THE ULTIMATE LIFE
Red, Hanna, Gus and Hamilton: All Grown Up
When Drew Waters, who plays Red from 30 to 43, read the script, he found the story to be very true to what he grew up with. "Red has married the love of his life," he explains. "He has a family and he's struggling, trying to hit his goal, which is to become a wealthy man only to later hit and let greed set in. Then the question becomes, 'when is enough, enough?' In Red's case, it's never enough. There's never too much. Red feels that as long as he loves his wife and provides for her, he's doing his job. Everything else is secondary... the money takes over and he chases it.
"As I read the script," continues Waters, "the big thing that attracted me is that I could relate to Red. And when I say I can relate to him, I mean, it's a lot like my life growing up. My dad's a blue-collar worker, a hard worker. I started working when I was 12, making my own money, and by the time I was 15, I had my own truck and by the time I was 18, off into the military. I was dead set on going and work, work, work, and never would slow down enough to appreciate it. I opened up businesses and thought that money was the answer to everything. It wasn't a stretch to build this character."
The thing that Waters likes best about the character of Red is his drive. "I think that the positive side of Red is his amazing drive and his will to never give up no matter what and I admire that in people. It's a rarity to find that in people -- the will to never give up if you believe in something. Red has that."
To prepare for his role, Waters studied clips from The Ultimate Gift. "It's important to keep Red true," he says, "and James Garner set the tone of the character. I watched some of the clips and tried to pick up on some of his quirks and mannerisms. He's a crusty old guy that is set in his ways, doesn't like a lot of fuss around him, even though he's a billionaire. And you can just tell that he was still a simple man. And I used a lot of my past like my great grandfather and my grandfather. My great grandfather was a lot like James Garner in the way he carried himself. I went back and watched some of Mr. Garner's older westerns and tried to pick up some of his quirks there as well and then started applying them to Red."
However, Waters wasn't prepared for what he met when his "younger" self appeared on the set. "Now the younger side of me," he explains, "I've never met Austin. Don't know him. I didn't know him until this production and he didn't come in until two weeks after I had already started playing Red and made my choices. We didn't have an opportunity to talk to each other and so we just had the luck of the draw and it came down to great casting. Austin's like a mini me. It's scary. We think alike. We've done a lot of the same sports growing up. We like a lot of the same things. I rodeoed. He rodeoed. I pole-vaulted. He pole-vaulted. The only thing different is that he has brown eyes and he's left-handed.
"He also understood Red very well. When we had time to sit down and talk, I relayed some things that I would like to see passed on and he said 'That's how I'm doing it. I'm so glad you said that.' And when you have those two dynamics coming together, I think we're going to do Red justice. I think James Garner would be very proud of what we've accomplished!"
Waters also doesn't hesitate to give credit for the accomplishments to director Michael J. Landon, Jr. "I've been very blessed and lucky to work with a lot of directors, great ones and some not so," he explains. "He is the epitome of an actor's director. He comes to set, throws out some ideas with a 'Let's try it out.' His feedback is very positive but it's directed to what he wants it to be. He accomplishes things without raising his voice. He knows what he wants and how to get it out of people, which is exciting because there are moments playing Red, trying to keep him true to James Garner's character the way he played it, and throughout the life of the younger Red. It's important for me to keep the truth in him and there were moments when I questioned it, and Michael would say, 'It's great, trust me. I'd tell you if it wasn't. Get that out of your head.' Or he'd say 'What do you think?' And it allowed me to think it through and see if it fit the character. For that alone, he's tops!"
Waters also has high praise for Elizabeth Bennett who plays Hanna from 30 to 43. "Wow! What an outstanding actress," he exclaims. "She's a joy to work with. She brought Hanna to life. She has the ability to be very subtle with the emotions but then push them so strongly on you until you feel them resonate throughout your body. And she does it effortlessly, which is a thrill and a joy to watch."
"We had a lot of fun off camera just keeping everything fresh and entertaining. She works a lot like I work in the sense that you get serious on the moment, or if you need buildup to it, you build it, but you don't sit there and dwell on it. You throw it away. That way you can walk back into it. She's a joy to work with."
