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A place of possibility: Jim DeVita discusses starring role in Madison
APT actor and novelist previews his Wisconsin Film Festival debut

Jim DeVita (right) portrays Michael in Madison, on set at The Plaza Tavern on North Henry Street.
Credit:Mirror Cinema
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Jim DeVita, who has been gracing stages for 14 years as a company actor with American Players Theatre in Spring Green, will be appearing in the Wisconsin Film Festival for the first time in April. The actor and writer plays Michael, the main character in Madison, which will make its world premiere in a sold out screening at the Chazen Museum of Art.

Shot on location in downtown Madison, the film centers around Michael's emotionally tumultuous return home after serving as a war correspondent in Iraq. DeVita appears alongside other APT actors, along with his 9 year-old daughter, Sophia. The multitalented actor/writer's first venture into film follows the recent publication of his second novel, The Silenced, a young adult novel about life in a dystopian society.

Jim DeVita talks with The Daily Page in an email interview about the transition from stage to screen, the relationship between Madison and the city where it's set, and the unexpected perks of local fame.

The Daily Page: When did this film project begin and how did you get involved with it?
DeVita: I was on a tour when Brent [Notbohm, writer/director] and Nick [Langholff, producer] called me and asked me if I'd like to be involved. Brent sent me the script and when I read it I wanted to be involved in it. The filming schedule worked with my schedule and I've wanted to do something with Nick and Brent for some time. I felt strongly about the script and its ideas.

Do you perceive Madison as a direct response to current events?
Of course, the film has a larger resonance about the horrors of war and the personal damage it has on those who survive, but yes, it is a response to events still happening in our world today. The film has a strong point of view and does not shy away from that.

What is the significance of location in Madison? Could the same film have been made in another city?
From my character's point of view, I don't think so. For Michael (my character), Madison represents -- or represented for him -- a place of possibility, of hope; a place where right and wrong were clearly defined; a place where everyone was going to make a difference and could; and a time when he still believed.

How do you think the familiarity of both the location and actors will affect the Wisconsin Film Festival audiences' reaction to it?
I think the cinematography of the film and the care in the director's editing will keep it from taking the audience 'out' of the story. It will be rewarding to see many of the recognizable locations, but the story will hopefully be the journey the audience takes.

Michael's story is the story of many of us today: our frustration, the challenges our beliefs face, the feeling of not being able to make a difference. The war has wounded all of us even if we have never actually experienced it, regardless of which side of the political spectrum we fall on. The actuality of war is, after all, never political -- it's personal, it's the men and women and children who are dying as I write this.

This is your first lead role in a feature length film. As an actor, what were some of the challenges of moving from live theater to film?
There were many: the precision of movement which the camera calls for -- down to the half inch sometimes; being in the right place emotionally when you're shooting out of sequence; and finding the right balance of size which the camera needs depending on the scene and distance from the lens.

Luckily, I was surrounded by an amazing group of talented people. On the first fourteen hour day, my learning curve was huge -- absolutely vertical -- and immediate, and never stopped. I had people like Brent, the film director, the camera man, the assistant director, sound men and women, etc. and many more. You're surrounded sometimes by 30 or 40 people all doing something absolutely integral to the scene.

I was very honest with everyone right away, saying that I knew I could do it but I also knew I needed to learn a lot and that I would be making mistakes. They were all respectful and insightful in the ways they coached me along the way. It's the most truly collaborative project I've ever worked on.

Do you see this project leading into other film work for you?
I would, of course, love it. It is a very difficult medium -- getting the right balance for the camera --and I like the challenge. Of course, if it is done well, it looks completely effortless on screen but it's a hard road to get to that place. I want to learn more so I can be more at home in the medium.

What was it like to act with your daughter? Did you have any reservations about her appearance in the film?
I did at first. I wasn't sure how she would be in front of the camera or how I would be with her. She was quite amazing and I wound up loving the screen time I got to share with her. She learned very quickly, just as I did, what was necessary.

In addition to acting, you also work as a playwright and novelist. Is it challenging to pursue all of these artistic passions?
The greatest challenge is time. All three disciplines actually lend themselves to each other. We're looking for many of the same things in a novel, a play, or a film: honesty in the characters and situation -- a sense of truth about them; a good story well told and clearly told, and in such a way which is vivid and engaging to the audience/reader.

Just for fun, how often are you recognized on the street?
I think more often people see me and think, "Where the heck do I know that guy from?" And they can't place me. But I do have people come up and say hello and thank you, and I'm always grateful. Some of them have seen my work for over 20 years. And, I once -- I'm a little embarrassed to say this -- but I once I got a table at an overbooked restaurant because the owner knew my work. Okay, I admit, it was fun. I felt like I was somebody -- for about five minutes.

Madison is premiering in the Wisconsin Film Festival at 8:30 pm on Saturday, April 5 in the Chazen; the show is officially sold out, but tickets are often available at fest screenings for persons who arrive early and wait in the rush line. If you are unable to attend this, though, the film is opening its local theatrical run at Sundance Cinemas on Friday, April 25, so there will be more chances to see it and DeVita's performance.

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