By Francesca Lewis
Coming out to one’s parents is always an anxiety-inducing experience, even when those parents are open-minded. So imagine coming out at over forty to your ex mob-boss dad who’s been in jail for the past twenty years. This is the situation facing Rita in Dave Rodrieguez’s touching new film, Once Upon A Time In Queens. It tells the story of Joe Scoleri, released from prison in his sixties as his health begins to fail, attempting to adjust to life as an ordinary citizen in the neighborhood he used to rule. With understated performances from Paul Sorvino, as Joe, and Michael Rapaport, as his kindly neighbor, this would be a well-acted and interesting film even without exploring Joe’s relationship with his daughter. What the inclusion of this relationship does is make the film into a conversation-starter, a film to show any parent struggling to accept the choices and identities of their children. With the great chemistry between Sorvino and his on-screen daughter, Renee Props, as well as Rodriguez’s realistic dialogue and direction-style that allows moments to unfold slowly and naturally, the scenes that explore Rita’s coming out are the mind-opening cherry on top of an already moving film.
We caught up with Props to find out what it was like to play this character and be part of something so potentially important to so many families.
How did it feel to play a queer role? Have you played one before?
I am a straight woman that is an advocate for gay [and] civil rights. I never thought about playing queer, just humans – love is all the same, no matter what the gender. This is my first lesbian role, and I felt a responsibility not to stereotype my character and be conscious, honest and genuine to represent the gay community.
What was it like working with Paul Sorvino? You guys had great chemistry as father and daughter.
Sorvino is wonderful, supportive and always in the moment. I have been acting since I was nine years old and Sorvino is one of our Greats, so it made the work organic and easy. He is a father and his love for his children is infinite. I lost my father to brain cancer when I was sixteen so our individual personal histories and our life experiences and the writing [David Rodriguez] brought the chemistry to life.
There are some long, moving scenes where emotions run high in the film. How did you prepare for scenes like the one in the park?
Directer [and] writer David Rodriguez wrote a beautiful script, so when an actor has great writing you really just have to show up and be in the moment. Sorvino and I had already developed our characters so the day of the Park scene, we just let the scene be what it was going to be.
The dialogue has a beautifully lived-in, real quality. Was any of it improvised?
The script is so well written, many people think it’s improvised, but we stayed on book. Sorvino and I were solid with our character development so it was effortless and the emotion was just what it was. When I was younger, I would prepare emotionally for a scene, but as I have matured, I find the well is open and nothing can be forced, it will be what it is, in that moment.
While watching, I kept thinking what a good teaching tool this film could be for disapproving parents of a certain generation. Were you conscious during the filming of the messages about queer identity you were conveying or did this occur more organically?
Yes, I was conscious about the subject matter and how important it is right now. It is one of the reasons I took the role. I grew up in Arizona, and one of my closest friends is gay, an only child. She bravely came out in the 1980’s, but it was not an easy time for her.
The title of the film was changed from Last I Heard to Once Upon A Time In Queens. Does the film feel more like a modern fairytale or more like a tragedy to you?
Lionsgate changed the name to Once upon A Time in Queens. It is not a modern fairytale nor a tragedy to me. It is a slice of life, post-mob, family drama and a story about families in the 21st century coping and trying to communicate. I always say, if one old school parent sees this film and starts their journey to love their gay child unconditionally, then this storytelling has served one of its main purposes.
Watch the Trailer Here