SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Stars of SIFF's American Primitive

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posted Friday, June 5, 2009 - Volume 37 Issue 23

SGN EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Stars of SIFF's American Primitive
by Scott Rice - SGN Contributing Writer

American Primitive June 12 at 7 PM and June 13 at 4:30 PM Egyptian Theatre Being a teenage girl is already a dicey proposition. You must figure out boys and girls and clothes, and you must figure out what kind of woman you're going to be. Add to this minefield a recently widowed dad who finds himself in love with his male business partner, and things get exponentially more complicated.

American Primitive, directed by first-time film director Gwen Wynne, is the story of Madeline Goodhart, a 16-year-old girl who faces adolescence, the loss of her mother, the trials of young love, and her father's (Tate Donovan as Harry) burgeoning love affair with another man (Adam Pascal as Mr. Gibbs) all at the same time. Madeline works her way through her new life with a compelling mix of confusion, anger, and grace.

The film is set in the 1973. Vietnam is grinding to a stalemate, the violence of the '60s hangs in the air, and the Queer rights movement has just begun. The nascent Queer family has to figure out how to exist in this politically charged and ever-changing environment.

I love that this Queer love story is told through the eyes of Madeline. It's an unusual way into a Queer story and one that provides interesting insights from a fresh perspective. American Primitive is a nicely turned out little film that I highly recommend.

Below is my interview with Tate Donovan and Adam Pascal, two charming guys who turn in terrific performances as the Gay couple trying to figure out how to create a Queer family in an era when most people had never even thought of such a thing.

Scott Rice: I have to tell you, you're a handsome guy starting out, but when you add the British accent it sends you off the charts.

Tate Donovan: [Laughs.] Americans love British accents.

Rice: Were you nervous about doing the accent?

Donovan: It was one of those things that drew me to it [American Primitive]. I was on Broadway with Judi Dench and did a British accent so I felt pretty comfortable doing it.

Rice: I talked to Adam yesterday and I tried to get him to tell me if you were a good kisser or not, but he wouldn't give it up.

Donovan: [Laughs.] I can tell you that Adam is a good kisser. I don't generally like to kiss men and he needs to shave, that's all I've got to say.

Rice: I gave him a little shit about the sideburns, too.

Donovan: Those sideburns, I felt bad for him. If you look back at pictures in the '70s you can't believe how many people had sideburns like that.

Rice: I'm not saying they weren't era-correct, but they didn't do him any good.

Donovan: [Laughs.] They weren't sexy?

Rice: [Laughs.] They are not sexy. Is American Primitive your big Queer film?

Donovan: Uh, okay. If it's well written and it's a good film you'll get an actor to do it. Who cares what it is? You know, I've played so many Gay roles that I always forget that it would bother some people. It's like the whole Proposition 8 thing. I was shocked.

Rice: It's interesting how American Primitive inhabits the contemporary cultural moment with a story from 1973 about creating a Queer family.

Donovan: Yeah, where love is, that's what the most important thing is. And it doesn't matter what shape or size or form it comes in, you know.

Rice: Another thing that makes the film compelling is that it's, at least loosely, based on a real story about a Queer family and even though the debate about Queer marriage is so prescient now we still have to remind ourselves there have been Queer families around for a long time and they've had to figure out ways of existing.

Donovan: Yeah, exactly. I totally agree. Every generation thinks that they're totally new, but they've been around for centuries and this is one of the reasons I wanted to do this film so badly.

Rice: What do you think about the word homosexual?

Donovan: [Laughs.] I know that my character is not a big fan of that word but it is descriptive. You know, I don't feel about it the way he [Harry] feels about the word homosexual. He has a hard time because he doesn't want it to define him and that makes sense to me. I would hate to be defined by one word.

Rice: I'm asking because I didn't realize until I was watching the movie that for me and most of my friends the word homosexual has almost completely passed out of our daily usage.

Donovan: That's good, because it shows how times have changed. And that sort of captured the period as well, I think.

Rice: What do you think about the word Queer?

Donovan: Queer? I think it's a little bit more fun.

Rice: [Laughs.] I agree.

Donovan: Queer is fun, you know what I mean?

Rice: I love the word Queer. We've taken it back, fully.

Donovan: You've taken it back? Congratulations, dude.

Rice: [Laughs.] Thanks. So tell me, why did you decide to do American Primitive?

Donovan: It was a good story and it was based on a true story and I got to go to Cape Cod which is important. And I actually, as a teenager growing up in New Jersey, you couldn't get into any bars or buy alcohol. But if you'd sneak into Gay bars, you'd have the best night of your life. It was so much fuckin' fun. You could dance and get drinks, it was like forbidden fun. So that scene where all the teenagers take off and go to a Gay bar was totally realistic to me.

Rice: It makes me happy that at 16 you were sneaking into Gay bars. Did you research the sensibilities of the early '70s?

Donovan: Not tremendously. I grew up in that era. I wish I were more like Sean Penn and I did this tremendous amount of research and stayed in character 24 hours a day, but I'm not really that kind of guy.

