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LUV

A Dream Ensemble
With an unknown director and untested writers, the filmmakers sometimes felt as though they had tackled an impossible task. But another native son of Baltimore recognized the potential in their project and became instrumental in getting the film made.

"The hardest thing was getting the first actor attached," says Jason Berman. "That was Charles S. Dutton. He was the impetus for making this happen and getting all the other actors involved."

Dutton plays a former colleague of Vincent's who is helping him get back on his feet after a stint in jail. The actor knows the city's streets first hand. His early life was marred by violence and prison time, but he went on to earn a master's degree at the Yale School of Drama, received a Tony nomination and starred in his own network television series, ROC. Dutton's story was an inspiration for Candis growing up in Baltimore.

"It always made me proud that we were from the same place," the director says. "I've been an underdog all my life, so I would watch him in the movie Rudy and feel like his character was talking directly to me. During the years we were trying to put the movie together, I envisioned Charles S. Dutton in my movie to keep it real in my mind and spirit."

When the actor first agreed to meet with Candis and the other filmmakers, the film had yet to line up solid financing. "I told him the story was inspired by my childhood in Baltimore," says Candis. "In a weird twist of fate, it turned out he actually knew members of my family."

The director showed Dutton his 2010 short film, THE WALK, and that sealed the deal.

"Charles asked me all sorts of questions about the story and the look of the film. At the end of the meeting, he said, 'we'll make it work. See you in Baltimore.'"

Dutton believes that LUV should spark many important conversations. "Vincent and Woody are such compelling, true-to-life characters," he says. "There are so many men in communities like Baltimore who are facing the same challenges Vincent does. And too many youngsters like Woody are searching for someone to emulate and settling for deeply flawed heroes."

Dutton's character is reaching out to Vincent and trying to provide him with the support he needs to succeed. "But even he doesn't have the right kinds of resources to help," the actor says. "The odds are against Vincent from the beginning. This isn't a problem that one man can solve by himself. I was fortunate to find a new life in acting, but that is the exception, rather than the rule."

With Dutton on board to give the film Hollywood credibility, the filmmakers began working with top casting directors Mary Vernieu and Lindsay Graham (whose numerous film credits include BLACK SWAN and CRAZY HEART), to assemble a dream ensemble that includes some of the most acclaimed African-American actors working today.

"Having Mary and Lindsay working with us gave us enormous legitimacy, even though this was a low-budget film," says Berman. "And when the actors met with Sheldon, they all loved him immediately. Everyone who sat down with him wanted to be in the movie. He really lights up a room."

From there, the cast came together quickly. "Danny Glover and Dennis Haysbert agreed to come to Baltimore to do our movie!" recalls Candis. "Michael K. Williams hopped on a train to shoot during his breaks from BOARDWALK EMPIRE, because he missed B-more and he was excited about the character. Clark Johnson had a day to give us before he started shooting his next film. Lonette McKee was so excited that she was on the phone with us developing the mother-son relationship. And Meagan Good really connected with Beverly's love for Vincent."

Dennis Haysbert brings the same gravitas to his character, the mobster Mr. Fish, that he lent to his reputation-making role as president of the United States in the television series, 24. Vincent, who worked for Fish as an enforcer and drug dealer before his arrest, turns to him for work when his legitimate business deal threatens to go sour.

"Mr. Fish is respected in the community as a powerful man," Haysbert explains. "Of course, that power is built on brutal and illegal activities. Vincent was a valued employee, but he's been tainted because he is suspected of cooperating with the authorities in exchanges for an early release from prison. But without Fish, Vincent's opportunities are virtually nil, so he takes the chance."

Haysbert singles out LUV as a unique film in a career that has encompassed everything from romantic comedies including WAITING TO EXHALE to espionage thrillers like BREACH. "It's a strong, important, specifically African-American story," he says. "Woody has a long road ahead of him and neither of his parents are there to help guide him. I had very visceral reaction to the script that made me want to give Sheldon as much support as I could for this project. I know I wasn't the only one in the cast who felt that way." At Fish's right hand sits his brother Arthur, whose affable exterior hides a ruthless determination to survive in a deadly business. Danny Glover, who is as well known for his social activism as for his acting, plays Arthur.

