Friday, March 10, 2017

Ben Watkins Delivers on the Second and Final Season of Hand of God

Ben Watkins, creator and writer of Amazon's Hand of God
When Amazon entered the original-content streaming game, one of its first series was “Hand of God,” which stars Ron Perlman, Dana Delany and Garret Dillahunt. Ron plays Pernell Harris, a morally corrupt judge who suffers a breakdown and believes God is compelling him onto a path of vigilante justice for his son. The creator of this breathtaking and groundbreaking series is Ben Watkins, who also wrote every episode and even directed a few. And starting today, Amazon is now streaming the second and final season of this edge-of-your-seat drama, and I spoke with Ben recently about the series, his beginnings in Hollywood, and any scoop he could give me about season two.

Celebrity Extra: Tell me a bit about your background. I know you were homeless at one point and have had to adapt to circumstances that many of us haven’t even dreamed of.

Ben Watkins: I’ve encountered some really challenging circumstances growing up. Spent most of my life very poor with a single mom raising three kids mostly in the inner city. We moved a lot. I think with moving that much, it makes you come up with ways to fit in quickly. One of the ways to do that is to become an expert in mimicry and in observing people, and very quickly seeing what makes them tick. I think that turned into a really good way for me to be a storyteller. I also had a lot of hours spent with a brother and sister where most of our entertainment came from our imagination. When I look at where I am right now, I look back on how I got here, I think those early years were formative in that I started to acquire some of the skills as a storyteller. And part of that had to do with acting. That is the first way that it expressed itself.

CE: How did writing come into play?

BW: I always knew that I wanted to write at some point. I picked up a lot of different things that I felt like I wanted to express about my experience and how I saw our society. I love a good story, but my favorite stories are the ones that are really trying to make a statement about who we are as people and this world that we live in right now. I was someone who grew up really poor and saw society from that side, but there were times where we actually went back and lived with my mother’s family, who was raised upper middle class.

CE: That must have been a culture shock for you!

BW: I went from being this kid who was living in the hood in Oakland, California, and then the next year, I’m living in a gated community in a suburb of Chicago. I saw this amazing swing in lifestyles and status. It was a really tough upbringing, but it gave me a great insight into different aspects of society. I try to bring that to my storytelling. I feel like it is a unique perspective that a lot of people don’t really have or get a chance to live.

CE: Could you have thought in your wildest dreams while you were struggling as a kid that you’d have this acclaimed drama on Amazon starring all of these amazing actors who are bringing your story to life?

BW: This is something that is so fortunate, but when I was a kid, I didn’t even have any expectations that even bordered anything close to what has happened to me. I was just trying to make it day by day. In the toughest times, like you mentioned, we were actually homeless. I remember being in an apartment one time; we were basically squatting in the apartment, homeless.

I really didn’t have any expectations that any of this was going to happen. But I just kept chipping away, and there were a few key moments where people influenced me the right way. Even though we had tough times, my mother always made me feel like I was special. And so I always felt like even in the toughest times, there were brighter days somewhere down the line. I just didn’t know what it could be. I finally got around people who could influence me and would say, “Look, if you keep your focus, if you work hard, there will come a time where you have more control over what’s going to happen to you.” My feeling is, I’ve been through as hard as it gets. So being told “no” a hundred times in Hollywood does not even compare with sleeping in a car and not knowing where your next meal is going to come from. And so that really helped with my resiliency and perseverance.

CE: Tell me about how you started to find your voice in college.

BW: I went from being a student who was on the verge of being expelled from high school to being a guy who came full circle and ended up going to UC Berkeley for college. When I went there I was leaning toward being a journalist. I already had an affinity for writing; I just didn’t really know it was going to be on the creative, narrative side. But I jumped into a theater class and I fell in love with theater. That is what the first breakthrough was. I did it, actually, to just fill out units, just to have enough for the semester, and I ended up falling in love with it. I acted in some plays and that was my initial love. I had a couple of mentors, directors who were teaching at UC Berkeley. One was Margaret Wilkerson, who is sort of a legend in the African-American theater community. And the other was Gilbert McCauley, who is still directing today. They both encouraged me to pursue it. And so I really focused on acting to begin with, but I did have one project where it required me to write something. It became one of those things where you have a great experience, but it’s not part of your focus at the time, so you just sort of file it away. I filed it away and thought, “I’d like to get back to it someday.” I did some theater out of college, and I had a fluke experience where a casting director for a soap opera saw me. I went to New York for one of those general auditions for a soap opera casting director. We had a mutual friend, and she was seeing me as a favor.

CE: And that favor turned into your first television role.

BW: She ended up casting me in the soap. And that’s part of the acting career. I went down that road for a while. I had my ups and downs. When it got to a really, really low point, I was in Los Angeles and I had made an agreement with my wife that if I wasn’t a huge star in two years, we would move back to northern California and I’d go back to school. I hit a low point, so we started making plans to do that, but it was going to take six months to get everything in order. So she said: “You know what, you should do that short film that you’ve been talking about for a long time. Then you’ll have something to remember Los Angeles by.” So I did the short film and, ironically, the short film just sort of blew up. It went to all of these film festivals, including the American Black Film Festival, where it won the top award for short film. And it went to Sundance, and it actually got me some exposure for another job: I ended up getting a contract role on “The Young and the Restless.” But even more important, it was sort of a liquefier for me as a writer because that is something that I wrote, produced and co-directed. Even as my acting career was starting to pick up, I knew that my end goal was to be a writer, to create the content.

