Interview: The Young Women of “Step”

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Audiences are cheering for “Step,” the documentary about a team of girls from a Baltimore school who compete in the jubilant precision world of step, which has deep roots in the African and African-American culture. They are members of the first graduating class of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women, which is committed to making sure that all of the students are accepted to college, attend, and graduate from college as well. The documentary follows the team, especially three of the seniors, as the team attends competition and as its members apply to college and wait to hear whether they have been accepted.

For the Huffington Post, I interviewed director Amanda Lipitz, who has has a background in producing Broadway musicals, which helped her bring a dynamism and energy to filming the girls’ performances. But it her connection to the girls and the unwavering dedication of their family and the school over six years that gives the film the emotional power that inspired an Instagram rave from former First Lady Michelle Obama.

I also interviewed the three young women Lipitz follows in the film, team captain Blessin Giraldo and team members Tayla Solomon and valedictorian Cori Grainger.

TAYLA: Okay, so for me we’re just sitting waiting for her for the college signing day because we knew we had to perform and so we were waiting, just sitting and standing and waiting; I’m just like I don’t care how long; it’s Michelle Obama.  I’ll wait all day if I have to. So while I was sitting down she walks in and she’s like “hey guys, it’s you.” We’re like “you don’t know us but we know you; we’ve known you for eight years. That was just a great experience.”  Yeah, and she hugged each and every one of us and talked to us. She smells really, really nice.  Yesterday we had the Baltimore premiere of the movie so we’re all getting ready for the premiere and then we see the Instagram post and we’re like “wow!” Speechless, still speechless; I don’t even have the right caption but my facial expression tells it all.  She’s amazing; she’s very powerful and I’m so happy we got to meet her.

What other adventures have you had on the road, promoting the film?

BLESSIN: We talked to a lot of youth and a lot of people that don’t know about what stepping is and don’t really understand the dynamics of our communities and how we’re all about staying together sticking together.  Being a black woman from Baltimore, we’re put in a really good position to represent not only ourselves, our community, our school but to represent our generation and a group of people all across the world; people that want to succeed and want to do specific things but they may not have all the resources and all the support they need.  It’s up to us educate people about it, how we can get involved and how you can help, and that’s one of the best parts for me. It’s getting a chance to talk to the people that can relate to my testimony because it’s really hard to be in front of a camera and open up like that but it came easy to us because we had a good team. We wanted to do something positive for our city and we had good intentions for it. That meant we had to break down your pride and really open up to let them in so people can understand you and why you’re so frustrated or why you’re going through what you’re going through and hopefully learn from that and be better.  No matter where they come from what they look like, somebody always comes out of the Q & A and says “Oh my God, I totally relate.” It may not have been like their lights going off or their grades going down.  It might have been something completely different like their marriage or their business and they relate to us.  They are inspired by us for being so courageous and continuing to persevere.

What does it take to be good at step?

CORI: Confidence I would say.

BLESSIN: Precision.

TAYLA: Teamwork.

CORI: We had to get precise but I think the first step is confidence because you don’t have to be a stepper to look good if you’re confident while you’re doing it; you don’t have to be perfect, you can mess up all you want but if you don’t want it to look like you mess up you have to be confident.

TAYLA: But I think I agree with Blessin.  Like the precision, you know when we have practice Coach would be like “you’re all not doing this right” and we’d be like “Coach we need to learn the steps” so we learned it and we made it look precise and once you feel it that’s when you get in the groove and be like “Okay, I’m confident; I got the steps and we’re going to look good together and we’re going to do every move together.”

CORI: I think that’s when you become unstoppable.

TAYLA: The ultimate stepper.

CORI: Like when we’re on stage and Coach says “I see you all zone out.”

TAYLA: When we step we have to find the space we want to look at because looking at people is weird when you step. So you don’t look at the wall, you look through the wall.

CORI: We all enter this from the perspective of us performing, I was entering from the perspective of a newbie so, what is it going to take me to be a good stepper?

