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Interview: Talia Shire Talks Career and Working Man

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Interview: Talia Shire Talks Career and <i>Working Man</i>

by Paul Hansen 11 October, 2020

Talia Shire, who appeared in the iconic Godfather and Rocky films, is currently in a new movie entitled Working Man which is available on Video On Demand.  It is difficult to imagine a movie more germane and topical than Working Man. Set in an industrial town, the film centers on a group of workers who have been laid off from a factory which is being shut down.  

One of the workers, Allery (Peter Gerety),  refuses to believe his job is over, and continues to work at the factory despite it being officially closed.  After a brief setback a neighbor, Walter (Billy Brown), helps Allery return to the plant. This leads to other former employees returning to the factory and the plant commencing operations again despite the wishes of management.  

Working Man was written and directed by Robert Jury and is his directorial debut. The film addresses the loss of manufacturing jobs in the U.S. which has contributed to much of the current social and political unrest in this country.

Shire plays the role of Allery’s wife, Iola. Shire, of course, is a part of a family that has had a celebrated impact and involvement in a variety of fields including entertainment, the arts and education.  A partial listing of the talented members of her family would include her father, Carmine Coppola,  who played in Toscanini’s NBC Symphony  and later won an Academy Award with Nina Rota for the score of The Godfather Part II.   Her brother is director Francis Ford Coppola, and another brother,  August, was Dean of Creative Arts at San Francisco State University.     

Talia has obviously had a very significant career in the film industry and was featured in three films which won a Best Picture Academy Award – The Godfather,  The Godfather Part II, and Rocky. I spoke with Shire about her involvement in Working Man and the iconic Godfather and Rocky series.  Below is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q. How did you become involved in Working Man, and what about the script particularly interested you?

A. Clark Peterson, the producer of the movie, brought this piece to me. I’ve known Clark for over a decade and anything Clark is involved in is usually high quality. And I started to read this piece. This is about a factory closing down but one worker - Allery, my husband played by Peter Gerrety -  doesn’t  want to stop going to work, and this was handled in the most unique way on the page. And I thought, wow I want to be part of this. And that really is what attracted me.

I love lower budget movies. I love them. I absolutely love to be a part of them. To go to work in the morning and to work with a young costume designer who has 50 cents for your sweater – to be with those young people who love movies. They are not making very much. For me to be a part of their experience and maybe teach them something about my experience in the movies from 50 years ago - it’s an exciting experience for me. 

Talia Shire in Rocky

Q. I understand that Rocky was also a low budget film.

A. It actually was.  It was very low budget, even for back then… I was extremely influenced by Burgess Meredith in that movie.  We were both in Philadelphia changing our clothes in the back of a truck  and I was in awe of this great actor.  I love all of his work  - he was legendary.    And when I saw the joy and gusto of this great actor changing his clothes in the ice cold truck… 

He taught me a great deal just in his love of the work and the participation, and that has always influenced me as I’ve worked  in movies.  I always want to bring that same thing to actors, producers, and set designers…  Burgess Meredith was a great teacher for me and when I work on low budget films I hope to bring  that same thing – the love of the work 

My oldest brother August Coppola - who was the Dean of Creative Arts at San Francisco State University [and father of Nicolas Cage] - shaped a lot of my education, thinking and pursuits.  He brought me to a theater when I was 10 to see Ulysses in Nighttown that Burgess Meredith had taken out of the James Joycepiece. It was an amazing experience for me.

So once again, while I was with this great actor – I had seen all of his early film works - I also knew that he was a great artist, and that he had pursued all kinds of things.   That will always impact on me -  his generosity  - his kindness. He absolutely was the soul, the spiritual part, the core of that first Rocky.

There was a poetry – Sylvester wrote poetry for him- but there was in this great character a sense of size – poetic size.  I’ll say this for Sylvester, for Carl, and for Burt, we were all in awe of Burgess.    

Q. I noticed that Richard Halsey, who won a Best Editing Oscar for the original Rocky, also edited Working Man along with his daughter,  Morgan Halsey.   

A. It’s exciting when you see things passed on.  When families pass their knowledge on.  The editor -  just so your audiences know - comes in last so I didn’t have an opportunity to interact with them. But it was exciting to know that her father was part of Rocky

Q. The film speaks to the uncertainty and frustration of many Americans about the closure of much of the manufacturing base of this country. Did Robert talk to you about this aspect of the story during the filming? 

