is acceptable, we need to continue to support diversity, especially in the arts. We all have stories to tell, stories that reflect our true face as a nation. You may not make films like HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER your priority. However, sooner or later, all of our experiences and perspectives will grace the silver screen without being listed as a “special episode,” a “woman’s picture” or crafted for a “niche audience.” That’s how we can stop the walls and project a saner future for us all.

An excerpt from my production story on the making of HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER with Derbez and Hayek below:

Following up the global success of Instructions Not Included in 2013 was no easy task for Mexican comedy superstar Eugenio Derbez, who wrote, directed and starred in what remains the highest grossing Spanish film in US movie history. Capturing that sort of lightning in a bottle twice can be elusive. Still, the timing of Instructions Not Included proved fortuitous, playing a role in further illustrating the importance of diversity in Hollywood-produced entertainment. Derbez opted to flex other creative muscles while patiently searching for the right project to tackle as a filmmaker, securing roles in such features as the recent hit Miracles From Heaven and the upcoming action drama Geostorm. Being able to choose the project that best fit his established comedy brand was a serious task, so when Derbez and his 3Pas Productions partner Benjamin Odell heard the pitch about an aging gigolo, they knew they hit pay dirt.

“I was looking for a script for me that could fit my accent, my audience, my age, my everything,” Derbez recalled with a smile. “What I loved about HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER was the fact that we could play with this image of someone who is beautiful and handsome like Julio Iglesias or Enrique Iglesias or Ricky Martin. Maximo is really aging, probably in the worst years of his life, and I think that’s the funny thing about this character.”

IMG_1920

Despite sharing a friendship that spans more than 30 years, Derbez and Oscar®-nominated actor/filmmaker and paisana Salma Hayek had often regretted that they’ve never had the chance to work together. That lifelong promise made good proved a formidable “get” for the film that all the filmmakers hoped would happen. As Sara, Maximo’s headstrong, burgeoning architect sister, Hayek said establishing that familial bond was hardly a stretch given her history with Derbez. (Fun fact: they share the same birthday of September 2.)

“I’ve been friends with Eugenio for a long time,” Hayek explained. “When I started my production company, one of the first ideas that I had was to do a show for Eugenio. But America was not ready yet, this was before Ugly Betty, to understand the power of the Latino market. We are very similar in many ways. I cannot think of a better fit for the characters than to be brother and sister. For me it’s a great opportunity to act in Spanish and to play a Mexican woman and to have fun, reliving a little bit our childhood. I got to relive my childhood in Mexico with a brother that in real life feels like a brother to me.”

For Derbez, other practical realites existed in wanting Hayek to join the cast, extending beyond the chance to work together. The duo even took to the recording studio later in the film’s post-production to capture their upbeat salsa version of the classic ballad “El Triste” for the soundtrack.

“It was an amazing good time because she’s lovable. She’s crazy. And she’s very creative. She’s always bringing new stuff. When we were acting in Spanish, we felt really good. It was like we weren’t even acting. We were like just playing around, like brother and sister. It’s not easy to find something like that sort of chemistry. It’s just so good to have two real Mexicans playing Mexicans because I’ve seen a lot of Hollywood films with supposed Mexicans that aren’t Mexicans. Another producer would have hired an actress from another place and probably some audiences wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But for us you can absolutely tell when somebody has an accent from Colombia or Argentina or Spain. It was really important for us to have two real Mexicans portraying two Mexicans.”

Hayek further extolled the benefits of having a film populated by an ensemble of contrasts, which further enhances the humor found from the clashes of cultures and generations that are the film’s core.

“What’s great about the movie is that I think there’s going to be a lot of different audiences for this film,” Hayek said, “I liked the idea that in some ways Maximo also enjoys his job. It’s important to him to make these women feel special. It gives him joy. The minute they get older, they are abandoned or overlooked by society. I think that it’s a lovely quality of the character that is original in the film. Everybody gets to laugh about themselves in the way we laugh about the concept of the Latin lover. It has a lot of heart and that is extremely important. It’s a little naughty but it’s done in a clever way so that it can go over the kids’ heads, but there are still things they l get to enjoy.”

Shot on location throughout Los Angeles, Marino is proud that the film reflects more than just the iconic, glittering parts of the city audiences have come to enjoy on screen time and time again. Despite the often-raucous events that occur throughout the film, he wanted to make sure the face of the city was also a key player that was grounded in reality. The multi-cultural and bilingual sights and sounds of the city are also complimented by a soundtrack that includes a new recording from Grammy®-nominated star Carla Morrison.

“It was a blessing to shoot in L.A.,” Derbez added. “In this case, we could afford the luxury of shooting here. And it’s so good to see L.A. like it is.”

Timing again looks to be on the side of Derbez with the release of HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER. In this era of exaggerated luxury and status symbolism, Maximo would feel right at home in the Instagram-documented age of certain reality TV “stars.” Derbez has worked hard to curate a comedy brand that’s ranks him as one of the top artists working in Mexico and Latin America today. While he’s made some inroads in the United States, HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER did provide him with his first ever leading role in English. The actor-filmmaker admitted that the process was “tricky” at times, even prompting him to wonder if his type of comedy would translate into a different language.

“I come from the Hispanic world and we are broad,” Derbez exclaimed. “We’re big! In this movie, I go to places that I’ve never been, but in a very contained way. It’s really been a learning curve. I feel so good about it.”

Upon seeing the finished film, Derbez is more confident than ever that the strengths of the material and its message will play to the widest audience possible. It is one more phase of an overall plan to continue bringing a unique slate of projects that will not only redefine his own brand of comedy, but do away with the labels associated with being a specific type of entertainment.

“It came from an original idea and it became funnier and funnier every single day,” Derbez concluded. “I’m so proud of it because it’s really different. We’re breaking all the stereotypes. Every time I work, whether it’s on my TV shows or my films, I love putting something for everyone. I like to work for the entire family. This feels really fresh and different. It also has such a nice and important message. Money’s not the only thing that’s important in life. Maximo had everything. Cars, yachts, helicopters, planes. He lived in huge mansions, but he does realize that life is about something else. Life is about family, about love, about taking care of each other. That’s one of the best things the movie has to offer.”

HOW TO BE A LATIN LOVER is now playing citywide.