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The Fretts on Film Interview: John Magaro and Bella Heathcote of “Not Fade Away”

December 19, 2012

Never heard of John Magaro and Bella Heatchcote? Well, I bet you’d never heard of James Gandolfini and Edie Falco before The Sopranos. (I had, but no matter.) The relative unknowns costar with Gandolfini in Sopranos creator David Chase’s first movie, Not Fade Away, as a ’60s Jersey garage rocker and his aspiring-hippie girlfriend. I interviewed both for my story on the film in today’s New York Daily News, and here’s a whole lot more of what they had to say.

JOHN MAGARO

How did you get involved in the project?

There was an extensive search. I think they had an open call in Jersey, maybe an open call in New York, too. At first, Steven Van Zandt wanted them to get musicians, and David said, ‘No, you should get actors.’ So they tried to find some musicians and they ended up casting a couple, but then he ended up coming back to actors. I had actually gone in about 6 months before I was cast, and then they did the open call search, and then I came back 6 months laterand it started to develop at that point. Then I came in for David with Steven playing the guitar, which is kind of intimidating, and it ended up working out and I got the job.

How did it feel? Were you nervous? Excited?

It felt like a whole spectrum of emotions! You’re thrilled that you got the job, you’re nervous because it’s a lot of responsibility and you want to do good, but you take all of that stuff and you just do the best that you can with it.

So were you a Sopranos fan going into this?

It’s tough to get into a series week after week, but Sopranos, I watched every week. Every Sunday. I loved it. It was an amazing show. I think it changed television in a lot of ways. These honest, real people dealing with these crazy situations, which was wonderful to watch.

Was it weird to step into the David Chase/James Gandolfini world?

Yeah, of course! But it’s great to be surrounded by people that you respect so much, too. That’s a wonderful feeling.

What did you observe of their collaboration? Did they have a shorthand because they’ve worked together for so long?

Yeah, I’d say they have a shorthand in a kind of indescribable way, but you witness it, you see they have this bond that they built over many years and this honest collaboration where they kind of tell each other how they really feel. And if there’s something that they don’t feel is working, they’ll call each other out on it.

How did you get into the whole musical side of it? I know there was a boot camp experience with Steven.

We started shooting in February, and we started our boot camp in October befor. At first, it started with Jack, Will and myself learning our instruments because none of us knew how to play. I had to learn drums. So it started, we’d go in every morning 5 or 6 days a week and we’d do probably like 9 hours of drills and lessons and just practicing and then finally, we started to get together and try to play as a band. Then Steven was trying to develop our sound as a band when we came together. We had really great teachers.

Were you into that era of music before this or did you get into it as a result?

I was into this music before. I grew up listening to this music because of my parents. I’d drive around in the car with my Dad and he’d be playing the oldies station, and I love that music. That’s the quintessential American music—the late 50’s, early 60’s kind of formed what American music is. So I’ve always loved it. During the process, I discovered a lot of blues musicians as well, which influenced those guys in the 60’s. I still listen to all that stuff now.

Do you have a sense of how autobiographical this story is? David Chase said it isn’t literally his story, but did you feel like you were playing him?

Yeah, I mean I did feel like I was playing a version of him. But David will say this—it’s not autobiographical. It certainly takes elements from his childhood and infuses that into the story, but I think a lot of writers do that—they take from their own experience because that’s what they know. But this story is still a lot different than what actually happened for him in his life. The degree of success that they have, even though it’s not much, is ten times as much as he ever had in his garage band.

What his is style like on set as a director?

He is very thoughtful and on set, and he had time to be pensive. But he loves his actors and he really fights for his actors. And some directors are concerned with painting a picture just with setting up the shot and say like, ‘Stand in this place and don’t move and just say the lines.’ He sort of lets you play out the scene in an honest way and he tries to make the set as accommodating and as open to creativity as possible. And he’s extremely collaborative, too, which is nice.

Had you worked with James Gandolfini before this?

Yeah, I did. We did a film a few years ago called Down the Shore so we had known each other from that so this was kind of a reunion for us.

Did that help with not feeling initially intimidated by him?

Yeah. When I first met him a few years ago, I was certainly intimidated by him. And he still is kind of intimidating, but he’s such a talented actor and such a generous actor that it’s a real thrill to get to work with him again.

How do think starring in this film is going to impact your career? It seems like you’re moving on to other exciting projects already?.

I have no idea. I feel very fortunate to have had that experience. I think the movie industry is constantly changing so I don’t know what’s going to happen as a result of this. I just want to keep working on projects that I care about and that I’m passionate about, and hopefully I’ll get the chance.

You’re from Ohio, right?

Yeah, I grew up around Cleveland.

So that’s the home of rock and roll. Was that a connection?

That’s what they say. It’s not like in Cleveland we’re going around touting our rock and roll roots, but I think there’s something about the Rust Belt mentality, that blue collar kind of ethic that works well and complements rock and roll because it’s a gritty form of music and it comes from the blues and that kind of struggle.

Did you have to master a Jersey accent for this film?

