Interviews: The Cast of A Week Away

Posted on March 27, 2021 at 7:09 am

Copyright Netflix 2021
I had so much fun talking to the four young stars of A Week Away for The Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Bailee Madison (who also co-produced, at only age 19!), Kevin Quinn, Kat Conner, and Jahbril Cook talked to me about their favorite camp activities, the advice they would give their characters, and what they hope people will take from the film. An excerpt:

Minow: The characters pack a lot of activities into a week! Which was your favorite?

Quinn: There was a day that we were filming a montage of sporting events around the camp. And we did everything from bag toss to pie-eating contest, to tug of war. And I think that was the most fun for me because I actually forgot that the cameras were rolling at one point, which is a good day in any actor’s career. We’re just having fun.

Madison: We were drained that day. I remember when we were finished filming, we were like, “I’m exhausted.” And then I went home and I was FaceTiming my mom and I said, “I’m so tired today. She asked, What did you do?” When I told her, I thought, This just sounds like a really fun day.” And it was. But yeah, we got really into it.

Conner: The scene was cut from the movie but we got to do a zip line, and that is one of my favorite things ever. But we only had one take. But if I could go back, I want to do it again.

Cook: Yeah, that was super fun. There were a lot of things that we didn’t get to do, that showed up in the movie but we didn’t get around to it. One of them in the dive sequence George gets launched off The Blob and I was looking forward to that the whole time. The Blob was just out there on the lake and we could see it every day. But then on the day, unfortunately, they hit me with the bad news. They said, “Doing your hair is too much of an ordeal so you can’t get it wet because we don’t have time to do it again.” And so, I climbed out onto The Blob, and I had to do this shimmy maneuver on the big wooden structure to get the shot and then I had to shimmy back off without getting wet.

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Great Characters! New York Magazine’s List of Today’s Best Character Actors

Posted on March 25, 2021 at 10:38 am

I love character actors, and was delighted to see New York Magazine’s great list of today’s best,  As the terrific documentaries “That Guy…Who Was in That Thing” and “That Gal…Who Was in That Thing” show, character actors have the tough job of being perfect every take, because the star’s best take is the one they will use, and handling a lot of expositional dialog so that the star can stick to the quips and quotable lines.

NYMag’s list is excellent, with some of my favorites, including Brian Tyree Henry, Beth Grant, Jason Mantzoukas, Rob Morgan, and Fred Melamed. Honestly, every one of the 32 on the list is a favorite of mine, someone whose name in the credits makes me smile in anticipation. Here’s to character actors!

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David Morse — A Podcast Tribute

Posted on February 27, 2021 at 4:09 pm

Copyright Jen Johans 2021

I love a chance to pay tribute to under-sung Hollywood figures, especially utility infielders who show up in movie after movie, genre after genre, handling every role with precision and commitment. David Morse fits that description perfectly, and it was a pleasure to join my friend and fellow critic Jen Johans and novelist William Boyle on Jen’s Watch With Jen podcast to talk about some of our favorite Morse performances, including “Inside Moves,” “The Slaughter Rule,” “Diary of a City Priest,” “The Indian Runner,” and more.

Jen’s articles about Morse are here and here.

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Tribute: Cloris Leachman

Posted on January 27, 2021 at 7:51 pm

I can’t say for sure but to the best of my recollection in the history of the Academy Awards, only one presenter had the presence of mind to bring — a letter opener. That was Cloris Leachman, the year after she won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. While she is usually remembered today for her comedic roles, her Oscar was for a heartbreaking dramatic portrayal of vulnerability in “The Last Picture Show.”

Few people recognized her from her brief role as a cheerful prostitute in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Or as “Lassie’s Mom” in one season of the television series about the boy and his collie or a reliable guest star on 1950s and 60s television series, including “Lancer,” the one featured in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”

But when she appeared as Phyllis Lindstrom, the very proper neighbor/landlady on “The Mary Tyler Moore” show, she became an instant household name, ultimately getting her own spin-off series.

The opening credits spoofed “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” and any theme song that extolled the irresistibility of its star.

Leachman appeared in just about every form of entertainment, most recently providing the voice of the grandmother in “The Croods” and last year’s sequel. She was also known for being quirky, outspoken, and something of a hippie back in the day.

Cloris Leachman and my mother were in the same dorm at Northwestern University freshman year, until Cloris dropped out, and they stayed friends. My mother loved to tell us how Cloris got out of an exam by tearfully telling the professor about her boyfriend who had just been killed in WWII. (He wasn’t killed, in fact he didn’t exist.) Mom says she was a very believable actress even then.

In the 1970s, when my father was asked to give the graduation speech at Northwestern, he told the students that his roommate at the school was the journalist Sandor Vanocur and my mother’s was Cloris Leachman. “If only we were students now,” he said with mock regret. “I could have had Cloris Leachman as my roommate and my wife could have roomed with Sandy Vanocur.” This was considered rather racy and daring back in those days when many schools still had parietal rules limiting visitors of the opposite sex, and the idea of mixed-gender dorms was just beginning to be considered.

Cloris Leachman heard about the speech and wrote to my father. “I am deeply insulted!” she wrote. “How dare you suggest that I would have roomed with you at Northwestern! I would have roomed with Sandy Vanocur!”

May her memory be a blessing.

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Tribute: Chadwick Boseman

Posted on August 30, 2020 at 9:42 pm

Copyright 2018 Disney
The devastating loss of Chadwick Boseman, who has died of colon cancer at just 43 years old, is almost incomprehensible. The tributes to him from his colleagues and fans struggle to capture his grace, his talent, and his dedication. May his memory be a blessing.

