Matt Mamula co-directed “Just About Famous,” the very entertaining new documentary about celebrity impersonators. He generously took time to talk to me about the unexpected opportunities that open up when someone looks like someone who becomes famous, and it seemed natural for us to call them by their celebrity alter egos. It is available now on iTunes.
Which celebrity do you think you resemble the most?
It’s funny. I actually get compared to Rick Grimes from “The Walking Dead.” I know it is a good thing. Rick is a good-looking guy. And people have stopped to take pictures with me or asked to take a picture and I kind of feel like, “Oh, I know this world.”
One of the things that I think is so intriguing about the film is that some of the people never intended to be performers. They just happen to resemble somebody who happened to become famous. And then if they take advantage of it, their careers are tied to what happens to the person they look like.
You know it’s funny. The Dame Edna impersonator actually did not use Dame Edna’s standup routines. He actually writes his own material, People ask him, “Why don’t you do your own stand up or your own comedic material and he is like, “I don’t think I could do it.” There is something about putting on a dress and kind of becoming that character — you feel like you can now become a comedian and do that job and write his own material. John Morgan, the George Bush character, was somewhat a musician beforehand but he incorporated George Bush singing into his performances. So yes that definitely pushes them to further that talent that they may or may not have beforehand.
Lady Gaga or Madonna have to be very difficult to do because their acts are so elaborate and demanding.
There is a shot of Lady Gaga’s garage and it is insane how many costumes she has in there. She’s got costume after costume. She actually makes her own costumes which I think is unique and interesting. And Madonna the same way, Madonna has been around since the 80s and really showing no signs of stopping and so is Lady Gaga. So they are constantly having to keep up with new costumes and even just kind of the wear-and-tear that they get on them after they do shows. They don’t have the entourage or the full staff that the real celebrity has so they have to kind of to take that on as well.
How did you first come into contact with this unusual group of people?
My co-director, Jason Kovacsev, read an article about this upcoming celebrity impersonator convention. At the time we were in between projects and we thought, “Well, let’s go check it out and see what’s there.” You know to be honest they were a little hesitant about letting us in because a lot of times people come in there and they kind of mock them and make fun of them. So they really just kind of waited to see What kind of questions we were asking. Once we got really involved with them they were totally willing to share their stories and their adventures.
We did a short film that came out around 2010 and that played at film Festivals and we kind of thought we were done with it. But every time we showed it, people said, “We want more, we want more, I want to see more.” So we basically decided to go back to the convention and look at other characters or further stories with other characters like the Elvis character and different things that happened in his life, like becoming scuba dive instructor in Las Vegas. It was just really was a blast being around them and following them. Some strange and surreal thing always happen so there was never a dull moment.
The Obama impersonator was inspired by his Obama role to get involved in politics for real.
He had done some gigs for a Democratic club as an Obama impersonator and then he got involved and they kind of said,”Hey, what would you think about this?” or maybe it is this dual idea. He’s a teacher during the day and he says something like yes “Yes, I would like to move in this direction.” There are things that happened on the road but he is still trying to push that angle. He knew the resemblance would hurt him and help him. There are two sides to that coin but it is definitely life imitating art.
What happens when the person they resemble becomes less visible in real life?
Obviously, George W. Bush has been out of office for a while. So he has been trying to reinvent his image, and as you see in the film do a lot of motivational speaking. People kind of see the comedy and the impersonation and it draws attention and then he can switch to the motivational speaking behind it. He’s always trying to look for angles to kind of use his impersonation to become something else or utilize it for something as well. Like the Tiger Woods when Tiger was going through a rough patch, the phones were not ringing as much. When Tiger is winning the phones are ringing more. So Madonna has got a new album, she probably gets more. So they definitely keep track of and follow their celebrities and I think when the celebrity goes through rough times in some ways they go through a rough time. With the Bush impersonator, I think that Bush was just such a polarizing figure good or bad during that time that people still kind of cling onto him. But yes it is definitely a concern for when their celebrity fades — how do I re-invent this and how do I still get hired?
You had a couple of people who met their doppelgangers in real life. Do celebrities get upset about being imitated?
From what we understand some of them are kind of cool with it so to speak, they don’t really kind of acknowledge it but they aren’t really are negative towards it. I know like the Brett Michaels impersonator had met with the real Brett Michaels. I know the Bush impersonator was with Bill Clinton one time and George W. Bush’s dad was there and he was yelling out, “Dad, hey Dad” trying to get his attention.I know a lot more are trying to meet them too; they all would love to. So yes, I think some of them think it’s weird and they don’t want to be part of it but other ones kind of give their approval in a way. At times they go to concerts because they want to kind of feel like they’re doing justice to them and they want to kind of earn their respect as well. Sarah Palin’s impersonator met her a couple of times and Sarah thinks it’s really funny and interesting and she’s had fun with it.
What is it that you’re hoping people will get from the film?
We are definitely hoping that they laugh, laugh out loud, chuckle and really have a good time. For us is like a popcorn film, it is not an in-depth documentary. It’s meant to be a fun, whimsical. We were hoping to basically create the same feeling that we had when we were around them. It is really just this surreal fun environment.