CE: How did that lead to “Hand of God”?

BW: It’s funny, because within Hollywood circles, when Amazon said it was going to start doing what it calls the Amazon pilot season, where they actually give the fans a chance to respond to the material and vote for the series they want to get made, there were a lot of people in the Hollywood circles who didn’t like that idea. But I actually thought it was a great idea, because I had gone down the road of developing great projects and no one ever saw them. Usually the decision on whether or not to make a pilot into a series is made by 10 people in a boardroom. Whereas when you do Amazon pilot season, you’ve got millions of people who get a chance to chime in. I think that’s cool in and of itself. The fact that Amazon was giving people a chance to actually see the pilot before they decided whether it would go to series, I felt was a great opportunity. And I think it was especially important for a show like mine, one I knew was going to be controversial and push a lot of buttons. Can you imagine if I had left that in the hands of 10 network executives who’d never seen anything like it? I think that the fact that the audience reacted to the pilot as well as they did was a huge reason we got our series order.

Hand of God, courtesy Amazon
CE: What was your inspiration to create “Hand of God”? Not to put it too lightly, but this is some deep, dark subject matter.

BW: First of all, my inspiration started with my being fascinated with fidelity and people in history who have been zealous. I would include John Brown and Nat Turner, obviously, in that category. But I would also even say in the modern day, you have people like David Koresh, and you even have these musicians like John Coltrane or Charlie Byrd, or you have scientists like Albert Einstein. I feel like they are all operating on another level. Because they are so committed, they have opened up their minds to something that most of us don’t have any grasp of. In some cases it really affects how they behave and whether they can really navigate regular life.

So I was fascinated not just by the people who become zealous, but also by how society reacts to them. And so I wanted to do a story about a modern-day zealot. Pernell Harris became this vehicle for me to show someone who believed in something so wholeheartedly that everything he does going forward is related to that. Then the other thing is I really want to explore the duality that I think exists in all of us. In movies and on TV, there’s a lot of storytelling where you have flawed characters, but they are usually going to end up in one category: good or bad. What I wanted to do was tell a story that had characters who were more reflective of who we really are as humans, which is that those good and bad characteristics are always there and they always exist simultaneously.

CE: And how exciting was it that your work attracted talent like Ron Perlman and Dana Delany?

BW: It was amazing. We’ve got world-class filmmaker Marc Forster, who said he wanted to make this his first TV show and was interested in directing the pilot — that was a great sign. And then the very next day we found out that Ron Perlman was interested. For two of the characters I thought, “In an ideal world, Dana Delany and Garret Dillahunt would play these characters.” Fast-forward, and we’re shooting the pilot, and Dana Delany is playing Crystal Harris and Garret Dillahunt is playing KD. Of course the rest of the cast is stellar as well.

CE: Originally Faye Dunaway was going to play Pernell’s aunt, but now it is Linda Gray.

BW: There were some scheduling conflicts and some other issues that came up, so she has been replaced with Linda Gray.

CE: Who is absolutely fabulous …

BW: You can’t go wrong with Linda Gray. When we realized it wasn’t going to work out with Faye, we started looking around elsewhere, and we came across Linda Gray. In season two, Pernell’s empire is in jeopardy, and part of that Harris family empire includes Linda Gray. With Pernell on shaky ground, she becomes a bigger part of the story because she wants to make sure that if he goes down, the Harris family doesn’t go down with him.

CE: What else can you tell me about season two?

BW: When there are things that we can’t explain, we feel compelled to find an answer for it. We say it’s science or religion or it’s crazy or it’s magic. We continue to ask that question in season two. Pernell continues to explore this question of whether he’s truly crazy or if he has touched into something supernatural. We also get to explore a little bit about what was going on with PJ and the software that he was working on. And there’s a connection there to Jocelyn Harris; there’s a connection there to Nathan Brooks, who is the founder of the company that came into town in season one. There’s a mystery related to that, and that mystery is driven by Crystal Harris, who in season one showed that Macbeth-type wife who was trying to maintain control and manage her husband and manage the lifestyle and the empire that she had built. In season two, she really steps into a leading role and drives the story forward because she is intent on finding out what happened to her son’s software and fulfilling his legacy. Initially there are two driving forces: Pernell is on trial for murder, and Crystal is trying to find out what happened to PJ’s software. And then, of course, they are always going to be surrounded by these amazing characters who are dealing with the same things that we deal with through the contradictions of human nature. What makes us tick? What do we really believe in? If we really do believe in something, or really want something, how do we change our lives to make that happen?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Q and A: Week of Sept. 12

Q: Is it true that they are making a new version of “King Kong”? If so, do you know how or if this will be different from other iterations? — Dave G., via email

A: “Kong: Skull Island” will premiere March 10, 2017 on the big screen. This latest version of the action-adventure movie stars Tom Hiddleston (of “Thor” and “The Avengers” fame), Brie Larson (who won the Academy Award for Best Actress for “Room”), Samuel L. Jackson and Tom Wilkinson, and takes place in the 1970s, focusing on the origins of Kong. Hiddleston’s character, Capt. James Conrad, is the leader of an expedition venturing deep into an uncharted island in the Pacific Ocean, where you can bet they are going to run smack into everyone’s favorite giant gorilla.

