Adrian Sparks plays Ernest Hemingway in the new film, “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba,” which opens in theaters Apr. 29, 2016. Joely Richardson plays Hemingway’s wife, Mary, and Giovanni Ribisi plays the Miami journalist who became friends with the couple while they lived in Cuba.
The script was written by Denne Bart Petitclerc, the man Giovanni plays in the film. While Denne chose to name his character Ed Myers, the account is 100% true as the man remembered his time with Hemingway – so much so that the movie is considered a docudrama (a documentary dramatized by actors). Unfortunately, Denne passed away in 2006 and never saw the film completed.
The movie is the first Hollywood film to shoot in Cuba since the 1950s and was shot at Hemingway’s actual home in Havana, which is now a museum. Adrian was even allowed to use Hemingway’s typewriter in the scenes.
Full disclosure: I have known Adrian Sparks for more than 30 years. We’re not close friends but have been in touch off and on over the years. He gives a remarkable performance as Hemingway, and before you decide I’m not objective, bear in mind that Jeffrey Lyons, who knew Ernest Hemingway personally, has praised the performance. Mariel Hemingway, Ernest’s granddaughter, who has a cameo in the film, has also praised the performance.
Adrian and I chatted about the film, and below are some of the highlights of that conversation. (See also my report from a Q&A with Adrian and director Bob Yari at a New York screening facilitated by Peter Travers.)
Adrian on how he got involved with the film:
Well, I did a one-man show starting in 2005. It’s called “Papa,” oddly enough, by a writer named John deGroot. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Kent State shootings. He works for a Florida paper. He had written this one-man show, and Len Cariou did it on Broadway with not much success. A short six-week run, and it was over with.
I found the piece, and through many emails, convinced John to let me work with him and it. And we changed the play a bit. I first did it in L.A., and I got nominated for an Ovation Award for Best Actor for it, and it got a nomination as best production as well. I did it in different parts of the country and actually ended up going to Istanbul with it. I was supposed to be there for six weeks, and I wound up being there for six months because Hemingway is huge in Istanbul and Turkey.
It turns out he’s the number one literary icon taught in all the universities, so there’s huge interest in him. So, I was there for six months, and that was it. That was kind of the end of “Papa.”
Three years later, I’m back stage at The Old Globe Theatre in San Diego having a daytime rehearsal, and my phone rings. This guy says, “Yeah, hi, I found you on the internet, and I wanted to talk to you about Hemingway?” And it was like, “Oh, Jesus, what’s this?” I said, “Yeah, what?” And he said, “Well, we’re part of a movie company. We lost an A-list actor to play Hemingway, and I wanted to know if you’d be interested.” Yeah, I was like, “What the hell?” So, I was very polite. I said, “Listen, if you really know the business, you know you really need to contact my agent, not me. This is my agent’s phone number. You call him, and then we’ll talk after that.” Then, I hung up and never gave it another thought….
A whole year goes by – a whole year – and once again, I’m back stage at the Old Globe for a daytime rehearsal, standing not ten feet from where I was the year before. My phone rings, and this guy comes on and says, “Hi, I talked to you a year ago?” I said, “You’ve got to be a little more specific. I’ve talked to a lot of people.”
“Oh, I talked to you about the Hemingway movie.”
“Oh, geez. I told you to call my agent. You didn’t call my agent, so I don’t know what you want from me.”
“Oh, no, I didn’t talk to the agent. We’ve been working on it. I just wanted to know if you were interested.”
Then, I looked over, and I realized that the break room for the crew was right there. So, I realized it’s one of the crew members jerking me around. So, I got very abusive. I said, “Listen, Pal, I told you I’m not interested. It’s a waste of my time. I have a rehearsal going on right now. You damn well know I’m in the middle of rehearsal.”
“Well, when do you get a break?”
“At 5:00. It’s on the schedule. You know what we’re doing. Stop this right now.” And I hung up.
Well, about 5:15, the phone rang again, so I just let it ring through. Of course, now, I’ve got a voicemail, and on the voicemail, there’s names. Michael Pacino with Cuba Films and Bob Yari’s directing the film. I looked all these names up, and all of a sudden, it’s like, “Jesus, these are real people!” So, I went from Mr. Abusive to calling Michael back….
You know the Karsh picture of Hemingway? It’s the famous one that we all know with the white beard and cable knit sweater. Well, I had a photographer do that [with me], and the likeness is quite striking. So, Michael printed up the picture off my website and went in to meet with Bob. He said, “You’re still looking for an actor to play the role. I just want to make sure that we’re talking about the correct Hemingway.” He pulled out me in the Karsh picture, put it on Bob’s desk, and said, “So, this is the Hemingway we’re looking for, yes?”
