Sunday, January 29, 2012

Halley Feiffer in "Gentleman Broncos"

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Halley Feiffer in "Gentleman Broncos"

(from brinkzine.com 10/28/09)

GentlemanBroncosHalley.jpg Halley Feiffer, photo DP
It's always exciting to interview young actors who are on the rise, so I looked forward to speaking to the multitalented Halley Feiffer, who not only acts in the theater and movies, but writes plays as well. The daughter of Jules Feiffer and Jenny Allen (who is currently starring in an acclaimed one-woman off-Broadway show, I Got Sick Then I Got Better), is on the launch pad with a whole slew of new movies, with a career that is ready to take off. First up is the loony Gentlemen Broncos, a semiautobiographical homage to loving mothers and bargain-basement sci-fi filmmaking that returns director-writer Jared Harris to his Napoleon Dynamite roots.
You probably saw Feiffer in supporting roles in You Can Count on Me, The Squid and the Whale, and Margot at the Wedding, but this time she not only plays the "romantic" female lead but also gets to play a character, Tabitha, who believes that she is the star of everyone's life and Hess's every frame. She's an offbeat delight as the manipulative, self-absorbed, new quasi-girlfriend of Benjamin (Michael Angarano), who lives in a geodesic house in Utah with his mother (Jennifer Coolidge), an aspiring nightgown designer. The sweet Benjamin allows Tabitha and Lonnie (Hector Jimenez) to make a cheapo movie adaptation of his unpublished science fiction novel, Yeast Lords: The Bronco Years. He doesn't know that his hero, the egocentric, over-the-hill fantasy writer Dr. Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement), has stolen his book and is passing it off as his own, The Chronicles of Brutus and Balzaak. Got it? Feiffer, who appeared in a Flight of the Conchords episode with Clement, and went to the same college, Wesleyan, as producer-actor Mike White (whose ridiculous get-up challenges that of the movie's biggest name, Sam Rockwell), is perfectly at ease in and contributes to the screen madness. In anticipation of the film's Friday release, I spoke to Halley Feiffer at a release party and took part of a three-critic roundtable with her on Tuesday afternoon. I note my questions.
Danny Peary: Your name is Halley. Were you named after the famed comet that got a lot of attention in 1985 and 1986 when it last came around?
Halley Feiffer: A good question--but I don't think it had to do with the comet. My parents had a friend named Halley. Also they liked Hallie Flanagan, who was the head of the Federal Theatre Project for the WPA in the 1930s. I didn't realize it was an unusual name until everyone started mispronouncing it like Hayley, which is the same way people mispronounce the comet's name.
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Q: How were you approached for Gentlemen Broncos?
HF: It was totally old school. I just auditioned with the casting director Meredith Tucker in New York. I got the audition through my agent and Meredith put it on tape. I was able to read the script before the audition so that was very helpful. It was just the two of us in the room. It was one of those things you do and forget about it, because what are the chances Jared Hess is going to see this tape of me and then cast me? And that's what he did! He said that he and his wife Jerusha were just watching the tape at their house and they thought mine was funny. One thing they thought was funny was something I didn't do intentionally. It was when Tabitha asks Benjamin if she can borrow some money to buy tampons, and I looked down unashamedly and they thought it was hilarious. I didn't remember doing it, and that's helped me get the part. Then I flew to L.A. to read for Jared. It was kind of like a dream.
