Lotto Land's Winning Ticket

Musician Wendell Holmes Moves to Film

by Jennifer Scoville

Some actors audition for years before landing a film role, while others break into movies without so much as a screen test. For Wendell Holmes, one of the stars of the independent film Lotto Land, a 30-year career with a New York-based blues band, the Holmes Brothers, was all the experience he needed. Holmes' role as Milt, an unsuccessful musician and single father struggling with parenting and the bottle, brings heartwarming honesty to the screen in a representation of inner city life that is rarely depicted.

Set in a contemporary Brooklyn neighborhood, Lotto Land is the story of a building and its inhabitants who fall in love, face addictions, and, generally, work with the empty hand life has dealt them. This is a neighborhood where the impossible gamble of a $27 million lottery jackpot can be the most hopeful thing on the block - even for the young people. Hank (Larry Gilliard, Jr., who previously starred in Straight Out of Brooklyn) has saved up some money from his job at the liquor store to take his girlfriend Joy (Barbara Gonzalez) to the prom. Joy's college scholarship will ensure her deliverance from the block but not from her feelings of disrespect for her alcoholic father - a neighborhood fixture on roller skates. Despite drug-dealing friends and expectations of teenage sex, the young couple manage to make thoughtful decisions together as their romance develops. Single parents Flo (Suzanne Castallos), mother of Joy, and Milt, father of Hank, provide the guidance (and lack thereof) that creates the conflict of the plot.

A first project written, directed, and produced by John Rubino, Lotto Land made its regional premiere at the SXSW Film Festival last March. Rubino attended one of the screenings and told the audience how the film was financed - with proceeds from a run-down building bought with a writing grant and sold after years of renovations he did himself.

Music plays a huge part in the film, and Rubino had written the lyrics to the songs before he had ever met Holmes or heard the Holmes Brothers play. "There was no question in my mind that Wendell had to play Milt. On one of his CDs he sings a song he composed called `I've Been a Loser.' After hearing it, I knew he could identify with the role even though he had never acted."

Holmes, with his comfortingly gritty voice, recently spoke to us by phone about his experience.

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Austin Chronicle: Lotto Land was such an optimistic representation of city life, a nice change from the usual Hollywood urban films. It had the elements we know to exist, i.e., poverty, drugs, etc., but those things weren't the focus of the film. Do you think it's a realistic representation?

Wendell Holmes: To tell you the truth, I think it was very realistic, some of the language might not have been exactly what we would have preferred but it tells a real story about inner city life.

AC: How did the Holmes Brothers get involved with director Paul Rubino?

WH: Well, John is from New York, same as the Holmes Brothers blues band, and he came out to see us. He's a friend of our record producer and he needed a guy that played guitar, my age, so, hey - opportunity presented itself and it happened.

AC: Did he approach you first to play the music or to act in the film?

WH: Both, as a matter of fact. He offered me the part as Milt first.

AC: He must have felt fairly confident about your acting ability, considering you didn't have any experience.

WH: He'd known me, you know, and I guess he felt that an old man could do the old man's part.

AC: Your character seemed to play the role of the urban philosopher, delivering lines like, "If you can buy your dream for a dollar, then that's all it's worth," and "Plumbing is like life, it always makes sense." I got the feeling some of your lines were off the cuff.

WH: Those particular lines were scripted - as a matter of fact, most of them were. There was a little ad lib but not a lot.

AC: What, then, of your personal experience did you bring to the role of Milt?

WH: You know, by being a musician all my life and living in New York for about 30 years or so. The story of Milt and the lottery and Papi, the neighborhood drunk - it all really happens.

AC: The film was shot in only 19 days, it must have been a rigorous schedule for you.

WH: It was, because I had to finish up in time to go to Chicago to play a festival there. It was well planned though, and that's what made us get through it. Everyone was disciplined and on time and energetic; it went as planned, you know? We had to do some night shots when the moon was right and it wasn't raining. It was my first film so I wasn't used to this, but it wasn't shot in sequence. I guess all films are like that.

AC: How was Rubino's neighborhood involved in the film?

WH: The neighborhood itself was very much involved in that there were people that John knew that could be extras. The guy at the grocery store and all those people on the streets were real people, you know.

A.C.: I imagine you're pretty used to performing in front of a live audience. How was it different being in front of the camera?

WH: The first day of filming was a little bit strange to me - I was a little anxious. But, being that we had experience with live audiences, I think I got to the point where I didn't even know the camera was there. It didn't effect me consciously, anyway.

AC: Do you plan to pursue your career as an actor?

WH: I'm hoping so. I enjoyed it a lot and, God willing, maybe I'll get another opportunity.

AC: No offers after the film?

WH: We've had a couple of approaches that haven't worked out as of yet, but they might still.

AC: What is currently happening with the Holmes Brothers?

WH: We travel a lot, we go to Europe a few times during the year, every year. We're going to Australia the first two weeks in January. This particular week we're playing in New York, and we just got back from Belgium - we're doing a lot of road stuff.

AC: Did the band enjoy doing the film?

WH: They just loved it. They got a chance to have a few little speaking parts, too.

AC: The last question I have for you has to do with the story line of the film, which you probably didn't have much to do with, but when your character, Milt, gets involved with the step-mother of his son's girlfriend - that fire-escape kiss, I almost didn't want it to happen, like it would be too clichéd or something. But then in the end I thought those turns were touching, that it enhanced the film. Did you agree with that scene, with Milt and Flo becoming romantically involved?

WH: Well, I'll tell you the truth, Suzanne's husband was the main cameraman, so although I wasn't afraid of the cameras, it's a funny situation to be in.

AC: Is he a big man?

WH: (Laughing) He's kind of a big man. Anyway, I thought it was good for the story line that we got together. It was real. n

Lotto Land opens in Austin on Friday, October 6 at the Village Theatre. Writer-director John Rubino will be present at the 7:45pm screening on opening day and will answer questions afterwards.

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