g The Film Panel Notetaker: Frankel My Dear, She Really Gives a Damn!

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Frankel My Dear, She Really Gives a Damn!

The Actor’s Dialogue
Woodstock Film Festival
Sunday, October 4, 2008

Of Lucy Liu, John Ventimiglia and Vera Farmiga, which actor:
a) Received goat semen via Fedex to inseminate into his or her own goat with a straw…and also speaks Ukrainian?
b) Plays the ukulele with his or her child…and also speaks Sicilian?
c) Is unsure if his or her parents understand what he or she really does as a career…and also speaks Chinese?

Well, you’re just going to have to read on to find out… But how on earth did such revealing information ever make the light of day? The answer…Martha Frankel, the dastardly (in a good way) and charming (in a bad way) moderator of The Actor’s Dialogue…she is no James Lipton, and he is no Martha Frankel :)

But in all seriousness, and I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, Martha is just one of the best panel moderators I’ve ever had the great fortune to see lead a discussion with actors. She truly knows how to bring out the best and in some cases the most embarrassing moments in their lives and careers, but all with humor and humility. See examples from 2008 and 2007 to see what I mean, and just keep reading as I highlight some of the best moments of this year’s dialogue.


Martha Frankel - Contributor to "Details," "The New Yorker," "Redbook," "Cosmopolitan" and "The New York Times." She is also the author of the 2008 memoir "Hats & Eyeglasses: A Family Love Affair with Gambling."

Vera Farmiga – Award-winning actress in such films as “Down to the Bone,” “The Departed,” and “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Upcoming films include on Jason Reitman's “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney (playing at the Woodstock Film Festival) and Niki Caro’s “The Vintner's Luck.”

Lucy Liu – Film and television actress in such works as Ally McBeal, “Charlie’s Angels,” and “Kill Bill.” As both producer and narrator, Liu introduces her latest project at the Woodstock Film Festival, "Redlight," exposing and chronicling the tragedies and injustices of the international child-trafficking industry.

John Ventimiglia – Stage and screen actor. Played Artie Bucco in the hit HBO award-winning series "The Sopranos."

Below are highlights from the discussion.

Frankel: What did you have to learn from a film that you had never known before?

Ventimiglia: I had to learn how to bet on horses.

Frankel: I could have taught you that.

Liu: Any of the martial arts I had done or even the swordplay. It’s not something I grew up with at all. I had to learn all of it from the beginning in a very short period of time. It was very intensive training.

Farmiga: I think courage in general for most every part that I play. A highlight for me was wearing.. a corset while lip syncing and dancing to [a Sinead O’Connor song].

Frankel: Do you think there’s a difference between independent and studio films besides the money?

Liu: Absolutely. For independent films, you sort of treat it like a television schedule where it’s fast and furious…do a couple of takes and move on…Studio films, you work on a quarter of a page for days. There’s no luxury in independent filmmaking…Everyone teams up. It just becomes a group effort. There’s a different connection.

Ventimiglia: There’s a difference with the objective of studio films…Being at the awards ceremony last night and hearing the speeches and what people were talking about…searching for truth and community.

Farmiga: I’ve done mostly independent film. The few times that I was part of a studio picture…I was lucky enough to work with directors whose process is very similar. They are fiercely independent…I’m never made more aware of my appearance than doing studio pictures. They put such emphasis on the look and there’s so many opinions…that frustrates me a lot. What I rely most on is collaboration with my director.

Frankel: (Asks Liu to talk about her documentary “Red Light” that she narrated and produced about child sexploitation and that also played at the Woodstock Film Festival).

Liu: We follow some of the girls over a period of four years who had been basically sold into slavery and understand how (and why) that happened…Sometimes if there still in the brothel…and they have a child, become pregnant, they’ll usually take a child and that child becomes a part of the brothel as well…I think a lot of people have brought this to attention lately like the Clinton Global Initiative. They made an announcement last Friday about how violence against girls has got to end. It’s a priority for them now…A lot of people don’t know about it. It’s kind of shocking. They think of slavery as a time that’s already passed…Even in the United States, there’s an incredible sex trafficking business.

