Anna Maria Perez de Tagle is one of the bright new stars who “light up the sky like a flame” in the new re-booting of the 1980 classic film, “Fame.” I was lucky to get to interview her about the film.
NM: How is this version of “Fame” different from the original? If they make one 20 years from now, what will it be like?
AMPdT: “Fame” is more of reinvention rather than a remake of the 1980s hit movie. This time It follows 10 students throughout their personal and professional lives at the NY Academy of Performing Arts high school. It’s different because it’s more contemporary and modern for our generation like the music and the dance numbers. I think 20 years from now the next “Fame” would be patterned after our “Fame.’
NM: Which do you like more, singing or acting, and why?
AMPdT: When I was younger, I always wanted to be a singer. Singing was my first love then it all fell into acting, but once I started working I grew to love acting just as much as I loved to sing.
NM: What was your first performing job and what did you learn from it?
AMPdT: I was the first Asian American Cinderella in the bay area for the children’s musical theatre of San Jose performed at the Montgomery Theatre. I learned everything from musical theatre–I loved the feeling of being on stage and touching people with my talent. That’s when I realized I wanted to do more and go to Hollywood.
NM: Was there a movie or television show you saw as a child that made you say, “That is what I want to do?”
AMPdT: My obsession when I was younger was “Grease.” I watched it everyday on VHS and knew every song. I would pretend I was Sandy and sing to myself to a mirror.
NM: If you could play any part in a famous Broadway musical, what would it be?
AMPdT: I’d love to play my favorite Broadway musical character …. guess who this is and where it’s from…
“When’s it my turn? Wouldn’t I love, love to explore that world up above? Out of the sea…wish I could be……..Part of that…world….!!!” ARIEL from The Little Mermaid!!!!
NM: What would be the best part of going to a performing arts school like the one in “Fame?”
AMPdT: I actually went to the Los Angeles County High school for the Arts which is very much like the “Fame” school. The best part about the school was learning how to sing different styles of music. I was a part of the vocal department Jazz club and other singing classes so I learned how to scat, sing arias, sing operatic etc.
NM: What was your biggest challenge with this role and what helped you make it work?
AMPdT: My biggest challenge was one scene, my favorite scene, with Debbie Allen. I was so nervous to do a one-on-one scene with her because she was an original Fame cast member. Kevin Tancharoen had to talk me through it and he basically told me that that scene will be the one time everyone will remember Joy and actually see my acting chops. At the end I felt like the outcome was very good.
NM: What is it like to be on the red carpet?
AMPdT: It’s actually very hectic. The easiest part is posing for photographers. All you have to do is set one pose and smile. The crazy part is going through the interviews because you never know what will be asked, but it’s still a lot of fun.
NM: What have you learned from your co-stars about how to deal with fame (the experience, not the movie!)?
AMPdT: I think we all learned the exact message of the film which is dreaming big, sticking with that dream and still trying to achieve success. We are all trying to make a name for ourselves in the business so we still strive hard to get to where we want to be.
NM: Do you have any pets?
AMPdT: Yes! I have two teacup pet Yorkies! Timmy, he’s a boy and weighs only less than 3 and a half pounds and Nikki, she’s a girl and weighs a little over 5 pounds. They’re cute and I love them so much.
NM: What’s on your iPod?
AMPdT: I listen to everything from the Jonas Brothers, to Lady Gaga, Demi Lovato, Jordin Sparks, T-Pain and more.
How much impact can you make through a year of no impact? Colin Beavan and his wife Michelle Conlin decided to do their best to minimize their impact on the environment and as if that was not enough of a challenge, they did it the hard way, in New York City, with Isabella, their two-year-old daughter. And exposed to withering scorn from readers of the blog documenting the effort and a New York Times article that seemed to reduced the entire project to the toilet paper question. And they did it all in front of a camera.
It was a stunt, sure, but more than that a statement about what is possible and what, in the most profound and global sense, is necessary. And more than a statement, it is a series of questions, starting with this one: what do we really need and how much does it really cost?
I spoke to director/cinematographer Justin Schein about what it was like to follow this family for a year.
NM: What steps did you and the crew take to reduce the environmental impact of the film-making?
JS: Colin made us promise that we had to do it in as sustainable way as possible, so even before we picked up the camera, we were challenged to do that, everything from not buying a new camera, to no lights, no cars. All the bicycle footage was shot from another bicycle, a newly developed skill I have. Most documentaries have a much smaller footprint than fiction film-making but there’s always another step you can make, and that’s at the heart of this project. You have to ask yourself these questions. It is pretty easy to be stuck in a habit, and making this film carried over into my home life. You can’t spend a year with these guys without asking yourself about the food you’re eating and the garbage you’re creating. We started composting, we use cloth diapers, things like that.
NM: How do you draw the line between what is meaningful and what is going too far for too little benefit?
JS: Part of the process and the arc for Colin was about letting go of the rules a little bit and seeing that yes these individual actions are important but there is a bigger picture. For Michelle it was a different arc, learning that she wasn’t happy living the way she was living.
NM: Yes, she goes from someone who describes herself as addicted to reality television to someone who at the end of the year does not want the television back in the apartment.
JS: It was very clear to me that she really appreciated the benefits of not having the TV, in terms of being a mother, their parenting was dramatically impacted by the closeness that this brought to their family. That was an unintended benefit but it will be the lasting benefit. The time they spent together, eating and cooking, getting out of the house because they didn’t have air conditioning was really important. As they question their disposable consumptive lifestyle, those questions are going to benefit Isabella.
NM: And how did Isabella feel about it?
