I recently got the chance to talk to Michael Chieffo about his role in ‘Beginners’. Here, Michael talks about what it was like working with Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer and what’s coming up for him in 2011…
Hey Michael. Thanks for taking the time out to speak to me. ‘Beginners’ will be released in UK cinemas on the 22nd July.
(Spoiler alert) I reveal some plot points about ‘Beginners‘ in this interview. I recommend seeing the movie first.
What’s the general premise of the film?
Through a series of flashbacks we follow the life of a 30 something graphic artist (Ewan McGregor) and how he comes to terms with his confusing upbringing. It all comes to focus when his father (Christopher Plummer) reveals that he is gay and has always known it.
How would you say this film is different from other comedies released this year?
I think calling it a comedy is misleading. It is more of an artistic memoir of the director’s similar experience with his father. There is much humor, but only in service to reveal the emotional truth of the writer/director’s experience.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I auditioned for one part and Mike liked me for another. The gay Episcopal Priest.
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the film…
When Hal (Christopher Plummer) decides to live an openly gay life he changes. One of the things he gets is an openly gay priest. I play that Episcopal Priest. When Hal is dying I give him his last rites.
The film stars Ewan McGregor, Christopher Plummer and Melanie Laurent – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set?
I worked with Ewan and Christopher. They were extremely warm and considerate. I did very little and yet they treated me very well. After my work was done, Christopher Plumber when out of his way to compliment me. Mike Mills did as well. Ewan also put me at ease and told me that I reminded him of his very good friend and best man at his wedding. There was one extraordinary thing that happened on the set when I was there actually. I will never forget it as long as I live. In the film, Ewan McGregor’s character is told his father has died. Ewan’s character goes to his father’s deathbed and breaks down and cries. So “action” is called, Ewan goes to the bed and totally loses it and cries from the bottom of his soul for what seemed like forever. It literally must have lasted for three minutes or longer. I know it sounds cliché but there was not a dry eye on the set. Thinking about it now makes me cry. It was a great lesson for me on many levels. We as actors have a wonderful opportunity to reveal the human soul and Ewan allowed us to see his soul in that moment. It was very inspiring. In the final cut of the movie we only see a brief part of that moment. In a way it makes my experience even more precious.
Let’s talk a bit about you Michael. What made you want to get into acting in the first place?
It really was an accident of birth. I was born the youngest of eight into a loving and artistic family and I became the entertainer. As a kid I learned magic. Earned money doing children’s birthday parties. Auditioned for my ninth grade musical and got cast as “Harold Hill” in ‘The Music Man’. I apparently was amazingly good and suddenly I became the “actor” of my school, and perhaps most significantly, all the girls suddenly found me cute. When it came time to go to college I was accepted to one of the best acting schools in the country (Juilliard). My fate was sealed.
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in acting?
Advice? Many thoughts come to mind. Just do everything you think you should do and don’t let anyone stop you. Be a creator of your work. Get in front of your friend’s camera, learn to edit, see everything – (particularly classics of the past), go to art museums, understand that as an actor it helps to understand what the writer and director are trying to say. Also, I think that there is no higher calling than to help people see who they are, that they are not different, or alone, or crazy in this mysterious world. We are all, deep down inside, at our core, the same. And if one understands that this is true, I think we can have compassion for each other and become a little less fearful of each other and maybe evolve into a more functional loving world. For me, acting and being an artist is my calling. I was pretty unconscious of this when I was starting out but as time has gone by, I see it more clearly. If any of this makes any sense to you then I would encourage you to pursue acting. I think of myself as a “true believer”.
What has been the most interesting piece of local / national news you’ve heard in the last month?
The fight over “The Debt Ceiling”.
You’ve had a number of different roles on a number of projects, such as ’LA Confidential’, ’Last Action Hero’, ’The A Team’, ’Roswell High’, ’The Ring 2’ – who has been your favorite actor to work with so far and who has given the best advice to you?
Well that’s a hard one. I love actors and I have been very lucky to have very good experiences with them. Art Carney comes to mind. We were working on an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie called ‘Last Action Hero’. I had always been a big fan because of his genius work as “Ed Norton” in the 50’s sitcom ‘The Honeymooners’. (I later had the honor of playing him in a TV movie called ‘Gleason‘ opposite Brad Garrett). Art Carney had the kindest eyes. I felt as if he was a loving uncle of mine. We talked of this and that and then he told us he had come up with something he wanted to do in the scene. Art, as his character in this movie, says a few words then dies. So he tells me he came up with a death rattle sound. He then proceeds to demonstrate this “death rattle” sound to me. I had never heard such a sound come out of a human being ever. It was utterly amazing. He then tells me he did it for the director who simply dismissed him and said “No, no, don’t do that, just die.” Wow, I thought, here is the great Art Carney being offhandedly dismissed. But he wasn’t upset. Maybe a little disappointed he couldn’t use the bit he had worked up, but he was okay with it. There was a lesson for me in that. As actors we show up, present what we think could work and collaborate with the other artist in shaping the final product or work of art as the case may be. Sometimes the people involved are less respectful than they need to be but the truth is there is a lot to be done on the set and not a lot of time. Being flexible and not taking it personally is important. I did receive one bit of advice that I do always remember fondly. Many years ago I was a guest actor on the TV show ‘Murder, She Wrote’. I was working with the distinguished actor Jeremy Kemp. We were both playing Russian diplomats (I was his underling) and he shared with me this bit of advice in-between takes. “When in doubt, shout.”
We should probably point out that you are voicing one of the characters in ‘LA. Noire’ – what was it like being involved in something completely different to your past work? Have you had chance to play the game yet?
Working on ‘LA Noire’ was a blast. It’s exciting to see a whole new field of work being born. The actor is much more than a voice. His whole performance is captured with dozens of cameras placed all around him. As a film actor and even a stage actor you perform with an awareness of the camera and the audience. In this motion capture there isn’t a perspective to play to, so all you have left is directly working with the other actors. It is a wonderful experience. Stanislavski would be thrilled (pardon my inside actor joke). I have not played the game but from what I’ve seen and heard it is fantastic.
What’s coming up for you in 2011? I hear you’re in post production on a project called ‘Miss Dial’….
‘Miss Dial’ is a fun piece about a consumer affair rep that works from her apartment, decides to play hooky one day, and spends her time calling random people, looking for new connections. I am a character who is worried his favorite cheese might be discontinued. I’ve just been cast in the Ben Affleck staring and directed film ‘Argo’. The film takes place during the Iranian Hostage crisis in 1979. It is based on a true story and is a real page-turner. I play a CIA analyst. It’s going to be great. And I believe another film I’m in called “Herpes Boy” is just coming out on iTunes and other pay on demand services. I, and my wife Beth Grant, play Herpes Boy’s parents and my daughter Mary Chieffo has a fun part in it as well. By the way, my daughter just was accepted into Juilliard’s Drama Division and will start this fall. She’s following in her parent’s footsteps. She seems smart enough to learn from our experience. I’m happy to report she is a “true believer” as well. God bless her and all of us as well.
Thanks for the interview!