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By Jay Stone
TORONTO — Emory Cohen is explaining how he creates characters in his movies. Stealing has a lot to do with it.
For instance, for his role in the melancholy love story Brooklyn — in which he plays Tony, a 1950s Italian plumber in love with a lonely Irish immigrant named Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) — Cohen was inspired by Marlon Brando’s working-class character in the drama On The Waterfront, as well as the naturalistic performances in the Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thief.
“That’s what I do,” Cohen says. “I basically steal ideas from different performances and try to take on little bits and do it in an Emory Cohen kind of way and see what happens.”
What happened in Brooklyn, which is based on a novel by Colm Toibin, is a bit of throwback magic. Tony is an unusual kind of movie character, a decent, blue-collar man who is struck by love at first sight — Cohen says it reminds him of a line in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather when a character sees a woman and feels like he is hit by a lightning bolt — and courts her with delicate care.
It’s a role that has some resonance for Cohen, who, like Tony, was born in New York to a working-class family. He’s Jewish, but he has several uncles who are half-Italian. “Very loud, big gregarious types of guys,” he calls them. “I thought of Tony as being colourful because my uncles were colourful type of people.”
He constructed a backstory that explains how Tony turned out to be so sweet and affectionate despite a rough-sounding profession.
“I think what happened was — and I stole this from a story I was reading in this book called It Happened In Brooklyn (an oral history of the borough) — in that time, if you didn’t do well on your standardized tests, you would be sent to what’s called a vocational school and basically given a job. And I think that’s what happened with him.
“I thought of him like a dog a lot. The way a dog can get shooed by their master but they’re still going to come back to get petted.”
Cohen, 25, is a relative newcomer to acting. He was an enthusiastic baseball player (“I was a big kid and either I was going to strike out or I was going to hit a bomb. So they had to keep me in the lineup because they never knew”) who got onto the stage when he happened to mention to a friend that he was thinking of auditioning for a school play. The friend told the teacher, and Cohen was drafted into the role of Mr. Peachum in The Threepenny Opera.
“So I started off doing bad boys,” he says.
The experience was a revelation
“The first time I really let loose I experienced a freedom I never really experienced before,” he says. “I was kind of a shy kid actually. And then what happened was, I said to my dad I wanted to stop playing baseball, I wanted to act. And he immediately signed me up for the Lee Strasberg institute.” He supplemented his education with weekly movie nights — Mean Streets, Five Easy Pieces, On The Waterfront — before going to arts school in Philadelphia.
Cohen is best known for his roles as Debra Messing’s son on the NBC musical series Smash, and as Bradley Cooper’s difficult son in Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond The Pines. He came to Toronto to do interviews for Brooklyn — which was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival — directly from London, where he was shooting War Machine, a comedy war film starring Brad Pitt.
Brooklyn is his first romantic lead, and although he admits to being on edge about working with Ronan, he says he was able to use that feeling in his performance.
“I think we just knew we were good actors who were going to bring it and going to challenge each other,” he says. “There was a lot of trust. I was also really nervous, as Tony would be, about working with her. Because she’s such a brilliant actress. It was about admiration, and Tony is like that as well. So there was a lot of that.”
It also gave him a chance to think about how the world has changed in his native New York.
“They were neighborhood guys, and their neighborhood meant something to them,” he says. “And it wasn’t in this day and age where everything’s moving so quickly. And it was a lot more based on the family and I actually have that. I have a strong family home life. Crazy Jews.”
And while he didn’t become a baseball player, he knows his parents are happy with the way things out.
“Sometimes I hope my dad thinks I’m cool or whatever. I know my mom’s going to like Brooklyn, so that’s cool.”
(Brooklyn opens Nov. 20 in Toronto and Vancouver; Dec. 11 in Halifax, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Calgary, Edmonton and Victoria; and Dec. 18 in Montreal, with other dates to follow.)
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