Interview with actors Tracey Birdsall, Bill Sorvino and writer/director Thomas BaldingerMay 13, 2016
With a story line that includes romance, comedy and a hint of the adult film business, Who’s Jenna? is definitely a unique movie. Recently we had a chance to talk with stars Tracey Birdsall, Bill Sorvino as well as writer/director Thomas Baldinger about the movie, the difficulties of doing comedy and how a movie like this will fare in an industry dominated by Star Wars and comic book blockbusters.
So Thomas, where did you get the idea for the story behind Who’s Jenna?
Thomas: The original idea started out with a relative of mine works for a very large media financial firm and he writes stories for the news and stuff like that, and he wrote a particular story was an adult film star suing a very large institution, a bank, because they were closing they’re accounts due to the jobs that they do, because of their career choice. I remember reading that story and thinking wow, that’s a really heavy story, it would be kind of funny if I had some fun with this and made a comedy out of it, so that was sort of the beginning steps of the movie.
Tracey, Bill, what we’re your reactions when you read the script?
Bill: When I read the script I knew that Jonathan would be the perfect character for me to play. The story was laugh out loud funny, different and interesting and I petitioned Tom for the role because I had signed on for another film that he was going to do and he approached me and said maybe the lead or supporting, and of course I fought for the lead role and I said I know I can nail this Tom, I know I can do it, and it went back and forth and thankfully, he ended up casting me.
Tracey: For me, I met Tom at a festival and he was getting an award, I was getting an award and it kind of caught me off guard because he came up and introduced himself and sent me the script and I went into it not expecting anything like we do and I started laughing a few pages into the script and I was still laughing at the end of it and I just wanted to be a part of it so badly. He knew I could act because he saw me getting the award and I fit the physical description of what he was looking for and then I have to say, on what Bill said, he really nailed that role, it was so much fun working with him.
Thomas, is writing and directing a comedy like this more difficult than other genres, and do you find yourself relying more on the talent in front of the camera to deliver their lines?
Now that’s a great question, especially the later part, and it really hits the nail on the head in regards to how this film came together. You know, I look at the script and handing it over to people like Bill and Tracey, they took it to another level and writing comedy is fun. I feel like the perfect approach to comedy is, take it as serious as you can even if it’s crazy because that’s the fun of it, and when I handed this script over to this cast and filmed them, they brought the heart and the brain and everything into it and it was just wonderful working with them. They just took it to a completely different level and brought so much more than what I expected when I was putting pen to paper.
Ok, this question is for everyone. Do you think comedy is under-appreciated by the public, as in taking it for granted and thinking it is something that is very easy to do?
Tracey: It is really, really hard to do and actually quite hard to learn, the timing and all that. However, I don’t know if it matters that the public under-appreciates it, I think that’s more of a challenge. I’ve worked in comedy opposite people who didn’t have any training in comedy and that’s really, really hard but what was so different about this film from other films was how everybody had a similar style of acting and everybody was living their roles and so it was actually quite easy to slide into your spot.
Bill: I’ll second that in terms of the public. They may not understand how difficult comedy may be, to pull off and be funny, like Tracey said with the timing, and to some extent what Tom said, you have to treat it like it’s real, almost like a drama and stick to it at that level because the crazy circumstances are committing to a level and that’s kind of what makes it funny, the surprise element of that situation. A lot of rom com’s are popular and I know comic book films are great and they have their place but we need heart and this film has heart while it’s giving you a bunch of laughs and a wild ride. Hopefully the public will open their arms wide for this comedy and embrace it.
Thomas, as the writer and director for this movie, do you allow your actors to be a little more flexible, like changing things on the fly or ad libing parts here and there?
Thomas: Yes, one hundred percent. In fact, each one of the cast members lived and breathed these roles so I welcome their interpretation of many kinds of things like this doesn’t sound right or, my character should say this or say that and as long as it’s within the realm of what the story is about, I have no problem and ad libing can be a lot of fun. Actually, I allowed my editors, when they were cutting this film up, to pull from different takes and interpretations, whether it was the script or something made up during a scene and sometimes that’s where the better comedy came out of, so definitely there was a lot of freedom and I wanted that for the cast on the set and they embraced it and again, took it to the next level, much more than I expected.
Bill: I’ll second that and as much as Tom had a vision of what he was looking for, Tracey you’ll attest to this, he allowed us to live the characters fully and if anything came out of that, that was a little different from the script, he was completely ok with that. He knew what he wanted to get however, so if you went too far he would say that was good, but I think we need to hit it at this level.
Tracey: It’s about being an actors director, where even in the character’s relationships he was flexible, we would say well, we feel this or we feel that and he would let us run with it.
Tracey, Bill, can you tell me a bit about your characters and how you approached them as actors?
