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The rest of the world might know Michael Mayer as the director whose big-screen debut, A Home at the End of the World, left Colin Farrell’s schlong on the cutting-room floor. But in an early-morning phone interview, he quickly becomes something else entirely: just another 40-something ex–Montgomery County theater geek. “Where did you go? Blair? I went to Woodward. I remember going to Blair to a madrigals competition…
“From when I was a kid, I used to put on plays in the back yard,” says Mayer, who grew up in Rockville. “I actually made a little movie when I was 13. I got a movie camera for my bar mitzvah.” The Super-8 flick, it turns out, was a reimagining of the 1973 Vicki Lawrence hit “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia.” Though Mayer set the camera aside for another 30 years, he didn’t ignore film altogether.
“We grew up before video,” reminisces the 44-year-old New York City resident. “If you wanted to see a[n old] movie, you had to just pray it would come on TV. I would live all year for The Wizard of Oz….Our tastes in film were shaped by the programmers at the local TV stations. We were at the mercy of Channel 5.”
Mayer left the D.C. area in 1980. A classmate at the Tisch School of the Arts Theater Program at NYU, Tony Kushner, encouraged his directing efforts. Among Mayer’s many productions, he helmed the national tour of Kushner’s Angels in America, as well as the recent revival of Thoroughly Modern Millie. It was Tom Hulce, best known as a screen actor (Animal House, Amadeus) and now the producer of Home, who helped Mayer make the leap from stage to screen based on the director’s skill in working with actors.
Mayer says he doesn’t believe that acting styles necessarily differ in film and theater. But he shares an anecdote about a scene with Dallas Roberts, a New York stage actor who makes his leading-film-role debut in Home as Jonathan, best friend to Farrell’s Bobby and roommate and friend to Bobby’s eventual lover Clare (Robin Wright Penn).
“We were in the wide shot, and [Dallas] did a few takes, and he was crying. And Robin and Colin both came up to me and said, ‘Don’t let him do it, he’ll dry up.’ And I said, ‘He’s a theater actor, he won’t dry up. He has to do it eight times a week.’ They were being really generous, concerned about him. But he knew and I knew.”
As for snipping that controversial full-frontal-nudity scene—“Oh, no,” groans Mayer—the director says it was all up to the actor. “To [Farrell’s] credit, the reason he wanted to do the movie was because he loved this character and this story. He wanted to be challenged. And he thought that if it was all about his genitals, then it would be not about Bobby, but about Colin.
“I think it’s unfortunate that Americans are like this, that we’re so puritanical,” he adds. In fact, Mayer has chosen a similarly controversial theme for what he hopes will be one of his next stage projects, Spring Awakening, a rock musical he’s developing with guitarist and Home scorer Duncan Sheik.
“No one will produce it at the moment,” Mayer says. “It’s a very edgy, 19th-century German cautionary tale about what happens if you don’t talk to your children about sex. It’s musically very ravishing. I hope someone will do it. Take heed, Molly Smith!” —Pamela Murray Winters