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Interview: Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda Take "Jersey Boys" From Stage to Screen

Two of the four stars of Clint Eastwood's "Jersey Boys"--Erich Bergen, who plays Bob Gaudio, and Michael Lomenda, who plays Nick Massi--sat down with us last week to talk about the Clint Eastwood adaptation of the hit Broadway play. It's always fun to get some time with young, passionate, energetic stars on the eve of their breakthrough roles. There's a love for their art form that comes through in every answer to every question. And Erich felt that love from Roger as well, as my introduction got him excited to talk about "Life Itself":

Roger meant something to you?

ERICH BERGEN: I love that book SO MUCH. We’re both total nerds. Any time I run into other people who can talk about whatever they love with such a passion that then turns into…People changed movies because of what Roger said. It was nerdy that then went right. He loved it so much that he would rather spend all day, no matter how nice it was outside, locked up in this room watching movies. He loved. It was the same as Clint.

You guys feel that passion for filmmaking from Clint?

MICHAEL LOMENDA: It certainly permeates his set. There’s something about seeing someone who’s so absolutely, 100% in his element. He’s in his 80s. He’s in his A game as well. He looks like a kid half the time. He’s got that glint in his eye and he’s running around the set. It’s unbelievable.

Is there awe the first day? That’s “Clint.”

EB: There’s never NOT awe. (Laughs.) I think he plays off and knows what people think of him. He knows that people think he’s scary, so he can joke around with that, but he’s NOT that guy. At all. He’s the most open. It was weird. The set was so calm. No one ever yelled. It was the most relaxed vibe. What were you saying about why he doesn’t call “Action” and stuff?

ML: He doesn’t like to say “Action” or “Cut” because he used to work on set with horses and it would spook the horses. And I think Mr. Eastwood realized that actors and horses are similar.

EB: In so many ways.

ML: We’re animals, ultimately. There were so many times when we were on set that we weren’t sure if we were filming a rehearsal or if the cameras were even rolling. And coming out of a scene…coming from Broadway, we know where a scene starts and ends but, rolling out, we’d go for three minutes. And he’d finally say, “That’s enough of that. Let’s move on.”

EB: You’d hear, “All right. That’s good.” There were times when kept acting and he had already yelled cut. It was just such a chill vibe. And what you get is this natural performance out of everyone. We watched it last night—it was only the second time I’ve seen it—and I was watching Vincent’s performance in the big sit-down scene and it was amazing watching Vincent’s face and watching him fall apart. It was so subtle and it wasn’t “performed” at all. He was “listening” to what was happening and only Clint could capture that. When he turned back to say, “That bad, Frankie, huh?,” that’s not in the script. That vibe was encouraged so much on set.

Do you do a lot of takes? It strikes me that in a Broadway play, you do a big musical number and catch your breath as you move on. You can only do a big number so many times. Does Clint work quickly?

ML: He does. He’s notorious for it. That being said…

EB: Don’t get the wrong impression. He would let us do what we needed to do.

ML: Absolutely. He was also working on digital for the first time, which changes your vibe because you’re not so worried about burning feet. It seemed to be a good pairing. I think it was courageous to take on a musical and then pair that with digital—it allowed him freedom. Also, the way he shot the musical numbers…

EB: He shot the musical numbers almost like a documentary. When it came time to do the songs, we wouldn’t see him. He would be out in the audience, doing his own thing, and we worked with Ron Melrose and Sergio Trujillo, the Music Director and the Choreographer. Clint essentially produced a rock concert. We were singing with a live band and everything. The audience, even though they were extras, were enjoying a free concert, and Clint just captured rock ‘n’ roll. It was sort of wild how he really stepped away from us during those scenes.

I want to talk a little bit about the line between truth and art. Do you reach a point where you say “Bob wouldn’t have or didn’t do it this way but it’s good for the scene”? How truthful do you need to be and how do you find that balance between history and entertainment?

EB: For me, “Jersey Boys” is its own thing. It’s based off of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, it’s a true story, and we’re playing real people. But this is “Jersey Boys”. I know that Frankie himself has had difficulty with certain things. When you are the person, it’s often one of two things: You either want to have it “no, that’s not the way it really was” or the complete opposite in “don’t tell them that.” Both of those things are completely valid. You have to remember though that “Jersey Boys” invented a style. You go on YouTube and watch these clips: They did not move the way we move. We invented a whole thing. You watch show choirs in high school do numbers and they don’t even know that Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were a real group. It’s like people watching “Glee” and talking about “that great Lea Michele song.” Well, no. But we had to invent a whole thing. So I don’t feel this need to get every last detail. They also weren’t The Beatles. There songs were known but THEY weren’t really known. It’s not like we had to John Lennon right for all the fans.

A little bit with Valli.

EB: For him, yes.

Do you feel the same way?

ML: I think something that Mr. Eastwood always stressed was that it was the story and the truth in it first. He puts that in the forefront. As long as you’re serving the story. There’s a certain responsibility to just represent these guys. In the inception of this play, they had the choice to make it a glossy thing and they said no. They wanted to do it with truth and the real story. Otherwise, there’s no story there. It’s the juxtaposition between the semi-glossy—“Sherri Baby,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry”—people may call that bubble gum pop but juxtaposed with breakings & enterings, mob ties: That’s what makes it interesting.

