Director Wade Gasque’s first feature, Tiger Orange, premieres at Los Angeles’ Outfest on July 18. The film centers around two gay brothers forced to reconnect after their father’s death. We asked Gasque to write about casting and working with his actor Frankie Valenti, famous for his adult film alter-ego Johnny Hazzard, and the challenges of stripping Valenti’s slick persona to get at a more vulnerable performance.
A couple of years ago, my partner, Mark Strano, showed me a script he was writing about two estranged gay brothers struggling to reconnect after the recent death of their father. It was a beautiful, compact, character-driven drama he wanted to star in, and wanted me to direct. We had no money. No producer. But seeing as how my current “in-development” feature was going nowhere fast, this little sibling drama actually seemed doable. It had few characters and few locations. We knew a producer up in Central California, where the story is set, whom we thought might come on board. It would be my first feature, so the idea of just going out with a tiny crew and shooting this thing was both credible and thrilling.
I dug into the script myself, honing in on the two brothers’ dynamic, pitting the older one (played by Mark) as a repressed, don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of guy who never leaves his hometown, against the younger, out-loud-and-proud brother who leaves at 18 and never looks back. These two guys were the whole movie. No explosions. No big set pieces. Just two brothers hashing it out. The more I dug into the story, the more excited I got about making it, and the more I knew that casting the younger brother was going to be crucial to the film’s success.
We considered going to some “name” actors but I was skeptical. I knew the agent would want to know where the money was coming from and we didn’t really know that ourselves. Most likely, we’d end up doing a Kickstarter campaign, the idea of which doesn’t exactly evoke confidence in an agent (I know this from past experience.) Plus, the whole idea of going through the system was just taxing to me. We’d have to schmooze the agent, wait for them to read the script, hope they actually give it to their client, wait for the actor to read and then bring in the lawyers, negotiate the fee, etc… easily a months-long process. Whenever I went down that road in my head, my enthusiasm for the project diminished. That initial spark of just getting out there and shooting my first feature suddenly felt heavy and impossible.
Then Mark showed me a photo of porn star Johnny Hazzard. What about him, he asked? Mark was a little more “familiar” with Johnny’s work. Johnny had won some acting awards at the Grabbys (the Oscars of the adult film industry) and had done a bit of legit acting work under his real name, Frankie Valenti, on HereTV’s The Lair, a gay soap opera about vampires. Needless to say, I wasn’t convinced.
The idea of casting Frankie was certainly intriguing, though. He had a huge following on social media – a built-in audience which we definitely needed. He looked the part. He seemed the part. But none of that mattered if this guy couldn’t act. We’d lose the audience right away.
So I asked Frankie if we could work through some of the scenes first, get him on tape, see how it played out. He was game. We all went to a rehearsal studio and I heaved a giant sigh of relief. He was good! He was green, for sure. He hadn’t done much acting. He didn’t know some of the terminology. But he was real. He was listening. And that’s everything.
We jumped in. We had maybe eight or so long rehearsals. Everything I was asking of Frankie was new to him. His character can be mean and ugly, weak, vulnerable. In a word: unlikeable. Adult film actors might play dominant or passive, sweet, coy, tough. But they don’t play unlikeable, ever. Our porn stars present fantasy to us, not reality. The moment I first met Frankie, it was clear why he was (and is) one of the biggest selling gay porn stars of the last 20years. He is a master of fantasy. Slick, gorgeous. A killer smile. A gentle but firm touch. The guy you fantasize about. He knew this. Everyone in a room with him knows this. He’s built an empire on it, after all. And here I was asking him to be unlikeable, to peel away the fantasy. And it wasn’t easy for him. Not because he didn’t want to but because, I think, he just didn’t know how. He’d spent a career crafting that slick, posed persona. It’s not something he could just lose at the drop of a hat; it was a core part of how he related to people. But the more we rehearsed the better he got, the more risks he took.
I basically turned into my maniacal college acting professor, yelling things like “Give me more!” and “Bullshit! I don’t believe you!” At one point, Frankie got so fed up that he yelled back, “I don’t know what you want from me!” I held his stare and just said, “That. That right there. Now turn to Mark and say the line.” And he did. And it was brilliant.
He told me later I was asking him to do the opposite of everything everyone had asked of him before. He was right. In hindsight, I was just asking him to be himself. And any actor can tell you, that’s the hardest thing.
There’s such a stigma around the adult film industry. These actors are looked at as lesser – like they’ve taken some cheap way out. But Frankie never, not once, shied away from talking about his career, his life choices. There was never an ounce of shame around it. He owned it, just like he owned this new role. And I’m not sure there are many of us who could shed our slick personas, our egos, those very parts of ourselves which have protected us, paid our bills and defined us for so long. But Frankie has created a character in Tiger Orange who is beautifully vulnerable – sometimes weak, sometimes ugly and very often unlikeable. And it’s an absolute joy to watch.
And I got to shoot my first feature with a “name” actor after all. MM
Tiger Orange will have its world premiere at Outfest at the Ford Amphitheater on July 18 and at Newfest at the Lincoln Center on July 26.
To subscribe to MovieMaker Magazine, click here.