But if you can’t wait until March to get up close and personal with the mythical beast, you can head over to Skull Island yourself — that is, the one at Universal Studios Orlando Islands of Adventure. Its new ride, “Skull Island: Reign of Kong,” opened over the summer, and let me tell you that it is exhilarating and actually quite scary. It really does get you primed to want to see the movie. Here’s an insider’s tip: Try to sit as far on the right-hand side of the car as you can.

Q: I haven’t seen Catherine Zeta-Jones in anything recently. I know she took time off while her husband, Michael Douglas, was recovering from cancer, but did she full-on retire? — Linda F., Baton Rouge, Louisiana

A: The gorgeous and talented Oscar winner recently signed on to star as Olivia de Havilland in FX’s eight-part miniseries “Feud,” which centers on the bitter rivalry between “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” stars Bette Davis (Susan Sarandon) and Joan Crawford (Jessica Lange). The miniseries will premiere sometime next year, and co-stars Stanley Tucci as studio chief Jack Warner, Judy Davis as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and Alfred Molina as director/producer Robert Aldrich. With a powerhouse cast like this, I can’t wait to see the series.

Q: I remember hearing talk of a “Lost Boys” movie remake. Any word on that? — Larry T., via email

A: Rob Thomas — creator of “Veronica Mars” and “iZombie” — is bringing the vampire cult classic to television over at the CW network. According to “Deadline,” the new series is being envisioned for a seven-season run, “spanning 70 years, each season chronicling a decade.” With each season, “the humans, the setting, the antagonist and the story all change — only the vampires, our Lost Boys, who are like the ‘Peter Pan’ characters who never grow up, remain the same.” There is no word yet on whether the vampires will be all-new characters or a reimaging of the movie- version ones, but seeing how they all died in the end, they’d have to get pretty creative if they are planning to reintroduce them.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

INTERVIEW: Taylor Hicks, "State Plate Is a Home Run!"

Taylor Hicks won the hearts of music fans countrywide — and then worldwide — when he won the fifth season of “American Idol.” He went on to tour the U.S., co-star as Teen Angel in the Broadway touring production of “Grease,” was a part of Jimmy Fallon’s Grammy-winning album “Blow Your Pants Off” … and the list goes on. Now members of the Soul Patrol (Taylor’s large and dedicated fan base) can catch Taylor this fall when he hosts “State Plate,” which debuts on the INSP network Oct. 21. I caught up with Taylor recently, and he filled me in on performing on the series finale of “Idol,” his hectic tour schedule and “State Plate.”

Celebrity Extra: Earlier this year, you came back to “American Idol” to mentor this last crop of singers. Why did you decide to do that, and what was the experience like?

Taylor Hicks: I love the educational process, instructing the singers and trying to cultivate their talent. That’s one of the things that I tried to do. Also, I have a saying, and someone told me this when I was going through my so-called break in the business. They said, “If you weren’t supposed to be here, then you wouldn’t be.” I have some friends who have caught a break, and I can see that they are nervous, and if you put that in perspective, that if God hadn’t intended for you to be there, then you wouldn’t be there. I think calming of the nerves is probably the most important thing to really be able to entertain and perform and move through the process of a show like that.

CE: Tell me about coming back to perform on the series finale.

TH: The finale was great, and I think I can speak for all of the idols and the winners and even the contestants who have been on the show that the way “American Idol” took its final bow was a true class act. The whole world celebrated, especially this country, they celebrated the last year. I think the way they celebrated the last season, and I think the way they celebrated the show in the finale, was a really wonderful way for all of America to have celebrated it.

CE: It’s so amazing when you think that the show was on for 15 years!

TH: “Idol” being on for 15 years, that’s just a testament to what the show has been able to do and how much talent has come from it.

CE: As a performer, you play big stadium gigs as well as more intimate club settings. Is it fun — and beneficial — for you to get to exercise those different kinds of performance muscles?

TH: I’ve always been a live performer, and I’ve been doing a lot of little intimate venues and acoustic shows. I think it’s not only important to do the full band, the big live shows, but I also think it’s important to do the smaller acoustic, intimate settings where you can really be up close and personal with the audience. And also you can be more of a storyteller. I think people enjoy that part of it just as much as they do kind of the live big-band atmosphere. I love both. I just love performing, so it’s the best of both worlds. You get the storyteller version where you get some stories about “Idol,” and also I get to explain my journey — people get to understand my past. And then the live big-band show is obviously more of a full production.

CE: So your fans get the best of both worlds, and you do, too, as the performer.

TH: Yes, very much so. I think it’s fun to exercise both. Luckily I grew up in both settings, so I’m familiar with both. I grew up on the panhandle of Florida playing at a place called the Flora-Bama, and that taught me a lot. Great musicians and songwriters like Sonny Throckmorton, Jimmy Buffett and Jimmy Louis were in that group. They’ve entertained people in that setting just as much as you would with a full band. I’ve been lucky to be privy to both of those.

CE: Tell me about “State Plate.” From what I’ve read about it, I really like the concept.

TH: In my opinion — and I might be a little bit biased because I’m hosting the show — the concept rivals any travel and food show on TV. And I’m speaking from a conceptual standpoint. Everybody from their respective states is very prideful of what comes out of their state, whether it be entertainment, whether it be sports, whether it be food. And this particular concept — being able to fill up a plate of food that’s an appetizer, entree, dessert that’s completely indigenous to each state — is a concept I think has got so much potential, and that’s the reason I’m so excited about it. Having traveled all my life and being from Alabama, you can’t not be a foodie. That’s just the way it goes, and we have so many different styles of food that have cross-pollinated our food culture. It’s got the potential to become a really popular show because people want to know what foods are indigenous to each state, and people want to see their state do well. I couldn’t be more excited for this show.

