The Emmy-nominated actress, who steps behind the camera as producer of A Better Life, discusses the film and explains what makes a good script.
Actress-producer Jami Gertz
Tavis: Jami Gertz is an Emmy-nominated actress known for her roles on shows like “Ally McBeal” and “Still Standing.” She’s now stepped behind the scenes as a producer on a critically acclaimed new project set here in L.A., in fact. It’s called “A Better Life.” The film opens in New York, L.A. and elsewhere this weekend. Here now, some scenes from “A Better Life.”
Tavis: How do you make a movie about an issue as controversial as immigration – the movie’s not about immigration, but that’s certainly part of the storyline. It’s about family more than anything else. But how do you even touch that issue, immigration, these days in a movie that is entertaining, that doesn’t proselytize?
Jami Gertz: Oh, wow, that’s a lovely way of putting it. I think first of all it’s time, and it’s important to tell a good story. I think a lot of times the movie industry has become such that we’re not telling our best stories. I grew up where you could see, like, “Flashdance,” which was kind of popcorn, and then you’d see “Ordinary People,” which was telling a story.
So when “A Better Life” came to the production company and I read it, I said, “This is telling a beautiful story from beginning, middle to end.” It does have an element about illegal immigration, and what I do love about Christ Weitz, our director, who directed “New Moon” and “About a Boy,” he does not hit you over the head.
It is part of life. It is part of what is happening here today in America. I think there’s, like, between 12 million and 15 million illegal, undocumented workers in this country.
Tavis: Tell me more about the storyline, since you referenced it now.
Gertz: Well, the story is a father-son tale, and what I was probably most interested in was the teenager-parent element of this. Because there’s a point in a kid’s life where your peers are much more important, and what they think is much more important to you than what your parents think.
So for me, I loved that these are two characters who are very far apart. Take that you’re a teenager, you care more what your friends think, your father speaks Spanish, the music he listens to is no the music you’re listening to. You were born here, you want to be American, and he’s mowing lawns all day long.
There’s an embarrassment there, there’s not a great deal of respect there, and there’s a lot of anger from the father and embarrassment from the son. They have to go on a journey together to start getting back into each other’s lives.
For me, that’s the theme, and that’s a universal theme, whether you’re Hispanic, Black, white, rich, poor, that is father-son, parent-child, that is an amazing story to tell.
Tavis: By and large we know you as an actress. You’re getting, obviously, much more into the producing end. How did that happen?
Gertz: Well, I think when I thought about aging in the entertainment business, and how to do is as gracefully as I possibly could – I’m also one of those people that you go see the movie with and I’ll tell you why you were not satisfied as a movie-goer, and my husband – I’ve been married 22 years – said to me, he said, “Jami, put your money where your mouth is. Go create art. You’re so good at it, you know script, you know what you’re doing.”
So I knew what I knew, but I knew I didn’t know a lot. So I needed a partner and I have a wonderful partner in a girl named Stacy Loveliner. She was a literary agent. So we started this company and we started reading scripts. I’ve been reading scripts for 25 years, and a lot of them are pretty crappy.
So when one comes like “A Better Life,” you’re like, “Oh, my God.” I was weeping as I was reading this script, and it’s so rare that that happens, Tavis. A lot of times they start movies, the script isn’t even finished. You don’t even know how it’s going to end.
How do you start any business, any product, without even knowing and having the basics already in line? So that’s what was there already with this script. Then with Chris Weitz directing it and meeting Chris and seeing what TLC he was bringing to it, he was just handling it with such kid gloves, really.
Tavis: What makes, to your point now about a bad script versus a good script, what makes a good script for you?
Gertz: Telling a good story. You could tell a good story about superheroes, but a lot of times – and I say this summer there’s a lot of superheroes, there’s a lot of people in tights who have a super power, and guess what? They’re going to save the world. I got the ending for you, people. (Laughter)
I’m telling people, we have the everyman’s superhero, who’s wearing work boots, who’s wearing blue jeans, and every day he is doing a yeoman’s job to try to put food on his table and make a life for himself and a better life for his family.
But I think that what makes a good script is that you’re telling a great story that people should be interested in, and if you tell it the right way and you let them know that it’s out there, I believe they will come and I believe they will enjoy it.
Tavis: You said something a moment ago that I think is important to go back and unpack. You said a moment ago that if you tell a good story, people should be interested in. Let’s dissect that “should be” part.
Tavis: I hear the point that you’re making and I agree that when you revel in and showcase the humanity of the character, that every one of us, Black, white, red, brown or yellow, ought to be able to get into that. Yet you’ve taken – and I respect you for this – you and your company are taking a risk, to some degree, in this project because it features a largely Hispanic cast.
Tell me why you believe that America is ready to embrace that when we see how hard we’ve had to fight to get these kinds of projects made. It’s a universal story, but you’ve taken – you’re rolling the dice here with a different kind of – these ain’t a bunch of white folk.
