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Laurie Niles

Violinist.com interview with Philippe Quint: acting in 'Downtown Express'

May 24, 2011 at 6:37 PM

Violinist Philippe Quint remains modest about his starring role in the new movie "Downtown Express," which premieres June 7 at Symphony Space in New York. (UPDATE: the movie will be showing at the Quad Theater in New York, starting April 20, 2012).

"I'm not an actor!" Philippe laughed, when we spoke over the phone earlier this spring. "Definitely not. I think the correct term would be to say that I did some acting. I play a Russian violinist – it doesn't get any closer to what my life is really right now!"

Downtown Express is about a young Russian violinist, Sasha (played by Philippe), who comes to the United States and struggles to assimilate, both culturally and musically. He has a scholarship to study at Juilliard, but tension grows between him and his classical cellist father Vadim (played by Michael Cumpsty) when Sasha falls for a singer-songwriter named Ramona (played by Nellie McKay) and decides to join her band.


Nellie McKay and Phlippe Quint in "Downtown Express" (Photo by Susan Meiselas)

We know Philippe Quint as a violinist who has performed the Korngold Concerto all over the globe and who recently recorded works by Paganini. Quint was born in the Soviet Union and emigrated to the United States as a teenager, to study at Juilliard. He has been nominated for two Grammys and plays the 1708 "Ruby" Stradivarius, on loan from the Stradivari Society.

But this latest acting gig is not something that just happened overnight, despite his modesty. Philippe has been working for some time on the art of acting, having taken acting lessons on and off for three years from Sondra Lee, whose credits include Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" and a supporting role in the original movie, "Peter Pan."

He also has great respect for acting. "I did not want to be one of those people fooled by the myth that you can just do it," Philippe said. "It brings up the question, what is art? If you have drawn a little line on a piece of paper, does it make you a painter? If you can play 'Twinkle, Twinkle' on the violin, does this make you a violinist? If you throw something together out of sand, does this make you a sculptor? My answer is: Usually, not. What are the merits of such art? I think that, for anything to be done well, it needs to be studied in depth."

"I think there's a myth when it comes to acting and theatre: that anyone can come out on the stage, say a few words -- or show up in front of the camera, and gain overnight fame and become the next Tom Cruise," Philippe said. "And in Hollywood there have been quite a few cases of such celebrities. But if we're talking about substance, and the true art of theatre, we would have to look at actors such as Laurence Olivier, Anthony Hopkins, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro…all people with a lot of training -- and not for nothing."

"Certainly, if you compare the world of theatre and the world of music, I think music is probably slightly more challenging because it requires an actual skill to produce any sound on any instrument; you actually need the technique to do it," Philippe said. "When it comes to theatre, or saying a couple of lines, certainly you can say whatever you want, and even sound convincing. But if you want to really do it on a truly high level and be able to do Shakespeare, or great plays by Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard or Eugene O'Neill, that requires a tremendous amount of training. Because just like musical phrases, plays -- and lines, and monologues -- are open to interpretation. When it comes to questions of interpretation, it is important to note that there are many ways; yet, there are only three or four that will be convincing. For example: The opening line of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto -- we've heard it interpreted a million different times by great, great violinists. Yet for me, it comes down to maybe three interpretations where I think, this is the way it should be done."

Though Philippe has been interested in acting for some time, this part came to him in a roundabout way, not as a result of any kind of direct search to get into Hollywood or film industry, he said. Instead, he was helping in the development of a script for director David Grubin.

"I was simply recommended to the director and producer as a Russian kid who is a violinist who would be sharing his true life's story with a director, so they can develop the script," Philippe said. "It had nothing to do with them looking to cast somebody at that time. They were interviewing a bunch of people, just to develop a proper script about the Russian community, and Russian musicians in particular."

"When I met with the director, David Grubin -- after they told me there was a part for a young Russian violinist -- I said, 'What do you think of an absolutely brilliant idea of casting a Russian violinist to play a Russian violinist?'" Philippe laughs. "David said, well, let us first develop this script, and then we will call you."

"It kind of sounded like, 'Don't call us, we'll call you.' So naturally I didn't think twice about this, I figured, of course, they're going to go with an actor who is going to be faking playing the violin, or they're going to get a hand-double, or something they have done previously for the actors," Philippe said. They actually did call, six months later, and after two casting calls Philippe was offered the part.

