Thesp takes on features with 'My First Mister'

An actress on the level of a Meryl Streep or a Susan Sarandon, Christine Lahti perhaps hasn’t achieved the profile she deserves, but the quality of her work hasn’t suffered. Whether appearing in features, dramatic series or MOWs, Lahti imbues her characters with the kind of dimension and naturalness that can only come from thorough preparation.

She approaches her role as a director in the same way. Her foundation as an actor causes her to dig deeper than the exposition, conflict and resolution most people associate with classic storytelling. Instead she approaches each scene with this dramatic arc in mind.

“Every scene must contribute to the overall thread of the story,” says Lahti. “And to me there’s got to be a conflict in every scene, and every scene has some sort of arc — some movement, some action.”

For “My First Mister,” Lahti’s feature helming debut and the opening-night attraction of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, she broke down the characters as if she was playing every one of them.

“I do index cards for every scene, and chart all the ebbs and flows of all the characters’ journeys and the previous circumstances and the characters’ needs and wants, and what the obstacles are,” she says.

In “My First Mister,” Leelee Sobieski plays a goth teen who’s alienated from her family and society. Albert Brooks plays a buttoned-up men’s clothing store manager with whom she forms an unlikely relationship. Both suffer from a sense of isolation and loneliness.

Lahti calls the film “a two-way ‘Pygmalion’ story, where she brings him to life as much as he brings her to life.”

The film’s highly accomplished veneer should come as no surprise. Lahti’s 1995 short, “Lieberman in Love,” which she directed from a W.P. Kinsella short story adapted by Polly Platt, won her an Oscar.

If Lahti is confident as a helmer, she is generous in crediting her influences.

“I’ve stolen from all of them,” Lahti says of the directors with whom she’s worked. “Sidney Lumet inspired me the most about the value of rehearsal. Jonathan Demme taught me how every character in every scene is important and has a life, including extras. And Bill Forsythe was wonderful about letting me explore.”

Another valuable mentor is Lahti’s husband, Thomas Schlamme, a director whose work on NBC’s “West Wing” has established a high-water mark for TV drama, and whom she admires for his Method-like approach to his ensemble cast.

“It’s amazing to me how many directors don’t know how to talk to actors,” she says.

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