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August 28, 2013

Best Supporting Player: Joan Scheckel

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Photo Credit: Dan Monick

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At the space, Scheckel explains that film is a young art form that blossomed during wartime when, she says, people needed escapist stories of heroism. "We're growing out of that story, that we're here to vanquish and win," she says. "It's not working for America, it's not working for anybody—it's done." It's a male story: boys fighting boys, boys getting girls, winners and losers, all disconnected from the complicated emotional realities of our lives. She's not against blockbusters; she loved The Dark Knight. But usually, those films feel empty, she says: "It's like, you can have a really thrilling conversation with a guy you meet in a bar and feel all stirred up and hot, but you never hear from him again, and it was a lot of excitement for nothing. Movies can be like that," says Scheckel. "If I go see a movie that's just a lot of things blowing up, I might get excited, but I leave feeling distracted or confused." In contrast, she's trying to help directors and screenwriters tell stories that will resonate with viewers long after the screen goes dark.

Later, in the tiny kitchen of her Moroccan-antique-filled and book-strewn house built into Hollywood bedrock, she stands barefoot while sautéing jumbo stalks of organic asparagus, describing how she and director Niki Caro adapted Witi Ihimaera's novel Whale Rider into an Academy Award–nominated film. They inherited a story about a Maori grandfather losing footing in his tribe, and transformed it into the 2003 film about his granddaughter's awakening to her own power. Scheckel says it was a metaphor for the change she wants to deliver in filmmaking: "That this is the century of women," she says.

Her coaching career began here, in 1997, when her first student, Rainer Judd, an actress and the daughter of artist Donald Judd, showed up in Scheckel's living room asking for acting lessons. At the time, Scheckel was a recent transplant from New York, where she'd graduated from NYU as a performance major and acted in more than 200 plays. Shortly after teaching her first students in her small Hollywood bungalow, a friend's film went on hiatus at Warner Hollywood Studios, and 35,000 square feet of soundstage lay empty. Scheckel asked if she could use the space. Word spread that she was coaching actors, and as the film's hiatus dragged on, her reputation gained traction—not just for taking over a studio lot with an underground workshop but also for the unusual effectiveness of her methods.

Scheckel's work has always come first; in fact, she turned down a marriage proposal (one of many, she says) to move to Los Angeles. Her romantic history sounds as rich as her performance career: Over wine at dinner, she laughs that her relationship with Alexander Payne, the director who gained fame for his Oscar-winning viticulture-obsessed film Sideways, left her without an ounce of wine expertise. Later she mentions another ex, classical composer Osvaldo Golijov. A trained opera singer, Scheckel is a huge music lover and also hosts "all-night '70s-soul dance parties, a screening series, and art shows" at The Space, which she signed the lease on this past spring. "My workshops are intense, but come over on Saturday night and there's a huge party."

While I watch Scheckel lead the lab in L.A., I keep thinking of the word power: Rather than the sort of Louis Vuitton–toting Beverly Hills power that clings to successful women in this city, Scheckel's is a power of presence. As Bryce Dallas Howard, known best as one of the Twilight stars but who's worked with Scheckel to develop as a director (she's shot a few shorts), says of her: "She's like one of these old-school transformative teachers. She's elevating an entire generation of storytellers." Howard says she doesn't "want to be too grand about it, but it's kind of like a movement."

But besides indie actors and filmmakers like Howard, Scheckel is winning over Hollywood's Old Guard, too. She worked closely with director Nicholas Jarecki in preparation for his first major feature film, Arbitrage, a film that eventually garnered Richard Gere a Best Actor Golden Globe nomination for his portrayal of a callous, overambitious hedge fund manager. After Gere agreed to do the movie, he found out that Jarecki had worked with Scheckel. "When I met Richard," says Scheckel, "he said, 'So you're the one who opened Nick up!' I was like, 'I can't believe I'm standing at a bar and Richard Gere is talking to me, much less complimenting me.'" Her students wouldn't find it hard to believe at all. In fact, they'd tell him to get in line.


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