IN TOWN FOR SIFF last June, actress-turned-director Christine Lahti emphasized the commonalities between the two unlikely friends in My First Mister (see Film Calendar review). "They both seemed very complex to me. You couldn't get more different people from two completely disparate worlds. They both were disenfranchised and lonely and alienated—for their own reasons."
Best known to television audiences for her long-term role on Chicago Hope, Lahti was given the script about a gloomy goth chick (Joy Ride's Leelee Sobieski) and a shy, uptight retailer (Albert Brooks), then noted how rare it was for the younger part to be a fully developed character. "When I was casting, every teenage girl wanted to play this part. And they would come in and say, 'Finally—a movie that's not just treating me like a sex object! Or a girlfriend of some really, really immature adolescent boy. Or I'm the fantasy of some adolescent boy.'"
Then, Lahti explains of the screenplay, "I tried to deepen it and make it even darker." Of her pierced, tattooed, poetry-writing, Plath-like heroine, she adds, "I was scared to death of these kids when I went to do my research. Leelee and I hung out on Melrose and we went to goth clubs. They were initially pretty intimidating to me, with the piercing and the tattoos. They seemed so tough but [were] really crying out underneath to be loved and accepted by somebody."
My First Mister also examines what she calls "the norm" of fractured, divorced, remarried, and improvised non-nuclear families. "That interested me. How the mom, played by Carol Kane, was so damaged in her own way from the divorce and felt so rejected and lost from that. But her way of survival was the opposite of Leelee's, was to try to find a positive spin for everything, to dance through her days." Laughing, she exclaims of the mother-daughter relationship, "Obviously they really need to go into therapy or something."
Lahti acknowledges that Brooks' buttoned-down character is something of a departure for the writer-director- performer behind such comedies as The Muse, Defending Your Life, and Lost in America. "I didn't know him to be a dramatic actor," she admits. "I wanted to exploit some of the comedic gifts that he has—I mean, that's sort of a no-brainer! But he was very concerned, as was I, that he not fall into that typical Albert Brooks character."