The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Stephen Frears (“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight”)

Director Stephen Frears has done so much notable work for the cinema that it’s sometimes easy to forget that he’s more than capable of dipping his toe into the world of television on occasion as well. His latest effort behind the camera, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” falls somewhere between the two mediums: the HBO Films production is making its TV debut on – where else? – HBO this Saturday, but it was actually screened in Cannes back in August, along with its small-screen brethren, “Behind the Candelabra.”

During this summer’s TCA press tour, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Frears and discuss his work on “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” including how he came to join the project and what he knew about Ali’s Supreme Court struggles prior to signing on, but he was also kind of enough to chat about a number of his other films. Although the conversation occasionally drifted in unanticipated directions, the sidebar excursions proved just as enjoyable and entertaining as anything that I’d gone in actually planning to bring up.

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Bullz-Eye: What was your familiarity with the Muhammad Ali story going into this project?

Stephen Frears: Well, it was both a lot and nothing. In other words… I remember Ali fighting (Sonny) Liston, so that’s how old I am. [Laughs.] I don’t remember the Olympics. But then I remember the trouble in America, of course. And then he sort of disappeared, and I couldn’t tell you what happened until he fought in Zaire and he became a sort of comedian. He became very, very funny. So this bit was like a sort of black hole.

BE: How did you come aboard as director?

SF: I ran into Shawn (Slovo) at a party. I said, “What are you doing?” She said, “I’m writing something very, very interesting.” [Shrugs, then laughs.] So I snooped around and found that it was very interesting. Simple as that.

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BE: Had you known her prior to that?

SF: I knew her to gossip to her, to say “hello” and talk to her at that party. [Laughs.] But now I know her much better.

BE: Was the script more or less filmed as written, or did you have to do some tweaking to make it work?

SF: I think there was a certain amount. I like to have the writer on set, because in a sense you’re writing all the time, but that’s just to make scenes clearer, things you learn as you go along. It must at some point have sorted itself out enough for us to say, “Right, let’s make this.” I can’t recall, there might’ve been a couple of drafts that we went through before we made it. And then we were writing the whole time on set, just to make things clearer.

BE: It’s interesting that the film focuses on a key moment in Ali’s career, yet it does so without ever portraying Ali. His presence is simply via archival footage. Was that always the plan?

SF: Yes, that was always planned, and the truth is that it was a great relief. The idea of casting Ali didn’t bear thinking about, so I was really pleased by that. But the interesting thing about archival footage is that people never quite say what you want them to say. [Laughs.] They don’t say what you’d like. But eventually we started finding a way how to deal with it. So it was very, very interesting.

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Melissa George (Cinemax’s “Hunted”)

Those with a soft spot for Australian soap operas may forever think of Melissa George as Angel from “Home and Away,” but they’re doing both her and themselves a disservice by maintaining that mindset, because George has handily proven over and over again that she’s a far cry from being just another soap opera actress, be it by her Golden Globe nominated performance on HBO’s “In Treatment,” her work with David Lynch (“Mulholland Drive”) and Steven Soderbergh (“The Limey”), or her despicable turn as Lauren Reed on ABC’s “Alias.” With her latest small-screen endeavor, Cinemax’s “Hunted,” George is returning to the spy side of things, but trust Bullz-Eye when we tell you that “Hunted” is on a completely different level of television than “Alias.” We talked to her in conjunction with the series’ premiere – 10 PM tonight and every Friday night for the next several weeks – while also quizzing her about a few other past endeavors, including working with Heath Ledger on “Roar,” getting the shaft on “Grey’s Anatomy,” and just barely missing out on being part of one of the most notorious sitcom flops in NBC history.

Bullz-Eye: To begin at the beginning, how did you find your way into “Hunted”? Was it an audition situation, or did they come looking for you specifically?

Melissa George: They were very strict about making people read. Some jobs, not so much, they know who they want. But “Hunted” is (being produced by) HBO and BBC together, and they were both having to choose and decide, so we had the English with the Americans, so that’s why the audition process was so long.

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I was walking on the West Side Highway in New York, and my phone rang. It was my agent saying, “I’ve just read the most dynamic role for a woman, it’s as complex as what you played on ‘In Treatment,’ with a bit of action, which you’ve done before. It’s shooting in Europe, it’s really good, it’s written by Frank Spotnitz, it’s an English and American production…you’ve got to get it.” That’s kind of what he said. And I hate when they say that, ‘cause that means no sleep for me. Because, y’know, of course if it’s that great I want to play it. And I was then shooting a movie with Julia Stiles in Los Angeles (“Between Us”) and I was busy with that, and I had a video camera set up in the hotel room, and I put together a scene. They asked me to do three scenes, but I just did one. It was the one where she confronts her ex in the apartment. Very emotional. And I remember I was just so choked up…and I was recording myself, not speaking to anybody, because I didn’t have an actor reading with me. And I was, like, “Oh, my God, I really love this part…” And I cut, printed, and sent it. I couldn’t do any more scenes because I was really upset. I felt really strongly about this woman. And I waited. I didn’t care, because I was shooting a movie.

Then I got a call saying, “They want you to meet with Frank and read a scene.” I was, like, “Oh, my God…” There were so many freaking people in this room. [Laughs.] So many people! I thought it was just going to be me. Every actor thinks that when you’re asked to read, it’s just gonna be you. But it was a lot of people, and I was on my own. But I met Frank, and he said to me later on, once I’d gotten the role, that he knew from when I put myself on tape, and when I went in to read, he said, “I just feel really connected to her.” But that was it. I didn’t hear for awhile after that, so I was, like, “Ugh, this is gonna be one of those jobs…” And then S.J. (Clarkson), who’s directing, got onboard, and…the director has a big say, so Frank’s got his choice made, BBC and HBO made theirs, but now I have to wait for S.J. to make hers. So I had to meet her. They fly me from New York to L.A. to have lunch, and all we do is talk about film, and then…I was the only girl, but I had to read with lots of guys. And none of the guys I read with got it. [Laughs.] But I was the only girl they were using, and yet still hadn’t told me that I’d got it! And I was, like, “What’s going on here?”

But I was so convinced that I was onboard that I went around convincing everyone else around me that I was. I was, like, “Oh, yeah, I’m gonna be playing this role in a few months…” But I hadn’t heard anything, and I was going, “This is ridiculous! They’re going all over the world looking for this actress, every single country, and I’m, like, “Well, does she have to be from a particular place?” “No, they don’t care where she’s from, because she has to play so many nationalities, so many different languages and accents.” So I waited while they went around the globe, reading hundreds of girls, and they were losing me, because I was going, “Well, if they wait too long…” And then finally everyone was, like, “C’mon, S.J.!” So that’s the story. And it was so funny on set, because while we were filming in Morocco, S.J. would come up to me and speak French, then she’d say, “Oh, sorry, wrong actress.” Like she’d found a girl in France that she really liked. I was, like, “Shut up, I know you didn’t find anybody!” [Laughs.] It was one of those things where the joke went on forever. Like, the whole season of the show. “Sorry, what’s your name?” So I don’t quite know what happened that made it take so long to decide, but I know that when I seize on something, man, I’d better get the job. Because I was honestly delusional. I was, like, “Yes, I’m shooting London in a few months,” and everyone was, like, “But have they said ‘yes’?” “No. But I’m going to be shooting!”

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