Spotlight – An Interview with Actor Val Lauren of the biopic Sal

Resurrection of Hollywood Hero Sal Mineo
An Interview with Actor Val Lauren of the biopic Sal

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You’ve probably heard the name James Dean once or twice. He’s the iconic 1950’s Oscar-nominated actor, best known for his captivating performance in Rebel Without A Cause, who tragically met his death in a car accident on September 30, 1955. And even with an unusually brief career, having made only three films in as little over a year before his death, James Dean is still considered legendary due to his angst-ridden, brooding on-screen persona in Rebel Without A Cause. But one Rebel alumni whom your knowledge of is almost certainly limited, even though his career spanned three decades, earning him great success in film, theatre and music, is the twice Oscar-nominated Sal Mineo.

At his peak in the 1950’s, Sal Mineo was an in-demand movie star- with an Oscar nomination for his performance as Plato in 1955’s Rebel Without A Cause, as well as a pop star, having found time to record and release a solo album in 1957 in between starring in films Dino and The Young Don’t Cry. He earned his second Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for his role as holocaust-survivor Don Landau in Exodus in 1960, for which he also won a Golden Globe.

And though he never marched in any gay pride parades, the rumors and insinuations that he had been sexually involved with James Dean and other men in Hollywood did little to tone down his unapologetically flamboyant lifestyle- returning to the stage to direct and star in the gay-themed prison drama Fortune and Men’s Eyes in 1969. And in almost story-book fashion, the same stage where he created what some would call his greatest achievement is also where he met his greatest love Courtney Burr, Mineo’s long-term partner until his tragic death in 1976 due to an armed robbery incident.

Yes, Sal Mineo may just be one of the industry’s most underrated stars, leaving it to pioneers like Director James Franco to shed light on his gripping story, making Mineo relevant once again in his new biopic Sal, starring Val Lauren. Available October 22nd on VOD and iTunes, and in select theaters starting November 1st, Sal unfolds rather beautifully, capturing the last day of Mineo’s life- no longer a teen idol at 37 years old- as he maneuvers his way back into the world of acting and directing.

A Reintroduction

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“When I started working on the film and researching Sal Mineo, I kept wondering why he wasn’t more well known,” Val says during our interview. “When I was a kid, my mom showed me all of James Dean’s movies from the 50’s, so I knew who Sal Mineo was, but it wasn’t until I started working on the role that I really learned all of these things about him. And why didn’t I know? That’s a really good question.” A rising star in his own right, with the same dashing Mediterranean looks that Mineo once possessed, Val’s no stranger to some of the challenges that Mineo faced. Having written, directed and starred in his debut short film Help in 2008, along with directing long-time friend Scott Caan’s play No Way Around But Through just last year in 2012, Val isn’t necessarily a household name either despite the success he’s had in dozens of films, television shows and plays. But like Mineo, Val is making a difference in places he can’t imagine just by lending his undeniable talent to such a complex and illuminating role that calls attention to the power of being truthful as apposed to trendy.

“All of the things I have in common with him, our lifestyles and choices of work, and our passion for our work, those things were huge for me. And it was very reassuring because as far as our personalities are concerned, there are various aspects where we couldn’t be more different,” Val shares. “But I put in a lot of work to be able to represent him accurately and pass along that same light and spirit that he had.” And Val was nothing if not committed in terms of the work he put in, dropping 20 pounds in order to capture Mineo’s lean look, devouring everything written about Mineo and captured on film that he could get his hands on, plastering his pictures all over his house, doing voice work to capture Mineo’s specific speech pattern and accent, and even visiting all the locations where Mineo had once lived and frequented throughout Los Angeles.

“One of the most interesting things I did was going to the actual apartment building where he was murdered,” Val remembers. “I found myself lying down in the spot where he fell for about five minutes, thinking about how someone like him who had gone around the entire planet and been seen by the entire world had died right there in that driveway. It was a moment of personal connection of some sort, and one of the last things I did before we started filming.”

Walking the Walk

Probably one of the most remarkable things about Val’s participation in Sal is the fact that his journey began with no script in place, but just a single text message from James Franco. “I got a text from him saying, ‘You’re going to play Sal Mineo, cool?’ And I just sort of stared at it and answered, ‘Yes,’” he recalls. “He said that we were going to make an unconventional movie about an unconventional man who lived an unconventional life. And that’s all I really knew.” Val had met Franco several years back at acting school and repertory theater Playhouse West in North Hollywood, CA., where they were both students. And after seeing example after example of Franco’s un-matched talent and tireless work ethic earn him coveted roles and a Gold Globe, Val knew he could count on his long-time friend to deliver something amazing, whether a script was in place or not.

“I trusted James because I have an admiration for his talent as an actor, but, more importantly, our tastes are by and large the same,” he says. “When he did the James Dean movie, I was there for all the research he did on all the people that James Dean knew, all the work he did on the accent and dialect, all the studying he did on the script- and I saw first-hand how he approaches working on a character and representing a real human being. So to have him now directing a movie about a real life person, I felt safe, and there’s trust and camaraderie as friends and artists that we’ve developed over the years where I would jump off a bridge for James, and I did with Interior. Leather Bar.”

Sans Safety Net

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Interior. Leather Bar is the gay, erotic indie film that rests somewhere between a documentary and a fictional piece, based on lost S&M footage that had originally been cut from William Friedkin’s 1980 film Cruising. Co-directed by James Franco and starring Val Lauren, it pushed the envelope earlier this year on the festival circuit due to its explicit, unsimulated sexual content. But in the end, it was a film about the rejection of censorship much in the way that Sal is about a character’s fight for full self-expression. “Learning about Sal and all of his trials and tribulations gave way to the reaffirmation of never giving up,” Val confides. “The world gave up on him, but he never gave up on himself. And he never let anyone or anything force him to hide who he was, even though he had so much to lose. And he did lose a lot because of his honesty about his sexuality, ”

It’s true, Mineo did lose some things, unable to obtain even an audition for 1969’s Midnight Cowboy. But he gained some things as well, pushing the envelope with his version of Fortune and Men’s Eyes, featuring a young Don Johnson, with an added rape scene in the prison shower and full-frontal nudity. “And people at the time had never seen anything like that,” Val says. “It was absolutely ground-breaking and shocking and true to what he was bringing to theater. Everything he touched was consistently innovative.”

Val, having been in love with the art of acting since 5th grade, is pursuing nothing less than innovation as well. He’s starring in the upcoming film The Last Knights, also starring Morgan Freeman and Clive Owen, which follows a group of warriors out to avenge the death of their master. And he’ll be directing a series of plays with another Playhouse West alumni and long-time friend Scott Caan of Hawaii Five-O fame. “Scott’s written about a dozen plays that we’ve performed over the past decade or so,” he says, “and we’re doing a project where we’re taking 30 actors from Playhouse West and giving them a chance to perform in those same plays, and we’ll be directing.”

For now, Val’s excited about breathing life back into Sal Mineo’s story. And with spreading the word about one of the world’s most deliberately distinctive artist comes the challenge of performing at the same level. But make no mistake, with such thoughtfulness and originality behind Val Lauren’s flawless performance in Sal, it’s clear he’s already there.

“Again, I don’t know why Sal Mineo isn’t more well-known, but I guess my only answer is to use this film to reintroduce him to people because he was really a one-of-a-kind, special guy who deserves to be remembered just as much as James Dean or Elvis or any iconic artist that we look up to. He was extremely brave, and someone like that should be remembered; I know I’ll never forget him.”

For more information on the film Sal, please click here.