Joseph Cassese [Interview]

As you may well remember, last Sunday we showcased a wonderful film for our Sunday Matinee showcase, Vincent Periera’s indie classic A Better Place, in celebration of the premiere of Shooting Clerks in New Jersey this weekend. Basically the View Askew nerds like me are running wild at what is happening! And in said Sunday Matinee I may have mentioned that we would soon be having an interview with a cast member of the film go live “soon”.  Well, apparently by soon, I meant a few days later. Because here we are!

Jospeh Cassese has had a wonderful career in the world of stage and film for over 20 years, appearing in dozens of film projects and on stages across the land. And as promised, he is the actor behind Todd in A Better Place. He was brilliant in this film, as he generally is with everything that he does. And we are so happy that he has been willing to give us a few great words here today! Joseph gave us some brilliant insight into the making of A Better Place, as well some fun stories about the making of the film. And of course we delve into the rest of his brilliant career.

So without further rambling, It is my pleasure to introduce to you all, the brilliant actor Joseph Cassese!

Reading through your bio, I learned that you were originally planning on studying law, but switched gears into acting shortly thereafter. What prompted such a dramatic swing?

At the time, I was an undergrad student studying in college towards pursuing a career in law because I was inspired by an uncle of mine who was a very successful NY attorney and politician. Seeing the life that he was living was something that I was attracted to and once I learned what he did for a living, I believed that was what I wanted for myself. As I got older and learned more about how the world worked, I realized that although I have traits and talents that would have likely benefitted me in a career as a litigator, there was something about the boundaries of that profession that started to appear to me as confining. At the same time, I was experiencing some challenges in school as well as with several other circumstances in my life that probably had more to do with my evolving philosophies about “what it all meant”. My thoughts about  what I wanted to do for a living began to shift. I remember that things and circumstances around me began to stand out to me more significantly, what a person may have said, or how I observed someone’s behavior, or the dynamics at work in my immediate surroundings as well as those of the world in general. I was seeing and looking for deeper meaning and interpretations of all of those things that were showing up in my life. There was a moment, where I realized that no matter where you go or what you are doing in life, somewhere, somehow, a form of politics will be at work. There is just as much politics happening within a group of custodians responsible for cleaning a school as there is amongst a group of corporate bureaucrats jockeying for position to be recognized and promoted. With that, I figured if I am going to be involved in a situation, a career, a pursuit, and the politics of that pursuit is inevitable, that pursuit may as well be in the service of something that I enjoy doing, and I realized that my creativity is something that I cannot escape. My imagination and desire to be creative seemed to be best suited to acting and telling stories. So off to New York I went to take my first acting class.

And what keeps you going in the business? What makes you want to continue working in this world?

To be surrounded by other creative people, working towards a common goal is something that doesn’t get old for me. When I am exchanging ideas and creative energy, and conversations, and dialogue, I feel ignited. Storytelling, cinema, stage, the concept of creating something for the people who are watching to feel or think about something that they may not have felt or thought before watching, there is something about that idea that keeps me in it.

It has been 20 years since the release of one of my favorite films of all time, Vincent Pereria’s A Better Place. I’d love it if you would tell us a bit about your experience working on this legendary cult film? What drew you to the role of Todd?

Truthfully I was initially drawn to the project before I knew anything about it because of the production’s affiliation with Kevin Smith’s View Askew production. The era of independent film being considered as a viable part of the entertainment business and how it was being taken more seriously was gaining notoriety. I had quickly become a student of how rapidly that element of the business was launching careers and making some incredible films. Being a kid from Jersey who was trying to find my way in the NYC arm of entertainment industry, seeing a notice for an open casting call in Red Bank, NJ from an affiliate of View Askew, I wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to go out for it. When I arrived, not having a fully developed understanding of preparation as it related to the auditioning process, I hadn’t realized that I was supposed to have had a monologue prepared and didn’t. So I just went right up to one of the people running the casting, whom I’d later learn was the Producer, Paul Finn, and explained my dilemma and asked if I could cold read from some sides from the script. After looking at me like I had two heads, he told me to wait a minute. A few minutes later he returned with some pages from the script, one scene was a Todd scene. I think I did pretty well considering they offered me the part. As for the Todd character itself, I was never really the Alpha Ego type in high school but knew enough of them to understand what my version should sound like, look like, and how he should carry himself. With that, I began to develop who I thought he was.

A fun story about the making of A Better Place……

It was the middle of the summer in 1995 and we were rehearsing and the project was in preproduction. There was a critical moment where Vincent received a call from the Executive Producer, Scott Mosier, wherein he confirmed that if we didn’t designate a confirmed location list, the project accountant wasn’t going to release the check to the insurance company. Without the production insurance, we couldn’t rent the camera and lighting equipment and we would have been effectively dead in the water. For the most part, Vincent and Paul had established most of the locations, many of which would be shot guerrilla run and gun style. But the biggest, and one of the most important, was the school location where many key scenes would need to be shot. Without the school location locked, we had nothing. We were in the backyard of Vincent’s parents’ house and his bedroom was in a rear structure which was detached from the main house like a bungalow. Very cool. It had his bed, TV and it’s walls were decorated with film posters, with his Laserdisc collection on prominent display. As we were all discussing the severity of the moment, I went into Vincent’s room and began dialing 411 and getting the phone numbers of all of the Board Of Education departments in schools districts that I could think of. With each new number and subsequent call, my introduction and pitch as a “Location Scout” working for View Askew got better and better. I recalled that Kearney High School had allowed filming of a series that briefly ran starring Montell Williams. When I called them, being that they had experience in that area, they immediately knew who to transfer me to. Once I spoke with the right person, we had preliminary approval pending a script review. We were set, and I’m still waiting for the additional credit from Vincent as associate producer or at least location scout. 😄

20 years later
, and I feel the film still holds up, and is even more appropriate in the post 9/11 world. What are your thoughts on the film, and is there anything you wish you could have added to the film in hindsight?