BLESSIN: Maybe being willing to listen and learn.

TAYLA: Just going for it because I went in inexperienced.  I didn’t start in sixth grade, I started in ninth and I was just willing to adapt and wanting to learn.   They didn’t have to but they taught me what I know now to make me a better stepper and to look like them.  It all comes together even when we make last-minute changes about positioning ten seconds before the show.  You all might not know this but we know the formation is off and stuff like that.  You got to be able to move quick and think quick.

What does is it takes to be a good captain of the step team?

BLESSIN: You can’t be in a spotlight hog. You have to know how to maneuver and tell people when they’re doing good things; like for instance when the girls on the team are always relying on her to keep the bass because we have deep voices when we yell. We are an all-girl team so when we travel and we compete against boys we all want to have incredible base, strong, deep voices.  We have to uncover people’s strengths because you want them to be good. You have to be compliant. You have to be just as good in the back as you are in the front. You have to sometimes play the underdog. You have to play the person who gets in trouble because the whole team doesn’t need to get in trouble. It’s like you have to take criticism a lot because you’re not perfect and you will learn because at the end of the day you hold a title and at any moment anybody is capable of being a good captain. So you have to always keep in mind that this position is not something that is solidified; it can always be taken away from you, it’s something to defend, you have to earn it. Being a good captain you have to be very confident, you have to be focused on yourself and what you want to add to the dynamic of the team and always be very aware of the environment that you are selling; the tone of the environment.

You were the first graduating class at the Baltimore Leadership School for Women.  What makes that school so special?

BLESSIN: All of the staff are dedicated, I don’t think that there is any other school in Baltimore like it.  Some teachers just come in, teach, get their paycheck and leave but at our school they actually create programs for us after school so we can stay engaged and not be on the streets. They care about when we coming to class, how we get there, and they volunteer to take us home. They do things that teachers don’t necessarily do.  I know we can call up any one of our teachers if we just need advice on any subject and they don’t hesitate to be there for us.  The message of the school is to transform Baltimore young women one at a time and they definitely make sure they do that academically, emotionally and socially.

Does it make a difference that it’s an all-girls school?

CORI:  I think that I hold women to like a certain standard now; it’s like you represent everything and more. I never want to see a woman think of herself as not being good enough or not thinking she can do anything because we are the beginning and the end. I feel like everything in this world revolves around a strong woman and it’s all about women’s empowerment.  When it comes to women I’m kind of selfish and I think it’s because I was in an all-girl environment for a very long time. Men are pretty cool but I think women are way better.

BLESSIN: That’s just how I feel. I don’t mind being around men, now I go to a coed school I think we all go to coed schools now; it’s just something about being in a room full of women. You can come together and you can make magic.

 

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Interview: Francesca Capaldi on “Max 2: White House Hero”

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“Max 2: White House Hero” star Francesca Capaldi has a very extensive resume for someone born in 2004, including three seasons on the popular series “Dog with a Blog” and the voice of the little red-haired girl in “The Charlie Brown Movie.” It was a lot of fun to talk to the charming and remarkably bright and poised young actress about her newest project, Max 2: White House Hero, available on DVD/Blu-Ray and streaming May 23, 2017. I have a copy to give away! Send me an email at moviemom@moviemom.com with Max in the subject line and tell me your favorite pet’s name. Don’t forget your address! (US addresses only.) I’ll pick a winner at random on May 31, 2017.

“Okay, so the movie is basically the Russian President and his daughter come to America for talks with the US President,” she told me. “I play Alex, the daughter, and I meet the first son, TJ, who is played by Zane Austin, and his dog Max, who is a Marine dog but he stays with TJ. We kind of get into some trouble and we kind of get in some mischief. We go to a party, I went in the water on this raft, and it’s because someone is trying to sabotage these talks between Russia and the US.”