Q: Had you experienced anything similar to that?
HF: The Squid and the Whale was a similar thing. Noah Baumbach was there but I just went in with the casting director. I thought it was a huge long shot, but he really liked me from that one audition. I didn't hear anything for a long time and I assumed they made the movie and didn't do well, and then two years later "they're bringing you back!" They had lost their financing because Bill Murray had dropped out and then they got some back. So I came in again and after two or three auditions I was the first person who was cast. It was weird. I had been going on auditions since I was about twelve for off-Broadway stuff and occasionally movies and TV and didn't get anything. But once you get someone's stamp of approval it gets a little easier. It's all very serendipitous.
DP: Your father, Jules Feiffer, said he worried about your decision to become an actress, but then realized, "she always had the right temperament. She knew that the ups and downs were part of the process." He said it took him several decades to learn that lesson.
HF: That's cool! I really learned that from him, so I guess I got a shortcut. He'd be told, "It's so exciting you're writing a Disney musical," and he'd say, "I have no idea what will happen; it probably won't work out but if it does that will be great." But it wasn't in a self-defeating way. It was realistic. So with everything I do, I just keep my expectations really low, so I can just be satisfied. Because at the very least I'm breathing and eating food. If I thought, "Now I'm going to be a huge movie star," I'm going to be disappointed. I learned that pretty much from him and my mom
DP: Noah Baumbach said that what he liked about you was that you are a candid actress. It applies to what you're talking about now--how you don't worry about highs and lows, you just play the part.
HF: Oh, what a good parallel. I guess I just try to do what that part calls for and not try to impose my own wants and needs on it because that's not being true to the character. I just stay in touch with my instinct for what the writer wants from the character. With Tabitha in Gentlemen Broncos, it was easy for me. I felt I really got this character. I don't know what that says about me!
DP: There's a quote in the production notes where you say you like that Tabitha has too much self-confidence.
HF: I said that? I agree with that! There are people whose parents loved them too much and they are a little too pleased with themselves. They are irksome and I think Tabitha is one of those people. In fact, playing her, I thought that the key to her character is that she is a little too self-confident but has a good heart.
DP: At the beginning we're not sure we'll like her but at the end--well, we're still not sure if we like her.
Q: Yeah, I know! That's something interesting about Jared's films. He doesn't wrap things up in a bow. There's no "and then they get together" We did a few changes from the original script and shot new scenes. Tabitha used be a little more contemptible. I think Jared didn't want her to be quite so loathsome. She's just a little too self-involved but who isn't like that as a teenager? I love that these characters are like people you know but heightened and tweaked. Jared's writing is almost theatrical in that it takes place in this alternative universe. You can pull it off in the theater and no one blinks an eye, but with a movie, someone might ask, "Why are their jeans so high?" Because it's a weird, parallel universe. It's more difficult to pull that off in filmmaking.
Gentlemenbroncosrockwell.jpg

