Rhea Perlman

If you’re among the millions of dedicated television viewers who feel that sitcoms simply aren’t what they used to be, Rhea Perlman may shoulder some of the blame for that. Her 11-season turn as brash, vulgar and uninhibited Boston cocktail waitress Carla Tortelli on Cheers ranks among the most original and imaginative performances in entertainment history. If you don’t agree, tell it to her 10 Emmy nominations. Perlman’s ability to infuse her characters with a stunning range of qualities and emotions—from sugary sweet to disturbingly deviant—has kept her on Hollywood’s A-list for the better part of four decades. Her current project, 13: The Musical (airing on Netflix this August) brings Perlman back to her roots on the stage. Gerry Strauss caught up with Rhea to talk about the arc of her career and what tempted her to say Okay to her latest role in the midst of the pandemic.

EDGE: When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue acting? RP: That didn’t come until after college. I liked acting starting around high school, but never really thought that it was something you could do. I didn’t know anyone who was an actor. I didn’t come from a background of people who went into the arts at all. They didn’t explore that part of their lives in terms of making a living. So, when you talk about making a living, I didn’t know anyone who did that. But then after college I had a good friend who had written many plays while I was in school. He was very talented, and he got into Columbia Film School, and I would go up there sometimes. I lived in New York then, and I’d come act in a movie of his and there were a lot of people around him pursuing acting careers.

EDGE: What were you doing to make ends meet then?

Upper Case Editorial

RP: I was like an assistant at a vet’s office. I thought I could do both of those things. I could be an assistant at Dr. Nelson’s office and try to become an actress. So, I took some classes. It was a slow roll to actually making this into a career.

EDGE: A lot of your fans first got to know you from your recurring role as Zena Sherman on Taxi—a sweet, mild-mannered character who couldn’t have been more different than Carla Tortelli.

RP: That’s funny. Zena was actually called “The Nice Girl” when the character was first created… that’s what she was called.

EDGE: Was it a challenge for you to convince the Cheers people that you could play tough-as-nails Carla?

RP: I really never thought about that when the opportunity to play Carla came up. I just thought, What fun this could be, playing a person that speaks their mind and doesn’t give a damn… someone who can be tough and that stuff. I never thought about having to convince anyone of anything. It just was, Wow, what a great part this is! EDGE: Had you played roles like that before?

RP: Coming from New York, and the little bits of work that I did there that I never got paid for—I mean, off-off-off-Broadway parts—I’d played many different kinds of people. And playing the bad guy was always fun. Carla, although not being a bad guy, had elements of that, and the people who cast me in it, who wanted me to play it, were people who knew me from Taxi: the Charles brothers [Glen and Les] and Jimmy Burrows. The Charles brothers wrote many Taxi episodes and were producers of it, and they also created Cheers. So, they wrote that part thinking of me.

EDGE: Was there anything about Carla that you suggested or made a personal choice to include in your performance?

Netflix

RP: When Carla’s sister, who was very racy, was written into one episode, I just said, “Maybe I can play my sister”— and I did get to do that. As far as Carla goes, the writers were so great at writing all of our characters that I don’t think anybody did anything but enhance what they wrote.

EDGE: You touched on your stage background so I am wondering if that theater experience made the transition to television sitcoms a comfortable one?

RP: Yeah. I think that that was one of the things that made it easy, as you said. You’re right, it does feel like a play, even though you’re being filmed, and you can do things over—which is like the best of all worlds. Because when you’re in a play, you always want to do it over. You end up doing it over the next night, but you wish you could do it over right then [laughs].

EDGE: Your 1996 family film Matilda has become a classic. It’s watched and beloved by children and their parents to this day. Did you ever expect it to transcend generations as it has?

RP: Yeah! [laughs] I mean, I did have kids that were young at the time, and I know how they were with the movies that they watched—they watched their favorites over and over and over. They never wanted to stop watching it, whether it was animated or live action. I didn’t expect it to be, but I wished for it that it would be a classic movie. I mean, it did come from a Roald Dahl book and his books are classic.

EDGE: You’ve also lent your voice to a ton of characters from many of their favorites, including the Disney+ hit, Star Wars: The Bad Batch. Do you find a different type of creative freedom in giving a unique voice to characters who look nothing like you?

RP: I absolutely love doing the voices for animated characters and stuff like that. And I do think it’s freeing and fun and it’s challenging, too, trying to find a voice, although you usually play mostly yourself. If they cast me, they want me—they don’t want me to be sounding like a Wookie. You know what I mean? There are some incredibly talented people in the business who do lots of different voices. They can talk to themselves or even a group. They can be around a table doing every voice. I wish I had that talent. It would be incredibly fun, but I love doing what I do.

Netflix

EDGE: In some respects now you’ve returned to your roots for your latest project, Netflix’s 13: The Musical. How did you get connected to this undertaking?

RP: You know what? Out of the blue. I just got an offer through my agent from somebody at Netflix, or Tamra Davis, who is the director of the film. Someone asked for me and I said, “Okay!” I think I got the offer and had to be there in a week. That was challenging because it was during the pandemic and there were a lot of costumes to get, and there was nowhere to shop…not for me, but for the designers—especially in Toronto, where everything was incredibly locked-down.

EDGE: What excited you enough about the role to make that leap on such short notice?

RP: Well, I loved the idea of working with kids, and that every kid in that show was 13 or 14 years old at most. They are incredible. I just got to watch the movie last week and it’s a ton of fun, with great dancing and singing and those kids work their butts off, getting it together. I think they rehearsed for months. They didn’t film it for months, but they rehearsed for months, and Tamra did a fantastic job. I also liked the idea of working with Debra Messing. I always thought she was great. My part is relatively small in that show, but I liked it, and it was exciting to think about working with these kids.

 

Michael Chiklis

Christian Witkin Inc.

One of the profound challenges for an actor is portraying the humanity of a character in subtle and unexpected ways. Michael Chiklis can do it in his sleep. He made us root for the bad cop on the riveting and often unnerving FX series The Shield and made our hearts ache under fifty pounds of orange rock makeup in Fantastic Four. This year basketball aficionados are loving him as NBA legend Red Auerbach in HBO’s Winning Time and he just finished filming The Senior, the true story of a 50-something college football player. Gerry Strauss wanted to get a feel for how Michael manages to inhabit the myriad characters he has played. Leveraging his own life experience and passion, it turns out, is what makes them leap off the page and onto the screen.

EDGE: What is your process for playing a real person like Red Auerbach?

MC: I basically research them and get a sense of the kind of person that they were from their own words, as well as from others. And then I try to pay deferential homage to them. But I try to keep it real, obviously. To play someone like the late great Red Auerbach is a joy, especially with someone with the pedigree of [executive producer] Adam McKay. My first episode was directed by Jonah Hill and all of my scenes were with John C. Reilly [as Lakers owner Jerry Buss]. We had a great time working together.

EDGE: You grew up a Celtics fan.

MC: Yes, and I wish my dad was still around, because he was such a huge fan and he loved Red Auerbach. I don’t know how a lot of the things that Red did back then would play in today’s world. I mean, can you imagine a guy on the sidelines lighting up a stogie because he feels like the game is over? He was known for his gamesmanship—it wasn’t beneath him to turn the heat up in the guest locker room to 95 degrees and shut the windows. He wasn’t a cheater, but he would definitely push some boundaries, for sure. But I’ll tell you what, when you read books that he’s co-authored or you read books by people like Bill Russell, the way that guys speak about him, his players loved him so much. When you play for someone for years and all you have to say is how much you adore him, there’s something to that, it speaks to a person. Red knew how to manage people. He understood what people needed and treated them with respect. He didn’t just tell them, “I’m the boss, and this is the way it’s going to go.” My understanding of Red is that if you played with him, he loved you and listened to you and collaborated with you. He was very inclusive, progressive and forward-thinking, especially in the city of Boston. That’s why his name is etched in the parquet floor. I’ve had an opportunity to play some really iconic, real-life people through the course of my career, and I approach them all in the same way with tremendous respect— with no ax to grind and no agenda in terms of the way I want to portray them.

MC: I play another real-life guy who was the oldest player in the history of college football. Mike Flynt, at 59 years old, tried out for and made his old college football team. He had been thrown out of school his senior year for fighting with another player and he always regretted it. It’s a redemption tale, an underdog tale, and it’s a really wonderful story and a great script.

EDGE: Your first big role was playing John Belushi in Wired, the film version of Bob Woodward’s book. Not many people outside Hollywood know this story.

Christian Witkin Inc.

MC: It was heavy, heavy stuff for a 24-year-old. I was a well-trained, raw visceral actor. But this was my first on-camera job. Most people I know in this business, they put their toe in the water, they get their feet wet, they’re an extra on something, they get to see how things work. My very first job was playing an icon in an incredibly controversial mess of a film. I didn’t know what a “mark” was! Someone said, “Hey, Michael, Ed Feldman, an Academy Award-winning producer, and Bob Woodward, the guy who took down Nixon. On the other side of it was Mike Ovitz and Dan Aykroyd and all of the Saturday Night Live folks and the powerhouses of Hollywood. And I had no idea, I was really ignorant. I just thought, Wow, I get to play John Belushi. After Wired, I was being told that I would never work again. snuggle up on your mark.” I’m like, “What’s a mark?” I had no clue, from a technical standpoint, what I was doing. When I played Belushi, people said at the time, “Oh, you were so brave for doing that.” I wasn’t brave. I was ignorant. I didn’t know. And the honest answer is, I don’t know if I would’ve done it if I knew it was going to be so controversial—and especially if I knew that the family was against it. On one side of it was To think that [my career] was over for me before it started—that was a scary time. But I have no regrets. I’m glad that I did it because it started my life in film and television, and I learned a lot. I learned a lot about myself.

EDGE: How did that experience change your perspective?

MC: When you go through adversity of that kind early in your life, it gives you an acute appreciation of simple things—your health, the people around you and, of course, your work, how thrilling and awesome it is. I thought, I have no power, there’s nothing I can do about this. All I can do is do the best work that I can do in whatever situation I can find myself in, and hope that the work speaks, and that I can come up that way. That’s the only thing I knew. I didn’t have any recourse at the time. It certainly wasn’t like now, where the world is so full of grievance. So I just did whatever I could to keep going forward. And I’m still here, and I’m still working and doing really cool projects.

EDGE: When did you first become interested in acting?

MC: My parents tell me that when I was around five, I announced to them that I was going to be an actor and they thought, Next week you’ll be a baseball player, or a fireman, or whatever. But I was an oddly focused young person. I always knew that I was going to do it, and I never changed my mind. I had this sort of myopic view of acting. I knew that’s what I wanted to do, and I don’t know why. As a 58-year-old man, I look at that and I shake my head, and I’m like, How? Some people still struggle with what they’re going to be when they grow up and they’re in their forties. I feel very fortunate that I always had that personal awareness that I wanted to do this for my life.

EDGE: Did you have any early influences?

FX Networks

MC: There were a couple of things that flipped switches for me. One was a television show with Frank Gorshin and Rich Little called The Kopykats that was on when I was about five or six years old. I used to do a ton of different voices and I would do them doing other people—like Frank Gorshin doing Rodney Dangerfield. I would stand in front of my big, fat Greek family, and I would go, “Hey, I’ve seen better faces on an iodine bottle.” I’d get a big laugh and that dopamine high from it. So, that was sort of affirming. When I got older I watched movies like On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire—two films that Marlon Brando starred in. They had a profound effect on me. I remember watching those films in the dark and going, I know this is what I’m going to do. I know I have to do this.

EDGE: Who else moved your career along?

MC: This gentleman named Mark Kaufman became sort of an early theatrical mentor of mine. I had an incredible opportunity to help him open the Merrimack Repertory Theater, a regional theater in Lowell, Massachusetts, the town I was born in. I had sort of a backstage pass to watching that whole process happening, to be there every step of the way. It further affirmed to me, yeah, this is my life, this is what I want to be doing. Also, I was taught very early on that people who have longevity in their career are people who have a root or a foundation in classical training. That’s why I went to Boston University. It offered a classical conservatory setting, and I studied the craft in earnest.

EDGE: How did you envision your acting future as a young man?

