Q&A: 'Not Fade Away' star John Magaro

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John Magaro in 'Not Fade Away'

John Magaro in 'Not Fade Away' (April 23, 2013)

One of 2012's best movies came and went without a shred of the attention it deserves, and it’s not as if the film's some obscure, subtitled documentary only a niche audience would see anyway.

It's "Not Fade Away," the tremendous feature writing-directing debut for "The Sopranos" creator David Chase, which arrives April 30 on Blu-Ray/DVD. It’s a must-see for anyone who loves classic, music-driven coming-of-age stories and how the feeling of being young can excite and change on a daily basis. Star John Magaro (“Liberal Arts”) endured months of musical training to play Douglas, a kid in the early '60s who goes from a lousy drummer to a charismatic singer and finally gains the attention of his old crush (Bella Heathcote) in the process.

From New York, Magaro, 30, talked about under-appreciated culture,  the experience of being tossed around by Mr. Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini (who plays Douglas' cranky father), and if he’d really want to live through the ‘60s.

I loved "Not Fade Away” and it was number five on my top 10 list, but I feel like it's under-appreciated much like some bands aren't appreciated in their time. Why do you think that happens with certain cultural elements?
Man, that's a great question, and I wish I had a more scientific answer for it. [Laughs] I think that happens a lot with music and film, for multiple reasons. Maybe it comes out at the wrong time, gets lost in the mix of things. Maybe we're saturated by so much film and so much television and so much music at this point, it's easy for us to say, "Oh, I'll see that later, or I'll check that out later," and by the time you have the chance to check it out, it's already gone. So fortunately, this is coming out on DVD right now and hopefully more people will get to see it and feel the way you felt about it when you saw it in the theater.

In the extras, Bella talks about you having a different persona as a drummer, seeing a sexy side of you from her perspective. How much did you feel the music brought out a different side of you, and how likely are you to continue now that she said that?
[Laughs] First of all, I don't know if I should take that as an insult from Bella. I might have to talk to her about that comment. No, in all seriousness, I think there's something really--'cause I didn't play music before this movie. I sung a little bit, but not like a rock singer or anything like that. But I remember the first time we played as a band, it was about a month after we had started learning our instruments, and we got through a song. We eked out this song, which sounded horrible but to us it sounded great. I remember this euphoric feeling after we had finished it, and I think there's something about music that makes you feel that way. I think that's why a lot of rock musicians seem so cool when they're up on stage because it just loosens you up. It opens you up to this feeling of liberation where you're comfortable letting some of your guard down and just being what you want to be. And I think playing the drums or playing music in general really affords that opportunity. So I would understand why she would say that. [Laughs]

What goes through your head when Tony Soprano is telling you what to do?
[Laughs] When he's telling me what to do, it's OK 'cause I can shrug that off and I can still be a bit of a jerk to him and respond in a snot-nosed, punk way. But when he comes at you and he grabs you by the collar and he pushes you against the counter and rips your shirt and smacks you around a little bit, that's a little bit scary.

And take after take you're telling David Chase you have to change your pants.
[Laughs] That scene, when we did that the first time, before we rehearsed it a little bit and it was like, "OK, this is what will happen, he'll come at you and he'll grab you and give you what for." And David's like, "Any questions?" We're both like, "No, I think we got it." And on the first take he comes at me with that Jim Gandolfini fury and grabs the shirt and basically rips the shirt apart. All the buttons pop off and there are parts of the shirt across the room. And then they yell cut and the costume designer comes in freaking out. "We only have three of those shirts--you can't do this all the time." And he had to calm down and tone it down and just rip the collar. But when he wants to come at you, you gotta be on your toes.

Douglas' parents don't understand why he wants to be a band. What was your own rebellion in your past that your parents didn't understand?
I think to some degree deciding to pursue acting and pursue this kind of lifestyle. I grew up in Cleveland, and there's not a lot of actors where I grew up. So the idea of doing this is such an alien idea for my parents, who were both teachers for 35 years that I think they were worried about the safety of doing something that seems so risky.

Is there a comment you remember them giving you, like, "Why don't you get a real job?"
My dad, when I said that, he was like, "Well, maybe you should think about getting a political science degree as well as an acting degree." Things like that. He never threw a roll at me like Jim's character does or grabbed me by the shirt and ripped my shirt for wanting to pursue it. But it was a worry on their part.

I appreciated the way the characters' perspective changes over time. It's such a movie about living in the moment. What's an example of something about which your perspective has really changed over time?
There's tons of things. [It's good] that the film gets to explore so many years because people really do learn a lot in the late teens, early 20s years. For me I think one of the things that I'm still kind of learning has been to let go of that fear of not immediately achieving what you want to achieve and still sticking to your dreams and not being let down or shy away from them. In the film, that's what he's going through--he's pinning all his hopes and dreams on this band and on this girl, on his family, and all these things let him down along the way. But he still has a dream and he still wants to be an artist and he continues on, trying to live in the moment. I think as I've gotten older it's been easier for me to realize that it's OK to live in the moment and take things day by day and try to make the most out of it.

