Life’s pretty busy for Michelle Danner. She’s Founder and Artistic Director of Edgemar Center for the Arts, the space that once housed Santa Monica Museum of Art, in the Frank Gehry-designed retail complex on Main Street. She’s finishing up directing her sixth film and is prepping a new play starring Anne Archer for stage, opening at the end of February along with the Center’s Cinema at the Edge film festival. And she’s just returned from teaching an acting workshop in Hawaii.
But when I asked her what she considers herself most to be, she said, “First and foremost, the mother of two boys.” She’s helping her 17-year-old son with his college applications now, and says proudly, “He’s an aspiring filmmaker who’s already won some awards on the festival circuit.”
Michelle grew up in Paris, where her father was president of the William Morris Agency. “He opened the very first offices of the agency and as a little girl, I would be playing under his desk when all these famous artists would come up.” Guests for dinner at their home included the likes of Marlene Dietrich and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Her mother is from Italy, and growing up in Europe, Michelle learned to speak not only Italian, but English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, languages that allow her to teach her signature acting workshop, The Golden Box, all across the globe.
Moving to New York when she was 15, she studied acting with the legendary Stella Adler, and later Uta Hagen. “I was lucky to have some iconic teachers and I feel a sense of responsibility to pass this knowledge on to younger generations.” Her list of students has included Christian Slater, Salma Hayek, Gerard Butler, Seth McFarlane, Penelope Cruz, Chris Rock, Gabrielle Union, and Zooey Deschanel.
One actor she sought out to direct is Cameron Douglas; it’s his first film in more than a decade. “The Runner,” the movie Michelle is finishing up now, tells the story of a high school drug dealer who’s forced to serve as an informant to help bust a kingpin, without his parents’ knowledge.
Cameron, whose father is actor Michael Douglas, and grandfather Kirk Douglas, spent nearly 8 years in prison for drug-related crimes. He recently wrote a memoir, “Long Way Home,” about reconciling with his famous family after all that led up to his incarceration.
Michelle was inspired a story on Nightline about police coercing teen drug sellers this way. “I cried watching it,” she says, “and the next morning, I wrote a three-page treatment and sent it to writer Jason Chase Tyrell, who also wrote ‘Bad Impulse,’ the last movie I directed (due for release in 2020).
“Fast forward two-and-a-half years, and I’m watching Nightline as Cameron is being interviewed with Michael about how his life fell apart and how he’s come back together with his family. And he was asked, ‘How do you know if you’re a good actor,’ and there was this light in his eyes as he answered, ‘I know.’ And I knew he’d be a great person to work with.”
She cast him in the role of the detective who coerces the teen to become an informant. “In a sense, for him it’s the other shoe,” she says. “And you know he was right, he’s a wonderful actor, I’ve had extraordinary interaction with him on set, he’s full of heart, gratitude and desire to do really excellent work.”
THE MAILER CONNECTION
In 2011, Michelle directed actress Anne Archer in “Jane Fonda in the Court of Public Opinion” at Edgemar. Her friend John Buffalo Mailer, Norman Mailer’s youngest son—whose play “Hello Herman” she directed as a film in 2012—gave her another play to consider. Based on the memoir, “Ticket to the Circus” by Norris Church Mailer (not John’s mother), the sixth, last and longest-lasting wife of the wild man of literature, she found it irresistible.
“It really spoke to me,” she says. “It’s a slice of American history, literature and politics.” Even as she’s completing “The Runner,” Michelle has begun readings and rehearsals with Anne Archer for this one-woman show, written by Bonnie Culver, opening at Edgemar at the end of February.
EDGEMAR CENTER FOR THE ARTS
Founded in 1999, Michelle cut the ribbon and opened the Edgemar Center in 2002. “It took me a couple of years to raise the initial $1.3 million capital campaign but we had some wonderful people on board, including Steven Spielberg, Kate Capshaw, and Neil Simon. And we got it built. I always joke that I know more about drywall, electricity and plumbing than I ever needed to.”
The Edgemar Center is a self-supporting nonprofit that puts on plays, art exhibits, classes, summer camp activities and serves as the home base for her Los Angeles Acting Conservatory.
Michelle notes that the Cinema at the Edge film festival will kick off its 8th year in February at Edgemar’s two state-of-the-art theatres, with top quality sound and projection equipment.
“We have many screenings—one year there were 60 and another 80 movies—and great Q&As with the filmmakers, and a number of films have found distributors here. It’s a festival that supports grassroots narrative, documentary and shortsfilmmakers.
“Because nowadays, people can shoot movies on their cellphones and edit on their computers, as long as they have a vision and a unique storytelling style.” And for Michelle Danner, “Storytelling is at the heart of everything I do.”
Find out more about all the center’s activities here: https://edgemarcenter.org
Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.