Every generation has their own fallen star that meets their end in a tragic way. It’s rare that one can talk about a thespian’s career posthumously without ultimately tying it to their tragic fate. In the case of Sal Mineo he was part of the generation that lost James Dean to an auto racing accident. Most of what was known about Mineo was a direct tie to Dean for his performances in Rebel Without A Cause and Giant. As the actor fell into obscurity it was a fatal stabbing, at the age of 37, that put him on the media’s radar again, albeit for a short time.
Sadly most of what was revered about Mineo in his early career was later expunged from the public’s knowledge. For most, Sal Mineo’s career post Rebel is a huge question mark. When no one was watching Mineo went on to become an accomplished theater actor, a man who sold out stadiums with his voice, and was the youngest person nominated for two Academy Awards in his category.
For director James Franco and actor Val Lauren, their task for Sal was difficult. Both Lauren and Franco worked on the story together, based on the book by Michael Gregg Michaud. The two former theater classmates had to reintroduce Sal Mineo the thespian, while dispelling the mystique built up around Mineo in 1976. Taking an unconventional route, in the same vein as Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, Sal shines a light on the final day of Mineo’s life, while highlighting the sum of his parts. One gets the impression that Val Lauren has been waiting for this role his whole life, as he shows that he has both youthful and energetic qualities in spades. One may pose that this is a career best for Lauren, but his performance says otherwise, as this is clearly only the beginning.
The Inquisitr’s Niki Cruz spoke with actor Val Lauren on working with James Franco, rediscovering Sal Mineo, and embodying a missing piece of Hollywood royalty.
THE INQUISITR: How has your working relationship with James Franco evolved?
VAL LAUREN: This film was our first time collaborating on a movie together. We’ve collaborated on plays, and developing characters for films that we were individually going to do on our own, but I guess our relationship just grew in our creative communication with each other of how it is to tell a story in full in a film medium.
THE INQUISITR: You and James met at the theater company Playhouse West. Are you still involved in productions?
LAUREN: I actually am, and James is as well. Right now I’m directing a play that’s set to open on October 26 called “100 Days Of Yesterday.” It’s a play that Scott Caan from Hawaii Five-0 wrote, and I’m producing and directing it. Scott and I have done a dozen plays together. This is the first one we’re not actually acting in. We are creatively putting it together for these two great actors that we found out of our theater company.
THE INQUISITR: Being a theater actor, you must have related to Sal Mineo in a large way.
LAUREN: Absolutely. When film was not much of an outlet for Sal he heavily got involved in theater. For me theater has always been a consistent and vital part of my creative outlet. Sometimes films are far and few between. When you do act in films you’re acting for little pockets at a time, but with theater it’s different. It’s always been an alternative but consistent presence in my life.
THE INQUISITR: Would you rather act for an audience as opposed to acting for the camera? The energy must be night and day.
LAUREN: It is very different. I can’t compare the two. They both have tremendous upsides to storytelling. With theater there’s a certain kind of momentum. There’s a live exchange of energy with the audience, where there’s this shift and it’s a volleyball game of energy that’s going back and forth in the room. I’ve had some of my best acting experiences acting in plays. In movies it offers you a great atmosphere, and a great opportunity to do so much more with how you want to tell a story. You can really engage with the set and the other actors around you. I love them both.
THE INQUISITR: Given that you have a clear resemblance to Sal Mineo, did you pursue the role? Did James make you audition?
LAUREN: I got a text from James saying, “You’re going to play Sal Mineo, cool?” I stared at my phone and wondered what he was up to. Of course I replied, “Yes” and that was the beginning of how Sal started. We were like the James Dean and Sal Mineo of Playhouse West because we would work together so much, and I resembled Sal, and he resembled James Dean, so it was always a bit of a joke. When James was working on James Dean I was with him throughout that process, and we drove around to all of these different places. In researching James Dean, we of course read a lot about Sal Mineo. It didn’t really surprise me that he wanted to tell the story. Of course after I agreed to play Sal we had a lot of conversations about the stories we wanted to tell. It wasn’t an informational biopic. All the trials and tribulations that he had, James felt like anyone could go on the Internet and find out in a matter of minutes. We wanted to capture an intimate understanding of the man, rather than a recap on his career highlights.
THE INQUISITR: How was it becoming Sal Mineo for the film? Did you find anything you had in common, as far as your work ethic?
LAUREN: I understand a lot of the struggles that come with being an actor and the idea of having a lot of love and passion for something, but not having the elements completely in control to be able to do it. I can really understand Sal’s struggle. As far as our personalities are concerned I had to do a lot of work to understand him as a person, and to be able to play that special kind of something that he had about him. The work came in capturing his essence.
THE INQUISITR: Were you concerned with people’s perceptions of Sal Mineo getting in the way of your performance?
LAUREN: I wasn’t. One thing that surprised me more than anything is that people didn’t know anything about him. People pretty much knew that he worked with James Dean but that’s about it. He was one of the five biggest stars in the world for six years straight in the 1950s but people didn’t know who he was. As far as perception there was a lot of misconception about him, and the main one is that he died as a result of his homosexual lifestyle, or that it was homosexually motivated. That’s how it was portrayed because the media thought it would be a good story at the time.
THE INQUISITR: So you must have felt a certain responsibility to close the gap on Sal’s legacy.
LAUREN: Definitely. I felt a strong responsibility to represent him accurately and to really catch what made him so unique as an individual, and also to reintroduce this special guy to the world. In spite of not having money to feed himself, and having fallen from a high mountain of where he was sitting, in spit of all of this tragedy; he lived the last day of his life doing what he loved, and pursuing what he loved. He kept a very positive and cheerful outlook, and never let his circumstances turn him sour. He kept on fighting with the best of his intentions to do what he loved. It’s universal and it made me love him as a person, just to see how he was living despite losing everything.
THE INQUISITR: Since this was a very short shoot, what did you use to research the role?
LAUREN: Michael Gregg Michaud wrote the book Sal in which the movie is based. He took ten years writing a fantastic biography of Sal, and he researched every nook and cranny of his life, and I had the benefit of spending a lot of time with Michael, and not just to pour over the book with him, but to travel around town, and go to the places where Sal lived and hung out. He was integral in my initial understanding of who Sal was. I got to become familiar of all these different facets that made up a well-rounded artist.
THE INQUISITR: While you were making this film, did you ever think about where Sal’s career could have went if he wasn’t murdered?
LAUREN: I did think about that. At the time of his death he was very interested in directing. He was on the verge of getting a movie off the ground. It was about to be financed by MGM and he was about to direct it. He would have continued to act as well as really stepping into the ring as a director. He was very courageous with the kind of things he wanted to make, especially at that time. The stories he wanted to show were not only about homosexual life, but he was pushing boundaries. I think he would have established himself as an innovative filmmaker.
Sal is available on VOD now with a limited November 1 release date.