She was experienced in working with dogs before, from “Dog with a Blog.” “The most important thing to know is probably that they are not typical dogs and they’re not pets either. They’re workers. They are like actors but they’re just not humans and they are so well trained and they know so much that it’s crazy. You just have to remember they are working, kind of like service dogs, you can’t really go around playing with them.” There were actually four dogs playing the part of Max, each with different specialties. “They all had different abilities. They have different strong suits and we got to spend time with all of them before we filmed so that they are comfortable with us and there’s a better emotional connection when we’re filming. One could jump really, really well, one was a runner, one was like the face for the dogs. He’s on the posters and stuff like that. So, they all have different things they do and I thought was really cool.”

Francesca describes her character as “really excited to see what’s going to happen and I think she had a great time visiting America. And she’s a really fun character to play especially since I never did a Russian accent before. It was really cool to try something new with that. And she is a little precocious, she is a little funky and she was really fun to play.” She loves doing accents and developed this one by watching YouTube videos and working with her dad, who speaks a lot of languages. “Russians have a really distinct accent. Instead of ‘will’ they say ‘vill.’ I actually got to say some things in Russian and I’ve never spoken Russian I barely even heard it been spoken before so it was really fun. It was a little bit difficult because it’s not like anything I ever heard.”

She also had her first opportunity to do stunts, which she enjoyed very much. “I had to do a scene where I was kidnapped, where I was thrown into a van and I head butted someone and I was in this river. It was so cold I had to wear a dry suit, it was freezing and I remember the medic that was on set was saying, ‘Yes, keep your toes moving or there’s not going to be any circulation and we’re going to have to amputate them,’ and I was like ‘Oh, okay, yes, I’ll keep my toes moving.’ So it was just so cold but I loved it. I thought it was so much fun.”

Francesca has been performing since she was a baby and says, “I just love acting so much, it’s crazy.” She keeps in mind advice she got from the late Don Rickles. “He said to me, ‘Don’t let anyone ever discourage you. Stay confident, no matter what. Stay strong.’ He just gave me the best advice about the business and how to stay true to yourself.”

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Actors Contests and Giveaways Interview

Interview: Barry Watson on “Date My Dad”

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It was a lot of fun to talk to actor Barry Watson about his new television series, “Date My Dad,” a one-hour dramedy on the UP channel about a widower with three daughters — and a mother-in-law played by Raquel Welch! The show is something of a real-life family affair, as Watson’s wife, Natasha Gregson Wagner, and his father-in-law, Robert Wagner (“Hart to Hart,” “It Takes a Thief”) have guest-starred on the series, which premieres June 2, 2017.

Tell me about the character you play.

Well my character is Ricky Cooper, and Ricky is a widower with three daughters. We start the show off on Ricky’s fortieth birthday where it’s been three and a half years since his wife Isabella passed away and his daughters have decided to get him out in the dating world again because he’s sort of been in a groove just kind of focused on raising his girls. And on top of that his mother-in-law who has been helping out, who’s played by Raquel Welch, decided that she’s moving out of the house so, Ricky thinks his life is just turned upside down. It is obviously a challenge for him that can be messy at times and it is a challenge for me as well as an actor because I’ve got three kids myself and I’ve gone through a period of time where I was a single father so I can bring some of that to the role as well.

I think having a daughter really prepared me in a different way to play the father of three daughters because I don’t think that I would be able to bring the depth that I brought to the character without having my daughter come into this world. Ricky’s a very simple guy, he doesn’t really put a lot of effort into I think what his wardrobe is, he wears a lot of flannels, a lot of jeans, a lot of boots and that become a storyline with his daughters because they’re always telling me I wear dad jeans and I tuck my shirt in too much and it should be untucked and all that. It’s like my real life. My daughter is only five, but she tells me when she thinks my clothes aren’t right.

Ricky is not just a dad in a family of girls but he comes from kind of a macho environment. He was a professional athlete.

This guy was a professional baseball player so he went from city to city and hung out with his ballplayer friends and his teammates, but the one thing that he did have in his life was his love of his wife Isabella who he had been with since high school. So it wasn’t like he was out playing the field like you know you hear all these baseball players in sports athletes do. I think Ricky is a pretty dedicated guy to his wife and his three daughters.

