Annie Baker Cleans Up Off-Broadway With Her New Play, ‘The Flick’

On Broadway, there are superheroes flying above an audience, a handful of actors singing while pushing around a bright red pick-up truck, and the familiar chandelier crashing onto an opera house stage (although it seems to drop a lot slower than it did when The Phantom of the Opera premiered twenty-five years ago.) Meanwhile, at a smaller theater just blocks from those large theaters, is Playwrights Horizons where Annie Baker’s play The Flick is showing to much smaller crowds who are not witnessing the distracting spectacle of a big-budget musical, but rather a small-scale examination into human behavior featuring characters resembling people who would pass by the small theater unnoticed on Forty-Second Street. And it involves a lot of cleaning.

“You sit in a movie theater for two hours and watch a past-tense, recorded version of reality on screen,” Baker says to me over coffee at Kos Kaffe in Park Slope, where she lives, a few days before The Flick’s opening night. “When the movie is over, these real people come out and start to clean up. It’s like an act of theater that takes place after a movie ends: the dance of cleaning, of going up and down the rows.”

The Flick follows three employees of a run-down movie theater in Boston—Avery, Sam, and Rose—as they clean and mingle following the projection of second-run movies. The Flick is representative of a dying breed of theaters—that small town, one-screen movie house, the kind that doesn’t accept credit cards and still projects actual film rather than an updated digital projector. The specifics give an added weight to the characters on stage; they aren’t the typical anonymous multiplex employees. They are instead three of the most realistic, fully formed characters you’ll find in contemporary theater, thanks in part to Baker’s meticulous ear for dialogue and pitch-perfect eye for how people work, love, and live with each other.

But it’s the set that is perhaps the most striking part of The Flick: the audience, separated by the invisible movie screen at the foot of the stage, faces rows of empty theater seats. It’s down those rows that Avery and Sam silently make their rounds—sweeping up popcorn, picking up soda cups, finding the occasional shoe—pausing often to make conversation about the state of American film (Avery insists that Pulp Fiction is the last great American movie, an argument Sam tries to negate by submitting various titles released in the last decade as great works of art) or to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, as their common interest does not extend much further than their jobs. It’s the details of the seemingly mundane that first prompted Baker to write The Flick: to examine what happens after the audience leaves and the play continues.

“I was interested in exploring the phenomenological difference between theater and film by literally making the fourth wall a movie screen,” Baker says, revealing the idea for the set was what inspired her to write a play that takes place in a movie theater. The setting also allowed Baker to delve into the near-universal cultural experience of movie watching. “You can meet people who don’t read books, look at paintings, or listen to music, but everyone has seen movies,” she continues. “All of our personalities and love stories and friendships and careers are shaped by movies. Our personal narratives are determined by the movies we watched as kids, which is beautiful and also a little, well, fucked up.”

the flick
Photo by Joan Marcus

The twenty-year-old Avery, who is taking time off from college following family and personal troubles, most embodies this sentiment. His encyclopedic knowledge of movie trivia seems to rule his life, and his view of film as an art form sets him apart from the other two characters, who appreciate commercial films like Avatar as much as the supposed serious films like the work of Paul Thomas Anderson. His snobbery even makes himself weary; in one scene, Avery sits alone in the darkened theater, telling an anonymous friend over the phone about a dream in which he must pick one movie to sum up his life as he enters Heaven. He is disappointed that the film he picks for himself is the 1992 comedy Honeymoon in Vegas.

Despite the satirical take on taste, Baker takes a glance at how film dictates our actions and behaviors. Movies are seen as a comfort, Baker insists, on account of their universal acceptance. Baker herself knows this first-hand. “I was a crazy movie buff as a teenager, and in my twenties I felt like I had fallen out of love with movies,” she says. “I was an unhappy teenager, and movies can really feel like this balm when you’re unhappy and lonely in a small town.” She insists that her disillusion with film did not follow a specific, triggering moment; rather, it happened naturally. “When I moved to New York and became a grown-up, I didn’t need them anymore. But I was interested in getting back to my first love when I was writing The Flick.”

Not only did Baker return to her first love for inspiration, she may have dug up some of those unhappy emotions from her adolescence when developing her characters. Avery, Sam, and Rose all exhibit an active disappointment with the menial day-to-day aspects of their lives. Avery complains that everyone seems to act like a stereotype of what they think they are supposed to be. Rose, who is aggressive in both her personality and her looks (she dyes her hair green and exclusively wears loose-hanging black shirts and t-shirts), admits, “I’m afraid that something is wrong with me and I’ll never know what it is.” Sam, a portly, awkward thirty-something, is slow to reveal details about his personal life—a mentally handicapped brother who is able to find a partner while Sam harbors an unrequited crush on Rose—and struggles to achieve his goal to move up in his position to work the projector at the theater. Baker’s characters, in The Flick as well as her earlier plays, Body Awareness and Circle Mirror Transformation, express a specific discomfort with themselves and their surroundings. One would expect Baker to be awkward and quiet herself.

