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August 2006
IDLEWILD: An Interview with Paula Patton

IDLEWILD: An Interview with Paula Patton
By Wilson Morales

As one of today’s emerging talent, Paula Patton is certainly landing some key roles. There aren’t that many African American actresses getting plum parts these days so when we see an actress in a shining spot, she’s sure to get notices. Patton has landed the key role of “Angel” in the long-awaited film, “Idlewild”, in which she plays a singer who’s romantically involved with Andre Benjamin’s character. Later this Fall, Patton will play opposite Denzel Washington in “Déjà Vu”. In speaking with blackfilm.com, Patton gives some insight as to her background and working with OutKast and the rest of the cast.

Notes: She’s married to musician Robin Thicke.

What are you wearing today?

Paula: It’s a [gold] Burberry skirt and my [gold and white] shirt, Bono and his wife have a clothing line for the top and Marc Jacobs flats. Luckily the studio paid for everything. If it were my own clothing, it would be sweat pants and a t-shirt so I got lucky.

Did you keep any of the wardrobe you wore on-screen?

Paula: No. Some of those gorgeous dresses were Bob Mackie’s old designs that Cher wore. They were very tight. She had a tiny waist or a rib missing or something.

This is my first time doing anything like this so be gentle. But, I can take it too.

Did you actually sing your songs?

Paula: You’ve taken my secret and put it out there to the world. I am not a singer, unfortunately. My character, Angel Davenport, has a big musical number and she needs to sound amazing when she comes on stage, like an angel and, unfortunately, I sound like a frog but I love to sing in the shower and in the car. But I just wasn’t gifted with that talent for singing so, luckily, they were able to let that slide.

What did you do for your audition?

Paula: The first audition was for the director and the producers, and the good thing is the bulk of the movie is acting and I have this one musical number so I mainly acted for them. Then, in the screen test, we did some singing and I did use my own voice for that. That was probably when they decided to call in some professionals which is pretty intimidating because I had Andre there playing the piano. We’re doing that scene in the movie where I’m learning a song that he’s written and we did that for the screen test but that was about as much singing as I gave them.

What did you pull from to bring your character to life?

Paula: My inspiration was Lena Horne in Cabin in the Sky, a 1930’s movie. She’s a little bit more mischievous than I am in the movie but her energy, the way that she was a diva in that film was something that I wanted to emulate in my character. She has this charm and this great smile and yet she had a sort of wicked sense of something else going on behind there. My character does have a secret she’s carrying. But, I listened to a lot of 1930’s music, as much as possible, Bessie Smith, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and keep in that mind state of the 1030’s and watch a lot of old movies and see how the women carried themselves.

Can you tell us about your journey to the screen?

Paula: It’s been interesting, actually. I came to acting later in life. I loved acting when I was a little girl. I put on plays in my parents’ backyard. I went to performing arts high school, Hamilton Performing Arts Magnate school, here in L.A. 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. I made a couple of short films and then I had a family friend who 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. I got that gig. I waved my enrollment to college and then I went to Berkeley but I really wanted to be in film school. At this point, I’m getting very shy and introverted and was sure that I wanted to be behind the camera. Then I went to USC and graduated and then did P.A. and assistant work. I probably should have known that I was kidding myself at the time about wanting to be an actress because I remember I had gotten a very coveted gig to be a P.A. on a motion picture and I was driving up to San Francisco to work on this movie and I had heard that the lead girl had dropped out. I thought ‘oh my God, maybe they’ll see me and say ‘oh, you’re perfect for the role’. Instead they were like ‘hey kid. Get us some coffee and be quick about it’. After that I worked on documentaries. At a certain point I was working on this show called “Medical Diaries for the Discovery Channel heath network shooting surgeries; I know, strange. When that show was over with, I didn’t know why I didn’t want another job in that business and didn’t know why I didn’t have that passion you’re supposed to have like Bryan Barber to be a filmmaker, to make a film on the weekends. Something was missing. I was trying to write at my desk and thought ‘I’m lying to myself. Something’s not right here’. I asked myself ‘what did I love to do since I was a little girl?’ and I loved to act so I started taking lessons and classes and luck brought me here.

So are you nice to production assistants now?

Paula: Absolutely. That’s one of the hardest jobs on a movie set and you’re treated very poorly. It’s really interesting to go from a P.A. to ‘what would you like, Miss Patton’. Really? ‘You’re going to get it for me?’ It’s pretty miraculous.

How was working with (Director) Bryan Barber?

Paula: It wasn’t at all like working with a first time filmmaker. He had such a singular vision and he knew how to executive it. It’s one thing to be on the set watching it all happen. It’s another thing to actually watch the movie finished. Then, you stand in real awe of what he’s done. All the little effects, the cartoon, the talking flask and things he does with black and white and moving in and out, just incredible things. I sat and thought ‘he’s a genius. He’s done something truly incredible’. I’m in awe of him.

This isn’t just a long music video. Can you talk about the story in the film?

