Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Jazzing Up the Big Screen
Singer Norah Jones
Makes Her Acting Debut
In an Arthouse Movie
By JOHN JURGENSEN
As her latest project got under way, Norah Jones realized she couldn't stand the sound of her own voice. The problem wasn't her honeyed singing style, which has helped sell about 36 million albums world-wide. Instead, she was mortified by the speaking voice she heard in the daily footage from her first film role. "It's like hearing yourself on the answering machine," she says. "That was the hardest part of the movie."
Six years after a set of jazzy pop songs made her a household name in music, Ms. Jones is moving into unfamiliar territory in the movies. In keeping with her other professional choices, she didn't choose a Hollywood vehicle for her debut. Instead, Ms. Jones plays the lead in the first English-language film from Wong Kar Wai, the acclaimed Chinese director of arthouse favorites such as "Chungking Express" and "In the Mood for Love." Mr. Wong created the movie, "My Blueberry Nights," around Ms. Jones, who found herself trading lines with formidable actors like Jude Law, Natalie Portman, David Strathairn and Rachel Weisz.
While countless musicians have crossed over into film -- with mixed results -- Ms. Jones's decision to make her screen debut stands out. Her ability to strike a chord with a diverse audience has made her one of the most successful recording artists of the past decade. "My Blueberry Nights" represents the first test of whether Ms. Jones has drawing power beyond music. The movie is also the latest demonstration of how Ms. Jones is steering a career that has largely defied industry trends. By diving into film with an avant-garde director, and forming scrappy bands with names like the Little Willies, Ms. Jones has been acting like the hustling indie artist she was before fame swept her up at age 22. "I've been trying to recreate that life for six years," she says.
Norah Jones discusses the attention her film debut has drawn, and her favorite karaoke songs, in a Q&A with the Journal's John Jurgensen.
"My Blueberry Nights" tells the story of Elizabeth, a New Yorker who tries to cure her broken heart with a peripatetic journey. Working her way around the country as a waitress (and a patient listener), Elizabeth strikes up illuminating friendships. In Reno, Nev., for instance, she falls in with a sly but haunted gambler played by Ms. Portman. Often the camera focuses on the open face of Ms. Jones, whose Elizabeth is a foil for the wounded characters she encounters.
Not that Ms. Jones knew any of these plot details when she signed up for the job. She agreed to meet Mr. Wong in New York in 2005, assuming the director wanted to use her music. Instead he asked her to act. His idea had taken root about a year before their meeting when Mr. Wong heard a half-hour radio program about Ms. Jones while stuck in traffic in Taipei. "At the time, I wasn't very familiar with Norah and her work; however, her voice intrigued me. It was so visual that it gave me a very specific image of her. It was a cinematic experience," he says.
Though it took her about two weeks and discussions with her management, family and friends to say yes to Mr. Wong's offer, she had already been mulling a move into film and had recently enrolled in acting lessons. Mr. Wong told her to quit the classes, and though she had misgivings, she complied. But she wouldn't receive a script for another year -- a week-and-a-half before filming was to commence -- and only gradually learned who her co-stars would be. That is because Mr. Wong, who co-wrote the screenplay, continued to develop the script and characters as the shoot progressed, allowing his actors' performances to guide the story.
Norah Jones is one of the decade's best-selling singers.
"Most directors cast actors to fit into roles, but that's not necessarily true in my case. I never worried about Norah's ability to play her character because her character was mostly inspired by Norah's personality and spirit," he says.
Ms. Jones says she had a "terrifying" first week of shooting in New York. Her initiation included some of the most challenging scenes she'd face, such as a crying jag and a tricky kissing scene with Jude Law, which took three days of choreographed camera work to complete, she says. Mr. Wong did little coaching beyond a piece of early advice. "He said, 'All these actors are professional. Don't try to follow them. They'll follow you. That's their job.' It made me feel better," she says.
At that stage Mr. Wong "wanted me to be awkward," she says. But as the shoot moved on to Reno and Memphis (the movie was largely filmed in sequence), Ms. Jones warmed to her role. And her growing confidence in front of the camera matched the evolution of her character, Elizabeth, who returns to New York a changed woman. "This trip was a parallel for me," Ms. Jones says.
The final scenes of "My Blueberry Nights" were shot in March 2007, just in time for the film to premiere at the Cannes Film Festival that May. It received mixed response there, with critics' descriptions ranging from "sumptuous" to a "never-ending spigot of syrup." After Cannes, the movie was edited again. A long opening voiceover by Elizabeth that delved into her faltering romance was cut back significantly. Other portions were tightened, too, reducing the film's total running time to 90 minutes, down from about two hours.
Since then the film has opened in Europe and Asia, where critics in general seemed to root for Ms. Jones. The Daily Telegraph of London, for instance, called her "surprisingly effective," giving her character "a coltish innocence." Distributed by the Weinstein Co., "My Blueberry Nights" will open in New York and the Los Angeles area on April 4. Two weeks later, it will expand to the top 10 or 20 movie markets.
