Thursday night’s New York premiere of the Matt Smith-led biopic “Mapplethorpe” took place at Cinépolis Chelsea, just steps from the Chelsea Hotel where the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe once lived — but director Ondi Timoner had no sense of that legacy when she first encountered him in a very different context.
“When I was ten years old, I had a calendar of his flowers. I had no idea what else was in the collection!” she told Variety, laughing. It was only after she decided to rewrite “Mapplethorpe” herself that Timoner found some of his earliest photos, taken “when he first discovered gay life,” which would become the backbone of the project. “Then he decided, ‘I’m going to make this into an undeniably collectable, museum-worthy art form.’ And that became the trajectory,” she said. “Showing that development from coming of age and coming into his sexuality through to the AIDS crisis was important for me, even though it’s kind of life in fast-motion.”
“Mapplethorpe” is Timoner’s first scripted feature, but her experience as a documentarian proved indispensable during the shoot. “To be able to know when there was an authentic take, to be able to condense three scenes into one really quickly – we had 19 days to shoot it, so sometimes I just had to wing it!” she admitted, laughing. “But in documentary, you constantly have to think on your feet, and as an editor, I was especially prepared. I knew what would cut together.”
Marianne Rendón, who stars as Patti Smith, was also well served by her history. “It’s really eerie that I was presented with the opportunity to play her, because I researched her for literally years,” she told Variety. “I’d go home, I’d be feeling depressed, I’d be feeling completely uninspired in my work, and I would look at YouTube videos of her, and go to her concerts, and suddenly feel like I could be myself. I looked to her as a beacon of inspiration and true authenticity. There’s no faking it with her. I don’t feel worthy. None of us are worthy!”
Even with that pressure, Rendón relished the chance to explore a lesser-known chapter of the artist’s life. “I was tapping into more of her younger side that people don’t know about if they aren’t familiar with ‘Just Kids’ [Smith’s memoir] or they haven’t seen footage of her from ’68. She’s actually quite girlish — she worked at a bookstore, and she’s not at CBGB yet,” she said, referencing the iconic East Village venue that also played host to the Ramones and Talking Heads.
The shoot itself was “a fast and furious experience — we didn’t have a ton of time together because we were shooting on film, so things moved very quickly,” Rendón said. Despite that, working so closely with Matt Smith was “a lovely experience…Matt immediately embraced me, and we have really fun chemistry. And then we got to work together in another movie shortly after — we’re playing very strange lovers to each other in both of them.”
For Smith himself, embodying the radical photographer (he died of AIDS in 1992 at age 42) was a far cry from his own breakout role on “Doctor Who,” presenting both “different challenges and different opportunities.” But his approach to his craft has remained largely the same across period dramas, biopics, and beloved sci-fi franchises alike: “You work as hard as you can on the research phase, and you make that as detailed and focused as possible, and then try to be as inventive as you can on the day.” (When asked about the newest star of “Doctor Who,” Jodie Whittaker, who made history as the first woman to take up the mantle, he revealed he’d been following her season closely. “She’s a fabulous Doctor – I always knew she would be!” he said. “Wonderful actor, wonderful person, and I’m a huge fan of her work.”)
Producer Eliza Dushku praised Smith’s performance in “Mapplethorpe” just as highly. “I hope everyone gets to see him and gets to know Robert through this lens,” she said. Her own first encounter with the photographer came at her brother Nate’s insistence — and involved a transatlantic flight. “I was doing ‘Dollhouse’ in LA, and there was an exhibit in Florence where they had surrounded the David statue with Mapplethorpes. I had to film on a Friday and a Monday, and so we flew to Florence for a day and went and saw this exhibit, and we just started consuming all things Robert,” she explained. “It was really special for us what a courageous artist he was. Especially then, for him to be striving so hard to have other people see that which he found so beautiful — it takes balls!”
In many ways, Dushku has been a trailblazer in her own right. Two months on from her op-ed about the toxic culture at CBS, the change she called for is underway, but she’s conscious that there’s more work to be done. “I think every woman wants to be able to go to work and not feel demeaned or threatened, and I would say if these big corporations are truly looking to have a culture change, NDAs are not a way to make women – or men, for that matter – feel safe,” she said. “We could do a lot in removing the NDA from our reality.”
Photo above: Marianne Rendón, Matt Smith and Ondi Timoner