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Tell us how and why you got involved with Another Harvest Moon.
The part was offered to me. They were told by the casting director that I turn down a lot of movies and shouldn’t get their hopes up. But I’ve instructed my managers and agents to send me any scripts that come in, regardless of what they think of them. There’s something deeply personal about this movie. I didn’t know if it was going to be great, I didn’t know the director’s work, but I loved the way they approached me. The [filmmakers] were not in Hollywood, they were out of Pennsylvania. Plus I got to work with Ernest Borgnine – I grew up watching him on television. He’s an icon. How often do you get a chance to work with someone with 70 years of experience? Cybill Shepherd is someone with great talent and a great career, as is Doris Roberts and Anne Meara.
The film is almost brutally realistic. Did it force you to consider your own parents’ mortality or even your own?
I think you do that without a conscious effort. You can’t help having that go through your blood. I don’t remember how I activated it. Ernie is such a cheery guy and so full of life that there was some great humor on the set, and that was probably to offset the subject matter. Of course it goes through your mind and heart, but it does for me all the time [laughs].
You’re well known for your role as Toby Ziegler on The West Wing, so it seemed natural to see you in PoliWood. How did you get involved in the film and in the Creative Coalition?
I don’t remember the first time I ran into [the Creative Coalition]. I think they asked me to go to an event, and I went to a few that I would have otherwise not known about. I’ve been working with them a lot. I started going to the [political party] conventions back in 2000 when the Democrats were in LA and invading the set of The West Wing. In 2004, the Creative Coalition took me to [the Democratic National Convention in] Boston. I couldn’t go to [the Republican National Convention in] New York because I was working. I had a great deal of inside access through The West Wing. I believe in the dialectic. I believe in opposing sides coming together with a thesis and antithesis. That’s what the Creative Coalition does.
PoliWood addresses an interesting topic: the role of celebrities in politics. Why don’t people believe celebrities have the right to voice their political opinons?
I’m embarrassed to be an actor. I’ve never come to grips with it, and I’m still trying to decide if I want to be one or not. I’m embarrassed by public attention, so it’s awkward for me to being with. I was asked at the 2004 convention by Chris Matthews about celebrities having the right to be spokespeople for anyone. I asked him what Hollywood he was talking about? The Hollywood of Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Schwarzenegger, Reagan? That’s also Hollywood, so to accuse Hollywood of being liberally bent is kind of silly. It’s a PR attack – a way to discredit people. The second part of it is, I don’t think I’m a spokesperson for anyone, but we live in a culture whereby for some unknown reason I’m celebrated because I’m on television and have a public face. The least I can do is to have a responsibility to that and bring light to an issue that otherwise wouldn’t get attention. So while I think the public school teacher who’s taught music for 30 years deserves the spotlight well before I do if we’re talking about arts and education, the fact of the matter is that she has remained unknown. The least I can do is broach the subject and introduce the subject so that she can have a platform. There are people in the arts who, whether they were celebrities or not, would be doing what they are doing. I think Sean Penn would have gotten in a boat in New Orleans whether he was a movie star or not. He’d be trying to interview [Hugo] Chávez whether he a movie star or not, but he wouldn’t have access. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have the curiosity or be a lifelong activist. I know Martin Sheen very well, and I know his life purpose is activism.
After playing the White House communications director for nearly 10 years, does it make people more used to seeing you in a political role than other actors?
I don’t quite know how to analyze that – it feels funny at times. I’m on MSNBC, and I fit right in, though they throw me softball questions. I was confused as to who I was early one – [was someone] asking me questions because I’m Toby or Richard? I’ve been asked, What would Toby think? I don’t know – ask [the writer of The West Wing] Aaron Sorkin. I know what I think. I got an honorary doctorate from my college, CCNY [City College of New York], mostly because I wore their sweatshirt on TV while playing basketball in front of the White House on The West Wing. But I was honored on the same day as Bill Clinton. He sees me and says, My hero. I thought, What world am I living in [laughs]? We wound up hanging out, and it was before the 2004 convention. We were walking in a procession to the dais, which was outside. Ten thousand people lined the pathway, and I’m walking with President Clinton and I’m thinking, We’ve shot this scene about six times. Do I make my speech as Toby? He even joked that at least one of us still had a job in the White House. The line between reality and fiction blurred quite a bit. I became much more active when The West Wing was over. Sometimes I borrowed Toby’s wardrobe to go to these events, which made it more confusing.
Lynette Howell: The Greatest
Producers Lynette Howell and Doug Dey founded Silverwood Films in 2005. Lynette has produced films include Half Nelson, Stephanie Daley, The Passage and Phoebe in Wonderland. She spoke to Sedona Monthly about producing of The Greatest, a film about the loss of a child, starring Susan Sarandon, Pierce Brosnan and Carey Mulligan.
Sedona Monthly: What was it like working with a first-time director like Shana Feste?
Lynette Howell: I’ve been fortunate to work with quite a few first-time directors. It’s how I started my career as a producer. I really love working with these filmmakers. One of our mandates as a company is to find new talent and fresh voices. Shana is a terrific new talent. I read the script, and she came in and sat down with such a clear vision of what she wanted to do with the movie. It was obvious she was a person I wanted to collaborate with.