Welcome to this week’s “Just for Variety.”
Evan Ross appears in Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” as a federal agent. He knows the subject well — his mom, Diana Ross, earned an Oscar nom for her portrayal of Holiday in 1972’s “Lady Sings the Blues.” Now, Evan says his mother approves of the latest telling of the Holiday story. “She loved it,” he tells me from his and wife Ashlee Simpson’s home in Los Angeles. “She loves Lee, and she thought it was cinematically amazing. She thought the performances were amazing.”
Ross, 32, says “Lady Sings the Blues” is the reason he went into acting. “It’s so important for the story to be told again, plus it brings more attention to ‘Lady Sings the Blues,’” he says. “People can watch that movie again, too. It made me first want to learn about Billie Holiday. I think the same thing is going to happen now.”
Daniels’ film traces the government’s attempt to stop Holiday, played by singer-songwriter Andra Day in her acting debut, from performing “Strange Fruit,” the haunting song about lynching. “It’s interesting to think about all the art at the time that probably got shut down because it was telling the truth,” Ross says. “Lee was talking about it the other day. Billie was an activist without trying to be an activist. She was just doing what she loved.”
Ross also says that he and Day have recorded an original song and plan to release it. The two met for the first time at a fitting before shooting started in Montreal. “By then she was already in character,” Ross recalls. “She doesn’t smoke in her life. She doesn’t drink. She was in character all the time. And so by the end of it, I was like, ‘Did I make best friends with Billie Holiday?’ because she was so in there. I even worried because she was so deep in. But she really pulled it off.”
In addition to acting and making music, Ross is also a portrait artist. He recently presented a portrait of Sammy Davis Jr. to Lena Waithe. You can see his work on his Instagram.
And then there’s his family. He and Simpson have two kids together, the youngest, son Ziggy Blu, was born on Oct. 29 during the pandemic. Simpson also has a son with ex-husband Pete Wentz. “It was a little scary,” Ross says. “Usually we have the whole family waiting outside the room. But this time, it was just me. It was actually really nice. It was different, but a special moment.
“Soft Power” was inspired by playwright and librettist David Henry Hwang’s experience of being stabbed near his Brooklyn home in 2015. His assailant was never apprehended, and some believe the incident was an anti-Asian hate crime. “All the Asian Americans I know, we’re very conscious of feeling a more hostile environment,” Hwang (above) says of the recent rise in anti-Asian violence. “It started last spring. You would just get a different vibe from people. I got yelled at in a doctor’s office. I was having a regular checkup, and someone in the waiting room yelled, ‘Have you been to China?’” Hwang is hopeful that the success of filmmakers like Jon M. Chu, Lulu Wang, Chloé Zhao and Lee Isaac Chung is a sign that Hollywood finally has “the willingness to look at Asian American stories as not only marginalized stories but as stories that have universal appeal.”
In “Soft Power,” a Chinese business man has a fever dream in which he becomes friends with Hillary Clinton after he is stabbed in the United States. The show was written before the 2016 election and had to be reworked after Donald Trump won the White House. It’s been reworked some more now that Joe Biden is in office. The show opened at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles almost three years ago followed by runs in San Francisco and on off-Broadway at the Public Theater. Directed by Leigh Silverman, the show was nominated for 11 Drama Desk Awards and was a finalist for the Pulitzer. It will hopefully have a Broadway run when theaters reopen.
The show goes into Grammy night as a nominees for best original cast album. “We’re very excited,” Hwang says. “For a musical with an original story and the premiere of a new song, that’s particularly satisfying.”
Hwang is chair of the American Theater Wing, the organization responsible for the Tonys. A date and the format for the next Tonys have not been announced. “We are we are still trying to figure that out,” he says. “I think that all I can say right now because it’s obviously been incredibly challenging to figure out how to honor the shows that opened to the fall of 2019 so are continuing to work on how to present a 2020 Tonys.”
At the onset of the pandemic, Hwang was been working on a revival of “Aida.” “We were right in the middle of the workshop with Schele Williams directing when Broadway shut down,” he says. “We have a new version of the book. Schele as great concepts and we’re just looking to get to a place where we can get in a room together again and continue to work.”
Got a couple of exclusives for ya! Congrats to Lauren Howes for being named the new executive director of the Canadian LGBTQ film fest Inside Out. Howes, who identifies as nonbinary, was the exec director of the Canadian Filmmakers Distribution Centre for the past 14 years. … Marcus Lemonis, businessman and host of CNBC’s “The Profit,” has invested in Lydia Tenaglia and Chris Collins’ production company Zero Point Zero. ZPZ was founded in 2003; its content, including “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” “United Shades of America” and “My Next Guest Needs No Introduction With David Letterman,” has earned 50 Primetime Emmy nominations and 15 wins.
Robin Wright didn’t plan to star in her feature directorial debut, “Land,” about a woman who moves to a remote cabin after suffering a great tragedy. “We got financed, and we had this slim window in which we had to cast it and get up on that mountain and start prepping because we had to get four seasons in 29 days. … The producers were like, ‘We don’t have a choice to wait to see if we get a response. Robin, I think you’re gonna have to just be in it.’” Demián Bichir, who co-stars as a stranger who befriends her character, says the drama helped him heal from a “very heavy personal journey.” “Just being up there in those beautiful mountains — oh my God. Nature has that power,” Bichir says. Listen to my interviews with Wright and Bichir on this week’s “Just for Variety” podcast.
A third season of “Bonding” hasn’t been greenlit yet, but Brendan Scannell, who stars in Netflix’s BDSM dark comedy as Peter, tells me he’d like Meryl Streep to guest star. “Bonding” creator Rightor Doyle is “very good friends with [Streep’s daughter] Mamie Gummer,” Scannell says, “so let’s get Mamie and let’s get Meryl. Why not?”
The series, which revolves around dominatrix-in-training Tiff (Zoe Levin), also looks at her assistant and best friend Peter’s struggle to make it as a stand-up comedian. “My survival job was always being an assistant to actors,” says Scannell, 30, who starred in 2018 television adaptation of “Heathers” (it was cancelled before its premiere due to concern after the Sante Fe High School shooting). “So I worked for a bunch of different actors. I was working for Kate Beckinsale when I booked [the television adaptation of] ‘Heathers’ and so my last day job was like driving Kate around Brentwood basically.” His work with Beckinsale carried over to “Bonding” after watching her slide into her leather suits for the “Underworld” franchise. “I learned that in order to get into those bodysuits, they do require a lot of lube. So that’s what I learned shooting ‘Bonding’ is how cold lube is when it’s covering your body. And then you’re like encased in leather. You are literally like covered in K-Y Jelly.”
Fan attention has been interesting, to say the least. “I’ve gotten some interesting feet pics in my DMs,” Scannell says. “There are some really beautiful feet and not so beautiful feet from around the world. I do see them, so if anyone’s reading this, keep firing away. If I don’t respond it doesn’t mean you’re not heard.”