While filming Blue Like Jazz, which opens Friday in limited release, Marshall Allman—who plays the Donald Miller character at the center of the story—was to ride an unsteady "tall bike" across Portland's Hawthorne Bridge. Director Steve Taylor, concerned that Allman might "plunge over the rail" into the Willamette River, considered a stunt double, but Allman declined. Says Taylor, "For Marshall, it's all just part of the work, and he approaches it with both a singular intensity and a great sense of play."
Allman, 28, has received thumbs-up for his acting—for Blue Like Jazz as well as recurring roles in TV's Prison Break and True Blood. He recently finished filming Jayne Mansfield's Car, a 1960s-era drama starring Robert DuVall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, and Billy Bob Thornton. Taylor believes Allman can go a long way: "He takes the craft of acting very seriously, and he wants to get the role right."
Allman wanted to get Miller's character just right: "So many people are just like Don," he says. "They were raised Christian and go off to college, only to abandon their beliefs in order to fit in. Or they were burned by the church and live the rest of their life resenting anything Christian." Miller—in real life and in the movie—ultimately returns to his faith, and Allman hopes audiences are inspired by the journey.
A huge fan of Brad Bird and Pixar films, Allman lives in Los Angeles with wife and fellow actress Jamie Anne Allman (AMC's The Killing). We recently interviewed him via e-mail about Blue Like Jazz and more.
You tweeted that The Artist was your favorite movie of 2011, and that you'd run into (Best Actor) Jean Dujardin, and that he thought you were Justin Bieber. Seriously?
That's the first time, since I've been an actor, that I actually really wanted to take my picture with another actor. I have so much respect for performers from old Hollywood—they could do it all, sing, dance and entertain—and Jean sort of embodied that, so yeah, I'm a fan. And yes, he did ask me, tongue in cheek, if I was Justin Bieber. But was just poking fun at my haircut. I've been rocking that haircut since '98 so, whether it's called the Biebster or the Zefron or whatever, for me it's called the "I'm too lazy to get a haircut and that's how my hair grows" cut!
How did you end up with the gig for Blue Like Jazz?
I got an email from a friend if he could pass on my contact info to some friends. Later I got an e-mail from Steve Taylor saying I was one of a few actors on their shortlist to play the part of Don. He hoped I could read the script and let them know if I had any interest.
Had you read the book?
No, but I had heard great things about it from a friend. And 10 pages into the script, I turned to my wife and said, "It's really good." About an hour later, I wrote back to Steve informing him that he had found the lead of his film, that I was 1,000 percent in, and thank you for the offer. He hesitantly responded that he loved my enthusiasm but that it wasn't an offer yet, and he couldn't promise anything except that he wouldn't offer it to anybody else before we met in person. We met for lunch a week later and when we sat down at the table he told me I had the part—which was nice because it made it easier for me to eat.
Blue Like Jazz, the book, isn't a linear story, but just a memoir of Don's random musings. Do you think they pulled it off, turning it into a movie script?
Yes. They did a fantastic job of turning a series of essays into a compelling narrative, which is not easy to do, even with Don allowing some of the details of his true life to be construed to make it a better story. I thought the script was funny and moving at the same time, which is rare. I also loved that though it dealt with issues of faith, the film wasn't trying to force any beliefs on anyone. It just happened to be a story about a kid wrestling with his beliefs and ultimately his own identity. It's a story that anyone could identify with.
I thought you did a nice job capturing the vibe of Don's character and his story.
Thank you. I took careful consideration with the character because it wasn't a literal interpretation of the book nor Donald Miller the actual person, but I definitely wanted to try and capture the spirit of both. I watched every video I could find of Donald Miller and read the all of his books. I basically stalked him! As I got to know him, I was pleasantly surprised to find those two to be consistent—that who you think he is from his public persona and his writing is very much who he is in person. The main qualities that stuck out to me about Don are his unquenchable pursuit of adventure and a razor sharp sense of humor.
How much of Don's personal story can you relate to—especially his journey of having faith, then sort of losing it, then circling back around to having faith again? How much of that story is yours too?
