Jump to:Page Content
The Morning Call
By Geoff Gehman
October 7, 2008
Anisa George likes the corner of creativity and community. The Bethlehem native hung out there in ''Foreigner,'' her solo play about being Baha'i in America and Iran.
In ''Don Quixote of Bethlehem,'' her documentary about Touchstone Theatre's bilingual theatricade of Cervantes' novel. In playground comedies she performed for Touchstone, the experimental ensemble founded by her parents, Bill and Bridget.
George's first feature film is a family affair, too. In '' Rachel Getting Married,'' opening Friday in Philadelphia, the 26-year-old Moravian Academy graduate has a juicy role as Emma, a maid of honor who fiercely protects the bride (Rosemarie DeWitt) from the bride's prodigal sister Kym ( Anne Hathaway), a recovering addict and wicked wit who lives up to her nickname ''Shiva the destroyer.'' Directed by Oscar winner Jonathan Demme (''Silence of the Lambs'') and written by Jenny Lumet, daughter of legendary filmmaker Sidney Lumet, the movie feels like a domestic expose, thanks largely to veteran ensemble actors ( Debra Winger), veteran members of Demme's company (Anna Deavere Smith) and a handful of his relatives (Bobby Demme, his priest uncle).
We were just bouncing off each other and really having fun.
Armian and Demme met George through a relation. Her aunt, Joyce George, is a Brooklyn photographer who befriended Demme's wife, set designer Joanne Howard, in the early 1980s when they were waitresses and artists in New York's East Village. An occasional still photographer for Demme, Joyce George plays a wedding photographer in ''Rachel.''
In the spring of 2007 the Georges were dining with Demme and Howard when Demme asked Anisa George for a DVD of ''Foreigner,'' her painful, painfully funny pilgrimage through religion and sexuality, prejudice and family. Impressed by the coming-of-age, coming-out story, Demme initially considered booking it for an Iranian festival he planned to produce. Then he gave George a simpler role: a screen test for a minor character in ''Rachel'' -- perhaps a wedding guest, perhaps a member of a 12-step program.
In August 2007, in Demme's Manhattan apartment, George received a juicier assignment: reading the part of Emma, the maid of honor, with two candidates for the role of Rachel. Armian recalls she quickly transformed a non-audition into an audition. ''Anisa just came in and literally owned the part,'' says the producer. ''She just cast herself.''
Five weeks later George joined the ''Rachel'' company in Stamford, Conn. Like other Demme casts, it was an all-star, all-field banquet. Beau Sia, who plays a wedding organizer, is a slam poet. Bill Irwin, who plays Rachel's father, is a renowned new-age theater clown. Jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., one of many professional players at the wedding reception, appears in two unreleased Demme documentaries on musicians in post-Katrina New Orleans.
On paper George fit right in. Named after the Arabic word for ''friendly,'' she received a degree in Middle Eastern cultures from Barnard College, studied sacred theater in Iran and taught photography to child laborers in Yemen. Armian, who is Iranian-American, says George speaks Farsi better than she does.
Still, George faced a sharp learning curve on the ''Rachel'' set. ''I'm used to theater productions where you're expected to do a little bit of everything, because if you don't, it won't get done,'' she says. ''Here, I was just a small cog in the machine. The amount of energy thrown together in that one place at that one time was so amazing. In a way, that helped teach me how to throw all of my energy into just being an actor -- to thinking much more deeply about that role.''
Armian insists it took George a mere week to reach the comfort zone. She hit her mark during a dress-fitting scene in an Indian boutique that features a nasty battle between Emma and Kym over who deserves maid of honorhood. According to Armian, George leveled the playing field with two far more experienced performers: Hathaway, a star of such films as ''The Princess Diaries'' and ''The Devil Wears Prada,'' and DeWitt, who has an occasional role in the Emmy-winning TV series '' Mad Men.'' George not only went nose to nose, she zinged an ad lib at Hathaway's character: ''I can see rehab has done wonders for you.''
''That line was completely Anisa,'' says Armian. ''She had a lot of backbone; she knew she had a lot to give. Other actors had to be on their toes because they were acting with her. She was that sharp.''
Other factors eased George's transition to acting in a feature film. She was inspired by Anna Deavere Smith, who plays dozens of characters in her solo plays about race, violence and other American dilemmas. She was comforted by a familial company that included Demme's son Brooklyn, one of the wedding musicians, and Demme's film mentor, producer Roger Corman, one of the camera-wielding wedding guests. Endless improvisation suited an alumna of Touchstone's guerrilla street-theater tours, who at age 9 danced, mugged and generally stole ''Rootabaga Stories,'' the tale of a family that ditches boring reality for a fantasy country where umbrellas hold political rallies. Her co-stars were her parents, Bill, now a Touchstone ensemble member, and Bridget, now executive director of the Bach Choir of Bethlehem.
George welcomed these moments of spontaneity as sparks of live theater. ''We were just bouncing off each other and really having fun,'' she says. ''Jonathan will give you a little nudge here and there, but basically he gives you free reign. He likes to keep the film rolling and just go and go and go, until he's gotten everyone into the flow and everything is working. It's kind of like keeping the flame burning until it reaches boiling point. I certainly took the opportunity to say whatever came out of my mouth. Sometimes they seemed to let me get away with anything. And sometimes they said: 'Anisa, please leave the set, now.'''
Actually, George was more disoriented by the post-filmmaking process. During a rough cut of ''Rachel,'' she squirmed watching herself on screen for the first time. ''It's so hard to see it as a story,'' she says. ''Because the whole time you're thinking: Oh, it was really cold that day. Or: That was the day I was in a bad mood. I think everyone struggles with that. You just never perceive yourself the way you actually appear.''
George is also slightly unnerved by the permanence of her performance. ''With film, you're put on the shelf and immortalized,'' she says. ''Whereas with the theater, if you don't like something, you can push it off the cliff and never see it again.''
''Rachel'' has intensified the pingpong game in George's head between making films and making plays. This month she'll begin a master's program at the London International School of Performing Arts on a scholarship from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, created by the late media billionaire. The school emphasizes creative movement and collaboration taught by the late Jacques Lecoq, a Touchstone guru.
In the meantime George is in Newcastle, England, working for Amber, an ambitious independent film company co-founded nearly 40 years ago by her mother's sister. She plans to return to the Valley to continue directing a documentary on the conversion of Bethlehem Steel's former plant into a casino complex near Touchstone's neighborhood.
George is in no hurry to hire her first agent or scurry for parts in feature films. ''Part of my theatrical pedigree is to believe in creating your own original work,'' she says. ''That's still where my heart is at. I recognize the advantages of being part of the commercial acting world, and it was really an honor and a privilege to be a part of this movie. But I think there's a lot of danger in trying to climb the ladder to commercial success. It's a good way to pay the bills, but not necessarily a way to feel creatively fulfilled.''
Armian believes George will master pretty much anything that matters. ''Trust me,'' says the producer, ''we will all be working for Anisa George soon.''