Written by: Jayme Face
Miss Sloane is a film about a Washington lobbyist with a strong female lead that is getting a lot of buzz. We caught up with one of the actors from the film Raoul Bhaneja and acting is just one part to this multi-talented man.
upfrontNY: Can you tell us about Miss Sloan and your character?
Raoul Bhaneja: Miss Sloane is the story of Elizabeth Sloane, a Washington lobbyist, who works for kind of a fairly established conservative lobbying firm called Cole Kravitz. My character R.M. Dutton is a senior partner at the same agency. Elizabeth Sloane is kind of our star lobbyist, a tough woman who succeeded in a male dominated sphere. Our company is working very hard to get her to help us win the contract to work for the gun industry and be their lobbying company, because it’s a very lucrative contract. Quite early on in the film Elizabeth is approached by a rival lobbying firm, a bipartisan group, that wants to enact a gun control bill. And she decides, for reasons that I think the audience needs to sort of figure out themselves, to switch sides and join the other much smaller grass-roots lobbying firm. It becomes a battle between these two lobbying firms to try to get this bill crushed and also for our firm to get the contract from the gun lobby. My character Dutton is a very skilled and calculating, kind of cold fish who is very strategic in his way of thinking and being. It becomes his task, along with the characters played by Sam Waterston and Michael Stuhlbarg, to destroy her in the process of this film and her reputation. All kinds of other interesting things happen, but I can’t tell you because then it’ll ruin the film!
upfrontNY: Miss Sloane is a film that centers around politics being released now is it coincidental or does it parallel our current political times?
Raoul Bhaneja: Well I don’t think anyone who wrote any movies or television could have pointed to where American politics would be today; it really took an unexpected turn for many. Also, I do know the film makers had worked quite hard to complete the film so it would be available at this time of year. I mean obviously this is a great time of year if you want your movie to be considered for the awards races you need to get it out by Christmas. I don’t think this film relies on a Hillary victory or anything like that and in some ways while its set in the world of politics its more of a character study and kind of a thriller than it is a political commentary or just a debate about gun control. I think there is a way to look at this movie particularly through the lens of Jessica Chastain’s character Elizabeth Sloane because she is a woman who has made it and has to fight in this very male dominated sphere in Washington. I think that is one of the interesting things they knew would be apart of the film, but I don’t think they could have anticipated that aspect would resonate so strongly right now. You hope that the audience is not too fatigued with politics right now. The other reality is that it is so rare that we have major films coming out of Hollywood, that are getting wide releases, that have real promotional budgets behind them,that really do have a woman absolutely at the center of the story. The poster isn’t her and the guy she loves; the poster isn’t her and her male rival; the poster is her. It is her story and the rest of us to different degrees are hopefully compelling, interesting, watchable cogs in the wheel, but it’s really the story of Elizabeth Sloane. It’s still rare we see films with female protagonists at the center, without relying on a romantic love interest in men to be the reason they exist. That’s another reason why I love this film and I am so excited to be apart of it because it’s ridiculous we are having this conversation in 2016. Isn’t it strange? But when it comes to major motion pictures it’s still a rarity, So that is a big part of it for me.
upfrontNY: That leads into my next question. This film has powerful female characters, how do the male characters fit in? Is there friction, support, both?
Raoul Bhaneja: Yeah. Jonathan Perera wrote the script. What’s compelling about how he’s written it is while a female character is at the center of it, he didn’t also want it to be all about her being a woman. It’s about her being who she is as a person. The fact that she is a woman is of course a huge important component to it, but it’s more about her personality, who she is and how that’s crafted her into the kind of person she is first. Naturally, I would say how men intersect with her is very dependent on what those other characters need and want. She’s supported by men and she is absolutely undermined by men. She is someone who takes complete ownership and control of her sexual appetite in a way that I can’t almost think I haven’t seen in a movie which is again crazy. Like the fact that she hires a male escort for sex and does everything she can to avoid the intimacy of it and that’s something we have seen to such an extent with men that they don’t put in movies anymore because we’ve seen it so much, but when it is so cleverly turned on its head you know the audience is shocked, “What do you mean there’s a woman who is having sex because she has a desire and a need and she doesn’t want any emotional attachments?” “You’re not allowed to say that.” This film does a lot with playing around with our expectations like I think one of the clever things about it is it challenges us to look at our judgements and our biases. With Elizabeth Sloane you’re looking at it going “What is the personal cost for this person to get to where they’ve gotten?” It has cost her a lot to do what she’s done and she’s not a particularly nice person. And that’s again refreshing, a flawed female character, deeply flawed female character to exist at the heart of one of these things. We’re seeing it more on television these days because you’re with characters for longer. It’s a challenge when you’re telling a story in 2 hours and 20 minutes. I kind of like in this film there wasn’t a desire to jam it full of back story to explain, you just get one tiny line; she says she had to be someone who was good at lying in her life. That’s the only clue you’re given in the whole film about her behavior and I just love that because I think that’s what real life to me is like if someone acts a certain way it can’t all be defined by a convenient one experience flashback in someone’s life, but in movies we do that all the time.