EB: You have to remember that it’s still entertainment. At the end of the day, you have to take the truth and streamline it. There are so many things we don’t get into. Frankie lost two daughters. Sometimes there are things that are, in the case of Frankie’s life story, where the truth would not be believable. It’s a film. It wouldn’t play. At the end of the day, you’re making a film. That’s why we have editors. I believe films are made in the editing room. There’s where Clint’s specialty came in. This version of “Jersey Boys” really did stay true. What he brought to it was “master filmmaker.” That’s what makes “Jersey Boys” different on-screen but he kept the material.

You guys both played the roles you play on-screen on-stage. How do you adjust your style when you’re trained and taught to play to the back row of a theatre and now there’s a camera in your face?

ML: For me, it started with the call. With Mr. Eastwood saying, “You’re in the movie.” Well, not, him specifically. (Laughs.) (In Eastwood impression)—“You’re in the movie. Don’t mess it up.” You get that call. I remember thinking I had to go to class. But I looked at the class and I realized I wasn’t just the “token music theatre guy” in this production. I was among several other, not just among the principles, but all through the cast there were stage actors. I thought that was a cool decision and a deliberate take. So, instead of me spinning my wheels to become a “Clint Eastwood-worthy actor” in three weeks, which was my turnaround. I had to jump on a flight and go to a costume fitting.

EB: I’ve never seen someone with so much fear in their eyes when I ran into Michael. “What is happening?” We were both. I remember seeing him and thinking, “Oh, I must look the exact same.”

ML: And then you realize that he’s made a deliberate choice to hire theatre actors and so what do I have to do? I have to draw on that experience with “Jersey Boys” and try and live and inhabit in that world as best I can and roll with the punches on set. In theatre, you speak the lines and you don’t mess around with them. The writer is King. You step on set and the very first day we shot a musical number and I knew the scene and I wasn’t in it because I was quick-changing [in the stage version] and so I’m like, “I think that’s a mistake” and they just laughed. “Newbie, you’re in the scene.” It was baptism by fire. Dive in. And that set the tone for the whole entire movie.

EB: It was really Vincent Piazza who shocked us. We come from theatre, where every last comma is specific. Vincent has done a lot of stage work but he’s more comfortable in TV and film than we were. And he started improving and going off. And when the scene ended for us, it ended. The problem is that I’m in so many scenes with him, I was like “Oh God, I’ll sink or hold on for dear life.” We kept thinking we’re in trouble. But we were in the hands of people who were encouraging that. What’s interesting is that a lot of the improv didn’t make the final film; it just changed the vibe and made the performances more naturalistic.

But, to answer your question, I was so thrilled by how much we didn’t have to change our performances. Obviously, the technical element of not hitting the last role but Des McAnuff already made the show so cinematic in the stage version. When it came time to adjust it for film, it was more just instilling confidence in ourselves. We didn’t have to try to do something else.

And the film maintains a lot of that with its fourth-wall breaks and theatrical flourishes.

EB: Yes. Yes. Again, if they had gotten rid of that, it would have been “Ray” or “The Doors.” “Jersey Boys” is a unique theatrical experience.

It has a curtain call.

EB: Right. I think people were a little afraid of that but then let go and have fun. It’s fun to see Clint lend his style to that type of a film.

Do you guys worry at all about playing the same part for so long that you won’t be seen as anything else?

ML: Absolutely. I was lucky enough to have a bit of a break but I know people who had done it for four or five years in a row. I was lucky to have a couple of years in Toronto to do “Joseph” and “Hairspray” and “Blood Brother.” So it’s good to come back to it with fresh eyes but, yeah, it starts to become part of your own personal vernacular as an actor. You find these Nick-isms creeping into your choices. This whole experience of “Jersey Boys” has been about letting go for me. I have grown closer to Nick. I’ve found more of myself in this character. Yes, it will be a strange transition to do something different and I’m excited but it’s been a gift to learn.

Do you want to do more film or go back to theatre?

ML: The Canadian in me says, “Well, if they WANT me to…” (Laughs). I can 100% say that I was bit by the bug and the whole experience on-set turned me from an acting perspective. It was a game-changer for me and I felt liberated. Of course, when you’re spoiled rotten…

I was going to say that you shouldn’t get accustomed to all sets being like Clint’s…

EB: It’s ALL downhill from here.

ML: Once you work in that environment, you realize how it makes you feel as an actor. And I want to bring that to my next project. Even where I am now, six months after we shot, it feels like I’m a totally different person in the film. Even watching myself develop in the two months we shot the film. There’s one scene in the movie—we shot out of order, of course—and I can tell the difference.

You can see confidence changes?

EB: Absolutely. I can see it in all of us. “Sherri” was the last thing we shot and if you really watch it, we’re having a blast.

But that fits that scene.

EB: Of course, yes. But I remember it as sad; a very hard day knowing it was over because it was such a short shoot. 40 days and we came in early.

What’s next?

EB: I have ten days between the premiere of this in L.A. and going to shoot CBS’s “Madam Secretary.” So if anyone has an apartment available…And he’s doing the exact opposite.

ML: Yeah, I’m moving from Toronto to L.A. My entire life…I can’t even see my apartment floor at home. I want to hit the ground running.


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