If there is one word I think best describes Vincent’s concept for A Better Place, it would be prescient. I remember him telling me about his own perspective on the world and his views about how pervasive nihilism was becoming amongst the youth in our country and around the world. He cited an event where a couple of kids in England had stoned another kid to death and he was inspired leading him to drawing a parallel of how Ryan was so consumed by his anger which fueled his indifference. Remember, this was five years before Columbine and Vincent was giving a voice to a soul who had been disenfranchised, felt as nothing was worth it, with the exception of looking for an opportunity to reverse an injustice, and in doing so, found something and someone to attach himself to. I thought it was unique in that he was telling the story of how and why a kid can get to that kind of place. It wasn’t a simple coming of age story that ends in tragedy, it was much more than that, I thought. As far as me adding to it in hindsight, the only thing that comes to mind is a more layered character development for Todd. At the time, I had studied acting and taken some classes but still had a lot more to learn in terms of craft and technique, so what you’re seeing is a performance based upon not a lot of experience and a lot more to learn.

In more recent years, you have done a lot of work with the brilliant  filmmaker Anthony Marinelli, creating some wonderful pieces of film. How did this working relationship begin, and what is it about your relationship that works so well?

The friendship I have with Anthony and the collaborative creative work we’ve done together began at a casting session he called me into, to read for his first short film, Joey’s Gonna Kill Me. At the time, Anthony was working as a professional editor with A Cool Dry Place, an in-house production company under the umbrella of DDB-Needham, a very large ad agency. The casting was on a weekend, in the agency’s main headquarters office in a big brown skyscraper in midtown. I will never forget how Anthony commandeered one of the supply closets and turned it into a casting room, shelves of paper towels and copy paper notwithstanding. About 85% of the script was me on the phone talking to different people with the other side of the conversation being completely imagined. So I had to create that other dialogue to work with for my written dialogue and respective reactions. I loved the challenge and how it forced me to work on my toes and create a significant part of the story even thought the audience would never hear it. From that point on, I have been fortunate to have been asked to work with him again and again, with very rewarding results. To date, we have collaborated in several award-winning films and stage productions, most notably the Cannes film festival, twice. I think what works so well about our relationship is that we both bring zero ego to the table. There is definitely a shorthand that has evolved over the last twenty years where he knows what I can do in a character and when I read what he’s written, I immediately understand his intentions as for how he wants the character to be seen and portrayed. Also, I think because we both love storytelling so much, we both understand the different elements that enhances not just a moment but the overall arc. One of the things I enjoy most about being a creative artist is the chance to dissect a script, character, a shot set up, a moment, and doing that with Anthony is always a pleasure. His approach is typically all-inclusive and open to see what the spontaneity of the situation may bring or how it may inform the goals of the story. Those discussions and conversations are like mini explorations and we have done that so many times, it’s become something to look forward to each time we work together.

If you were given the chance to portray any legendary figure in American history, who would it be?

If the phrase American History were to be considered all-inclusive and wide-ranging, I’d say the history and evolution of American Cinema has a rightful place at the table. With that, the era that has always fascinated me was Hollywood from the mid to late 1960’s through the 1970’s. There is a great book titled Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. It’s the story of how some of the greatest filmmakers in the history of cinema, against all odds, against all forces of convention, bucked the system, and reinvented filmmaking, wresting control away from the big studio heads and putting the control into the hands of the artists. Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, DePalma, Altman, Bogdanovich, Robert Evans, and the list goes on. It is because of this collection of visionaries and their creative resistance against the old guard and the old ways, that gave rise to the most memorable films ever made, and more so, inspired the next generation of filmmakers to continue on that path. (See Rebels On The Backlot)

I think it would be exhilarating to play anyone of those aforementioned people because each has such a rich history and interesting trajectory that put them into their respective places of influence. If I had to choose one though, it would have to be Robert Evans. His life story, The Kid Stays In The Picture, is one that truly represents the idea that, with relentless perseverance, anything is possible when you set your mind to it, all while operating where the word ‘no’ doesn’t even register. His vision, as well as his versatility in and understanding of the intersection between business and art has yielded some of the most memorable and important pieces of cinematic art and subsequently the acting careers born from them, in the history of the entertainment business.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to tell our readers about?

The future is bright. I am continuing to audition for new roles both in front of the camera and well as on the stage. I am working on developing a new play by an established Playwright with whom I’ve had the honor of forming a friendship with. With my production company, Luloco Productions, I am also working on getting some film projects made by some friends of mine in front of distributors because I believe each of the projects (two documentaries and two features) have unique stories to tell, and because of their relevance, I think they will appeal to the public. Also, my latest short film, Marital Arts, written and directed by Anthony Marinelli, which just screened in Cannes this past May, will continue to circulate through the film festival circuit.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

Thinking that I have three beautiful children and a great girl to go home to later today, that made me smile.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

2 Responses to Joseph Cassese [Interview]

  1. Mrs Queen -teacher says:

    Did Joseph Cassesse grow up in Saddle Brook NJ?

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