First time feature filmmaker and veteran musician and music video director Geremy Jasper is from small town New Jersey, the setting for his story of a young, aspiring, and white female rapper Patti Cake$ (opening exclusively in Toronto this weekend and expanding nationwide in the coming weeks). His choice of leading lady, Danielle Macdonald, is so far removed from New Jersey and hip-hop street cred that hearing the Australian performer’s natural accent is shocking. But you’d never know she wasn’t from Jersey if all you knew of her career was the equally confident and insecure Patricia Dombrowski.
Patti, a.k.a. Killa P., a.k.a Patti Cake$, a.k.a. White Trish, a.k.a. Juicy Luciano, a.k.a Marilyn Mansion, is a 23 year old aspiring rapper looking for a way out of her dead end New Jersey hometown. Despite having incredible lyrical capabilities, great writing skills, and an equally talented and supportive East Asian hype man (Siddharth Dhananjay) by her side, Patti is still ridiculed for being overweight, white, and female. She tends bar and works a side gig at a catering business, mostly to keep her alcoholic former hair metal rocker mother (Bridget Everett) from going completely broke. Wanting to take her rap game to the next level, Patti is encouraged by her kind, hardnosed grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) and finds an unlikely new collaborator in Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), an antisocial noise rocker and talented musician who thinks he’s the Antichrist and lives in an abandoned shack.
Jasper’s film made waves when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, but the filmmaker’s debut feature was a long time in the making. Jasper spent several years adapting a lot of his own experiences working in the New Jersey food service industry while struggling to make it as a musician into Patti Cake$. Macdonald was noticed by Jasper at first in a small role in Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s thriller The East, and was brought on board well before the screenplay was ready to be shot. While hiring an Australian with no musical background to play the lead in a film about an American rapper sounds initially like an eclectic choice (and vote of confidence for Macdonald’s considerable dramatic and comic talents), Jasper’s following casting choices would be just as diverse, discovering Dhananjay through web-videos of him rapping, allowing Everett to play something other than the comedic roles she’s known for, getting veteran actress Moriarty to play a character older than the person playing it, and turning soft-spoken, gentle, and Yale educated Athie into a brooding loner.
We caught up with Macdonald earlier this month at a recording studio in Toronto’s east end and Jasper via telephone (thanks to unfortunate flight cancellations) to talk about the atypical and inspirational success story that is Patti Cake$.
Being from New Jersey yourself and having a feel for this particular kind of small town, suburban setting, how many of the characters in Patti Cake$ contain the characteristics of people that you knew from living there?
Geremy Jasper: Quite a few. I don’t know what the exact head count is, but they’re in there. They’re tucked in there, and I know one or two of them that have come to screenings and they haven’t been able to recognize the characters that they’re based on, which I find absolutely hilarious. (laughs) I’ve stolen things directly out of their mouths that they’ve said to me, and they don’t recognize it or realize that I’ve done it. There are a lot of character names, sayings, and phrases that have come from a lot of people that I worked around or grew up around. Like Patricia, I was a bartender and a caterer for a bunch of years, so you remember these funny or sometimes horrible things that people say all the time.
Having grown up in a place that’s a lot like the one Patti inhabits, I also could immediately recognize some of these characters at the types of people who get stuck in these small town ruts, and then they spend the rest of their lives being bitter and bemoaning how the world has passed them by and harbouring grudges towards anyone that wants to better themselves. Is that something you also experienced and how did you set about depicting this mindset with a great deal of humanity so the audience can identify with the frustrations of these people and not just see them as stereotypical white trash?
Geremy Jasper: Oh, absolutely. That was something I experienced and noticed all the time. There’s this weird tightrope walk, I guess. You don’t want to make them into caricatures. A big part of that is making sure you find the right actors and performers to bring these characters to life. I remember that when these characters were in script form, sometimes they would people accuse me of writing characters that are bigger than life, or that it seemed like it was cartoony. But if you bring in the right actor and get the right performance, suddenly it becomes a lot more true to life. There’s a humanity in that.
