The award-winning film “Happy New Year” tells the story of Sergeant Cole Lewis (Michael Cuomo), a brave soldier who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan for four tours. He comes home badly broken, with a scarred face and wheelchair bound. Placed in a bare bones Veterans Hospital with insufficient care, the only free bed available is in the PTSD unit. With heavy shades of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, Lewis rallies the mentally ill patients to rise above their dire circumstances. It is a sad film but an important one and there are many welcome moments of humor and hope and shockingly good acting. Michael Cuomo won Best Actor at the Rhode Island International Film Festival and he deserves it.
The actor took time out of his crazy busy schedule today for a one-on-one interview with Examiner Dorri Olds.
Dorri Olds: How did this movie come to be?
Michael Cuomo: Originally it was an off-Broadway play written and directed by Lorrel Manning. It sparked so much interest I ended up co-producing a short film version and we showed it all over the film festival circuit. When Huffington Post premiered it we got such a great response we decided to make a featured length movie. Lorrel wrote the screenplay but the story was created by both of us.
Can you describe the dynamic between your character, Louis, and his father, Bill (Alan Dale)?
Louis feels incredibly embarrassed about his physical injuries and feels he let his Dad down. Louis wanted to make him proud by being a tough marine but his father is hostile—not able to deal with his son’s condition—which only intensifies the pressure on Louis to be a man and suck it up and make a full recovery.
How did you prep for the role and were you pleased with the results?
Lorrel suggested we speak to veterans. We did that 80 times together. Lorrel led the interviews while I was a fly on the wall. It helped us flesh out the story during revisions of his screenplay drafts. As an actor, it helped tremendously because it gave a real model of veterans and their reintegration process. Often veterans and mental health professionals complimented me on my portrayal. Many remarked about the blank stare.
Can you describe that?
In the beginning I didn’t know what they were talking about. In retrospect, I must’ve picked that up from the people we interviewed. Most of them seemed like they were somewhere else. They had a forlorn quality and a distance in their eyes. It’s like they were present but absent all at once. That is something that organically worked its way into my performance.
Do any specifics from the interviews stand out?
There was a family, Kevin and Joyce Lucey, who lost their son Jeff to suicide. Lorrel and I had an opportunity to talk to them at length. They said he wasn’t the same person when he came home. They felt a distance and found it hard to connect. It was difficult for Jeff to open up about what had happened, what he had seen. Joyce said, “There was a degree to which I didn’t recognize my own son.” That really stayed with me. I applied it to my character Louis, who felt isolated and was finding it hard to talk to his parents and girlfriend. Louis felt frustrated that people couldn’t speak to him without putting on kid gloves. Scenes with his mother Grace (Tina Sloan) are uncomfortable and apropos.
Do you think the movie will help raise awareness?
When a veteran comes back it impacts the entire family. Blue Star Families is a nonprofit that supports military families. We encountered two veterans, Gerry Byrne and Paul Bucha, who are board members of another nonprofit called Veterans Advantage. Bucha is leading the charge to drop the “D” from PTSD. Veterans feel very stigmatized by saying, “I have a mental disorder.” Many in the veterans’ community feel that it can be treated, worked on, and even healed. The theory is that more veterans would get help if it were referred to as posttraumatic stress. There’s such a high suicide rate among veterans and 25–30 percent of the vets come home with PTSD. Out of that group over 54 percent will not seek treatment. It’s not easy to get accurate numbers but the estimate is 18 suicides per day. Destigmatizing post trauma stress can hopefully save lives. Vets who come forward to say, “I have a problem, I need help,” won’t be afraid of being labeled crazy. Hopefully, as a society we can cut down on the high number of vets abusing drugs and alcohol, too.
Do you think Jose Yenque’s character, Martinez, the angry director of the VA clinic, is realistic or was his rage over-the-top?
Martinez represents the overwhelmed and underfunded reality of VA hospitals across the country. There are some that are specialty centers but those are in the minority. Veterans who have seen the movie said, “Your VA looks like Disneyworld compared to where I went.” I don’t necessarily think Martinez has contempt for the vets but he is completely overwhelmed. We don’t have enough funding and resources and we’re still missing the mark on properly caring for our veterans.
Do you think there are many sensitive and caring VA workers like Lisa (Monique Gabriela Curnen)?
As it is with any system there’s a big difference between workers. Martinez represents an abrasive man who is overwhelmed. There are also people in the VA system who are serving vets and going way beyond the call of duty. Lorrel and I weren’t interested in vilifying the VA system. We wanted to show the reality. Lisa shows there are people who try to make a difference, and they still have a spark in their eyes.
Did Lisa have romantic feelings for Louis or was it pity?
That’s left up to the viewer. She allowed Louis to be more of himself. When he first arrived at the hospital he was immersed in self-pity. She helped him get back to the leader he was before the injury.
You really got inside the head of a marine. How’d you do that?
While Lorrel was doing research, developing the script, and directing actors, I had the opportunity to go through a simulated boot camp. Joseph Harrell helped ingrain the psyche of being a dedicated marine. A precision is instilled in marines that affects everything—posture, speech—and it’s hard to shake. Marines carry it throughout their careers. It’s unconscious, drilled in.
Did it feel strange to act from a wheelchair?
Lorrel gave me a wheelchair a month before the shoot and told me to spend a lot of time in it. When we were prepping for the film, I would go out at night in the wheelchair and get on the subway and buses. I wanted to see what the world looked like from that vantage point—and how the world saw me. Some folks just looked away and went about their lives, while others did their best to help me get around. These experiences were incredibly helpful, as I was stepping into the shoes of a character who didn’t want to be disabled and spends a large part of the film trying to get his old life back—only to realize that may not be possible.
“Happy New Year” is an important movie for all Americans to see. Don’t miss it. It opens Friday, December 7, 2012 at the Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street, NYC. Drama. Rated R. 104 minutes.