CE: How did you become involved with the show?

TH: I’ve been pitching shows since I had my Vegas show for two years. Obviously, you can tour the food of Las Vegas for years and still not eat everything. So, I’d been pitching food ideas to particular networks for years, and this concept from the folks at INSP network was brought to me, and it was just a great concept and fell in line conceptually with my Vegas idea. It broadened it to be able to hit every state in America. If you want to have something that is successful, you have to appeal to a broader audience. I just think this idea is a home run.

CE: Explain the concept of the show to me.

TH: There’s a farm-to-table element to it. I look at it like “Dirty Jobs by Mike Rowe,” but it’s only farm-to-table food. I definitely get my hands dirty — whether it’s dairy, whether it’s cattle — I just go into the particular food and really just dig in about where it comes from. What’s the origin of it? And sometimes that takes a little digging, no pun intended.

CE: I live in Orlando, Florida, so I have to know if you’ve come to Florida yet and if you’ll divulge any secrets from your trip.

TH: As a matter of fact, I’m in Florida right now. We’re wrapping up shooting here. I wish I could spill all of the info to you, but Florida is such a diverse state. We cover from the northwest to the southwest to the northeast — we try to cover all of the state. This one was tough, but I think we conquered it. And you can’t really cover the state in one plate in some of these states like Florida, Texas, California and some of the bigger states. So maybe we’ll come back for a second helping. Who knows?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

INTERVIEW: Victoria Laurie on the End of an Era, the Continuation of Another, and the Beginning of Exciting New Ventures

Victoria Laurie
When you’re as prolific a writer as Victoria Laurie, this is what your dream board looks like: You’ve just written the 10th and final book in one popular series; you recently published the 14th in an equally popular series and are almost done with the 15th; you’ve got an exciting new young-adult book coming out in a few months, with three more completely different YA-book ideas fully fleshed out; and you’re working on an entirely new series that you’re currently pitching to your publisher, which promises to blow the minds of all your fans.

Just reading all of that exhausts me. But not Victoria — she thrives on the excitement and chaos of bringing all of her ideas and characters to life on the written page (or e-book digital page, as it were), and she’s as giddy as a schoolgirl when she thinks about the reaction her fans will have when they are presented with this smorgasbord of fiction. I spoke with Victoria recently, and in a spoiler-free way, she told me all about her latest works, her future plans, and why she felt it was time to say goodbye to M.J. and the Ghost Hunter Mystery series.

First up: M.J., Gilley, Heath and Doc, and why the series had run its course. When Victoria announced that the 10th book in the series, “A Ghoul’s Guide to Love and Murder,” would be the last, her fans were understandably upset — and in universal agreement that she gave all of her characters a deserving send-off. But Victoria knew it was time to wind down the series by book eight: “‘The Ghoul Next Door’ was just such a struggle to write. And it was a progression of each book becoming more and more difficult. I almost felt like the books had started out with a sense of realism and less fantasy ... more like, this stuff actually happens. And then I pushed the envelope throughout that series to try to scare the pants off you while making you laugh in the next paragraph. That tricky balance just is a very difficult thing to reproduce book after book while making each story unique.

“After book eight, I was like, I don’t know that I have a lot left in me for the series. M.J. has been so beaten up and pummeled throughout the series. I felt like she’s being abused by her creator; I kind of felt like I was the abusive husband in this game. I just didn’t want to beat her up anymore. I really wanted her to earn a rest and respite for all that she had been through. I wanted to do a full-circle moment for book 10 with M.J. still being chased by those demons. I feel it all came together in that 10th book.”

Victoria truly feels empathy for her fans who are distraught that the series ended; she’s been there as an avid reader herself. “I understand. I hate it when a good series — either television or book — ends for me. When it goes away, it kind of leaves a little hole in your heart. And so I really struggle when fans are like, ‘Please don’t end the series.’ It was a really, really hard decision for me. I did this for the characters and knowing it’s the right move for them.”

Moving on from the Ghost Hunter series, in her latest Psychic Eye book, “A Grave Prediction,” Victoria tells me the reason behind her decision to have Abby work with the L.A. bureau of the FBI: “It’s an opportunity for Abby to explore the possibility of working with people she doesn’t trust and who don’t trust her. It’s not an easy profession, being a psychic; you get a little flinchy. You get a little defensive because you are always prepared for people to think the worst of you, for people to believe that you’ve got a screw loose or, even worse, that you’re a charlatan. It’s that attitude I really wanted to explore in this latest book. I wanted to throw Abby into a situation where she wasn’t trusted and had to prove herself again.”

One of the many elements that attracts readers to this series is the dynamic duo of Abby Cooper and her trusted BFF and confidante, Candice Fusco. And while we don’t get much of Dutch and Brice in this installment, as per usual, Candice is by Abby’s side to help suss out the clues as she tries to stop the murders of four people that she saw in a vision. Candice is there to support Abby with a kind of girl power that we don’t often see between women in pop culture nowadays. “Personally, I have been so wholly supported through my female friends,” Victoria reveals to me. “I have truly been blessed in this lifetime with the most loyal, wonderful, fabulous, amazing, strong, independent, wise women who have honestly made me a better person. Candice is an amalgam of two specific friends of mine who just inspire me every day. And there’s that kind of loyalty that comes inherent with their friendship. I think it’s because these two women are incredibly secure. And when you can have a friend who’s as incredibly secure, as Candace is to Abby, then Abby is just free to be herself.”

