MCN Columnists
Gary Dretzka

By Gary Dretzka

Emmy Rossum

It isn’t often that an entertainment reporter gets to extend a relationship with the subject of an interview beyond the confines of a publicity junket.

Precious little time is allotted for idle chatter and there simply aren’t any good reasons for an actor or filmmaker to memorize the face of someone sitting across from them. The reporters who do tend to get remembered are those who stray from script by asking a personal question or attempting to pass along a screenplay. Some junketeers solicit autographs and photo ops, but, generally speaking, the interviews are “wham, bam, thank you, ma’am.”

Depending on the importance of a publication or website to the publicity team, some reporters are accorded extended one-on-one interviews and the occasional lunch with a celebrity. It’s here that the journalists get answers to questions they’d prefer not to share with the rest of their peers and the celebs tend to let down their guard a bit. Still, it’s the rare face that gets remembered past dessert.

If all of the interviews one sees on television, reads in a newspaper or hears on the radio sound alike, it’s because they are conducted with all the spontaneity of an assembly line. The ever-growing appetite for celebrity news, when combined with blitzkrieg publicity campaigns, rarely allows for fresh quotes and un-orchestrated revelations. Those, they reserve for Oprah, 60 Minutes and the dutiful hacks at People magazine.

When I was asked to consider doing a piece for Movie City News on the new indie drama,Dare, I wondered if there was enough meat there to fill a column. Adam Salky’s film was compelling enough, but on the small side

Dare concerns a mismatched trio of high school seniors, who, despite their very different personalities, come together to ease each other’s rocky journey toward sexual maturity. It reminded me a bit of the Fox-TV hit, Glee, minus the singing, dancing and cheer-leading. Moreover, both showcase characters’ awkward attempts at understanding their emerging sexuality and escaping the pack mentality that permeates high school life.

Conveniently, the feminine side of the triangle was represented by Emmy Rossum, who, several years earlier, I’d been able to interview in conditions that were as close to ideal as they get in this business. At the time, the auburn-haired beauty was 13 years old and new to the movie grind. She was one of the key elements in Songcatcher, a movie I enjoyed very much and wanted to promote.

In it, Rossum played a golden-throated mountain girl who finds herself torn between forces she isn’t yet able to understand. The dynamic English actor Janet McTeer portrayed Dr. Lily Penleric, a musicologist who discovered Rossum’s Deladis Slocumb warbling Scot-Irish ballads she’d assumed hadn’t made the passage from the British Isles to America. Penleric was stunned that this dirt-poor Appalachian child knew such songs as “Sally Goodin,” “Come All You Fair and Tender Ladies” and “Matty Groves.” Rossum’s a cappella renditions of the handed-down ballads were startling in their powerful clarity and sheer beauty.

Rossum was all of 14 when we met to discuss Songcatcher, over lunch at a swank Sunset Strip bistro. I’d wondered at the time if she had shared the same musical roots as Deladis and was inspired by Iris Dement and Taj Mahal, renowned folk artists who’d also appeared in the movie. She’d also performed a duet with Dolly Parton, another mountain thrush who made it big.

Instead, I learned that Rossum was a native New Yorker, who had been performing children’s roles with the Metropolitan Opera, since she was 7 years old and in several languages. While there, she’s sung alongside Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, and was directed by Franco Zeffirelli in Carmen. She’d also appeared in several television shows.
I wondered how deeply Rossum had immersed herself in the traditional music showcased in “Showcatcher,” before being asked to sing some of the most treasured ballads in the folk repertoire. Each song carried a legacy of its own and was at least as old as the wandering minstrel, Alan-a-Dale.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Rossum had been too busy memorizing lines and rehearsing to spend much time on history lessons or hootenannies. Once lunch was completed, though, she kindly accepted my invitation to walk to Tower Records, for an impromptu seminar on American folk music. Fortunately, for all concerned, her publicist was close at hand with a gold American Express card.

For me, at least, it was a memorable afternoon. I risked serious disappointment by asking if she recalled the interview and shopping session.

“Sure, it was the Tower Records store that isn’t there, anymore,” Rossum recalled, with a laugh. “It was fun.”

That trivial pursuit accomplished, it was time to play catch-up on her career.

