I recently got the chance to talk to Lisa Frantz about her role in Stephen Soderbergh’s new film, ‘Behind The Candelabra’. Here, Lisa talks extensively about the project and how she got involved in the industry in the first place…
What’s the general plotline surrounding the film?
‘Behind The Candelabra’ is not as much a biography of the outlandishly gay, hidden in plain sight, bigger than life performer Liberace (known to his friends as Lee) as much as it is a personal look through the key hole of a young man, Scott Thorson, a young movie animal trainer, wanna be veterinarian, trying to navigate through his own sexuality in an era of non acceptance. Scott came from an addicted mother and a string of foster homes. Liberace filled that void. “I want to be everything to you, Scott. father, brother, lover…” – heady stuff to someone, anyone, especially one who feels alone in this world. In a move to deny, even to himself that he is gay, Scott claims to be bisexual, but there is no evidence of that, as stated by Michael Douglas’ character at one point. He gets drawn in by the seductive glamour and attention paid to him by Liberace, the guided tour through “Palatial Kitsch”, blinding him to the worn and thrown away young men that enjoyed the opulent decadence before him.
So discarded were these now used up playthings of Liberace’s that they were even reduced to handing over one last ring given to them, as in a final, humiliating moment heading out the door – (Billy Leatherwood, played to the hilt by Cheyenne Jackson). Like stripes being ripped off ones uniform for behaviour unbecoming, Dan Aykroyd as Liberace’s sleezy manager Seymour Heller, acts as his henchman. Seymour has a full-time job keeping Lee’s image of a heterosexual in public view.
Stories of Sonja Henie being the love of Lee’s life were promoted as the smokescreen to hide his real desires. Liberace’s need for enhanced excitement goes into hyperdrive when his mother, played to perfection, by Debbie Reynolds – (who actually knew her) dies. Lee spreads his glittery, feathery, Austrian crystal adorned wings with a wild freedom that lay suppressed under the never fulfilled wish to please his mother. She states, referring to a twin that died, “even in the womb, he wanted more than anyone else”. Scott starts to feel like a prisoner in that gilded cage as the isolation and fears of abandonment come back into play.
Things start taking a turn for the gruesome when Liberace sees himself on an episode of ‘The Tonight Show’. Their relaxing into a life of becoming “two fat biddies” has shocked Liberace back to his reality of needing to maintain an image and not become his personal nightmare of looking like his father, in drag. Lee enlists the aid of the very unscrupulous and deliciously absurd Dr. Startz, played by Rob Lowe. You can’t take your eyes off the freakish Lowe. His face is stretched so painfully tight that no expressions are possible. There were no photos of the doctor. The only thing written describing him was that he was pulled shiny and tight. The doctor eventually committed suicide. Rob definitely added those layers to his performance. He performs a facelift and eye job gone wrong. When Liberace asks if he will ever be able to close his eyes, the reply is, “no, but this way you will be able to see people’s reaction to how fabulous you look”. The bizarre steps up several levels when Liberace pulls out a portrait of himself and tells the doctor to make Scott look like him. Things predictably spiral downward and out of control. Scott gets addicted to drugs prescribed by Startz for his “California Diet”. Lee turns to increasingly stimulating sexual pleasures to satisfy his endless need for excitement, including going to public sex shops and glory holes. Scott wants no part of that and reminds him of what he is risking showing the public who he really is. They both bring out the best and worst of each other. It might seem on the surface to just be a gay story but this could be almost any relationship we are watching. Without the rhinestones.
The wild, reckless behaviour almost inevitably ends in the tragic end. Michael’s ravaged appearance is shocking in his final moments. Here is the moment where we see the real love between these two. So sad that they couldn’t find their way here without all the destructive behaviour. Who of us can’t relate to that?
Tell us a bit about the character you play in the movie…
After Liberace’s death, his manager, Seymour was quick to put out reports trying to avoid any possibility of the public finding out that he had succumbed to AIDS. Rather, he said that it was complications from a grapefruit diet. Rock Hudson had just shocked the world with his death and the worlds’ rosy glasses were starting to fade. The Riverside County Coroner, Raymond Carillo knew this was more than just a diet mishap and was upset that he was not contacted as required by law in the event that this was a contagious disease. My role was reporting on the twist of events and news of rejecting the death certificate.
How did you get involved in the project in the first place?
I am an actor, but I have also hosted and done some reporting. When the role came up for an Anchor Woman, (I think they preferred someone with real reporting experience) I was submitted through a service used by casting directors and agents called Breakdown Services. The casting director, Carmen Cuba and her associate, Whitney Horton viewed my submission, along with I don’t how many other actors submissions, probably hundreds. I had a reel attached with work I had done and they asked for another video and then another one as it might be if I had come in to the office. Usually I go physically in to casting offices for auditions, so this was different. I didn’t hear back and thought that I didn’t get it, but my agent, Susan Nathe called me and said they wanted to book me. I was incredibly surprised…and happy.
How would you say this film is different and unique?