While many fans of the series who enjoy swooning over Dutch and/or Brice were disappointed that they were in this book so little, Victoria promises: “Dutch and Brice are definitely in the next one; Abby needed to find herself and find her way in this one.” This book’s “sisters are doing it for themselves” vibe was very much intentional on Victoria’s part, and very much appreciated by her countless fans. We saw the introduction of another strong and supportive female character, Special Agent Hart, who helps grease the wheels for Abby at the L.A. office. “I like strong, supportive women who don’t feel insecure around each other,” Victoria explains. “It’s exhausting to be catty and jealous. Women don’t tell each other enough how dazzling and amazing we are. Life can beat women down and women can beat women down, and I’m tired of it.”

Unlike her other books, however, this one was a struggle for Victoria to write. “I never had writer’s block until this book. I hit a wall. I battled a bad bout of depression during it, and it became a physical struggle to write. Exercise was key for me to come out of that state. I wrote it in about four weeks; it was fast-going once I was able to crawl out of the well of depression. I was struggling so much, and I found that Abby’s humor helped me through it.”

As far as the idea for this intriguing storyline — Abby helping the FBI office in San Diego solve a series of bank robberies only to get a vision of four buried bodies who are victims of murders that haven’t happened yet — she actually turned to TV for inspiration. “My sister is a big fan of ‘Medium,’ and she told me about an episode where the main character, Allison, has a dream where she sees a car and sees the license plate, and there’s a dead body rolled up in a rug in the trunk of the car. They trace the plate to Arizona, but it’s a style that wouldn’t be made for another 10 years, so she realizes her vision was of a future murder. I thought that was a brilliant idea.”

Speaking of mediums, those of you who are familiar with Victoria know that she is more psychic than medium, one who can assess the energy you carry in your aura, where she can see your health, emotions, wishes, hopes and bits of the future. She puts on her psychic goggles and focuses on that. She also can feel pulled in a certain direction. “I’m pulled to do things that might seem spontaneous, but it’s my intuition telling me to do this or do that.”

Victoria is just finishing up the 15th installment of her Psychic Eye mysteries series, and she promises that we won’t be disappointed. “I am really enjoying myself with this one. It’s fun, and I’m really ratcheting up the tension. The premise is Dutch, Milo, Brice and Dave are building panic rooms for Austin’s wealthy clients. One day, Dave doesn’t show up for a meeting and no one can find him. Someone is murdered and all signs point to Dave.”

This will be our first deeper glimpse into this minor character who has had a big impact on Abby. “Dave is a mystery. Fifteen books in, and we may or may not learn his lady’s name. This is a fun and funny romp. It’s a unique book to the series, and I am super-excited about its release.”

And that’s one of the things that fans love most about the series: Each book brings us a fun and intriguing new adventure. Victoria feels the same way, especially about this book, as she explains: “I am proud of this book, and proud of the series as a whole. It hasn’t repeated on itself yet. I want every book to be its own original story. I want you to remember stories wholly and not mix them up.”

Next up for Victoria’s fans is “Forever, Again,” which is a young-adult book about reincarnation that will be released Dec. 13. The story centers on Lily Bennett, who is the new kid in town as she starts her junior year in high school. Soon after classes begin, she meets a classmate, Cole Drepeau, with whom she forms an immediate and intimate bond. As they grow closer, Lily learns about the murder that divided the town more than 30 years before. In 1985, graduating senior Amber Greeley snapped, killing her boyfriend Ben — Cole’s uncle — and taking her own life.

Lily feels inexplicably linked to Amber, and she can’t help but think that there’s more to the girl’s story. Determined to investigate the truth about Cole’s uncle’s death, Lily and Cole are pulled into a dark mystery — one that shakes the constraints of the world they’ve always believed in.

For this book, Victoria explains, “I did a lot of research through the University of Virginia, where they have a whole department devoted to reincarnation studies.”

And if that’s not enough, Victoria is in the early, pre-pitch stage with her publishers for a new series to replace the M.J. series, which she says M.J. fans will love. “I’m very excited to explore these characters more. I’ll be able to let you know more about this in late fall.”

Undaunted, I was able to coax a little bit more out of Victoria pertaining to the new series, so prepare to be teased. “My new protagonist, Esmé, is the most courageous, fierce, kick-ass character I’ve ever created,” Victoria reveals. “She’s a definite force to be reckoned with, but she’s also got a soft, compassionate side — and of course she meets, falls for, and tangles with a guy who’s totally her match. These two won’t know if they’re made for each other, or made to kill each other.” Of course, I love Esmé already, and Victoria’s legions of fans will too.

Last but not least, she has three more YA books fully fleshed out and outlined, which she is going to pitch to her publisher soon. And, as Victoria says, “I think this will be even bigger than ‘When.’ It’s an angle no one’s approached before; it was inspired by an email subject line: ‘Why human beings do the things they do.’”

