He is young, charismatic and talented… James Jurdi has all it takes to succeed. With his hollywood good looks, you are not ready to forget him. James stars alongside Rob Lowe and Burt Reynolds in Pocket Listing, an L.A. based satirical thriller about a real estate agent who experiences a reversal of fortune during the housing crash. The film, that he wrote and co-produced, is out in cinemas across Lebanon on December 4th. In Lebanon for the premiere, James Jurdi sat down with Prestige to talk about his new movie, his passion for cinema, his dream cast and breaking through in Tinseltown…
«Pocket Listing is about people who are wheeling and dealing and double crossing each other…»
James Jurdi, can you tell us more about yourself? Born and raised in Los Angeles, California, I am of Lebanese origins, both my parents having immigrated to the US in the 70’s. I grew up loving movies. My parents took me to the movies every weekend and introduced me to the arts at a very early age and encouraged me to pursue the field of cinema. I was educated in L.A. where I went to college and specialized in film studies from production to screen writing, from theater to acting.
When did you know that you wanted to be in the movie business? I guess it came in several different ways. Originally when I was a kid I was just going to the movies, and enjoying the magic of being transported into this fantasy world. When you put a group of people together in a room, there’s always going to be a conflict about politics or social conditions and all of these issues… But you turn off the lights, you put the projector on and put something on the screen and they will all go quiet. They will be unanimously transported into this magical world. So that was something I wanted to be a part of, I wanted to create something that would transport people in that fantasy world the way I was transported when I was a kid.
«Pocket Listing» is out in cinemas across Lebanon on December 4th.
As you said, you studied everything about the industry. How did you start in thebusiness? While I was studying, I did a lot of little roles in TV shows like The Boldand the Beautiful, Melrose Place or General Hospital, to build my resume. After graduating and in the past three years, I produced two feature length films. We were very fortunate to get a very good cast on both of them. In Reaper, the cast includes some big actors like Dany Trejo who was in Machete, or Vinnie Jones, from Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. I also co-star in this scary horror thriller that I co-wrote and co-produced. The success of this first movie helped make this new movie also based on one of my scripts called Pocket Listing. We were also blessed with a good cast on this one with big names like Rob Lowe, and the legendary Burt Reynolds, one of the original pioneers of Hollywood.
Tell us more about «Pocket Listing», premiering in Lebanon on the 4th of December. Pocket Listing, a satirical thriller about Los Angeles real estate, follows a real estate agent in his highs and lows throughout a year span and how he learns some lessons along the way about money and greed and loyalty and who his real friends are. He’s commissioned by a beautiful woman and her mysterious husband, played by Rob Lowe, to sell this huge Malibu villa, but attached to the deal are all kinds of criminal illegal activities that he has to be involved in to try to sell the house under the table. Pocket Listing is a real estate term for a secret deal that is not really in the market but is just between the buyer and the seller… If you liked movies like TheWolf of Wall Street, American Hustle or Jerry Maguire, you’ll definitely find something to enjoy in this one.
How would you describe Jack Woodman, your character in the movie? Jack is the real estate agent that is hired by Rob Lowe to sell the house. He’s a hustler. At the beginning of the movie, he’s just trying to close the deal at any cost. He doesn’t care about anything except the money and making the biggest deal possible. But after he falls from grace, he begins to realize that there is more to life than just cutting the deal, and that there are people on the other end of the spectrum that are much less fortunate than the ones he is dealing with… They make due with much less, they are more decent, more honorable and in the end stick with him more than the characters he started of with. So he learns some hard lessons and he tries to keep his head above water during all of the twist and turns of the story… But you’ll need to see the movie to know what happens to him in the end (laughs).
You wrote the script, star in it and produce it too… My father and I set up a production company called Mythmaker Productions. Our goal is to make our vision of making films become a reality. My father is a patron of the arts and someone who encouraged my love of cinema. So when he knew that I really wanted to do this business he was ready to help. We were very fortunate with these two projects and we hope to keep producing more. Naturally you can’t do it alone, we have several partners that helped us put things together. It’s a team effort, so we can’t take full credit.
