Persistently setting out to prove how diverse your range, personality and abilities are can be a daunting task, whether you’re trying to prove that your professional talents are unique, or you want to move past personal and cultural stereotypes. Taking the first steps to show that adaptability can be challenging because people are often unwilling to change their minds and see you for who you truly are. That harrowing process of bravely demonstrating your real skills to the world is grippingly showcased in writer-director Christopher Kublan’s new comedy, ‘Friends and Romans,’ which is now playing in a limited theatrical release nationwide.
‘Friends and Romans’ follows Nick DeMaio (Rispoli), an aspiring actor who’s perpetually typecast as “Gangster # 3” in films about the Mob. In an attempt to be taken seriously, he and his Staten Island buddies decide to stage a play—and not just any play, but Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’-with Nick as the star. He receives support to branch out from only working as an extra, and produce and star in the play, from his wife, Angela (Annabella Sciorra). But their teenage daughter, Gina (Katie Stevens), who’s determined to follow in her father’s acting footsteps and land the lead role in her high school play, has become embarrassed by his antics.
But Nick decides to relentlessly pursue his goal of expanding his acting roles and abilities. So he and his friends, including the play’s director, Dennis Socio (Paul Ben-Victor), gather to rehearse at odd hours between their other jobs. Their rehearsals attract the attention of the Feds, who assume the play is a cover for criminal activity. Once again typecast as a gangster, only this time in real life, Nick has to prove himself, both onstage and off.
Kublan generously took the time recently to talk about co-writing and directing ‘Friends and Romans’ during an exclusive phone interview. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he was drawn to co-pen the script with Rispoli and Gregg Greenberg because they all wanted to showcase the truth about the contemporary Italian-American experience, and not feed into the stereotypes Italian-Americans are often faced with in films and on television; and how when he helms films of any genre, he always follows his initial thoughts and instincts from when he first arrived on the set, especially when he works with the actors, as they all have to embrace the project’s reality.
ShockYa (SY): You co-wrote the script for the new comedy, ‘Friends and Romans,’ with Gregg Greenberg and Michael Rispoli. How did you all decide to co-write a script about a group of lifelong mob movie extras who put on a production of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar’ in their local Staten Island theater? What was you collaboration process like with Gregg and Michael once you began writing?
Christopher Kublan (CK): It was honestly the best collaborative experience that I’ve had in my career. Working with an actor who’s as amazing and experienced as Michael Rispoli, and an actress as truthful as Annabella Sciorra, upped my game quite a bit. You have to do that when you’re working with actors of that caliber.
During the development process, there was a lot of focus on finding the truth of the contemporary Italian-American experience. We didn’t want to just concentrate on the way people perceive it through movies and television.
SY: Besides co-scribing the script for the movie, you also served as its director, much like the first two films you wrote and helmed, ‘Some Other Time’ and ‘Giving It Up.’ How does writing the script influence the way you approach directing once you start filming?
CK: Well, when you take the page, which is flat, both figuratively and literally, and bring it up into the three-dimensional realm, there are problems. A screenplay isn’t written to be just be read; it’s written to be interpreted, and brought to life, by a group of people.
My approach to directing, with comedy or any genre, has always followed the thought that when you arrive on the set, the script is a guideline. You’re looking for nuggets of truth in reality, and you really have to embrace that reality. My process of working with the actors to make the film real was a process of further exploration.
SY: Besides co-writing the script with you, Michael also led the diverse cast in ‘Friends and Romans.’ Why did you decide that Michael would also play the film’s lead character, Nick DeMaio?
CK: From the day I started working on the script, I wanted Michael to play Nick. I was familiar with his work, and my casting director (Caroline Sinclair) knew him. When we met, there wasn’t any pressure at all, other than the fact that we both have a very high parameter in character and story.
So we agreed that we would make sure the script accurately represented the Italian-American experience. We also worked to make sure the character arcs were truthful and satisfying.
