"Heartland Goes Gaga for Googy - An Interview With Googy Gress
I first spoke with veteran character actor Googy Gress as he was preparing to board a plane on his way to Indianapolis for the screenings of his new film, Ashley's Ashes, at the 2010 Heartland Film Festival, a film festival that celebrates films that inspire and make a difference and offers the largest festival prize purse in the world. Gress matter-of-factly informed me that my "timing was perfect" as "I have this thing about being the last one on a plane and I'm about 12 people away from that right now."
I instantly thought "I"m really going to like this guy."
Googy and I, if you ever meet the friendly actor you'll realize how weird it would feel to refer to him by his last name, met the following afternoon at the Ram Brewery in downtown Indianapolis just before the opening festivities for the Heartland Film Festival and the day before the first screening of Ashley's Ashes, a film that marks the veteran character actor's first leading role in a feature film. Googy had informed me I would recognize him as the "overweight, middle-aged guy with a goatee" ... I promptly informed him he could recognize me as the footless guy in a wheelchair.
We were both impossible to miss.
It would be a good 15-20 minutes before we would talk about Ashley's Ashes or, for that matter, any film-related topic. Instead, Googy and I found ourselves discussing the merits of both Indiana's and California's services for the developmentally disabled after my having explained being a few minutes late due to my job working in the field. Googy explained that one of his three children, a 22-year-old daughter, is profoundly disabled and that he's been incredibly grateful for the "entitlement program and services" in California that will "be there for his daughter's entire life." After a good 15-20 minutes of discussing the various aspects of community living, institutional living, budget cuts and how difficult it was for her two younger brothers when she moved out into the community at the age of 19, we turned our attention to Ashley's Ashes and Googy's rather incredible 30-year career in Hollywood.
Ashley's Ashes is, according to Googy, the story of a "mildly depressed, middle-aged man who finds out that he has inherited an urn of ashes. However, he's not told who the ashes belong to... he goes out on a journey to try to figure it out and ends up meeting new people and his life becomes increasingly better." "The film was completed in 18 days and spent a year in post-production," he explained.
How does an overweight, middle-aged character actor suddenly land his first major starring role?
Googy explains that in the past he'd helped writer friends out by reading scripts and offering notes. "I'd been a bit down. Things had been slow. My wife (actress Clarinda Ross) is best friends with one of the co-writers' wives and suggested I help them out with a new script," he explained and then added, "I sat down on a Sunday, gave them notes on a Thursday and had an updated script on Sunday again." This happened again the following week and, by then, Googy acknowledged it was a "pretty good script." Googy explains that he thought they might be eyeing one of his friends for the lead role, but much to his surprise they offered it to him.
Ashley's Ashes ended up being a low-budget version of a George Clooney film, with Googy having the chance to surround himself with longtime friends and veteran actors such as Clint Howard, Craig Sheffer, Scott Foster, Daniel Baldwin, Willie Garson, Brian McNamara, Christian Clemenson and, yes, even his wife. Eventually, his efforts behind-the-scenes were rewarded with his first producing credit.
These friends, some you will recognize more than others, are friends with whom Googy has worked with in multiple films over the years. Googy shared that "I still get together every Thursday for lunch with six of the guys from Apollo 13 who were in Mission Control. In fact, right before you came in one of them had called me and asked where we were having lunch."
Googy makes no effort during our conversation to hide his joy at this sudden change in his cinematic fortune, a leading role in a quality film surrounded by people he's worked and been friends with for his entire life. Even a serious bout with a flesh-eating bacteria that nearly cost Googy a foot hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for this business he loves and "the only thing I could possibly do. The only thing I want to do. I've never worked anything else. I was never a waiter, never anything else. I've always been an actor." While Googy laments the increasingly "corporate ownership of networks and studios" that has turned the business into a "non-emotional, non-sympathetic" business, he's also quick to acknowledge his good fortune over the years.
Googy seldom goes into a negative direction in the conversation, managing to be positive in tone and spirit whether talking about the challenges his daughter has faced, his own challenges facing a flesh-eating bacteria or enduring the ups and downs of being a character actor. "When it's a bad year, I think about my supportive wife and I always have the knowledge that it comes and goes. It will get better," he states. In fact, that perseverance is the one bit of advice he offers to up-and-coming actors. "Perseverance is everything. If you're a young actor and don't really feel like this is the only thing you can possibly do then don't do it."