That’s not the case. With a thin frame and long, blonde hair and bangs framing her round face, Baker gives off the illusion that she is much taller than she is. Her presence as an artist is immediate, even from photographs—she has the tendency to give just the hint of a smile, seemingly effortlessly, so much so that it resembles at first glance a frown. But after sitting down and talking with her, it’s clear that the hyper-intellectual façade isn’t accurate; she is soft-spoken, friendly, inquisitive, and talkative. She seems almost the opposite of her characters—she is self-assured and confident. But she is willing to admit, despite the critical acclaim she has achieved in her very brief career, that she is “a lazy writer,” someone who cannot successfully knock out several plays in a year. (She spent three years writing The Flick.)

She also knows her work will not receive universal acclaim, thanks in part to the preview period for The Flick. “There have been extreme responses,” she tells me. “On some nights, there are people laughing possibly too hard, and on other nights there’s a lot of silence during the first act and people leaving at intermission. People have told me they don’t want to watch a three-hour play about people cleaning.” Despite the varied response, the subject matter is still what Baker wants to explore. “I approach my plays with the intention of drawing attention to people, places, and phenomena that are a part of people’s lives,” she tells me, “like the guys who clean up after us at movies. I want to make people think about them for a few hours. I just want people to notice.” Luckily, audiences are paying attention. If Annie Baker’s early success is any indication, they will be noticing for years to come.

Annie Baker portrait by Zack DeZon.

Follow Tyler Coates on Twitter.

South Africa Gets the Blues with ‘Avatar’ Nightclub

Well, color us a Na’vi shade of bright blue: there is now an Avatar-themed nightclub opening in Rivonia, South Africa’s version of Sin City.

Cleverly named “Avastar” by club owner-slash-wannabe-mobster Mike Basson, the club features luminescent wallpaper of nearly naked Na’vi, imitation tree-of-life optic fiber chandeliers and, of course, Avatar-themed drinks. A Neytiri-tini on the rocks, anyone?

And it gets classier: the club’s opening was heralded by none other than the David Hasselhoff himself. Oh Hoff, when will you ever learn that Pandora Patrón and cheeseburgers just don’t mix? It’s a wonder the club hasn’t been slapped with a lawsuit-happy James Cameron yet, considering all Basson really did to change the look of his club’s logo was to make the pupil of the Na’vi eye a star-shape.

All aboard the PleasureKraft! After all, what happens in Avastar stays in Avastar!

Kim Kardashian Is Actually A Really Nice Person And Served Thanksgiving To The Homeless This Year

Kim Kardashian – she of the butt and the marriage – served Thanksgiving dinner to the homeless community at the Los Angeles Mission on Wednesday night because she is a nice person and not the cartoon we all make her out to be the other 99% of the time. There, are you happy (Kim’s publicist)? 

The 31 year-old reality star was joined by Avatar actress Zoe Saldana. Saldana recently broke up with her boyfriend of 11 years; which is a whole 58 times longer than the 72 days Kim was married to Human Alpaca and Giant Taylor Lautner Impersonator Kris Humphries. Oh yeah, dude also plays basketball and is really, really good at it (audio NSFW) in case anyone has forgotten. 

America has painted Kim Kardashian – heck, any Kardashian, really – in a bad light recently. Well, maybe it’s time to put away the anger and ask ourselves: maybe it’s us that we hate. Maybe we are the ones who hate ourselves for spending so much money and thus getting ourselves into a very public situation over fundamentally whether it is realistic anymore to assume that everyone can achieve the American dream. Kind of like spending $20m on a wedding and getting a very public divorce after only 72 days, but not exactly. 

It might be far fetched, but think about it. Kim, Zoe, or eithers’ publicist, thank you for going out of your way to help the homeless this Thanksgiving. That was awesome of you. Maybe more of us should be doing selfless acts of kindness like that instead of arguing about who gets to sleep in Zucotti Park. 

