Sixteen years ago, actor/playwright Travis Michael Holder embarked on a cathartic journey that has finally come full circle.
His original, semi-autobiographical play, “Surprise Surprise” – about a closeted gay actor with a much younger, disabled lover and an estranged teenaged son – is now a full-length feature just released on DVD.
In a recent interview, Holder – along with the film’s director, Jerry Turner – discuss the filmmaking process, what parts of the plot were plucked from real life, and why this gay-themed film got snubbed for not being gay enough.
MIKEY ROX (MR): First of all, what haven’t you done, Travis? I just woke up and I’m already exhausted from reading your bio.
TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER (TMH): I have never transcribed “War and Peace” in longhand with a quill pen, which was a major task I wanted to accomplish in my life before I croak. Unfortunately, I never got farther than the first sentence of chapter one: "Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes.” ... I guess it was the spelling of Bonaparte that always threw me off. I'm such a creature of habit, you know? I also never slept with Brad Pitt. At least I don't think so. I did wake up in New Orleans a couple of times – where I spend time teaching and performing each spring – having no idea what happened the night before. But never has Brad's moped been parked outside below my balcony. Maybe he sneaked out to get home before Angie realized he was gone.
JERRY TURNER (JT): [Laughs] Good question.
MR: Your new movie, “Surprise Surprise,” is based on an original play that you wrote and starred in, in 1994. You’re quoted as saying that it’s “based on more autobiographical shit than I’d care to admit.” Please, make my job a little easier and spill the beans now.
TMH: A lot of it is fiction; a lot of it is about my life. My partner Victor and I did raise the real David, at least through his teen years. His grandmother was then secretary to the head of casting at NBC and his mother was indeed confined to a convalescent hospital unable to speak or feed herself after a horrific accident when [David] was 4 years old. Ironically, his grandmother died just after the play was first written and his mother passed away the week it premiered. David and his wife Linda were at opening night and, needless to say, it was a tremendously emotional journey for him. As I say, there are a lot of fictionalized twists in “Surprise Surprise,” like the fact that, unfortunately, I never was the star of my own successful TV series and the real David was younger than he is portrayed to be in the film, which I felt no one would have bought considering how precocious he was then. But, yes, the movie is based on our real-life relationship. David is now long married and, surprisingly, almost as old as I am.
MR: The original cast featured Dawn Wells (of “Gilligan’s Island” fame) in the role of your best friend, which Deborah Shelton takes on in the film. Did you reach out to Dawn to reprise her role for the movie?
TMH: Yes. Dawn, who has been one of my best friends for many years, was all set to do the film, but like Chris Carmack, who'd played my lover in a play – with us as Tennessee Williams and Frank Merlo – was unable to do it because of scheduling problems at the last minute. For Chris, it was after “The O.C.” and he was called to New York to do “Entertaining Mr. Sloane” on Broadway opposite Alec Baldwin, so we wished him Godspeed and, luckily, the brilliant and beautiful John Brotherton was also with Chris' manager, so we snagged him just before “One Life to Live” did. For Dawn, we postponed the shoot twice to accommodate her breakneck schedule and then, as she planned to return from a personal appearance in Europe to begin working with us, she began to voice some problems with Junie's language. She'd said all those nasty words and had done all those nasty things onstage, but believe me, droves of “Gilligan's Island” fan-clubbers left in shock at intermission. Dawn was afraid Mary Ann would never be asked to bake another coconut pie if she said “fuck” on camera 3,458 times in 90 minutes – and Jerry and I were unwilling to tame the character to ease her fears. Dawn would have been great, as she was onstage, but we couldn't be prouder of Deborah Shelton in the role, which, for me, was her best work since “Body Double.”
JT: “Body Double,” huh? I guess for me it would have to be “Dallas.” I couldn’t wait to tell my Mom that we cast the woman who shot J.R. I was disappointed that Dawn wanted to rearrange things to protect herself, and I guess I understand her point of view. In preproduction we never thought of anyone other than Dawn, but after what Deborah did for us on such short notice, in terms of performance, I couldn’t think of anyone else in the role. Her monologue scene gets me every time – “Katherine fuckin’ Hepburn!”
MR: You and director Jerry Turner worked together on the adaptation, but only he’s credited with the screenplay. How much input did you have during the process?