MC: I thought my path would be off-Broadway, Broadway, and then to the silver screen from there. That was what I had in my head, but the best laid plans, right? At 21, I moved to Brooklyn after graduation and hit the pavement. I took jobs bartending and waiting tables, and then started doing off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway. Those were fun times, very Dickensian times— the best of times and the worst of times—because it was extremely exciting to be in Manhattan pursuing what I always wanted to pursue. But it could be frustrating and terrifying, fraught with all different kinds of problems and issues. But it was amazing too, it was exciting. I was there for three years when I finally got what I have to consider to be my big break in Wired. I mean, there’s nothing normal about the progression of my life or career as an actor. It’s very, very different.

EDGE: The role with which you’re most frequently associated is Detective Vic Mackey, the lead character on The Shield, which ran for seven seasons. Mackey and Tony Soprano and later Walter White were pioneers of the television antihero in the early 2000s. What went into making The Shield so good?

MC: A couple of things. To me, everything starts on the page. In the case of The Shield, you started with the pertinent thematic question: What are we willing to accept in post-9/11 America from law enforcement to keep us safe? There were other sub-themes, but that was the thematic question posed by the entire series. That’s why it holds up today; it’s an incredibly relevant question to this moment. Having said that, you need very, very thoughtful writers—writers who aren’t heavy-handed and just want to proselytize and beat the audience over the head with something—people who actually want to ask questions from every corner. That’s the basis for a great film or television show. Then you have to cast it correctly. When you think about it, it really is an incredible confluence of things to come together for any film and television show to be good, because it’s such a team sport, right? So many things have to go right. And literally, one thing can go wrong and derail the whole project. We did seven years on a show where I think, as a collective, we all looked at each other and knew that we were doing something special and sort of remarkable, and no one wanted to drop the ball. Everyone wanted to carry their own water, if you will. So, I just think that it’s a miracle of cooperation, it’s a little bit of luck, and it’s a lot of thoughtfulness and restraint.

EDGE: How difficult is it to assemble a cast like the one in The Shield?

MC: Artists notoriously have egos, right? We all have our egos. But I think if your egos are healthy, you keep them in check. You know when it’s time for you to add your pinch of salt, and you know when not to be another cook in the kitchen‚ to let other people do what they do well. If you look at any great series, you’ll hear everyone involved say how collaborative people were, how exciting it was to get up in the morning and go to work every day, how the collaboration was rare and distinct in their career. We’ve all done shows that we wish weren’t on our résumés, and that’s part of it—that’s how you learn what you don’t want to do, how not to collaborate, and how things aren’t supposed to go. I’ve been very fortunate…I’ve been in a number of really, really good collaborations. I noticed that you guys did a cover interview with Jason Alexander, who I recently saw on The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. That’s an incredible production, incredibly well made, beautifully shot, great cinematography, crisp writing, amazing acting, pacing—that’s a lot of hands, that’s a lot of people. And it’s thrilling when you see something come together that way. It’s thrilling to be a part of something like that.

EDGE: Michael, what keeps you centered at this point in your life and career? I see you’re producing and directing, recording music, getting involved in Alzheimer’s advocacy and even dabbling in martial arts.

MC: All of the above. Peaceful, joyful and centered. Variety is the spice of life, and these things keep me interested and connected to my artistry. I think I’ll never read all the books I want to read; I’m humbled at all that I don’t know—and that I’ll never be able to imbibe. I’m a bit of a seeker in that way. I want to learn as much as I can. The one thing I’m terrified of is complacency. I’ve always felt that, the moment you start to believe in your own hype and think that you’ve got it all figured out, is when the bell has tolled for you. I feel like life is short enough that you can continue learning until your last day. And that’s what I intend to do. I want to try to get better with everything that I do. I’m a drummer, right? When I’m playing drums with friends and singing, it’s pure joy. I don’t go out of my way to promote my music, but I put it out there a little bit so people can find it, but I don’t pursue it in that way. The things that are important to me are very, very simple: my family, my friends, my work, the world, people, I love to travel, I love to read, I love to listen to music of all kinds, every kind. I have the most eclectic music collection of anyone I know. I’ll listen to Rachmaninoff, and then The Tubes, you know what I mean? And everything in between. I guess this is part of my Greekness.

EDGE: How so?

MC: I grew up around a bunch of philosophers. My father is a very philosophical person. And in New England you have the winters and there’s six months at a time where we spent a tremendous amount of time inside talking and arguing and debating and philosophizing. I’m concerned for the world right now because people are increasingly afraid to speak their mind and say what their opinions are, for fear of repercussion. If not for all the debates I had with my friends and my family over the course of years, I wouldn’t have learned so much of what I know. So, I really am a big believer in conversation. I love talking to people, to my children. My oldest daughter is really coming into her own as a writer. She’s a woman of letters, and she’s very bright. My youngest is just going to—I don’t even know—I’m scared of her. She’s so incredible. They’re both incredibly bright. I know I sound like a very, very proud father—which I am—but they merit it, and I’m brutally honest. Fortunately, my oldest lives a mile down the street and my youngest, who recently graduated from college last spring, moved back in, and she’s here temporarily and working hard, and socking money away, trying to set herself up. It’s wonderful that my kids are close. The other thing is, my family loves to cook. The table is a big part of our lives. So we cook together and we sit at the table, and then it gets loud. We’re talking about this thing and that thing, and running things by each other constantly, and it’s impossible to get bored.

EDGE: As you look back at the arc of your career, what thoughts do you feel you can share with actors who are just starting out in the business?

MC: No two people have the same life path, right? So it’s impossible to give someone real advice about how to become a successful actor. There are things I can tell you that I think will help and work for you, and be there for you through the ups and downs. But no two paths are the same. I say this to people all the time that aspire to film and television careers. Actors may have crossover in their careers, but no two actors have the same trajectory. We have crossover in terms of places that we may have worked, or things that we’ve gone through along the way, but I’ve never met two actors with the same trajectory.

 

NBC Nightly News Anchor Brian Williams

Don’t say anything about New Jersey around BRIAN WILLIAMS unless you have something good to say. The Garden State was a springboard into a news career that has seen him defy the odds and reach the pinnacle of his profession. When Williams has to dig deep for strength or inspiration, New Jersey serves as his touchstone. The instant he motors past that center stripe in the Lincoln Tunnel, he feels he is home again. In his chat with the NBC Nightly News anchor, EDGE editor MARK STEWART discovers that what you see (and hear) is what you get. Whether getting a story right, hosting Saturday Night Live, or putting his money where his heart is, Williams is as authentic as they come.

EDGE: To reach the level you have in the business, an anchor must find the perfect balance between being a newsman and a performer. How did you find that balance?

BW: I’ve never had a lesson in performance. I’ve never had anybody tell me how. I have had great role models, from watching Cronkite every evening of my young life—I lived in a household where dinner would not be served until he said, ‘That’s the way it is’—to working beside Dan Rather at CBS and, more importantly, being taken under the wing of Tom Brokaw at NBC. He made sure I was in the right spot at every point. When it was time to be chief White House correspondent, he made it clear to me that it was time to be chief White House correspondent, and I moved down to Washington with my family. So at every point I’ve been so fortunate either to have watched a great example or worked next to one, and be mentored by one.

EDGE: Cronkite was your idol.

BW: He was my absolute, North Star idol. Walter Cronkite was the guy I always wanted to be, and he lived long enough for me to make that very clear to him. That was one of the great moments of my career.

EDGE: You started your climb in Middletown, New Jersey. How did you work your way to the top?

BW: I didn’t have any contacts. I had no way in through the front door or the back. So climbing in the window of the television news business and coming up through the basement is the only way I know how to get ahead. That meant moving out to Kansas, learning the business, and being willing to crawl through broken glass to get ahead. If you have your eyes on a prize in this country, there’s nothing that can stop you—I’m a living example of that. I am not college educated, I did not grow up with honed skills or a family that knew what a prep school was. I didn’t know what the Ivy League was when I was in high school. It just wasn’t in my ken. But if you’re a hustler—and I’ve never regarded that as a pejorative, that word’s a positive in my book—the world is your oyster.

EDGE: At what point did you become comfortable being Brian Williams?

BW: I’ve thought about it a lot. Various local stations in my twenties on my way up made vain attempts to put me with consultants. I had to sit through a focus group once and listen to what they said about me. That is not for the faint of heart, and something I don’t recommend to people. But after a while, as I came up through the industry, I thought Well, this must be working. I have no choice but to be who I am. I went with who ‘brung me to the dance.’ Even so, my daughter will tell you the Brian Williams on Nightly News is not the Dad she knows. She knows someone else entirely. She will tell you that the Brian Williams of Saturday Night Live or Jon Stewart or Conan is much closer to the guy she knows.

EDGE: How did the SNL hosting gig develop? Who pursued whom?

BW: I was pursued. Lorne Michaels had made noises about it for years, actually. Lorne, sadly, has to sit through a lot of dinners and charity events that I emcee, and I tend to mix it up during those because they can be as dry as dirt. Finally he came to me and said, ‘This is a serious offer’ and gave me an airdate. I told him I had 26 years of a career to worry about and I knew I could easily dispose of it in 90 minutes. I asked everyone in my life—I asked not just Tom Brokaw, but also his wife Meredith. Jane and I talked about it for hours. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t flushing what credibility I had down the toilet.

EDGE: I recall saying to my wife when you were announced that this was the bravest hosting decision in the history of the show.

BW: When I wrote the monologue, the first thing I said was, ‘I know what you’re thinking…is this really a good idea?’ That was actually my favorite moment in the show, because it was the elephant in the studio.

EDGE: So what made you say Yes?

BW: I had never met Chevy Chase and I saw him outside SNL in the hallway talking to a friend of mine. I went up to him, introduced myself, and asked him what he thought I should do. I explained that I owed Lorne a decision tomorrow. He said, ‘I watched Dan Rather for years and I never got any closer to knowing who he is. I think if you do this, I might get to know who you are.’ And that was the clinching vote. I called Lorne and accepted. I had to reject about fifty percent of the sketch ideas the writers proposed. Their job, of course, is to make a total horse’s ass out of the host.

EDGE: The skit I remember is the one where you played a firefighter. It was a totally authentic performance. Where did that come from?

BW: Sharp-eyed viewers will notice that the helmet on my lap said OVFC #11 and Williams. That stands for Old Village Fire Company, Engine 11, in Middletown Township. That was my gear. As a firefighter years ago, on a volunteer basis in Jersey—who still hangs around New York City firefighters— that was the easiest ‘character’ I could have done. I knew the lingo already, so it was easy.

EDGE: There’s still a lot of Jersey in you, isn’t there?

BW: When I pass into New Jersey there’s something that happens to me at mid-span on the GW Bridge and midway through the Lincoln Tunnel. I call it my ‘power corridor’. I feel most at home there. I speak New Jersey. New Jerseyans are real. It’s the most densely populated state in the union and yet I can tell from your accent if you’re from South Jersey or North Jersey. I can usually tell if you’re from the Mid Shore. We have a lot of different regions, and yet I think there’s a baked-in pride. We have to put up with a lot of crap. I don’t take kindly to a lot of Jersey jokes because I know a lot about my state. Way too many people judge our state based on one stretch of highway on the Turnpike along refinery row. And that’s unfortunate. I think if we had it to do over again, we wouldn’t route so many millions of motorists right past the most heavily industrialized region of the East Coast.

EDGE: So what is it that defines New Jerseyans?

BW: There’s a moxie, there’s a street smartness, there’s a reality to being from New Jersey. New Jerseyans have texture. They have grit. We aren’t always the most earnest members of the jury pool, but we’ll be the jury foreman, and we’ll get you a verdict.

EDGE: What role does grit play in your job?

BW: Grit is what it’s all about! Grit is life experience. It’s having a few layers of paint worn off of you, so you’re not shiny and new. This is not your first rodeo. A little skepticism. Even some cynicism. Grit has served me well in life. I just think grit equals authenticity today. And to make it today, you’ve got to have it.

EDGE: What do you remember when you look back on your New Jersey days?

BW: I had the perfect upbringing; I wouldn’t do it any other way. I get very emotional and gauzy, warm and fuzzy, and romantic about my upbringing—even though at the time it felt ordinary and at times a struggle. There were kids at Mater Dei High School who had a lot more than me, and it wasn’t my proudest moment to look at the back page of the yearbook and see the colleges other kids were headed to. And while I screwed up my education and came within inches of becoming a colossal failure—I interviewed for a police dispatch position out of Freehold thinking that would be a good, steady job—life went in a different direction. But when I go back there now I would like to think I have a flag in that soil that is mine.

