PAULA PATTON on 'IDLEWILD' Contributed by Michael J. Lee, Executive Editor for Radio Free Entertainment
August 12, 2006
Set in the 1930s amidst the era of prohibition, Idlewild is a swinging, energetic fusion of modern sensibilities with a period setting. This unique blending of times is reflected in everything, from the music, to the visuals, to the characters themselves. Andre Benjamin and Antwan Patton of Outkast star in this stylized tale of a southern speakeasy, and provide the songs for a variety of show-stopping dance numbers. The ensemble cast also features Ving Rhames, Terrence Howard, Paula Patton, Faizon Love, Cicely Tyson, Ben Vereen, Patti LaBelle, and Macy Gray.
Actress Paula Patton is poised to be a breakout star of 2006: between her Idlewild role of sexy songstress Angel Davenport and her upcoming turn in Deja Vu opposite Denzel Washington, due in theaters later this year, she's sure to turn a lot of heads. In this interview, she talks about working on Idlewild, and making the long, curious transition from film student to documentary director to lead actress in a major feature.
Idlewild opens in theaters everywhere on August 25th.
MEDIA: Did you do your own singing in this movie?
PAULA: I am not the singer, unfortunately. [My character] Angel Davenport has her big musical number, and she really needs to sound amazing when she comes on the stage--she needs to sound like an angel. Unfortunately, I sound like a frog. I love to sing, though! I mean, I love to sing in the shower, in the car. But I just wasn't gifted with that talent. So luckily, they were able to let that slide.
So what did you do in your audition for the role?
Well, the first audition was for the director and the producers. The good thing is the bulk of the movie is acting, so I mainly acted for them. And then when I did the screentest, we did do some singing and I used my own voice for that, which is probably when they decided, "We need to call in some professionals." [laughs] Which is pretty intimidating, because I had Andre there playing the piano, and we're doing that scene in the movie where I'm learning a song that he's written. And so we did that scene for the screentest, as well as some other ones. But that was about as much singing as I gave them. I think that's why it took them so long to decide to give me the role. [laughs]
What were your inspirations in bringing your character to life?
My inspiration was Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky. She's a little bit more mischievous than I am in the movie, but her energy, the way she was a diva in that film, was something that I wanted to emulate in my character. She had this charm and this great smile, and yet she had a sort of wicked sense of something else going on behind there. And my character does have a secret she's carrying, so I used that as my inspiration. And then I tried to listen to as much '30s music as possible--Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Duke Ellington--and keep in that mind state of the 1930s, and watch a lot of old movies, and see how the women carried themselves.
Did you relate to Angel and her fear of stepping onto the stage for her big scene?
Absolutely. I think that we all have that...I still get the butterflies. Before you have your first day of a movie, when you walk into an audition, there's always that moment that you have to be put onstage, and you're giving all of your talent for people to either say "that sucks" or "that's great." And it's nerve-wracking. And so I could totally relate to Angel being on the stage and being nervous, especially because, in many ways, Angel was sort of like I was at the time, which was a fish out of water. I was given this great opportunity to be a lead in a movie with very little experience, and I had a lot to prove to, hopefully, not get fired. Every day was just, "Don't get fired." So I really could relate to that moment of fear before you have to show everybody what you've got.
How did you approach the sex scene you had to shoot with Andre?
Well, you know, you always joke. I mean, there started to be that countdown to the sex scene. It's like, "Okay! Five days to sex scene, no more carbs!" [laughs] So there's a nervousness about that. But Andre really became my friend on the movie, and he is just a gentleman through and through. Of course, I'm not going to lie to you, when you're just nearly naked, it's nerve-wracking. But Bryan set up a good situation in that the lights were low, which we all know is always good in a love anything. [laughs] And he had about five cameras set up so that we didn't have to do tons of takes. And we just sort of did it, and they caught pieces, which is I think what you see in the end result--there's these sort of beautiful images that are pieced together to try to create something. And it's not vulgar. Hopefully, my mom will not die at the screening of it. [laughs] I'm telling her to close her eyes.
