I'm at war with loneliness, and loneliness is winning. I'm also in the super swanky SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills -- with beautiful people all around -- to see Oscar winners Diablo Cody and Octavia Spencer, and singer/dancer-with-the-stars turned movie star Julianne Hough. I'm seated next to a young woman who loves the E! Network, and, by looking at me, you'd think my life was an episode of Entourage. You're probably wondering how loneliness plays into all this. It comes later, at home -- where there are no movie stars or beautiful people around, and I'm eating dinner standing over my kitchen sink. But, for now -- between the movie stars, the trendy hotel and my proximity to hip and attractive people -- I'm feeling pretty good.
So, what am I doing in this hotel?
I'm here to attend a press conference for Diablo Cody's wonderful new, coming-of-age dramedy Paradise, in which Julianne Hough stars as Lamb, a once religious young gal who survives an airplane wreck, repudiates her conservative upbringing and flees to Las Vegas, where Octavia Spencer and Russell Brand help her find her true self. Paradise is the first film Diablo Cody -- one of Hollywood's coolest writers -- has also directed.
And who's this young woman sitting next to me?
She's a broadcast journalism student, looking to break out of the Valley and into the business. This is her first press conference. She has to be back in class later this afternoon, but for now she's in a room with professional journalists, publicists and a couple of Oscar winners. I wonder what she's learning in school to prepare her for the realities of a media career, and I wonder what she's thinking as Julianne Hough walks into the room.
"Her dress is badass," the broadcast journalism student whispers. I study Hough's dress. It's a powerful shade of Jolly Green Giant green and, yeah, it's badass. I'm certain Joan Rivers would emphatically approve, and I happen to like it for reasons of my own.
I see Diablo Cody, and a recap of her bio plays in my mind: Stripper turned Juno screenwriter turned Oscar-winner turned Hollywood player. She's even more badass than Julianne's dress.
I look at Octavia Spencer, and recall her receiving a 2011 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her stellar portrayal of a maid who baked a pie full of shit in The Help. Octavia Spencer is a brilliant actor, equipped with what I consider Hollywood's most vibrant and expressive eyes. I have a little something I'd like to tell her later on.
The press conference begins. Journalists shout out questions. I sit quietly, letting my recording device pick it all up. The last thing I'm going to do is start yelling out questions like some 1930s Johnny-on-the-spot reporter with a pencil tucked behind his ear. I pretend I'm too cool to participate, but I'm really just too shy. And, truthfully, if I have to yell across a crowded room, it's going to be to save someone's life, not ask Diablo Cody if she finds directing more fulfilling than writing. I just don't care about her answer enough to raise my voice in a room full of strangers.
"The three films I did before Paradise were dancing-singing movies," Hough says when asked what it was like to play a role in which the physicality she's known for was severely limited. "So, with this film, all of the energy that I usually use, I had to completely contain. Burn survivors can't move. Their skin will tear or their joints are really sore. I still felt all of that energy inside, which is what I feel like Lamb had."
"It was interesting to get super prosthetized up," Hough continues, "and walk around with the burns, and see how people reacted and responded. People don't want to make eye contact. People get uncomfortable. A lot of the burn survivors I met when doing research said, 'I would rather somebody just say, "Hey, what happened?," rather than make me feel like I'm scary or I'm ugly.' This outward affect that has happened to them completely changes who they are on the inside. Lamb was living in a bubble. She was thinking, 'I don't even know if I really do believe in God. I want to go and figure it out for myself.'"
"And the community that Lamb's in," Diablo Cody interjects, "is a community where she hasn't been valued for her ideas or intellect or sense of humor. So, for her to lose her outward beauty is a really devastating blow because she's never really been taught to cultivate her mind. I think you sometimes have to find your own spirituality, and that's what this film is about. Lamb has to find her own way and her own moral compass outside of the more conservative structure of her church. I relate to the idea that we go through experiences in our lives that are sometimes really traumatic or crazy and make you feel like your molecules have been completely rearranged afterwards. You wonder if you can ever get back to the person you were before? I want to believe that you can. I want to believe that despite all the things I've done and the stupid things I've said in my life, and despite any sin I've committed, that I can get back to the person I was in kindergarten. I want to feel that your essential self doesn't change."
Diablo Cody is asked if she allows her actors to improvise, to change the scripted dialogue for which she's so highly regarded. (With Russell Brand on the Paradise set, you'd think she'd have no choice.)
"I do like to collaborate with actors," Cody says. "If somebody asked me to change a line, I'd do it. I don't feel like I'm 100% married to the script."
Octavia Spencer chimes in. "My job as an actor is to do what's written," she says. "The beauty of working with Diablo Cody is getting to say her words. I mean, come on, why would I want to get up there and try to make something up?"
A journalist addresses Octavia and Diablo, asking how winning an Oscar has changed their lives?
"My life is very much the same," Spencer replies. "It has to be small, because I can't have it too big. But as far as my career goes, I get to work with the best of the best and I get to have an opinion about the things that I do. It's great to have choices, and it's great if you can enter a project knowing that it will educate and enlighten."
"I think of awards as a souvenir from a fun year," Cody says. "You can't fixate on them. I always say it's like being a high school class president. You win that year, and then you have to get over it. You can't walk around college telling everyone you were high school class president. You're not going to be very popular. Savor the moment, but move forward. But, yes, having an Oscar does open a lot of doors."
Though everyone's here today to discuss Paradise, it's hard not to mention Dancing with the Stars with Julianne Hough sitting right there in her badass dress.
"I'm sorry, Julianne," Diablo teases. "I think that show is unfair sometimes. They'll put someone out there who's an Olympic figure skater against someone who's never danced before and -- what a surprise -- the Olympic figure skater whose been doing choreography since they were four does really well! I don't think that's fair. If you put a writer like me out there next to someone from the Disney Channel, I'm screwed! If it was a fair ground, like a season where they featured nothing but writers, then I would do it."
"I agree," Octavia Spencer says with a grin. "Level the playing field."
"I did not create the show," Julianne Hough says with a laugh, enjoying being playfully teased. "I love being on the show. That's where it all started for me."
The press conference ends, and I approach Octavia Spencer. Long before she was famous, she blew my mind playing a character named Lasagna in Del Shores' small stage play The Trials and Tribulations of a Trailer Trash Housewife. I tell Octavia how much I enjoyed seeing her on the stage, and how I knew -- way back then -- she was going to make it big. I share that in the years following the play I'd spot her in small roles on shows like CSI: NY and Ugly Betty and yell "it's Lasagna!" at my TV like some kind of deranged and impulsive basket case.
Octavia remembers the play fondly, and seems to appreciate my words. Her face lights up and those eyes get big and full of life, just like they do in the movies. It's a sweet moment. The broadcast journalism student exchanges pleasantries with Octavia as well. (When I was in college, I had to write papers about James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and this chick gets to meet Oscar winners. I wish I'd grown up in LA.)
The day is over, and I'm standing over my kitchen sink, eating Trader Joe's sardines out of the can. My Yorkshire Terrier scratches at my leg. He wants some, too, and who am I to say no? Anyone who's owned a Yorkie understands that he's the boss and I'm just working for him. He helps me, too, always happy to see me when the movie stars go away and the loneliness reappears. I reflect on the day. An expansive press conference, three major stars, a trendy hotel, and several nice moments.
I wonder how I'll manage to fit the whole experience into a blog post.
Paradise is available now On Demand and on iTunes and is now playing in theaters.
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