TMH: First of all, I guess you must have seen the art for the DVD box before it was corrected, because Jerry and I are credited with writing the screenplay together. Jerry and I have been fast and close friends since the original production of the play here in L.A. in 1994. I don't know how often he likes to admit it, but it was one of his first appearances as an actor after moving here from San Francisco. He was Jason, the young Hollywood hotshot in the towel who plays Den's son on his TV series, played by Jesse Boyd in the movie. Jerry told me then he would one day make his debut as a filmmaker and director on a film version of my play and, no matter how many margaritas we've consumed together over the years as we commiserated about our lives, I have to admit until a few years ago when he said, "Well, are you ready to do this thing?" I never thought it would happen. I think it was Judith Crist who once said that show business was the only business in the world where you can die of encouragement. Jerry and I would sit around his living room after his former wife made us dinner and his son James was in bed, working through the play script trying to turn it into a screenplay. It was a glorious time and such fun. One of the major tasks was to update all the topical show-busy references from 1994. A running joke about Suzanne Somers begins the movie and continues throughout, for instance. Junie at one point says, "What is she, dead or something?" Well, in the play originally, the jokes were about Juliet Prowse. And since she indeed was dead by the time we started the screenplay, we needed a new foil for the humor. Liza became Madonna, Shannon Doherty became Lindsay Lohan. You get the picture.
MR: Are you happy with the outcome? Is the film true to the vision you had of it on screen?
TMH: How can I say this … I am thrilled with the outcome, and, yes, it's fiercely true to my original vision. The one thing Jerry, who by the way is straight as an arrow, insisted all along was that we make a film about three people trying to get to know one another and redefine what a family is in this age of social inequality and Tea Party rednecks and Prop 8 haters. My disappointment with the outcome, however, is in how that perception has been received. Jerry had suits interested in taking on the film if we went back to the house and had Jason drop his towel. They complained that no one kissed and no one got naked. Film festivals turned down screening it because it was a gay story, which it isn't. It's a family story. Gay is a plot point. Truly, the real David could not have been less homophobic, but making the character homophobic furthered what I was trying to say about life today and relationships. So now that the film is being promoted as a "gay" film, gay festivals have turned it down because it isn't gay enough. If Den had been a hot young man or Jason's towel had dropped, they would have been interested. And I find that very sad. We as a community fight every day to be taken seriously as just people like everyone else, people deserving of respect. The fact that the film isn't titillating enough to qualify to show at gay film festivals breaks my heart. No, no one kisses – but the love between these people should be something to make us all proud of who we are. My high school biology teacher-cousin in Rockford, Ill., said of the film that he was surprised not only to see that gay people could have – or strive for – a "normal" home life, but that Hollywood people could too, that it wasn't all clubbing and divorces and Mel Gibson acting like an asshole.
JT: I love this guy, and I couldn’t be happier that you feel the film stayed true to your vision. I really struggled with the whole “if you wanna sell it, show me some skin” thing. I think a couple of directors were fired from the play version for the same reason. They wanted the power of the penis. I can’t be naïve as a producer and say I don’t understand the logic. It’s business, but it also seemed gratuitous. Remember Halle in “Swordfish”? It may interest folks, but it didn’t seem right. I’m not big on stereotypes and, quite frankly, that note for nudity seemed insulting. This movie is simply about family – gay, straight or crooked. It was never meant to be a video cut on Mr. Skin’s website. It does hurt that the community I was rallying for doesn’t see our film worthy of their festivals, but I do think society at large will see it and respect what we were trying to say.
MR: BTW, how cute is Mary Jo Catlett! I loved her on “Diff’rent Strokes.” Did she have any stories to tell from her days as housekeeper Pearl Gallagher?
TMH: Mary Jo is more than cute. She defines teddy bear; a feminine teddy bear, of course, so she doesn't kick me. I have been great friends with Mary Jo for many, many years and adore her onscreen and off. She was golden to work with. She is the Queen of Puns. Bad, terrible puns, but clever and totally nonstop. We all got to practice our groaning and eye rolls whenever she was on the set. And best yet, she is the voice of Mrs. Puff on “SpongeBob,” you know. Not one cast or crew person on the movie let a day go by without calling some relative or friend across the country and handing their cell phones to Mary Jo to do her best "Oh noooooooo, SpongeBob, nooooooooooo!" for some shocked recipient.
JT: My 5-year-old son couldn’t believe I was working with Mrs. Puff. Yeah. He thought it was the coolest thing going. He just couldn’t understand why I couldn’t put on my “cartoon costume.”