"This is a story I thought needed to be told," says Glover. "Vincent is a man who wants to do the right thing, but he keeps getting in his own way. The larger tragedy is the danger that he is perpetuating a cycle of self-defeat in the way he treats Woody. They say you have to be able to love yourself before you can love someone else, and that is something that hasn't happened for Vincent."

To add to the crushing disappointment he experienced at the bank, Vincent suffers another humiliation when he tries to reunite with his former love, Beverly, played by Meagan Good. Beverly makes it clear to Vincent that she has moved on and so should he. "Vincent caused a lot of heartache for a lot of people," says Good. "Beverly needs to put that life behind her. She's found a man who will be there for her and I think she knows that Vincent can never be that."

The end of Vincent and Beverly's relationship is heartbreakingly authentic, the actress observes. "For a woman like Beverly, there's no moving ahead with Vincent. And for someone like Vincent, making any headway in life is almost impossible. As much as she once loved him, Beverly has seen the dead end that life with Vincent offers and she can't accept it."

The other woman in Vincent's life is his mom, Woody's beloved Grandma Beanie. Beanie sticks by her son, but she is also struggling trying to make sure that Woody has all has chances that Vincent no longer does. As played by Lonette McKee, a Tony nominee and respected television and film actress, Beanie is the anchor for her family. "My character has lost both her daughter and her son to drugs," says McKee. "Woody's mom is an addict and Vincent ended up in jail. But she is staying strong for Woody's sake and trying help Vincent build a better life for himself.

"Women like Beanie are a mainstay for many black families," she notes. "They don't give up hope, they keep their communities moving forward, but the losses they suffer are devastating."

With most of the cast ready and waiting, the filmmakers still had the two most important roles in LUV to fill: Vincent and Woody. They set their sites on Grammy-winning recording artist Common to fill Vincent's tailored suit. Common had already launched a successful acting career with supporting roles in SMOKIN' ACES, WANTED and AMERICAN GANGSTER, then graduated to a romantic lead opposite Queen Latifah in JUST WRIGHT. He has recently garnered critical and popular accolades for his role in the post-Civil War era television series, HELL ON WHEELS.

"We were sure this was his role," says Candis. "I got a phone call saying that if I could drive to Philly that night and close the deal, Common would do the movie. So I drove as fast as I could and met with him in a hotel restaurant. All I could think about was that I used to listen religiously to his ONE DAY IT'LL ALL MAKE SENSE album in college. We talked music and movies most of the night. We went into the character and what his motivations were. What did I, as the co-writer, feel was his main objective? I could tell he was feeling out my sensibility as a filmmaker and as an artist. The last thing he said to me was, 'I think we can do something great here.'"

Vincent is the largest and most complex role Common has played to date, a man who wants to do right, but finds his resolve compromised by his circumstances. "It was a lot of responsibility, but I liked that," says Common. "When you've got that weight on you, you've got to be great so the movie can be great. I'm a competitor and an artist. I enjoy what I'm passionate about. It was definitely a lot of work, shooting on such a condensed schedule, but it was great to stay involved throughout the shoot. When you have a supporting role, you may only come in for two weeks. Here, I was able to live in Vincent's world."

That world and all its dangers are compellingly and authentically recreated in LUV, according to Common, who saw his share of the street life growing up in Chicago. "There were people like Vincent in my neighborhood who I looked up to," he says. "I learned from them, but it wasn't like formal instruction. It was more 'if you're with us, you're going to experience some things.' You pick up on the code and the culture of it."