JS: Colin speaks eloquently about how Isabella was teacher as much as benefactor. Adults are stuck in habits they learned as children. She was not as entrenched. Turning off the lights was an adventure for her. Gardening was a whole new world. And she doesn’t have a caffeine problem and now may well avoid it.
NM: You were privy to some very intimate moments as this couple had some painful conversations about whether they should have another child. How do you establish the kind of trust that allows them to be so open with not just you but your eventual audience?
JS: The work that I do is verite and creating a relationship is at the heart of that. A big part of that is empowering my subjects to ask me to turn off the camera, Once they have that power they are much more comfortable opening up their lives to us. Laura is an old-time friend of Michelle’s from high school. We came into this with a certain level of trust and that started us off.
My wife Eden is the producer of the film, She had met Colin and Michell through Laura, Eden and Laura had worked together in the past. About a week before the year was going to start we had dinner with Michelle and learned about the project. As a film-maker who is interested in issues of the environment and prefer character-driven films, I liked the way it would be told through the story of a family rather than just the issues. In the wake of “An Inconvenient Truth,” we were looking for a solution-based project.
NM: One event you document is the burst of media attention the project gets following a rather snarky New York Times article.
JS: The media attention that exploded was unexpected and it was fascinating. Colin was being attacked by both the right and the left and applauded by both the right and left. The individual-based approach drew a lot of appreciation from the religious right, so we knew we had touched a nerve in a way that was interesting.
That Times article was at first very disappointing to Colin because the issues that he was trying to bring to the front were trivialized. There’s a contingent that really focuses on the stunt, as though we were trying to hide that. It was an experiment in order to bring about attention to the issue.
NM: What elements of the no-impact year have they kept in place?
JS: They don’t have air conditioning, they did not get a new dishwasher, they still eat from the farmer’s market largely. The biggest thing is that Colin has dedicated himself to educating people about this issue and started a foundation around the no-impact project. They are designing no-impact weeks for college students, to use this as a teaching tool.
You often hear the expression “feel-good movie” and it usually refers to a heart-warming romantic comedy or maybe something with penguins. This is a real feel-good movie because it is a real story. A man with a passionate commitment to children, to education, and to his community took a school on the brink of being closed down and made it into a place where teachers and students set, meet, and exceed the highest of standards for achievement in all categories, including character.
The students at Providence St. Mel do not have fancy computers or calculators. They live in a community that struggles with gangs, drugs, and poverty. But they have families who work several jobs to pay a portion of the school’s tuition (every student in the school has a scholarship) and they have teachers who feel lucky to be there and make the students feel lucky, too.
An unabashed valentine to the school, Providence St. Mel, and its driving force, civil rights activist Paul J. Adams III, and at times it feels more like an infomercial than a movie. But it is a genuine privilege to spend time with these passionate, committed students and teachers. We follow the principal through the halls. We sit in circle time with seven-year-olds whose teacher has them not just participating but conducting the session. We see a graduating class that is sending 100 percent of the seniors to top colleges. And we see graduates returning to talk about how Providence St. Mel gave them what they needed to succeed in college, grad school, and the working world. We see their genuine excitement in learning, their pride in their sense of mastery, and the way that the confidence their teachers and parents have in them inspires them to learn. And that may just be the most important lesson that Providence St. Mel has to teach, turning all of us who watch this film into students who want to learn more.
The foremost fashion designer of the last hundred years is Coco Chanel and her life story is almost as fascinating as her timeless designs. As its title indicates, this most recent film is a look at Chanel from her childhood until the moment when, with the help of some money from her lovers, opened her first business, designing hats. In this film, as Coco cuts up her lovers’ clothes to make creations for itself that were simple, elegant, wearable, and instantly classic. Amid all the flounces, corsets, and enormous hats, it was like watching the 20th century walk into the room. At the end of the film, when we get a glimpse of one of her fashion shows, every single item is as chic today as it was when she designed it.
Anne Fontaine, who co-wrote and directed, spoke to me about the endless interest in Chanel and how she selected an American actor to play a British character who spoke French.
NM: Why focus on Chanel’s youth and relationships instead of her work?
AF: She is the 20th century by herself, it is about fashion of course but deeply it is about a new way to be for a woman, very physical. She was not beautiful, she was very thin, very androgynous, she was not at all the criteria of beauty for this period, she was like a little boy. You can’t understand Chanel unless you know that she has a very different body. Because she was so different, because she was poor, it gave her freedom to move differently, physically and through society. She was creating clothes for herself that were less confining not just for the style but so she could do what she wanted to do.
NM: You cast one of my favorite actors, the American Alessandro Nivola, to play a British man who speaks fluent French. How did that happen?
AF: When I was looking for an actor to interpret Boy Capel, as you say he was a British businessman, who was the most important love of Chanel’s life. She always said he was the first and the most deep relationship she had, I tried to look in England, if there was a young man who could play the part in France. Many actors when they lose their language — it can be awful. If he does not think through the language and only thinks through the sounds he can lose all the qualities he had because it is very difficult to play a part in another language. In England, I didn’t find an actor who has the charm, the qualities that the part requires and they didn’t speak French at all. I was doing some casting in New York and someone mentioned Alessandro Nivola. I knew he had played an English part in a Kenneth Branaugh film, but that was not the reason. I made him a little exercise before the audition: “Can you read one scene of the script in French?” When I spoke with him on the phone I knew he could speak French, not fluently, but he was not afraid. I did a test with him to see how the face moved with the French and it was not only good but also very different from the other man who played the aristocrat. They were so different. The two men she was involved with showed different things and affected her differently.
Alessandro said it was very hard to be directed in French because I was always at his shoulder telling him to be careful with this word and that word. I wanted him to have an accent of course but not too much.