The banging you hear in the background? That’s the drumbeat for an Oscar nomination for Gena Rowlands. Rowlands stars in “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks,” a movie about the impact an elderly south Florida widow and a much younger gay dance instructor have on each other’s lives.
Rowlands plays Lilly Harrison, the former wife of a conservative Southern Baptist minister. Cheyenne Jackson is Michael Minetti, a former Broadway hoofer reduced to teaching old ladies to dance.
The film is based on a play by Richard Alfieri and is directed by Arthur Allan Seidelman, who also directed the original stage productions in New York and Los Angeles.
Seidelman, who is also an Emmy-wining television director, spoke to the Forward about how he switches from one medium to another, his famous Yiddish uncle, and being held captive in a Lebanese refugee camp.
Curt Schleier: You are a multi-hyphenate director, working in TV, theater and film. Is it easy to switch between various media?
Arthur Allan Seidelman: From features to TV there is sort of an automatic click, where I see the pictures differently as I’m taking them, either as a TV screen or a motion picture screen. Also, the rhythms are different. With television, you have about 10 seconds to get [viewers’] attention before they use the remote. In feature films, you can’t start slow but you have a little longer. But theater is my mother art, so to speak. I just go into theater mode sort of automatically. It’s really the first way I think.
Who is this interview for?
I’m so happy to be interviewed by the Forward, because my first theater experience was in the Yiddish Theater, because my uncle was a major figure in the Yiddish Theater on Second Avenue [in New York].
Who was your uncle?
Isidore Casher. He worked with Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theater and was second only to Mr. Schwartz in reputation. My aunt, his wife, Jennie [also spelled Jenny] was a musical theater star and had a vaudeville act with Molly Picon. Isidore also did film. I guess his most famous was “Grine Felder,” “Green Fields.” Sadly, he died when I was still quite young, in my teenage years, but he was a major influence in my life. In fact, the first time I saw “King Lear” it was in Yiddish.
How did “Six Dance Lessons” make the transition from play to film?
It was originally a two-character play and all the other characters — Robert, the would-be boyfriend, and Cunard, who runs the dance studio — were all imagined, voices at the other end of a phone call. When you direct something like this, you envision what those other characters would look like. So the opportunity to meet these other people offers an added richness.
It took about a decade to make it into a film. Why that long?
We weren’t getting the right people. There were some committed to the roles, but it didn’t work out. I always wanted Gena. In fact, when I first read the play I wanted Gena for the role. But she hadn’t done theater for many years and didn’t feel she was up to eight performances a week. I remember at an early stage saying to her we’re going to have to do a film together.
Now you’ve done a film and are pushing her for an Academy Award. It’s still early, but what do you think her chances are?
It’s always a long shot with a non-studio film, given all the money they pay [to promote the film to Oscar voters]. But her performance is extraordinary and she’s film royalty, so I think she has a shot.
One of your early films was “Children of Rage,” about a Palestinian who ends up hospitalized when his bomb goes off prematurely, and the Israeli doctor who tries to convince him to give up his destructive ways. In the course of researching that you were actually abducted and taken prisoner by a radical Arab group. How did that happen?
I wrote it as well as directed it, and in order to do it honestly and with an even hand I felt I had to listen to and be open to all points of view. And in the Middle East that isn’t easy. I spent a good deal of time in Beirut and lived in a refugee camp. While there I was scheduled to meet with a group of Palestinian students, but instead of students showing up more extreme members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine showed up. I’m sure they were wondering what the hell this Jewish guy from New York was doing in this Palestinian refugee camp and presumed any film I would make would be pro-Israel. So they decided I shouldn’t be there and these guys with Uzis arrived and held me hostage for — until this day I don’t know how many days. It seemed like a long time, but I can’t say whether it was three days or five days. But I was released and went on to make the film, which had some notable success.
You said you were a New York Jew. Tell me a little about growing up.
I lived in a tough neighborhood in the Bronx. I kid that our high school sport was “run for your life.” I remember when I was doing “Children of Rage,” I was being brought to a meeting blindfolded in the back of a pick-up truck and I had no idea of where we were going. I remember saying to myself, you can handle this, you grew up in the Bronx. Both my grandfathers were rabbis. My uncle was a cantor. My first job was helping my grandfather officiate at weddings. I wrapped the glass [in a napkin]. I grew up in an Orthodox family and I’m very proud of that.
Do you bring any of that background to your work?
I hope so. I’m a child of the Yiddish theater. I’m a child of the Group Theater. Sandy Meisner was my friend, my inspiration and teacher, and I hope what I bring to my work is a product of my early exposure to Yiddish theater, with all its heart and soul, and to the Group Theater. Most of those guys were Jewish.