So update your GoodReads “to-read” list for the many exciting things to come from this crazy-talented author. And for all the latest updates, follow Victoria on Twitter (@Victoria_Laurie), and join her Facebook fan page (

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Q and A: Week of September 6

Q: First I want to thank you for giving an address to write to for people like me who have nothing to do with computers to have the chance to try to respond to all life has to offer. Please consider me for entry in your contest to win an autographed copy of Victoria Laurie’s “A Grave Prediction.” — Danan G., Chino, Calif.

A: You are very welcome, Danan. I like to give everyone a chance to win cool stuff, especially when it’s an autographed copy of a book by one of my favorite authors. I randomly drew four names to win the four copies of the book I have, and you are one of the winners! The other winners are Kimberly Fischer (who won via email entry), Lara Baker (who won via Twitter entry) and Kerri Snow-Hugmeyer (who won via Facebook entry).

I spoke with Victoria to get the inside track on “A Grave Prediction” and her insight behind having Abby working with the LA bureau of the FBI: “It’s an opportunity for Abby to explore the possibility of working with people she doesn’t trust and who don’t trust her. It’s not an easy profession, being a psychic; you get a little flinchy. You get a little defensive because you are always prepared for people to think the worst of you, for people to believe that you’ve got a screw loose or, even worse, that you’re a charlatan. It’s that attitude I really wanted to explore in this latest book. I wanted to throw Abby into a situation where she wasn’t trusted and had to prove herself again.”

Come back tomorrow to read my full and compelling interview with Victoria about “A Grave Prediction,” the end of the Ghost Hunter series, and what she’s got in store for fans next.

Q: I just got my copy of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” and I also can’t wait for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” to open. What else is happening in the Harry Potter world? — Nina F., via email

A: NBC Universal just signed a seven-year deal with Warner Bros. for exclusive broadcast and basic-cable rights to the eight “Potter” movies, as well as the three planned “Fantastic Beasts” movies. In a press release, NBC Universal announced: “Through this deal, Universal Studios Hollywood, Universal Orlando and Universal Studios Japan can explore a range of new opportunities, including fan events, movie screenings, and promotional activities tied to the ‘Harry Potter’ franchise and the upcoming ‘Fantastic Beasts’ film series.”

Q: “Casual” is one of my favorite shows, and I already miss it even though season two just ended. Will it be back for another? — Nico T., via email

A: Hulu has picked up the dark-comedy series — starring Tommy Dewey and Michaela Watkins — for a third season. In more Hulu news: “The Path” is in production on its second season, while season five of “The Mindy Project” premieres this fall.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Yvonne Zima Talks StartUp, ER, Al Pacino and Method Acting

Yvonne Zima
Yvonne Zima, who recently starred in the Lifetime original movie "Killing Mommy," has an exciting new project coming up, the much-anticipated crime thriller for Crackle called "StartUp." The series stars Martin Freeman (of "Fargo," "Sherlock" and "The Hobbit" fame), Adam Brody ("The OC") and Edi Gathegi ("Twilight"). The story takes place in Miami, where a desperate banker needs to conceal stolen money; a Haitian-American gang lord wants to go legit; and a Cuban-American hacker has an idea that will revolutionize the future of money itself. Forced to work together, they unwittingly create their version of the American dream: organized crime 2.0. The 10-episode series premieres today on Crackle (go to for details).

Celebrity Extra: Earlier this year I saw a preview for "StartUp," and I am excited about this one. What can you tell me about it and your role in it?

Yvonne Zima: I think that it will be fantastic. I saw the trailer and I was like, "This is such a steamy, sexy thriller with so many fun layers of different characters from different places." It's really a kaleidoscopic view of crime. I love the idea of Adam Brody doing this serious role. I've always been a fan of him from "The OC." He's just such a terrific actor and a very nice person.

Martin Freeman is amazing in it. He is a fantastic actor. His performance in this is a feast. He's so intense, which is so magnetic. He's amazing to watch. I play Megan, who is a receptionist who is hired at their company because of her looks. Which means she's terrible at her job. She is a quintessential millennial, who's always taking selfies and is just totally inept.

CE: It sounds like a fun role to play, especially against the intensity of the rest.

YZ: She's the comedic relief in an otherwise very serious drama. I shot three episodes — we filmed in Puerto Rico — so I'm recurring, and I hope if the show goes on that they'll bring me back because I had so much fun with the locals. We wrote songs in Spanish and were singing together; it was so much fun. Puerto Rico is a very interesting place.

But yeah, I'm this clucky, bumbling, idiot character, and I think that the audience will be quite relieved sometimes from the tension of the other scenes. This is an intense, crazy drama, but it's super-grounded. It feels very real, and I interrupt that for a laugh or two. That was fun to play. And some of the wardrobe is scandalous.

CE: What are some more of your memories of the shoot?

YZ: I did have a scene with Wayne Knight, who was on "Seinfeld." He was so fun to work with this old-school Hollywood charm in terms of his wit and his humor. In real life he's just a bright light to be around. That was a highlight for me in terms of that gig. I was so happy to have a scene with him.

CE: "ER" was the quintessential hospital drama, reigniting the genre and opening the door for lots of copycats to come. Tell me about your experience working on the show.

YZ: I played the daughter of Anthony Edwards, who was amazing as Goose in "Top Gun," so he wasn't new to this. He was actually a bigger star than someone like George Clooney at the time. I had done several pilots with him long ago, and this was his first show that was successful. And it was cool to see him as an actor early in his career, being so humble and kind. There are all these amazing stories about him defending background actors who aren't treated as nicely as principal actors.

