Sometimes big dreams pay off in a big way. The new film “Patti Cakes” proves that point both on-screen and off. Its celebration of misfits and outsiders became the toast of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The dramedy features a commanding performance by Danielle Macdonald in the title role as a young woman in a dead-end New Jersey town who is nonetheless determined to achieve her goal of rap stardom. Writer-director Geremy Jasper recently described the character as “Mae West meets Biggie Smalls with the heart of Bruce Springsteen.”
In the movie (it opens in limited release in San Francisco Aug. 25), Macdonald’s character Patricia Dombrowski — alternatively known as Patti Cakes or Killa P — sees rapping as a way out of the life she feels stuck in, living with her bitter, boozy mother (Bridget Everett) and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty). With the help of her best friend Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), a self-styled hype-man, and the moody goth rocker/producer known as Basterd (Mamoudou Athie), she just might make it.
Jasper, from the same parts of New Jersey as where the story is set, is a musician who turned to directing music videos before making “Patti Cakes” as his feature debut. Along with the relatively unknown Macdonald, an Australian actress who has been living for the past few years in Los Angeles, Jasper worked with something of a ragtag team on the project.
Everett is a singer and performer, best known for her regular appearances on “Inside Amy Schumer.” She had never taken on such a dramatic role before. Dhananjay was discovered from videos he posted to the WorldStarHipHop website. Athie is a Yale School of Drama graduate who also appeared in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down.” And Moriarty is an Oscar-nominated actress known for her performances in “Raging Bull” and “Soapdish.” Veteran rapper MC Lyte also has a small role.
“I’m a nonprofessional director — this is my first time,” says Jasper in an interview. “I didn’t feel like I had the background in really working with actors. There was a quality of getting people out of their comfort zone. I’m a musician who’s done some music video directing, but now I’m really trying to direct this thing and we’re all kind of in it together.”
For Macdonald, the project presented the challenge not only of learning to talk with a thick New Jersey accent, but also learning to rap with that accent too.
“When I first read the script I was like “Me? Noooo,” says Macdonald who’s sitting alongside Jasper during the interview in L.A. “But I also wanted to see what happens. And as I kept reading I felt I was so not right for this, but loved it.
“After I read the script, Geremy and I had a conversation and I said, ‘I need to be very straight with you. I don’t rap, I can’t do a Jersey accent and it’s so cool and I want to, but there is all this stuff that’s not me.’ And Geremy was just like, ‘I have a good feeling. Just learn the raps. It’ll be fine.’ And he seemed so chill, I figured it would be fine. It scared me, but that was also part of why I wanted to do it.”
From the first time Jasper saw Macdonald in a photo he was struck by how much she looked like the character he imagined in his head. “And that’s a one in a trillion thing,” he says. “It’s so crazy to me. If you had a sketch artist that could dip into my imagination in this Michel Gondry way and draw what I was thinking for Patti as I was writing it, it’s her.”
Once they started working together, Jasper was even further convinced, tailoring the part to Macdonald.
“Meeting Danielle as an actress opened up a whole new world for me as a writer,” he says, “and we were able to develop it together and change some of the scenes.”
Like Macdonald, Everett could not see herself playing the part of Patti’s mother Barb at first. A veteran of New York City’s cabaret scene, Everett has seen her visibility soar since appearing on “Inside Amy Schumer.” That’s where Jasper first saw her. Her character, Barb, once had dreams of being a singer — a hair-metal belter back in the days when Bon Jovi topped the charts. The idea of dreams set aside, reconciled with and even revived, spoke to Everett.
“I waited tables for 25 years. I didn’t think it was going to happen for me,” Everett says. “I really related to that sort of bitterness, when you think the thing that you wanted to do so much has passed you by. She’s very different from me, but in many ways the same. It was actually kind of therapeutic to play her, to revisit the bitterness that passes across my plate from time to time and get some perspective.”
For inspiration, Jasper told Macdonald to watch “Rocky” for its underdog vibe and “The Sopranos” for its Jersey verisimilitude. Another movie that influenced Jasper was “Saturday Night Fever” for its restless bridge-and-tunnel longing, a sense that something better was out there.
Some of the most tender, heartfelt moments in the movie come when Patti and Jheri are simply looking across the river to the New York City skyline and hoping for more out of life.
“That stuff is 100 percent autobiographical,” says Jasper. “That feeling of sitting at a lookout, looking at New York, listening to the radio and trying to visualize to myself, how do I get there? It’s so close, but it might as well be the moon. It just feels so far away. And culturally Jersey is so different from New York City, it’s bizarre. To me that’s the heart of what ‘Patti Cakes’ is about.”
Yet as much as the story of “Patti Cakes” is rooted in Jasper’s own dreams and aspirations, Macdonald never felt she was his stand-in.
“I didn’t feel like I was playing a version of him, but I felt like he was my guidebook,” she says. “If I had anything I needed to know — he was the book I could look into to find that. He was the best reference point. And that’s not always the case. You might have a conversation about a character, but it’s not coming from a place where the director knows this person inside and out.
“And then, I’m also a woman, and Geremy’s a man,” she adds. “So I think that having him knowing exactly who Patti is, and then me being able to feel her as a woman, brought her out. So it was an interesting dynamic. It was very easy to just talk and figure it out.”
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