Val Lauren has done very well for himself, carving out an impressive career while staying just below the radar. That is all going to change thanks to his bravura performance as Sal Mineo in director James Franco’s bio film, “SAL.”
A longtime member of Playhouse West, Lauren is a frequent collaborator with his friend, Scott Caan, on various film and stage projects. He made his film writing and directing debut with the well received short film, “Help,” which I recommend you give a look at http://www.openfilm.com/videos/help
While getting ready for the release of “Sal,” which opened last week, Lauren took time out to speak with Media Mikes about Sal Mineo, changes in Hollywood and why James Franco has his cell number.
Mike Smith: How did you get involved with “Sal?”
Val Lauren: James Franco offered me the role out of the blue. I got a text from him saying that he would like me to play Sal Mineo. I had no idea the offer was coming so it really took me by surprise. That’s simply how it all started. I stared at my phone for a while and then I texted back “cool.” And the next thing you know we had jumped in feet first.
MS: Nice. The first thing I would have wondered is how James Franco got my cell number.
VL: (laughs) James and I are friends. We’ve had a collaboration as actors for many years now. We’re both part of the same theater company, Playhouse West, an acting school and repertory theater company in Los Angeles. That’s where we first met over a decade ago. We’ve collaborated together on characters we’ve played in our individual movies as well as on scenes in plays for the theater. It’s an ongoing joke that we’re regarded as the James Dean and Sal Mineo of the theater company. In fact, when James did the movie “James Dean” I worked with him for a couple of months helping to research the part and that’s where we both learned a lot about Sal Mineo. We considered writing a play about James Dean and Sal Mineo so that topic has always been there. After James read Michael Gregg Michaud’s biography about Sal he decided he wanted to tell a story about Sal Mineo and that’s what we did.
MS: In researching the part where you able to speak with any members of Sal Mineo’s family or his last partner, Courtney Burr?
VL: I was. I spent a wonderful afternoon with Courtney Burr. Michael Gregg Michaud is a friend of Courtney’s and one day he asked me if I wanted to meet him. Of course I said yes. So we went over to Courtney’s home and spent the day together. Courtney told me some great stories about Sal and about their experiences together. He had a chair…a beautiful chair…in his house that Sal had given him as a gift. He let me sit in it, which I was very nervous to do. I didn’t want to knock it over or break it. He told me about their time together. We really just talked a lot about Sal. I can really see why Sal loved him. I can also see why Courtney loved Sal. He was great in helping to inform and reinforce me about the man that I had been given the responsibility to represent.
MS: Though he didn’t flaunt his sexuality, Sal Mineo never shied away from the fact that he was gay, even in an industry that, almost four decades after his death, people do their best to stay closeted. Do you think that affected his later career choices? I mean, his last movie was “Escape from the Planet of the Apes.”
VL: It absolutely demolished him. Technically he was the first known actor to come out. He didn’t make a big thing out of it but he did not make any efforts to really hide it. He would do interviews with gay publications, which at the time were relatively unheard of. He would not stay undercover. This absolutely destroyed him in the business. Friends of his that were actors and actresses and directors were afraid to even hang out with him because they would not want to be guilty by association. And I found that just appalling that it happened. I’m very happy that, almost forty years after his death, we don’t have to hide ourselves. Not only in Hollywood but in life. People have finally started to wise up and say, “what’s the big deal here?” There has been a lot of growth since then. Although there are always pockets of people that are slow to catch on I think we’re on our way to sanity.
MS: As a writer/director yourself can you give us a critique of James Franco as a director?
VL: (laughs) I think he has a very interesting and specific lens through which he views things. I think he has a very unique perspective on how he likes to tell stories. I think he’s brave to venture out and try new things at a time when we often see the same kind of movies told in the same kind of format. He has very specific ideas on what he wants to explore, which is an attribute I find in the greatest directors that I admire. I applaud him for exploring areas that, frankly, other people are too afraid to touch.
MS: There had been some talk about you making your short film, “Help,” into a feature film. Is that still the plan?
VL: I believe that the story in that short film was told in full. We may make it as a feature and we may not. I’m still not sure. I’m really proud of the film as it is and I think that I’d like to make other movies now and tell other stories and let “Help” be what it is. Yes, it’s a short film. It is 40 minutes long. But I believe that the story I wanted to tell has been told.
MS: What else are you working on?
VL: Right now I’m directing a play that just opened called “One Hundred Days of Yesterday” that was written by Scott Caan. We’ve done about a dozen plays together….ones he wrote…ones I directed…ones we starred in. This is one that he wrote that I’m directing with two great actors. My next movie coming out is called “The Last Knight” and it’s based on this great Japanese tale of the 47 Ronin, who were a group of warriors that set out on a mission to avenge their master.
MS: I’ve got to end this by saying I thought your performance in “Sal” was brilliant. I’m making sure I use that word in my review as well. I think it’s so hard to play a real-life person that is so well known because people go into the film with a preconceived notion of how that person is. I think you captured Sal Mineo perfectly.
VL: You just made my day, man! Thank you so much. That really means a lot to me.