Tracey: My character is an attorney and she’s really put together but she has this look at the same time. So I actually did a little bit of research into the industry just so I could, it’s funny because you have to be able to say the lines and Tom’s lines are so funny, you have to be able to say them and know what you’re talking about so I had to research that. At the same time, I wanted to make her very different from the other film that I was shooting at the time so you kind of give them little mannerisms and how they’re going to walk differently and talk differently and give them a backstory and where they came from. Jenna, she was a straight laced character but at the same time she’s a lover and she follows her heart and she’s very definitive about what she likes and doesn’t like and in terms of Jonathan, she wants to pull him over to a broader perspective and so in a strong womanly way, she has to exercise her strength.
Bill: So with my character Jonathan, I had the luxury of having long conversations with Tom leading up to filming, trying to figure out who this guy was and I gave him some ideas of where I thought he should go. For Jonathan it had a lot to do with mannerisms and what his perspective on life was and how he would handle different situations because his wanting black and white in his life instead of too many shades of grey. I tried to incorporate a little bit of my own personality into the character as well, and then as far as Tracey’s character was concerned, I knew she was trying to draw me in as well so I had that to deal with as well. For someone who wanted things black and white in his life, Jonathan was pulled in many directions, so I tried to react from that perspective as well.
The movie industry right now is being dominated by either Star Wars or the comic book universe. Does that hurt a film like this or in some way help it, providing an alternative to the big blockbuster movies?
Tomas: I’m a huge, huge closet nerd, I’m a big comic book guy, I have a closet in my house filled with comic books so I love the comic book movies. Yes, it’s very interesting that Hollywood is going that way and I was listening to one of my favorite radio personalities one morning, Mr. Howard Stern, and he had Alec Baldwin on and they were talking about movies in general and the movie industry and Alec said he feels Hollywood had become very technical, heavily studio made and a lot of CGI and he feels that the independent industry now are the movies that were made back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s and he likes doing those more than the big blockbusters because it’s more about characters, it’s more about stories and dialogue. So I don’t think that audiences are being robbed of that or being flooded with Star Wars and comic book movies, but one thing you do notice is the good comic book movies are very careful and very clear and very focused on writing good scripts with good dialogue, so they’re trying to get to that as well but you’re finding that the independent industry is really starting to widen its gap and get more exposure in more film festivals than you can count now. There seems to be more out there and now you’ve got AMC, which is running an independent program and is looking for more independent content so while Hollywood is pushing out the blockbusters there is still and avenue for independent film.
Bill: If I may add to that, in the independent world I run a film festival, The Golden Door International Film Festival in Jersey City that started seven years ago and we have seen the quality of films increase year after year, they are getting close to the same quality you would see out of a studio so people have learned how to do better, especially with the technology available to everybody. I think people are getting hungry for it again and with all these new avenues opening up, like all the festivals and AMC, it is a good time for the independent filmmaker. Blockbusters are great but they get a little tiring after a while and you want to just escape into a more character driven situation, minus all the car chases and explosions.
Tracey: I have to admit I was in a comic book store last night, I’m a total comic book nerd. For me personally, I love independent film but I also love comic books and sci fi. We all have these deep personalities and need to be fed different input and stimulation and it’s definitely a good time for Tom to come along with this movie because I really believe there is a place for it.
Now as far as Who’s Jenna? Is concerned, what is the plan for the release of the movie? Will it be doing the indie film festival circuit?
Thomas: So we have a VIP showing here in New Jersey on May 20th, down at Asbury Park. It’s from seven thirty to midnight, we have a red carpet, a screening of the film a Q&A with the cast afterwards and a live performance from the band. That’s going to kind of kick off the strategy of getting the word out there. From there, we’re going to come out to LA in August and do a premiere, same kind of things we’re doing in New Jersey, we’re going to do a nice big event and then we have a couple of distributors we’ve been speaking to that are kind of waiting in the wings, waiting for me to send them the final cut. I don’t think we’re going to go down the film festival route yet, we’re going to deal with these two premieres and then send them out to distributors that are waiting for the final cut so I have a few avenues in front of me right now, we’ll do the premieres, see what kind of reviews we get together and see where it takes us.
What projects are you all working on next?
Tracey: Ok, I have this one coming up and in about two and a half months I have Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter coming out, then At the Edge of Time comes out by the end of the year, another science fiction film and I have Diary of a Fatman premiering in Cannes in a week and then this summer I’m filming Dance of the Blue Tattoo opposite Harry Lennix.
Bill: I have this movie, then I have a film called Mommy’s Box, directed by Johnny Greenlaw, which just won best feature film at Manhattan Film Festival, we’re hitting a bunch of festivals with that and we’re having an LA premiere in I believe early October . I have a few other films coming out, one is Steps, which was executive produced by Shaquille O’Neal and I just filmed a comedy called Yellow Scare and that’s it, day to day, everything changes.
Thomas: Obviously a lot of my focus right now is going to be on Who’s Jenna?, we also have another script that’s in the wings right now called Triple Play, it’s a crime-drama-murder-mystery, about a murder that takes place at the Baseball Hall of Fame and we’re hopefully going to try and shoot that maybe sometime later this year or early next year. Also, I’ve been pulled by some of the cast members from Jenna to work on other projects but first Jenna and then I can move on to the rest.
I want to thank Thomas, Tracey and Bill for taking the time to talk to us