Interview with director Michael Lerner! You could follow in this actor/director’s footsteps by entering our latest contests RIGHT HERE! A featured article from the WriteMovies archive first published September 2006 by Brett Buckalew.
Lunching with Mayor Ebert
|Tuesday, September 26, 2006.
Although the film critic Michael Lerner bears a striking resemblance to may not have always approved of his mainstream efforts, the actor says a mix of big budget and low-budget can be the key to a healthy, happy Hollywood diet.
By Brett Buckalew
While a journalist normally wishes to conduct a one-on-one interview in a secluded area, one free of noise and the interference of other people, there are some rare instances where talking in a certain public place confers a certain thematic resonance upon the interview.
This is precisely what happened when Film Stew took part in an exclusive sit-down with veteran character actor Michael Lerner (Elf, Eight Men Out). The performer is noshing on a sandwich in a hospitality suite filled with food and dining tables, and when he explains why he declined publicists’ suggestions that he wait until after lunch and do the interview in a more private suite, his reasoning ties the interview setting directly to the film in question, now out on DVD just in time for the Jewish high holy days.
“The title of the movie is When Do We Eat?, right?” he notes with an air of amusement in his voice. “And I’m in the middle of eating my lunch. They had said, ‘We need to move you somewhere else,’ [and] I said, ‘No, no, let’s do it right here. It’s good!’”
Drawing such a parallel to the film is very clever, although a mid-day ham on rye is nothing compared to the food offered up in the Passover seder at the center of When Do We Eat? The independent comedy-drama, directed by newcomer Salvador Litvak from a script he co-wrote with his wife Nina Davidovich, originally hit theatres just in time for the traditional Jewish feast, in which massive amounts of matzoth balls are consumed.
In it, Lerner plays Ira Stuckman, a harried patriarch who corrals his family for the holiday dinner, only to have dysfunction explode around him. Seeing as how his wife (Lesley Ann Warren) openly flirts with the designer of the kosher Passover tent, his father (Jack Klugman) suffers from paranoia that a second Holocaust is forthcoming, and his five children include a “sex surrogate” (Shiri Appleby) who makes money by sleeping with physically or psychologically damaged men and an autistic teenager (Adam Lamberg), alternately comedic and horrifying conflicts are inevitable. Lerner, who describes himself as a relatively secular Jew, thinks it’s the recognizable eccentricities of this family that should help the DVD connect with non-Jewish audiences.
“I think you can relate to it because it’s like any family,” he observes. “Every family has difficulties with each other. It’s all about human problems, it’s about human beings.”
“It’s not necessarily about Jews,” he continues. “It could be about Koreans, it could be about Mexicans, it could be about Spanish people or Italian people. I mean, it’s pretty much universal…the problems that people have with each other in a family.”
Lerner has also discovered that the specificity of Passover custom as depicted in the film appeals to the uninitiated. “I’ve got friends to see the movie who are not Jewish, and they’re really responding to it,” he shares. “And they find that they weren’t aware of all the rituals that are involved in the seder when that goes on, and they like that.”
One element of the project that Lerner responded to was the chance to play a character who keeps his temper flare-ups to a minimum. Ever since Lerner played hotheaded studio boss Jack Lipnick in Joel and Ethan Coen’s critically celebrated Barton Fink, he has become the go-to guy for playing screaming, red-faced authority figures who blow a gasket when things don’t go their way. Ira in When Do We Eat?, by contrast, shouts at his brood only when necessary.
“That’s what I liked so much about the movie, the ability for me to play a character who was so human and had five children,” Lerner reveals. “So I didn’t push the bigness of the character at all. As a matter of fact, I made a concerted effort to go the other way.”
But Lerner carries no ill will towards the Coen Brothers for inadvertently determining the larger-than-life roles he would be typecast in. Playing Lipnick earned Lerner his first Academy Award nomination, and the actor is more than happy to describe the experience of making Barton Fink to a die-hard Coen-head like this writer. “The amazing thing was that Joel and Ethan trust actors very much, and they cast people that they want to cast, and they let you do your work,” Lerner explains about the fraternally bonded filmmakers. “They don’t hover over you and change things. It’s very easy. They know by casting you, that they’ve got what they want.”
Barton Fink is the rare studio film – it was released by 20th Century Fox – that has given Lerner space with which to create an indelible character. The actor vacillates between studio fare and independent projects, and though he laughs while insisting, “Brett, you go for a job,” he’s vocal about his preference for working on indie films.
“It gives me better parts,” he claims about independent-film work. “I mean, when I do Elf, Godzilla (in which his resemblance to a certain movie critic was turned into the role of Mayor Ebert) or movies like that, I’m usually playing very stereotypical, corny people. And in an independent movie, it’s edgier, and the parts are probably gonna be bigger or better.”
Straddling both sides of the film-production fence can create a sense of disorientation, which is the feeling that hit Lerner when he hopped from a Roland Emmerich-helmed special-effects extravaganza to a low-key comedy co-starring Sam Rockwell and Paul Giamatti, and then back again. “I worked on the first part of Godzilla,” Lerner relates. “Then, I did Safe Men. And then I did the second part of Godzilla. And that was really a funny experience, because it’s like going from a huge, mega-budget film to guerilla theatre.”
Lerner also thought of the comforts of stage work when working on When Do We Eat?, which confines much of its action to the Passover tent and the eleven characters that dine and bicker within it. “Working on this film was terrific, because it was very tightly knit,” Lerner describes, “and also you could shoot consecutively, a lot of it, like all that stuff in the tent was shot in order. And in movies, you very rarely have a chance to do that, and that’s almost theatrical. It’s almost like doing a play, and that’s good for the actors.”
Also fun for Lerner while making When Do We Eat? was the chance to play Ira’s mind-expanding encounter with a tab of Ecstasy that a fed-up son (Ben Feldman) slips into his water goblet. While tripping on the drug, Ira delights in mystical hallucinations and settles into a loving state that leads him to reconcile with the other members of his family.
Lerner chuckles when I bring up the Ecstasy, and tiptoes carefully in his reply, saying, “How much research did I do? Well, we won’t go into it. Let’s just say that I am a Method actor. Let’s put it that way. So I do research my parts. But I thought that was a really original part of the script, and it was something I really enjoyed doing. I thought it was a lot of fun.”
It’s hard to imagine an actor who wouldn’t have fun with a film that involves a table full of food and a simulated journey to a giddily altered state of consciousness. And with conditions like those, it’s also hard to argue Lerner’s assertion that independent film is where performers can really cut loose.
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