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Archive: On the set of Tiny Dancer with Melissa Gallo

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On the set of Tiny Dancer with Melissa Gallo

(from TimesSquare.com 12/15/06)

ImageMelissa Gallo

When I did the following piece in 2006, my subject was known as Melissa Gallo.  She is now married and goes by Melissa Fumero, and is the female lead opposite Andy Samberg in the new hit comedy, Brooklyn Nine-Nine.  So it's fun to look back:

It was a warm Fall afternoon, but I got chills under the icy gazes of the suspicious Washington Heights denizens I passed between the subway and my destination--a dingy tenement on East 165th Street.

I walked down a few steps, almost banging my head as I passed through a small doorway, and made my way down a foul-smelling basement corridor until I came to an alcove outside two basement apartments.

This is where I was relieved to find the multinational crew for "Tiny Dancer," an indie written and directed by Eva Husson that began as a selection of the 2005 Sundance Writing and Directing Labs and is due for a 2007 release.

The prize-winning French director, making her feature debut, was inside one of the apartments--which is supposed to be located in Spanish Harlem--and was filming one of the final scenes of a two-month New York shoot before everyone flew off to Puerto Rico to finish the picture.

I had thought the building was abandoned but I heard hip-hop coming from a window several floors above us so loud that I worried that Husson would have to buy the rights. But, as I saw on the monitor, she ignored the music and continued directing her two young romantic leads, Melissa Gallo and Shonn Wiley, as their characters engaged in some horseplay in a kitchen.

While experiencing estrangement from their respective families, they have found refuge in each other and in dance. At one point in this scene, the stressed girl hangs up the phone and shouts to the world, "Leave me alone, people!"

I didn't heed her plea. Instead I interviewed the lovely and talented 23-year-old soap opera star (she has been on "One Life to Live" since January 2004), who has danced her way into her first lead in a movie.

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 Melissa Gallo

Danny Peary: You play a Puerto Rican girl in the film, but your parents both came from Cuba when they were young. Did they know each other there?

Melissa Gallo:
No, they met here. My dad left Cuba when he was about 12, and my mother was about 15. They met in New Jersey. They were high school sweethearts and now they've just celebrated their 35th wedding anniversary. They're ridiculously cute. My dad works in Chinatown but they still live in Lindenhurst, New Jersey, near Giants Stadium.

Q: Though you were born and grew up here, you don't have a Spanish accent; I'm sure many people assume the name Gallo is Italian.

MG:
That's true, especially since Lindenhurst is mostly Italian and Irish with a very small Latino population. Our name is pronounced Gayo, but my dad says we probably have some kind of Italian ancestry, although I'm not sure if he's serious.

I keep playing Puerto Ricans--Ati in "Tiny Dancer" is Puerto Rican and Adriana, my character on One Life to Live, is half-Puerto Rican--but I'm of Cuban descent. Being Cuban, to me, is all about family, and culture, and tradition--and food and music.

I have a very big family, a lot of whom live in Queens and elsewhere in the tri-state area and in Miami, and we have about forty people at our house every Christmas Eve for a big sit-down dinner and presents. This was something my mother's mother did in Cuba at her house, so my mother began doing it here before I was born. It's a great tradition in our family.

Q: Did your parents support your decision to be an actress?

MG:
They always were supportive but I'm not sure they always believed me when I said I wanted to perform professionally when I grew up. They'd take me to the theater and pay for all my dance and acting classes, but I do remember that when I was a teenager they had to shift their thinking and start taking my ambitions more seriously, especially when I was looking into performing arts schools.

I knew before them that I was serious about going into acting. They said with some surprise, "Oh, she's really going to do this now..." When I was in college, they got more and more supportive.

Q: That you have your first starring movie role in "Tiny Dancer" seems appropriate since as a girl you were primarily a dancer.
MG: To be able to play a dancer in a movie is amazing. I grew up as a ballet and jazz dancer. As a girl I wanted to be a dancer but when I turned 16 or 17 I realized I loved acting even more and switched to that route. So I never thought there would come a time when I'd be paid to dance.

Q: Did you give up dancing when you were a drama major at NYU?

MG: No. I was at Tisch, in an acting-based musical theater program. Along with my acting classes, I took some great dancing classes with some incredible teachers. Jazz and lyrical dance became my passions. Since graduating I've been a professional actor and don't dance as much as I used to, but if I go more than a month or two without dancing I get really bummed out.

To me, it's a life force. That's why I'm so excited to play a dancer who is obsessed as I once was. Ati is a dancer, not an actor, and dancing is her life and energy and the air that she breathes. I can identify because I was like that once. I was obsessed. Sometimes I'm still like that because at heart I am a dancer.

Q: At Tisch, did you appear in any student films?

MG: Unfortunately, no. I wish I'd had the time to have done some short films but school was crazy and I also was busy doing a show pretty much every semester. And in the summer, I worked in a theme park and as a caterer-waiter so I wasn't in the city.