Gertz: No, it is not. I think there’s only, like, two white people in the movie. But 42 percent of our population now is Hispanic. It’s interesting, my oldest son goes to Georgetown, and we did a screening at Georgetown, and it’s a very international school.
There were kids there from Ethiopia, there were kids there from Egypt, there were kids there from Spain, all over, who now live in America and they’re like, “Don’t just say it’s a Hispanic story. My mom slept on the couch while she gave me the bedroom.” This is an immigrant’s story.
This is not specifically a Hispanic story. It happens to be that we use the Hispanic backdrop, but it is universal, and I don’t think it’s taking a gamble, telling a good story.
I could be blowing smoke up my, you know, (laughs) but I believe if you tell a good story, people will come see it. These are great characters. Demian Bichir, who plays the lead actor, is so extraordinary. He so under-plays this, and he has such humanity, and it comes through in every frame of that film.
Tavis: Tell me more about the decision to go with actors who were not – there are Hispanic actors who are much better known –
Tavis: – much bigger box office, potentially.
Tavis: But you went a different route. Tell me why.
Gertz: Well, I love this about Chris – Chris could have had any actor. So many were clamoring for this script, because it was so well-written, and Chris stuck to his guns and he wanted Demian. He had seen Demian perform, he loved Demian, he had met – he even brought Demian to meet on “New Moon” to see if he could work with him somehow then.
So he stuck to his guns. It’s hard to do here in Hollywood, but Chris Weitz is that type of guy. He just hung in there and was going to have Demian come hell or high water, and he was going to shoot in L.A. Most of these movies are like, “We’re L.A., we’re Albuquerque for L.A.,” and this is such a love letter to Los Angeles. You see it in such a different way.
The thing about L.A. that I’m struck by – I grew up in Chicago and when you drove downtown, you had to go through the bad areas. You had to go through the tough neighborhood to get to the good neighborhoods or get to Michigan Avenue or get to the lake.
In L.A., these freeways, you can bypass anywhere. You never have to get off the freeway in the area that may be unseemly or that you don’t want to look at – never have to. This film forces you to take a look. It’s a love letter to Los Angeles. It’s shot so beautifully. For me, personally, getting off that freeway and hanging out in Boyle Heights and hanging out in South Central, and it’s what I love about being on a set, there’s beautiful lives out there and wonderful people out there, and we’re not paying enough attention.
Tavis: This might seem like a simple question and a silly question, but how important is it when you’re doing a project like this, where you are taking some risk, to have a director that you are that much in love with, who you put all your trust, obviously, in for this project.
Gertz: Well, I put my trust and my money in him. That’s a big deal for me. It’s an investment for me in his ability, and I’m so proud of what he’s created that I – we’re around the same age. I’m not going to out myself right here on television, but –
Tavis: But you do have a son at Georgetown, though.
Gertz: I do have a son at Georgetown. (Laughter) So whatever, do the math.
Tavis: And been married 22 years.
Gertz: Yes, do the math. But I’m proud of him like a mom of a child. He was on the front of the Calendar section yesterday.
Tavis: I saw that, I saw that, yeah.
Gertz: And I literally said to him, “I hope you’re sending copies to your mother and to your 100-year-old grandmother, because this is what makes parents kvell.” (Laughter) This is what makes us – you know. So I have to mention him because he’s my leader, and being an actor for so long, that’s who I listen to on set. My director, as an actor, is the captain of the ship, and I’ve been on many ships where my captain is iffy or I think he should walk the plank, (laughter) and here, my captain, I was like, “Captain, my captain, oh, captain.” He was just amazing.
Tavis: So this doesn’t mean that you’re giving up on acting, though.
Tavis: Now that you’re in this producing role.
Gertz: Never. I hope to produce something for myself someday. You never know, put myself in. But for me, it’s creating art today in the medium that I know and love, which is film, theater, television, and helping the artists create it gets harder and harder. Development money’s dried up, things have dried up. So here I come at this time and do my little part to create great art.
Tavis: I mentioned a moment ago that there are not a whole lot of white folk in this film; you mentioned two or three. I can never thank you enough, when we were getting this show started now about nine years ago, to convince the white folk at PBS that I could do this. You came in for the pilot episode, so.
Gertz: Thank you, and look where you are now.
Tavis: Yeah, here we are.
Gertz: See? I’m a betting woman, (laughter) and I bet on good people.
Tavis: She bet on Tavis, yeah.
Gertz: So I bet on Tavis, you’ve got to bet on “A Better Life.”
Tavis: There you go. I like that. So if Jami’s behind it, it’s probably going to work. This ain’t done so bad for nine seasons, almost, now, and I’m sure “A Better Life” is a project you’ll like as well. So congratulations in advance on the sc of it.
Gertz: Thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: Good to have you back, anytime.
Gertz: Thank you, pleasure.
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