New Orleans Actors Discuss the Shuttering of Hollywood
by Leslie Cardé
WHEN THE ABC HIT SHOW “The Conners” wrapped up production this past February, no one on the cast or crew dreamed that production for the following season would be upended by a pandemic that wasn’t even on anyone’s radar at the time. Although the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus hit the U.S. on January 21, (the patient was a man from Washington state who had just returned from visiting Wuhan, China), by March 15, the virus known as COVID-19 had spread to all 50 states. Stay- at-home orders were initiated, along with CDC guidelines for social distancing. It was not a scenario conducive to being on a motion picture set, or a Broadway stage where audiences are elbow-to-elbow. The entertainment industry as a whole was suddenly shut down.
“With ‘The Conners’ wrapped, I had come to Charleston, South Carolina where I was supposed to be shooting further episodes of ‘The Righteous Gemstones’ for HBO,” says John Goodman, who’s originally from St. Louis but has called New Orleans home since he married a local girl over 30 years ago. “My phone rang, and I was told they were shutting down production for two months. Now, of course every actor wonders when the industry will ever be able to come back, and with what changes. I’ve been sitting on the beach here on the east coast, but I’m going to go back to New Orleans now for a couple of weeks to wait and see how this all plays out.”
For native New Orleanian actor Wendell Pierce, who seems to be on a roll with multiple projects in film, on television, and in the theater, the news that Hollywood was closing its doors came while he was in L.A. on March 13, he had just flown in from Great Britain, where he had portrayed Willy Lohmann, the lead in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” in London’s West End.
“There was a heightened awareness on the West Coast that the virus was coming,” remembers Pierce. “Los Angeles County had already seen community transmission in a number of patients, and I began to tell my friends to prepare for the next three months, because life as they knew it was going to change. The first case had occurred just days earlier in New Orleans and since my Dad is 95, I came straight home. (Pierce also has a home in Pasadena.) I was soon to have begun shooting Season 3 of ‘Jack Ryan’ (the hit series on Amazon Prime with co-star John Krasinski) in of all places, China. Needless to say, China was completely shut down, along with all of Hollywood.”
Bryan Batt was born and raised here in New Orleans, but moved to New York City right out of college and became a fixture in Broadway productions. He then moved on to movies like “12 Years A Slave” and became a regular on the AMC hit series, “Mad Men” and MTV’s “Scream”. This past March, he was rehearsing a new play bound for Broadway, when the news came.
“I remember exactly what day I was told about the Broadway shutdown, because they had just dyed my hair for the run- through of “The King’s Speech” in which I was playing Lionel Logue, the speech therapist who works with the future King George VI on his speech impediment. (The role was made famous by Geoffrey Rush in the film version.) It was March 12 when the producers marched in that afternoon and told me that Broadway was closed for the foreseeable future, and that we were cancelled.”
The worldwide shutdown caused by the novel coronavirus affected everyone immediately, and Hollywood’s film industry is still feeling the ripple effect of productions which wrapped long ago. Theatrical productions that were in post-production suddenly found themselves with no theaters in which to display their new films.
“We were in the process of scoring our new film (Swinglake Entertainment’s “Walkaway Joe”) which was shot entirely in and around New Orleans, when we realized the virus was marching across the world,” says Rachel McHale, co-producer
of the new film with her partners, Minor Childers and scriptwriter Michael Milillo. “We originally thought we would release the film on Father’s Day, but as the months wore on and movie theaters along with everything else shut down, our distributors decided, with no end in sight, that we would release the film in the beginning of May on Amazon and other streaming platforms, while everyone was still at home, socially distancing.”
For the entertainment industry, the dilemma is two-fold. With no theaters to run its films, the often costly projects must be released to recoup investments, but on a platform commensurate with a safe viewing environment. So, with many distributors choosing to release movies on streaming platforms, what will the movie theaters run when they finally open?
For the New Orleans actors who have projects which have been waylaid, a new season of an ongoing series to be released, or the hijacking of a Broadway-bound production, it’s called biding one’s time until we have more certainty about the future. The very nature of the entertainment world involves up close and personal relationships between castmates as well as between cast and crew members. And, when it comes to live stage productions, what would they be without audiences and the feedback they provide to those on stage? Every principal in the industry is trying to come up with innovative ideas to solve this daunting puzzle.
“A friend of mine was recently cast in a pilot that was scheduled to shoot in Los Angeles,” says Batt. “But with the ongoing conundrum about how to film and keep everyone safe, the producers have come up with a rather unconventional solution— quarantine the cast and crew together, and after 2 weeks when and if no one is sick and they are all safe from one another (meaning no one is contagious), let them begin filming together while remaining quarantined for the duration of the pilot shoot.”
Within the framework of a pilot, this might actually be a practical solution for shooting one episode. But, what happens
to actors like Goodman or Pierce who need to get multiple episodes in the can in order that the next seasons of their shows resume without a hitch? Quarantining actors away from their families and others doesn’t make much sense long term.
