Saturday, December 16, 2006

In Rocky Balboa -- Milo Ventimiglia = "Baby Rock"

Last week I got a chance to screen Rocky Balboa which was written and directed by Sylvester Stallone who also resumed the role for this, the final installment of the fictional fighter's story. I will admit that I approached this film with a bit of trepidation because I simultaneously did and did not know what to expect from it. Further, to be honest, I thought that since the end of the Cold War, movies like these had the wind taken out of their thrust...hd become played and dull as dishwater because there simply wasn't anywhere else to take an audience with the subject-matter. I will man-up and admit that I was wrong to jump the gun on that front because there really is a need for these types of film, now more than ever because cynicsm and apathy are riding tall in the saddle once again -- so maybe Stallone saw the need and tapped into his old bag of tricks for this last entry...whatever's clever...I think the film's worth seeing...

The Rocky saga has become such a deeply embedded part of American pop culture zietgeist and national conscience that it's hard to imagine a world in which the story of "the Italian Stallion" wasn't known by everyone but, indeed, there was such was such a time, back in the mid-70s to be precise. Thirty years ago, Stallone was a nobody actor working on the screenplay for this first Rocky, a draft of which got picked up by a studio. He then had to fight tooth and nail to play the lead in the film because no one was feeling his no-name status. Still, he persevered and got the gig...the film went on to become an international cinematic phenomenon in ticket sales-- Stallone had written and starred in a sleeper hit as Rocky went on to garner 10 Oscar nominations and was awarded the Best Picture statue, over iconic films like Marty Scorsese's Taxidriver validifying Sly's vision of what the film could become.

On December 20th Sylvester Stallone with close the final chapter in the life story of the fictional fighter Rocky Balboa. It's been three decades since "the Italian Stallion" managed to crawl out of the sewers of South Philly and into the upper eschelons of the sport he loved. In Rocky Balboa, set in the present, the story's thread finds the former champion well beyond the glory days heralded in the previous Rocky installments. These days, the ex-fighter spends his evenings reliving his past by telling old boxing tales and anecdotes to the patrons in his restaraunt, Adrian's, named in honor of his late wife whom he still mourns in a profound way.

His son, Robert, Jr.(Milo Ventimiglia), also has emotional problems-- brought on from living in the long shadow his famous father's past seems to cast over everything he tries to accomplish. In short, "Baby Rocky's" trying to figure his own life out and would rather not get help from his pop. Well past his prime, his body and fists shredded from years of fighting in the ring, a humbled Rocky tries to keep his pride alive by remembering the good old days with Paulie (Burt Young) his only real friend in the world and Adrian's brother. In his heart of hearts, Balboa knows that he's got one last boxing match left in him, he's got a beast in the basement that must be fed; he's still a fighter. This isn't the greatest fight film every made, mind you (Rocky II was a bit better) but I thought it was a fitting end to the tale of one of pop culture's major filmatic icons-- Stallone really fills in the blanks with his portrayal by dropping a grip of emotional hurt-bombs in the sequences shot with his son (played by Milo Ventimiglia) also, the treacle is kept to a minimum and the self deprecating manner in which the main role is handled will reel you in before you even know it.

After launching his career with supporting roles on TV shows like The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Sabrina the Teenage Witch (and a recurring role in David E. Kelly's Boston Public) Milo Ventimiglia officially made his thespian bones when he joined the casts of two critically-acclaimed small-screen shows: American Dreams and the Gilmore Girls. Now that the Rocky production is receding in the rearview, Ventimiglia is refocusing his energies on his role in as Peter Petrelli in NBC's acclaimed drama series Heroes on which his character and a few other regular joes discover that they all possess super-powers and abilitiesl...I also covered press last week with the Sly and Milo and have already transcribed both sessions because I learned a little bit about the actors in each, I'll post Stallone's in a day or so. Read below if you'd like to read some of what went down with Milo, who talks about both the film and Heroes...

Q:So did you grow up watching these Rocky films?

Milo VentimigliMV: I did. I was negative one when the first one came out (laughs) but by the time the second one and third one came out-- I pretty much grew up in the "Clubber" Lang Ivan Drago era, that was more my time...I've always been a fan of the films...I've always enjoyed them, I thought they were great. I thought it was a really stunning story of how if you march in the right direction and your heart is full [of ambition], then you'll succeed.

Q: And what was it like working with Sly?

MV: It was frightening and exciting all at the same time. When you first come on the set where it's literally like "oh my God, I'm in the room with Sylvester Stallone" but he disarms you...he makes you laugh and he's very kind and warm-- warm-hearted...he created a world of comfort.

Q: Here's the guy who originated the Rocky role and he brings along that legend and everything. I'm wondering what sort of mentorship scenario went on between you and Stallone?