Um, I do a little bit of one. I’ve always been sort of told that I have an Eastern, New York, New Jersey cadence in the way I speak, which I don’t even know how I got it. But also, I feel like that generation, if you talk to David or a lot of guys that grew up in the suburbs at that time, they don’t really have a thick Jersey accent. They sort of lost that. So we had a hint of it, but I don’t think we did it too much.

What are you working on now?

Right now, I’m hanging out, enjoying the holiday. Trying to line something up. I have a couple of things that I worked on over the spring. Something called Captain Phillips with Tom Hanks. And then another film called Deep Powder, and I’m not sure what’s going on with that, but hopefully it gets out.

Bella+Heathcote+50th+New+York+Film+Festival+EwIE8HlaKh6lBELLA HEATHCOTE

What was your experience like getting cast in the role?

It was definitely the longest casting process I’ve been through, which was kind of good and bad in a sense that I felt like I’d earned the role. It was over the course of a few months and I came back in 4 or 5 times—I read for David twice, including the test, and the test was between 5-7 hours. It felt like I was shooting the film, and I remember at the time, saying to David, ‘If this is as far as it goes, I’m just really glad that I had this experience.’ It was really nice. Tests can feel awful. They can feel like tests in the sense of a school test, but this just felt really collaborative and fun.

Were you a fan of The Sopranos coming in?

I hadn’t seen it, and I hadn’t actually started watching it until I got the gig. And I was really relieved because I would have been so much more intimidated. David is a pretty intimidating guy when you first meet him, and if I had seen that, I wouldn’t have even been able to talk to him. And same with Jim.

Did you do any research on the era? It’s obviously before your time. Are you now into the music of that time?

Yeah, I was into the music even prior to the film. I think David definitely broadened my horizons in terms of bands like the Paul Butterfield Blues Band and all the early Stones covers, I wasn’t familiar with. Just really extraordinary music. The research was amazing.

What was the biggest challenge for you? Mastering an American accent?

It was my first big film in the States, and I was really nervous about the accent. I know whenever I watch films that have people—Australian or English or anyone—I’m consciously listening for a slip up, or subconsciously. So that was my biggest fear. I was relieved it didn’t have to be a crazy dialect. It was Australian to American. But that was my big hurdle.

You fooled me!

That’s good! Well, I basically spent the entire time I was in New York in the accent even if I wasn’t shooting. I was so scared. But the second I wasn’t, if I had spoken in an Australian accent, the whole thing would unravel.

And how did you feel about the period clothes and hairstyles?

It didn’t seem odd at all. The costumes were really good. You’ve seen the film. I think my costumes are amazing. I just loved all that clothing. I remember at the end of it, I wanted to see if maybe I could keep something, but I couldn’t choose a favorite piece. It doesn’t seem costumey. It just seems like really beautiful clothes, and beautiful clothes are timeless.

What’s David like to work with on a day-to-day basis on the set?

He’s really warm and he’s got a sense of humor that I didn’t anticipate because I remember the first audition, he was completely unreadable. I was like, ‘Oh this is terrifying.’ But by the time we got to the test, I think once he gets past the first layer, he’s really sweet. I still see him, he’s the only director I’ve worked with who I have a continuing relationship with. He’s got a sense of humor and he’s great with the actors. I would have hated to have been in the art department because he’s such a perfectionist. I was lucky I was an actor in the film!

Did you get any sense of how autobiographical the film is?  He was a drummer when he was trying to win over his wife. Was there a parallel?

Well, it was strange, we kind of grilled him on it, and he was like, ‘No, no, no this is made up, it’s not really autobiographical.’ But then there was this line that I had—I remember at the time almost considering asking him to help me understand it or re-write it or something because I just couldn’t get it to make sense in my head—she says to Doug before they get together, “Time is on your side.” And Denise had said that to him at some point. So I was like, ‘Okay, well clearly I need to make this work.’

I know you’re not involved in these scenes directly, but did you get any insight into his relationship with James Gandolfini? They’ve worked together a lot. What’s the dynamic like between them on the set?

It’s really great seeing people that familiar with each other. They just had a really good back and forth and sense of humor about things. They told stories. We’d be driving around locations and then someone would say something like, ‘Oh yeah, I remember coming here—we used to drive this place because this liquor store is closed at a certain hour so we’d have to drive across to some other town.’

How different was your experience on this film versus Dark Shadows—a bigger-budgeted Tim Burton extravaganza?

Yeah, that was like a holiday in the sense that it’s a big budget, well-oiled machine. It was easy in that sense because if Tim wanted to stop and wait for something, they could hold production for a day or whatever without getting stressed out. It seemed a lot lower stress level all around.

Have you relocated to the U.S?

I have moved to L.A. now. I love it. I didn’t expect that I would, but I’ve got a house and it’s surrounded by nature. You can get beautiful homes here. I love mid-century homes. So I’m pretty blessed.

What’s the biggest difference you’ve noticed between Australia and America?

I went from being in Melbourne where I didn’t have any friends that were actors. So living in L.A., everyone I know is somehow linked to it. That’s probably the biggest difference for me.

Is it comforting to have everyone in the same business, or is limiting to have everyone talking about the same thing?

There are elements of both. It’s nice that people get where you’re coming from and you always have some mutual understanding or something to talk about when you meet people. But when it’s all you’re talking about, it gets a bit depressing.

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