It's okay if you haven't heard of actor Val Lauren just yet—plenty of people won't have even heard of Sal Mineo, the actor he's about to play, until they hear that James Franco is producing, directing and co-writing a movie about the late Rebel Without a Cause star.
Based on Michael Gregg Michaud's superb bio, the film Sal will tell the life story of the Bronx-born Mineo, whose naive family helped usher him to Hollywood fame as a teenager, but whose real passion was always the art of acting and directing.
Mineo was also unabashedly gay at a time when most other Hollywood stars were firmly entrenched in the closet, both personally and professionally, so his story includes a long, romantic, same-sex relationship as well as enough sexual kinks to fill a couple of Almodovar movies.
In his first interview since landing the juicy role, Lauren opens up about how he got it, his impressions of his new boss, where his head is at as he prepares to portray Mineo and why a straight married dude relates to a guy who bedded Bobby Sherman before any teenyboppers had even seen his first pinup.
Boy Culture: Had you ever heard of Sal Mineo prior to the part coming up, and what impressions did you have of him?
Years later, as an acting student starting out, I was handed a curriculum consisting of books and movies that I was required to study by my teacher Robert Carnegie at Playhouse West. Most of the films were made between 1950 and 1980. Sal's pieces were among them, and that was when I got a wider look at his body of work.
Still, I had no idea about what a multi-faceted artist and human being he was until I began to prepare to play him. I was so impressed and inspired, and I still am. Outside of being a highly respected and celebrated actor, he was a writer, a director, a painter, a singer! He sold out stadiums around the world for his concerts...I'm still baffled about why there is so little public knowledge today about someone who made so many huge contributions to the arts and to the entertainment business. I hope that I can be a part of keeping his legacy alive.
VL: It's funny—I have seen most of Sal's movies and still have a few to go, but the piece that impressed me the most was a guest-starring role that he did on an episode of Combat! It was about a soldier's (played by Sal) experience on a specific day during World War II. The soldier abandons his trapped sergeant in order to save his own hide from the approaching German platoon. Guilt finally overcomes the soldier, causing him to go back and attempt to do the right thing, which is almost-certain suicide. Sal was on fire! He gave such a non-acted, deeply experienced performance. I remember laughing about it because I put it on to study him and before I knew it, the show was over and I hadn't even thought about Sal—I was caught up wondering what the soldier was going to do next!
VL: Only Mineo looks like Mineo! I have pictures of him at all ages scattered around my house and certain ones resemble me much more than others. What is important to me is to be able to pay tribute to who he was as a person and spirit.
James is a contradiction of all things. A goofy intellectual—as sincere as he is—you never quite know what he is thinking.
He told me that we are going to make an unconventional movie about an unconventional man who led an unconventional life. Nothing to do but nod and smile after hearing that.
VL: Michael Michaud's book has been instrumental to my understanding of Sal. He spent 10 years piecing together Sal's life and humanity. He also lays down Sal's complex nature in such a simple and honest way that it just sinks in. Michael and I have also been doing a lot of work together toward Sal's character as a man. He has been very helpful. I've also visited the places that Sal has lived, listened to his music, watched his movies...other work on my own included looking inside to find Sal within myself, but I won't bore you with that!
VL: Yes, and I could see why Sal loved him. We had a day at Courtney's house and spent most of it laughing. He told me stories that are still making me chuckle as I type. I walked away from that day knowing that amongst many other things, Sal loved, and was loved deeply. The most nerve-wracking part of the afternoon was when Courtney invited me to sit in the antique chair that Sal had bought him years ago. I read about that chair in Michael's book! I'm sure I looked like an idiot as I tried to sit in it as proper as I could so I don't accidentally knock it over or something.
BC: Is this the first time you'll be playing a character who was a real person, and do you feel any added pressure because of that or will you approach the role any differently?