Frankel: (To Farmiga) Why don’t you tell us about "Up in the Air"?

Farmiga: It’s about a man (played by George Clooney) who actually lives his life up in the air and has a philosophy of being untethered…someone who’s hired by companies to fire people. His life’s mission is to collect 500 million frequent flyer points. His job is in jeopardy, and his company is being downsized, because a newcomer played by Anna Kendrick comes along and wants to revamp the program by firing people over the Internet.

Frankel: (To Ventimiglia) What are you working on…(and)…what was it like leaving the Sopranos after all those years…are they making a movie?

Ventimiglia: I just wrapped a film called “Ponies” by Nick Sandell…(on leaving the Sopranos)…I don’t make a big deal about it. Life goes on…I’ve developed a lot of great relationships..[on if a movie’s being made]…I doubt it.

Frankel: What are you working on next?

Liu: I’m working on an independent film..directed by Mexican filmmaker Ricardo Benet. It’s about a woman who’s a documentary filmmaker whose working on a film…it’s a romantic comedy…about why people kill themselves in the subway system…We’re shooting that in New York.

Farmiga: At the moment, I haven’t read anything that turns my head. I just finished shooting Up in the Air in April. I had my first costume fitting for that two weeks after giving birth. There’s a couple of things that may happen…but I just want to make time for cuddles with my son…I am trying to get one in development…creating my own projects…My husband just wrote his first screenplay. We each grew up with big families…It’s sort of inspired by our kooky families. It’s a story about a family coming together to mourn their grandmother’s death. It’s actually a comedy…I’m going to direct it.

Frankel: One of things I’ve read on the Internet…is that you don’t audition. You make your own little movie and send it in. Is that true?

Farmiga: (In 1999 after living in New York City’s East Village and then moving up to the Catskills)…I had a romantic association with this area. I was a professionally trained folk dancer. There was a Ukrainian resort…I had an attachment to this part of the world…This was right after I made a film called “15 Minutes”…and when I probably should have moved out to L.A… and there was a lot of energy coming my way, but it kind of freaked me out and I moved far away from it all, but it was a great vantage point, and I just love living here….It was easy enough to hop on the Metro North…and take an audition in the city, but I felt it was a better job then going into a casting director’s office…Often times the moment you walk into a room, the director has already made decisions about you…It allowed me to have fun with it and be more relaxed.

Frankel: [Asks Liu to talk about her work with UNICEF].

Liu: I’ve been an ambassador for UNICEF for the past five years. It has been really life changing…I don’t think I can go anywhere without having the memories or experiences I’ve had meeting children in situations outside of America and Europe. There’s poverty everywhere…There are cultural differences. My parents are from another country. They came over as immigrants. If you understand someone’s culture, you may not understand them, but you can respect it

Frankel: Are you a first generation American?

Liu: I am.

Farmiga: Yes.

Ventimiglia: Yes.

Liu: Do we all speak the language of our parents?

All: Yes.

Liu: Chinese.

Farmiga: Ukrainian.

Ventimiglia: Sicilian.

Frankel: When you read a script, tell me what script did you know immediately you had to do?

Liu: Lucky Number Sleven…At the time, the role was small, but I loved the script overall…There wasn’t a lot on the page for her…a perky blonde knocks on the door…They always leave the last name in so you know it wasn’t originally for somebody who’s Asian…Once I became attached to the script, he (the writer) started writing more for the character…It turned into a more, out-there, energetic, quirky girl.

Ventimiglia: A play that I did…the subject matter was horrible, but there was a real humanity…It was called “Stitching.” It’s been banned…When I was reading it, I felt emotion.

