Not every Central Alberta kid who dreams of hitting the big-time makes it to Hollywood — Michael Lomenda is the exception.
Lomenda actually aimed to be an architect while growing up in his native Stettler. But after being diverted into the magical world of musical theatre by an enthusiastic high school drama teacher, Lomenda ended up taking a different path to success — first by scoring a major part in the Jersey Boys stage musical in Toronto, and then by catching the eye of director Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood cast Lomenda in the pivotal role of Nick Massi (the same part he played on stage) in the movie version of the Jersey Boys. The film recounts the rise of 1960s singing sensations Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and is expected to hit theatres on June 20.
Lomenda attended Red Deer College Theatre Studies for a year before enrolling in the musical theatre program at Ontario’s Sheridan College.
Advocate reporter Lana Michelin was able to ask Lomenda about his filming adventures — including what it was like working with Eastwood and actor Christopher Walken.
The actor also shared his feelings about his formative Stettler years and crossing paths with supermodel and actress Tricia Helfer as a teenager.
You recently finished the Jersey Boys Movie, which is slated for a June 20 release. How was the experience of transforming the popular stage musical about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons into a film? (Is this your first one?)
Lomenda — It is my first movie and really my first film experience besides a couple commercials! And, even without precedent, I know this will remain as “The Highlight” of my career. Working with this cast and crew with the incredibly generous Mr. Eastwood at the helm has been nothing short of a dream come true.
I mean, it’s been so incredible and so far from anything I could’ve ever imagined being a part of that I’m still happily wrapping my brain around it all. Watching Mr. E and his incredibly deft team re-imagine Jersey Boys, the musical for film has been a trip.
I’ve performed this show on stage pretty much the same way over 1,200 times, and working on the movie was like heading back to the sandbox to completely re-invent, explore, improvise and flesh out an already incredible show for a film audience.
That’s one of the coolest parts of it all: watching all the detail from sets and locations, to props and costumes, to the subtleties of relationships, all being added back in and magnified under the film lens.
The stage version moves so quickly that, naturally by circumstance, large set pieces and incredibly detailed set dressing and hundreds of cast members aren’t feasible; only the necessary elements can remain. Film audiences demand that kind of detail, so watching the brilliant Eastwood team masterfully introduce all those details back in was mind-blowing.
And it’s sort of like reading a book before you see the movie of it. You have a clear idea of what you think Hagrid’s house looks like, or Gandalf’s cloak, or how Andy Dufresne’s voice sounds etc., and every day I showed up to set there were these great exciting moments all day of “AH! cool!! That’s what Nicky’s car looks like” and “Wild! That’s how they imagined Gyp’s house!”
It was like Christmas every day. I was constantly amazed.
After playing Nick Massi in the Toronto stage version of Jersey Boys, you were selected to play the same character in the movie version, even though a lot of others had played the role on different stages across North America and London — including Broadway. Did you get any idea of what factored into this choice?
Lomenda — I can only truly speak of my own experience being cast, which was really quite short and even to someone like myself with little film experience, seemed quicker than I imagined.
I guess it all started the day Mr. E showed up at our San Francisco matinee performance. We were in San Fran as the final stop for the First mational tour of Jersey Boys and I think we were in our final weeks. I was getting ready for the show and hear some buzz that Mr. Eastwood was in the audience. I didn’t believe it, probably more out of self-preservation since I’m the type of nervous actor who would rather not know if Frankie Valli or Bob Gaudio, or CLINT EASTWOOD is in the audience. So I went ahead with my show as usual and it wasn’t until my long second-act break that someone texted me a picture of our swing Mauricio with Mr. E in the lobby that it became real.
But I figured, he was just swinging through town to catch the show one last time before he started shooting the movie.
Honestly, the movie was not on my radar because I had zero film experience — it seemed too good to be true to even hope to score an audition. So when we met Mr. Eastwood after the show and I shook his hand, I certainly didn’t expect to get a call to come down to New York to audition a few weeks later.
Which, of course, I gladly did, and bought an NYC-bound early morning ticket arriving in the midst of a Manhattan torrential downpour. I left plenty of time for my audition, was in a suit, hair parted on the side, umbrella in hand. Yet, by the time I reached my audition, I was soaked from the thighs down, hair plastered to my forehead, umbrella busted and tossed, over a half-hour late, and had spent over a 100 bucks and close to an hour in a cab in grid-locked traffic.