MV: I think I had the great, good fortune to watch Sly, the artist -- to truly watch him, in all arenas. As an actor, not very many people get to see him turn that character on and they don't understand that he's playing a role. And when he turns that role on, there's this slow look in his eyes and a sweet smile on his face and to read the script that he wrote and to see him composing the shots-- I took it as an opportunity to quietly watch and to quietly and quietly observe someone that created this world. That knew this world so very well and, at the same time, [was] comfortable enough to where, if I had ideas, I could go up and I could talk to him. He really did create that environment that was welcoming of ideas and welcome to suggestions and welcoming to bringing ideas that were going to better the film-- that were going to make it [more whole] and more real, more accessible to anybody. That's what these [Rocky] films really are, they're accessible to people...I still have phone conversations with him, we touch base and check in with one another and I guess I learned like a month ago that he watches the show that I'm on and that's kind of an amazing thing when you hear about this person that you got to work with, that you've been looking up to for so many years, was actually following what you're doing-- it was really a nice thing to know.

Q:Did he give you any acting lessons on how to portray Rocky's son?

MV: You know, I do remember [that] the both of us had a little problem with our mouths, crooked mouths.(laughs) I remember him telling me (in a deep Sly Stallone/ Rocky-ish voice) "Your mouth is warmed up because it's cold out" -- the two of us, while we were filming in Philly, we were standing in front of the heat lamps, and we were both like "rowr-rowr-rowr" (demonstrates with mouthing exercises) moving our mouths because otherwise, they freeze up which is kind of nice because, you know, we got to bond on tha, you know-- we both got the crooked mouths, it's below 32 (degrees) and your face freezes up. So he and I, before a take, when we're outside and it's Philly and it's cold and we're both like "rowr-rowr-rowr." He gave a lot of good advice, he really just created that warm, welcoming environment to [in order to] bring this character to life-- to do something amazing and magical with it that hadn't been done before.

Q: In the film baby Rocky is embarrassed by what his father's trying to do. You ever have that happen to you in real life? What would you do in that scenario?

MV: I think that ignoring something that's bothering you is putting a band-aid over the Grand Canyon-- you know, it doesn't really cover it. It doesn't really heal...of course I've had family and friends and people who have put me in embarrassing situations but I think [that] when you talk to somebody and you're up front with them and you tell them how it makes you feel, with anything, hopefully there's an understanding and a warmth to not do that again.

Q: Could you talk about the emotions you felt during the scene outside the restaraunt where you're both having it out-- a lot of people might not take the father/son relationship seriously until that point in the film.

MV: We were sitting and talking in [Stallone's office], before we started [to shoot] the film, just talking about individual scenes and that particular [one on one] scene came up and we started discussing what were Robert, Jr's problems, what he was doing with his life, their relationship, everything-- his world. And Sly said to me "It's not about how hard you can hit. It's about when you get hit, can you keep moving forward" and it's funny to see that line, literally, at the top of the trailer. And it relates so much to what the kid needs to hear and that emotion that was going on in that scene-- I know that both Sly and I were welling up [with emotions] because there was so much coming to a head at that moment. So much importance on that one conversation...that's going to build on top of or serve as a starting point for where this father/ son relationship goes. I looked into Sly's eyes during that scene and man, he was right there and I'd be damned if I wasn't going to give it right back to him... Everyday I just tried to show up and do the best work that I could do and for me, I was just fortunate enough to be in some great company.

Q: You mentioned that you were negative one when the first Rocky came out, and Rocky, the character is such a big part of the pop culture here in America what was it like, or describe the feeling that it was like when you found out that you got the role.

MV: I met Sly, actually after my audition, a week later I met Sly, and I had just moved back from New York and I had gotten into a car accident the night before. And I remember me driving away in my fully dented up car, I'm at the back of my house and I'm like "ahhh, I think that went well, I don't really know-- I got to get my car fixed, I've got to unpack some boxes." So, I kind of put my mind off of it. About an hour and a half, two hours later, I got a phone call from my agent and he's like [starts humming the beginning of "Gonna Fly Now/ the Rocky Theme"], you know, and I was like "did I get it?" And he was like, "yeah, you got it! You got it!" he's like, "I got off the phone with Sly, like fifty minutes ago", I'm like, "that was an hour ago! You couldn't have called me an hour ago?" And he was like, "I was at lunch." [laughs] I've got to tell you, as an actor you're constantly chasing the jobs, you're constantly chasing the work, [so]when you finally get the job it's a very gratifying feeling. And what's important, I think, for a lot of actors is not chasing the jobs, it's actually being on the set and working-- that's your job...physically, when I get a job I'm like "oh, I've got so much work to do" but it was really an exciting thing. It was an exciting time.

Q: How surprised were you at how well your show's been doing and what's coming up next for you?

MV: If I were to say how surprised I was at how well the show is doing, I would probably look like an idiot. From the first day of reading at the script, I was blown away by it...I had everything, I had the writers, the production team and all the directors that have come through-- it's really just grown into this wonderful world. And it does stretch across, American influence or American appreciation where I hear about people in the UK or Australia just really looking forward to the show, having seen bits and pieces of it...if you were blown away by what has happened in the first season, you'll really be blown away by what happens in the second, when there's a bit of fairy-dust sprinkled on everything and excitement and you're like "are they really going to do this? Oh my God, they just did it."

Rocky Balboa releases nationally on December 20th, 2006


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