Is indie film actress Halley Feiffer (“The Squid and the Whale,” and daughter of renowned cartoonist and satirist Jules Feiffer) playing a fictionalized version of herself in “He’s Way More Famous Than You”? Does it matter? This funny, observant, but often cringe-inducing film about celebrity culture — featuring cameos from Ben Stiller, Natasha Lyonne, and Jesse Eisenberg, among others — will prompt viewers to laugh at the rude and unruly Halley as much as they laugh with her.
Director Michel Urie’s inside-Hollywood comedy showcases Feiffer’s daring-teetering-on-shrill performance as a freckly, blonde drama queen, who happens to be named Halley Feiffer. An extended scene, in which the self-absorbed actress imitates her idol Ralph Macchio’s performance as Johnny in “The Outsiders” in a crowded restaurant, may cause eyes to roll, but her deadpan delivery of the line, “I’m going to the bathroom to change my tampon and maybe wash my hands” is as hilarious as her barbed retort to a cab driver.
“He’s Way More Famous Than You” stars Feiffer as an unemployed indie film actress grappling with her lack of celebrity through massive alcohol consumption, uninhibited behavior, and a need to constantly video-record herself. When Halley’s boyfriend Michael (Michael Chernus) leaves her, she turns her to her gay brother Ryan (Ryan Spahn, Feiffer’s co-writer but not her real brother) to make “The Untitled Greenlight Halley Feiffer Vehicle Promo Trailer Project” in which they play lovers. Ryan was Halley’s second choice; she wanted Macchio for the part.
Ryan’s boyfriend, Michael Urie (aka the gay guy on “Ugly Betty”) winces when Halley is in the apartment, but he reluctantly agrees to direct his boyfriend’s film. Urie, currently appearing in the one-man Off-Broadway show “Buyer and Cellar,” spoke with “Gay City News” about making “He’s Way More Famous Than You.”
GARY M. KRAMER: Halley is a handful in the film. How did you handle her on set?
MICHAEL URIE: I encouraged her to go further. She was always asking if things were too much. I wanted her to go there.
GMK: The film’s humor is awkward, uncomfortable, and often very funny. How do you describe your sense of humor, and what comic bits did you play up in the film?
MU: We wanted to set up the audience to think one thing was going to happen but then have something else happen. We didn’t want anyone’s expectations to be fulfilled… I like the screwball aspect of the film. I love the idea that the celebrities walk on almost by accident. It’s like we almost did not tell Vanessa Williams or Ben Stiller they were on a set.
GMK: Speaking of Williams and Stiller, one gets the sense this film was a bunch of friends calling in favors and making a movie…
MU: To an extent it was calling in favors, but every instance, the script was tailored to each person, each actor. We’d figure out how to make the “character” for Mamie Gummer or Ralph Macchio, and they all jumped on board because they read and liked the script. Jesse Eisenberg said yes based on the script.
GMK: Your character has a line that it takes heart, not celebrity, to make a movie great. Do you believe that? Where is the heart in this film?
MU: The heart lies with Halley’s relationship with her brother Ryan, and the two of them doing something together. It is a story about alcoholism and ambition and we wanted to strike a true chord. The audience should either be laughing, crying, or horrified.
GMK: I definitely laughed at the public embarrassment, the jokes about incest and anal sex. Do you feel you crossed any lines?
MU: We did not want to be afraid of the extreme. We wanted to make the outrageous not outrageous — go all the way and not be afraid to find the funny in the extreme. People say they were uncomfortable. Halley and Ryan aimed to go there. The normal characters were very normal, very in the real world. Halley and Ryan’s shenanigans were the comic centerpieces.
GMK: How did you come to know Halley?
MU: [Laughs.] Well, I knew her through Ryan, who is my actual partner. They were friends and started writing together, and I got to know her. In real life I love her, but in movie life I don’t. I’m attached to her through Ryan. You learn a lot about Halley in the film by seeing how other people such as Michael Chernus and Ben Stiller react to her.
GMK: Halley films herself constantly. What do you think your film says about our obsession with celebrity and filming ourselves?
MU: Why are people posting crazy things on YouTube and Facebook? Ryan says it’s like starring in your own movie — and for folks not in acting or not in the public eye, it is a release to show yourself to everyone you know. Halley in the movie is not finding the outlets she needs as an actor, which is why she’s obsessed with filming and being famous. She’s a narcissist. It’s not true of all actors. We wanted to comment on celebrity, fame-obsessed culture, and the “me” culture of filming yourself and putting it out there. A lot of people are into that. We chose show business because it’s so easy to show that self-obsession.
GMK: How do you think a film so inside Hollywood will play to viewers outside the industry.
MU: I saw it recently in Dallas and it was a room full of people who I knew growing up, but not showbiz people. There were a couple of jokes that didn’t get a laugh — like my favorite bit with Austin Pendelton, where he mouths along with his lines. They didn’t know who he was. But it will play well because the characters Halley and Ryan play are not inside Hollywood. It’s like “Buyer and Cellar.” There are a million references to Barbra Streisand, but because the jokes are so well crafted you get why it’s funny, even if you don’t get the references.
GMK: This is the second film you directed. Are you transitioning your career to direct more films?
MU: I have no interest in stopping acting. But I love directing, and I’m dying to do it again. I agree that gay actors should be making their own opportunities until a mainstream studio makes a movie with gay characters in center roles played by gay actors. I don’t doubt that time is coming. Even before I was out, I was playing fabulous gay characters. And I don’t regret playing different ones — if I hadn’t done that I wouldn’t work and I like to work — but before this was the path, I always wanted to direct and produce my own projects. It’s sort of out of necessity, but I work better doing what I know.
HE’S WAY MORE FAMOUS THAN YOU | Directed by Michael Urie | Gravitas Ventures | Opens May 10 | AMC Village 7 | 66 Third Ave. at 11th St. | amctheatres.com