In Smart People, directed by Noam Murro, Dennis Quaid plays Lawrence, a widowed professor at Carnegie-Mellon who finds new love and learns how to loosen up when he meets Janet (Sarah Jessica Parker), a nurse. Meanwhile, his adopted brother, Chuck (Thomas Haden Church) moves in with him and teaches his daughter, Vanessa (Ellen Page), how to loosen up--which, apparently, includes smoking marijuana. Dennis Quaid has most recently been in Vantage Point and will soon be seen in The Express and G.I. Joe. Sarah Jessica Parker is best known forthe TV series "Sex and the City" and the film version of it which opens May 30th, 2008. Thomas Haden Church has previously been in Sideways and in Spider-Man 3 as Sandman. I the privilege to interview Dennis Quaid, Sarah Jessiva Parker and Thomas Haden Church together.
Miramax Films releases Smart People on April 11th, 2008.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Sarah, how did the role of Janet come to you?
SJP: I was only hired when they were about to start shooting, so I didn’t have the script for a long time and everybody had been cast, and this movie was made before “Juno” so there was just an idea, an inkling, about Ellen’s extraordinary skill, but I certainly knew both of their work. I had very little time with the script, which may have been just as well. I simply loved it and I had worked with Michael London, [who] produced The Family Stone. He just asked and I just said “Yes”. It was a great script, and he has really great taste.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What about you, Dennis?
DQ: Michael [London], [the producer], was on board already, but based on the script, I had a meeting with [director] Noam [Murro] because I didn’t really feel like I was right for the role. I couldn’t understand why they wanted me for this role. It was so unlike anything I’d ever done. There were so many more obvious people that I thought they could and should go to, but I had a meeting with Noam here in New York, and we talked about everything but the script. I just found him to be so intriguing and I wanted to work with him.
NYC MOVIE GURU: What was it like to physically become the character of Lawrence?
DQ: I wanted him to have a look to him, very sedentary, someone who is sort of like a sleepwalker or somebody who is emotionally dead in a way and had been for quite some time. I didn’t have time to gain the weight, so I just put on a fat suit every day, and actually, putting it on is like having the weight on. It’s hard on your back and it changes the way you walk. The beard is really kind of a protective defense with him in a sense, to hide from the world, or to appear to be very smart. It was okay for a while, but I prefer not to have a beard.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Thomas, what was it like working with Ellen Page?
THC: I spent a lot of time with Ellen when we were shooting the picture, and I was absolutely as impressed with her off-camera as anything we did in front of the camera. She’s self-possessed but in a positive way, beyond confidence, and she understands where she is in walking the earth. I just think it comes from excellent parenting, a real focus on academics when she was young she told me, and it was informed by nothing. Just one night we were shooting and she was talking about living in Toronto, and I knew she was from Nova Scotia—she was 19 when we shot the movie. I said, “Really, when did you live in Toronto?” and she said, “Well, I was emancipated and living alone when I was 15 living in Toronto going to school.” And I’m like, “That’s f*cking great! I had a lawn-mowing business when I was 15.” I mean, she was so focused, so young, and I had made comparisons to what I think Leonardo DiCaprio was probably like at that age or what Sarah Jessica Parker was at that age when she was starring on Broadway in “Annie”. I’m really amazed and a little bewildered by that early focus, that laser intensity.
NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about Smart People’s potential success as an independent film?
THC: Miramax picked it up right away based upon 10 minutes of footage that they saw over a year ago. These movies are still very difficult to market. I remember when Little Miss Sunshine was going around and whenever I read it and I met with the directors, they were like “We can’t make the movie without you” and Steve Carell hadn’t broken, and I was already cast in Spider-Man. I was like, “What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen?” And then suddenly, Little Miss Sunshine kind of inspired me a little bit, because I really loved the script, but you’re like “What’s going to happen?” because then it’s like “Oh, God, if it doesn’t get a distributor…”. Sometimes [given] the quality of the picture, it has no reference point in history. It’s like “It failed because nobody saw it.” That doesn’t make it a failure, and failed by whose abacus?
NYC MOVIE GURU: What did you do in Pittsburgh when you had some free time?
DQ: I went to Steelers games.
SJP: There’s good food in Pittsburgh.
DQ: We really didn’t have a lot [of free time] because we did this in 29 days. We wound up working sometimes 14 even 16-hour days on this, so we would basically got back to the hotel and crashed until we had to get up the next day.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Was Carnegie-Mellon University always one of the settings in Smart People? What’s so special about the university?
DQ: It was written to be Georgetown [University], [but] there was probably some budgetary things that restricted us from shooting there, as well as a number of other things, but we ended up at Carnegie-Mellon. I don’t think it really changed much except for being there. I think Carnegie-Mellon changed the script maybe in itself, not that we changed for that. It was a really great place to shoot, too. The campus is fantastic in a way. It’s unique.
THC: I didn’t know anything about Carnegie-Mellon, but what was really surprising, when it was Georgetown [University], Dennis’ character, [Lawrence], was regarded to be such a weary elitist and whenever we were in Pittsburgh, and the local teamster drove me around, I became quite aware of the class distinction from kids that go to Pitt, kids [that] go to some of the other schools and kids who go to CMU. It was quite evident being driven around by this blue-collar teamster working-class guy who had lived, grew up, his whole life, raised kids, the whole thing in Pittsburgh, that it was regarded as the “rich kids’ school” and that was for me the bridge to Georgetown, because an actor who I know that went to De Paul, started at De Paul, but he said that all he wanted to do was go to Georgetown. He said, “My whole life was focused on being at Georgetown because it was such an elite academic environment.” I realized that there in Pittsburgh, that was what Carnegie-Mellon represented and that’s why I thought that transference was not that far from Georgetown.
NYC MOVIE GURU: Sarah, how is your experience in Smart People different from that in Sex and the City?
Parker: Sometimes the difference is what might seem like a disadvantage, actually. I like that we had a less than luxurious schedule on this movie. They said it was 29 days, and I actually do like that kind of speed. Big movies tend to have very generous schedules and generous budgets, and you end up doing things over 3 and 4 days that you know can be done in an afternoon or a day and a half, and you just think of all the money flying out the window and all the energy that dissipates over the day while you wait and then just producing responsibilities, because both these gentleman know them well, they just change your responsibilities. They change your burden on the set. I love the burden of producing. I love it, but I’m one of eight kids, so it’s very much like the chaos of my life, but it’s also very nice to be a hired actor and to have no responsibilities. I like both very, very much, but I I really like the schedule of a movie that has constraints on it financially because you just keep moving.