I watched him as he observed these background actors who weren't getting as much food as us regulars on the show, and he was like, "Well, that is not right." So he went to this big food cabinet and essentially took a crowbar, because it was locked, and he was just tossing chips to everyone. He was like: "Who wants carrots? Who wants this?" He felt that this treatment, this class system, it's not right, and I agree it's not right. To witness that as a child, it was very important. Just a lesson in the person I wanted to become and how I want to treat people on a set. And that really stuck with me.

There are wonderful people in this business who look out for each other, and he's one of them. And then there was Noah Wyle and Eriq La Salle, and they're all these hunky, wonderful actors, and this was the beginning of their careers. And that was really cool to be a part of, and it was the beginning of mine as well.

Tom Sizemore and Yvonne Zima in Heat

CE: Speaking of the beginning of your career, pretty much the first movie role you got was opposite Al Pacino in "Heat." I can't even imagine that experience!

YZ: I think I was 5. Basically I had to personally audition with Al Pacino. It's barely a part in the film, but he cared who the child was. And I remember, there were no lines or a scene to do, but I was coloring in a coloring book, and it was kind of an interview. And he was talking to me, and he handpicked me to play that part. And then when we filmed that scene, which is like this epic shoot-out — it is crazy — and I remember I collected a lot of the bullet shells because I thought they were cool keepsakes. I thought Uzis were a cool gun.

In the scene, Al Pacino takes me from Tom Sizemore, who gets shot in the head, and he rescues me. I remember him staying in the scene long after they called "cut," and that was my first experience with method acting. Someone who doesn't break character, just doesn't interrupt the flow of the scene and this scene to the next. Now remember, I was only 5, and I was just like, "You know they called 'cut'?" I didn't get it. Of course, I know now in retrospect. He's a method actor. But I was like: "This is silly. He doesn't know that they called 'cut.' I think that I'll tell him."

CE: I can't stop smiling just picturing little Yvonne telling Al Pacino that he can stop acting now.

YZ: (Laughs) I'm like: "Excuse me, sir, I need to get a bagel. You can just continue by yourself." I was thinking about this the other day, if I ever have a couple of kids of my own, I would love to expose them to the theater very young. I would love for them to see films that invoke empathy, and I think that with millennials and these generations that are slightly younger than me, I'm worried about them as a generation coming up and not being exposed to enough theater and enough stories. I think that the value of my childhood as an actress is really understanding story, human emotions and humanity. And that far supersedes any struggle it might have been. It wasn't ever that hard. I was lucky. I think it was a positive experience.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Interview: Bruno Gunn on the Groundbreaking Officer Downe and Westworld

Bruno Gunn
(by Byron Ashley Bryson)
The last time I caught up with Bruno Gunn, he was just coming down off the high that is playing a pivotal role in a ridiculously popular movie franchise: He was Brutus, the scary and lethal career tribute from District 2 in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire." He's been quite a busy man since those days. He currently co-stars in the movie "Officer Downe," which is generating quite a lot of buzz as a groundbreaking entry into the graphic-novel film genre. He also plays a role in the upcoming HBO original series "Westworld." I spoke with Bruno recently about these latest projects, and I can tell you without a doubt that he is beyond excited for us to experience these roles with him.

Celebrity Extra: First tell me about "Officer Downe." It's been getting such rave reviews. It's been described as groundbreaking in its genre and is being compared to "Deadpool."

Bruno Gunn: No one has seen anything like this. This is a rated-R movie, much in the vein of "Deadpool," and it doesn't shy away from its origins of being a graphic novel. It's a comic book that is graphic, and they didn't hold back any punches. It is a punch in the face that the world has been waiting for.

CE: I can't wait for this to open wide, because I have been hearing such great things about it. Just the preview alone had my jaw on the floor!

BG: I'm super-excited. It's been getting great press, and deservingly so. Kim Coates (who plays the titular character) is fantastic. It's one thing to watch him while you work, and it's another thing to see him onscreen. He's pretty amazing. He really is. He does justice to "Officer Downe," and pardon the pun, because that is what "Officer Downe" does. He's justice -- just in a different way.

CE: What can you tell me about your character, Fritch?

BG: Fritch is a veteran officer, and he's assigned to clean up after Officer Downe, and he doesn't like it. He thinks he should be further along than where he is; he feels like he's due for that promotion. And instead he keeps getting assigned to cleaning up Downe's messes. But the great thing about Fritch is, and I've said this before, any great character goes through a change. They have an arc. They start in one place and finish in another. You don't want your character to start in one place and then finish in the same place. There's no arc. There's no growth. There's no change. And ever so subtly Fritch does this. He goes through that change. And it's pretty cool.

That's a product of Joe Casey, the writer, who just stayed true to the comic book. He would come in, and he'd have conversations with you and ask, "What do you feel?" And he would take those notes and come back the next day and shirt off, he would find places for these notes. So he was fantastic. I encourage everyone to get the comic book. Chris Burnham, the graphic artist, is sensational. He is such a pro. His stuff is so captivating and unique. The comic book is a treat to have.

CE: Are most of your scenes with Kim?

BG: Yeah, mine are mostly with Kim and with Reno Wilson, who played Carl on "Mike and Molly." And Tyler Ross, who's the other supporting star in this film. He's fun. That's really the core of it.

CE: This sounds like a really fun and intense movie.

BG: Yeah, you'll be along for a ride. Your jaw will be open most of the time.

