A Walk on the Moon
Tony Goldwyn might come from the definitive show-biz family - his granddad was the blood and bones of the Goldwyn (as in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) dynasty but he's definitely his own man. After years in TV and summer stock, he burst into movies in projects like Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives. Then Goldwyn hit paydirt with 1990's super-smash, Ghost. He played Patrick Swayze's best friend, Carl, who secretly held designs on Demi Moore - as well as an unwitting contract on his friend's life because of a bank account passcode. Many roles followed: Traces of Red, Nixon, Reckless, The Pelican Brief, The Substance of Fire and Kiss the Girls among them. More TV and theater work transpired; Goldwyn appeared in From the Earth To the Moon and Truman. Now he's strapped on his big director guns. A Walk On the Moon, which stars Diane Lane, Viggo Mortensen, Liev Schreiber, Anna Paquin and Tovah Feldshuh in a screenplay by Pamela Gray, is a whimsical piece about the restless summer of 1969 and how its affects a Jewish-American family vacationing at a Catskills resort. The young wife (Lane) realizes, as her teenage daughter approaches the same age she was when she became pregnant, that life is passing too quickly and the air of non-conformity that is enveloped in a sexy salesman (Mortensen) who travels from town to town, stirs an affair that might shatter fragile family ties. Goldwyn thankfully manages to avoid cinematic cliches in making a "period" set piece. He settled in last month while on a press tour to talk about his evolution toward directing as well as how he pushed to create tension in the familiarity of his film's familial bond, and managed to break some rules in the process.
Paula Nechak: Your grandfather was a risk-taker. He rebelled against the mainstream idea of the big studio system. He was a wild card. Do you feel compelled to follow the genetic trail? You have picked iffy projects in your career - gay characters, errant husbands, villains - you seem to lack the fear of stereotyping that plagues most big-name "movie stars."
Tony Goldwyn: Absolutely. People ask what I gained in this business from my grandfather and father. I knew nothing about the business aspect (laughs). My parents kept us away from the Hollywood swirl with good reason. But by osmosis, if there is anything I was handed down it was the sense of independent spirit. Anytime I've been presented with a challenge, where the conventional wisdom was "be careful," I tended to say "screw that." If it moves me I'm gonna do it. The whole idea of playing a gay character was funny in retrospect because I had just had my big film opportunity in Ghost. Suddenly I was hot. But I'd been doing this great, beautiful Australian play called "The Sum Of Us" at Williamstown and I played the gay son. It was about to move to New York, Off-Broadway. People said I shouldn't do it because Ghost was a hit. I thought, "This is a great part." They said, "You're crazy." Everybody's anxiety appeared and that made me want to do it more. So, yes, if something's been handed down it's the risk-taking mentality as a way of constantly re-defining myself. And you have to do that in Hollywood unless you want to make the same thing over and over. You can make money doing the same stuff, but I knew it was the road to misery.
PN: Did you ever feel, with your extensive resume in all mediums, that you could have directed some of your projects better than the director assigned?
TG: Never. I never wanted to direct. I looked at the directors I had worked with and thought, "Oh man, that's not for me." They looked so stressed out, exhausted and besieged by schedules, budgets and the studio's yelling at them. There was this incredible responsibility to the job and it held no appeal for me. My father had been telling me for years that I should direct and that I had more to offer than just acting. I originally looked at A Walk On the Moon to act in and produce so I could control my career in the long run because I wanted the leverage to do what I wanted to do. I read tons of material and I loved Pamela's script but I also thought that I wasn't quite right for either of the male leads. But I wanted to meet the writer and we did, we started talking and I told her I thought the script needed some very specific work but that I loved it. Pamela asked if I would play Walker Jerome (ultimately played by Viggo Mortensen) and I said okay. We worked on it for a couple of years and had a director attached who fell out so I just sat on it. I mean, I couldn't give it away, so literally, one morning I had a flash that said, "I have to direct this myself." That was six months before we were in business.
PN: How did Harvey Weinstein at Miramax come onboard?
TG: That came later. First it was Dustin Hoffman. Dustin had developed projects for years and never made anything. He finally got financing and decided he wanted to get serious about making movies and supporting young filmmakers. We were the first, so it was serendipity. I was in Deauville for The Substance of Fire and got a call from him. I brought in the script and they simply said, "Please don't show this to anyone else. We want to make it." That year at Cannes they announced a deal with Village Roadshow. Once we had a rough cut, we shopped the film at the American Film Market and Harvey and Bob bought it.
PN: One of the directors you worked with [on The Substance of Fire] was the theatre director, Dan Sullivan, who left The Seattle Repertory Theatre a few years ago and moved to New York. Was it easy to work on a film with a man who is best known for directing plays? Did the styles and sensibilities clash?