Laz Alonso on ‘Breakout Kings,’ the ‘Straw Dogs’ Remake, & Auditioning for ‘Avatar’

Even if you don’t recognize the name Laz Alonso, you’ve definitely seen the actor’s work. (Unless, of course, you’re one of the three people on the planet who hasn’t seen Avatar, although we’re pretty sure those people have rightfully been executed.) Alonso had the good fortune of being cast as warrior prince Tsu’tey in James Cameron’s gillion dollar-grossing space opera, but he also had the not-so-good luck of being rendered unrecognizable by a whole lot of blue pixels. He’s cool about it, obviously, because he got to be in Avatar, but more to the point, his star has been steadily on the rise since.

Following a brief career as an investment banker, the D.C. native began working steadily a decade ago in films like Fast Five and Miracle at St. Anna, all culminating in his own TV show, A&E’s Breakout Kings, on which Alonso plays a U.S. Marshall heading up a ragtag team charged with capturing escaped convicts. Here he is on Avatar‘s unusual auditioning process, the upcoming Straw Dogs remake, and why he finally left New York.

You had a big role in the most popular movie of all time, and yet I would imagine you’re not really recognized for that. Not even the brothers recognize me for that!

Are you more recognized by a black audience? Definitely, it’s always been a long-standing joke with me and my agent that in some parts of LA, I’m like Brad Pitt walking around, and in other parts I’m incognito.

Do you end up telling a lot of people that you were Tsu’tey in Avatar, and are they surprised when they hear that? Not really. I think what people are more surprised about is that we were actually acting. A lot of people think it was just animation, and we just did our voices like you see in Pixar movies, so when they realize we were actually physically present doing all the stuff they saw, that tends to usually wow them a lot more than the fact that it was me.

How did you get that part? Well, it was a really top-secret project. Unlike a lot of other projects where they actually give you the script, they didn’t. The most they allowed you to do was get there a couple hours earlier so that you could practice and rehearse. I got there about an hour and half earlier and just started working on all the material. And then when we got in the room, the casting director kind of sprung a whammy on us and was like, “Alright, you studied the lines, you studied the words, we don’t want you to say anything you just learned in English, we want you to perform it, but create your own language. We don’t care if you’re counting, or saying your ABCs, just make up some gibberish, speak your own native language.” I had just come back from Moscow, so I had picked up a significant amount of Russian at the time, and Spanish is my family’s native tongue, and some Korean, because I study Korean martial arts, and I mixed it all together and made this hodge-podge of soft-yet-harsh language, and it worked. That happened in May, and I didn’t hear anything back from them until November. I had pretty much written it off, and when November came around, my agent called me and said, “Yo man, Jim Cameron’s office just called and said you’re one of his top three choices to play one of the lead roles in Avatar,” so I was stoked to say the least.

Did you know what the process was going to be like? I knew it was going to be something different. It felt like Gladiator, like I was a freedom fighter fighting to save my people from an oppressive state. Gladiator has always been my favorite movie, and Braveheart, The Patriot — movies like that, where you’ve got one man fighting for the freedom of thousands and making the cause bigger than his own self. That was something I always wanted to play. James thought I embodied a lot of the physicality that he wanted out of this character.

While you were filming, did you ever think that it would do the business that it did and become what it became? No man, nobody did, including James Cameron himself. There were many days when we’d just be sitting around shootin’ the shit, and he would tell us, “Listen, don’t expect this to be Titanic, this is not going to be as big as Titanic. Titanic was a phenomenon that had fifteen-year-old girls going to the movie theaters seven and eight times with their whole classroom of high school kids. This is not going to be that, this is a much more specific genre. We’ll probably get the sci-fi lovers and the fans of action movies to come out, but to get that young, teenage girl that hangs in groups of 15 to go see this movie six times for Leonardo DiCaprio’s blue eyes, that’s not going to happen. We’re blue.” And lo and behold, it exceed all our expectations.

Since you character dies at the end, does that mean you can kiss the sequels goodbye? I’m not sure, man. I mean Sigourney Weaver’s character dies as well in this movie but the one thing about the world of Avatar is that death is only a transformation, it’s not necessarily a finite way that we define and interpret death. You transform into a different type of being that can still contribute to that circle of life, so to speak. But I have not read any scripts.

Apparently James Cameron is writing it now, and he said he’s going to bring the cast members of the sequels down to the Brazilian rainforest to get a feel for that environment. He brought us to Hawaii on the first film and had us out there moving around in the rain forest, just to kind of see and feel and smell and taste what it is to live in that environment. He’s all about authenticity, man. This guy is probably one of the most detail-oriented people I’ve ever met. I’ve seen him go through a bucket of rocks for a least a half hour, finding the right texture of rock to give to his designer, who will animate and create the rock in a virtual world.