A. He did speak to this.  I actually told Robert that my experience of Hollywood, Los Angeles - which is also a factory town that made movies - also died.  It also ended, and musicians, prop masters and costume designers [were also displaced].   This is a moment of transition -  Hollywood changed in the 70’s and 80’s.  But the disenfranchised can always be transformed through education.

I was watching The Magnificant Ambersons – it was on TCM – and let’s just look at one little part – it goes from dealing with horses to cars – that’s what it deals with. We are in this moment of transition and what do you need when you are dealing with transition?  Education.   You need to tell the factory worker that got up in the morning and went to work  - or the actor or the musician - that it is education that can help them rethink their product.

My first husband David Shire was a terrific musician – so I had the opportunity to go to recording sessions, to the great places where they produced the score – 50 musicians and the picture was above them…  That all ended.  Those musicians had no place to go anymore.  So I absolutely do understand the need for people to take their dream, their craft, their inspiration and their creativity and place it somewhere…

My father was first flutist with Toscanini.  He was that first Italian American that kind of  enjoyed the fruits of America all those years ago. He went to Stuyvesant High School  and he was a great flutist.  He is still the Coppola family inspiration – I honestly think so - how you work hard and you have a gift and you try to share that gift some place – whether in the symphony, in the opera or, as I experienced with my father, here in Hollywood in those wonderful places where they put the score to the movies. 

Working Man does go to the basic things people need– to wake up in the morning, go to work, have a product – and have a sense of community… 

Q. What was it like to work with Peter Gerety and Billy Brown?  

A. I was so lucky.  Actors – when you get on a plane, you check into your hotel, you go to costume and make-up, and you are so afraid. Who is going to play my husband, who is going to play this person?  Peter Gerety – it was a dream to act with him, to partner with him.  Billy Brown is the angel in this piece – an extraordinary role.  I cannot tell you how fortunate I feel to have had the opportunity to act with these extraordinary men. l wish we could do Working Man 2.

Q. When you were filming The Godfather, was there a lot of confidence that it would be a big hit? What was it like to work with Marlon Brando?

A. Let me just tell you that it goes to the page - what is written on the page.  That begins your story – the text.  The Godfather was absolutely brilliant – on the page.  And working with Marlon Brando – my God - any actor would tell you this – was inspirational.   He was a generous actor, very kind.

I’m very clumsy.  I am a clumsy person.  So I had a scene where I walked down  and knocked the camera over and Marlon Brando came to me.  He was very sweet. He realized that I was frightened.  He was generous – that’s a big deal for actors –when you say that you are working with a generous partner.  Whatever it was he was there to support you.    

Working on Rocky  - again with Burgess , a generous actor - that was a different experience.  It was extremely low budget.  But there was an urgency and beauty to the piece – as in The Godfather which also had extraordinary beauty in the text.   So both pieces on the page were brilliant to read – absolutely brilliant to read. 

And Working Man on the page was beautiful.  It was rhythmic, it had subtext, it had meaning...  That’s what unites all of those pieces. 

Talia Shire in The Godfather

Q. Can we talk a bit about Al Pacino’s portrayal of Michael Corleone in the first Godfather? I  have read that there was ambivalence by studio executives about Pacino’s portrayal of Michael in the early scenes of the The Godfather.  He came across as something of an innocent college kid which I thought was entirely appropriate for that part of the film,  making his transformation into a hardened mob boss all the more interesting.    

A. Remember the incident in the first movie where he kills someone – goes into the bathroom  [and retrieves a gun] – that’s where Al or Michael as an actor and as a character has an enormous transformation  - it’s right there.  The king is dead – Long live the king.  That is what happens and that is what Al did.  It was rather extraordinary that you see that happen to him in the role where he is transformed – right there in that little moment.

Q. During the closing part of our interview,  we also discussed broader subjects such as the definition of an actor,  their place in society,   the need for transformation,  and Shakespeare…

A. Do you want to know what the definition of an actor is from Antonin Artaud  - “An actor is an athlete of the heart.”     We help other people have their transformation.   That was our original origin – thousands of years ago.  I love theater and I love what the actor does. The actor offers you transformation  - the opportunity for transformation… 

My brother [August] was always talking about education… We have to rethink, retool and bring people in...  We need new systems,  new educational systems to bring people in where they don’t feel smart or stupid – they all come together.  That to me was the American dream  - where you could be educated.

During this period of quarantine I go back to Shakespeare  - and I say who was this man that made these ideas and poetry – and that gives me hope by the way.     In these moments of great travail  - because we’re in the middle of this strange virus – I do go back to Shakespeare.   And I say – there is Shakespeare - surely there will be hope for a future. He gives me great hope during this period…