OBSERVATIONS ON CELEBRITIES AND LARGE HEADS
People are fascinated by celebrities. Growing up in Virginia, I never dreamed I’d ever get anywhere near one. I went to Catholic school with some kids whose father was a U.S. Senator. Some would consider this a celebrity but I didn’t really even know about it until high school and even then I wasn’t particularly impressed. I played on a Little League baseball team with Joey Theismann, the son of Washington Redskins quarterback, Joe Theismann. Once, Joe pitched batting practice for us and that was a pretty big thrill at the time. Still, watching Van Halen videos and movies and TV shows I knew that the real celebrities were out in California. There seemed to be something exotic and amazing about that world. I thought that if I ever got out to the West Coast I’d be bumping into famous people everywhere I went. That’s not how it was but in different, weird ways I’ve met more celebrities than I ever would have imagined.
I had a long distance relationship with a girl from New York 8 or 9 years ago. She was a writer for a major women’s magazine while we were dating and every month or so she’d come into town to do an interview with whatever female celebrity happened to be on the cover that month. She’d often get to stay at the Chateau Marmont, which meant I’d get to stay there with her. For those who don’t know, the Chateau Marmont is a luxury hotel in West Hollywood known for having a large celebrity clientele. This girl was a bright, intelligent person who went on to great success as a serious writer. At the time though she was kind of a closeted tabloid junkie who had grown up on the East Coast, like me. For her, celebrity watching was a kind of campy, fun, guilty pleasure that she never seemed to grow tired of. She’d spend a whole day interviewing Ashley Judd or Sarah Jessica Parker but still be thrilled by, that night, catching a glimpse of Vincent Gallo in the living room of the Chateau Marmont.
This girl told me lots of stories about having met these celebrities but the only time I ever met one of her interview subjects was a night when we bumped into Lara Flynn Boyle, again, in the living room of the Chateau Marmont. My girlfriend had interviewed Lara Flynn Boyle months before and they remembered one another fondly. Lara was warm and funny and little zany. She poked holes in the filters of her Marlboro red cigarettes so they’d be stronger. We wound up playing the game “Celebrity” with her and another guy who was there who had co-written the movie, I Heart Huckabees. I can’t remember his name and I also can’t remember how he wound up with us, if he’d come along with Lara or if my girlfriend knew him and he was there when Lara arrived. At one point we needed something to hold all the pieces of paper in and Lara disappeared into the kitchen of the Chateau Marmont and then came out seconds later with an ice bucket I’m guessing she just grabbed without asking. Despite being a celebrity herself, Lara wasn’t very good at the game and me and the I Heart Huckabees guy mopped the floor with Lara Flynn Boyle and my girlfriend.
The first celebrity I ever met was Justine Bateman. I was about 22 and had just arrived in Los Angeles. I was randomly invited to my first big Hollywood party that was given by an assistant of a big time producer. Justine Bateman came right up to me - I think just because she was genuinely cordial and friendly - introduced herself and then asked how I knew the big producer. I told her I didn’t know him, that I was a guest of his assistant. I don’t think she minded because she hung out and talked to me for a while longer. I couldn’t come up with much to say to her because inside my head all I could think was, “Oh my God, It’s Mallory from Family Ties.”
A few years later I made a small independent film that had some actors in it who I’d seen in movies. One of them was Tommy Redmond Hicks who’d been the star of Spike Lee’s film, She’s Gotta Have It. That film had been an important one for me so I considered Tommy a celebrity and he became a friend.
Later, I got a job writing scripts for a guy named Andrew Stevens. He’d been a somewhat famous actor in the 70’s and 80’s, kind of a heartthrob. He was goofy and funny and full of energy. He still acted from time to time but when I knew him but had mostly become a producer of straight to video, B-movie fare and he employed me writing theses movies for him for several years. Mostly, I was taken by what a great businessman he was. Once, I went to the American Film Market to talk to him about a project. He had a suite rented out in the Loew’s Santa Monica Beach Hotel where he was selling all his films to foreign buyers. I watched for a while as he worked the room and charmed everyone, even Korean guys who didn’t speak any English.
Years after this, I wrote a script that Paul Rudd became attached to. He’d been in Clueless and a few other films but he wasn’t a big movie star yet. Before he attached himself to the project he asked to meet with me and we arranged to have a beer at St. Nick’s on 3rd Street, near the Beverly Center. My friend Pat calls this the “are you crazy?” meeting. Typically, when trying to get an actor attached to a script they’ll ask for a meeting before actually committing. From what I can gather, if you’re given a meeting it means the actor likes your script and wants to do it. He or she just wants to look in your eyes and make sure you’re not a crazy person first. So, I had the, “are you crazy?” meeting with Paul Rudd at a bar and it went well. I remember Paul drank Red Stripe. He was a very cool, normal guy. It took years to actually find the money to make this movie and Paul was patient about this and loyal to the project.
