The interview takes place over three continents. There’s one virtual zoom window overlooking four living rooms: Two in New York, one in New Zealand, and one at THR Roma‘s office in Italy.
Maestro, Bradley Cooper‘s take on the life, personal and professional, of legendary conductor Leonard Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre, played by Carey Mulligan, has just dropped worldwide on Netflix. Bernstein’s three children, Jamie, Alexander and Nina, have gathered to talk about the movie and their memories.
The siblings took center stage at the Venice Film Festival this year, leaping up after the film’s screening to jokingly conduct the bombastic standing ovation that greeted the film’s world premiere, imitating their father’s atypical and vibrant conducting style.
“It was cathartic in a moment when joy and tears, memories and pain were overwhelming,” says Alexander. “We became children again. And of course, we had to fill those seven minutes of applause with something!” Adds Nina: “We just did what used to happen when the Overture of Candide was on TV, we watched our father and imitated him in the living room.”
The trio speak in unison, finishing each other’s sentences, and picking up a word or comment to spin off in another direction. Always, incredibly, in tune. A tiny orchestra. Thousands of miles and two oceans divide them, but they sound like the kids shown in Maestro, chattering on the lawns of the Bernstein family estate in Connecticut.
“Do you know, that they actually filmed there?” says Alexander. “It was strange for us, surreal. Nina said it’s like those dreams you have when you’re in your house, but it somehow isn’t your house. My parents were there, but they sort of weren’t my parents. It was like a dream.”
“We would see Bradley and Carey there, and they would come already in makeup and stage clothes, to get into character. They would walk around the garden, around the rooms, and to us, it seemed both strange and natural,” says Nina.
“At a screening the other day, when we were photographed with Bradley and Carey, Jamie and I looked at each other and said, ‘This is a very strange family picture, our parents are younger than us!’” notes Alexander.
It’s hard to get a word in edgewise. The three go back and forth, mixing personal nostalgia with their enthusiasm for a film that evokes memories both sweet and painful. They reflect on the long journey to get their family’s story to the screen.
“They’ve been trying to make this film for 15 years,” says Alexander. “Originally it was with Martin Scorsese. He kept renewing the option, but no decision was made. Fred Berner and Amy Durning were already attached as producers. We agreed with them, we just asked to be able to read the script, to talk to the writer or the director who would do it.”
“At a certain point it had become a joke between us, all this talk of life rights, of options. We had resigned ourselves to the fact that this film would never be made,” says Jamie.
Alexander picks up: “When everything had stopped moving, when it seemed impossible to bring it to the screen, came the twist: Steven Spielberg. Well before he remade West Side Story, he entered the production team, and it looked like he might go behind the camera as well. The idea of Bradley playing the lead came from him. But the more Bradley got involved in the project, the more he talked to us, the more he felt the story was his.”
Jamie was the first among the siblings to see Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut, A Star is Born.
“She just told us: ‘Go see it.’ We did, and we fell out of our chairs,” says Alexander. “We were really impressed with his work. And when we found him in front of us, he was like we imagined him to be after seeing the film: Focused, attentive, committed, and full of generosity.”
“And respectful,” adds Nina. “His approach won us over. When Jamie also met him, and they connected, it was a crescendo. He included us in his work, made sure that we got, without saying anything, all the drafts of the script, and then he screened the work in progress for us at various stages of the project. He asked us a lot of questions, and we tried to not ask for too many corrections. Ultimately, it’s his movie and if he wants to take a certain artistic license, that’s up to him. Only if there was a glaring error would we say: Actually, it happened this way.”
“There was an atmosphere of mutual trust,” Jamie stresses.
The trio quickly brushes over the controversy involving the prosthetic nose Cooper wears to play Bernstein, calling the “scandal” absurd and undeserving of further comment. Much more painful, they say, was watching some of the darkest moments of their parent’s lives revealed on screen.
“The most difficult part, of course, was when our mother gets sick and then dies,” says Jamie. “We had read the script, we knew it would be in the film, but seeing it was a real punch in the gut, even though Bradley handled everything with wonderful delicacy. In shooting it, in narrating it, even and especially in pitching it to us: If we had seen it all at once, in a preview, it would have destroyed us, we would have fallen apart.”
“I don’t know if by seeing the film I learned more about our family or about Lenny Bernstein,” adds Alexander. “But I do know that I learned a lot about Bradley Cooper. Now we are far enough removed from everything, I think I am able to say that he and our dad are so much alike. A lot more than we could have imagined. There’s the same intensity, focus, and perfectionism. The ability to devote oneself to art around the clock if necessary. Being able to handle tension better than anyone else, not sleeping for days when inspiration comes. The same charisma. And love.”
They pause. They smile at each other as if they were in the same room. And, almost in chorus, they say: “And the hugging. They hug in the same way. They are both full of love, of warmth, of wanting to connect.”
Maestro explores the incredible challenge Felicia Montealegre faced being the wife of the genius Lenny Bernstein. But what is it like to be his children, to bear the responsibility of his legacy?
“It is tremendously difficult,” Nina admits.
“You have expectations of yourself that you can never meet,” says Jamie.
“We had a book when we were little, tiny kids,” Alexander remembers. “On the cover, it was called ‘Just like mommy.’ Then you would turn it upside down and the back cover said, ‘Just like daddy.’ It was all about a businessman getting up in the morning and having breakfast with his children. And his wife is making breakfast. And he goes to work with his briefcase. Takes the train and all that. Just what you would expect. I used to read this book and say, ‘Wow. That sounds like an amazing life.’ But also I just knew there was something else going on in my life, that was pretty extraordinary. And that there was never going to be a book about me being like daddy.”
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