“I cannot really plan anything at the moment, because I certainly have an obligation to ‘The Conners,’” says Goodman. “Shooting is supposed to resume in August, but that’s months away and I don’t have a crystal ball as to how this problem might or can be resolved by then.”
“Until we get to the point where everyone can be reliably tested, there’s just no way to know where we are,” says Pierce. “I’m not just an actor, I’m also a businessman, so I understand things from different angles, including an investment standpoint. I just recently bought WLBK (a radio station in New Orleans), and I explained to the employees how we’d be doing at-home broadcasting, because until we know that everyone has tested negative, we have to be exceedingly careful.”
Every business is different and comes with its own special set of problems relative to social distancing. Batt, who with his partner owns a chic boutique in New Orleans called Hazelnut, has been navigating how to move forward as retail restrictions are loosening.
“We’ve had a lean couple of months,” explains Batt, “but we’re surviving based on online orders, and my special deliveries—literally. I’m spending some of my newly found idle time driving to people’s homes, putting the packages on their doorsteps, and calling to let them know that their purchases have arrived. We’ve also instituted a policy of shopping by appointment because that way we can control the flow of customers in the store and maintain social distancing for everyone’s safety.”
For Goodman, who’s had a stellar career in film and on television, as well as on Broadway, with multiple awards and nominations in the Golden Globe and Emmy categories, as well as numerous others, complaining isn’t in his DNA. He feels fortunate, he tells me.
For Pierce, who’s been nominated for an Olivier Award for his recent lead portrayal in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, along with his multiple film awards for “Selma” and last year’s “Burning Cane”, it’s time to chill.
“While other people are dying to get to the hair salon to stop looking woolly, I’m saying ‘let it go,’” laughs Pierce. “If anyone asks, I tell them I’m getting shaggy for a role.”
All of these New Orleans actors are looking forward to getting back to work whenever it’s safe for all involved, because all have multiple projects in limbo. For Batt, who has won multiple SAG awards for his ensemble work on “Mad Men”, he has projects he’s actually lost track of.
“Right before my birthday on March 1, I filmed a movie for Netflix called ‘Night Teeth’, and with all of the commotion about the virus shortly after I filmed, I still don’t know whether the movie actually wrapped or has now finished post-production. So, I have no idea exactly when that’s coming out. And, I filmed a movie called ‘American Reject’ a spoof about reality TV, showing the underbelly of those shows. Of course, I’m looking forward to the re-opening of Broadway, not just for my play, but for all of the actors out of work, and all of the folks who love seeing a play or musical as a great form of live entertainment.”
For Goodman, he’s looking forward to the drive between New Orleans and L.A., whenever that is, so he can return to the set of “The Conners”.
“It’s a long commute, and this year I’m going to do the northern route as it’s a much prettier drive than I-10 during the hottest time of the year,” says Goodman. “After all the years of doing (first) ‘Roseanne’ and now ‘The Conners’, this cast is like family, so I would miss it if the hiatus drags on with no end in sight. In the meantime I’ve gotten a puppy. He’s biting the hell out of me, and looks like Pac Man with ears, but I have time now to spend with our little golden retriever, while I’m off the road.”
“You have to look at the positive side of this pandemic,” says Pierce. “We’ve learned that if we all stay at home we can actually have a positive impact on the environment. It’s not too late to implement changes, as it turns out. In the meantime, I’m trying to help out our wonderful restaurants, which are struggling, by getting on what I call the ‘culinary tour train’. I pick new restaurants every week whose food I want to enjoy, then order take-out. No ambiance? I do a tablecloth and candles and provide my own atmosphere. And, this is the time to study the classic films or read a wonderful novel, like ‘The Emperor of Ocean Park’, or ‘Deep Is the Hunger’, both of which I recommend highly.
And he has a lot to look forward to once Hollywood opens its doors again. He’ll be filming “After the Storm” about a dysfunctional family, and he’s producing a movie called “Billy” about the youngest person ever to be executed in America. He will also star in “Ghost of the Ozarks” a sci-fi mystery which will shoot in Arkansas.
For Batt, he’s most worried that if we don’t heed CDC warnings and get back to business as usual too soon, we’ll pay the price. “Are we willing to abandon social distancing and masks and put up with massive deaths to get herd immunity,” laments Batt. “It’s pretty dangerous. My brother is diabetic. Who are we all willing to lose?”
As mental health professionals will tell you, the best way to survive this pandemic is to have a plan, and a schedule to implement it. For Pierce, it’s time to recharge and hone his craft.
“I’m trying to take advantage of this time to be the artist I want to be. That way, when all of this ends, I’ll be prepared.”
Whenever Hollywood re-opens, it will be with a very different structure, most insiders believe. The crowd scenes may have to be 86’d, location shoots will probably be out, and actors and crews may need to be tested regularly. It’s a different world everyone will be living in until we get a vaccine—not just for those in Hollywood, but for all of us.