Is it easier to play characters that you wrote yourself? It helps you, as an actor, to understand the psychology of the character if you have written it. Because you know the guy in a very different way then you would if you were getting the script randomly and have to build the character from your mind. If you wrote it, then it came from within you. I spoke with the producers and directors about ways that I could play the characters to make them more believable. If, while interacting with the other actors to make sure there was chemistry, I felt that I wouldn’t be able to pull it of or that I wasn’t right, I wouldn’t have done it…
Over the years, there has been a lot of examples where the final movie doesn’t really reflect the original screenplay. It’s true, that’s why some people who write screenplays insist not only on acting them but directing them. They want to make sure that their vision is fully realized.
Being a screenplay writer yourself, do you prefer to be both, behind and in front ofthe camera? On the Reaper and Pocket Listing, I knew that I didn’t want to commit fully to directing because I wanted other people to try to realize the vision and bring their style to it. I didn’t want it to be only my vision, my style. I wanted somebody else to put his ingredients in the mix. I really like this method of just writing and acting and being able to realize my material. I have done pure acting jobs in the past where I was just a hired employee on the set who just says the lines and goes home. That’s fine too! Let’s say it’s case by case. But you eventually grow more attached to movies you wrote and produce.
What type of genre do you prefer working on? Every kind of film is difficult to make. It’s difficult to scare someone, it’s difficult to make someone cry, it’s difficult to make someone laugh. It’s tough to elicit emotions from people, to grab someone’s attention and make them identify with the situation on the screen. We have projects that range from thriller to horror, etc… Pocket Listing and Reaper are from different ends of the planet. We’re very open to doing all kind of commercial films…
Which is your personal favorite? I like social thrillers, that have some relevancy in the real world, human stories but at the same time they have that layer of drama with a little exaggeration. I don’t like things that are purely documentary, 100% fact. I think that when you go to the movie you have to suspend this belief and you have to see something that you don’t see in reality. I like reality with a twist, with sugar and spice. You have to have that level of imagination in movies, where it takes you to a fantasy level. Threads of reality mixed with some interesting drama, that’s, in my opinion, the best cocktail.
You write original screenplays. Where do you get your inspiration from? They always come from an experience that I exaggerate to wild degrees. For example, for my first movie Reaper, that I co-wrote with Mark James, a dear friend of mine…
I hope you haven’t experienced it especially that it’s a horror movie! (Laughs) No thank God. Knock on wood! (Laughs). I was driving with Mark on the highway when we saw this beautiful blond hitchhiker who looks exactly like Shayla Beesley, the actress in Reaper. This truck stops… She hops in it, and the guy who was driving the truck was really this masculine scary hat-wearing guy who could have just been out of prison… I said to Mark: «Oh my God! Can you imagine what can happen to this poor beautiful young girl?» My friend took a moment and said «What if she’s the one who is the threat, and not the other way around?». We started talking about how fascinating it could be when danger comes from the least likely of characters, which is what this movie is about in some ways. You start referring to other classic films in the genre like Psycho or The Shining which we kind of paid homage to because it is set in a hotel and everything is going on in it… I always try to borrow something a little bit from reality and stretch it to all kinds of unrealistic places.
Who are your favorite actors? I grew up watching and admiring the older generation, who really influenced me: Michael Douglas, Jack Nicholson, Michael Caine, Burt Reynolds, Warren Betty… I think you won’t find too many new versions of them.
What would be your dream cast? My dream cast would be a fusion of Eastern, European and Western actors… It’s actually a future project we are working on. Some kind of Babel movie where everyone is in different places but are all connected somehow… That would be something interesting because it would allow us to merge different parts of the world and different actors from different places.
So you already have a script? (Big smile) I do! But it is still an ongoing project. The plots keep changing as we move forward towards production…
This is not your first visit to Lebanon? We always used to come to Lebanon on vacations when I was younger. And in the course of the last couple of years, I attended my cousins weddings here… It is always a pleasure to be back. When we were in Cannes in May, we were very fortunate to come across Empire Theater group, headed by Mario Haddad and his son who are really gentlemen and became friends of ours in the past couple of months. They immediately expressed an interest in handling and distributing the films across the region. When I knew that it would be released here, I wanted to make an active effort to come back to Lebanon and try to promote them and help the movies find an audience and hopefully try to introduce both of them and myself to the public.
Jurdi, your family name, doesn’t sound American. Does it make it difficult for you? Amazingly it’s ambiguous. Some think I’m French and call me James Jeudi, meaning Thursday in French! (laughs). Others think it’s an Italian name. It doesn’t have a regional sound so it has not given me trouble.