But that was always something that I wanted to capture. I don’t know if people feel that or see it all over the place, but you find people that you genuinely like who are sometimes prone to saying some of the most horrible, outlandish, borderline cruel things about the world and other people. I’m always amazed by how cruel people can be in a casual sense. You know, the type of people who say, “C’mon, I’m just bustin’ balls.” I’ve always been fascinated by “bustin’ balls.” People can say the meanest, meanest things, and they think it’s a joke, but it’s out of their own frustration that they’re doing that. I used to work as a bus boy, and I used to get called everything imaginable under the sun, and there were just so many creative ways that people would find to just torment me. These guys just sitting at the bar in the restaurant I worked in would do that all the time, and then follow it up with, “Hey, you know I love you.” It’s like, “You don’t love me. You’re just saying that at the end so you can justify saying something terrible to me.” I always swing back and forth in terms of how I feel about people like that, but when I’m writing characters like that, it’s always about finding the humanity in those people and understanding what they’re going through.
You had a long time to put this together and let the film grow in ways that a lot of smaller films of this size don’t often get. When it comes to the casting of a film like this, you’ve found so many different actors who come from so many different places and backgrounds. Was the amount of time spent working on the film a benefit for the casting process?
Geremy Jasper: Yeah, and I don’t know if it was a luxury, but we always knew we were never going to put this film in front of a camera until we knew we had all the right people. That meant finding someone who was a Yale graduate like Mamoudou, to finding someone on World Star Hip Hop that never acted in his life like Siddharth, and an Australian playing someone from Jersey like Danielle. Because I grew up around these kinds of people and characters, I just knew what felt right and who felt right to play that. It was an interesting sensation because I knew we were never going after bigger actors. Once you put a recognizable face into that world, it kinda threw off the balance. Casting for us was all about discoveries.
The reason why it took so long was also because it was my first screenplay, and the script was just not ready yet. I did a huge overhaul even after I went through the Sundance Labs, where I took about a whole year to get away from the script and then come back to it fresh. That was the draft that we eventually shot. My producer said to me when we were gearing towards production that he thought the script wasn’t there just yet, and he reminded me that you only get to make your first film once and that I should take my time. We asked the people with the money if that was cool, and they said, “Don’t take too much time, but we’ll give you some time to do what you gotta do.”
Early on we found the big three for our cast. We found Danielle, Bridget, and Sid in that period before the script was really ready to be shot. In the interim was when I met Cathy, who as soon as she opened her mouth sounded almost exactly like the type of person from Jersey that I was looking for, and the last to come on was Mamoudou because that was the hardest character to cast. Taking our time meant that I was working with Sid who had never acted before and help him discover the character, and Danielle could learn the accent and how to rap. We were kind of stalling for a few different reasons. (laughs)
I know that you had a fair amount of time to prepare for the film and get sense of what playing Patricia entailed, but was there a specific moment either while you were shooting or doing your preparation where you feel you had nailed it?
Danielle Macdonald: No. (laughs) There really wasn’t. I think on the last day of filming, I thought, “Oh, I think I’ve got this now!” And then, I was, like, “Damn, it’s over!” (laughs) That really does happen, though. I remember this role being really intimidating for me almost the entire time I was doing it, and the music in particular was daunting. I remember the first time we tried recording something and I listened to it back again as being the moment when I think we found Patti’s voice. I also remember being so relieved when that song was done and we moved on. (laughs) It got through one song that took forever to figure out, but I got through it, and that might have been the moment where I knew I could get through it.
And in that respect, I feel like I brought a bit of myself to Patti because that’s kind of how she thinks about the world and produces her lyrics and performs. I think you have to bring a bit of yourself as an actor, and I think now when I look back on the experience that Patti and I deal with things sometimes in similar ways.
How much New Jersey culture did you study to play the role? It’s a very specific and sometimes hard to learn sort of culture if you’re not from there.
Danielle Macdonald: That’s so true. When we first started I spoke to Geremy a lot about Jersey, how he grew up, what he saw, the vibe of the town, the people he knew, and then from there I went off to do my own research. I looked at the town that he sort of imagined the film taking place in, and I went there, and that was the biggest part of it. Just seeing it and meeting people from there. We went to the local bowling alley, diner, pizza place, and those were the things that really helped me to imagine how Patti’s life would go. It’s funny because it’s really different from where I grew up, but it has that same kind of hometown feeling to it that I could immediately identify with.
Is it hard to play somebody like Patti who has a confident alter ego that turns on and off depending on her situation and who she’s around? I can imagine that as a performer it would be a lot easier to play a character that’s set at one specific level all the time as opposed to someone like Patti.
