'Milk's' hot new actor: A Hollywood producer?
When producer Zvi Howard Rosenman arrived at the academy screening of "Milk" last week, he found someone occupying his reserved seat--Jack Nicholson. The actor ended up sitting right behind Rosenman. When the film was over, Nicholson leaned forward, tapped Rosenman on the shoulder and said, "Boy, oh boy, you did a good job." Having produced dozens of films over the years--from "The Main Event" to "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" to "Family Man"--Rosenman is used to accepting accolades at movie premieres.
But Rosenman had a totally new role in "Milk," as an actor, not a producer. He makes his debut playing David Goodstein, a powerful, self-made businessman who, as publisher of the San Francisco-based Advocate, helped turn a flimsy sex-ad publication into the Time magazine of the gay universe. "Goodstein was a kingmaker," Rosenman told me the other day. "He was basically the David Geffen of San Francisco. If you were involved in gay politics in that era, he was the grand poobah, the go-to guy."
As we learn in "Milk," Goodstein viewed Harvey Milk as an uncontrollable activist, as someone who was pushing for change, too much, too soon. "Goodstein wanted to work through the system, not outside it," Rosenman explains. "Harvey needed his endorsement when he was running for supervisor, but Goodstein saw Harvey as too radical, too flamboyant. They had a very contentious, complicated relationship."
Although Rosenman had never acted before, he knew "Milk" casting director Francine Maisler, who--working with "Milk" director Gus Van Sant--had been putting a lot of real-life people into parts in the film. "When they were trying to cast Goodstein, Francine said to Gus, 'We need someone who looks like Howard Rosenman, who talks like him and who has his size.' I think all Gus said was, 'Well, can he act?' Francine called me and asked if I had any experience and I told her that I'd done 'My Fair Lady' when I was 14 at a Hebrew student camp."
Even before he was cast, Rosenman started thinking like an actor. "My next words to Francine were, 'So, who am I up against?' " The competition was stiff--Van Sant had already seen the likes of Richard Schiff and Tom Hulce. Rosenman was nervous about having to audition, but he says that his best friend, the Endeavor agent Brian Swardstrom, persuaded him this was too important an opportunity to pass up. "So I did two takes with Francine, she looked at the tape and said, 'I'm recommending you to Gus.' And I got the part."
When Rosenman arrived in San Francisco for the film shoot, he realized his biggest challenge lay ahead--here he was, a novice actor, about to play several scenes opposite Sean Penn. What was it like?
Rosenman said he was completely terrified. "As a producer, I'm not intimidated or afraid of anyone. So I calmly studied and practiced my lines, riding this wave of exhilaration and then I showed up on the set and there I was, in the same room with Sean Penn. I was unbelievably terrified. I was convinced that Sean would take one look at me, turn to Gus and say, 'I can't work with an amateur.' "
But Penn turned out to be a hugely supportive presence. "He was totally empathetic," Rosenman recalls. "He said, 'Look, I've never played gay before, so we're all in this together. Trust me, I'm just as nervous as you are.' He saw that I was terrified, which was the very opposite of what I was supposed to be as the character. So he said, 'Don't worry, you've got my back and I've got yours. Just relax.' "
Rosenman laughs. "The whole experience was very humbling. It made me feel very differently about actors. As a producer, you're always thinking--oh, these actors are such babies, such narcissists. When in reality, when you see how difficult the whole process is, of letting out your inner emotions, you realize that you're very vulnerable and naked out there."
Rosenman is an oddity in Hollywood. He's a political conservative, largely because of his Israeli family roots, but he's openly gay and a longtime supporter of gay rights. He had voted for George W. Bush, largely out of respect for Bush's pro-Israel foreign policy, but he changed his tune in this November's election, voting for Barack Obama. He is outraged by the passage of Proposition 8, which prohibits gay marriage. It's an issue closely linked to "Milk," since it was Milk who led the opposition to a similar proposition prohibiting gays from teaching in the California school system 30 years ago.
Rosenman believes in the budding campaign to organize boycotts of businesses that supported Proposition 8. "I would boycott every business. When you hurt them in their pocketbook, they won't be so quick to support discrimination the next time around." I asked him what he thought Harvey Milk would think of the boycott effort. "Harvey would be in the lead," says Rosenman. "You see it in the movie. The guy who owns the local liquor store doesn't want any gay people around. But once the whole neighborhood is full of gay people, his attitude is very different. He realizes they're his customers!"
Rosenman sighs. "You hate to think that we're fighting the same battles 30 years later, but that's what makes this movie so timely. It's about issues that just won't go away until we have leaders like Harvey who are willing to fight for what's right."
Photo of Zvi Howard Rosenman by Michael Buckner/Getty Images