TG: He's the best director. In directing my film and in trying to define myself as I approached the project, I thought back on everyone I worked with to try and draw on what I found valuable to emulate in directing, and although Dan and I are very different people, his style was amazing. He doesn't say a lot but he says the right things. His economy is brilliant - he doesn't coddle, he doesn't stroke, he isn't temperamental. As a result, there isn't a lot of extraneous bullshit where, as an actor, you have to figure out what he's really trying to say. There's no manipulation, no abstract discussions. He's a laser.
PN: After watching A Walk On the Moon I was struck by your cast and the fact that in many ways, they seemed like fringe actors. Again, that's an element of risk-taking on your part. Was it intentional? Do you prefer to work with actors as well who are construed as fellow risk-takers?
TG: It wasn't directly intentional, however with every choice I made, I was obsessed with not going the obvious way. I wanted to avoid the obvious cliches, especially doing a piece set in 1969 in a Jewish milieu. That very much fell in the casting of it because with every character I went away from what you'd expect. I mean, Diane Lane is not your obvious Jewish girl from Brooklyn, but Diane embodied something inside that was what I wanted in Pearl. That she wasn't Jewish made Dustin a little nervous but we knew she was the right actress. Liev has a fierce intelligence as a man that avoids the cliché of Marty being a schlubby guy who's unconscious to his wife's cheating. With Viggo, I wanted to avoid the stud-muffin hippie and with him, not that he isn't sexy or handsome, he brings a lot to the party and he's complicated and mysterious. All these actors have been around for a long time and I identify with them as an actor myself. If you want to do eclectic things, you have a harder time in Hollywood. The business is about selling and marketing and it's tough to sell someone if you don't know who they are. Viggo is like that; he's conflicted about fame and being a leading man. With Anna Paquin's role, I needed an actress of depth, intelligence and sophistication. There are very few young actors around who could embody the character's qualities. Anna read the script and said, "There are so few things you read when you're at that exact moment in your life, and I'm at that exact moment in my life." (laughs) It's an interesting question you've asked, so, yeah.
PN: In the '40s, A Walk On the Moon would have been considered a woman's picture and it would have been directed by George Cukor or Douglas Sirk. Did you have any trepidation toward crossing into that genre?
TG: Not at all. I never thought about it in terms of commerciality, only "this moves me." That's the launch word, I've learned, for choosing material to direct. As an actor you can do the job and since you have no control over the end result anyway, it's easier to make a semi-casual decision. As a director, you live and breathe it. It would be torture to do something because you only thought it would speak to a certain audience, or avoid something that moves you because it might be tricky in the marketplace. This film interested me though it's uncommercial; it was challenging.
PN: Still, it's not like Oliver Stone making Platoon. He was part of a small group who were there, in Vietnam, and since most of us only saw newsreel footage of the War, we didn't know its nuances, its truths. This film is a period piece, but more of us grew up in it. We have very specific memories of the era. How do you make a film that has personal, vivid inner life for many people, universal without grasping at clich¾ s?
TG: Just that; be as specific as possible. The reason the '60s interested me was on film so many people leap to the obvious song, the flower power, the cliche. It was our watch word to avoid on this film. So yeah, it has to do with specificity. What's the detail? We opted for the emotions of the piece as opposed to the period. Look at us in this room. What's the period? I'm not sure; look at our clothes. 1990's, right? What are the clues? The important thing is we're in conversation that feels real. It tells us where we are as opposed to one of us wearing a Monica Lewinsky button that signals, "Get it? This is the '90s." I eradicated that kind of stuff from the script. And I knew nothing about this milieu - this was Pamela's world - but the human details absolved us from the clich¾ .
PN: You captured the essence, anyway; the restlessness, the shift in thinking, the chafe that comes with change.
TG: That's the whole thing; that's right.
PN: Now you've done this; you've directed your first film and have a couple more lined up. So what would you be doing if all of this fell away? If you never had any of this life in film and the theater?
TG: I don't think I could do anything else. I didn't ever want to be in the movie business, I wanted to do something else originally because I didn't want to be viewed as following in anyone's footsteps. But in high school I fell in love with acting - and as any actor will tell you, it's undeniable; you have to do it. The family aspect was a real negative, a real drag. My father worried about me because he knew it's a risky profession, so it wasn't a natural, easy step or a career that can be easily navigated. It was scary. But the reason I did it was because there's nothing else I can do. Having now branched into directing, I see I do have other skills like leadership and management. I feel lucky every day to make a go of something I love. That's the whole trick of it.
Be sure to read Eddie Cockrell's review.