Danielle Macdonald: I feel like as humans we’re complicated, and we go up and down. We all have a lot of emotions, and I thought it was cool to figure out all of the nuances that Patti has. When you figure out someone inside and out, that’s when they become real to you. If you’re just playing one set emotion it can be fun, but it’s a lot more black and white, and life’s not always like that. Myself, I know I’m never just one thing. One of the things that Patti and I have in common is that different people can bring out different sides of me. That felt realest of all to me. A lot of it was just listening and connecting with people and figuring out how the character would interact with them.
The family dynamic within the women in the Dombrowski family is outstanding, and all three of you are playing characters that none of you as actors have ever really played before. What was it like bonding with Bridget Everett and Cathy Moriarty?
Danielle Macdonald: I mean, of the three of us, I feel like Cathy could literally do anything. She had to age herself up for this because she’s playing a character that’s actually older than she is, but I think that was different for her, but her attitude towards that was always, “Well, why wouldn’t I?” I love that about her. It doesn’t matter who she’s playing or what age she’s playing, she’s just so amazing to work with because she’s up for pretty much anything.
With Bridget, people have only seen her do comedy, but there’s so much incredible depth to her that Geremy saw instantly. She was nervous to come out and do the Sundance Labs with us. I worked with her for the first time not knowing that she was a comedian, and I really just saw her as this hard hitting dramatic actress. It wasn’t until much later that I saw her comedy, and I was blown away.
It was incredible that we all got to stretch and try things that are new and different. It’s exciting to play and explore, and this is a great kind of story to do that with. I think we all felt honoured to be a part of it and do something that audiences don’t get to see very often. It’s not only that we were doing something different, it was also that we knew it was different.
That chemistry and talk of people stretching their talents to things beyond what they’re known for also extends to your musical family in the film with Siddharth and Mamoudou. What was it like to work with them?
Danielle Macdonald: Mamoudou is a classically trained Yale grad who has done tons of theatre. I am very different from my character, but no one else on the film had a greater transformation than Mamoudou. (laughs) He came into the studio the first time I saw him, and he was adorable. He came in with this short hair, glasses, a bright fuschia coloured top, and Converse on, and he was just so happy to be there, and I was just thinking, “Hold on a second. You’re playing Basterd?” (laughs) He just went straight into a scene that we were rehearsing, and he still looked like Mamoudou, but he just hooked right into the character immediately. I was in awe. I couldn’t believe it. He just got me with his eyes, and that was so key for the character because Mamoudou doesn’t say much in this movie. He’s a character of few words, but he says everything with his eyes, and he’s so amazing to work opposite and an incredible actor. I felt like I got to know Mamoudou more after shooting stopped because once we started, he was so into it. He was so invested with it.
I think it was interesting for our roles as this band of misfits to occasionally feel like a real band of misfits ourselves. None of us were like our characters, but here we are playing characters in a movie that’s already about going against stereotype. I’m not musical at all. Mamoudou can sing, but I don’t know if he lets anyone know that. (laughs) The funniest part of that is that Mamoudou also doesn’t know how to play an instrument for the life of him, and in the film he’s supposed to be this instrumental genius. There’s a scene in the film where I walk in on him while he’s playing the piano, and I have to say “That was beautiful.” It was actually horrendous! (laughs) It was like nails on a chalkboard. I had to compose myself. I didn’t even know how I was going to say that line. (laughs) Picture someone trying to look as serene as possible while playing a piano, but the sound that comes out is just horrendous. It was amazing.
And the thing about Sid that was great was that his vibe is actually really close to that of Jheri, but Sid’s character is really nothing like him. Sid grew up outside the U.S., and when you hear him on the phone with his family you can hear him with his fully Indian accent. He also speaks five different languages, is one of the most well read people I’ve met, and he can actually rap! He’s very different from Jehri, but he had also sort of had a very Jehri-like alter ego already in place, which I loved.
Having us all come together like that in the way we did was all thanks to Geremy. He has always been a musician and involved with music, but he’s done everything from heavy metal to hip-hop to pop, and he writes all of these rhymes himself and can play pretty much any instrument. He’s just musical through and through, and he wrote all the raps for everyone in the film AND Barb’s 80s styled hair metal pop power ballad and Basterd’s emo, against the world… whatever it’s called. (laughs) I’m with Patti on that one in having no clue what it is Basterd does. (laughs) Geremy has created himself musically in three characters, which was something that was always interesting to me. He wanted to bring in all of his styles of music, and it was so great for all of us to play with that and bring it all together.
Patti Cake$ opens exclusively in Toronto at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas on Friday, August 25th. It expands to Vancouver on Wednesday, August 30th, and nationwide on Friday, September 8th.