Gus from 30 to 43 was played by Dane Northcutt. "Dane had this undertone of sarcasm that carried him, which really drove at Red's strings, and so it was easy to talk to him. He's a genuine, really true, honest guy. When he pulls Gus in, he has that smirk to him -- that sideways laugh to him that just drove me crazy personally, so it fit right into Red and the two of us. I think the dynamics on screen will show a dear friendship but a huge need to succeed over and above him."
Hanna has also married the man of her dreams. "She grew up with Red," says Elizabeth Bennett, "and she loves him more passionately than she ever has, so in that respect, she's not really unhappy, but he's never at home and she's got four kids to raise, basically by herself. She's like a single mom while he's out working and she's at home trying to make ends meet. I think it's lonely and not what she'd hoped for and she keeps trying to reach out to Red but he's on a different path, a different place in their lives. The family could have been close," she continues. "They started out right and they just derailed somewhere along the way. Things just went terribly wrong."
Bennett's favorite part of being Hanna was being transported back to the 50's. "I might have been born in the wrong era. There might have been some grand mistake and I was placed in the wrong time period," she says with a laugh. "I got the 50's hairstyle, the 60's makeup, the dresses. It is amazing. That was extremely rewarding."
But even with the wardrobe, hair and makeup, Bennett found that playing another version of a character who's already been established was a challenge. "I do think that it's important to remember that a lot has happened to Hanna in the past 15 years," she says. "She's a new person. There is an evolution between happy go lucky, carefree, in love, to when reality hits. Red and Hanna had trouble in their marriage, but they always loved each other and Hanna holds onto the hope that's buried under the pressures of the marriage."
Bennett believes that her character was brought to the forefront by director Michael Landon, Jr. "He's very clear with what he wants, but never forced anything," she explains. "He just lets you know you're doing things right, which is so appreciated. Sometimes directors don't tell you when you're doing things right and you just wonder, but Michael has good ways of giving you direction. He's a good actor's director."
She also loved Drew Waters' face. "He's a very handsome man," she exclaims, and then turns serious. "I think Drew brings a sense of humor to Red. Drew is so fun loving and he marches to the beat of his own drum. I think he brings that special quirkiness to Red."
When analyzing the character of Gus, actor Dane Northcutt saw him as striving to be like Red. "I think he almost was," says Northcutt. "It gave him something to attain. I think Gus wanted success and craved it, where it just came easy to Red because it was part of who he was. Red has a kind of enigmatic energy that you just can't help but be drawn to which is what I think happened when he came into Gus's community and into Gus's life and I think Gus was drawn to him as well because he really wanted to be like Red."
"I think that Drew Waters brings his energy to Red. He brings all of that to the character completely. He is 100% committed to the joy, that enigmatic presence that I think would be required of who Red is. Drew has been very welcoming. He was wonderful to work with, a lot of energy and he made it very comfortable to be here."
As with all the other actors, Northcutt had nothing but praise for director Michael Landon, Jr. "As an actor," explains Northcutt, "he makes you feel really comfortable, listens to any input that you have about what you want to accomplish. He has a very clear vision of what he wants, no question, but he was certainly open to anything we had to say so I think we could get the best moments we have on film."
Some of those moments for Northcutt include scenes that he feels were challenging. "We're seeing Gus at a transition period in his life and his relationship with Red," he says, "where they are beginning to be really good lifelong friends. They are both successful. They want to better each other, but the challenging part is keeping that drive for success in the characters and what's happening, but not allowing that to be a divider between their relationship. We had to keep the strength and the bonding through their relationship and make sure that good, healthy competition is there and that was the biggest challenge I had to bring to my character."
Bechir Sylvain portrays Ted Hamilton, Red's lawyer. "At 30, this young man has just passed the bar," says Sylvain, "has his own law firm and as an African American living in Texas, is very excited to get some work. He's just trying to break down walls just like most of the characters in this film. He gets that job when Red, in desperate need of a lawyer, picks his name at random out of the Yellow Pages."
