Interview: Val Lauren from "Sal"

Photo Credit: Tribeca Film
October 30th, 2013

James Franco has always been one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood and this year you will find much of his work has been done behind the camera.  In 2013 Franco has added several films to his directing resume including: “Interior. Leather Bar.”, “As I Lay Dying”, “Child of God”, and the new Sal Mineo biography movie called “Sal”. 

“Sal” is a wonderful film about the last days and events of actor Sal Mineo before his gruesome murder in 1976.  Alongside James for this project was his co-writer and lead actor Val Lauren.  Val plays Sal perfectly in the film and really captures the essence of who Sal was on that day in time.  Val was kind enough to talk with Movie Room Reviews about his challenges with bringing this great actor back to life.

Nick Leyland from Movie Room Reviews: Do you think you could tell our audience a little bit about Sal Mineo?

Val Lauren: Sure. Sal Mineo was a multi-faceted artist known mostly as an actor. He started at a very young age in his early teens. He broke into acting and he was the youngest actor to be nominated for two academy awards for “Exodus” and “Rebel Without a Cause” with James Dean. And in the '50s for six years he was one of the five biggest stars in the world and he held that position and in his early 20s as a result of being the first actor to essentially come out about his homosexuality, he was blacklisted and ousted from the business. In a very very quick amount of time, he went from being a superstar, A-list actor, to being close to destitute and having to do dinner theater and community theater in small towns to crowds of 20 or 30 people in order to scrape by and make a living. Shortly after that, found himself couchsurfing and staying with friends and barely being able to make ends meet to survive. So he really had a fast and furious fall from grace.

Now what made him really special is that didn't result in him self-destructing as a human being and falling prey to say, drugs and alcohol and all of the other distractions that come with wanting to quell your pain, but he maintained a fastidious and voracious focus on the craft of acting, the craft of directing and writing and the arts like sketching and painting. All the way through to the very last day he was doing the very same thing at heart as he was when he was this internationally known superstar. And that's what made him very special. As a singer he would sell out stadiums and arenas around the world. You would have to be surrounded by bodyguards when he got off airplanes, that's how famous he was.

He came out and now he was gonna make a big stand about it. He just didn't hide who he was and didn't wanna be labeled a homosexual or a bisexual or a heterosexual or an actor or a director. He just wanted to be referred to as a human being and an artist and that resulted in a terrible, terrible turnaround where his friends and people who collaborated with him and associated with him cut off their associations with him right away for fear that they'll be guilty by association and as a result, he found himself close to alone. But the man never stopped. He never stopped and he maintained an unbitter, boyish, happy existence and strived for that all the way up until the day that he was murdered.

MRR: Well you've obviously done a lot of research on Sal and I wanted to ask you, as you researched him and learned about him, what are some of the things you found really interesting and liked about him and what are some of the things that you didn't understand or didn't like about him?

Val Lauren: Well let's see, what I did like about him is really it's said all the time. It's said so much that it kind of can become numb to ears because it's heard so much, but the man never ever gave up. Throughout his tumultuous life, he maintained what was really important to him and that was his work. And that's something that really moves me because as an actor I can understand all the trials and tribulations and having led a life with ups and downs like everyone else. I can understand how that can be very tiresome and painful, but he never gave up. At a time where things were not like they were now, it wasn't as easy to cultivate your own projects as it is now and there was a lot more ramifications for truly speaking your mind as an artist and illustrating what you think is true. There were ramifications for that. But in his work, in his plays, in his movies, in the movie that he was set to direct before he was murdered, he was really pushing boundaries and trying to tell stories that other people would not even get close to.

And that bravery was something that I really looked up to, and still look up to, and I find really exciting. So, I just find that an exciting trait for a person, an artist to have. There was a lot at first I didn't understand about him but as a result of Michael Gregg Michaud book, which is a fantastic biography that talks about the entire span of his life. I really got a good idea, a good beginning to my kind of road of understanding who Sal Mineo was. Michael spent 10 years researching him before he wrote that book and he just wrote a fantastic biography. So, that was kind of the beginning of my understanding of Sal. And that led to trying to get myself not only in his head space at the end of his life, but also in his emotional state, and kind of spiritual state, and physical state. There are things about him that are very, very different than myself. So, I had to make a lot of adjustments both on my physical appearance and my personal energy and mind state about certain things in order to be able to represent him correctly, and pay an honest tribute to who he was.