EDGE: One of those flags will be in Newark soon, where the Horizons Summer Enrichment Program is opening a new location. You and Jane must get pulled in so many directions, and yet you’ve devoted yourselves to Horizons completely. What is it that you have found so appealing about it?

BW: You know how they say We know you have a choice in airlines and we appreciate you flying with us? My wife and I have been blessed in many ways in life, mostly financially—we never thought we’d have any money—and we have chosen to give most of our charitable dollars to a single cause, because Horizons changes lives in front of your eyes. The children chosen for the program end up in a different life. They are transported, as if by a giant hand, and lifted up. It’s just the most extraordinary program, and it only exists because of the good people who run it. Mr. and Mrs. Williams will only be happy when there is a Horizons-affiliated school in every city, town and hamlet that feels they need one. If people would just go to the web site [horizonsnational.org] and watch the piece we did, it would be the leading school enrichment program in the country. I’ve just never seen a return on the volunteer hour or donated dollar quite as dramatic as Horizons.

EDGE: EDGE readers live and work relatively close to the new location. Tell them why they should volunteer or donate to Horizons?

BW: It’s that feeling you get when you give a gift that’s so great that it gets your endorphins going just to give it away. The feeling you’ve knocked one out of the park. Multiply that by a hundred. Or a hundred thousand. That’s how giving to Horizons will make you feel. Most Americans, in the course of their lives, are lucky if they get to change one or two lives. This is a very easy way to do that on a larger scale, with a tangible, human, smiling result.

 

Graceful Exits

Meghan Duggan

Remember when you played sports in school and there was that one kid on the other team who made you want to take a seat on the bench? You know…an athlete who saw things a split-second sooner, who was a step quicker, and who administered a hard lesson in physics if you were foolish enough to make contact. Meghan Duggan was that kid. She grew up to become captain of the U.S. women’s ice hockey team, which, after silver medals at the 2010 and 2014 Olympics, won a gold medal in 2018 in South Korea. After 13 years at the apex of her sport, Duggan hung up her skates, moved to New Jersey and, last spring, became Manager of Player Development for the New Jersey Devils. A new mom in a new job, she brings her leadership, hockey experience and keen eye for championship intangibles to a club looking to hang a fourth Stanley Cup banner from the rafters at the Prudential Center. No pressure, right? EDGE caught up with Meghan to talk about life on her new home ice.

Andrew MacLean/New Jersey Devils

EDGE: Sports fans don’t realize what’s involved in the transition from star player to team executive. For some, it’s a natural transition, for others not so much. What has been the easiest part for you these past six months or so?

MEGHAN DUGGAN: The easiest part of the transition is coming into a culture that’s based around what I’ve built my life around, the sport of hockey. I’m working with hockey minds and that “hockey family” mentality, which I love. There are a lot of people in the Devils organization, and pretty much everyone with whom I interact on a daily basis has played at a high level and was a leader at a high level. I’ve felt welcomed since day one.

EDGE: What has been the most challenging aspect?

MD: Continuing to learn the ins and outs of building a successful NHL team. For a long time, I’d just had to focus on playing and leading a team as an athlete. Now I am digesting and understanding all of those components in a short period of time, including development, analytics, amateur scouting, pro scouting— just learning the terminology and how all the different groups work together toward the same goal—so that I can add value in the best way possible.

EDGE: Having been the captain of a successful team, does that give you a sixth sense about young players who might bring a similar quality to the Devils?

MD: Filling that role for so long, having to go through different experiences and highs and lows, it shaped me as a person and the leader that I wanted to be. I was challenged many times and learned a lot about having the will and the drive to compete. Using what I learned as a captain to identify and help develop great leaders and great culture is something that I want to bring to the Devils.

U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team

EDGE: With the women’s national team, you often found yourself advocating for financial support and better conditions. Is it a relief to be working for a team where those challenges don’t exist?

MD: You know, every situation brings its own challenges. On the women’s side, something that we’ll always continue to fight for is visibility, accessibility and resources. In the NHL, there certainly aren’t those struggles, but we have our own set of hurdles to clear. In both cases, that’s what you have a team for, and why you need a great group of people strategizing and solving problems. But advocacy is always going to be a part of me. Sports has given me so much in my life, I am always passionate about advocating for kids to be involved in sports and around sports, and to have great role models in general. I was recently named president of the Women’s Sports Foundation for 2022. I’m really looking forward to finding ways to marry my two roles, generating excitement about the Devils among young girls and women, and getting them to games here in New Jersey.

EDGE: I am curious about your thoughts on something. I believe that American sports fans don’t quite know how to process a silver medal, particularly in a team sport. What was it like to win silver twice and how did winning gold in 2018 alter that perspective?

Upper Case Editorial

MD: That’s a good question because the way you think about it does change and evolve. As an Olympic athlete, and a hockey player specifically, all the training I did in the four years leading up to the 2010 and 2014 games—and then winning the silver both times—there was a little sting at the beginning, as you might imagine. You don’t train and prepare and do everything you do for second place. You’re not running on the treadmill ’til exhaustion thinking I can’t wait to win silver. In hockey, in order to win a silver medal, you have to lose in the final game. So as competitive as I am and our teams were, it’s tough to swallow at first; it takes a little time to get over that and adjust. But when you are able to step back and reflect on the journey and the process and the lives you touched on the way there—and what it does mean to bring a silver medal back to your country—you can be proud of it.

EDGE: So what happened between 2014 and 2018?

MD: Our team really transformed and took on the challenge of becoming something bigger, becoming something more than silver, figuring out what the missing piece was to get the gold medal. We worked hard for four years and lived by the motto You can’t stay the same and expect a different result. We had to dig a little deeper and we were able to do so. I am very proud of our team for winning the gold medal—and then how, as a group, we used that gold medal for advocacy work, as well.

EDGE: How would you describe Meghan Duggan as a player when you were at your best?

U.S. Women’s National Hockey Team

MD: I’ve been a really competitive person since I was young. I’ve always held myself to the highest standards when it comes to competing and work ethic and the will to do the little things to help my team—win battles, block shots, kill penalties, go to the dirty areas to score goals—so I definitely brought those elements to my game. When I was at my highest level, I was a high goal-scorer and point producer. But as you get older and younger players come in, you turn your identity into something different. I was always a physical player who protected my teammates, created havoc, brought energy and was a really hard player to play against. To be honest, those are qualities I admire and look for in a player in this day and age. It’s not something everyone has, and it’s not something you can pull out of a player. It’s something deep inside players who I find exciting to be around and watch.

EDGE: What’s it like playing on a line where everything clicks?

MD: It’s the best. I had that multiple times in my career. Every night you’re showing up and your line is putting up three, four goals and you’re on a roll. It’s a nice feeling when you find that chemistry. On the flip side, being able to work through the adversity when that’s not happening—I think great players do that.

EDGE: Is that a coaching thing or something the players work out themselves?

MD: It’s a combination. There’s a lot that goes into it, which is something we deal with on the development side with the Devils. You’re trying to develop players from a technical, tactical, mental and physical perspective. However, as a player, when things aren’t going well, you have to be able to evaluate all of those components of your game, too, and find your way out of it.

EDGE: When you were growing up, playing youth hockey in Massachusetts, the American women’s team won the gold medal in Nagano. How did that change your life?

MD: My teammates and I have always said that the 1998 women’s team lit a fire in us. It really did change my life because, growing up, I had idolized NHL players. I thought I’d go on to play in the NHL, because that’s all that I saw. Being able to experience women playing hockey at an elite level was life-changing for me. And then having the opportunity to meet some of them, to put their gold medal on, to put their jersey on, that was pretty special for a 10-year-old kid. From that moment, I told everyone I knew that I was going to play in the Olympics and captain the team to a gold medal. I built my life around it.

EDGE: At what point did you feel like you were being groomed for the national team?

MD: During my freshman season in college at the University of Wisconsin, when I was invited to compete at the training camp for the women’s national team, right after Christmas. From that camp I made the World Championship team in the spring. After that, I stayed on the team for 13 years, until I retired a couple of years ago.

EDGE: You’ve talked about what you like to see in a player. Are you going to be doing a lot of scouting in your role with the Devils?

MD: That’s a major component of my job. Our department has to understand how the young players we’ve drafted or the young pros on the team or the prospects out in the field are developing, and then give them the resources to enable them to become the best players they can be.

EDGE: Is there a “Devils kind of player” that the team looks for?

MD: When you think about what the end goal is, for the organization to win a Stanley Cup, it’s more about finding the pieces that fit together in a great puzzle in order to do that. And there are a lot of pieces: your high-skilled players, your energy players, your identity players, your players who will go through walls, your goal-scorers. The Devils are very well organized. The way we go through discussions and challenge each other to be the best we can be, it’s very exciting to be a part of that. We have dynamic leadership in Tom Fitzgerald, our general manager. I’ve already learned a lot from him. As for my role, I interact with a lot of different groups within the organization. I’m in on the hockey-specific stuff and understand how players are playing right now, and where they are physically. I also have to understand who are the amateur players who might potentially be drafted and fall into the hands of the development group. So I’m still learning, but that’s what I love about my job—it gives me a unique opportunity to see how the organization runs from a number of different scopes.

EDGE: You have two very young children, so you probably get asked a lot whether you’ve gotten them on the ice yet?

MD: My son will be two at the end of February. We got him out on the ice once last winter at 10 months and I look forward to getting him on skates this winter. My daughter was born this fall and we’ll definitely be getting her on skates, as well.

EDGE: Are they looking like forwards or defensemen at this point?

MD: Too early to tell. But we’ll support them either way. I don’t know that I’d be a great goalie parent, though. I think I’d be too nervous to even watch the game. So we’ll steer ’em away from that [laughs]. We’ll see. EDGE

Editor’s Note: Meghan Duggan is an iconic figure in the history of women’s ice hockey. She was a First-Team All-American and the NCAA’s top scorer in 2010–11, and won multiple honors as the top player in women’s college hockey that season. She played six years of pro hockey following her graduation from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in Biology. In her eight career trips to the World Championships, Duggan and her U.S. teammates won seven gold medals.

Pool Cues

Multi-tasker Norma Kamali

Timing is everything. NORMA KAMALI knows a thing or two about that. She shook up Madison Avenue in the 60s, put the first Pull Bikini on Christie Brinkley in the 70s, pioneered fashion video in the 80s and Internet shopping in the 90s. In 2008, Kamali launched what might just be the best-timed fashion line ever—a timelessly styled and budget- friendly collection for Wal-Mart. Her Spring 09 offerings are right on the money. Norma Kamali has always followed her own path. As this chat with EDGE confirms, she is at her best when her plate is full…and even better when it’s overflowing.

EDGE: Are you as excited about Michelle Obama as others in the fashion industry?

NK: I am. She is wearing affordable clothes. That is the best fashion statement.

EDGE: In a tough economy, sometimes you have to eliminate a couple of pricey items from your shopping list. What is the one thing a stylish consumer absolutely, positively cannot do without?

NK: If she is stylish, she really has everything, and doesn’t need anything else. However, styles at a price—and carefully chosen—can be a spirit-lifter. Anything expensive and not timeless might make you feel guilty or irresponsible.

EDGE: Last year you designed the costumes for Twyla Tharp’s ballet Rabbit and Rogue. What drew you to this project?

NK: I had worked with Twyla Tharp on a number of different productions. One being The Upper Room. Twyla came to me with the Rabbit and Rogue project as the evolution to this classic piece. The Upper Room is such a success. What drew me to this new project? It was the next wave of The Upper Room.

EDGE: What part of this production influenced you most during the conceptual process—the music, the movement, a dancer, a character?

Photo courtesy of American Ballet Theatre

NK: The concept of dark to light. The speed of the music. The type of music, film music. The music influenced the speed of the dance. Danny Elfman’s music came first and then these visual concepts. My concept for the costumes was to take the dark to light by using black, then silver, then white. I wanted to keep the color concept of silver from the beginning to the end. Brad Fields’s lighting design used the dark-to-light concept as well.

EDGE: Did Twyla coordinate your efforts?

NK: Yes. It’s a process. I would create a costume, the dancer would try it on, we’d tweak it, keep evolving it, until it worked. It’s a lot of fun, building on steps, like a painting or any creative project.

EDGE: Did you approach Rabbit and Rogue in a similar way to your runway shows and collections in terms of practicality? Drape, flexibility, breathbility, etc?

NK: Absolutely. First I figured the colors then I built on it. The way I approach something is to start, then edit and change, edit and change. The product just gets better and better that way. I would do a fitting and take photos with my IPhone. Twyla would look at them and write or call me back.