Arab actors in LA are mostly cast as terrorists… It’s tough. You get stereotyped easily based on how you look. It’s a visual media, and what you present visually is the way that you’ll be looked at by the casting people, directors and producers as well as people who see movies. I was blessed with both an ambiguous name and an ambiguous appearance. (laughs)
What’s your favorite movie? Everything from the Godfather to Dumb & Dumber! (laughs).
What movie would you have loved to write?The Godfather, because the characters are so fascinating, I like movies where characters are flawed and corrupt but at the same time they’re human, because it reflects a side of us that we all have. In this trilogy, you are essentially looking at criminal characters who are in a mafia enterprise, but humanizing them and relating to them more. I think that’s really interesting. It is the case in Reaper and Pocket Listing. The main characters are criminals… But the viewers end up relating to them. They have some human understanding of their situation, why they’re doing what they’re doing. So I think that’s more interesting to have kinds of shady characters.
You said that you used to enjoy the magic of movies… Is it still the case now that youare in the business? You watch movies differently because you remember all the work it takes to have a single scene done. You notice things that others don’t. You can’t help but think: they must have done that, they must have used this camera… It remains magical but at the same time you look at it very specifically. When watching something light and comedic, I allow myself to just relax and enjoy it.
Over the last few years, mini-series and series are attracting big names like Kevin Spacey or Matthew McConaughey. Are you considering working also for TV whether writing, producing or acting? In the old days, it was considered a step down if you were on TV, but nowadays TV is becoming the number one medium. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time is Breaking Bad. I rented the whole show and saw in ten days period. It was amazing. One of our producing partners suggested we try a mini serie. We are completely open to that… I think that television is really going to upset the theatrical system in the US in the coming five years. A lot of big movies that you see in theaters now are going to be available on TV via pay-per-view order systems.
The cast of «Reaper»: Danny Trejo, Shayla Beesley, Vinnie Jones and James Jurdi.
What would you say is your best characteristic? I try to take the best of both worlds, trying to take the best from the US and the best from my international background and try to make into one, both personally for me as well as hopefully in the future professionally. Borrowing the best from both worlds on the creative level as well as personal level.
What is your major flaw? Look at me, everything! (laughs) I always look unshaven… (laughs) One thing that I learned to adjust is to let a lot of my creative projects become separate entities from anything I originally envisioned. In the early stages of my career, I always used to say: «this is my idea, my film…» But I’ve learned to let go. Originally I think when you possess a project, it suffocates and becomes all about you. I want it to be a shared vision, my vision as well as the contribution of others. So I think learning to let go of your creative process and learning to make them more of a community affair is something that I worked hard to improve.
What is your idea of happiness? Happiness is never a perfect state, you always go through happy periods and then challenging ones. But if you can learn from the challenging phase, and try to derive some happiness from it, then that would be the best situation.
What is your greatest fear? This is becoming a therapy session! (laughs) Fear of change to the worst, fear of losing loved ones… We all have these kinds of fears.
What would be the fault that you would never forgive? Honesty is always the best policy. I expect from people to be clear and honest. I’m a fan of the truth.
What is the quality you most like in a woman? Sense of humor, broad-minded awareness… And great hair! (laughs)
What is the quality you most like in a man? Not take oneself too seriously. A certain level of loyalty, respect, honesty and compassion.
If not yourself, who would you have liked to be? William Shakespeare. He was really prolific. His stories lived on for the rest of time and they have been recycled over and over again. Every single story that has been written since Shakespeare is borrowed or imitated or been influenced by him. I think his plays are the precedent for everything that has been done since. Anything that you see has elements of any Shakespearian play: comedy, drama, tragedy. He really set the bar for everybody. If I really had to pick one person, he’s definitely someone I have a huge respect for.
What is your motto in life? Keep learning. Always stay open to new experiences.
What do you wish for 2015? My immediate wish is that Pocket listing finds an audience and people go out to enjoy the film. I really hope that this film will find its way in this part of the world. And a greater wish for health and happiness and prosperity for friends and loved ones and everybody in between. And move forward with new projects in the near future.
What are your resolutions for 2015? My resolutions are always the same: keep moving forward, keep learning and keep enjoying life!
Do you have a message for our readers? For someone who lives abroad, it’s a real pleasure to be back here, and be embraced so warmly with this beautiful culture, beautiful town and all of this cuisine. I hope they give the films and other projects a chance on the big screen… Conducted by MariaNadim