"I realized then that it is quite rare, in the film industry, to have a musician act, but it's very common for actors to play musicians," Philippe said. "The question is, what is the better solution, for a musician to say a couple of lines, or for an actor to totally fake the instrument? So I think it's kind of an interesting way that David Grubin decided to approach it."

 


Director David Grubin and Philippe Quint on the set of Downtown Express. (Photo by Danny Bright)

"The movie's about music – music, I think, is the main character of this film," Philippe said. "I think it will be interesting to watch, in terms of having the real thing, when it comes to the music."

The music ranges from Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky to a sort of fusion, when Philippe's character joins a band. "There are some original compositions that I did, and my co-star, Nellie McKay, also composed, and then there's also original music by Michael Bacon, who did most of the songs."

That's Bacon, as in brother of Kevin Bacon. That is to say, you play six degrees of Kevin Bacon, this movie puts you one degree away. But we digress...

"My character, Sasha, is a little bit naïve but extremely excited to be in New York," Philippe said. "He's still struggling with English," just as Philippe did when he first came to the United States. "That was one of the big challenges for me – I sort of consider myself Americanized, I've been in the States for 20 years. I consider myself an American, a Russian-born American. So it was challenging for me to strip down all the American-isms that I have gained over the years and become that person that I was 15, 16 years ago, when I first came to this country."

When his character falls in love with Ramona and joins a band, "I bring all of my classical music training into this band. So it becomes a hybrid sound, very strange, very odd, at least at first," Philippe said. "We are trying to match our differences, but at the same time, it gives the band new life, because Nellie's character has been quite depressed over the years. Meanwhile I'm sort of coming to lead a double life, between my Juilliard training and my newly-found attractions. Basically that's how the story develops, so there is a little bit of drama, a little bit of conflict."

"I had to push myself to some extremes that were a bit unexpected, for example my first on-screen kiss," Philippe said. "I had to do a shower scene -- that was also quite challenging! The whole process was unbelievably challenging, just being on the set for hours and hours. A lot of people, I think, are familiar with the fact that on the set of a film it takes forever and ever before you're actually doing the scene, and the scene takes 20 to 30 seconds."

"In that sense, it sort of reminded me of recording any violin music," Philipp said. "You take breaks, you do different takes, but you constantly have to be in the moment. You always have to come back in exactly the same mood where you left it off. So as you can see, I constantly use my music training, bringing pretty much the entire package of my music training in to the film. That, I found unbelievably beneficial."

At one point, Philippe even had to become a hip-hop artist.

"There was one part where the director was looking for some obnoxious Russian underground music, and the director asked me if I knew any Russian bands," Philippe said. Though he had heard of some, he did not know them well enough to contact them and ask to use their songs. So Philippe decided to take a stab at composing the music himself.

"I went home and I researched the most obnoxious Russian bands you can imagine: this disgusting, underground, loud, Russian hip-hop music, which is actually quite popular," Philippe said. "I listened to all of that -- fortunately for a very short period of time (he laughs) -- and then I wrote some lyrics. I only needed to come up with 30 seconds for the song. Then I went to the studio, and I actually did two different voices, and I played most of the instruments for the song: a little bit of piano, a little bit of drums, a little bit of guitar, and we also used a synthesized beat."

When he had recorded the tune, he presented the finished product to his mother, Lora Kvint, who is a popular music composer in Russia.

"She actually sits sometimes in competitions, sort of the equivalent of American Idol. So she hears these bands all the time," Philippe said. "I sent to her the mp3, without telling her what is was, and then I called her up afterwards and said, 'What do you think?' She said. 'I know that you spent many years in America, and you find our Russian bands amusing, but I hear this awful music all the time, so for me, this is not fun." Then she asked, 'Which band is this?' And I said, "Actually, this is me." She said, 'What are you talking about?' I said, 'Well, everything you heard is me.' She said, 'Who are the voices? They're two really disgusting-sounding Russian guys there, they couldn't be you.' I said, 'No, it is me.'

"I had changed my voice quite a bit -- to the point that my own mother didn't recognize me!" Philippe said. "At that point I knew: Mission accomplished. I sent the mp3 to the director and he said, 'Philippe, it's absolutely awful, we're going to use it.'"

"It was fun, it was such an out-of-the-box experience for me," Philippe said. "I loved it."


From Michael Divino
Posted on May 24, 2011 at 7:07 PM

 Very interesting, I'd love to see it! 


From Keuna Cho
Posted on May 25, 2011 at 9:40 AM

Yay, a director who opted for the real violinist instead of the actor faking!

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