When I consider where some of the greatest actors of our time got their start, I tend to think of New York, I tend to think of De Niro, Keitel, Pacino… The list goes on. I don’t necessarily think of Chicago, but in the last year and half two actors have been making major buzz around the windy city. Actors Joseph Mennella and Zachary Laoutides both co-starred in the award winning independent film ‘Adios Vaya Con Dios,’ released last month (the movie written by Laoutides). Their artistry seemed to take on a bond of its own and the result was a partnership in a new Chicago film company called Ave Fenix Pictures. The Examiner recently ran a story about the first Hispanic film studio in Chicago headed by Monica Esmeralda Leon, who actually rebuffed in the article that the company is solely Latino. Whatever the film studio is putting out, be it Latino inspired or something the opposite, I took notice of the memorable performance in Adios Vaya Con Dios between Laoutides playing a half Mexican and half Irish gangster, colliding with one of the few Italians left in Chicago’s Cicero neighborhood, Gio Angeli, played by Joseph Mennella.
Laoutides went on to write ‘When my Eyes go Dark,’ based on the early events of psychic Lazaro Ruben Torres who was declared clinically dead on five different occasions, the film is due out in festivals this year. I was thrilled to catch a small glimpse of a third Laoutides screenplay called ‘Love you to the Moon and back.’ The film also reunites Laoutides with Mennella, and yet again I was equally drawn in by their performances, Mennella playing washed up boxer, Jules Mandel, who is living his second life as a successful furniture salesman and engaged to the CEO’s daughter. However, Jules is more focused on his third life as a jazz musician, attempting to break into the music industry using his father’s last name, a fictitious jazz legend. Jules uses his ‘rebel without a cause’ best friend Louis Katz (Zachary Laoutides), to do the hard work he refuses to do, write the music! Jules is excessively busy reliving the glory days of his boxing career, likewise reliving his failures by drinking, betting money that Louis can kick the shit out of thugs in street fights and becoming involved with a black Hispanic prostitute.
I had to ask Laoutides where does he come up with these intricate stories, I had to ask Mennella how exactly did he go from wise guy Gio Angeli to putting on forty pounds of Jules Mandel procrastination, how is it that Laoutides and Mennella can be so natural in their new physical appearances…? I forgot to mention Laoutides goes from playing a convincing Mexican in Adios Vaya Con Dios, to a shaggy guevarista looking psychic who is hunting down his daughter’s killer in When my Eyes go Dark, to Louis Katz, a convincing blue eyed white guy with baby curls.
It’s cold, it’s the wintertime in Chicago, the coffee is now on the table, Mennella and Laoutides are not in character, and I’m welcomed with Mediterranean hospitality, the both of them reminding me the menu is on the tabletop. But I came for the caffeine, I came to find out what is happening in Chicago, I came to find out more about the upcoming, the uprising; may I say with confidence the future.
Mr. Mennella, I’m fascinated by your character Jules Mandel, he has everything he needs, so why the adultery, why the scandalous betting, why is he housing a prostitute? We all know people like Jules and I ask the question ‘but why’? Do you think you’ve come close to answering why men sometimes do what they do?
(JM): Well, I think it’s human nature for people to feel the desire to want more, regardless of what they posses in life. Jules is a man who is deeply wounded by his past and what could have been an illustrious career as a boxer, as well as having a famous father who wasn’t truly there for him, so the audience will see that he has this void in his heart, that he like so many real life people tries to fill. In this movie, Jules tries to fill that void with certain indulgences like sex, which is his reasoning for housing an attractive and vulnerable prostitute, but his indulgence also manifests itself with alcohol, gambling and even food, while yearning to fill a void left by his father, which is why he tries to become a star jazz musician, but possess very little singing ability.
A lot of actors wouldn’t want to challenge themselves early on, transforming and putting on 40 pounds for an independent film. What made you want to take the risk for this project?
(JM): To be completely honest, I never intended to gain 40 pounds. (laughs) The studio wanted me to gain around 25 pounds, but I ended up gaining more. Truth be told, I originally balked at the idea of gaining weight because my weight has fluctuated in years past and I’m not crazy about vigorous training regimens to take it off, but after reading Zachary’s script, I was really impressed with how powerful this character drama actually was and I knew this project would pay dividends. In hindsight, it was a good choice to play this character at a heavier weight, due to his self indulgence and being past his prime as a boxer.
With most actors living in Los Angeles and New York how is it living in Chicago and working in Chicago cinema or I guess in your case being a pioneer in creating it?
(JM): Ave Fenix Pictures is unique, because we may be one of the few studios in Chicago to break the traditional Hollywood system. Our movies although artistic and independent, are commercially viable movies. We have been very blessed to achieve success in such a short amount of time. It takes most actors and filmmakers years to achieve what we have achieved in only a couple years. We have proven that you don’t need big budgets or Hollywood studios to become great artists. All you need is to surround yourself with a talented team that is passionate. The work will speak for itself.