Another amazing thing is this guy has never written a movie before. It’s the first movie this person has ever written and he was formerly a lawyer and he’s a school teacher in Southeast Asia. He wrote the script and just decided to send it out to see what would happen and three years later its opening in New York and Los Angeles starring Jessica Chastain. That kind of story just does’t happen. There’s something special around this project. I want to make films like this and work with this caliber of talent everyday because they are an extraordinary group of people.
upfrontNY: It sounds like a unique movie I can’t wait to see
Raoul Bhaneja: Some people want to look at it like it’s a documentary. Some people take in the fact that it is a thriller with lots of twists and turns.
I didn’t get the chance to see it for the first time myself until it’s actual premiere at the AFI film festival in L.A. two weeks ago. I hadn’t seen any previews or early screening or rough cut or anything. I saw it with the first audience; I was just like them. Except any bit I was in I was watching too closely, sometimes smiling and sometimes cringing, as actors do when they watch themselves, but yeah I hope it does well!
upfrontNY: You recently produced and starred in the Pulitzer Prize winner Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar can you tell us more about it?
Raoul Bhaneja: That’s a play and it is being adapted for television. I believe it’s in development at HBO to turn it into a television film. I was at the premiere of it here in Toronto with my wife who is also an actress. So we played husband and wife in it; her name is Brigitte Solem. We heard about the play we flew to NY we saw it in 2012 when it was in it’s earliest productions at the Lincoln Center. We met with Ayad and said we wanted to be the first people to do it in Canada, in Toronto. He said “Well you seem like nice guys so okay. I’ll help you if I can” You know these things take a long time so about 3 1/2 years later we were able to open it here in Toronto at the Panasonic Theatre. It was a smash hit! We’re just about to take it on tour to one of the larger regional theaters in Canada; it’s called the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta. Disgraced was a great experience. It’s a fantastic play. A lot of the themes that have come up in the current election are alive and vibrant in this complicated play. It ran on broadway for about 6 months; it was a successful run on broadway as well. Brigitte and I produced it with the Mirvish Productions. You know when you create your own thing and it goes really well, there’s really no feeling like it.
I’ve been a musician, produced all my own records, and I write a lot of my own music. I’m trying to develop a one hour television show that I’ve been working on and off for the last two years with Semi Chellas who is a great Emmy Award winning writer and was one of the writers on Mad Men. I’m really excited! Crossing my fingers that might get on T.V. one day soon. I’m a guy who spins a lot of plates at once.
I’m flying to the Whistler film festival next week for the Canadian Premier of Miss Sloane where our director is going to be honored with an award.
upfrontNY: I was going to say you do so many different things. What do you do in your down time, if you have any?
Raoul Bhaneja: I love to perform so I don’t have a lot of hobbies outside of performing because I do a lot of different things. I think what you find too when you’re a performer is you spend more time unemployed than employed. A lot of people don’t understand that when they get into this field is that 80% of your time spent is trying to get to do the thing you love. That’s sort of the hardest thing about it. Performers don’t complain too much about the work, they complain about the lack of it. I don’t have a ton of time for hobbies because I‘m always trying to get stuff off the ground, but if I have a few passions I love baseball. I’m a big baseball fan so in the summertime I have the radio on. I love to play music when I can. Often though, the majority of the time when I’m playing music it’s when I’m out. I don’t have a lot of hobbies because if I have any spare time I’m trying to be around for my kids. I don’t think you can really call your kids your hobby, no you can’t; you’re a parent. My family keeps me really busy. Because of my work I am away for weeks on end, sometimes for pretty long stretches, so when I’m home I love picking the kids up from school and taking them to their activities and all that stuff because I have missed things I wish I could have been there for because of the nature of this kind of work. Also because my wife is a busy actor too I try to be around them as much as I can.
upfrontNY: You touched upon your music too, what drew you to the blues in particular?