Rice: That's the first time I've heard the words, "I wish I were more like Sean Penn," uttered.

Donovan: [Laughs.] That's going to be the big quote, now. That's all you're going to say: "Tate wishes he were more like Sean Penn."

Rice: [Laughs.] Hey, we have to pull something, so& I'd like to see American Primitive remade as a romantic comedy with you and Adam, but directed by Cameron Crow.

Donovan: You know, what's funny is that I looked at it as a romantic comedy. I didn't want to be this heavy, dark, sullen, I've got this horrible secret, you know & I wanted it to be - and so did Adam - I wanted our relationship to be joyous and loving and fun.

Rice: You succeeded. One of the things I love about the film is its deft sense of humor that is subtle and real and works to the advantage of the movie.

Donovan: Good, thank you.

Rice: Is there anything I haven't asked that you think I should know?

Donovan: Damages is going to start shooting in September.

Rice: Okay, we plugged your show, so the next interview is shirtless and you have to use the British accent. Adam Pascal Scott

Rice: You are coming to Seattle in June, I hear. Adam Pascal: Yes, absolutely, looking forward to it.

Rice: Have you been here before? Pascal: Never. I hear great things.

Rice: It's a beautiful city. How is the tour of RENT going? Pascal: So far so good. We've been at it since January, and the response has been phenomenal. Anthony and I are just thrilled to be back in such a quality version of the show.

Rice: Why do you think so many people have connected to RENT? Pascal: It goes beyond the specifics of story. People connect on a much larger, visceral level because I think there's a message of hope and acceptance and tolerance and friendship and I think those are things people always want to connect to and it's being told through this beautiful music that people love.

Rice: Yeah, I forgot how many songs you hear in other places that came from that show. Pascal: Right, right, right, of course, and I'm honored to be part of something like that.

Rice: What do you say to those folks that don't know anything about Broadway, or they might know just enough to say, "I don't want to go to a Broadway show." What do you tell them about coming to see RENT? Pascal: I would tell people that, even amongst musical theater, RENT is a somewhat unique experience. And if you've never seen Broadway before, this is one of the longest-running musicals and certainly a landscape-changing musical, and why not experience something that has thrilled millions of people around the world? That's what I'd say. And if you don't, then fuck off. [Laughs.] You know, theater is not for everybody, but if you've ever had the inclination to see a musical, then this would be the one to see because I think this is the best version of one of the best shows in musical theater.

Rice: Why did you decide to do American Primitive? Pascal: Quite frankly, because they asked me to. It was the right project at the right time and it just seemed like an exciting concept to play a Gay man. You know, I have so many really, really close Gay friends and I just thought it would be really interesting to play a character like that. And challenging - challenging as an actor and as a heterosexual man.

Rice: And it's part of the right of passage as an actor. I mean you've got to get your Queer street cred, right? Pascal: Quite frankly, I think I had my Queer street cred. Years in musical theater will take care of that. [Laughs.]

Rice: Did any of your Gay friends tell you that the pork chop sideburns didn't do you any good? Pascal: Yes, they all did.

Rice: The film is set in 1973. How did you research the sensibilities of that era? Pascal: You know, man, I've got to be honest with you; I rarely approach acting roles, at least so far in my career, where I delve into that kind of research. In all honesty, I didn't do any research. I showed up and they slapped the sideburns on me and gave me the script.

Rice: If the film were remade in a contemporary setting - if it was set in 2009 - how would it be different? Pascal: I imagine it would be more extreme. I don't know, that's a good question. Just the fact that these two men were Gay and in love with each other and living together was so scandalous, I guess, back then, and in this community it's just really not that way anymore. So I think that the story would have to be heightened in such a way to make it more believable. It wouldn't be as controversial unless there was something more extreme going on. Maybe I'm wrong. Look, there's still plenty of communities in this country where that is extreme and incredibly controversial. But there's also a huge population in this country that realizes there's nothing wrong or different about it.

Rice: Gwen is a first-time film director, and you've made a number of films and certainly you've done a huge amount of work on stage. What was it like to work with her? Pascal: It was wonderful to work with her because she obviously experienced this. I mean this is her life story, or a dramatized version of her life story. She was under a lot of pressure and that made things, at times, difficult. First-time writer, first-time director & it can get stressful. That being said, it was a very fun set and I believe everyone had a really good time making the movie.

Rice: What was it like to play a character that was so deeply rooted in Gwen's past? Pascal: I tried not to think too much about the fact that this was a real person, and I tried to be as natural and truthful as I could be and she was receptive to that and I just assumed I was on the right track.

Rice: Is Tate a good kisser? Pascal: [Laughs.] Uh & I mean, look, it was awkward the first time we did it and we did maybe three or four times. When we rehearsed the scene, we'd put our foreheads together. When we actually started shooting the scene, the first few kisses were a little [Laughs.] iffy. We had to sort of loosen up and relax a little bit.

Rice: That's funny. You know, he's already really handsome, but when he does the British accent it's just ridiculous. Pascal: I liked it.

Rice: No, I loved the accent; it just made him hotter.

Pascal: Well, good. I'm glad.

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