CE: Isn't it amazing how much the world of comic books has blown up in recent years?

BG: It's interesting, right? The whole superhero graphic-novel world is just exploding. And I was new to it. I wasn't a comic book guy. I didn't know much about that culture. And I'm just blown away at the popularity and how good these comic books are: the artwork, the storytelling. It's impressive. And we'll be seeing more of it. I don't think it stops here.

CE: "Westworld" sounds like it's going to be amazing! Tell me how the whole thing came about for you.

BB: I went in to audition for it. At the time I had just come off "Officer Downe," so I had this ginormous mustache, and I thought, "God, this is perfect." I mean, this really is. The character is a wanted outlaw. He thinks he runs the town -- and I emphasize "thinks." The character's name was originally Bulldog. And so I read for it, and a couple of weeks later, I get a call and they're like: "Hey, you booked the job. And not only is it yours, but they have changed the name of the character. They changed it to Walrus."

That mustache had a life of its own, I swear to God. I think that thing was booking me more jobs than just me. It dictated a lot. There have been a lot of conversations about that mustache. So, that's how it came about. I read for it, and it was one of those reads where you leave it and you're like: "Ah, that was terrible. That's just never going to happen." I've come to learn to not even remotely try to figure out if that was a good read or a bad read. You always want to feel good about coming out of something, but sometimes you don't. And then the ones that don't always go well can be the one. You never know.

Bruno Gunn
(By Byron Ashley Bryson)
CE: How would you describe "Westworld"?

BG: It's a straight-up Western meets sci-fi. It was my first period piece, since it's set back in time in the Wild West, and it was just mind-blowing, the authenticity of it all. That's really what impressed me the most was the authenticity of it all. Everything from your costumes to the sets to the people. It was just mind-blowing.

CE: Tell me about Walrus.

BG: He's on the run. He's a wanted lawbreaker. And he feels that the town is his, and he gets put in his place. Which is awesome, because it's a great piece, and I'm super proud of it, and I'm incredibly excited for everyone to see it.

CE: How was the cast to work with?

BG: Every single person I came in contact with was fantastic. Everyone. I'm working with James Marsden in this. He and I have a scene together, and he was terrific. We were bouncing ideas off each other and saying: "OK, well, maybe you try this and I try that. Let's see what happens." That's what any actor really wants to do is get in there and just play around.

CE: He does seem like a nice guy, so I'm happy to hear that he really is.

BG: One hundred percent. He's always smiling. I'm like, "Dude, it's 6 o'clock in the morning." He's just smiling. People like that on set are good to have.

CE: With all the shows that viewers have to choose from nowadays, what sets "Westworld" apart, and why should we watch it?

BG: Great question. I feel like it is groundbreaking. Look, Westerns are hard to do. A good Western, that is. And then let alone throw in sci-fi. That's a heck of a cocktail, Western and sci-fi. So, I really think of it as groundbreaking television.

CE: One of the fan-submitted questions for this interview was "What was the hardest role that you've ever had to play?"

BG: It was Walrus from "Westworld." It's definitely Walrus. And that's because it was my first period piece. It's one thing to bring yourself to a character, and it's another thing to have to explore who this character is in a different time. Especially when your wardrobe is dictating how you walk, and the words you say are different. Just doing a period piece like that was fantastic. Every turn it was something new, like, "Would I do that in present day? How would I hold that?" So, all those things are important, and it was by far the hardest. So many different things were dictating the character: the time period, the sets, the boots, the costumes -- all of it.

The most physically challenging role would have to be Brutus (from "Hunger Games: Catching Fire"). That was a physical role. I spent three months wielding that spear and climbing rocks and jumping in 10-degree water. It was intense! That water was cold. It was November in Atlanta. So, physically that was the most demanding.

CE: What's next for you?

BG: There are a couple of projects on the horizon there. It's always a waiting game until things are finalized. But I'm excited. I'm in a film called "Craftique," and it takes you into the world of crafting. Believe it or not, it's a billion-dollar industry, and they have these huge conventions. The movie is a mockumentary, like "Best in Show." So, it's a comedy and, again, I'm so excited to be doing more comedy. It's something I love to do. It's challenging. And when do you get to see a big bald guy be funny? It's not like a common thing. I love it and I'm having fun with it. I can't give away anything about the movie, but let's just say I have special skills.

CE: You are also involved with the #URhand4Ecuador campaign, which was started by fellow actor Augusto Aguilera. So far you've raised more than $20,000 for victims of the Ecuador earthquake and have gotten celebrity friends to join in, including Alyssa Milano, Nikki Reed, Sophia Bush, Nina Dobrev, Max Carver, Taylor Hicks, Michael Raymond-James, Lance Bass, Johnny Whitworth and Kendrick Sampson. (Go to to learn more about the campaign and how you can help.)

BG: I got involved with this because it was unimaginable, these unthinkable statistics I was hearing. The idea there was hardly any media coverage of this: 2,200 people dead; 26,000 people left homeless; scores of children who are now orphans. This was a no-brainer. This needs to have a voice. I was really happy to be able to help out and participate in that.

CE: I, too, did not realize the devastating statistics of the tragedy! I'm happy to do my part in getting the word out about this.

BG: It's just so disheartening that we are not on top of that, so I am, again, really grateful to have that opportunity to help them. You know, "Westworld" and "Officer Downe" will take care of themselves, but we've got to help spread the word about this.