EDGE: Is designing costumes for a ballet different from designing for a musical on Broadway?

NK: I like dance a lot. It’s my preference. I’m not as excited personally with musicals or other Broadway forms. Other people do that really well. With dance I have an open palette. There’s a more creative spirit to it. It’s more fluid, less defined to a story line.

EDGE: You are a world-famous multi-tasker. What’s on your plate as 2009 starts to unfold?

Photos courtesy of Norma Kamali, Inc.

NK: Anything that relates to the new economy. I like to reinvent and think out-of-the-box.

EDGE: Can you sum up the inspiration for your Spring 09 line in a couple of words?

NK: Yes. Timeless style.

 

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Leah Soltas for making this interview happen. To see Norma Kamali’s new collections log onto normakamali.com

Hotel California: featuring Sofia Milos

Terence Winter

New Jersey has been good to Terence Winter. The Garden State furnished him with the inspiration and settings for two of the most iconic series in television history. Winter was a writer and executive producer for The Sopranos, and the creator of Boardwalk Empire. The Brooklyn born ex-lawyer sat down with EDGE Editor at Large Tracey Smith to talk about the two shows and their protagonists, reveal a nugget or two about the upcoming Boardwalk Empire season, and his upcoming film, The Wolf of Wall Street. What’s the key to writing a great series about crooks? Honesty…what else?

EDGE: Explain how you were able to transition so easily from The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire?

TW: It might have looked easy but it wasn’t. There was a lot of research involved for Boardwalk that I didn’t need to do on The Sopranos. For example, on The Sopranos, because it was contemporary, I didn’t need to look up pop culture references, I knew the way people spoke, acted, and dressed. For the 1920s, it’s a whole different ball game. I needed to learn about World War I, I needed to learn about the Temperance Movement, I needed to learn about the year women got the right to vote—I needed to put myself in the mindset of characters who were born in the 19th century. So colloquialisms, what books did they read, what movies were out then required months and months of research before I was even able to begin to write the pilot. So even though they are a similar genre, and the characters cover some of the same territory psychologically, it’s almost a hundred years earlier, so the prep work was massive.

EDGE: One of the first things Tony said on The Sopranos was that he felt like he was coming in on the end of something. Steve Buscemi’s character in Boardwalk Empire, Nucky Thompson, is right there at the start of something.

TW: Right. Prohibition was the single event that made organized crime possible. That, more than anything else, was the impetus for criminals to start working together to make money. The interstate trafficking of alcohol made millionaires of criminals overnight, and enabled them to then infiltrate other businesses, and ultimately become organized throughout the country.

EDGE: How do Nucky and Tony compare as protagonists?

TW: In terms of their psychology, they both at their heart are depressed people, sort of searching for something that will make them happy. They are both very smart, both natural leaders, and both are ruthless. Tony’s fatal flaw is that he has a conscience. If he were more of a true sociopath, he wouldn’t pass out, wouldn’t have panic attacks, and wouldn’t care. Nucky, I think, is the same way. We’ve explored a little bit of the psychology of Nucky. We learn by the end of the first season that his wife lost a child very early on, and he is still haunted by that, and that he had a difficult relationship with his father. He’s trying to repair a broken childhood and to recreate a happy family life that he can’t quite seem to replicate.

EDGE: How did Steve become your Nucky?

TW: I’ve been a fan of Steve’s since a movie he did in the 90s called In the Soup. The moment I saw him I was just fascinated with this guy. I was lucky enough to get to know him when he directed a few episodes of The Sopranos that I wrote, and we became friends. Then, of course I got to work with him as an actor when he portrayed Tony’s cousin. I’ve seen everything that Steve’s ever done as an actor. I’ve seen him portray every possible color of human emotion, back and forth, every which way. So for me there was never a question of whether or not he could be convincing as Nucky. When we started to cast for the show, Martin Scorsese and I were talking about who is going to play the lead role. Our Nucky is based on a real person, Nucky Johnson. We fictionalized him as Nucky Thompson, so he’s a version of that person. But we realized since nobody really knew what the real Nucky looked like anyway, it didn’t really matter who we cast in terms of whether or not they looked similar. So Marty said, “Well, let’s just pick an actor that we both like. Who are people you want to work with?” I’m pretty sure it was me that said, “What about Steve Buscemi?” He jumped on it and said, “Oh my God, I love him.” About a week later, Marty called me up and said, “I can’t stop thinking about Steve Buscemi.” I told him I couldn’t either, and he said, “Let’s do it.” HBO was on board—their feeling was Wow, what an interesting choice. That was it. We were off to the races.

EDGE: Why didn’t you use Nucky’s real surname?

TW: I wanted the opportunity to take my Nucky into places where the real Nucky might not have gone. For example, I’m pretty certain the real Nucky didn’t kill anybody. I’m pretty certain he didn’t embrace gangsterism the way our Nucky does. Fictionalizing him gave me artistic latitude and allowed me to sleep at night.

EDGE: How difficult is it to develop so many characters simultaneously?

TW: It’s a massive juggling act. There’s a lot of plotting out, there’s a lot of characters on the show, we’ve got action taking place in several different cities—it’s a big, big, chessboard of characters. That’s the work that goes on in the Writer’s Room. It all starts with “What if?” If suchand- such happened, what would the result of that be? What’s the fallout from that? Where do we want to end up? I’ll come into the season and have a pretty good idea of where I want things to end by episode twelve, sort of like a roadmap. We’re gonna drive from New York to California—alright, well, how do we get there? Those are the story beats that bring us to various places, and it takes a lot of sitting around the table and talking and banging your head against the wall, and plotting, and figuring it out. Eventually, it all works, but it’s a big, big, juggling act.

EDGE: And now you have two new characters to blend in.

TW: Yes. Jeffrey Wright plays a character this season called Valentin Narcisse. He is a Doctor of Divinity who also happens to be the most powerful gangster in Harlem. He crosses paths with Nucky and Chalky in Atlantic City, and that is about as much as I can tell you at this point. If you know anything about Jeffrey and his work, he’s a phenomenal actor, just incredible. We were so thrilled to be able to work with him and have him on the show. The same with Ron Livingston. I’ve been a fan of Ron’s for years and years. He’s so versatile. His work on Band of Brothers, Office Space—I mean, he’s one of these actors that can do comedy, drama, anything in between. He becomes an acquaintance of Jillian Darmody’s, and has a really interesting storyline as well. I’m really excited about both of those guys.

EDGE: A lot of people were shocked when you killed off Jimmy Darmody at the end of season two, just as they were when Tony killed Christopher in The Sopranos. What’s involved in the decision that a major character has to go, especially a protégé?

Photo courtesy of HBO

TW: First and foremost, I try to write the show truthfully. I try to avoid making decisions based on what would be the popular choice, what the audience would want me to do, what the conventions of television would be, which is: You don’t kill your second lead on the show, a beloved character. As season two was playing out, it became really clear to me that if we were going to tell this story honestly, Nucky would kill this guy…and he would kill him immediately. If I were watching this and he at the last minute changed his mind and Jimmy got off with a stern reprimand, I’d say, “This is not true, this is a TV show!”

EDGE: It is a TV show.

TW: But I want it to feel real. I think over 60 or 70 years of TV history, we’ve sort of lulled our audience into a sense of complacency. People say, “Oh, well, they’re obviously not gonna kill this guy, I know it looks like they are, but they won’t, because he’s one of the stars of the show. So, of course, people couldn’t believe when we did it, which made me even more certain I’d made the right decision. The louder the uproar, the louder the outcry, the more I was convinced we did the right thing.

EDGE: You have some interesting projects coming up with Leonardo di Caprio, Martin Scorsese and Bobby Cannavale.

TW: In November, Wolf of Wall Street opens. That’s, as you said, directed by Martin Scorsese and stars Leonardo di Caprio. It’s the true story of a stockbroker named Jordan Belfort who, in the 90’s, made tens of millions of dollars a year as the head of his own stockbrokerage firm. He found a way to sell very inexpensive stocks to rich people. He sort of cracked the code, and he and hundreds of young brokers working for him made a fortune. It was just an incredible roller coaster, a wild ride with incredible amounts of money and drugs. Leo is terrific in it and, of course, we’ve got the master, Martin Scorsese, directing. I’m also working on another series with Martin Scorsese for HBO, this one involving Mick Jagger. It’s set in the world of rock music in 1973 New York City, starring Bobby Cannavale as a cocaine-fueled, A&R executive for a record company. That was the year that punk, disco and hip hop were all invented in and around New York City, a time of great change, of great upheaval in the city. I’m really, really excited about that project. Hopefully, the pilot will be directed in the early part of next year, and we’ll go into series right after that.

EDGE: Cannavale was like a bull in a china shop on Boardwalk Empire.

TW: Oh yeah! There was nobody better to play the Gyp Rossetti role than Bobby. He was great. I think we had one conversation about who that character is and what motivated him, and Bobby got it immediately and ran with it and became Gyp Rosetti. It’s so funny, because nothing could be further from the real guy. Bobby is just the sweetest, funniest, most gentle person in real life, and as an actor he can sort of give you anything. He can turn into Gyp Rosetti on a dime and then go back to being himself again—it was pretty amazing to watch.

EDGE: How many more seasons?

TW: I would love to do seven seasons all together. We’re starting down the homestretch in season four; whether or not we’re fortunate enough to get to do them remains to be seen. It all really is going to depend on what the public’s appetite is for this show, and HBO’s, of course. I would love to do three more years, I think that could take us to the point in Nucky’s story, and the point in history that I’d like to get us to. Hopefully, we’ll get the chance to do that.

EDGE: Are you a nostalgic person?

TW: Very much so. I love history. I am the family’s historian. I’m the one who archived all of the family photos and films, the genealogy and all that stuff. I love the idea of leaving that behind for my children, and grandchildren, and their children. I’d give my left arm just to read about what my great-great-grandfather’s day was like. “What did you do, where did you go, who did you talk to?” That stuff is fascinating to me. 

Editor’s Note: There are no short conversations once Tracey Smith gets you talking. For (a lot) more on Nucky, Chalky, Margaret, Richard and Van Alden—and the inside story on the brilliant “Pine Barrens” episode of The Sopranos—visit edgemagonline.com and read the rest of our Q&A with Terence Winter.

Red Dawn

Frank Vincent: Simply Stirring

Vince Giordano

Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks perform in Atlantic City

Bix Biederbecke once said the thing he liked about jazz was that he didn’t know what was going to happen next. The legendary 1920s bandleader could just as well have been describing HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. It is loud and loose and right on the edge of crazy. Vince Giordano and his band, the Nighthawks, supply the music that drives the hit series. They can be seen performing in the lavish party scenes, and heard throughout each episode. Authenticity is the hallmark of the show, and Giordano is as authentic as they come. The Nighthawks work off the original band arrangements from that era— Giordano just happens to own the world’s largest collection. In 2012, he won a Grammy for the Boardwalk Empire compilation soudtrack…and suddenly, everyone is talking about (and downloading) the joyous music of the Roaring ’Twenties. EDGE Editor Mark Stewart—also a devotee of early jazz—spoke with Giordano after his weekly gig at Sofia’s Restaurant on West 46th St. in New York.

EDGE: At what point did you get the call for Boardwalk Empire?

VG: Right from the get-go. The same music team I worked with on The Aviator with Vincent Scorcese was asked to put together the music for Boardwalk Empire. They knew I had two houses bulging with 60,000 scores. We had such a fun time on the movie I said, “Let’s do some more!”

EDGE: With the added bonus that the show is filmed in Brooklyn.

VG: It’s really convenient. The set we work on is actually the recreation room of an African-American church in Bedford-Stuyvesant. The Boardwalk Empire team went in and rewired and repainted it, basically got it up to code, so when the show is done they’ll have a nice recreation hall. Some other scenes were shot in a mansion built in 1804 that’s part of the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

EDGE: How much acting direction do you and the Nighthawks get?

VG: When Scorcese supervised the pilot, he had a lot more direction for us. I even got some speaking lines. In subsequent episodes we’re more in the background. Our job is to mime the music we’ve recorded in the studio. So we have to look like we’re having a good time and make sure were in synch. We have these little devices called earwigs, which are wireless speakers we put in one ear. So when they want to knock out the music so they can capture the dialogue, we’ll still have it playing in our ears. You don’t want to be strumming or fingering and be really off—it looks bad.