VL: I absolutely relate, and I could now see why he did it. I made a 40-minute short film titled HELP about a man on the night that he sets out on a mission to save his dying mother's life. I served it as an actor, a director and as the writer. It was an eye-opening experience to the bigger picture of storytelling. Image, sound, actors, music, tone, writing, tempo...on and on! As actors, we serve that greater vision which in film is finally the director's. Making my film informed me as an actor and vice versa.
It's very liberating and I will be doing it again with the feature version of HELP. The short won a contest, and now James Caan, Robert Duvall, Mark Rydell and Scott Caan are producing the feature film in conjunction with Openfilm Studios. The trailer is available on my personal website.
VL: Sal was very brave to "come out" at the time that he did...no precedent had been set, we were not as forward-thinking as we are now. It was catastrophic to his career and that was no surprise to him. As far as today is concerned, I think there are individual reasons for not coming out as well as the broader concerns like the possible counter effects of their professional life, etc. I think it is in the process of changing more and more toward complete freedom every day. As a heterosexual man, my hope is that gay men and women can be as accepted and comfortable with their sexuality as I am.
VL: I can't tell you how ecstatic my friends and acquaintances are about me playing Sal. Actually, that is probably the area that causes my nerves to spontaneously start breakdancing. Their level of enthusiasm seems impossible to live up to, but I'll do my best if it kills me. As far as their reaction to me playing a gay role...there has been next to none! That is what makes me think that we are as a society, in the process of changing and moving forward now more than ever with respect to that.
BC: You've worked a lot with Scott Caan—how has that creative collaboration been?
VL: Yes, Scott and I have been working together on and off for over 10 years now. We studied acting together and put up several plays that he would write. Eventually, we did a really funny film called Dallas 362 that Scott wrote and directed. It also starred Jeff Goldblum, Sean Hatosy and Kelly Lynch. If there was only an outtake reel for that one! Some of my best acting experiences have been had working with Scott, and we actually just worked on the season finale of Hawaii Five-O together. It airs on Monday, May 16.
It was a bit surreal because Sal Mineo worked on an episode of Hawaii Five-O as well. That should give you an idea as to where my head is at lately...life as how it relates to Sal!
BC: Up until now, what would you say has been your proudest moment as an artist and why? How about your finest performance (if not the same thing)?
VL: My proudest moment as an artist was September 11, 2002. I was actually with Scott Caan on the day of 9/11. As we were watching the news footage, he turned to me with a pale, blank face and said, "I'm gonna write a play about this."
Four months later, our play 9/11 opened. It starred Scott Caan, Mark Pellegrino and myself. It was a piece about two brothers and their best friend who meet for breakfast every morning at a local coffee shop in NYC. We had a great run. On the one-year anniversary of 9/11, we put the play up again, just for that one night. The theater sat 48 people and we had 119 people squeezed in there...they took up the stairs, the aisles, the doorways and half the stage. If a fire had broken out, it would have been a BBQ to remember because no one could even move!
The exchange of energy and emotion that was being passed back and forth between the cast and the audience was electric. It was the most alert and alive night of my artistic life and I've been chasing it ever since.
BC: According to IMDb, your favorite quote is "the way of no way"—can you explain what that means and why it's important to you?
VL: I learned that philosophy from studying the great Bruce Lee. I grew up as a martial artist and as such, Bruce Lee was (and is) a hero to me. Bruce mastered many forms of martial arts and found them very useful, but they shared one common flaw—their sense of tradition with regards to life and the art had rendered them rigid and stunted their growth. Bruce believed that there is never one specific way to approach or accomplish anything. Either in life or in martial arts. So he took what he thought was the best aspects of various styles that he had mastered and created Jeet Kun Do, a martial-arts style that continues to thrive around the world. [Since 2004, the Bruce Lee Foundation has used the name Jun Fan Jeet Kune Do.—Ed.]
His philosophy, "the way of no way," allowed him to do that because he understood that there is never one road to anywhere, not one particular way to achieving anything.
That way of thought has informed both my work and my life.
James Franco's Sal is currently in pre-production with an expected release coming by 2013. Many of the above images from SalMineo.com.