Do you recall getting a part or having an experience when you're like, "Yes, I've made it! Good to go."
No, that's the thing. I'm sort of like a cautious optimist in a way. Or maybe a pessimist, depends how you look at it. I've been doing this now as a job for I guess seven years, and it's still what I love doing and am passionate about. I remember the first film I got, it's like, "Oh, great, it's all going to be set from here." Thinking that the struggle might be taken away a little bit. Being an artist you constantly have to work hard, you constantly have to make yourself better as an artist. You can't just sit down and rest on that. I don't think that works for many people. Which is good because it keeps you growing and learning and hopefully getting better at what you do.

For people around our age, it's easy to look at the era the movie captures and, at least from a musical perspective, wish you lived through it. If you could snap your fingers and be young for the '60s but consequently not be young for all the crazy awesome technology that's around now, would you do it?
Oh, man, that's a tough one. I think it's easy to be nostalgic about the past--the movie "Midnight in Paris" I think sums that feeling up. You might long for the past and you might long for this other era that you might worship or really idolize in a way, but when you get there you find yourself looking for something else. It's tough now--I was just talking to my mom last night, she was visiting from Cleveland, and I was with my brother and my cousin and we were complaining about how all these kids we know, or all these young adults we know now, are going through this crisis of not wanting to do what they've pursued and they want to change their course in life. And complaining about music and complaining about things that are going on right now. But you look back on the '60s and it seems like people were doing that then too. They were unsatisfied with places they were at or their position in life. Maybe if I could go back for a week and do a trial run at it, that would give me a better idea if I would want to stick around.

It all depends what model time machine you use.
[Laughs] Exactly. I need a flux capacitor. Need a DeLorean.

The Beatles vs. Stones question is asked all the time, but would you rather be a fly on the wall for a conversation during Mick and Keith or John and Paul?
It would be for Mick and Keith. I think their conversations have to get pretty interesting. I think they just get crazier and they probably fight more. Even though the Beatles didn't make it, I feel like the Stones have this love/hate relationship that has lasted all these years and they go at it but they still come together and make great music. So getting to experience that, and go through that still and still come on a stage [in a stadium] that's filled with thousands of people and play these amazing songs that they wrote years ago, I think getting to experience a night with them would be something else.

What will we do when there are no more legitimate festival headliners? Every year there are fewer and fewer bands rising to that status.
Yeah, I don't know. It's really an odd time right now for music. There's still good music out there, and there's still good rock 'n' roll music out there, but it's a lot less than it was in the '60s when Earth-shifting albums were put out every month. Now, maybe you'll get one a year or every two years that may not even be Earth-shifting but it's still good music. We went through this phase where you had this lo-fi rock that had become really successful. Lately we're on a kick of this '70s and '80s where you have these solo acts like Tom Petty and Springsteen and things like that. Maybe that's the next phase for rock 'n' roll. I don't think rock 'n' roll will go away, and I hope that it will have a resurgence again, but it is sad that it isn't what it once was.

Is there a fascinating music story that you learned during the process of this movie, about the Stones or anyone else, that you didn't know before?
When we were producing the songs for the movie, [music supervisor] Steven Van Zandt was talking about his experiences with Springsteen, and they were talking about trying to get this quality for these songs where it sounded not overproduced, live, because a lot of the songs we play are live, and as authentic as it could but also sounding bearable to listen to. He was talking about how long it took Springsteen to produce an album that sounded like a live experience, which is what they had been going for for years. And I think he said it was like their fourth or fifth album until they finally got that right. So seeing someone who had already achieved success still struggle to get the sound they want … meanwhile I talk to my friends who are in bands, and they're always complaining about the production of their EPs or their singles or whatever, so it's funny to see somebody who was successful still struggling to get this sound that they want.

So you just tell your friends, "The Boss deals with this all the time. Relax."?
[Laughs] That's what I say. I say, "Follow the words of the Boss." Then they look at me with contempt and they still complain about it.

On a scale of 1 to 100, what are the chances that you and the other guys in the movie would mess around in the studio, put some songs down?
To actually record some songs? It's 100 percent chance that we'll get together and play because we still have gotten together and played, and it's still an amazing experience every time we get to jam together. As far as recording something, I'd put it above 50 percent. Because I guess the more we get together and the more we learn I think maybe the more we'll actually want to record something.

mpais@tribune.com, @mattpais

Plus:
On Chicago: "I think of wind and I think of hot dogs. Chicago hot dogs. And the band Chicago … I went a couple times when I was a kid to visit. I think I went to a wedding and a Bar Mitzvah there. A couple of my best friends live in Chicago, so when I get a chance I try and visit them. It's a great town; I wish I could get there more often. It's tough to get away sometimes."
Who he'd schedule at a music fest he curated, if given the choice of anyone still living: The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, New York Dolls
First album he remembers buying: Green Day, "Dookie." That's when I started to get turned on to rock 'n' roll music in fifth grade or something. That was the hit at the time. I was like, "Yeah, I gotta get that."
A movie that scared him: What I used to watch was always "Tales from the Crypt." And those would always scary but early on because I was watching that I saw "Tales from the Dark Side II." It's like three vignettes, right, and there's this one about this hitchhiker that this lady runs over and the hitchhiker follow her home. And I remember that freaking me out.
Best singing drummer: Phil Collins
Worst singing drummer: Ringo Starr
 

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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