From Val to ’Sal’
It is rare for a rising male star, married to a woman, to readily admit he has watched gay porn as well as observed two men having live sex. The latter incident is preserved on screen in James Franco’s "Interior. Leather Bar.," wherein actor Val Lauren is clearly seen during one of the film’s most buzzed-about sequences.
"I don’t know if anything could have prepared me for ’Interior. Leather Bar.,’ " Lauren said with a laugh during a recent interview. It is only one of two daring movies he has made recently with longtime friend Franco. The other is "Sal," an excellent, intimate look at gay 1950s matinee idol Sal Mineo. It will be available from Tribeca Film on VOD starting Tuesday, October 22 and in select theaters on Friday, November 1.
"Playing Sal Mineo was the first time I had to play someone who wasn’t from my imagination but was a real-life guy," Lauren reflected. "It was a definite responsibility to his memory, his family, his legacy. and not something I took lightly."
Mineo was only 16 when he starred alongside James Dean and Natalie Wood in the now-classic "Rebel Without a Cause." He received an Oscar nomination for his turn as Plato, a shy high schooler smitten with an attractive, braver fellow student played by Dean. Mineo received a second Academy Award nomination and won a Golden Globe a few years later for the epic "Exodus." In the 1960s, he became one of the first major Hollywood actors to publicly acknowledge his homosexuality. He was tragically murdered outside his West Hollywood apartment in 1976 at the age of 37.
"Sal said something about his homosexuality that I really dug: ’I’m a human being first and an artist,’ " according to Lauren. "He refused labels, both on himself or others. He didn’t let his sexuality define him. I’d never played a homosexual or bisexual character before, but I learned what Sal believed, that we are all first and foremost human beings."
Lauren, a member of L.A.’s repertory theatre company, Playhouse West, as well as a veteran of numerous TV shows and indie movies and the notoriously gay-friendly Franco made "Sal" in 2011, prior to this year’s "Interior. Leather Bar."
" ’Sal’ was good preparation for ’Leather Bar’ in terms of being the first time I collaborated with James on a film," Lauren said, "and we established ways of working together and communicating that would serve us well on ’Leather Bar.’ "
The actor, who will next be seen opposite Clive Owen and Morgan Freeman in the big-budget adventure "The Last Knights," has nothing but praise for his friend and recent director. "I’ve got to say that working with Franco has been the most rewarding on-camera creative relationship I’ve ever had; I’d be happy working with James for the rest of my life."
Playing Mineo involved considerable "interior and exterior preparation" on Lauren’s part. "I was fortunate to have a few months to prepare for ’Sal.’ I had a lot of challenges to face: I had to capture his distinct voice; I had to lose about 20 pounds to gain his lean physique and grow my hair out; I had to do a lot of voice and physical work."
He continued: "On the inside, our personalities were very, very different so I really had to minimize my own personal mannerisms and feelings. Sal had a very innocent, childlike spirit, which I am really trying to live today. I watched all his movies (in addition to the aforementioned non-Mineo gay porn, for research purposes) and read the fantastic biography about him by Michael Gregg Michaud." With Michaud as his guide, Lauren visited various places Mineo frequented and met people who knew the star.
"Sal" is, both to this writer and to Lauren, "a very unconventional approach to a biography." The entire movie is set on the last day of Mineo’s life. "What I like about the film," Lauren shared, "is that it doesn’t capture all the major moments or accomplishments of his life. It allows the viewer to have a very intimate encounter with the soul of the man rather than the facts of his life."
I asked Lauren about the impact his other current James Franco movie, "Interior. Leather Bar.," has had on him. "It’s been surprising," he replied. "I had no preconceptions about what kind of impact that film would have. That being said, it has been so positive and I like the varying responses the film has gotten in terms of what people think it’s about." It is scheduled for theatrical release in early 2014.
" ’Interior. Leather Bar.’ definitely taught me a couple of things. I got to observe a great moment between this great couple; it was really nice watching them have sex, it made sense," Lauren said of one of the movie’s standout scenes. "I felt like I was intruding a little bit, like I would if I was watching a man and a woman, but they were so cute!"
Lauren is married to actress Eva Lauren, who has a small role as a clinic nurse in "Sal." Together, they have "a gorgeous little girl," a Shih Tzu named Bella, who also appears in Sal as Mineo’s neighbor’s dog.
Lauren shared the second thing he learned while shooting "Interior. Leather Bar." "At the end of the day, we’re all human and we all want the same thing: To be loved." This also seems to echo the message of Sal, the man and the movie.
I asked Lauren whether he has discerned a method to James Franco’s "madness" in making several films now on gay subjects. "James always has had, since I’ve known him, a very specific lens or paradigm through which he views the world," he replied. "He is very complex as a man and an artist on one hand and yet very simple on the other. Do I know always where he is coming from? Absolutely not, but I enjoy viewing the result. He invites us to join him on his endeavors, not knowing where things will end up. I love that."
Since Lauren has now personified two well-known, real-life actors on screen -- Al Pacino (in "Leather Bar") and Sal Mineo -- I asked him if hunky young Marlon Brando would be next. "Oh man, I wish I could do that," he replied. "I don’t think anyone can though; there’s only one Brando."