And Bob says, “Yeah, that’s the time period. That’s him.” And Michael said, “Well, that’s not Hemingway; that’s an actor.” And Bob said, “I’ve got to meet this guy.” We had a 20-minute meeting, and he decided to do it. And it’s all from a YouTube video clip – a little 7-minute clip of the one-man show that one of the assistants in Michael’s office found and brought to Michael on a whim. And it made its way to Bob.
On what it’s like to have this happen at this point in his career:
Adrian: There’s huge billboards in L.A. You should see them!
Melanie: That must be surreal.
Adrian: Oh, totally! In 1980, I remember standing on Sunset Boulevard and looking up at all those billboards and going, “Oh, yeah, one day, me, too!” Little did I know I’d be on death’s door when it happened. [Laughter]
Melanie: Sometimes, it takes a while. [Laughter]
On the fact that the U.S. government was out to get Hemingway:
There’s so many movies about Hemingway, but this is the first one that deals with this time of his life…. It’s kind of interesting because A.E. Hotchner, who wrote perhaps the most definitive biography – he was a 30+-year friend of Hemingway’s. In his book, he writes about how Hemingway is delusional and thinks that the FBI is out to get him. He sees agents everywhere, and he [Hotchner] writes about how sad he was to see his friend degrade into these paranoid delusions.
Well, just a year ago, he was in New York pitching his latest book, which is about Hemingway and Hadley [Richardson, Ernest’s first wife], and he said in an interview, “I was wrong. My biography’s wrong. I’ve seen the documents. He wasn’t being paranoid. He knew what was going on.” But the tragedy for him [Hemingway] was that nobody believed him. Everybody thought he was losing it, and the fact was no, they were out to get him for some very specific reasons.
On whether he was interested in Hemingway before he got involved with the play and the film:
My first exposure was at 16, my father giving me a copy of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” And I’ve often said, even before my identification with Hemingway became so cast in stone, that he guided me through puberty. Hemingway was one of the first writers to write about a man’s feeling in love.
Up to then, it was always the woman, and the man was always the cold one or the warm one or whatever he was. But you never really got inside the psychology of what it’s like for a man to fall in love and for a man to have difficulties in love, to not be able to express himself physically and to lose out in love – all those very powerful things. By reading it as a 16-year-old, it was like, “Oh, what I’m feeling is all right. That’s normal.” In many ways, he did guide me through becoming a man.
On how the people of Cuba responded to him while he was there:
Adrian: You’re immersed in Hemingway when you’re there, even to the day off and wandering along the beach and hearing cries from people on the beach – “Papa!” “Oy, Papa!” Nothing to do with the film, but there I was as a Hemingway presence on the beach, and everybody was reacting to it.
Melanie: Did they not know why you were there?
Adrian: No, it’s just they saw somebody who looked like Hemingway, and it was important to them. It’s extraordinary how important he is to their lives, and how important they were to his life as well.
On a comment by Mariel Hemingway about her grandfather:
Mariel said this about her grandfather… By the way, talk about surrealistic sitting at Hemingway’s dining room table portraying Hemingway and having his granddaughter sitting next to you. I mean, where does the surrealism get any more than that? But one of the things she said about him is a very important element of this – it was important to Hemingway to know that he was loved, not to love as much as to know that he was loved….
He had a very tough childhood, very tough childhood. He was raised as a little girl. His mother called him this little Dutch dolly. His dad was completely powerless, and his dad committed suicide. Nine people in his family have committed suicide. There’s a biogenetic thing there that’s really undeniable. So, it’s also a man taking his suffering, taking his difficulties, and making art out of it.
On what he believes Hemingway loved about Cuba:
Adrian: The lack of artifice. Life was self-explanatory. He hated artifice. He hated what people held highly. We touch on it in the film. Ed’s character says he’s only at peace when he’s at sea. He was always a champion of underdogs, the Spanish revolution, always on the side of the oppressed, looking for freedom for people. And he felt he had a freedom in Cuba that he did not have anywhere else in the world.
When you see his home, his home is this beautiful hillside house, hilltop house surrounded by the most unbelievable squalor you can imagine. And he did not separate himself from the people. He was very much a part of the people. His friends were all Cubans. He really embraced those people, and they embraced him as well. But I think it was an innate sense of freedom. He didn’t feel the freedom, clearly, from the U.S. government. And this was one place where he could live his life on his terms.
Melanie: At least for a while.
Adrian: Yeah, at least for a while. He spent a third of his life in Cuba. That’s an astounding amount of time.
On visiting Cuba today:
Oh, it’s a stunning country. It’s beautiful. I have mixed feelings about the embargo. I’m happy about the embargo being lifted for the people, but I worry very much for the island. It’s a stunningly fragile little gem out there, surrounded by corals that are extinct on the rest of the planet because they’ve been exposed.
Next up for Adrian is a film called “Brimstone” with Guy Pearce and Dakota Fanning, but check out “Papa: Hemingway in Cuba” if it’s playing in your area.