Farmiga: There always has to be some sort of something that turns my head. It’s character and storyline and not how much I’m getting paid or who’s attached or who the director is. I’ve had the best time working with first-time writer/directors.

Frankel: Has anyone here learned how to fire a gun?

Liu: A flame-thrower…Sometimes I take a role…because I don’t think I can do it, because it’s ridiculous…Maybe I should do it because I’m afraid of it…I don’t want to get comfortable doing the same thing over and over.

Farmiga: For me, there has to be an element of fear…challenging myself that way.

Ventimiglia: No matter what the role is, you have to have some sympathy…even someone who is easily judged as a horrible person, you have to find the humanity in them.

Liu: People come up to me and say, “You play such a great bitch.” I don’t feel that way….She’s honest and she’s direct.

Frankel: That’s what all bitches say…I’m kidding. I get called that a lot, too. But I’m not, I’m just being honest.

[Frankel opens the discussion to the audience for questions.]

Q: Why was “Stitching” banned?

Ventimiglia: Because it accepts abortion as part of someone’s life.

Q: What refuels you between roles?

Ventimiglia: I have kids. I cook for them…that refuels me constantly. I work on some of my own stuff. I’m writing a script right now. Mostly just living my life, trying to have a meaningful day or relationship with somebody.

Farmiga: Family. My child. My husband…I have to always be creative. Gardening is very important to me…Creating your own projects…I have goats…My Fedex guy just quit…You have these moments of frustration…We went online to GoatFinder.com [Yes people, it really exists]…we’re going to find the finest goat semen…I couldn’t find any proper suitors around here. We ordered it…We finally got the package, waited two weeks for it…got an email that said it was coming Fedex ground…It comes with this massive nitrogen tank with four straws, two for each goat…We went into the city, we left the nitrogen tanks at home…we put the straws in the freezer. The next morning, let’s see what comes next, and I think we might have compromised the integrity of it. The transfer is supposed to be a three-second transfer from the nitrogen tank into a deep freeze, not next to the Haagen Daz…and this is the stuff that just keeps me going.

Liu: I have an art studio in New York, and I’m in the process of putting together a book right no.

Q: In high school, what did you want to become?

Liu: When I was in 11th grade, I was totally lost…I was confused also because when I grew up, our family spoke Chinese, I started speaking English later…I was there, but I wasn’t there. And the fact that I got into Stuyvesant is a miracle, because it is an excellent school…I only started to understand more about life when I graduated high school and went to college…I left New York City. I left my family. For the first time, I was able to choose things on my own…when I had that freedom, I went crazy…Nothing made sense. It was sort of a goulash of education…You realize they (your parents) don’t have control over you anymore…That’s how I went into acting and that wasn’t even until after I graduated. It’s almost as if I had to give them what they wanted, which was my education, and then after that I could do whatever I want. Even then, they were not happy about it…Even we are working in our field, we’ve worked with great directors, we’ve done so much that we’re proud of, but at the same time, we still feel lost. We don’t know what’s next sometimes.

[An audience member mentions that Ventimiglia plays Ukulele.]

Ventimiglia: My daughter came to me recently and wanted to learn how to play the ukulele.

Frankel: How does he (the audience member) know that?

Guy in audience: No, there’s a film in the festival called The Mighty Uke.

Farmiga: To me, that means the Mighty Ukrainian.

[Ventimiglia puts his iPhone next to the mic and plays a song on it that has the ukulele.]

Frankel: I love this panel. You couldn’t make this stuff up.

Q: (To Liu) Are your parents proud of you now?

Liu: I’m not sure.

Frankel: You’re being honest?

Liu: I’m being totally honest… I don’t think they know exactly what it is I do. But I think they still think that I can take care of myself…It’s hard to explain, it’s a very different culture…They try to give me advice now on how to make my meals…It’s hard to know when to open up to that. For me, it’s safer to continue on with the way I’m going, and invite them to the premieres…sometimes it’s kind of racy stuff…I’d like to say yes, but I can’t.

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