When we made the movie Paul stayed – here we are again - at the Chateau Marmont. One night we had a drink at the bar and Christopher Walken strolled by. Paul and I both saw him at the same time and a strange thing happened. Mid sentence, we both just stopped talking and watched as Mr. Walken passed by us and disappeared around a corner. We then looked at each other and, without a word, cracked up laughing. I could tell that even though Paul was a famous guy himself who had spent all kinds of time with huge celebrities, in that moment he was just a kid from Kansas City who was sort of tickled to have caught a glimpse of Christopher Walken.
A few years after this, I got an agent and wound up working on a script with Geena Davis. It was an idea she had for a sequel to
A League of Their Own, that she was going to star in and produce. When I met with her she was beautiful and very tall. I presented my ideas for the script and, together, we went to a meeting with Amy Pascal, the head of Sony Pictures, to try to sell the concept. Geena showed up barefoot. She said she hadn’t even realized that she’d forgotten to put on shoes until she was walking into the meeting. Nonetheless, we sold the idea and I wrote the script but it was never made. Geena was a great producer though. The big problem you run into as a writer working with producers is that they have a lot of ideas that they want in the script and you’ll work very hard for months executing these ideas and then when they give you script notes they’ll often go like this:
PRODUCER: This scene doesn’t work. Where’d you get this? WRITER: It was your idea. We discussed it for an hour. I tried to explain why it might not work but you were rather insistent...
PRODUCER: Really? I don’t think so. I mean, if you say I said it I guess I did but… I don’t think so. Anyway, change it.
Or they’ll go through the script and too often say things like, “What if we changed x to y?” Notes like that suck because, of course, x can be changed to y. Anything can be changed to anything else but it’s really not productive to go through a script and ask, again and again, what would happen if we did this instead of that. Geena didn’t do either of these things and it was a pleasure working with her.
The biggest celebrity I ever met was Tom Hanks. His company produced a film I wrote and directed. Once they agreed to produce the film I went to his offices in Santa Monica and met with him and a number of executives who worked for his company. It was downright trippy sitting in an office talking to Tom Hanks as if he were just another guy. I’d spent most of my life watching him in everything from Bosom Buddies to Saving Private Ryan to a mostly forgotten guest appearance before he’d gotten really big in - yes, another recurring motif - Family Ties. If you remember it, “I hit Alex!”
Tom was very nice and friendly, just like you’d imagine. He’s also incredibly funny and quick. As I hung out with him it occurred to me that if he wanted he could have probably been an all time great stand up comedian like George Carlin. Instead he became an all time great actor and is now becoming an all time great producer. You kind of got the feeling with him that he would have become an all time great at pretty much anything he set his mind to.
Tom was always joking and making everyone laugh and as I spent more time with him I wondered if he used this as a way to keep people at a little bit of a distance. Everyone wanted a piece of Tom. Even with my, very casual, connection to him I was approached numerous times by acquaintances to ask if I could put them in touch with Tom Hanks because they had a movie role or charity event that they thought for sure he’d be dying to help them out with if only he knew about it. Probably because of his Everyman persona, people kind of feel a sense of ownership with Tom Hanks. They walk right up to him as if they’re entitled to a little bit of his time. Any time I ever observed this Tom was unfailingly good-natured about it but I couldn’t help but wonder if it ever got tiresome for him. Years before I met Tom Hanks, I was walking by an old, independent movie theater in Santa Monica that was about to be closed. I was with a friend who, out of left field, commented, “Tom Hanks should buy that movie theater and keep it open.” Why did my friend think this? I have no idea. But that’s the way people tend to regard Tom Hanks, almost like he’s theirs and he should be at the ready to do the considerate things they’d do if they were Tom Hanks.
When I was making the film with Paul Rudd I got to work with an actress named Caroline Aaron, who played Paul’s mother. She’s not officially a celebrity, I guess, but she’d been in my favorite film, Crimes and Misdemeanors, so I was as excited to work with her as anyone I’ve ever worked with. She told me that to be a movie star you need to have a large head. She couldn’t remember if Roseanne or Mike Nichols had first told her this. It may have something to do with the fact that people with large heads fill up more of the screen and stand out more. Paul Rudd, who happens to have a rather large head, was in earshot when she said this and commented, “You know, there’s something to that. Paul Newman has an enormous head”.