SY: Besides Michael, the comedy also features multiple actors from ‘The Sopranos’ and ‘Goodfellas’ casts, including Annabella Sciorra, Tony Darrow, Anthony DeSando and Tony Sirico, as well as Paul Ben-Victor and Katie Stevens. What was the casting process like for the supporting actors?
CK: It was a very interesting process. A lot of the actors have previously worked together, so it could have felt as though I was being dropped into the lion’s den. But it wasn’t like that at all.
The atmosphere that I aimed to create on set is familial, particularly with comedies. I want everyone to be as relaxed and as free as possible, so that they can explore these characters. I create that atmosphere as much as I can on a low-budget film, so that everyone feels comfortable and open enough to contribute their ideas.
SY: While many of the actors knew each other before you began filming ‘Friends and Romans,’ once were cast in their roles in the movie, did you have rehearsals with them? Did you work with them to build their working relationships, as well as their characters’ bonds and arcs?
CK: Well, I think the process of making the film is the bonding process. But none of the actors had worked together in years, and as intensely as this film required. They all knew each other from being on the same shows, but they were rarely in the same episode, or in the same scene in a film, at the same time. So a lot of them knew of each other, or knew each other from the audition process.
Michael and Annabella, for example, knew each other well and were friendly, but had never been in a film together before. So it was important that I created an atmosphere where they, as well as the rest of the cast, could feel as though they could trust me to accurately depict, and celebrate, the Italian-American experience.
SY: Speaking of improvising, since the movie is a comedy, did you encourage the cast to add their own take on their characters while you were filming?
CK: Yes, definitely. When there were jokes in the script that weren’t working, I would encourage the actors to improvise something. When you have a good script and a good cast, and a director who’s willing to try different things, than the improvs tend to work. Everyone’s working to achieve the same end goal, and what we’re trying to achieve.
There was a very real element to the film, as the actors have had the experience of being typecast in real life. They have been on movie sets where they were just asked to stand around and look authentic. They’ve had the experience of being dismissed by directors and producers as not being actors, but just set dressings.
So they were able to bring those experiences to our exploration of the script, so that we could find the truth. The truth of it is that this can be thankless work. But there’s proximity to the excitement and glamour of filmmaking that keeps them going, even when they’re not getting much work.
There aren’t a lot of Mafia films being made now, so they have graduated to other areas of film. So they become good actors by seeing how hard the other actors they collaborate with study and work on their craft.
SY: ‘Friends and Romans’ follows Michael’s character, Nick DeMaio, an aspiring actor who’s continuously typecast as “Gangster # 3” in films about the Mob, despite his In an attempt to be taken seriously. While the movie takes a comedic approach, why did you feel it was important to showcasing the issue of persistently pursuing your dreams, despite being met with stereotypes?
CK: Well, the process was tricky. Stereotypes come about because there’s some truth to them. But they’re only true for a time. So it was a challenge of finding the balance between what was legitimately funny in the stereotypes, and what’s prejudiced and offensive. I relied on my own instincts and understanding of Italian-American culture, as well as my actors’ knowledge of it.
SY: Besides the comedy focusing on Nick trying to be cast in larger speaking roles, it also chronicles his strong family relationships with his wife, Angela, who’s played by Annabella, and their teenage daughter, Gina, who’s portrayed by Katie. Why was showcasing their close bonds also important to you, as both the writer and director?
CK: To me, that was an essential part of the film, as it tells you how you should feel. Everyone can relate to the love between a father and his daughter, a husband and wife and also the family of friends.
I come from a very close-knit family, both on the Italian and Jewish side. Interesting enough, our co-writer, Gregg, also has a close-knit family. Both Italians and Jews have a very long tradition, especially in America, of having close-knit family relationships. So I was able to bring the experience of that from my own life to the script.
So the most important thing that has to happen on this film is to make the audience relate to the family. If there aren’t ups and downs, than you aren’t rooting for them. The important thing for this family was to reestablish the familial bond that was already there. The whole plot of Nick proving to his daughter that he’s worthy of her admiration again was the most important aspect of the film to me. Everything else was secondary to making sure that they were a real family.
Written by: Karen Benardello