Googy always knew that he wanted to be an actor, and feels lucky that he had parents who never questioned his dreams. Googy explains "My father is a successful businessman in New York, an entrepreneur. He always said "You have to do what you love" and never questioned it." He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from University of Southern California, "went to New York for five years and studied with Warren Robertson." Googy states that this pattern of going "back to class" is something he's done more than once when things slow down as it helps rejuvenate and energize him. He cites a time in his early 30's when he headed off to Edinborough to do a play, "came back energized and landed Apollo 13 two weeks later."
This leads us back to our real reason for getting together, Ashley's Ashes. Googy literally lights up talking about the film, which he considers "the highlight of my professional life." He calls the entire experience of making the film "immensely satisfying." We talk about "the arc," how it's the job of a character actor to the "a point in someone else's arc" and what an amazing experience it was to be in a film where "it was my arc."
Despite his 30+ years of acting, this trip to the 2010 Heartland Film Festival is one of Googy's first festival experiences with the exception of having been to Sundance after working on Robert Redford's Promised Land. He has no qualms about saying that once he learned about Heartland "I wanted it (Ashley's Ashes) to get here. We should be here. We belong here." The film had also been submitted for the Indianapolis International Film Festival, but was declined. While that rejection was disappointing, it was 2-3 weeks later that the team realized that it was actually Heartland they'd intended to submit for given the festival's mission and how the film fit it perfectly in their eyes. This time, of course, they succeeded.
Filmed on less than $500,000, essentially the toilet paper budget for Avatar, Ashley's Ashes has been wildly successful on the film festival circuit winning awards at The Accolade Film Festival, Amsterdam International Film Festival, Park City Film & Music Festival, The Indie Fest Film Festival, Manhattan Film Festival, Los Angeles Film Awards, Las Vegas International Film Festival and the Landlocked Film Festival. Googy openly admits that he wants to "see the film win the Audience Award at Heartland" and he believes the film will be popular with audiences here. He's looking forward to having the opportunity to meet audiences during three of the film's screenings here in Indy to promote the film.
As seems to be said often these days with low-budget indies, Googy credits the film's great look to their use of the Sony RED camera and "its amazing image quality. Everything records directly to a hard drive. The difference is amazing."
If you're sitting there trying to think to yourself "Where have I seen this guy before?," ponder that Gress has worked on four Ron Howard films (EdTV, Apollo 13, American President and Frost/Nixon), with Rob Reiner (Rumor Has It), Garry Marshall (The Flamingo Kid, his first big break) and on such films as Kingpin, Wayne's World 2, Armageddon, Me Myself & Irene, Mr. Woodcock and literally dozens of other television and movie projects. When I sheepishly mention my opinion of Reiner's latest film, Googy again lights up and describes an incredibly special experience "I took my daughter to see the film. When the scene came on involving the mentally challenged brother, she stopped eating popcorn and her eyes were glued to the screen. She didn't stop watching it. Then, the scene was over and she returned to the popcorn," he says with a laugh.
Our conversation begins to wind down, both of us recognizing that time has gone by quickly and he needs to get ready for Heartland's opening night festivities. We share a few more observations. He offers "all of my friends are either from my hometown (Brooklyn, NY), The Flamingo Kid or Apollo 13," and we both agree that Matt Dillon is a massively under-appreciated actor who was amazing in Factotum, a Charles Bukowski-inspired flick that lived in the shadow of Dillon's Crash. Googy shares that he and the co-writers/directors (Christopher Hutson and Chris Kazmier) believe that "Ashley's Ashes deserves a theatrical run" and they continue to explore distribution options while the film is still on its festival run.
If the Heartland Film Festival were to offer an award for an actor who truly seems to be living out the essence of Heartland, then most assuredly Googy Gress would receive it. After 30 years in the business, he has appeared in dozens of films and tries to "build relationships" rather than network and wants to live the kind of life that teaches his young boys "to be nice." In a business that can all too often seem cold, impersonal and self-serving and where American Idol is always ready to crown the next pretty young thing a "singer," it's awesomely refreshing to see 30 years of perseverance lead to one hard-working actor's opportunity to finally be "the arc."
For more information on the film's Heartland Film Festival appearance, visit the Heartland Film Festival website. For more information on the film itself, visit Ashley's Ashes.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic