The formula sounds familiar: Inner-city kids with various problems are introduced to a positive and persistent role model, one who, after breaking through their tough exteriors with the power of ballroom dance, changes their outlook--and lives--for the better, forever. But what started out as a run-of-the-mill foray into the genre of mentor movies ended up being much more than that to the cast and crew, several of them said in a recent roundtable interview with reporters.
For some, it was a chance to work with Antonio Banderas, for others it was an opportunity to draw upon their own experiences growing up in New York. But the one thing they all agreed upon was the importance of the man at the heart of the film, New York City dance instructor Pierre Dulaine, whose New York public school-based Dancing Classrooms program was the subject of the 2005 Academy Award-nominated documentary “Mad Hot Ballroom” and the inspiration for “Take the Lead.” Dulaine’s program teaches the waltz, rumba, merengue, foxtrot, and other dance forms to fifth-graders in over 120 elementary schools throughout all five boroughs of New York City. All at no cost to the students.
The cast and the director of “Take the Lead” are unanimous in expressing their admiration for Pierre Dulaine, a man distinguishable by his charm, decorum, and magnetic personality. Not only are they impressed by Dulaine himself—especially his efforts to introduce dance to elementary students of New York’s public schools--but they were also taken by his reluctance to demand or accept anything in exchange for his hard work and dedication.
Antonio Banderas, who plays Dulaine in the film, says he found this selflessness refreshing.
“Knowing somebody... capable of doing things without expecting anything in return; it’s called altruism, and I think that’s something people don’t do nowadays. Everybody expects something in return,” Banderas says.
Banderas, whose distinctive Spanish accent is thicker than Dulaine’s French inflection, says Dulaine also exemplifies the importance of doing something good, no matter what the outcome or influence of your actions.
“He’s not going to change the world, obviously," Banderas says. "And probably, he’s not going to change dramatically the system in schools. But he’ll just add... more ideas.”
Banderas took on the film with this, and his role as a father, in mind. He opened up about why, even after having done family films in the past, this movie is especially important to him.
“I think it’s interesting for them [my kids] to watch this movie. Especially for them, because they are not kids in public school. I have to recognize that," Banderas says, referring to his 9-year-old daughter and 16-year-old stepdaughter. "They go to very expensive schools, but they have to recognize all those realities--which is something that I was actually very aware from the beginning of my relationship with Melanie [Griffith], because I never had kids before."
It's not the first time Banderas has tried to show his children the broader world outside their sheltered lives. He and Griffith, he says, traveled a lot with them while filming "Evita" in 1996.
"We traveled with them around the world because for me it was important to show them another reality," he says. "So they saw the shantytowns in Buenos Aires, they saw the kids in Mexico, and so they know that there are realities.”
With "Take the Lead," Banderas says, he hopes to influence more than just his children, however.
“This movie is not going to change the story of motion pictures, it’s not going to win prizes at the Cannes Film Festival, or anything like that. It is just a grain of sand," he acknowledges.
But, he continues, there is a deeper importance to movies like this: "Just to inform, just to say, ‘Pay attention to this. This is happening.’ Especially in America, where in the last 10 or 15 years we’ve seen things happening in schools that are absolutely dramatic and tragic. So something is brought with this movie. At the same time, we put it to you as entertainment, so everybody can have access to that. It’s not something very difficult that you have to really think about. You just go, have fun, and at the same time there must be some teachings in there.”
The director of the film, Liz Friedlander, echoed Banderas's sentiments, saying she shares his feelings about the sizable difference one man can make. She says, however, that at first she found puzzling the simplicity of Dulaine's actions and absence of any ulterior motive on his part.
“He was a guy who lived in the neighborhood who saw that things were going down that he could do something about, and what he knew how to do was dance," Friedlander says. "And so he brought dance in."
She says she didn't take Dulaine's story at face value--at first, at least.
"Whenever I talked to Pierre, I would always say, ‘There’s got to be some other weird, circuitous thing that happened.’ But no, it was so basic," Friedlander says. "Pierre went into one school and started a dance program, which then spread to hundreds of schools, which was a documentary, which is now a feature film. And you just see the ripple effect. One day this guy decided to so something. I think it’s pretty remarkable.”
She sums up Dulaine’s actions with a reflection on America’s current attitude toward philanthropy.
“We’re all so cynical and jaded," Friedlander says. "We all think, ‘What’s the motivation for doing that? Why would that person want to do that? They must have this agenda.’ Pierre really doesn’t. There’s a real purity and simplicity to what he does.”
And what does Friedlander take away from the experience?
“I think one of the big messages is that dance is transformative. And then replace dance for art is transformative, or music is transformative, or anything that kids are exposed to is transformative," she says. "What’s wonderful about what Pierre does is, he makes kids do something in this movie and in real life that’s totally foreign to them. And the second you do that it makes you look at yourself in a different way by taking you out of your comfort zone and out of your context.”
After all the praise offered to the man who inspired the film and to the program he worked so hard to establish, Pierre Dulaine had some kind words of his own to dole out about the actor who portrayed him on screen.
“What I love about Antonio is that he is a very generous gentleman, and, if I may say, I am a very generous person in my soul," Dulaine says. "He was the choice from the beginning and he’s wonderful. He is so passionate. I am so passionate about what I do, that I believe he brought, from my point of view, a wonderful elegance and passion to the role.”