So, basically, he has not dated for more than 20 years.

Yes, in over 20 years, his whole adult life he was with one person and so he doesn’t even know what that dating world is like or even how to do it. So, he needs the help of his daughters, his mother-in-law, and his work-family. They are there to kind of push him along and kind of get him out of this groove he has been in.

But it’s not a sitcom, right?

This is a single camera one hour dramedy. It’s not a drama, but I think most comedy comes from dramatic situations, just like in real life. My nine-year-old son said a few years ago, “I just wish that there is something that you could work on that I could watch.” In households nowadays if they have two TVs, one TV has some sort of Nickelodeon or Disney thing on and the parents are watching some procedural show that’s basically the same show that is on the other networks and nobody is really sharing that time together and I think it’s great that this show came about because it really has a little bit of everything for everybody.

What was it like to work with your famous father-in-law, Robert Wagner?

He’s my father-in-law now so I’ve known him for quite a while and so we have a relationship that’s obviously our personal relationship but it was just great to kind of see how he goes about his work and to share the screen time with him. He’s a pro, and there is no drama with him. He prepares for his work and he shows up on time and he is a true professional. And it was just on honor to be able to work with him.

What kind of role does he have?

He plays a possible love interest for Raquel Welch’s character. So, if we end up getting a season two then hopefully he’ll get to come and do more episodes.

And what kind of role did Natasha play?

Natasha plays this character, Page, who is kind of the first woman that Ricky’s taken any sort of interest in since Isabella passed away. I mean he has had some dates before but it’s always like the dates set up by his brother, Bill or somebody from the gym or his daughters or his mother-in-law and so it was kind of the first woman he’s really taken more serious interest in I think.

Ricky must have some challenges both in dating and in raising his daughters when it comes to technology.

We do, we touch on that quite a bit. We actually have really nice episode that deals with cyber bullying, which is something I obviously worry about in my own life with my own kids happening at some point. They’re too young now but eventually they are going to be into that whole social media world. So it was nice to be able to deal with that topic. That’s what’s so great about the show, being able to tackle these different issues that are happening with kids nowadays. I can relate to some of it because bullying is with every generation but now it’s done in such a different way.

And we did have an episode where Ricky tries an online dating service. But not every episode is going to have Ricky on a date. It’s called “Date My Dad” so obviously Ricky would be going on many dates hopefully to try to find the right one at some point but so far what we’ve tackled in the first season was basically about a handful of dates and most of them were set up by relatives or work friends or his mother-in-law, Rosa. Everybody thinks they know, just like real life, but hopefully Ricky won’t find that person for many, many seasons.

What kind of personality does Raquel Welch’s character have?

The Rosa character really pops off the pages. She’s such a memorable character. Raquel Welch was the first person that we went to. She hasn’t had a role like this that she could actually sink her teeth into and show everybody what she can do. So she was very, very excited to get the offer for it. And obviously, it all worked out.

What was your first paid job as an actor?

I had just moved out to LA, I was very young, I can’t remember what year it was but it was a recurring role on “Days Of Our Lives.” I played Randy, a bad boy with a leather jacket. Yes, you’re shooting one episode in one day, so I learned a lot because I got to see how the regulars on that show would go about their process. Some of them had their stuff memorized and knew everything and some of them would use cue cards. So, I got to see who I wanted to be as an actor.

Working with kids is always a challenge for an actor. How did you make your young co-stars feel like a family?