Tell me about Straw Dogs? It’s been wrapped for a while, but has yet to come out. When are we going to see it? The studios have a queue of films that have to role out, and the season and the time of year determines what movie is going to come out when. So Straw Dogs, it’s almost like an old-school thriller, a very violent movie that we probably wouldn’t see come out in the summer, just because there are so many huge blockbusters that come out then, so this is going to be a third quarter movie. It will come out in September, and it has that kind of real raw, edgy thriller feel. It’s really, really violent. There’s this riot scene in there that’s just very gruesome, but at the same time, it’s not just gratuitous violence, it’s got a good story line along with it.

And you play the sheriff? Yeah, and the irony of my character is that it’s a southern town, and he’s the only black guy. The whole thing about the Straw Dogs is that they are these guys that were high school football phenoms, and for one reason or another, they just never went beyond high school. And now their lives are done. They’re living in the remnants of the past, and it’s the new high school phenoms that are the town heroes. And this actually happens over and over, especially down south where football is huge. You have these guys that, while they’re playing, they’re the town heroes, but once the day is done, it’s almost like, Where do I go from here? So that’s what the story explores.

You used to be an investment banker. What led you into acting? When I graduated from Howard, my whole master plan was to go to Wall Street, make a few million, quit, and finance my acting career. Acting was always the plan. I needed to find a way to finance my acting career, because I wasn’t trying to live out of my car the way you hear some people do. So I did that for a couple of years, and realized that was a much longer road than I thought it was. It wasn’t like the movies: come out of school, get a big client, and boom, you’re rolling in the millions and shit. I just thought it was time to buckle down and do it the right way, so I just started going to tons of theater in New York, off-off-off-Broadway stuff, and working my way up slowly but surely. It wasn’t like I got discovered or somebody saw me walking down the street. I had to basically start with very small roles and build my house brick by brick.

When did you make the move to LA? I moved to LA back in 2001, on September 18th, right after the World Trade Center came down. It was one of the things that helped me realize that my chapter in New York was coming to an end. New York’s one of those cities where you fall in love with the city just as much as you do with a person. The city itself is intoxicating, and it was really tough to leave my block in Brooklyn, and the bodega on the corner, which that very same week burnt down to a crisp.

How did you know it was time to move to LA? It was a combination of a lot of things. First, my business relationship was starting to get a little strained between partners and myself. And the relationship that I was in at the time, where I was basically waiting for the girl I was with to graduate and we were going to move to LA together, that went south. All the doors were closing.

Tell me about Breakout Kings. I play the head of a team of derelicts who hunt down escaped prisoners, and even though my character is the only real US Marshall on the team, he was on the desk for six years because he has a heart condition, so he is not necessarily the star of the class.

Does he have something to prove? Absolutely. Every day he’s alive, he’s proving something, because his heart can explode at any given moment. He tests that. You’re going to see him as the season goes on, he kind of flips the bird to his heart, so to speak. It’s like, I got this opportunity, and if I die in the line of duty, then fuck it. This character gives me a lot of meaty stuff to work with. The last thing I wanted to do was formulaic procedural show, and Breakout Kings is not your typical procedural. It’s very character driven, and it’s not a pretty world that we’ve painted in this series.

What If ‘Avatar’ Was a B Movie From the ’70s?

Artist Sean Hartter creates mashup movie posters that combine modern films with midcentury design tropes. The Matrix goes blaxploitation, Tim Curry plays the Joker, and Tron is a David Cronenberg movie starring James Spader. “This is an exercise in ‘what if’ that has really taken on a life of its own,” Hartter, a Maine-based freelance artist, told Wired. The parallel universe Hartter’s living in must be heaven for movie nerds.

Inception in CinemaScope:

image

Marylin Monroe and John Wayne co-star in Kill Bill:

image

Angelina Jolie replaces Malcolm McDowell:

image

My favorite, The Matrix starring Sidney Poitier and Pam Grier:

image

Suggestions: Black Swan as a Hitchkock film with Tippi Hedren; Rex Harrison of My Fair Lady takes Geoffrey Rush’s role in The King’s Speech; David Lynch directs High Noon.

Video Recounts Journey to the Bottom of the Mariana Trench, Launches New Trend

As a kid, I was fascinated by the earth’s extremes, and one place captivated me more than any other: the deepest point in the ocean. As my science textbooks informed me, you can’t go any deeper than the Mariana Trench, which lies in the Pacific Ocean not far from Guam. One piece of trivia always stuck in my head: If you drop a cannonball over the side of a boat positioned above the trench, it will take 45 minutes for it to reach the bottom. Amazing. Fast forward to 2005, when I had the chance to interview Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard, who, along with American Lt. Don Walsh, descended to the bottom of the trench back in 1960 in a bathyscaphe (“deep boat”) called Trieste, a feat that hasn’t been repeated since. Unfortunately, the story never made it into print.