I appeared on KUSI to talk about my two interviews with Boseman and what his legacy will be.

And I shared more about those memories on rogerebert.com, a supplement to the beautiful commentary from Odie Henderson.

My interview with Boseman about “Marshall.” My interview with him about “42.”

The tribute from “Black Panther” writer/director Ryan Coogler is deeply moving:

I inherited Marvel and the Russo Brothers’ casting choice of T’Challa. It is something that I will forever be grateful for. The first time I saw Chad’s performance as T’Challa, it was in an unfinished cut of CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. I was deciding whether or not directing BLACK PANTHER was the right choice for me. I’ll never forget, sitting in an editorial suite on the Disney Lot and watching his scenes. His first with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, then, with the South African cinema titan, John Kani as T’Challa’s father, King T’Chaka. It was at that moment I knew I wanted to make this movie. After Scarlett’s character leaves them, Chad and John began conversing in a language I had never heard before. It sounded familiar, full of the same clicks and smacks that young black children would make in the States. The same clicks that we would often be chided for being disrespectful or improper. But, it had a musicality to it that felt ancient, powerful, and African.

In my meeting after watching the film, I asked Nate Moore, one of the producers of the film, about the language. “Did you guys make it up?” Nate replied, “that’s Xhosa, John Kani’s native language. He and Chad decided to do the scene like that on set, and we rolled with it.” I thought to myself. “He just learned lines in another language, that day?” I couldn’t conceive how difficult that must have been, and even though I hadn’t met Chad, I was already in awe of his capacity as actor.

I learned later that there was much conversation over how T’Challa would sound in the film. The decision to have Xhosa be the official language of Wakanda was solidified by Chad, a native of South Carolina, because he was able to learn his lines in Xhosa, there on the spot. He also advocated for his character to speak with an African accent, so that he could present T’Challa to audiences as an African king, whose dialect had not been conquered by the West.

I finally met Chad in person in early 2016, once I signed onto the film. He snuck past journalists that were congregated for a press junket I was doing for CREED, and met with me in the green room. We talked about our lives, my time playing football in college, and his time at Howard studying to be a director, about our collective vision for T’Challa and Wakanda. We spoke about the irony of how his former Howard classmate Ta-Nehisi Coates was writing T’Challa’s current arc with Marvel Comics. And how Chad knew Howard student Prince Jones, who’s murder by a police officer inspired Coates’ memoir Between The World and Me.

I noticed then that Chad was an anomaly. He was calm. Assured. Constantly studying. But also kind, comforting, had the warmest laugh in the world, and eyes that seen much beyond his years, but could still sparkle like a child seeing something for the first time.

That was the first of many conversations. He was a special person. We would often speak about heritage and what it means to be African. When preparing for the film, he would ponder every decision, every choice, not just for how it would reflect on himself, but how those choices could reverberate. “They not ready for this, what we are doing…” “This is Star Wars, this is Lord of the Rings, but for us… and bigger!” He would say this to me while we were struggling to finish a dramatic scene, stretching into double overtime. Or while he was covered in body paint, doing his own stunts. Or crashing into frigid water, and foam landing pads. I would nod and smile, but I didn’t believe him. I had no idea if the film would work. I wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing. But I look back and realize that Chad knew something we all didn’t. He was playing the long game. All while putting in the work. And work he did.

He would come to auditions for supporting roles, which is not common for lead actors in big budget movies. He was there for several M’Baku auditions. In Winston Duke’s, he turned a chemistry read into a wrestling match. Winston broke his bracelet. In Letitia Wright’s audition for Shuri, she pierced his royal poise with her signature humor, and would bring about a smile to T’Challa’s face that was 100% Chad.

While filming the movie, we would meet at the office or at my rental home in Atlanta, to discuss lines and different ways to add depth to each scene. We talked costumes, military practices. He said to me “Wakandans have to dance during the coronations. If they just stand there with spears, what separates them from Romans?” In early drafts of the script. Eric Killmonger’s character would ask T’Challa to be buried in Wakanda. Chad challenged that and asked, what if Killmonger asked to be buried somewhere else?

Chad deeply valued his privacy, and I wasn’t privy to the details of his illness. After his family released their statement, I realized that he was living with his illness the entire time I knew him. Because he was a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith, dignity and pride, he shielded his collaborators from his suffering. He lived a beautiful life. And he made great art. Day after day, year after year. That was who he was. He was an epic firework display. I will tell stories about being there for some of the brilliant sparks till the end of my days. What an incredible mark he’s left for us.

I haven’t grieved a loss this acute before. I spent the last year preparing, imagining and writing words for him to say, that we weren’t destined to see. It leaves me broken knowing that I won’t be able to watch another close-up of him in the monitor again or walk up to him and ask for another take.

It hurts more to know that we can’t have another conversation, or facetime, or text message exchange. He would send vegetarian recipes and eating regimens for my family and me to follow during the pandemic. He would check in on me and my loved ones, even as he dealt with the scourge of cancer.

In African cultures we often refer to loved ones that have passed on as ancestors. Sometimes you are genetically related. Sometimes you are not. I had the privilege of directing scenes of Chad’s character, T’Challa, communicating with the ancestors of Wakanda. We were in Atlanta, in an abandoned warehouse, with bluescreens, and massive movie lights, but Chad’s performance made it feel real. I think it was because from the time that I met him, the ancestors spoke through him. It’s no secret to me now how he was able to skillfully portray some of our most notable ones. I had no doubt that he would live on and continue to bless us with more. But it is with a heavy heart and a sense of deep gratitude to have ever been in his presence, that I have to reckon with the fact that Chad is an ancestor now. And I know that he will watch over us, until we meet again.

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