Newsday Article: NO MERE IDOLS AT WORK

ELLIS HENICAN is a columnist at Newsday, a tv & radio commentator and the author of three NYTimes bestselling books.

NINA’ INDIE FEATURE,” the ad began.  “Casting for independent feature ‘Nina,’ the story of three social outcasts. A cook, a waitress and a teenage runaway whose lives change dramatically when they accidentally meet. A romantic drama set in Queens, New York.”  This was in the casting-call section of Back Stage, the New York show-business newspaper, where actors and other performers go looking for work. And this particular ad, one of many dozens that ran that week, certainly didn’t over-promise in the compensation department. “No pay,” it said. “Credit, meals, travel and video copy provided.” So no one responded, right? Are you kidding? This is New York. We have prima ballerinas slinging mochachinos, Shakespearean soliloquists working doorman shifts. Around here, we have talent piled on top of talent, all of it ready, willing and eager to work. Who needs “American Idol?” We have the real movie and TV and singing stars of tomorrow, all right here, living in tiny apartments with too many roommates, working mind-numbing jobs, doing whatever it takes – and I mean whatever -jumping at any promising role. 

A feature-length film? With juicy characters and a quirky script? No one seemed to care that Luis del Rosario Jr., the writer, director and co-producer of “Nina,” was a wedding-and-Sweet-16 videographer from Queens, making his first real feature. The resumes and glossies roared into Elmhurst like a biblical flood. “Honestly, we were stunned at the response,” admitted Luis. “We lost count at 1,500. These were experienced, talented, serious actors, who wanted to be in this film. My mailman just about gave up on us.” Forget some silly TV contest and that snippy British judge. This is how the real art gets made in New York. By the time shooting began at the Van Dam Diner in Long Island City, Luis had rounded up an eager army of unpaid relatives, co-workers, strangers and friends. And then there was the cast, whittled down from 1,500. Not a William Hung in the group.

“It was one of the best scripts I have ever read in my life,” said Derek Michalak, a busy New York actor who plays the psycho waiter, Joe. Derek’s previous work includes a leading role in “The Basement,” a play that was turned into a film that recently won the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival. He also had a recurring spot on “All My Children.” “I still check out the ads in Back Stage,” he said yesterday. “I’ve gotten a lot of work there. I like to keep working, if it’s quality stuff. You never know what’s gonna come out of it. It all comes down to being recognized for your talent.” But wasn’t the lack of pay a deal-killer? “Not really,” he said. “The del Rosario brothers were passionate and professional, and they did very high-quality work. I’m very proud of this.” You hear Idol finalists Diana and Fantasia talking like that? I don’t think so. Listen instead to Danicah Waldo, the ninth-grader from Patchogue on Long Island, who plays Nina. Even at 14, she knows where to find her idols. “This movie came up,” she said yesterday. “It sounded pretty right for me. We sent in my pictures, went to the audition. Out of however many people it was, I landed the part.” And the lack of pay was OK? “No doubt about it,” she said. “I think people will like the movie. I had a great time doing it. I learned a lot of new things. This is something I want to do with my life. The money and the fame will all come later – as I prove myself.”

Luis was remembering his late mother yesterday. She was a famous TV and movie actress in the Philippines before moving with her family to New York in 1979. Rosario del Pilar was the name she used professionally. “You can say this movie is dedicated to her,” he said. “It definitely comes from the heart.” Luis is just about finished editing, he said. A screening for cast members, friends and family is scheduled for next week. He’ll be entering the movie in film festivals soon. “You have to throw yourself completely into it,” he said, “whether you’re getting famous or getting a contract or getting rich.” So carry on, Paula and Simon and Diana and Fantasia and poor William Hung. But we have someone better to Idol-ize.  

For more information on the movie, visit: NINA:Extended Cut

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