© Zoetrope Studios

EDGE: People are always trying to spot that in movies, aren’t they? Hey! He’s not really playing!

VG: Oh, yeah. In the old days there was some real bad sidelining—that’s what we call it—where they put Joe Blow up there with a bass or a trombone or a saxophone and it was really apparent he had no idea what he was doing. You watch those scenes and say, “Oh my God, they couldn’t find some out-of-work musician to do this?”

EDGE: What was the first movie you and the Nighthawks were in?

VG: In 1984, a small version of the band was in The Cotton Club. Richard Gere portrayed a trumpeter named Dixie Dwyer in the movie. He had actually played a trumpet in his high-school days. He tried to get his lip back, which is pretty hard. The trumpet is a very demanding instrument. But he pulled it off. He did a pretty good job recreating those big Louie Armstrong solos. Richard was a very nice fellow, too. Very interested in our music, and very open to any suggestions we could give him.

EDGE: Do you have an opportunity to get to know the actors on a series like Boardwalk Empire? I ask because I know that Michael Pitt is a musician. By the way he’s definitely been bumped off, right?

VG: Oh, yeah. He’s gone. A lot of people were upset that they killed off Jimmy. I say just don’t kill off the band! No, but generally we don’t get a chance to hang out much. We’re so far away from the main actors on that set, and with time clicking away and so many people involved there’s just not the opportunity. Movies can be different. When we did The Aviator, Leonardo di Caprio came over and mentioned to me that he was very surprised that this music had so much spirit and fun to it. He said, “This is really exciting music!” Being a younger person, he was like a lot of people who’d never been exposed to this vintage music. It was a revelation.

EDGE: When you won the award for Best Soundtrack it was not on the Grammy television show. How did you find out?

VG: It was on the Grammy internet channel. The news came sometime the afternoon before the Sunday evening broadcast. I was playing a jazz party up in Connecticut and I got a text that said: WE WON. So you can imagine, we were running around screaming. People thought we were a little nuts. I’m happy we won. I’m even happier that the music will now get a little more attention.

EDGE: You shared that soundtrack with other musicians who’ve devoted themselves to the music of the 1920s and 1930s. Performers like Leon Redbone. What’s the feeling in that larger group? Does the Grammy give you all some validation?

VG: Definitely. All this work we’ve put in for all these years with doubting Thomases saying, “What are you doing with this old music? Get with the times!” We hung in there and it did something good for all of us.

EDGE: The Nighthawks formed in the 1970s. It’s quite something to keep a musical group together for 30-plus years. What was the band’s first break?

© Elektra/Asylum

VG: In the early 1980s we were bouncing around different night spots in New York City. We were playing at this club on the West Side called Sweetwater’s. An interesting fellow came in with thick glasses and a goatee. He asked for my card after the show. It was Ahmet Ertugun from Atlantic Records. Ahmet was extremely connected. He called Peter Sharp, the owner of the Caryle Hotel, and said, “You gotta get these guys in your room.” We worked there Sundays and Mondays. Those were Bobby Short’s dark nights. We did two seasons there. He and his wife also got us a lot of charity balls and private parties. We were working like crazy—the guys were actually complaining!

EDGE: You also played with Woody Allen.

VG: Yes, I was fortunate to work with Dick Hyman as a side man on about a dozen Woody Allen films. Dick called me up and said, “You really love playing this music. Sometimes I get musicians who are really talented, but who don’t have the spirit for this older music.”

EDGE: You’ve had this spirit all your life.

VG: Since I was five years old. The impact of this music really came from winding up my grandparents’ old Victrola and listening to their 78 collection. I have it in my home now—it’s my Rosebud, so to speak. Anyway, as a teenager I tried listening to rock ’n roll, but it just never sat well with me. The other kids were listening to the Beatles, of course. Coming home after school and turning on the TV you’d see those old comedies—The Little Rascals, Laurel and Hardy, the Warner Brothers cartoons—and they used a lot of that peppy music from the 1920s, with synchopated brass and whining saxaphone. So people would say, “There goes Vince with that ‘cartoon music!’” They just couldn’t understand what I was doing. It was tough as a teenager.

EDGE: Let’s talk about your vintage music arrangements. Is that the right term?

VG: Or stock orchestrations. These are band charts—not just the old piano sheet music you see in antiques stores. So if you were a bandleader back in the 1920s you would buy this packet of music and hand it out to all the fellows in your band. If you didn’t have your own arranger, these stock orchestrations were enough to get your band up and running. There were thousands of bands all over the world doing the exact same arrangements.

EDGE: Is it fair to say the “value” of these scores is that you don’t have to listen to the 78s and deconstruct the different parts?

VG: That’s quite true. For us to play this music exactly how we hear it on the recordings, it takes away a lot of the guesswork. Also, sometimes I’ll hear a great recording and pull out the arrangement, and see that someone in the band or one of the arrangers did something really special.

EDGE: How did you begin amassing your collection?

VG: I was a member of the musician’s union and put an ad in this publication that went out to the whole country, VISIT US ON THE WEB www.edgemagonline.com asking if anyone had these arrangements from the ’20s and ’30s. A lot of bandleaders who were getting up there in age—or their widows—offered to box them up and send them to me if I paid the postage or gave them a few bucks. This started in the mid-’70s. Then I went even further and began contacting the families of old musicians who had passed away. I would hand-write letters to their relatives explaining who I was and what I was trying to do. Many people called me and said, “Wow, we were going to throw this out—come over and take it.”

EDGE: And now you’re up to 60,000. Where do you keep them all?

© Stomp Off Records

VG: I own twin houses in Brookyn. I moved there in 1979. The people across the driveway we shared passed away and I put a bid in for the house and got it. Once I got the second house my collection expanded. I am like the goldfish you put in a bigger pond who gets bigger.

EDGE: What’s the end game? Where does the collection ultimately reside, say, 50 years from now? What’s the ideal scenario?

VG: I plan to donate these to a foundation that is being set up by Michael Feinstein.

EDGE: I would think that a college or university would love to get its hands on these vintage arrangements.

VG: Our institutes of higher learning don’t seem to see this as valuable music. The jazz music they’re teaching kids is more modern—it starts with Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. I’m all for that but, unfortunately, it almost seems as if one style of music is being erased by another.

 

 Editor’s Note: Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks play every Monday and Tuesday night right on the other side of the tunnel at Sofia’s. To keep track of Vince log onto vincegiordano.com. To read about how Vince began his musical career, log onto edgemagonline.com for exclusive content.

Roberta Flack

Genius loves company. That may be the simplest way to account for one of 2012’s most ambitious and successful album releases, Let It Be—a reinterpretation of Beatles classics by Roberta Flack. For someone whose musicianship covers every genre from Classical to R&B to Jazz, however, nothing is simple about the 12 songs that made the final cut. Each one is like taking hold of Flack’s hand and finding a new walkway through lyrics and melodies that are as familiar to most of us as breathing. As Tetiana Anderson discovered, for the fourtime Grammy winner it’s all about the journey. Indeed, from Flack’s early years as a music prodigy through the twists and turns of a fascinating and celebrated career, she has become quite adept at discovering the path less taken. And, the title of her new album notwithstanding, Roberta Flack has never been one to simply let it be.

Photo courtesy of Roberta Flack

EDGE: You really want people to make connections through your songs. Where did that come from?

RF: I don’t know where that came from. But I can tell you that connecting through songs is what I am all about, period. I was watching recently some footage of Bill Cosby introducing me at a jazz fest back in the ’70s. He was telling the audience that Roberta Flack tells stories so you can understand them. I think that is a true description of how I feel about music. It speaks to me. I try to speak back and once I get the conversation going—and figure out what the whole point is—I’m ready to dig in and come up with a very individual interpretation of a particular song.

EDGE: Your own story is incredible. You were the youngest person to ever enroll at Howard University, and later the first black teacher at an all-white school. Do you think of yourself as someone who breaks barriers?

RF: No. But I do believe in destiny and fate. If you are practicing five or six hours every day—and that’s all you live for as a child because there are no other options—if you are able to grasp that and hold onto it, it will tell you where you are supposed to go. I did go to Howard early. And I did become the first black teacher at an all-white school in Chevy Chase, Maryland, which was a little tighter wound in terms of the people and their personalities than Virginia. When you’re a child and you have the gift of music, the gift of art, the gift of conversation, nothing stops you.

EDGE: What impact did the church and gospel have on your appreciation for music?

RF: I belonged to an interesting church and my mom was the church organist. The choir director was a Howard University graduate, and many of the choir members were people who had graduated Howard or gone to school with him. That church, as we would say as young kids, was “uppity.” It was uppity because the church that Mahalia Jackson, Sam Cooke, the Soul Stirrers and the Five Blind Boys visited was not our church. That was Macedonia Baptist, down the street. I spent a lot of time as a young person going between churches. Actually, the first genre of music I was exposed to was not gospel music; my background was actually classical. But I loved gospel. What is there not to love? It doesn’t have to be something where people are shouting. It can be a song’s subtle embellishment, it can be the malisma that Whitney Houston brought to her pop music. Melisma is a gospel characteristic when you take a note that’s supposed to be da and go dahahahahahaha and add all those other notes up and down the scale. That is a beautiful experience and it’s also very moving. Your soul cannot help but be stirred when you hear Aretha Franklin sing “God Bless the Child” or “Amazing Grace.”

EDGE: Do the classical works of Chopin and Bach give you the same goose bumps as gospel?

RF: Yes. Yes. I can play some Chopin for you that would make you say Girl, that ain’t Chopin! I’ll tell you who uses the melodic flow of romantic composers like Schuman, Brahms, Chopin, Shubert and Beethoven: Stevie Wonder. When you hear him sing, when you hear him play any of those songs that are so melodic, like [singing] A Ribbon in the Sky for our love…he does a lot of that.

EDGE: You worked on songs with Stevie Wonder but are perhaps best known for your partnerships with Donny Hathaway and Eugene McDaniels. What did you learn about the craft from those two?

RF: I was humbled by their talent. I’ve been watching a performance Gene and I did in the studio of a song that Gene wrote for an Eastern Airlines commercial. It was called “Chasing the Sunshine.” How clever is that as a title? This is the same guy who wrote “Reverend Lee,” “Feel Like Making Love” and “Compared to You.” He was a profound writer, Gene McDaniels. Absolutely, absolutely brilliant. Donny and I cut “You’ve Got a Friend” in 20 minutes, which isn’t hard to understand. I am a musician, not just a singer, so you don’t have to teach me something. I have the presence of mind and the ambition and the appreciation for my craft to sit down and practice. So I practiced, came to New York, and Donny and I did “You’ve Got a Friend,” which went to the top of the charts. So they said Let’s do an album. Okay, so the next thing we did was “Where Is the Love.” Donny and I finished that first album in three days! I should say that I did whatever Donny asked me to do as a duet partner. In terms of putting it together, sketching it out, bringing all the pieces together so that everybody understood what was happening—that was Donny, that was the kind of mind he had. Three days.

EDGE: You accompanied Donny on piano on the classic “For All We Know.”

RF: Yes. When we finished that album the producer asked, “Ro, you got another song?” I said, “Donny do you know this song?” He said, “Yeah I know the song but I don’t know the words.” So I wrote down the lyrics of “For All We Know.” I played it and he sang it and we recorded it. You know, I had really cut my chops as an accompanist. I’d played piano while I was teaching school in DC at the Tivoli Opera Restaurant. I mean we were doing Aida and Madame Butterfuly, we were doing Tosca and La Traviata and Verde and Chelini. Oh, it was just so wonderful. Here I am this little girl from Black Mountain, North Carolina. I’d never read that stuff but my musicianship, my gift—thank you, God—allowed me to do it with the same kind of comfort that I’m playing for Donny. I just looked at him and listened to the way the song was developing. When we did that together it was one of the highlights of my recording career.

EDGE: You also worked with Bob Marley. How did you meet? What was he like?

RF: Beautiful. Fine. Sexy. He was a friend. We were both Aquarians. I am on the 10th and he’s on the 6th. When he got sick I was so upset. I lived for seven years in Jamaica accidentally. That was part of that Eastern Airlines – Gene McDaniels thing. Part of my payoff from the airline was to close my eyes, pick from their map any place, and my finger landed on Montego Bay. I stayed for about two days and said, Now I want to go to Kingston. I was with a couple of guys. We went to Kingston and ran right smack into some Rastas who said, “Sistren let me take you, let we go see brother Bob.” So he and I became friends and as a matter of fact I brought down later my band and we went into his studio and worked on “Killing Me Softly.” Then I came back to the States and recorded it, and of course that was a hit for me, too. But Bob was a wonderful friend. He spent several hours in my apartment in New York sharing musical ideas and good vibrations and was just a beautiful person. When he was sick I tried to find some holistic doctors for him to see. I was able to introduce him to a few, but it was a little bit past the time where they could help.