Paula: You have many different storylines happened but, overall, I think the real theme of the film is about people with dreams and trying to achieve their dreams. Andre’s doing that, I’m doing that, Big Boi’s doing that in the movie and then 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 that he was able to have such stunning visuals and yet piece it all together to create a real film that’s heartfelt, I think. It’s a simple story about love and friendship and the name Angel Davenport speaks to the fact that all of us can be angels. She’s flawed but she’s an angel to Andre’s character Percival. She helps him see his talent and brings him out of his shell and, for that, he becomes a better person. He’s truly an angel to her because he sees the best in her, that fragile little girl, and gives her the strength to be the best she can be.

Who is the real Sally B. Shelly?

Paula: Bryan Barber’s great-grandmother

How was working with Andre and Big Boi when you are so new?

Paula: They’re huge stars and so it was a bit intimidating at first. But, when I met them, they are so kind and so humble and I mostly did all my scenes with Andre. Andre was so generous with me. It was his first lead in a movie at the time and he made me feel like both of us were on this journey together. He was my confidant. We would talk about our nerves, our excitement and he made me feel as if no one had ever known his name before and, of course, I’d go home and watch MTV and be like ‘who is this person’? He’s so fabulous. It was a really comfortable experience. No one made me feel like ‘who are you, kid’?

Wasn’t the love scene with him uncomfortable?

Paula: Well you always joke. There’s that countdown to the sex scene. Like, ‘okay, five days until sex scene. No more carbs’. There’s nervousness about that but Andre really became my friend on the movie and he is just a gentleman through and through. Of course, when you are nearly naked.. I just had strategically-placed nude items, it’s nerve-wracking but Bryan set up a good situation in that the lights were low, which we all know in always good in a love anything. And he had about five cameras set up so we didn’t have to do tons of takes. We just sort of did it and we caught pieces. The end result are beautiful images that are pieced together to create something that’s not vulgar. Hopefully, my mom will not die at the screening. I’m telling her to close her eyes.

How was working with Ben Vereen and Cicely Tyson?

Paula: Cicely Tyson and I never got to work together but I got to see her work and I think what’s incredible is she brings a spiritual side to the movie; about fate and dreams, that God, the universe will take care of you so I just thought she brought a beautiful element to it. She’s an incredible actress. I got to work with Patti LaBelle which is a dream. She is so gracious and not at all the diva she plays in the movie. She’s like ‘come here and give me a hug’. She’s fabulous and Ben Vereen I had the most time with and he’s a legend and he’s really known for being incredible in musicals, dancing and singing and intertwining all that with good acting. We had three weeks of rehearsals before the movie started and he gave us all his knowledge and we were really thankful for it. He was very helpful. I am eternally grateful.

When you went on set, did you see it differently since you were also a filmmaker?

Paula: 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 and believe that the actor or the director are the most important part of the movie and, in fact, it’s all of the people who come together to make a film. It’s a really collaborative art form. You need the P.A. to do their job, the guy who lights the movie, the set designer, the sound and all of that creates a great film. Without all that, you don’t have a great movie. It doesn’t matter how good the actor is. You need everybody to come together to create that so you have a real appreciation for everybody’s job. Once I was on that set, I was ‘yes. I was not made to be a director.’ That’s the hardest job on the planet. It’s really a hard job because they oversee all of those people and elements and don’t only have to focus on the actors. It’s a very difficult job and I was not cut out for it.

When you were about to do your big scene on stage, were you nervous?

Paula: I still get the butterflies before having the first day of a movie when you walk in and do an audition, there’s always that moment where you are put on stage and giving all your talent for people to either say ‘that sucks’ or ‘that’s great’ and it’s nerve-wracking. I totally relate to Angel being on stage and being nervous and especially because Angel was kind of like I was at the time; 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; just hopefully not get fired. Every day was just ‘don’t get fired’ so I can really relate to that moment of fear before you have to show everybody what you’ve got.

How about working with Macy Gray? Was that fun?

Paula: I love Macy. How funny was she in the movie? She was just great and she was sort of my nemesis in the film. We had a great time together. We were good friends and she would rib me all the time. I think her performance in the film was outstanding. We were friendly but the first day she was in character and she was giving me dirty looks. I thought ‘What’s with you. We haven’t even really met yet. What’s going on?’ Turns out she was in character but later she was ‘Let’s go hang out. Let’s get some drinks’. She was wonderful.

What’s next for you?

Paula: I have a movie called Déjà Vu coming out November 22nd. It’s with Denzel Washington and the director is Tony Scott. I play Denzel Washington’s love interest sort of. It’s a very interesting film. I can’t give away too much of the plot.

What’s it like to do a scene with Denzel?

Paula: You can’t have butterflies at the moment when you work with him. At that moment you have to be just another person or you’ll be eaten alive. It’s when you walk away from working with Denzel that you go [silent scream] ‘I just worked with Denzel Washington!’ You’re in your hotel room and every movie on that weekend is a movie he’s been in. But, I can say working with Denzel is like an actor going to graduate school, for me, it was like that. I learned so much from him. He’s a genius. He taught me that you prepare and prepare and don’t rehearse. You go in and see what organically happens. He would always surprise me.

IDLEWILD opens on August 25, 2006


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