MRR: When you make a bio movie like this should you worry more about entertaining the audience or more about being true to the person you're portraying?

Val Lauren: Well, it's so subjective, the idea of entertainment. I think Marlon Brando said it best, he said an actor should be entertaining at least and poetic at most. But I find the movie greatly entertaining and its funny, you said you watched it earlier. James (Franco) had very specific idea on how he wanted to tell the story where a conventional biography, as great as they are, tend to focus more on the milestones of a man or woman's life, and their accomplishments, and their peaks and valleys to give you a factual understanding of this person's life experience and trials and tribulations, and such. Where nowadays you can get a general scope. I told you the general scope of Sal Mineo's trajectory as an actor in under a minute. And you can go online and you can really easily find that stuff out, but what I find entertaining and very interesting about the way James decided to tell it is that through the very last day of the man's life instead of spending the time to cover an entire lifespan in an hour and a half, he paints such an intimate portrait of a human being onscreen to where I don't really find myself getting to know characters as well as this when I watch a movie, because there's so much else as far as story is concerned that's being covered.

So, what is entertaining to me is to be put in the position of a ghost of sorts, of a spirit of sorts, that just sits on Sal's shoulder and watches him in a silent moment, and watches him in his everyday life and gets to know the man's personality. Is he sloppy, is he friendly, is he moody, what are his spirits like? What's his every day like? How does he relate to people? And that was really entertaining to me, to get that intimate, close understanding of a man in an hour and a half that I don't usually get. So, yes, to me the truth is entertaining. To me honesty, and genuineness, and depth and reality are entertaining. And that was a challenge in this film. As an actor you want to do your best to please the character you're playing, and please the movie by being funny or pulling out your bag of tricks and doing all kinds of things to draw attention and make for little exciting moments in front of the camera.

And I think the true challenge is to say, "I'm going to really go out of my comfort zone and give the audience something where the character that they're watching truly, truly is not trying to perform anything for them, but even more difficult is trying to just open himself and let them really take a look at the character as a person." And my personal comfort zone is usually in more extreme situations, emotionally extreme situations or doing extreme things, and the challenge in this was just to not do that. To just get you as intimate and close to this guy on the last day of his life, watching him do things that he did unknowingly for the very last time via speaking to the people that he loved most, coincidently being given the last meal.

To really watch a person do that and get to know him as a human being and get a sense of where he came from, where he's going, where he's at on this seemingly trivial day which in reality ended up really being a perfect example of how he led his life inspite of all the horrific things that happened to him, that last day was not dissimilar at it's core as to how he went about his life in general. So I think it was really cool that James decided to take that approach and it's something that we don't usually get to see and even more, we don't really get to find the opportunities to have performances or characters or types of movies to where you can do that.

MRR: James shot the film in a very unique way and It was almost like you had a biographer following you around the whole time. It felt so real, almost like someone was just walking around with the camera following Sal in his everyday life not paying much attention to the surroundings. Was that the truth you spoke of?

Val Lauren: Okay, both with the way he shot it and the things that he showed on screen, yes. It was very long takes that were held in one shot and the camera was positioned a certain way to get you to the most intimate place where he can, so you can get as close to him and understanding as much of his energy and essence of his spirit as possible. So yeah, that was very specific on James' part and a big reason of why the film was shot the way that it was.

MRR: Thank you so much for taking the time with me and it comes out November 1st. It's on demand now I believe, right?

Val Lauren: It's on iTunes and Video On Demand now as a pre-release and it comes out in theaters, November 1st.

MRR: Well, thank you so much, Val.

Val Lauren: My pleasure. Pleasure speaking with you.