EDGE: You’ve seen more than one great talent leave this earth before their time, whether its Bob Marley or Whitney Houston. That’s got to be tough for you.

RF: It is tough. I think about it especially since Whitney died. I think about it a lot. A couple of days ago I found myself rattling off names of people that I have known and worked with, or knew musically in a very special, intimate way, who are gone. I said, Okay I gotta stop this. You start to feel your own vulnerability.

EDGE: You mentioned “Killing Me Softly,” which went to number one. What do you recall about that?

RF: When “Killing Me Softly” was released as a single I was performing in Germany. My one source of Englishlanguage entertainment was the army base radio station. I had it on and woke up to Well, here it is again, Roberta Flack’s next big single, Killing Me Softly! I remember thinking Oh, boy! But at the end they finished by repeating “…killing me softly with his song” over and over and then fading out. I said “No, that’s not it!” I called the producer and asked, “What did you do?” He said, “Oh I just faded it.” I said, “No! No! No!” He said, “Man, only like a million three hundred fifty thousand of these have been sent out all around the world. Can’t you live with that?” I said, “No.” So they changed it.

EDGE: Let’s fast-forward to your new album. One of the interesting things about the Beatles is that they evolved so rapidly and had such a huge effect on popular music. When you went back and sorted through their catalogue of songs what are the things that made you go Wow?

Atlantic Recording Co./David Redfern

RF: When I was looking at “I’m Looking Through You,” which is the first song we laid down, there is the line Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight. Disappearing overnight. Every time I sing that it makes me almost want to cry, because love does have a nasty habit of vamoosing overnight. You can be ever so intense and sincere and real, then all of the sudden it’s like Who is this person? What am I into? I’m married to who? What and why did I do this? Because the love you thought you identified as love was something else, and wasn’t based on something that could stand all the pressures of being, of becoming, Roberta Flack. I was married to a wonderful bass player who worked with Roland Kirk, the great jazz horn player. Roland thought I was a great musician and he’d say, “Ro, come on, you need to play some jazz girl. Come on.” My husband said to me one day, “You can’t do this, because if you do, you’ll change.” I asked him, “How will I change?” He said, “I don’t know, but women always change.”I told him I wasn’t going to change, that I’d been playing the piano and singing and helping other people play and sing all my life—so this is just another format, another audience. I’m doing it. I want to do it. He said, “If you do, we can’t stay together.” I said, “Okay. Bye. See you later.”

EDGE: You chose your music.

RF: Of course! How could I not? I had no choice. I wasn’t selling my body. I wasn’t prostituting. I wasn’t doing anything except making music, which I had been doing all my life!

EDGE: So back to the Beatles, is what grips you their lyrics?

RF: No, it’s everything.

EDGE: How did you decide which songs to include and which to cut?

RF: It wasn’t easy. I listened to myself and I listened to my heart mostly. I think if you’re a trained musician like I am, or like Alicia Keyes or Stevie Wonder or Donny Hathaway, it helps. You have the ability to see how a song is built from the bottom up. And after you see the song and you fall in love with the song, then you get inside of it and break it down again. It’s an incredible process.

EDGE: Still, the process took five years.

RF: Yes, well the longer I worked on the songs the simpler they became, and the easier it became for me to hear them in their finality. Even though I hadn’t finished them, I could still hear what was going to be the final song. I could hear my voice singing the lyrics and singing the melody and putting it all together, and the accompaniment underneath. I wanted mostly guitars, because I think of the Beatles as guitarists. There were three major players in their band—John, George and Paul—so I wanted it to have that sound.

EDGE: Do you think songwriting and popular music has changed dramatically since the Beatles were around?

RF: It has to. Can you imaging doing the Hand Jive? Can you imagine doing the Charleston? Can you imagine every song sounding like something Billie Holliday had to sing? Weren’t we glad when Esther Phillips came out and sang “What a Difference a Day Makes?” The world must evolve and everything must change, especially music. If it doesn’t, where do we go? I can’t imagine doing all of the Beatles songs the way they did them.

EDGE: I have to ask—you crossed paths fairly often with John Lennon when both of you had apartments in the same building on Central Park West. Were you buddies?

RF: He invited me to the studio, and I did work with him a couple of times on stage and stuff like that, but it was never like buddy-buddy. It wasn’t buddies, no.

EDGE: So what’s next for Roberta Flack?

RF: I really wish I knew what was next. I have an album of songs I’ve done with a group of young people. We all call ourselves the Real Artist Symposium—symposium meaning a group of very musical people. We’ve come up with an album we want to release under the title: Real Artist Symposium featuring Roberta Flack. Not because I want to be featured, but because using my being a member of the group will attract interest and people won’t have to look at something and say What’s RAS? Maybe they’ll be curious enough to check out the music of these other young artists who are with me. I’ve done some of the music already and I am excited about it.  

Editor’s Note: If Tetiana Anderson’s name is familiar, it’s probably because her face and voice are, too. A television reporter who has chased storms for the Weather Channel and covered Operation Iraqi Freedom from Baghdad for MSNBC, Anderson is currently a freelance reporter/ producer for organizations including NY-1, CBS Newspath and CNN. Needless to say, she knows her way around an interview.

Chazz Palminteri

As a performer and storyteller, Chazz Palminteri holds a special place in American popular culture. Coming of age in the Bronx during the 1950s, he was surrounded by the neighborhood characters and themes that would one day populate A Bronx Tale, the beloved one-man show and film that catapulted him to stardom. Palminteri’s creative journey has been marked by artistic, critical and financial successes—both as an actor and writer (and, yes, even as a restaurateur). Yet as EDGE’s Assignments Editor Tracey Smith discovered, as far as Palminteri has come, his comfort zone is still that stoop at 187th and Belmont. All these years later, for an observer of the human condition, it’s still the best seat in the house.

EDGE: The apocryphal story about A Bronx Tale is that you turned down a million dollars for the movie rights because you wanted to write the screenplay and play Sonny yourself. True?

CP: Yes, it is absolutely true that I turned down a million dollars. I wrote Bronx Tale: A One Man Show to showcase myself and show people that I could play eighteen different characters. I wanted to play Sonny. I wanted to write the screenplay. It’s about my life and I didn’t want anybody from Hollywood taking it and doctoring it up, sanitizing it or whitewashing it. I wanted it to be real, you know, and truthful. They felt they couldn’t make a movie without a star. I wanted people to see what I could do. So I just said no.

EDGE: That’s commitment.

CP: Everybody in Hollywood went crazy. The first offer was $250,000, the next offer was $500,000. I just said no. Don’t forget now Tracey, I was running out of money. I was down to my last $200. Actually $187.00 to be exact. I kept saying no and then they said $1,000,000—and I said no again.

EDGE: Enter Robert DeNiro.

CP: Yes, a week later Robert DeNiro walked into the theater and saw it, loved it and came backstage. He told me how much he thought it was great and how great I was, and said, “Look, you’d be great as Sonny. And you should write the screenplay, because it’s about your life. You should be Sonny and it’ll be real and I’ll make it real. You make it with me, I’ll make it come to life, I’ll play Lorenzo, your father, and I’ll direct it and we can be partners. I give you my word.” I shook his hand, and the rest, as they say, is history.

EDGE: You and DeNiro became good friends.

CP: Bob is a really good friend. We’ve been friends for 25 years. We’ve done several films together, and been involved in many projects. He’s the best. He wants everything right, you know, and he doesn’t care how long it takes. He’s a perfectionist, as am I. That’s why we get along so well. We have great chemistry.

EDGE: How would you rate him as a director?

CP: I’ve always said that the reason why A Bronx Tale turned out so good is because I had a great director who wanted to make it “life.” A bad director can spoil a great script, and a good director can make a bad script into a movie. But a great director can make a really good script fly, and that’s what Bob did. I wrote a really good script. Really good. And Robert DeNiro made it fly. He made it real.

EDGE: Which parts of the story were autobiographical?

CP: I would say a good 80 to 85 percent of the movie is autobiographical. It really stems from when I was nine years old sitting on the stoop and I saw this man kill another man right in front of me. Just like they did in the movie, exactly the same. My father came down and grabbed me upstairs, and then the cops came. The reality is I never went down and did a lineup. I just said I didn’t see anything, and that was it. Also befriending the wiseguys when I was a kid, throwing the dice for them, going to get things for them—that’s all true. Also my dad was a bus driver. He worked right off of 187th street. My mother used to be out the window all the time. I fell in love in with a black girl at the age of 17. Some of the guys I knew died in a racial attack with some black youths. The majority is true. But I had to blend it all in the same timeframe.

EDGE: There are a lot of complex themes in A Bronx Tale. What affects people most deeply? What aspect of the story do they identify with the most?

CP: I wanted to talk about the working man and what my dad instilled in me. Yet as good as my father was, he had some qualities that he had to change. And regardless of how much of a bad guy Sonny was, people loved him. They were sad when he died. Taking the best of Sonny and the best of my father and becoming this man who I am today—that’s what resonates most with everybody. Also, I think because it’s not about black and white or good versus evil, people just love the story. They identify with the different characters.

EDGE: Out of curiosity, how does one play 18 characters in a one-man show?

CP: A lot of practice and a lot of rehearsals. But God has given me the gift and somehow I’ve mastered it.

EDGE: What prompted you to write the one-man show?

CP: Desperation. It was desperation. I was doing a lot of small roles and couldn’t break into the higher echelon. I thought, if you won’t give me a great part, I’ll write one myself and show you how good I am. I’ll make my own story, and make you listen to me.

EDGE: Your next role after A Bronx Tale was Cheech in Bullets Over Broadway. You played a mob heavy with a genius for writing dialogue…and were nominated for an Academy Award. Was that character in the original script, or did it evolve after you got the part?

Photo credit: Joan Marcus

CP: Woody Allen always tells people, “When I found Chazz Palminteri, he was born to play the part.” It was written that way. When I first read it I was like “Holy smokes, this is amazing!” I couldn’t get over it.

EDGE: After these two films, how did life change for Chazz Palminteri?

CP: Oh God! More money! Much more money! And more opportunities, oh yeah! I exploded out of the box!

EDGE: Of the 50-plus films you’ve done since then, which ones should I go back and watch again to see you in a really interesting performance?

CP: Okay, let’s see, Hurlyburly is one. A Guide to Recognize Your Saints is one definitely. And I would say Mighty Fine, the one I just did with Andie McDowell, is a great one. Mulholland Falls is another one.

EDGE: You have a recurring role as Shorty on the hit series Modern Family.

CP: Modern Family is a great show, I love the people. They write me in as often as they can and I return. They’re like family, I truly enjoy working with the cast. I play Jay’s longtime best friend. It is just hilarious, a great show.

EDGE: Okay now to the serious stuff. The Yankees. What happened in the playoffs?

CP: Well, you know, they just didn’t win. It’s that simple. We won 97 games during the regular season. I never liked five games as a playoff format. I think everything should be seven games. That’s how you can tell who the best team is.

EDGE: You are playing Babe Ruth in the new movie Henry & Me. How great was that?

CP: That was great. Anything to do with the Yankees is not bad. I have always loved sports. My father used to take me to the games at Yankee Stadium. I loved Mickey Mantle back in those days and collected his baseball cards. I love the Giants, the Rangers.

EDGE: I read that John Franco was one of the producers of Henry & Me. Were you okay working for a Met?

CP: That didn’t bother me. I’m not rooting for his baseball team, but that didn’t bother me at all. John Franco is a very nice guy.

EDGE: So when is the long-awaited Chazz Palminteri autobiography coming out?

CP: I write screenplays and I write plays, but not a book yet. It’s just not time. I get my point of view out in my movies or my plays. My new four-character play, Human, should be out in 2012. I’m very excited about that. Maybe when I have more time and I’m older, I’ll sit down and write a book about my life.

EDGE: You are performing A Bronx Tale at the Mirage in Las Vegas this March. This past summer, you had a nice run in Atlantic City. Having performed this play in various places, have you noticed any regional differences in the way you relate to the audience—or the way they relate to you?