The film I made with Tom Hanks (large head) was a bonanza for meeting celebrities and also for observing if they had large or small heads. I met Jay Leno while making this film, who reminded me a little of my father. He was friendly but seemed - and this was just my impression from 5 minutes in his presence - to have a short attention span. You got the feeling that when you were talking to him you had about 5 seconds before he’d lose interest or become distracted by something else. It’s no great revelation to say Jay Leno is the king of large heads. No one’s is bigger, maybe on Earth.
I also met Tom Arnold, who has a huge head. Tom was so unexpectedly kind to me that it caught me off guard. He’s actually just an uncommonly nice, sweet man. He later called me to ask how the film was going and to just to talk for a bit. After that, for about a month, I must have gotten caught on his speed dial because every few days my phone would ring and I’d hear Tom Arnold on the other end of the line ordering his dinner or just chatting with friends, no idea that his phone had just called me.
Kevin Kline (very large head) was originally going to play the star of the film I did with Tom Hanks’ company. We set a time to have an “are you crazy?” lunch meeting at a restaurant in New York but when he arrived and saw how crowded it was he suggested we just walk back to his apartment and talk. I spent several hours with Kevin and was really taken by his intelligence and attention to detail. He got right down to business. He’d gone through my entire script and had ideas about nearly every scene that were almost all great. He later dropped out of the project but I kept his ideas and they made the script better. While we were there his children and his wife, Phoebe Cates (small head), came home. Phoebe Cates is maybe the most beautiful woman I’ve ever met in person. She must have been well into her 40’s but it was like she’d been kept in an anti-aging chamber. She looked exactly the same as she had in her 20’s.
John Malkovich (large head) replaced Kevin Kline on the film and became one of my favorite people ever. I’d been warned before I met him that he was mercurial, even impossible. The person who told me this didn’t know what he was talking about. John was polite, wicked smart and hilarious. Unlike many celebrities he was interested in what you had to say and really listened. He met my mother briefly and when I saw him years later he remembered what she did for a living.
I also met and/or worked with Colin Hanks (above average sized head), Emily Blunt (medium), Jon Stewart (medium), Conan O’Brien (large), Rebecca Hall (above average), Ricky Jay (large), Anna Faris (small) and many, many other celebrities of varying head sizes. Steve Zahn (normal size head) had a small role in the film and I was surprised how down to earth he was. At one point I apologized to him because we were going to be shooting his angle last which meant he’d have to stay on set an hour longer than he’d originally been told. He said, “Listen Sean, after this I’m gonna go back to my hotel room and drink beer. I don’t really care if I do it now or an hour from now.”
Pretty much all of the celebrities I’ve met are actors. I’ve had very good luck with actors in general. They’ve almost all been professional, motivated and smarter than me. People talk about how egotistical and difficult actors can be, especially celebrity actors, but I’ve never found this to be the case. They just want to do good work and are usually on your side. There’s always a soul there. I’ve had a much harder time with producers and studio executives, who often don’t know what they want and aren’t willing to admit this, which causes all sorts of problems. Even the actors I’ve come across who have been difficult weren’t so bad. They were just insecure and needed a little extra attention. Once you realize this it’s easy to deal with and there’s something human about this that's even kind of touching. Early in my career, Tommy Hicks gave me the advice to be good to actors. He told me that as a writer and director, your greatest asset, aside from your own creative abilities, is the actors you work with. This is some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. Tommy is a very smart man.
Ever since my film with Tom Hanks I haven’t gotten the opportunity to meet as many celebrities and observe their head sizes. I had a brief meeting with Ray Liotta (above average) that didn’t come to anything. I currently am trying to make a movie that I have Topher Grace (normal sized head) attached to. Topher and I had the “are you crazy?” meeting, of course, at the Chateau Marmont. I hadn’t been there for many years and as we were talking Justin Timberlake (above average) stopped by to say hello to Topher. Justin was very polite and he apologized to me for interrupting. I shrugged and nodded that it was quite OK and then looked around and realized that Topher and I were sitting on the same couch where I’d played “Celebrity” with Lara Flynn Boyle all those years ago. It was my first time meeting Topher and I was a little nervous and wanted him to agree to be in my movie. I thought about maybe jazzing up my whole act by telling him the story about Lara Flynn Boyle or even getting into a discussion of celebrity head sizes. But, after taking Topher in for another minute or so I decided neither was necessary. Topher was an intelligent and serious sort, more along the lines of Kevin Kline. He just wanted to talk about his ideas for the script, almost all of which were very good.