When Piccard died in 2008, I posted the interview transcript on my personal blog as a tribute. A young film maker in Germany named Roman Wolter read the interview and contacted me, asking for the recording so he could use it in a short film he was making. I found the microcassette in my junk drawer and mailed it to him, and he just recently completed the video, which is entitled Mariana. Sunday was the 51st anniversary of Piccard and Walsh’s dive, so Roman’s timing couldn’t have been better. Check it out.

Mariana from Roman Wolter on Vimeo.

Furthermore, it seems as though the ocean floor is a hot topic right now. Just hours after the video was posted on Wired, an English DJ and producer named Dave Twomey, who performs under the moniker Tr nch, got in touch with me to use some of the audio for a music project he’s doing in Japan that’s inspired by the Mariana Trench.

Yesterday, the papers were filled with stories about how director James Cameron plans to return to the Challenger Deep – the deepest part of the trench, where Piccard and Walsh touched down – to capture some footage for the sequel to Avatar.

So, German short films, English/Japanese techno mixes, Avatar sequels — where will the Mariana Trench show up next? In any case, I’m glad the interview is finally seeing the light of day, even though I’m not making a dime off it.

Links: Justin Timberlake Cheated on Jessica Biel, Blake Lively Is Single Again

● Justin Timberlake reportedly had a weekend of “amazing sex” with Daily Show correspondent and Playboy girl Olivia Munn while dating Jessica Biel, who should’ve learned about these bad boys from her time on 7th Heaven. [US Weekly] ● Speaking of The Daily Show, Barack Obama appeared last night for a gentle ribbing from Jon Stewart, who called the president’s legislative process “timid.” Olivia Munn stayed away for fear of Michelle. [CNN] ● Charlie Sheen texted (texted!) a gossip reporter to call his cocaine-fueled hotel freak-out “overblown.” Get it? [Radar]

Gossip Girl costars Blake Lively and Penn Badgley ended their three-year relationship back in September, officially forfeiting the title of Worst Couple Names, under-25 division. [US Weekly] ● Mike Tyson, the real-life convicted felon who appeared in The Hangover, says he “100 percent” would have worked with Mel Gibson in The Hangover 2. [Page Six] ● Two Avatar sequels are planned for 2014 and 2015, when cloning will — fingers crossed — allow the movie to be acted out, explosions and all, in the actual movie theater. Call it 5D. [HuffPo]

Links: Tony Curtis Dead at 85, Snooki Is Writing a Novel

● The classic screen star Tony Curtis, who came to fame in the 1950s and remained in the spotlight for decades, has died of cardiac arrest at the age of 85, his daughter, Jamie Lee Curtis, told Entertainment Tonight. [ET] ● Comedian Greg Giraldo has also passed away after suffering an accidental overdose, just a week after he was hospitalized for a similar incident with prescription pills. He was 44. [TMZ] ● Katie Couric may return to the The Today Show when her CBS Evening News contract is up in the Spring, because politics are boring and dancing dogs are hilarious. [Page Six]

Jersey Shore‘s Snooki is writing a novel, to be released by Simon & Schuster, about “a girl looking for love on the boardwalk (one full of big hair, dark tans, and fights galore).” Novel, indeed. [NYDN] ● Spotted: Michelle Obama and Nick Jonas… together, on video. And at Disney for an exercise PSA. What is this world? [People] ● You probably want to watch the trailer for the Avatar porn, just in case. [Vulture]

Links: Rihanna’s Neck Tattoo Typo, ‘Avatar’ Sex Scene Coming Soon

● Rihanna’s new neck tattoo reads “rebelle fleur,” or “rebel flower,” except in French, the adjective goes after the noun. Come to think of it, it doesn’t make sense either way. [PopEater] ● Britney Spears is back in the studio. Her new music will sound like a mix of her old music and Lady Gaga. [Celebuzz] ● Down the rabbit hole: “Inside the Weird World of Justin Bieber Micro-Gossip.” It’s dark in here. [Gawker]

● James Cameron assures us that the Na’vi sex scene will be included in the forthcoming Avatar re-release. Yes, alien love — all up in your face. [MTV] ● After Bill O’Reilly slammed Jennifer Aniston for her support of single-motherhood, she shot back: “many women dream of finding Prince Charming…but for those who’ve not yet found their Bill O’Reilly, I’m just glad science has provided a few other options.” [HuffPo] ● Mischa Barton, all but out of the spotlight, was photographed in St. Tropez smoking weed on a boat, i.e. where she belongs. [PopSugar]