MR: With the recent death of Gary Coleman, surely somebody on set wanted to reminisce about that.
TMH: Well, “Surprise Surprise” was filmed before Gary died, but she has told me in the past that he was so kind and sweet and accepting of her when she came on the show, which had been a concern to her since she'd been told he and Charlotte Rae had been so close, almost familial. She did reminisce on the set one day about an early experience on the show when Gary said to her, "You want to see something cool?" He took her to an area on the Universal lot where trams full of tourists passed. He jumped out and started to wave as one went by and all the tourists howled and screamed and shot their instamatic photos. He came back to Mary Jo beaming and said, "Isn't that neat?" She told me that back then he had no idea what power he had and what his fame meant. Or in his case, sadly, how easily it can fuck you over.
JT: His story breaks my heart. Sometimes I think Hollywood cares more for stray dogs than they do for stray humans. That man made a lot of people very wealthy, as a child. Exploit his reality, but god forbid anyone should shed any light to it. Oh, well. I guess it’s too late.
MR: The relationship between Den and Colin in this new movie is unconventional at best. Colin is young, beautiful but wheelchair-bound, and Den is older and not as easy on the eyes. Their relationship started out disingenuous – Colin needed a place to stay, money, etc., and Den couldn’t resist a hot piece of ass. Yet, somehow it grew into a genuine love and mutual respect. I’m still not convinced, however, so humor me. If Colin were to regain the use of his legs, would he leave Den?
TMH: Gee, that's tough to answer when I'm the one you say is "not as easy on the eyes." Should of seen me at age 20, my dear. Luckily, from this side of my eyes, I still look like that. First of all, remember, Den says he was pursued relentlessly, so I'd like to think it wasn't about that hot piece of ass for his character. And then I guess all I can say is that the character of Colin is an amalgam of the two most important people in my life: Victor – whose last name is Colin, by the way – my life partner since we were 21 and 22 years old, and Scott, whom I've known since he was 15 and has shared our home with Victor and me for the last 16 years. Scott is in a wheelchair, having been injured in a freak accident on a film set in 1993, just two weeks before his 18th birthday. Ten months later, Phillip Wurtzel, who'd seen a staged reading of “Surprise Surprise” the previous year, asked what he could do to get me to let him produce the play at the Victory Theatre Center in Burbank. I said, "Let me rewrite Colin to be younger and in a wheelchair and we're on," basically in an attempt to get Scott back to work where he belonged. Scott originated the role of Colin onstage and was brilliant. Would Colin leave Den if he regained the use of his legs? Well, all I can say is Victor and I are still together and, although he is still in a chair, Scott is still in my life and, I suspect, always will be. And by the way, I may not be easy on the eyes anymore, but there is a someone in my life who has been around for five years, who's gorgeous and talented and not yet 30, so maybe everyone in the world isn't stuck on appearances. Either that or I have a 14-inch dick – but I’ll leave you guessing about that.
JT: You handled that well. And let’s be clear; Den is a rich and famous Hollywood star. If he only had a four-inch dick and a Quasimoto-type mug, he’d still have gorgeous men and woman knocking down his door. It’s the nature of the beast. Sorry about the pun.
MR: I’ve watched a lot of gay films over the years and most of them are crap – terrible plot, excruciatingly painful “actors.” I dread watching the films before an interview because I know it’s 90 minutes of my life that I’ll never get back. But I can honestly say that the acting in “Surprise Surprise” is rather good. So I guess my question is, how do you know when you’ve got a scene that doesn’t suck?
TMH: Remember, “Surprise Surprise” had already been a pretty successful play, so Jerry and I already knew what worked and what didn't. But most importantly, I'd say, don't cast by "look." Hire actors like John and Luke and Deborah and Mary Jo and Jesse and watch the scenes flow like a fine wine into a crystal goblet. We did one master shot when David and his grandmother Winnie first arrive in Den's home that lasted about 12 minutes. Jerry told us he wanted to try to film it in one long take and we all gamely said okay, let's go for it. The crew applauded when we were done. It was a major thrill in my life to be on that set and listen to actors of such precision actually saying my words and telling my story, the story Jerry and I set out to tell from the beginning of the dream to make it into a film. Even the casting session was revelatory. I've been an actor since I was a little kid and always grumbled when told I was too tall or too fat or too thin or too old or too young for a role. Hearing all these incredible actors in this town read for roles I created was a life-changing experience. I have to say, though, even then, actor after actor came in raving about the script and said how exciting it was to say these words. Give an actor a chance to do something more challenging than a lot of the scripts we see and most of us will rush to meet the challenge with all our heart.
