ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Oscar Fever in New Orleans

Lance Nichols crosses fingers for ‘Benjamin Button’

Hollywood’s biggest night of the year is just days away, and the anticipation is stirring more than the usual level of excitement in New Orleans. That’s because “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” a movie set and filmed in the city, is a leading contender for the top prize at the 81st annual Academy Awards.

Released in December 2008, “Benjamin Button” has snagged 13 Oscar nominations, including the categories of best picture and director. Adapted from an F. Scott Fitzgerald story about a baby who is born “old” and “ages backward,” the film drew best actor and best supporting actress nominations for Brad Pitt and Taragi Henson. It also captured nominations for makeup, costumes and visual effects it used to portray Pitt as an 80-year-old “child” who becomes ever younger as time passes.

Local people who worked on the film are basking in the thrill. Chief among them may be actor Lance Nichols. A veteran of local stages who has appeared in scores of films and television productions during his 30-year career, Nichols landed a significant role in “Benjamin Button,” playing an old-time preacher who enlists divine power in an attempt to help the “decrepit” child Button walk on his own.

The outcome of this Sunday night’s awards ceremony could have an ongoing impact on Nichols’ career, but he says the bigger result could be the attention that a win would shower on New Orleans.

Director David Fincher began filming “Benjamin Button” in New Orleans in 2006. The movie is the reason that actor Pitt and his partner Angelina Jolie came to the city during the months after Hurricane Katrina, with the result that they became part-time residents and powerful advocates for the city’s recovery. Nichols believes the success of “Benjamin Button” can help affirm New Orleans’ comeback and demonstrate its viability as a film production center.

Reached this week in Los Angeles, where he is working on other projects, Nichols talked about his current work, how it feels to be associated with an Oscar-nominated film and where he will be on “Oscar night.”

Q. You have spent a lot of time over the years shuttling between New Orleans and Los Angeles. What are you doing there now?

A. I just finished shooting a music video with [2009 Grammy-winning rap star and New Orleans native] Lil Wayne. His new single is called “Prom Queen,” and he plays a guy who wants to get with the high school prom queen, but she doesn’t want anything to do with him. In a scene at the school gym, I play the principal of the high school. It’s a very funny scene. I’ve been thinking how ironic this is: How many actors can say, “I was in a movie with Brad Pitt, but I was also in a Lil Wayne video?”

Q. What has “Benjamin Button” meant to you so far?

A. It was a tremendous experience to be a part of it. I’ve seen the film twice now, and I realize how special it is. I think it’s the kind of film people are going to be talking about 10, 20 years from now. But I have to say I’m extremely disappointed that the movie has pretty much been shut out of the major awards up to this point. [Rival film “Slumdog Millionaire” took top honors at the recent Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild and Critic’s Choice awards.] I don’t understand that. I just hope that the Academy will recognize what a special cinematic achievement “Benjamin Button” is and award it accordingly.

Q. It could be tough. The sentiment for “Slumdog Millionaire” seems pretty strong.

A. I saw “Slumdog” and I thought it was a really wonderful film. But if you hold it up against “Benjamin Button,” there is no way in my opinion that the movie should be walking away with every award. “Benjamin Button” is movie-making at its very finest. From the story, to the photography, to the acting; it’s seamless.

Q. How did you land the role of the preacher?

A. After Katrina I had relocated to Los Angeles, and I came back to New Orleans in the summer of 2006 to shoot a commercial for the Road Home program. While I was in New Orleans my agent called and said, “Hey, they’re auditioning for a Brad Pitt film and they’d like to see you.” They put me on tape, and I gave them a copy of my demo reel, which had a short clip from a Christian film I had done in which I played a preacher. About three weeks later they invited me to a table reading in Los Angeles. They sent a script and I was told to be at ABC Studios in Hollywood on a Saturday morning. In the commissary they had set up a huge table with chairs all around it. At the reading were Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Julia Ormond, Jason Fleming, Taragi Henson, David Fincher (the director), Eric Roth (the screenwriter), Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall (the producers), and several other actors who were reading for other roles. We sat there and read through the entire script.

When we finished they provided lunch, and during lunch I went up to Brad Pitt and introduced myself, because it was right around the time Brad and Angelina had just moved to New Orleans to help with the rebuilding. So I went up to him and said, “Look, I’m from New Orleans and I really appreciate what you and Angelina are doing to help our city.” He was really nice and he said, “I’m glad you’re going to be on board for this project, it should be fun.”

So I’m thinking, “He just told me I got this part, but I’m not supposed to know it yet.” The next week my agent called and said, yes, they wanted to offer me the role. Of course, at the time I had no idea the film was going to take off like it did. I realized it was a major film, with major stars, but I had no idea how significant my role was to the story until I saw the film. I couldn’t figure out why I seemed to be in all the trailers. Every time they’d show a clip of the movie, it would always have that scene. Then when I saw the movie, it made sense to me.

Q. Your scene, like some other parts of the movie, was somewhat  humorous. Ironically, part of what made it funny was that the preacher had a heart attack. You took a pretty good fall — did it hurt?

A. Fortunately, they put padding down, so it didn’t hurt when I fell. David Fincher likes to do a lot of takes. He shot it from various angles, so I probably fell like 20 to 25 times, but I didn’t get hurt.

Q. Where will you be during the Oscar ceremony?

A. I tried to get tickets to the Academy Awards. I went to the studio and the producer, but nobody could find tickets. So some friends here in Los Angeles are throwing an Oscar party for me, and a lot of my actor friends are going to be there. With 13 nominations, I’m hoping the film can walk away with at least half that number. That would be pretty good.

Q. What would a “best picture” win for “Benjamin Button” mean for you?

A. It’s not just that it would mean so much to me on a personal level, but it would mean so much to me as a citizen of New Orleans. It would be so much a stamp of validation on the city. That’s what I’m pulling for. But whether it wins or not, that won’t change the fact that I was blessed enough and fortunate enough to be part of an amazing film.

Q. You’ve done a considerable amount of work since “Benjamin Button” haven’t you?

A. I’m in three films that are coming out this year: “I Love You Phillip Morris” with Jim Carrey; a remake of “The Bad Lieutenant” with Val Kilmer and Nicholas Cage; and a movie coming out at the end of the year with James Gandolfini, “Welcome To the Rileys.”

Then, I just shot a film last week in Baton Rouge called “The Chameleon,” with a French director. And I’m waiting to hear on a possible recurring role in HBO’s “Treme,” which is going to shoot in New Orleans. It was created by David Simon who did [critically-acclaimed HBO series] “The Wire.”

Q. You’ve been pretty busy with film and TV work. What about the stage?

A. I’m going to be doing my next play in May at Southern Rep Theatre —  John Biguenet’s “Shotgun.” This is the second part of the Katrina trilogy. I’m really excited about it because John is a tremendous writer and I get to work with some actors I’ve worked with before who are truly outstanding. Kenneth Brown, who played my grandson in “The Breach” will be in it, as well as Donna Duplantier who was in “Relativity” last year at Southern Rep. And I’ll be working with a great director I have worked with before, Valerie Curtis-Newton, who directed me in “Yellowman” at Southern Rep in 2004. It’s going to be really wonderful. •

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