Raoul Bhaneja: People who love blues as fans and often as musicians describe it sometimes as being bitten by the bug. They’re catching the blues disease, they call it. I know for me the first time I heard it I was just like “What is this?”. I was in Germany for a little bit in the 80s and that’s when I got into blues. Blues was the actual opposite of European pop music of the mid 80s, so it really stuck out to me. I was introduced to it by my older brother and then I was given a harmonica when I was 12 years old. So I started looking for music I could play harmonica with. Blues actually has been the greatest musical genre for harmonica as a style and a lead instrument. Since I was about 12 I started listening to it all the time and I had a little band in high school. I wrote this musical called Life Death and the Blues was a ten-year project basically trying to answer the question why do I play the blues, what does it mean to me, and what does it mean to people. It ended up being this musical that talked a lot about race and identity and cultural appropriation and all these themes. It started off as a small project and then I ended up touring that on and off for about a year and a half. I went to six different cities with it, 20,000 people saw it. That took a whole life of its own. I think what I’ve always loved about blues is it’s a storytelling music. When I was a kid I would sneak into bars and watch these blues legends who were still touring. You could go up to these guys and talk to them and they were very accessible; you could find them at the bar on their set break. They weren’t backstage behind 46 security guards or running on to their jet and you’d never see them I mean these guys were working men and women who made this music and most of them, a lot of them, when I was first listening were African-Americans who had come from that experience of blues being in their communities and their lives. I was drawn to how authentic it was and how real it felt.
upfrontNY: Speaking about live performance you received the Christopher Plummer International Fellowship through the Shakespeare Global Centre of Canada and now you are on the board, can you tell us more about the centre and how can more young people get interested in Shakespeare?
Raoul Bhaneja: Yeah. That’s a great question; thank you for asking. Shakespeare’s Globe is this incredible theatre in London, England which was built by an American, Sam Wanamaker. He had a vision that on the banks of the Thames in London there should be a theater reconstructed, as best as we know, in the style of the original Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre from the late 1500s early 1600s, with the theory that if we built a place like that and we performed Shakespeare inside it maybe it would tell us more about Shakespeare’s plays. So I was lucky enough to get the Christopher Plummer International Fellowship Award in the summer of 2002 and got to work there that summer as an actor in an international company. After I came back I was asked to do various events for the charity and I am a board member now. We’re trying to promote collaborations between artists who’ve never been there before. The last year we sent a young director there, to the Globe, where he assisted a major production at Shakespeare’s Globe he ended up directing the world tour of the show the following year. Its been an amazing sort of victory for us where a young professional gets this opportunity to work at a world-class Shakespeare theater. I think the challenge we have with Shakespeare is that the way it’s been taught and the way people think about it is very academic and it comes it comes with a lot of baggage. Its starting to be removed from some school curriculums because its being seen as kind of old-fashioned and not as relevant. Shakespeare’s plays were not meant to be exclusively textbooks or deeply analyzed and mulled over. They really are scripts that need to be said out loud and performed; that’s when those plays come alive. I toured around for about ten years with a one man version of Hamlet called Hamlet Solo. I had many opportunities to perform that show for young people. With a guy performing two hours of Hamlet on his own, playing 17 different characters, no props, no costume changes, no fancy lighting cues, no recorded sound, no set you’d think “Oh my God this is torture! There’s no way someone who wasn’t really well versed in Shakespeare wouldn’t be able to follow it.”, but in fact many of the best audiences I had for the show were young people because they sat down they turned off their phones and they just had to listen. If there is something young people taught me it’s that young people are absolutely able to follow one person and all these different voices and all these different characters because they have brains that are able to multitask. I think Shakespeare can be incredibly relevant today and it doesn’t mean that every production has to be modernized, every production has to be adapted or we have to change the language; it just means more kids need to see Shakespeare actually performed like they would a YouTube video or a television show or a movie than Shakespeare would make a lot more sense. I hope that the opportunities for kids to actually see it live exists more. I’m pretty passionate about that. That is one organization I like to help out when I can with fundraisers and organizing. They’re doing exciting work. Hopefully more young people will get to experience that professional environment too, but if you’re ever in London go watch a show at Shakespeare’s Globe. It’s unlike watching a Shakespeare play anywhere else, ever!