Director Polly Draper writes, casts sons in ‘Stella’s Last Weekend’

Polly Draper has been a familiar face on screen since the 1980s, becoming a household name with her Emmy Award-nominated work on Thirtysomething. But also found herself moving behind the scenes, first as a screenwriter with 1998’s The Tic Code (which she co-starred in with Gregory Hines) and then in 2005 when she co-wrote and directed The Naked Brothers Band movie. Draper hit on a youthful phenomenon, and within two years was responsible for the TV spin-off of the same name. The Naked Brothers were played by her own sons, Nat and Alex Wolff, who’ve continued to work in Hollywood with prominent roles in films like Paper Towns and Patriot’s Day, respectively. But Draper brought them back together with her latest project, the film Stella’s Last Weekend (out October 12) about two brothers who realized they’ve both fallen for the same girl (Paulina Singer). Keeping it all in the family, writer-director Draper also appears in the film as the brother’s mother Sally.

Lesley Coffin: At what point in your acting career did you start moving towards writing and directing?

Polly Draper: I think I just always liked being creative and as an actress gets older, you find yourself evolving out of roles, because there aren’t as many people writing roles for them. And I started to just pour my creativity into other things. I wrote my first film, The Tic Code, 20 years ago. And I knew that was an area I was interested in and something I was good at. I never tried directing until I made The Naked Brothers Band, and that felt like kind of a lark and was very low pressure. I saw the movie as kind of Spinal Tap meets Little Rascals, a movie about boys in a band as popular as the Beatles. And I was directing my boys, who happen to me weird musical prodigies, who inspired me to write and direct it. And low and behold, someone from Nickelodeon saw it and wanted to make a TV show about it. I wasn’t even sure I’d want my boys to get involved in that, and suddenly a song Nat wrote when he was six years old was on the charts and they had the biggest show on Nickelodeon. And it’s very easy to write for them because I can hear their voices in my head and they are such talented actors. Directing them when they were kids was much harder than it is now. They’ve become professional actors with so much experience on different sets and I’m not wrangling children anymore.

Lesley Coffin: Now that they’ve branched out and become adult actors, did they have any reservations about working together again?

Polly Draper: They were as eager as I was. They hadn’t worked with each other in 10 years and they love working with each other more than anyone. It’s like a dance partner you’re totally in sync with. And they really wanted to do it. And the parts I’d written were different from the parts they’d played. There were things each of those characters that touched on their real lives that I hadn’t seen in the characters they were playing.

Lesley Coffin: Did you write their characters with each of them in mind? Could they have switched roles?

Polly Draper: I wrote Nat’s part for Nat and Alex’s part for Alex. I couldn’t have seen them playing the other roles. I wanted their specific energy in each of those roles, and I don’t think the film would have worked as well if they’d switched roles. But each of them mentioned something like that to me. They’re both versatile actors and if Alex had a part I could see what Nat would do with it and vice versa, but they have their own unique energies and they would do the same part very differently. And I felt it was important for Nat to play the older brother to Alex.

Lesley Coffin: It’s rare to hear directors talk about that idea of different energies an actor will bring to roles. Do you think coming from the acting world has helped you spot that in other actors when you’re casting roles?

I think that every actor with a lot of experience has some insight into what they need to play a role and what energy is required to play it. If you are an actor who’s never directed, you might not see things this way. But once an actor’s directed, they gain a whole new perspective on the process. And I know that actors-turned-directors know how to work with actors so much better than directors who’ve never acted. I just know from experience that actors-turned-directors that they understand the process an actor has to go through.

Lesley Coffin: The film is building off the chemistry Nat and Alex have. But you also have Paulina in the mix and she has to fit into the mix and have chemistry with both of them. What was the casting process for that role?

Polly Draper: I’m so glad you mentioned that because that was one of the biggest concerns I had, it could make or break the movie. The second she auditioned I knew I wanted her. Lots of girls auditioned for the part, but I knew she was the right person the moment I saw her. She has an edge to her, a humor, and an outward toughness with this inward vulnerability that was perfect for the role. You had to believe they’d both be attracted to her and she had to fit with each of them, physically and emotionally. And they both had great chemistry with her, and she fit right in from the start.

(C) Lesley Coffin (10/12/18) FF2 Media

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