JT: Thank you for saying that. I’m glad you don’t want your 90 minutes back. That means a lot to us. I knew that because of the small budget and, therefore, production time constraints I would need actors with strong theater backgrounds. It may seem like an antiquated notion in these times of quick pace and quicker cuts, but I needed actors that were okay without hearing “cut” after only a few lines of dialogue. If long masters were going to work in order to get 10 pages filmed a day, they needed to be prepared – and they were. With great writing and the great actors we had, if the scenes sucked, I knew it would be my fault and mine alone – and I still didn’t realize what we had until we started the editing process. In a film with only one location as a backdrop, if the plot is terrible and the actors are excruciating, you will hold the audience’s attention for as long as it takes the opening credits to end. I knew in the first week of editing that the formula worked. Now I hope that people watching the film will want to watch the ending credits as well.
MR: Is there any advice you can give to actors and directors of gay films that could improve the quality of films within the genre? Ya know, besides NOT hiring Reichen Lehmkuhl for anything else.
TMH: Doesn't that say it all? Although if they make a film starring that little farm boy Kent from “So You Think You Can Dance,” I'm so there. Seriously though, I guess I'd hope for gay films to be more, as I said before, about people, not stereotypes and stereotypical behavior. We all want so much to be taken seriously and there's a lot more about being gay than cruising bars and dressing like Lady Gaga to ride on the back of flatbeds at parades that are supposed to be about pride. I have a dear friend who was one of the first courageously "out" actors on a TV series. He is an amazing and amazingly versatile actor but, since the series is gone, he can't get a job on TV or film to save his life. When he's asked to read for something, it's to play a flamboyant queen or drag performer. Thank god for the stage, where he has been embraced with open arms. I wish the makers of gay films would work toward that – and that the people who review and promote them would too. I get crazy when that new film with Annette Bening and Julianne Moore as a lesbian couple is criticized for the fact that they are portrayed like a normal, average couple. What do they want, a scene in a poolroom with them smoking cigars and calling one another "babe"?
JT: Maybe I’m not the one to ask because I set out to make a film that happened to have gay characters, not a “gay film.” I am truly grateful to the gay community for embracing my film. The tolerance, acceptance and sympathy I learned growing up in San Francisco led me to a belief that fighting for what is right is the right thing to do, no matter the cost. I would always say to find your own voice, whether in comedy or drama or camp, if that’s your thing, as long as you stay true to who you are, your truth will always be interesting.
MR: Even though this film is fairly heavy – there’s a lot of drama and crying – there’s also a lot of humor, and it’s actually funny. How do you find the right balance between the darkness and the light?
TMH: Story of my life, right? If it wasn't for my sense of humor, I would have jumped off the friggin' Hollywood sign decades ago. As Den tells David in the movie, "Son, if there's one thing I've learned in my life, it's that behind every cloud… there's another cloud."
JT: Light and darkness: can there be a balance? “In life, we are constantly moving through positive and negative experiences.” I think I heard a yoga instructor say that once, or was it an evangelist from one of those far-out Christian channels? Anyway, one of the reasons I was so compelled to make Travis’ story come to life was the truth behind those words, no matter who said them. “Surprise, Surprise” told the human condition better than most scripts I’ve read. Great actors help, too.
MR: Any plans to continue this story? There seems to be more you could explore with these characters.
TMH: I heard someone say there was interest in seeing it as a cable TV series or miniseries, which would be such a thrill. I don't know if I would be asked to participate, but I would be willing. I have a friend my age who wrote for “Friends” who can't get another series writing gig now because she's over 30, so I suspect I might face the same fate if anything comes to fruition with “Surprise Surprise: The Boys Are Back.” And I think I'm getting a tad long in tooth to play Den again, but I would be sensational as the grandmother if Mary Jo isn't available.
JT: I’d love to explore the characters more. I now have new casting ideas for Travis, too. I’d like to see them grow in a television format so that we could grow with them. I grew close to these characters personally and feel like they have a lot more to teach us – all of us.
Mikey Rox is an award-winning writer/journalist and the founder of Paper Rox Scissors, a copywriting and creative consulting company in New York City, He can be reached at email@example.com.