You're a new face to many viewers, and Idlewild may be their first chance to see you in action. For the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with you, could you talk about the journey that brought you to this point in your career?
I always loved to act. Since I was a little girl, I put on school plays in my parents' backyard. I went to a performing arts high school, and always was in all the plays. And the year before my senior year of high school, I got interested in filmmaking and I went to USC film school for the summer program, and I made a couple short films. And I had a family friend that would send me out on auditions occasionally, and PBS was doing a show called The Ride, which took four young filmmakers to travel across the country and make documentaries about other young people throughout America. So anyways, I got that gig. I was going to go to Berkeley in the fall, and I [delayed] that enrollment to do that. And then I went to Berkeley for a semester and I decided I really wanted to be in film school. At this point, I'm getting very shy and introverted, and sure that I wanted to be behind the camera. So then I went to USC and I graduated. And when I graduated, I did P.A. work and assistant work. And I probably should have known that I was lying to myself at the time--that I really wanted to be an actress--because I remember I had gotten a very coveted gig to be a P.A. on a motion picture (which I know that doesn't sound like a big deal, but they're actually difficult to get), and on the way up to San Francisco to work on this movie, and I had heard that the lead girl had dropped out. And I thought, "Oh my God, maybe they'll see me and they'll think, 'You're perfect for the role!'" Instead, they were like, "Hey, kid, get us some coffee. And be quick about it!" [laughs] And then after that, I worked in documentaries, and I was working on this show called Medical Diaries for Discovery Heath Network, shooting surgeries and all that sort of stuff. And when that show was over with, I didn't know why I didn't want another job in that business, and I didn't know why I didn't have that passion you're supposed to have to be a filmmaker. Something was missing. And I asked myself what I loved to do since I was a little girl. And I loved to act. And so I started taking lessons and classes, and luck brought me here. That was a really long answer! I apologize. [laughs]
Having done your time in their position, are you nice to production assistants now?
Absolutely. Are you kidding? That's one of the hardest jobs on a movie set, and you're treated very poorly. It's really interesting to go from being a P.A. to "What would you like, Miss Patton?" [laughs]
What kind of perspective did your background as a filmmaker give you on the set of Idlewild?
I can tell you this: that having worked on films and studied filmmaking, you really start to understand what it takes to make a movie. I think sometimes people make the mistake to believe that the actor or just the director are the most important part of a movie. And in fact, it's all of the people that come together to make a film. It's a really collaborative art form. And you need the P.A. to do their job, the guy who lights the movie, the set designer, the sound...And without all those elements, you don't have a great movie. It doesn't matter how good the actor is, or the director. You need everybody to come together to create that. So you have a real appreciation for everybody's job. And I'll tell you this: once I was on that set, I went, "Yes, I was not made to be a director." [laughs] It's really a hard job, because they oversee all of those people and all of those elements, and I was not cut out for it.
People have compared Idlewild to a long-form music video. What's your take on that?
I think you have many different storylines happening in the movie, but overall, I think the real theme of the film is about people with dreams and trying to achieve their dreams, truly. Andre's doing that, I'm doing that, Big Boi's doing that. And I think people are mistaking it for a long music video because the visuals are so incredible. But I think what made Bryan Barber such an incredible director is he was able to have such stunning visuals that are video-like, and yet piece it all together to create a real film that's heartfelt.
Your character gets to clash a bit with Macy Gray's. How did you like working with her?
I love Macy! I mean, how funny was she in the movie? She was just great, and she was sort of my nemesis in the film. We were good friends, and she would rib me all the time. I just think her performance in the film is outstanding.
So the two of you were more friendly with each other off-set than on-set?
Oh yeah, we were very friendly. Actually, the first day, though, she was in character, and she was just like giving me dirty looks. And I was like, "What did I do to you? We haven't even met yet! What's going on?" Turned out she was in character, and later she's like, "Let's go hang out. Let's get some drinks." [laughs] So she was wonderful.