A lonely child like Woody is particularly susceptible to the connections he can build on the street, says Common. "Vincent really isn't self-aware enough to realize that he is pulling Woody into the world he is trying to get out of. He just knows he needs help, so he brings Woody into a completely inappropriate situation. Vincent isn't hurting his nephew intentionally, but he isn't able to love anyone in a selfless way.

"The film will pull at your emotions," he continues. "It should remind us as a community and a country that we have to help our young people. It's so easy for them to be misled or put in the wrong hands. But I think Woody has the resilience to come through the storm and see the light and be great when all of this is over."

Even with the abbreviated shooting schedule and tight budget, the experience was one of the best the actor says he has had on a film set. "It was effortless to work with those guys," he says. "Sheldon Candis was driven and passionate about the work. He was very respectful to all parties involved, whether you were the sound person or a grip or a background artist. He had a strong point of view that he wanted to get across.

"And the actors were the best," he adds. "Charles Dutton is so natural. Danny Glover is a master. They came in with such professionalism and truth to what they do."

But the biggest revelation for Common was his young co-star. "Michael Rainey is incredibly talented and fun to work with," he says. "He also reminded me to enjoy myself. As a child, he has a freedom and a lack of inhibition that I picked up on. I have a tendency to be really serious about work. You put all your art into it, but at the same time you want to enjoy it."

Common firmly establishes himself as an actor to be reckoned with in this role, say the filmmakers. "This is by far the best performance Common has ever given in a movie," according to Berman. "He was able to play a conflicted character who is trying to do right, but continues to make bad decisions. He came out to Baltimore for days at a time, to meet people in the movie, people in the community. He just jumped into it, and remained one of the most humble and well-rounded people you could ask for throughout the experience."

With Vincent in place, the most difficult casting task still lay ahead for the filmmakers. Where would they find a ten-year-old actor with the talent and maturity to play Woody? "We could make an entire gut-wrenching documentary called Searching for Woody," says Candis. "We looked everywhere -- Los Angeles, Atlanta, Chicago, Baltimore -- and couldn't find the right kid. The clock was ticking. I went to New York three weeks before the start of pre- production believing we would find Woody there. I did a casting session with the same office that found Gabourey Sidibe for PRECIOUS. And after an entire day, still no kid."

Without the right actor playing Woody, the film would not be made. Candis spent a sleepless night wandering the streets of Brooklyn, despondent because he had failed to mount his dream project. "We were fully financed, the rest of the cast was in place and all of my savings were gone!" he says. "I was headed back to L.A. defeated and unemployed. Did God really bring me this far to fail?" And then co-producer Sean Banks called with one last possibility, an unknown and inexperienced boy named Michael Rainey Jr. His resume consisted of a single film, UN ALTRO MONDO, in which he speaks only Italian.

"Michael showed up the next morning and the minute I saw him, I thought, he sure looks like Woody," says Candis. "But my first clue to how right he was going to be was when I asked him what type of music he listened to, and he said he was a fan of old school Hip Hop. Then he quoted a Slick Rick lyric from 'Lodi Dodi.' He's only ten years old!"

Rainey presented the director with a DVD of his Italian film, which Candis watched as soon as he returned to Baltimore. "I was blown away by what I saw: A nine-year-old African-American kid acting and emoting in fluent Italian," he remembers.

Rainey is a revelation in LUV, according to all concerned. A natural talent, the boy inhabits his character with an ease rare to find in actors many times his age and experience. "I only read the script once, and then I never needed the lines or anything," says Rainey. "We just started filming. I never needed to read the sides for the scenes we were doing. I just remembered them."

He seems unimpressed by his sudden success. "It is just fun," he says. "It's not all about getting famous and making money for me. It's more about having a good time and some different experiences. And this was a really great experience."

The director predicts Rainey will be at home on screen for many years to come. Next he will appear in PRECIOUS director Lee Daniels' star-studded feature, THE BUTLER, playing the title character as a young boy. "Michael is incredibly mature and self-possessed," says Candis. "It's like he's been doing it for 20 years. The truth and vulnerability he brings to the screen give me chills."

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