That’s always like the key to any show. You can have a great written show but if you don’t have chemistry with the cast then it doesn’t really matter. And so I was there during the whole casting process with the girls and I actually thought it was going to be a lot harder than it was. Audrey who plays Gigi, the youngest one, her character is a little bit of a brainiac and I’ll never forget Audrey coming in with a blazer on and these glasses and she didn’t even say any lines. She said, “Hi everybody, how are you doing? These are my new transition lenses.” I was like, “Oh my gosh, she’s Gigi.” None of them have really worked that much and so I just tried to take them underneath my wing and try to guide them in the right direction when it comes to how to be a professional and do your job and then when it comes to kind of chemistry, you know that is something I think that’s kind of built throughout the season. The pilot is great. We definitely have chemistry there. But as the series goes on a chemistry develops within that so I think by the end we were such a fine-tuned machine. I love those girls. I hope I get the chance to keep working with them more.

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Actors Interview Television

Ilya Tovbis on the Washington Jewish Film Festival 2017

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It was great to catch up with Ilya Tovbis to hear about this year’s Washington Jewish Film Festival. I will be hosting “A Classy Broad” and interviewing its subject, trailblazing Hollywood executive Marcia Nasatir and filmmaker Anne Goursaud following the film. The schedule includes a screening of “Clueless” with writer/director Amy Heckerling, and a 45th anniversary screening of “Cabaret.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v= https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mxTI7Yg-D5Y

Once again, Tovbis found a theme emerging from the films selected, despite the wide variety of genres and countries of origin. “I think the most timely theme that we have identified, very much reflecting the current political moment both nationally and also globally is our Mechanism of Extremism series which is looking at extremism and governments and societies from 1899 through to today. We have also continued a theme from last year which we actually intend to make an annual one, our Rated LGBTQ series. And then lastly on a much lighter side we found a whole lot of comedies of various sorts so we have bundled them together in a series called Laugh Track.

Special guests this year include two Visionary Award winners that Tovbis says he is “thrilled about, Barry Levinson, who based films like “Diner” and “Liberty Heights” on his own experiences. “The other winner is Agnieszka Holland who was Oscar-nominated twice, most recently with ‘In Darkness.’ We’ll be doing a repertory screening of her rarely shown 1985 film ‘Angry Harvest.'”

The films will be of interest to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences. “I think we view ourselves first and foremost as a cultural artistic festival that has a Jewish interest. These films will appeal to a large audience that’s interested in great independent cinema. We do outreach to a whole host of organizations including arts organizations, nonprofits, issue driven organizations, different constituencies. As you dive deeper into the films you have this range of 136 events, with something for everyone. We have as always a lot of films on minority and Arab citizens of Israel and then we have some fun partnerships. We’re working with the local version of Comic Con, Awesome Con for our sci-fi films.

Tovbis has scheduled question and answer sessions following many of the films, with the filmmakers or with local experts. “We have a great partnership this year with the US Holocaust Museum and so many of the Holocaust films feature incredible experts from their museum which range from music historians and cultural historians and others dealing with issues of euthanasia and Romany treatment during the Holocaust.”

Many of the films are being shown for the first time in the US or in the area, and some of the older films are rare or recently restored. “And we hope that being in the festival will get distribution for some of the films that are not scheduled for theatrical release,” Tovbis said.

Another highlight is an evening celebrating Yiddish culture across artistic media. “We are starting out with ‘A Letter To Mother,’ which is a fabulous and also a really timely Polish film. It was filmed shortly before the Blitzkrieg and was the highest in this film in the American theaters a couple of weeks after the Blitzkrieg and it was the highest grossing Yiddish film in American theaters when it was released a couple of weeks after the Blitzkrieg. It is a really interesting historical document. The film itself, while it was shot then, takes place shortly before World War I and talks a lot about Jewish displacement for economic reasons from Europe to America and there’s a lot of relevance to the current refugee crisis.” The film will be followed by a live performance of Yiddish songs from a Dutch band called Nikitov.

Tovbis says, “I think one film that could fly under the radar is ‘People That Are Not Me,’ which is filmed by an Israeli woman named Hadas Ben Aroya who is really the entire force behind the film.” He compares it to critically acclaimed independent films like “Frances Ha” and Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” “It is very current, part of a new Israeli cinema of a kind don’t think I’ve seen come out of that country before, very sexually forward feminist, sort of wears its beliefs on its sleeve. It is not apologetic, it’s not tidy, it has this kind of really interesting take on modern romance or lack thereof or trying to find meaning for someone in their 20s or 30s but is very innovative in the way it’s shot. So I’m really excited about her as a new voice.”