Taking the role was no hard decision for Sylvain. "It was a blessing," he says. "I got a chance to play a younger version of my mentor, Bill Cobbs, play a lawyer who my father was in real life, relive a lot of moments in my life that really meant a lot to me."
It was no accident that Sylvain was chosen to portray the young Bill Cobbs. "I was a featured extra in a movie and we just talked for a few seconds," he says. "I was just like young Hamilton. I was this young actor, very excited and wanted to know more about the movie industry. When I met Bill, I introduced myself to him and asked him how he felt about Hollywood. We found that we had a lot of things in common -- one of them being jazz. We both love jazz. He asked me to assist him in the film, to travel and assist him. So I assisted him for two months in this film and it was the best experience of my life and it was around the same time that my dad was really sick and they're the same age. The way life works sometimes, you just can't write it any better. It was almost like a transition from losing a father and gaining a father figure and mentor.
"My manager knew about my relationship with Bill so when the request came, he called and said 'You're going to have to put yourself on tape.' I called Bill and told him that I just couldn't believe that they wanted me to play the young Bill. And he told me not to worry. I figured he called them and told them about me. I put myself on tape that day, sent it and within a week, I heard the news. I was so shocked," he exclaims. "Talk about planting your seeds and seeing them grow!"
Working with Drew Waters was almost like the film for Sylvain. "When you see the film and you see the relationship and how it grows from the first day when Red and Hamilton first meet and are strangers, and then finally you see the friendship...it's the same thing that happened on set. It was like the first day," he explains. "We did the first scene of the movie where we actually meet, so it was so genuine, literally like right away, we just connected in the same way that Red and Hamilton connected from the beginning.
"There's something about when you see somebody who has a lot of drive and you feel it, the energy walking into the room and you see how his eyes light up wanting to work and wanting to have fun. We just kept our friendship growing from there, just like in the film. Drew is such a great guy and an incredible talent."
To develop the character of Hamilton, Sylvain watched The Ultimate Gift. "I definitely wanted to make sure that I captured all the subtleties, his timing. Bill is incredible. He doesn't have to do much whereas when you're young, you have so much energy. You could see in this character that he plays the life that he has. You see all his experience from just one look. So I had to understand the subtleties but still have that youthful energy and drive. I literally picked subtle moments where you see Hamilton calming down, especially after the accident."
The accident is very personal to Sylvain. "It was surreal because last year I had the same accident," he explains. "I had a very bad crash and broke my arm and my hip. So when you see the film, you'll see the picture of me in the bed and it's exactly the same picture of me in real life. When you go through something like that, it changes your life. There are so many emotions and the reason I'm so amazed by this experience, and this entire film is exactly that. I didn't give up. I stayed positive and Hamilton did the same thing. He stays positive and still goes on and lives his life, not becoming bitter and not blaming anything because it's an accident. It's all how you deal with it and I think the way Hamilton deals with it, and I guess the way I dealt with it, were similar. You take it for what it is and you stay strong.
"The accident was a wakeup call for two people," explains Sylvain. "Red had this drive to become a billionaire and sometimes you forget what's important, and unfortunately, sometimes it takes an accident for people to wake up. It's in this scene that Red writes down all the gifts that he's learned, especially the gift of friendship.
"Red has everything that he ever wanted and the only person who's there the whole time and is pretty much his only friend is Hamilton. So when Hamilton needs a kidney, it makes sense for Red to give him one of his. At that moment, it hits Red hard and it's an epiphany for him to realize how much he loves Hamilton and what is really important and to live and ensure that you can help other people around you. His reaction was instinct, so the good was always inside of him, but it took the accident to bring it out."
Sylvain echoes the other actors' sentiments when asked about working with Michael Landon, Jr. "I would work with him any day," he exclaims. "He is an actor's dream. He lets you play. He puts you in an environment. He sees what you do and he just tweaks it. I think any actor would love to be able to come in with an idea and Michael has his idea and he sees yours and molds it so subtly without ever being harsh or controlling. He just puts the idea into your head."
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