It’s a pleasure watching you and Laoutides act on screen. There is something distinctive in watching you both; almost like watching the early works of famous New York actors. What comes to my mind is Mean Streets and Taxi Driver… Do you think you are on the cusp of defining Chicago film and what it means to be a Chicago actor?
(JM): I think it’s about being true to your craft, regardless of where you reside. Zachary and I have a lot of natural chemistry on screen. It began with Adios Vaya Con Dios and continued with Love you to the Moon and back. We’re both passionate artists, who never shortcut our craft and that’s what all Chicago actors, directors, and writers need to understand. If you can incorporate the work to compliment your talent then the sky is the limit. Ave Fenix Pictures has already proven that philosophy. As artists we keep getting bigger and better, with every project. That’s the truth.
Mr. Laoutides, You’re a lead actor, screenplay writer and have three feature films under your belt in just over one year and still have a decade to go before you’re Hollywood ripened. Incredibly, you’re doing all of this from your Chicago backyard, two thousands miles away from Hollywood California, how the hell and when the hell does this ever happen?
(ZL): (laughs) Probably not that often. Chicago has a lot of different looks, it’s not just shooting downtown in the city. Chicago makes up a lot of other smaller cities and towns, each with very distinct aspects. It’s one big sound stage; that is if you treat it that way. I guess it all starts and happens when you decide to make a movie (laughs), but I agree with you that movies and acting are not necessarily the common job amongst Chicagoans. The city is filled with all types of artists, most of whom are balancing their craft with jobs to pay their rent. I believe that’s why when Chicago artists break out they do very well; it’s due to our environment.
The movies you have been doing are complex storylines with unusual ingredients. Adios Vaya Con Dios you’re using real street artists and gang members, in When my Eyes go Dark you’re using exorcism recordings. Are you purposefully trying to be different or go in an alternative moviemaking direction?
(ZL): For sure, you need to. If you’re going to make film from Chicago you need to work with the ingredients the city has to offer you. You’re not going to be able to compete with Hollywood studios big and small, California is saturated with film specialists and a never-ending pool of talent. No matter what people tell you Chicago doesn’t have that depth. Nor does it have that pocket book of money that you will find from producers who know how to flip movies like houses. What you can control is your script and your story. I write based on what I can show and what I know we can execute precisely.
Equally complex are your performances that all seem to have a disturbance. You’re playing very bothersome characters — Rory King, a tattooed gangster who is going through anxiety, Lazaro’s struggling with suicidal thoughts and Louis Katz emotionally unstable on meds. It’s outrageous because all your characters look different; nobody looks physically the same. How hard do you work on altering your appearance?
(ZL): It’s not hard at all. Due to my background I can go in different directions. I remember going on castings where I was miss-casted quite often. I learned to alter my look based on what I was auditioning for at the time. I had to experiment with different looks if I was going stand a chance for an audition, which is a process I dislike because it’s very unnatural to me. Eventually, I decided I wasn’t going to wait for a casting director to open a door for me and I knew I would need to create my own vehicle. It’s never made sense to me, to audition for parts that I had no interest in nor someone determining if you’re good or not by sitting in a chair reading.
You seem laid back, like this has become easy for you. Have you assessed the level of filmmaking you’ve positioned Chicago to be in? It seems like anything you touch is contending with bigger films and carving your piece of work to become noticed.
(ZL): Whether I lived in Chicago or not I think I would be doing the same thing. I don’t think of positioning Chicago, I think in terms of positioning the films in front of me. As for acting, all you can do is the best you could with what you have to work with. If that transcends and people take notice, ‘great.’ You may only get one chance to play a part, so I always try to do it differently and put my own signature on it. After a while everything looks and sounds the same, there’s a redundancy in our culture today that has taken the artisan steps backwards. I don’t watch many movies anymore, part of the reason why the movies coming out of Ave Fenix Pictures are so different and distinctive. Our influences are coming from our experiences not what we watch on TV.
(I take one last sip of my coffee before I depart, taking in what Mr. Laoutides just told me… I come to the conclusion that Mr. Laoutides must really be a suicidal gangster on meds who is psychic. Just kidding. Truthfully, Joseph Mennella and Zachary Laoutides may not only be positioning Chicago film as a Hollywood contender, but also may be positioning their performances as contenders fairly soon).
For more information:
Ave Fenix Pictures: www.avefenixpictures.com
Watch Adios Vaya Con Dios on Itunes: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/adios-vaya-con-dios/id1070672501
Love you to the Moon and back: www.facebook.com/loveyoutothemoonandbackmovie