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Festivals Interview Spiritual films

Interview: Rama Burshtein on “The Wedding Plan”

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Rama Burshtein (“Fill the Void”) is an observant Orthodox Jew who lives in Israel, but she reminds me in our interview that for more than half of her life, she was a secular Jew living in America. “I’m 50 years old. I became religious when I was 27 years old and still have lived more years secular than religious, still am. All my memories, all of who I am, this was not in a religious world.” That is an important part of what makes it possible for her to work with actors and crew who have different levels of religious observance and to relate to the audience for her films as well. While her new film, “The Wedding Plan,” like her first one concerns a young woman’s decision about who she will marry. But “Fill the Void” was set in a deeply religious ultra-Orthodox community, while “The Wedding Plan” characters, like Burshtein herself, are those who have chosen a more observant life as adults. So we see more variation in their practice, some uncertainty and inconsistency but more of a sense of intentionality.

The central character is Michel, played by Noa Koler in an award-winning performance of stunning intelligence and sensitivity in her first lead role. “This character is very, very complicated because she is supposed to make you laugh and cry at the same time, and it’s very complicated for any actress and… So it’s like you can’t discover anyone at that age so good but it’s not true, because Noa, she’s an actress in Israel, she played in the theatre. Everyone knows that she is talented. Nobody gave her a leading role. Ever. At the age of 35. And she’s like a genius. She is extremely talented, It’s like, I’m telling you there is no way to compare anything that she does in an audition than to other very professional actresses–good actresses. She has something that few people have in the world.” Burshtein said one of her most important roles as a director was to show Koler that she had confidence in her. “When I believed a hundred in her then she believed a hundred. But if I believed eighty, she would believe zero. Everyone around me didn’t think I’m doing right. Everyone was trying to convince me not to take her. Everyone knows that she is talented. People didn’t think that she could handle a role where all those nice guys want her. She is like the neighbour’s daughter, she’s not not Julia Roberts in ‘Notting Hill.’ You have to believe that Oz Zehavi, the guy that plays Yos, who is like a big star in Israel, that he would go for her. But I know that at the end when someone is so sincere and like the model of truth, this is what you fall in love with at the end. Even a rock star, that what you fall in love with, you don’t fall in love with a pretty face. We don’t fall in love with a pretty face, that was part of me saying that because today nobody is even asking that question. Nobody thinks that it’s unreal that he wants her.” Making that believable is very important because it helps Michal truly understand that she is lovable. “It’s like ‘La La Land,’ says Burshtein. “She brings this thing out and it suddenly all the actions are opened. She believes that the sky is the limit. It’s an energy shows in her and that brings a lot in.”

In Israel and Europe, the film was called “Through the Wall.” Burshtein says, “It’s not ‘Behind the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Breaking the Wall,’ it’s not ‘Climbing the Wall,’ it’s ‘Through the Wall,’ which is something that you cannot actually do you know. A wall is a wall. You can’t go through it unless you have a door. But that’s what she is doing. She’s going through a wall.

Burshtein wants to deliver a message with this endearing romantic comedy premise of a young woman who hires a hall for the date of her wedding even though she does not have a groom. “There is a thing that I call ‘the imaginary option,’ It’s like you always think that there is someone a little bit better than what you will have sitting in front of you. You do not see what is in front of you because you have a picture of something else. From my research, the women that can fall in love with everyone are married.” She points out that when asked why she wants to be married, Michel gives almost every possible answer except for the most important one: to love. “I would sit with a girl and ask ‘What are you looking for?’ and she’s going to give me that list. And the whole list, which is very interesting, would be what he could give her. I never had girls writing down ‘I feel like I want I want to give. I want someone that I want to do for.'”

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