CP: I thought I was going to see that. But it’s the same thing everywhere. No difference from region to region. I can’t explain it. What I find flattering and a little strange, though, is how certain lines from A Bronx Tale have seeped into the dialogue and culture.

EDGE: How so?

CP: Once, I got on a plane, and as soon as the door closed, the pilot said, “Well, ladies and gentlemen, now you’se can’t leave.”

EDGE: Sonny’s line from the scene where the wiseguys lock the door at the bar and work over the bikers!

CP: Right. I laughed. I was like, Wow!

Joe & Gia Mantegna

 

There is no greater joy for a father than seeing his daughter follow him into the family business. Because of the business he’s in, Joe Mantegna is granted the added pleasure of literally watching his daughter, Gia, as she makes a name for herself on stage and screen. Every Hollywood family deals with this dynamic a little differently, of course. Yet as J.M. Stewart discovered during a leisurely meal at Taste of Chicago in Burbank, Joe and Gia handle it particularly well. If you’re one of those people who thinks that acting is an art and parenting is a job, well, this interview may change your mind. For the Mantegnas, it’s clearly the other way around.

EDGE: I would like to start by avoiding the obvious question, which goes something like, ‘Gia, what have you learned about acting from your father…’ (simultaneously)

JM: Everything. (simultaneously)

GM: Nothing. Absolutely nothing.

EDGE: Okay then. Well, in the spirit of avoiding that question, Joe, what have you learned from watching Gia?

JM: Part of what I’ve learned is that what we do is inherent. It’s just there. When I became an actor, I saw the children of actors working and wondered, What’s that about? Would they have even gotten into acting if they weren’t following their parents? I came from a background of no actors, nobody in my family was is show business at all. I thought, This can’t be genetic. It must be one of those things where the kids go, ‘Oh, my dad’s doing it so I’m going to do it.’ But then I’d see Jane and Peter Fonda, and Jeff and Beau Bridges and think, Oh, they’ve got it. As I got more into the business, I started to realize that they’re good because it’s in them. I’ve been around enough actors now to know that you can teach some things, but you’ve either got it or you don’t got it.

EDGE: Like sports.

JM: Right. You can see the kids that have the kind of natural ability they can improve upon. And then there are the kids that, well, it’s not their cup of tea. Gia does have it. I’m not kidding myself because she’s my daughter. I would be the cruelest critic of all if I felt she didn’t have that thing she can build on. I would have told her years ago, ‘I know that you think this is fun and all, but it’s not for you.’ If anything, I have to instill in her not to be like I am, not to be lazy about it.

EDGE: Lazy in what respect?

JM: I found myself thinking, I can do this, I don’t need to work on it that much. I’m not the most driven actor in the world. But I’ve gotten by and made it in spite of that.

EDGE: If you were more driven, how do you think it would have affected your career?

JM: Maybe things would have happened sooner if I had focused more attention on it. Maybe not. I don’t know. But it wasn’t me. I’ve seen other actors do that. Every day they devote twenty-four hours to How can I succeed? I was, like, If it happens, it happens. I never pushed myself to where it infringed on my life, to where I really had to sacrifice something. I enjoyed it, I wanted it to be fun. That’s my approach to a lot of things. I didn’t think, Oh my God, if I don’t make it I’ll die! I was, like, If things don’t work out, I’ll become a forest ranger.

GM: A forest ranger? Really?

JM: In reality, I probably would have been a photographer.

EDGE: Gia, what percentage of your father’s work have you seen?

GM: Five percent. I’ve seen very little because most of it was released when I was too young to watch, or it was R rated. Half the films he dies in and I was too frightened to watch. I remember flipping through the channels watching a movie, and I saw my dad walking down the street with a bouquet of flowers. I went, Yes! Dad’s on TV in something I can watch, this is so cool! A couple of minutes pass and he’s shot down with a machine gun. It affected me much more than I thought it would. I remember seeing Baby’s Day Out when I was four. We thought, Finally he did a movie that the family could watch. We’re sitting on the bed, my sister’s right next to me, and here comes the scene when the baby’s in his pants, lighting his crotch on fire.

JM: Yeah, we’re thinking it’s a great family movie. But I get beaten up by gorillas and blown up. It was a horror film to them.

GM: It was awful. I remember running out of the room crying. And dad’s hitting his face, saying, ‘Look it’s me, I’m okay. I’m here.’ So I never really sat down and watched my dad’s movies, because he was probably going to get the crap kicked out of him.

EDGE: Even now?

GM: Well, I watch Criminal Minds. But I can’t really watch it alone because it’s such a terrifying show.

EDGE: Joe, Gia has been in a couple of movies where she’s strung up and begging for her life—

GM: Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I guess.

EDGE: Joe, do you have the same reaction?

JM: I know the process. I’m totally familiar with it. I can disassociate. It’s disturbing, but I know what’s going on.

GM: My mom sometimes has to leave when she’s on set during those kinds of chilling scenes. She freaks out.

JM: In his book, David Mamet writes about a memorable directorial moment during House of Games. He was shooting the scene at the end when I get shot. It’s a night shoot, we’re up at Sea-Tac Airport. My wife is watching on the monitor sitting next to Dave. I get shot, and she starts crying.

GM: I never knew that.

JM: Dave was like, Wow, this is wild. She’s into it. She’s crying. She’s totally in the scene. He remembered it and put it in his book. I didn’t know about it—I was doing the scene. So, I understand that anyone can get caught up in the moment.

GM: I saw Three Amigos last night. It was pretty hilarious. I didn’t even know you were in that until I turned it on, and there you were. If I’m ever watching something that you’re in, it’s probably coincidental.

EDGE: Have you had a moment watching your father where you said, ‘Wow, that was really good?’

GM: I’m not going to lie to you. It’s very hard to watch anyone I know in a movie or on TV and be objective, or even remove myself from thinking of the technicality of the scene. I’m always thinking, How did they do that in one shot? Was there a problem with the continuity? Why did the actor make those particular choices? I’m young. I’m still learning. I’m trying to figure it out, break it down. If I analyzed everything he did, I’d drive myself crazy.

EDGE: Joe, have you ever seen Gia’s work and gone, “Wow, that was impressive?”

JM: The time I saw her in Annie. There were open auditions and my older daughter, Mia, who is autistic, was also trying out for it. They came home and said, ‘We both got in!’ My wife and I were really excited, but I have to admit that we were mostly excited about Mia, because she was going to be cast in a play. It was a big deal. I thought they both would have been cast in the chorus. We asked, ‘Who are you going to be?’ Mia says, ‘I’m going to be Pepper.’ Great! I said, ‘Gia what are you doing?’ She says, ‘I’m Annie.’ I didn’t even know she sang!

EDGE: How old were you?

GM: I was really young. We had to lie about my age. I was turning the minimum age you had to be, but I wasn’t there yet. I was ten.

JM: That’s when I first knew she had it. Based on her age and everything, you could tell. I sent the tape of the show to my old drama teacher and he said, “It was like seeing you again, Joe, when you were starting.’

EDGE: Will we hear you sing again, in a movie or on stage?

GM: Oh, no.

JM: You should. You really should.

GM: My mom thought that I was going to be a singer. But I was always terrified of the music industry because I felt like there was so much competition, and you had to pick your style and stick with it. Every five minutes I’d be changing my genre. Acting was just something that was a little more natural for me. Maybe in the future I’ll sing. My mom and dad would like that.

JM: That’s one thing I think you should really do, musical comedy. You have the talent. Why not just give it a shot? That’s what I thought I was going to end up doing, because I did so much of it when I started out. I did Hair. I did Godspell. It didn’t work out that way, but you never know.

EDGE: When did you do Hair?

JM: In 1969. It was the first professional play I did. I was naked on stage every night.

EDGE: What did your mom think of that?

JM: She came opening night. The other actors were not keen on having their parents there, so they asked me, ‘Is she cool?’ I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, she’ll get it.’ And after the play my mother comes backstage and says, ‘You look good up there naked…some of these other kids look out of shape.’ The cast couldn’t believe it. But that’s my mother. It’s all a mystery to her.

EDGE: How so?

JM: My mother just turned ninety-six and I’m still not positive she knows what I do. I asked my brother, who is eight years older than me, ‘You know all the times I was pursuing acting in high school, in junior college, and professionally, and banging around Chicago…my parents never said one word about it to me, did they say anything to you?’ He said, ‘Yeah, one time they pulled me aside and asked, What’s with your brother and this acting? Should we say something? Should we stop him?’ They were looking to him for advice. Luckily, my brother in his wisdom said, no, just leave him alone. It’s not dangerous, and if it doesn’t work out he’ll move on to something else. I think they were relieved. It’s like the sex education talk my father never gave me. I was seventeen and he came up to me and said, ‘Listen, we need to talk about sex.’ I said, ‘No… we don’t.’ He was like, Okay. Being Sicilian he was quiet anyway, but it was another burden off his shoulders.

EDGE: In the film Uncle Nino you worked together as father and daughter. Was it totally natural, or totally nervewracking?

JM: I thought it was totally natural.

GM: I thought that situation was great because it gave me the opportunity to experience a set for the first time with my dad helping me through it.

JM: It was a perfect film for her to start with. It was a feelgood movie. Bob Shellcross wrote and directed it. I loved the guy.

GM: Yeah, it was like a family.

EDGE: Gia, where would you like to be five years from now as an actress?

GM: I hope that I am doing something that makes me happy, and I hope that I can continue to stay with the choices I make for myself instead of being told what to do. At my age it’s very easy to be typecast in a certain way, and I’ve been so scared of that. I have friends who are working every day, making money, supporting themselves, but they’re not happy. I’d rather be making five amazing, little independent films, playing lots of different characters, doing something fun, instead of doing one role that you can’t break out of.

JM: She doesn’t want to be a Disney kid.

GM: Okay, dad, I didn’t want to say that.

JM: I don’t mean specifically. I mean generally. You’re put in a bag in a cookie-cutter kind of way. That’s all I’m saying.

EDGE: Okay, so here’s the big Joe Mantegna’s daughter question—

GM: O-M-G! Bring it.

EDGE: Which question about your dad are you most tired of answering?

JM: Why is he so good looking.

GM: Yeah, that one. You know I actually creep on my dad’s IMDB sometimes, and people say things like Joe Mantegna is SO hot.

JM: I better check that out.

GM: So disturbing.

Editors Note: Gia Mantegna is 21. She played Vanessa on the series Gigantic and has a lead role in the featured film Leashed, which will be released in 2012. Joe Mantegna is the star of the CBS hit Criminal Minds. He will play Bugsy Siegel in the 2012 film Kill Me, Deadly. J.M. Stewart is a freelance writer who lives north of Los Angeles. As the waiters were clearing their table, Gia said that it was nice to “sit down with my dad and talk. We don’t do that that much. We just have dinner and that’s it. Thank you.”

School Daze

Beyond the Traditional

      

Gloria Gaynor

  Her first Top 10 hit examined how hard it is to leave the man you love. Her signature song a few years later celebrated the act of booting him to the curb. GLORIA GAYNOR is all about adapting, evolving and celebrating life’s triumphs, big and small. From her teen years in Newark as an aspiring entertainer to her ascent to Disco Diva, she has not only survived, she has thrived. As EDGE Assignments Editor ZACK BURGESS discovered, Gaynor has learned a thing or two about herself and others along the way. Still going strong more than four decades after first taking the stage, she is not an easy woman to slow down—even when examining her remarkable achievements and indelible music legacy.

EDGE: You have quite a résumé in Soul, Gospel and R&B. Yet most people associate you with Disco. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

GG: It’s kind of a double-edged sword. People who like disco music and associate me with it, I think that’s great. But when people who like other genres don’t associate me with those genres, well that’s not a good thing. EDGE: As disco faded in the 1980s, did that affect your career?

GG: Yes, it did. I received fewer calls from the United States to perform.

EDGE: During this time did you find yourself drawing strength from the lyrics of I Will Survive? Did you do what you had to in order to survive?

GG: Oh, absolutely. On a number of occasions. I had to shift my career during this time, mostly to Europe, and also the Middle East, the Far East and South America.

EDGE: You just received the Golden Camera award for Lifetime Achievement in Germany. How much performing do you actually do in Europe during a typical year?

GG: I do a lot of performing in Europe. Probably 30 to 40 shows a year.

EDGE: Does your fan base differ overseas compared to the U.S.?

GG: Not a lot. My audience is 8 to 80 all over the world.

EDGE: Eventually, people came to see the classic disco songs as celebrations of an era of fun and innocence. Did you sense that change?