Q: The story about you is that you were employed for a grand total of four hours after college.

MG: I auditioned for "One Life to Live" about two weeks before I graduated from NYU. I then put it out of my head while I took my finals. Then four hours after I took my last exam, I got the call that I had gotten the part as Dorian's [Robin Strasser] long-lost daughter. My dad's favorite joke was, "Melissa was an unemployed actress for four hours."
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Gallo has played Adriana on "One Life to Live" since 2004
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Gallo with her OLTL co-star Matthew Twining
Q: Did you go into soaps as a first step to bigger and better things?

MG:
Not really. When it came up I was finished with school and had a lot of loans over my head. I remember my agent asking me cautiously, "Do you want to work on a soap opera?"

And I said, "I just want to work. I want to be a working actor."

I didn't care what I did as long as it was acting. I'd never even watched a soap opera and had no idea what I was getting into. My dad was recovering from heart surgery at the time and the security of being able to stay in the city for a few more years to be near my parents was really important to me. I wasn't ready to go to L.A. I wanted to act and be in New York.

Q: Is Adriana a good girl or bad girl?

MG:
She was a good girl, but now she's making a transition, taking revenge on her mother. So I'm getting to do a lot of good, crazy soap stuff. Playing her as a good girl was fine but they kept putting her with these nice guys and there was nowhere to go with their storylines. Now they paired me up with a bad boy and it's more interesting. There's more stuff to do and I can be sassy.

Q: Did your fan mail change when you changed?

MG:
Yes. I've been getting more mail. And I got my first hate mail. That was fun. I hung it up on the actors' message board for a few days because I thought it was really funny.

Q: At what point did you tell your agent that you wanted to do other things besides "One Life to Live?"

MG:
She always knew. I have a really good relationship with my agent, so she's been aware of what I wanted to do. We both agreed to wait a year and let me settle in at the soap and make relationships. The first thing that came up was a pilot. That was a little early for me, so we backed off a bit and didn't go after anything for a while.

Q: You shot one other movie before "Tiny Dancer;" you had a tiny role as "Dorm Girl #2."

MG: Right, Dorm Girl #2! That was earlier this year. That was in a movie called "Descent." I auditioned for it and my agent called and said, "Well, you got that film, but it's only one day shooting and you have only two lines." I said, "That's cool. Whatever." So I got to be on a set for a day and work with Rosario Dawson, who was very, very sweet. And the director Talia Lugacy was cool. It was fun. Then this movie came up.

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Melissa Gallo in Tiny Dancer
 Q: How did you jump from that to a leading role in "Tiny Dancer?"

MG:
A young actor I work with on "One Life to Live," Josh Casaubon, was at a party with the casting director, Sig De Miguel, who out of nowhere goes, "I need to find a Latina actress who can dance."

I don't know how Josh even knew I could dance, but he said, "Oh, I know someone." And he called me and gave me Sig's name and the project name, and I called my agent and that's how I got an audition. I was doing my callbacks and got the offer to do the film just after I'd done a 24-hour shoot for "One Life to Live." So it was perfect timing.

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Director Eva Husson (left) with her script supervisor.

Q: Shonn Wiley said that when he auditioned with you, he wasn't sure if you had been cast as Ati yet.

MG:
That day was my callback. I had a six-hour callback. I knew they were interested but hadn't been offered the part yet so that day I read with a whole bunch of people, including Shonn. I knew I had a good chance to get the part but I still had to do the dance audition the next day.

Q: You must have been really excited when Eva Husson offered you the part.

MG:
I was on vacation in Marathon Key. My boyfriend was fishing with his friends so I was all alone in the bedroom when I got the call. So I did my happy dance, jumping around all by myself. I called my parents and waited for him to get back to tell him.

Q: You are a pivotal character on "One Live to Live," so was it difficult getting permission to make a movie?

MG:
I'm on really good terms with everyone at the soap opera and my executive producer had no problem about my doing the film. The dancing and getting Ati's speech down was challenging, but I'd say the hardest thing for me was just doing the soap along with this. It was all so crazy, particularly before we began shooting because I'd be pre-taping shows and rehearsing for the movie.

When we started shooting I had the feeling of "Oh my God, I have no idea what I'm doing!" I just threw myself into it and trusting that if I did the work, the character would be there for me. It was a big challenge to just let myself go without really knowing what I was doing.

Q: For this film you got to work with the world-renowned choreographer, Angelin Preljocaj [whose company, Ballet Preljocaj just performed "Empty Moves (part I)" and "Noces" at the Joyce Theater Dec. 1st-3rd as part of their North American tour]. You said the dancing was challenging to you when you began rehearsals, but weren't you experienced enough as a dancer to understand what was expected of you?