That's what makes acting sort of like magic. If people believe I am Don, then I've done a great job. My job as an actor is to then convince you that the person on screen couldn't possibly be acting, that he is just that way. I strive to be no more than a vessel for the story, here to serve you, the audience. And please don't forget to tip your waiter.
How would you describe the movie's synopsis in a nutshell?
A kid raised Southern Baptist who is set to go to seminary in order to become a pastor gets burned by the very church that raised him. He instead attends Reed College in an attempt to run as far away from his upbringing and God as he can. And it's funny too.
I've heard that the making of this movie was a pretty fun experience for everyone.
I had a blast, one of the best times I've ever had on a film. We had no money, but the team was still very organized and professional, which is rare. Not to mention how excited everyone was to be working on this film. It was clearly a project of passion to everyone. There were often explosions of applause after "cut" was called on set, which is unprecedented.
Any funny stories?
In one scene, Don is having a beer with an old friend. I told them it wasn't necessary to replace the beer in the bottle for water, thinking I was hardly going to drink out of it during the scene, since I'm personally not a big drinker. Well a few hours in, my words began to slur and Steve Taylor turned to someone and said, "Is Marshall supposed to be drunk in this scene?" They got me water as quickly as possible and I learned a valuable lesson. I am sure Steve was seriously praying during that one!
Who is the "target audience"? Christians, mainstream, or whom?
To me, Blue Like Jazz is a quintessential American story. So many people are just like Don—raised Christian and go off to college only to abandon their beliefs in order to fit in or be accepted. Or like Don, they get burned by the church and live the rest of their life out of resentment toward anything Christian. I was surprised that this story had not yet been told on film, since it's such a pervasive one in our culture.
When people go out for a cup of coffee after Blue Like Jazz, what do you hope they'll be talking about?
That if you claim to be friends with a God who created reality, you should be one of the most real and authentic human beings on the planet. That it's possible to have relationships outside of your faith that are not just an excuse in order to convert someone.
One of the most relevant themes of the film comes in a scene where Don confesses, "Yeah, I am a Christian, and by the way I am sorry for the last two thousand years cause there have been some times that we have really screwed up." Not that he is ashamed of his faith, but that he is grounded enough to know that as a Christian being called to represent God, there are going to be times that he is going to screw up and that's OK. Owning up to it with integrity becomes necessary to furthering the cause.
With the political volatility of our culture today, the conversation between the religious community and the rest of culture has effectively ceased. So that kind of humility becomes necessary to disarm the hate-slinging from both camps, religious and non-religious, in order to open the door to understanding so we can co-exist without reducing one another to labels. As citizens of the same nation, it's sort of like a marriage, and the only way a marriage can work at all is with communication and understanding. Sometimes an apology is necessary for a conversation to begin again.
Your next movie is called Jayne Mansfield's Car. What's that about?
It's a culture clash film set in the late '60s between a Southern patriarch's family (Robert Duvall) and his estranged wife's new British husband (John Hurt) and his family. They are brought together on account of her passing, and it's time to bury the hatchet between the two. The cast was astounding; it was an honor to get to act with such talented, proven people. For me, the more talented the actor is that I'm working with, the easier my job is because the circumstances of a scene are easier to believe when the people around you are in the moment just as much as you are. In fact it becomes so easy to act, you forget you are working and it starts to feel kind of like floating, almost like you are hyper-alive.
Interestingly, your last major role, in True Blood, was also about the supernatural. Vampires are hot right now, even among Christians. Why do you think that is?
To me, the most interesting part of True Blood is that the entire crux of the show is based on identity and finding your true identity. I think the supernatural aspect is just an extension of everyone deeply hoping that there is something special or "supernatural" about themselves deep down. Like Sookie in True Blood, Don is also on a journey, being forced to face himself in order to discover who he truly is. We love watching people come to grips with that, for better or for worse. Facing yourself is the hardest thing to do in life, and we like entertainment that makes it fun (or at least engaging) for us to do it.
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