The movie kicks off with vivid shots of vanilla ice cream melting on blueberry pie to the tune of "The Story," a laconic blues that Ms. Jones wrote at her piano at dawn after a night of shooting. Other songs came from Cat Power, the stage name for singer-songwriter Chan Marshall, who also has a small role in the film. The soundtrack album is being released Tuesday by Blue Note Records, Ms. Jones's label. Blue Note is a division of EMI, the British music company that was purchased last summer by a private-equity company, Terra Firma, leading to recently announced plans for layoffs and cost cuts.
Though Ms. Jones consulted Blue Note before taking the role, she had no contractual obligation to do so. Blue Note general manager Zach Hochkeppel says the label's only worry was that the production would eat into Ms. Jones's obligations to promote her most recent album, "Not Too Late." Now, however, with no firm plans in place for Ms. Jones's next album, Blue Note is looking forward to the film's U.S. release as a way to put her back in the public eye. "To her credit -- and to our consternation -- she is not interested in maintaining her profile or ballasting her brand. She very much recoils when things like that come up," Mr. Hochkeppel says.
The home studio in the East Village where Ms. Jones recorded her last album helps her stay in the downtown orbit she carved out before signing to Blue Note in 2001 and collecting five Grammys in 2003. Nearby is the Living Room, a bar where Ms. Jones cut her teeth as a singer-songwriter and, as recently as last month, performed with her low-key country band, the Little Willies. Elsewhere, she has taken the stage with two girlfriends as the Sloppy Joannes. And, with a punchy rock group calling itself El Madmo, she has played electric guitar in fishnet stockings, a platinum wig and a bandit mask of makeup. "It's really important to hold on to that musical life of playing with my friends, playing at a bar," she says.
Ms. Jones broke into the music industry "before it imploded," she says. Her debut album, "Come Away With Me," has sold 10.3 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan. Her second and third albums sold about half and a fifth as much, respectively, as her first. "I got really lucky. That's not lost on me," she says, adding, "I've made enough money to not have to pimp myself out."
She says she's trying to balance public expectations with creative goals as she maps out a long-term career. "Do you want to stay in the mainstream consciousness? Or do you want to just play music?" she says. By steering toward the latter, she says, "You can still have a great career. And you might be a little saner for it."
For now, with her film finished and her next album a ways off, one ambition is more immediate: "I just want to be home enough this year to get a dog."
Q&A: Norah Jones
By JOHN JURGENSEN
Singer-songwriter Norah Jones makes her Hollywood debut in Wong Kar Wai's "My Blueberry Nights," a romantic journey co-starring Jude Law and Natalie Portman. Ms. Jones spoke with the Journal's John Jurgensen near her New York City home about her debut role, coping with awkwardness on stage and going to karaoke.
WSJ: When Wong Kar Wai asked you to make a movie with him, did he say why he chose you?
Ms. Jones: He did not tell me why he wanted me to act in the film. Nor did he tell me anything about the film or the character. He just said, "Let's just do it. Are you in or are you out?" For some reason I was in. It's not really like me. I like to be in control of things. And for me to sort of surrender myself to someone who didn't have a script or tell me much about the story, I guess it just showed the faith I had in him as a director. How often do you get an opportunity like that?
WSJ: Your film debut -- and "My Blueberry Nights" -- has attracted a lot of attention. Is this what you wanted and expected?
Ms. Jones: I didn't think it would be that big of a deal. I thought the film would be far less noticed than it has been already. I certainly didn't think movie stars like Jude Law and Natalie Portman were going to be in the film. So it kind of built up more than I thought it would. I'm glad I didn't know [Mr. Law and Ms. Portman would be cast] or I would've been too scared to do it!
WSJ: Have you read any of your reviews?
Ms. Jones: No. Never have, never will. This acting thing has been fun and if I never do it again, I had a great experience. If I do do it again, I hope I get better at it. But I don't have ambitions to conquer Hollywood or anything.
WSJ: Did you learn anything on set that you'll apply when you perform on stage?
Ms. Jones: I just think it boosted my self confidence. I wasn't a trained Mickey Mouse club performer. I played in jazz clubs and restaurants. Nobody was listening when I learned how to play music. But there's something about being on stage, talking to the audience, looking at them and smiling, that's always been difficult for me. I'm a lot more comfortable now, but there are still moments of awkwardness. For me, there's a fine line between being a cheeseball and being a good performer.
WSJ: "My Blueberry Nights" opens with a song of yours, "The Story." Tell me about that.
Ms. Jones: I got home from shooting at dawn one day in New York. My piano room faces the sunrise. I wasn't tired yet so I played piano and I wrote that song. It just came out. I was half asleep. It was in my head -- not the story line of the film, but my story in making the film.
WSJ: Singer-songwriter Cat Power is also in the movie. Did you know her before?
Ms. Jones: I karaoked with her, actually -- a long time ago. How dorky is that: two singers hanging out at a karaoke bar? Kar Wai had asked for some music suggestions and I thought of her. He ended up playing her songs from "The Greatest" during the shoot. I wasn't there on the day she shot her scene, but I think she's amazing in it. There's something about her that's just so compelling.
WSJ: Do you have a favorite karaoke song that you always sing?
Ms. Jones: I can sing Guns 'n' Roses. I usually do "Whip It" by Devo. It's more about imitation for me. I do Shakira, too. She's got a unique voice. I usually do "Underneath Your Clothes." It's the funniest song.