These are not ideal situations when heading to audition for Mr. Clint Eastwood. I got there, hit the bathroom, re-parted my hair with my fingers, looked myself square in the mirror and said to myself, “You’re late. Suck it up. You know this,” and went in. I actually stopped halfway through the first scene I was reading and asked to start again saying out loud to myself, “Just breathe, Lomenda” or something like that.
I think I’d be mortified to see my audition tape for this film. Auditioning is not my strong suit — I like the work part better!
In the end, I suspect, it was more that matinee performance Mr. E saw that scored me the part, and, most likely the film audition in NYC on that rainy day was more to see if I’d break the camera lens.
I also fully believe so much in luck. Being in the right place at the right time. Hard work, yes. Skill, yes.
But so much is timing. And a small amount of fate, maybe, when it comes to this role; my character and I share the same birthday — Sept. 19 — and that always weirds me out in a fantastic way when I think of all the amazing life-changing stuff that has come my way playing the understated Nick Massi.
What was it like being directed by Clint Eastwood and acting with Christopher Walken, who plays mobster Gyp DeCarlo?
Lomenda — It’s really hard to describe Mr. Eastwood without sounding like you’re describing some ultimate superhero. I feel honoured just to have seen him work. He is masterful, generous, patient, hilarious, respectful and well respected.
There is this poem called If by Rudyard Kipling that I love — it’s almost a list of how to “be” — and I often find myself referring to it and striving to live by its words. Mr. E personifies that poem. So it’s been a real unique honour to get to know the man who personifies those words.
Mr. Walken was such a fantastic surprise to me when I heard he was in the movie as Gyp. He’s so perfect for it and was really great to work with — quirky and hilarious, spontaneous and really open to just have fun and trying things. On my birthday (and Massi’s birthday), we filmed at a location in a place called La Canada (no joke). We were filming my most involved scene in the play where I finally get my say and it was an intense day that included a one-on-one short scene with Mr. Walken and I.
After the long day of shooting, Vinnie had got me a cake and everyone sang and ate, including Mr. E. It’s gonna be difficult to top that birthday.
Does the on-set experience make you want to tackle more film roles?
Lomenda — Absolutely. It completely turned me on my head in the best way, this experience. I looked at acting and performing through filmic eyes and had first-hand experience with the crazy draw that makes stage actors want to take the plunge into the film world.
I’m 100 per cent fully hooked. It’s certainly very different and a great challenge, and the prospect of diving in and learning more really excites me.
How often do you get back to Stettler, where you grew up? Do you still have friends and family there?
Lomenda — I unfortunately don’t get back as much as I’d like. Most of my high school friends have left, and we were the only Lomendas in town as all our extended family is mostly settled around Calgary.
People like Eric Rahn and Mrs. Fix at the high school have really left a lasting formative impression on me — and Blaine Paulson, who is a great family friend (and) who was instrumental in getting me into music — I miss these folks.
And, as I’m delving into writing, some of the recurring advice I come across for new authors is “write what you know.” I “know” Stettler and feel like its really shaped who I am as an adult and as an artist. I’m proud of that and look forward to bringing that it into my writing.
Having started out with plans of becoming an architect and ending up on stage, what are some of the things you learned during your Central Alberta upbringing that helped shape your later successes in life?
Lomenda — I think a lot of where I am today has to do with hard work — Albertans are hard-working folks. And there is this interesting paradox when you grow up in a small town in the flat prairies — poetically speaking, the massive open sky simultaneously makes you feel both tiny and strong as an ant. When you are surrounded by openness so grand and beautiful as a prairie sky, it’s at once paralyzing and galvanizing.
And I think the community in a small town (is) an incredible force. You develop a strong sense of self and your family extends so much further than just the walls of your house.
There are so many of us Stettlerite kids working hard at making a mark — I have the most ridiculous picture of me at my dorkiest accepting an award from Tricia Helfer, supermodel turned successful actress making waves, and she’s from Stettler County … I recently walked by a gigantic billboard in Toronto’s Eaton Centre with Michelle Miazga (we were social conveners together in Grade 7) advertising her amazing new design business, Port + Quarter. … I’m in humbling company as a Stetterite working hard to carve their mark. Good family, good community, respect for your elders, and a sense of adventure and opportunity. Stettler rocks.