MG: I wasn't experienced in modern dance. I had only year of modern and what made it even harder was that what Angelin taught for the film was a very different style from what was being done in America. Visually, I couldn't compare it to anything I'd seen before. So Shonn and I looked ridiculous the first days of rehearsal.
Q: Did you watch yourself on monitors?
MG: I caught a few glimpses of some rehearsal videos, but I didn't really want to watch too much. I wanted to find it in my body and feel it.
Q: Did you have confidence that you'd eventually get it?
MG: No. I think I went home every night the first week and cried. I'd say, "I can't do it, I look stupid, it's not working, I'm making a fool of myself."
Q: When did it start to click?

MG: It started during the second week while we were working with Angelin's partner, José Maria Alves, who is a dancer from Brazil. Right from the start I knew I could trust him. He was awesome. He made us work our butts off and things started coming together by the time Angelin arrived from France. When Angelin came we worked with him over a weekend, and literally every five minutes Shonn and I would say, "Ohhhhhhhh...."
He'd give us a little adjustment and we'd go, "Ohhhh, it's so easy now." He was just brilliant. It was very intense working with him, but from that point it did become easy. Then I became really excited and confident, and ready for someone to film it.
Q: Were you willing to make a fool of yourself?
MG: Sometimes I'm willing to make a fool of myself, more so in rehearsals than when I'm actually working. I'm definitely, unfortunately, a perfectionist, and I work obsessively to get it right.
Q: Do you need support and people to tell you that you are doing a good job? On soap operas things go so quickly that there's little time for that.
MG: I actually really enjoy criticism and I take critique really well and try to improve on what I am doing poorly. However, I do recognize that at some point it's good to get positive criticism.
Q: And Husson was supportive.
MG: She was great to have as my first movie director because she was so open-minded and patient. She was really patient with me trying to get the correct inflection and basic dialect of Spanish Harlem. She worked with me on that until I got it right. It was important to both of us
Q: Shonn told me that she allowed you to collaborate with her and give your input.
MG: She allowed us a lot of freedom. I love improvisation and she would let us riff off the page and a lot of it ended up in the script, which made me feel great. She is a great actors' director.
She is really deep and so intelligent and I loved having conversations with her about where the story came from and where the characters came from. It all came from her life experiences and people she knew during a time she lived in Puerto Rico.
Q: The story about a girl who wants to dance and defies her father sounds familiar, but for it be accepted by Sundance, there had to be something different about Eva's script.
MG: There are so many unique things about it. For instance: In many films, Latino families are stereotyped but in "Tiny Dancer" it's a very real family. It's a very real Puerto Rican family--there's nothing stereotypical or cliché about it. And I loved that it is set in Spanish Harlem-- I had a hard time doing research because there has been so little set there in the past. It was an amazing neighborhood we shot in.
"Tiny Dancer" is not a typical dance movie. The dance really moves the story along and informs the characters and Ati's journey. I love that Eva integrated the dancing into the story rather than having there be random production numbers. We stay in character while we dance and dialogue comes from their rehearsing, and even the big dance at the end is not just a performance, but is the final journey for Ati. Eva's vision and what she wrote is just beautiful.
Q: Perhaps Ati was inspired by someone Eva knew while living in Puerto Rico, but do you think she is specifically Puerto Rican or a universal character?
MG: I think pretty much all Latinas will identify with her. She's a young woman with a passion and who doesn't always see eye to eye with her parents. She's coming of age and at the beginning of the movie and sees everything in black and white terms. As the film goes on, she learns to break things down because they are complex, and she finds her way.
A lot of her journey is affected by her relationship with Shonn's character, who is her boyfriend and encourages her to dance. He's an old soul and she learns a lot from him. It's a very special relationship. He has broken away from his own family and is very supportive of her, when her father isn't. He is a big part of why she becomes the dancer she becomes. With his support, she grows up and decides to be her own person. I think what she goes through is universal for any girl of seventeen. I would relate to her even if she weren't a dancer and whether she's Latina or not.

Q: In "Tiny Dancer" you have a father (Jsu Garcia) who doesn't want you to become a dancer. But your own parents were so supportive of your career. Did you think about the difference while playing this role and feel extra sympathy for Ati?
MG: I was so lucky that my parents always were super supportive of whatever I wanted to do. So for this film, I had to imagine the opposite and it was hard to do. I can't imagine what the last few years would have been like for me if my parents hadn't been so supportive. It is very hard for Ati to keep dancing.
Q: Have you been thanking God that you have the soap background since the first feature film you're in (as the star no less) is an independent film with a brief shooting schedule?
MG: Definitely. Soap operas are like a boot camp for young actors. They're like a speeding train that you jump on and try to keep your balance. I had been on "One Life to Live" for awhile before I realized that soaps are great training ground for not only auditions but films like this. It definitely helps with this film where everything is so rushed.
Q: Now that you've tasted what it's like to make movies, are you going to remain on the soap opera?

MG: Yes, because my contract isn't up for a year and a half. Then I'll see.

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