10.28.08

My Date With Sean Penn

How I ended up acting opposite Penn and (a nude) James Franco on the set of Gus Van Sant's new movie, Milk.

Excerpts from my diary: How I ended up acting opposite Penn and (a nude) James Franco on the set of Gus Van Sant’s new movie, Milk.

I’ve been producing films and TV shows since the 1970s– Father of the Bride, Buffy the Vampire Slayer–but I’d never acted in a major motion picture until I received a call asking if I’d like a part in Gus Van Sant’s Harvey Milk biopic, Milk. The very last thing I thought I’d ever do was to become an actor. Here’s how it happened.

Francine Maisler, the famous and brilliant casting director (she cast Spiderman) said to Gus, "We should get someone who looks like Howard Rosenman, who speaks like Howard Rosenman, and who has Howard Rosenman's vibe…to play David Goodstein.” Goodstein was a rich, gay New York Jew who moved to San Francisco in the early ‘70s and became a political kingmaker. He and Harvey Milk (played by Sean Penn) did not get along. My scenes would be with Sean.

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Video screenshot

Gus says to Francine: “Can he act?"

Francine calls me: "Have you ever acted before?"

"Yes," I answer. “I played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady at camp when I was 14. It was in Hebrew.” Francine hired me for the part. Gus, Francine, Dan Jinks, Bruce Cohen and Michael London called to tell me I was hired for the part.

Over the next three weeks my greatest and closest friends, Peter Spears and Susan Landau, spent hours running lines with me, endlessly giving me hints and intentions and motivations. I'm in business with Al Pacino now; we're developing Betsy and Napoleon about Napoleon's exile in St. Helena. The day I heard about the part in Milk I happened to have a meeting with Al at the brand new monumental Pharaohnic CAA office building. I was crazed and nervous and couldn’t process the fact that I was going to be acting with one of the great players in American cinema, Sean Penn. So I hesitantly said to Al, "When you played the part of Roy Cohn in Angels in America, did you study him and research him and try to imitate him?" He squinted and peered up at me with a cocked head, and in that low rumble and inimitable voice of his he answered, "Kid, they bought Howard Rosenman. Play Howard Rosenman."

When you’re a producer, you think you’re at the top of the heap. But you’re not. Once you are an actor, it's like you’re in their fraternity, and instead of all that egotistical stuff that’s caricaturized by the Bette Davis-Joan Crawford paradigm, great actors are EGOLESS. They want you to be at your best so they can get to the emotional truth of the characters. It’s as if you’re stripped naked, and everyone is so sensitive looking at everyone else's nakedness. You also become part of "a band of players, a troupe, a family.

James Franco, indeed, plays part of the scene nude. I (David Goodstein) have a grand and luxurious home with an indoor pool. James, who plays Harvey's boyfriend, jumps into the pool nude and then has an argument with me…nude. I dare say, it was extremely mind-blowing.

That first day on the set, I was dressed in a very expensive suit and monogrammed shirt and tie and vest that Danny Glicker, the wonderfully funny and talented costume designer, had built for me. Gus decided I should do a bit of "business,” so he gave me a pool skimmer. He then suggested I wear a bathing suit. I thought I was going to die. “I can’t say no…I have to be a pro and go with this…but oy vey...I’m not tan enough…and all that kugel…”

Gus decided I should do a bit of "business,” so he gave me a pool skimmer. He then suggested I wear a bathing suit. I thought I was going to die. “I can’t say no…I have to be a pro and go with this…but oy vey...I’m not tan enough…and all that kugel…”

Gus saw the look in my eyes and whispered, “Don’t worry. You’ll be covered in a bathrobe.” Phew.

Danny put a beige towel-like robe on me and Gus didn't like it, so he called up Robin Williams, whose house was next door, and we got three robes from Robin’s closet. I eventually ended up wearing a baby-blue Hotel Bel Air robe with a beautiful white shawl collar. Danny then dressed me in a pair of brown leather Mexican sandals, a beautiful and very chunky gold and diamond watch, and two pinky rings…presto! I was David Goodstein in 1973.

With all this going on, Sean entered, wearing a long, curly brown wig and brown contact lenses, the spitting image of the Jewish hippie-ish Harvey Milk: sexy, handsome, and dangerous. He glanced at me and immediately discerned the terror in my eyes. Very quietly, practically soto voce, he leaned into me:

“You have nothing to worry about. I’ve only played gay once in my life and that was in Albert Innaurato’s The Transformation of Benno Blimpie and that was on the stage when I was really young. I’ve never played gay on screen. So here’s the deal: You have my back and I have your back and we’ll both get through this together.” His generosity was enormously inspiring and I totally relaxed. All my scenes were with the prodigiously talented Stephen Spinella (Tony Kushner wrote “Angels In America” specifically for him) and Stephen both calmed me and taught me so much.

Gus’s only “note” to me was to be more like Howard Rosenman: bombastic, arrogant, contemptuous, relaxed and in control. Every time I finished a take that he liked, Gus smiled at me or gave me a thumbs up or winked. He always acknowledged the work and I watched him do it with all the actors.

After they got the written takes, Gus said:

"OK guys, now rip it out and improvise and say anything you want." Of course it became very political, since Harvey had a revolutionary's point of view, and David Goodstein had the polar opposite. David always wanted to work through the system. We eventually started screaming at each other, red in the face, veins pulsating on our foreheads. James Franco entered the fray and it was fuckin’ wild. At the end of the day, Sean hugged me and said I was great and he never could've done it without me. James Franco, who kept calling me "cutie" in the role—contemptuously—came over to me and buried his head in my neck:

"Man, I gotta thank you. You were so sensitive to me. Nude scenes are so weird and you were so discrete. You made me feel so relaxed. I owe you so much." Wow! This kid is just gorgeous and so sweet and so very, very talented, really smart and perceptive...and totally straight.

This was the happiest and most gemütlich set I was ever on, and I’ve been on a lot of sets. I also noticed that there were no “star,” director, producer or crew chairs. It was a very democratic set and there was no attempt at hierarchy.

To many of my friends, I’ve contrasted the producer's life with the actor's life. A producer constantly gets told, “No, no, no, no, no,” and an actor gets told :”Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes” (once he gets the part, of course). A close friend said to me, “It’s like one day you’re an ordinary guy, and the next you get to be an astronaut being shot to the Moon!”

The week after I got home I got a call from Ellen Chenowith’s office. She was casting the Coen Brothers' A Serious Man. Brian Swardstrom, my closest friend and now my agent, represents Frances McDormand, and he told Frances that I was great in Milk. Frances said, "Well he's gotta try out for Joel's new movie." Now I'm auditioning for two roles, the Rabbi and a lawyer.

Then Charles Shyer caught wind of my acting. He wrote and directed Father of the Bride. He just wrote Eloise in Paris with his daughter Hallie. He's going to direct it in the fall; Uma Thurman is starring. "Hey babe," purred Charles over the phone. "I hear you just worked with Sean and Gus. I've written a part in Eloise that's right up your alley, an over-the-top French designer. I need a really thick French accent. Nathan Lane wants to play it but I think you're a more original choice. Would you like to read for it?"

So now I've been invited to join the Screen Actors Guild and I'll be eligible for the better benefits (Plan B) of the SAG Health Plan. What a relief; it's much less expensive than my Blue Cross plan!

Maybe when I'm old and grey, I'll finally have a way to make a living.