There has to be something incredibly special about this film if its the most popular film with the highest ratings in HBO’s 10 year history. It has exceeded all expectations according to producer, Jerry Weintraub. Who would’ve thought that a film with Michael Douglas and Matt Damon couldn’t get theatrical distribution in the United States? It’s doing very well theatrically in Europe. I read that they might even make a Broadway musical. I think this will change the game for the film business and you’re going to see a lot more things done like this. The usual channels of distribution didn’t believe in it. So HBO did and HBO, in fact, gave us a much larger audience than we could ever get in the theaters and that was something to be ecstatic about. There were three and a half million homes just on Sunday night (when the film was broadcast on HBO in America) and that’s without the TEVO-ing. When it’s finished, God knows how many millions of people will see this film and that’s what was wanted. That’s why it was made.
The film stars Matt Damon, Michael Douglas. Scott Bakula, Eric Zuckerman, Eddie Jemison, Randy Lowell, Tom Roach, Shamus Cooley, John Smutny, Jane Morris, Garrett M. Brown and Pat Asanti – with Steven Soderbergh onboard as director – what was it like working with the cast and crew on-set? Any good anecdotes?
Steven Soderbergh is a dream to work with. There were no other actors in my scene, so it was just Steven and myself. Even though my part wasn’t very big, I took it very seriously. I did a lot of research on the time period and found everything about Liberace that I could. The wardrobe was actually Cybill Shepherd’s from ‘Moonlighting’, the series she did with Bruce Willis. I had bought Lee Press On Nails, which were all the rage during that time. They never even showed on camera, but I knew they were there and it was just a small thing to help me immerse myself in the role. The make-up and hair people were so fantastic, though, me in an 80’s hairstyle is not a good look. I wasn’t alone though. We all were freakish. Poor Rob had his face pulled so tight with tape and wire that he got migraines. He was hilarious though and had all these weird expressions. It got to the point with he and Matt that Matt couldn’t even look at him without laughing. It only made Rob do more and to their surprise, Steven actually put some of that in the final cut.
My shoot day was the last one before going to shoot in Las Vegas. Michael shot his scene early and Matt was off that day, but there was a delivery. Matt had sent everyone in the crew gifts. Tons of big boxes came and everyone got big backpacks with the production company logo. It was so sweet. I was called on-set and formally met Steven. I came with questions about different ways he might like to have the scene shot. We agreed that in the 80’s there wasn’t really “entertainment” reporting and that I should just do it as a straightforward news person. We rehearsed it once and he was happy, so he started rolling. I did it several ways and we felt that somewhere in there, I had “gotten it”. I feel so blessed. There were two other girls that day shooting the same way, but for different decades. They didn’t make it to the final cut. I’ve been there, on the cutting room floor. Believe me, when I saw the final film and almost my whole part was there, I was ecstatic!
Let’s talk a bit about you Lisa. What made you want to get into the acting industry in the first place?
I was a child that grew up watching tons of television…I couldn’t get enough. I was very affected by what I saw. I loved how beautiful, happy and healthy the women seemed…and ooohhhh, so sexy! I wanted to be THAT! I remember seeing Barbra Streisand in ‘Funny Girl’. I crossed my eyes and talked with a New York accent for weeks. I still get the same feeling when I see a great performance. I feel it in my soul. I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a passion for something and it drives me, no matter what. I still go to acting workshops and even if that week I only can get up and act for three minutes, it’s the best three minutes of my week!
What advice would you give to anyone wanting to pursue a career in the industry?
Do it for the “right” reasons. If you do it just to become famous or rich you will be disappointed. So many working actors have years of rejection, no work, no pay and IF they make it, people think it’s overnight success. I guess that happens. All I know is almost every one of my friends who started acting have dropped out of the scene. It’s hard. You have to need to do it. So, whatever it is…find your passion and follow it. One more thing, I would encourage actors to get the most rounded life experiences as possible. You can bring your craft, but if you aren’t in touch with the rainbow of life’s possibilities, what are you offering? I look at the art of acting as the grid you start with and then fill it with emotion and experience. It’s called acting, but really…it’s RE-acting.
What’s currently on your I-Pod right now?
If I Didn’t Know Better by Sam Palladio and Clara Bowen, Looking For Space by Elton John and My All by Mariah Carey.
If you could have dinner with three guests – (living or dead), who would you choose and why?
- George Washington – father of our country. He was brilliant and with all that is going on in the world, I’d like to know how he would handle things. He was my Dad’s hero and even sort of looks like him.
- Helen Hayes – First Lady of American Theatre. My first “date” (in 5th grade) was with her grandson Charlie. I never met her, but she was always an inspiration. I’ve known all my life that I wanted to be an actor and would find her insights invaluable.
- Sir Winston Churchill – my family is from London. I actually just got back from a family wedding in Northumberland. I adore England and Churchill did so much for the love of his country. Just this year there was a poll showing he is still one of the most popular Britons. His strength and power are awe-inspiring. Just to be around that energy would be indescribable.
Which film was your favourite of 2012 and why?
‘Argo’ – not only was it a nail-biting thriller, it’s historically accurate. The story was compelling, even without the need for special effects. A mature, thoughtful depiction of those events. Well done.
What’s coming up for you in 2013?
I am hoping this will spring-board to more work. Steven is reported to be leaving film making, for now. I would love to work on a TV project of his. I’m doing a Nutrisystem campaign at the moment.Who knows, maybe they will ask me to do the Broadway show, ‘Behind The Candelabra’! I’d love that.
Thanks for the interview!