GG: Yes, I did. Throughout my career I consciously tried to sing about things that gave people hope and encouragement, to uplift them. Not a lot of other artists were doing that. I think people became nostalgic for the old songs.

EDGE: I Will Survive has become an anthem for female empowerment. It’s really taken on a life of its own. When Freddie Perrin and Dino Fekaris brought that song to you, did you sense that it was something more than just a potential hit? GG: Oh, yeah. Immediately. Even before I heard the melody of the song, I knew that it was a timeless lyric that people would be able to relate to throughout their lives. They had asked me what kind of lyrics and subjects did I want to sing about. When they heard that I liked to sing things that are powerful and touch people where they live, they said, “We believe you’re the kind of person that we’ve been looking for to sing this song.”

EDGE: Perrin wrote your first big hit, Never Can Say Goodbye, for the Jackson 5. You recorded it as part of an extended play dance record in 1974—which was really unusual at that time. Who made that decision?

GG: It was kind of a collaboration between me and the producer and the mixologist. Because I’m a dancer—I love dancing—the three and a half minutes of songs that played on the radio were never long enough for me. So the idea of having songs stretched out and strung together so that you would have a good 16, 17 minutes to dance was great for me. Plus, I thought about those DJ’s sitting in that little cubicle playing records and getting claustrophobic. I figured there were times when they just may need to get out of there…and every time they did, they could pull up my record!

EDGE: Very smart. A couple of years later, of course, everyone was doing EPs for clubs. Are you proud to think of yourself as a music pioneer?

GG: Absolutely. Oh yeah. I spearheaded disco along with Barry White—we’re in The World Book Encyclopedia for what we’ve done. I also think that we spearheaded the mixing that DJ’s do today, when it comes to stringing music together. EDGE: Let’s turn back the clock now. Growing up in Newark, trying to break into the business, an important person in your early career was Johnny [I Can See Clearly Now] Nash.

GG: He was. My real name is Gloria Fowles. Johnny was like, “You know what? That is really not a stage name. You need to change it.” I agreed. He suggested I change it to a last name starting with G. He thought my fans would call me “GG,” which would endear me to them even more. He said Gaynor. I said Good. The first name that popped out of his mouth is the one that I chose.

EDGE: I read that you toured with The Cowsills in the 1960s. Seriously? I’m having a hard time picturing that.

GG: (Laughing) Well it was Johnny Nash’s label and he had a number of acts on there. The Cowsills, Johnnie Nash and I all toured together and it was great. We got multi-racial audiences. I still get multi-racial audiences. I suppose it started back then.

EDGE: Talk about Cleave Nickerson and your time with the Soul Satisfiers in the 1960s. That was your baptism by fire in the music business. How did touring with that group prepare you for what would come later?

GG: That prepared me for my career in a way most young entertainers don’t experience today. I went to the Midwest with Cleave Nickerson, the bandleader, for “two weeks” in January. We got back in December! During that time I honed my craft. I learned how to relate to an audience, how to work the stage. I learned how to handle a microphone. I learned how to dress. I learned how to put on a show even when there was no one on the stage but me. This is something young people don’t get today. One day they have a hit. Next day they’re on stage with no preparation whatsoever—and they are lost.

EDGE: You were finally “discovered” working at one of those Go-Go clubs off Times Square. Was that a case of it’s darkest before the dawn? Or did you feel that working in the city—anywhere in the city—put you in front of the right people to further your career?

GG: It was both. I had a few gigs sprinkled here and there when I took a job at the Wagon Wheel on 45th Street in Manhattan. The club owner saw me and asked if I would work with a band called The Radio, which played there. They did Top 40 music. I told him that I would think about it. My sister was working there as the hat-check girl and she said, “You know, Gloria, if you’re going to be stationary anywhere, this is the place to be. Producers from all over New York come into this club. You can be seen and heard here.” And sure enough, I took the job and that’s what happened. I was discovered by Paul Leka of Columbia Records, and that’s how I got my first recording.

EDGE: The theme of this issue is Driven to Win. How much of your breakthrough in the early 1970s do you chalk up to talent…and how much do you feel was due to your drive to succeed as an entertainer?

GG: I think it probably was an even combination of the two. But the drive was not for success. I was driven by my love for singing and performing. And, of course, my talent allowed me to do that. So I think that it was 50–50 between drive and talent.

EDGE: Now a lot of your drive has to do with charity work, particularly in health-related areas. Your association with the word “Survive” makes you appealing to these organizations… but what makes this type of work appealing to you?

GG: I’m studying psychology at the moment, and I’ve learned that I’m at that age when you feel it in your heart that it’s time to start giving back. So that’s what I do. I really enjoy it. It adds meaning and purpose to my life. Even when I perform, I’m trying to give people something beyond the duration of the concert. So I’m doing that in the community—trying to help, trying to be of service to people to help them have better, longer lives. And teach them to do the same when they come to a place where they can give back, too.

Fire and Ice

Danica McKellar

In the television and publishing industries, you often hear the expression, “It’s a numbers game.” Perhaps that explains how DANICA McKELLAR found success in both. As Winnie Cooper on The Wonder Years, she captured the hearts and minds of a generation of viewers, and had one of the most-recognized faces in America. More recently, McKellar has connected with an entirely new generation of young people—this time as an author whose captivating and empowering books on math have made the New York Times Best Seller List. In 2010, McKellar turned her attention toward multiplication, as she welcomed her first child into the world. EDGE Assignments Editor Zack Burgess caught Danica at home in California between books and, it turns out, between feedings.

EDGE: You are a new mom, a working actress and a best-selling author. Are your math skills finally being tested when it comes to dividing your time?

DM: (Laughing) I’m not sure if the skill that’s being tested now has ever been in a category of my life before: Sleep Deprivation. There’s not a lot of math that has come into being a mother yet, but I’m sure that there will be. One other thing, I’m breastfeeding— so there is no formula, no bottles, no calculation of how many ounces and how often. There’s just breastfeeding on demand, the most non-mathematical way to go.

EDGE: There are a lot of interesting ways to go with the math degree you earned at UCLA. What were some of the options you considered?

DM: I actually considered very strongly becoming a professor of mathematics. But I missed acting. I missed entertainment. So for me to be able to write entertaining math books, to combine the two things that I love, is perfect.

EDGE: How did the math books come about?

DM: After I graduated, I went back to acting. I was on The West Wing and doing some other things. Because I missed math and didn’t want to abandon it, I started a math advice column in which I answered people’s math questions. After I finished The West Wing, there was an article about me in the Science section of The New York Times. From that article came an offer to write a math book. I realized that I had been preparing to write this book for a long time without knowing it—first, by being a math major and, second, by writing the column.

EDGE: Your first book, Math Doesn’t Suck, was written with teenage girls in mind. You actually spoke before Congress about the importance of women in mathematics.

DM: Yes, and that’s when I knew the kind of math book I wanted to write. The middle school years are the most crucial for girls and math. It’s a time when they decide they’re not good at math because of social pressures and stereotypes. It’s a confidence issue. Middle school is a time in a girl’s life when she starts asking herself questions like, Who am I? It’s a vulnerable time in terms of self-image.

EDGE: That was the first of three titles. Next came Kiss My Math and Hot X: Algebra Exposed.

DM: I had no Idea I was going to be writing more than one book. I thought the first wasn’t going to do well; I just wanted to help some people. So for it to take off the way that it did was crazy. To be named ABC’s “Person of the Week” and to have two books become New York Times best sellers, it was amazing.

EDGE: What distinguishes the approach of your books from, say, the type of teaching students would receive in a classroom environment?

DM: It’s completely different. First, the math books look like teen magazines and the tone is extremely conversational. It’s like we’re getting together, girl-to-girl. I tell funny stories and make little analogies to help them remember things. The books work for boys, too. I get letters from boys who say, “Hey, the books are kind of girlie, but now I know how to solve for X, so thanks.”

EDGE: How crucial is the role of the teacher in terms of fostering a love of math rather than a fear of math?

DM: The way the math is presented makes all the difference. If a teacher in any subject is fun and friendly, that’s how the material is going to appear. If you have a teacher who doesn’t like math and was just thrown into that position— which happens all of the time, because it’s not the most popular subject—then you end up with kids who are confused and scared. When I was in seventh grade I had that experience. We asked questions and didn’t get good answers. I thought it was me, that I was stupid. But another teacher came in midway through the year. She was fun, friendly and just exceptional. The vibe was so different. I started to understand the math and, as I relaxed more, things made sense. That showed me just how much presentation matters. When I write the books I keep that in mind.

EDGE: Do you imagine you’re writing for yourself at that age?

DM: I do. I try to bring math into that world. I have all my journals from that time, so what I do is read sections to give me perspective of who I am writing for. I can look back and say, “I remember what that felt like.” So I talk about issues that girls are already thinking about, like popularity. I weave the math into their lives so that they can remember the math concept based on these fun stories and topics. That’s what I would have wanted at that age.

EDGE: What is the message beyond the math you try to get through?

DM: Girls are seeing negative stereotypes and getting a message from every conceivable media source—especially reality TV—that it’s okay to be slutty and ditzy in order to be attractive. This message keeps getting through again and again, and it’s so disturbing to me. Girls think if they’re too smart then they won’t be attractive. Or if they’re attractive that they can’t be smart. My message is that you can be anything you want to be, and the smarter and stronger you are by challenging yourself with math, the more fabulous you’ll be—and the better decisions you’ll make—in anything that you do.

EDGE: Did you get to spend much time in the classroom as a young actress?

DM: The Wonder Years started when I was in the seventh grade. The show was filmed, so any day that I actually wasn’t in a scene I went to my regular school. On average, I was on the set one or two days a week. It wasn’t until the very last season that they decided to put Winnie Cooper in way more of the episodes. My last year I was out of the classroom more than half the time. We had great tutors on the set. The producers did not skimp on that, which I am more than grateful for. In my senior year, when I was on the set all of the time, I had a dedicated calculus tutor because my class had surpassed what the regular tutor could do.

EDGE: What were the positive aspects of balancing schoolwork and acting?

DM: During The Wonder Years I learned how to compartmentalize. “Okay,” I’d say, “for these twenty minutes I’m working on this math test and for the next two hours I’m doing this emotional scene. Now I’m going to go back and finish that math test.” Having to switch gears like that really trained me to have a dual career in both entertainment and as a writer now.

EDGE: Is it fun to hear “Winnie Cooper was my first crush” or is it just creepy and annoying?

DM: It’s flattering. The show was so loved by so many people. And there are a lot worse things to be recognized for! People tell me all the time how they watched the show together as a family. Now most of the kids reading my books don’t know The Wonder Years—they know me as “That girl from the math books.” I love it! I actually like to tell stories from The Wonder Years in my books. It’s an opportunity to show how someone can lead what you think is a glamorous life and still make really smart choices. You can study and be a responsible person who is happy in life because you made smart choices.

EDGE: You went into UCLA with the ambition of being a filmmaker, and came out with a math degree. What brought that change of course?

DM: My parents were a great influence and they sent me off right, but I still went through a lot of those insecurities that you go through when you’ve been on television and you’re still recognized for one thing. You’re a kid, and you are taught that that’s who you are, and you’re like, “Wow! Is that my whole self-value, my self-worth? What else would I be valued for if I didn’t have that?” Well, in college, I discovered that math could give that to me. I felt smart, I felt capable and it had nothing to do with Hollywood. I thought, I know I was going to be a film major, but I’m going to be a math major. I like this and to heck with it—I’m going to do this. I don’t how or why this is going to help my life, but I want to do something that makes me really feel good about myself.

EDGE: The theme of this issue is Childish Things. Have you put away Winnie Cooper, or will that character always play a part in your life?

DM: The answer to both questions is Yes. Because people remember The Wonder Years, it is still a part of my life. However, I have moved on—meaning, I don’t identify with it anymore. In large part because of being a math major and writing the books, I have a new self-reference point. Something I identify with. In the halls of UCLA, where I became a calculus tutor, I went from “That girl on TV” to “That girl who helped me pass calculus.” The math really helped me leave behind the childish things and move forward.

EDGE: And as you look forward, would you say your dream job is in the entertainment industry or in the world of education?

DM: I don’t know. I love them both. It’s as if I had two kids and you asked which one I loved more? I love being able to do both. I guess if I had to choose, I would have to say writing math books. It feels like this is what I was put on this planet to do. I feel like I’m making a big difference. EDGE