The attention paid to her performance in Songcatcher had served as a springboard for roles in several motion pictures, including American Rhapsody, Mystic River, The Day After Tomorrow, Poseidon and, most prominently, The Phantom of the Opera. Playing Christine in that high-profile musical allowed her to showcase her beautiful lyric-soprano voice and formal acting chops.

Like many other young actors and musicians, Rossum was too busy to take time out for high school. Instead, she received a diploma, at 15, through Stanford University’s on-line Education Program for Gifted Youth. She would take similar classes through Northwestern University’s Center for Talent Development and spend a bit of time at Columbia.

“I experienced high school through my characters,” said Rossum, who, at 23, still makes a convincing teenager in Dare. “As for college, I probably missed a lot of art-history classes and beer pong. While on location, though, I took the initiative to go to museums, opera houses and theaters.”

Judging solely from the careers of other actors who achieved some modicum of success in the teens, Rossum has been surprisingly selective in her movie choices. Her resume doesn’t include, for instance, any references to the American Pie or Halloweenfranchises. Nor, as far as I can tell, has she been asked to perform alongside Miley Cyrusor Britney Spears.

“I never felt as if I had to make big pictures or could be typecast,” said Rossum, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for Phantom of the Opera and an Independent Spirit Award for Songcatcher. “I wasn’t interested in being cast in teen comedies or horror movies, either. I don’t live extravagantly, so I didn’t have to accept parts just to have a job.”

In any case, the striking 5-foot-8 artist’s first passion is music. In 2007, she released an album of her own songs, “Inside Out” and an EP of seasonal music, “Carol of the Bells.”

Earlier this year, Rossum also appeared in James Wong’s action-fantasy, Dragonball: Evolution, which required some basic martial-arts knowledge. Dare provided Rossum an opportunity to work at the scale she prefers.

“I was sent a copy of the short film from which Dare was adapted,” she said. “It was mostly a pool scene with the two boys. Alexa was a peripheral character.”

All of the primary characters in Dare are in their senior year at high school. The studious good-girl Alexa thinks her life is going along swimmingly until a celebrated acting coach (Alan Cumming) comes to the school and rudely dismisses her performance. He tells Alexa she’d never succeed as an actor if she couldn’t even fake passion in a stage kiss.

Overnight, Alexa makes dramatic changes in her wardrobe and behavior, totally confusing her best friend, Ben (Ashley Springer), who suspects he might be gay. Both of these reformed nerds become attracted to Johnny (Zach Gilford), the wealthy BMOC who’s experiencing changes of his own. Together, they “dare” to reveal their inner selves and accept the consequences.

“It’s the kind of character-driven movie I want to continue to make,” Rossum adds. “I liked the characters, because they seemed realistic and were drawn with sensitivity. It also was a good story.”

Despite Rossum’s high-profile role in Phantom of the Opera, she’s been able to fly under the radar of fame for most of her career. That changed radically this summer, after word leaked that her near-secret marriage to producer Justin Siegel had failed and she was dating rocker Adam Duritz, of Counting Crows. She also insinuated in a recent radio interview that she was a victim of spousal abuse.

“It’s hard to have a private life and keep it private and hope that people don’t pick you apart,” she said on “Valentine in the Morning.” “(The band) dared me on Twitter to come sing with them a song that I’d never sung before. … So, I ended up on tour with the band, and it was very, very fun.”

Duritz, who’s twice as old as Rossum, is a paparazzi magnet. He’s been linked romantically to several well known actresses – generally, much younger — and his wild shock of dreadlocks is almost impossible to disguise.

“You can’t avoid the paparazzi,” she acknowledged. “They pop out of the bushes, here. It’s nothing new, though … Elizabeth Taylor has had to deal with them all her life.”

Rossum said the best career advice she’s received came from Clint Eastwood and Sean Penn, with whom she worked on Mystic River.

“They told me to experience as much as possible and learn from everything I did,” she allowed. “It’s important to have a have a life between jobs. You can have a good career without committing to jobs back to back.”

Immediately after doing her part to publicize Dare, in Los Angeles, Rossum was off to New York to perform in 24 Hour Plays. The production is comprised of a series of six 10-minute works, for which the actors don’t see their scripts until 12 hours before curtain time. It has attracted such performers as Brooke Shields, Jennifer Aniston, Rosie Perez, Naomi Watts, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.

– Gary Dretzka
October 19, 2009

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon