Macdonald & Jasper Find Their Voices in “Patti Cake$”
Director Geremy Jasper may have been concerned about many things while making his debut feature Patti Cake$ but actress Danielle Macdonald wasn’t one of them. For the title role he needed a confident young woman who could spit rhymes with ferocity and speed, while getting the audience to identify with this rough-around-the-edges young woman who tries to leave her poverty-stricken life behind by making it big in the arena of Rap music. Macdonald was not musical, had never sung in her life, let alone rap, and had never listened to anything from that genre. Despite all that, Jasper insists that, “Within 10 minutes, I knew Danielle could do this role.”
It was quite a gamble to take but one that pays off handsomely in Cake$ as Macdonald commands the screen whenever she appears, not simply when she’s on stage schooling her competition or composing with her partners Hareesh (Siddharth Dhananjay) and Basterd, the Antichrist (Mamoudou Athie) but during the film’s more dramatic moments as the character who not only must contend with bullying and self-esteem issues but her alcoholic mother (Bridget Everett) and ailing grandmother (Cathy Moriarty) as well. This is a heavy load for any performer to carry, but the young Australian actress proved to be more than up to the task, despite her own misgivings.
“I was petrified to do this role but that was something I was looking for,” says Macdonald on a recent stop over in Chicago to promote the film. “I’m so different from her, it’s hard to feel like her – to be cool and confident- which I am not at all. If it feels safe then that’s not much a challenge and I ended up getting exactly that.”
When I asked about her lack of knowledge regarding rap music and the world of the film, she readily admitted that was a concern. “Without a doubt, that was something I was worried about but Geremy was very patient with me and guided me through the whole process. He gave me discs and playlists to listen to and I did that over and over again. I watched rap videos and studied the style and movement of the artists but it was maybe three months in before I started to rap on my own.”
Though in a supportive environment, Macdonald couldn’t help but feel nervous when she first went behind the microphone. Fortunately, she had an ally in Everett who helped put her at ease. “Bridget has a long history with music and performing, so she could tell when I was nervous. So she’d say, ‘Hey, let’s take a walk,’ and we’d talk about the weather or something just to get my mind off things. That helped a lot.”
Despite the intense rap boot camp Jasper put her through and the steady progress she made, Macdonald said it was “about a year,” before she felt comfortable performing. The fruit of her labor is firmly in the spotlight in the film as when her character gets on stage, the actress completely dominates the scene, commanding the screen and delivering an authentic portrayal that cuts to the core of the film’s theme.
As far as Jasper was concerned, he was thrilled to see that Macdonald was willing to work so hard and while she might have had her doubts, he never did. “There’s something about Danielle that I knew was right. She has a toughness about her that I don’t think she realizes she has. I showed a picture of her to my mother and she asked, ‘Is that a girl from the neighborhood?’ At that point I knew I had cast her correctly and she’d be able to do a great job in the role.”
Having worked on the film for a couple of years, Jasper took his script and a demo of a few scenes that had been shot to the Sundance Film Institute. Based on this work, he and his cast were invited to workshop the project in Park City, Utah, their expenses paid which freed them up to tackle the movie full on. “The Institute was a godsend,” says Jasper. “The script was really rough when we got there but thankfully they saw enough potential in it to invite us to work. The characters were rough and through our (Macdonald and Everett) being able to talk about them and improv scenes with them, we were able to deepen the characters and make them more authentic. It was great to watch it all come together.”
While the final product has an undeniable sense of energy and sympathetic characters you can’t help but root for, there’s no question that it would be compared to 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow, films with similar themes and settings. I asked him if he was fearful “Cake$” might be seen as a knockoff of these two movies.
“You can’t escape those films. 8 Mile and Hustle and Flow are classics of the genre. I’ve watched each of them many times myself. But what I think makes our movie different is that it focuses on female characters and has a very distinctive feminine energy. I’m not just talking about Patti but her mother and grandmother as well. All three of these women are stuck in a life they don’t want and each is working in their own way to get out. So, I think our movie has a feminist approach to it that makes it distinctive.”
As for what this pair is tacking in the future, their respective projects couldn’t be more different. Jasper says that he’s working on an edgy science-fiction film that he’s trying to keep under wraps. Macdonald is jumping to the big time with Dumplin, a coming-of-age movie about a teenage girl who falls in love and has to navigate the social minefield of high school. Jennifer Aniston has been cast as her mother in the movie slated for summer 2018. The actress is eager to break new ground. “I’ve been in Patti’s world for three years and it’s been a crazy kind of life. I’m anxious to move on to something new.”