DP: Does the script by Jared and Jerusha Hess resemble what we now see on screen?
HF: I did not imagine the way it is now on screen. I don't know why but that has always been my experience. Whenever I've worked on a movie, it has turned up very different. I guess I imagined this film to be a little slicker. It has this grainy, lower-budget, independent-fil feel that I actually really love. I felt the same way when I watched The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, and I guess that's because most movies are slicker. I think it was courageous of Jared to shoot the film that way and I think it really suits the movie. What I love about the movie is the kooky, weird, sci-fi stuff but it also has a real heart. That is something I also loved about Napoleon Dynamite, where people are always fighting but really do love each other. Benjamin's relationship with his mom is really sweet and that works well with Jared's homey style. I may have expected it to look more like Nacho Libre but on this film Jared had almost the same crew as on Napoleon Dynamite because that's the aesthetic he really likes. And I like it, too.
Q: Maybe because Nacho Libre didn't do well, he wanted to go back to what he knew?
HF: Yeah, they wanted him to use their director of photography and their people and he wanted to use the people he loved working with, the people he went to film school at BYU with. So we had Munn Powell, the DP on Napoleon Dynamite, who is really great and we had a lot of that same crew. I think Jared just wants to stay true to who he is. And he can't help doing that. Not to sound lofty, but I think in any art form you have to remain true to who you are. If you try to accommodate other people, the audience can sense it. There's something organic there and it doesn't quite jell.
DP: That's also the theme of the movie, isn't it?
HF: Yes! I didn't even think of that. Inorganic jell. That is the theme of the movie. What's a little difficult to explain about Benjamin's story is that the characters are sort of weird but they are great in what they do. He's not trying to be Dostoyevsky, he just loves writing sci-fi stories and is really good at that. What we tried to do as the filmmakers in the movie, Tabitha and Lonnie, is to bastardize the stories and make them into our own versions-- instead of writing our own versions--and they suck, too.
Q: What's Jared like to work with?
HF: He's really wonderful to work with. What he writes is insane in the best way possible, but he's down-to-earth and accessible and available.
Q: How were Jared and Jerusha working together on the set?
HF: They were amazing. It was how I'd want a marriage to be if I were to get married. They have two kids so Jerusha was off with them sometimes. Often they'd bring the kids to the set and the kids would jump into their laps. It was hilarious. It was an idyllic family and they'd go home and write these absurd, strange, poop-riddled comedies. Jerusha brought, and I hate to say it, a more "female" eye. She loved working on the costumes and helped a lot with mine. She had strong thoughts about that. She helped refine what Jared was working on. It was a perfect partnership.
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DP: You said to Michael Angarano, "I feel like we are part of this kooky, hilarious religion because we all believed in the movie so much."
HF: It reminded me of theater where you all collaborate to create an alternate reality, because that's what we were doing here. It doesn't take place in our realm of reality and we all bought into that. We understood that although Jared never said, "Look, this is the version of reality it is: People wear mom-jeans and snakes poop on you and you don't bat an eye." Everybody was intelligent but also strange and we all just sort of "got it."
Q: Other than at Sundance, had you spent time in Utah before?
HF: I had been there twice for Sundance but that was a little different. I loved being in Utah. I had a lot of fun. I loved working with these people who were mostly Mormons. They were the nicest, funniest, weirdest people. I had the best time with them. We all stayed in the same hotel and went out together. We shot in several towns, but it was mostly shot in Salt Lake City. We rented cars and went to Park City a little bit. We shopped. I didn't go skiing because I didn't want to break my head and not be able to be in the movie. Every night we watched films by Jared's friend Steve Grew in our hotel. He makes these films almost exactly like the film-within-the-film that Lonnie and Tabitha make. We loved watching those sci-fi tributes in our rooms for hours each night. It was fun. We were so passionate about it. And we all stopped cursing. Jared would say, "It's so dang awesome." You don't say God, you say Gosh. There's no cussing, no drinking, no sex in the movie--but it's not puritanical at all, it's just that the kids are busy doing other things, trying to achieve their dreams. No one chastised us if we slipped and cursed. One day I had a friend visiting and I warned her that there was no cursing on the set. And then I screwed up a scene and yelled, "Aw, fuck!" And I felt so bad, but no one chastised me because they weren't trying to convert us. We didn't curse out of respect for them and I loved not cursing. What I loved is that it gave the film so much more texture and color and forced Jared as a writer to find other ways to express himself.
DP: What is your reaction seeing your name placed on a fantasy novel in the opening titles?
HF: I love it. It's so exciting. I can't believe that's my name on a science fiction book. I forget what the female is like--maybe a woman with lasers coming out of her nipples. Whatever it is, I'm very honored to be part of it.
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Q: What is your favorite science fiction film?
HF: I'm not into science fiction. I don't know much about it, although I did have fun watching Star Trek in college. Even with Star Wars, which my friend tells me is fantasy rather than science fiction, I have trouble understanding why they are fighting and what is happening.
Q: Is it because you grew up in a family interested in drama and human elements?
HF: Exactly. That's a good observation. I am an idiot when it comes to the plot in science fiction, so it's good for me to stick to family dramas. That's what I can wrap my mind around. It's humans and emotions, and relationships. But what I found in this film is that through the sci-fi lens, we can explore those very things. And having these characters making a sci-fi movie is a great vehicle for us to learn more about them, about their strengths and weaknesses and tragic flaws.
Q: You are also a stage actress and playwright. Did you work on your mother's one-woman show, I Got Sick Then I Got Better, at the East Fourth Street Theater?
HF: No, she wrote that. It's an incredible piece of theater.
Q: What's next for you?
HF: I'm doing a play right now called Still Life at the Lucille Lortel Theatre, but it closes on Sunday. Then I don't know what's next, acting or writing, movies or theater. Nothing is being produced right now, but I am writing plays. We'll see.
Halley Feiffer in the shadows.
Two-person photo: Jules Feiffer and daughter Halley Feiffer
Sam Rockwell on horse
Group Photo (L-R): Halley Feiffer, Michael Angarano, Jared Hess, Josh Pais, Sam Rockwell, Mike White Credit: Michael Loccisano, Getty Images

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