Talking with actor and writer Jay Amari is a whole lot like looking down a kaleidoscope. A turn of the tube or the conversation and the configurations of color and light tumble apart, shift, and re-form themselves. Twirl it again, and yet another pattern emerges.
What does remain clear and constant, however, is Amari’s intense level of creative energy. He is the author of Crosstown Traffic, a collection of plays: two of them – “Cloudy All Day” and “The Greatest” – were finalists in the Actors Theatre of Louisville National Ten-Minute Play Series in 1992 and 1993. He has taught writing workshops at Columbia University. He has acted in film and on T. V., his most recent work being in “Manalive,” a film based on the 1912 G. K. Chesterton novel. And he’s working on several screenplays plus a story, which has been appearing in installments on Facebook.
So, a Renaissance man? Amari laughs. "I guess I am because I'm working on a self-produced film, shot on video, which is probably going to be different from any other kind of movie that anybody else has made." That movie, "My Day," basically covers "parts of a day, only it's going to be four seasons, so there'll be summer, winter, spring, and fall. The film itself is going to be interspersed with archival footage from other films, which will add commentary to my daily activities." He'll also be weaving in a number of one-minute segments in which people tell him in a single sentence what their days are like. He has, he adds, scripted about 40 pages of it, "but now what I'm finding is, just the process of shooting is showing me all this other stuff that is available. [So it] has sort of become this process-oriented film. But I'm going to be very happy with it when I finally get it finished because you're gonna see a lot of growth in it. Documentary-like, but it's still a fiction film."
The other screenplay that he has been working on is definitely not fiction: "The Open Door" is based on Operation Esther: Opening the Door for the Last Jews of Yemen by Dr. Hayim Tawil and Pierre Goloubinoff. "That script was a lot of fun to write," Amari reflects. "What makes it gripping is that early on in the book, you see that Americans in Yemen were being unfairly treated. I mean, they were being taken into custody without legal counsel; they were being cruelly treated -- beaten, starved, tortured -- and it's hard to understand why." What it came down to, he says, was that Yemen regarded the Americans there as Israeli spies. Thanks to Operation Esther, however, it finally became possible for Jews to travel out of the country "as long as they do not go to Israel. It doesn't mean that they can't eventually migrate to Israel -- which many of them might do. But many of them went to Canada, which is neutral; some went to America. It's an interesting, interesting story."
His conversation is tremendously alive, whatever he's discussing...a refreshing mix of honesty and banter with flashes of self-mockery, "So, I'm in awe of Crosstown Traffic," he deadpans, holding up his book and hawking it to an imaginary audience. "I think it's well worth the $26.95 that it's available in, in hard copy. It's worth that -- probably more." And a little later, he laughs at the thought of someone coming across the book on a used-book website years from now. "And they're going to say" -- he pulls another voice out of his bag, quickly changing character -- "'Jay Amari? He owes me money. What happened to that guy? I'm gonna track him down.'"
Right now, though, Amari’s talking about “Manalive,” which has been re-set in the present. In the film, he plays Hawkins, “a minister in one of these churches where the lead character[, Innocent Smith,] comes.” Basically, Smith “is walking across the United States, and he’s spreading this philosophy about life and God, although God is never mentioned directly. With Chesterton, these ideas are very spiritually based.”
Hawkins first appears in a mock courtroom scene: Smith is “on trial” for breaking into his own house, and the minister takes him to task for it. “My character’s saying, ‘Leave people alone. You’re basically like an anarchist, so you should spend time in jail,’” Amari explains. Smith’s “walking the globe like John the Baptist. He’s going to touch as many lives as he can and get to the basis of these value systems, and that’s the overall point of the film, as I see it.” Hawkins is “not really driving a lot of the action. He was there to add ideas.”
Granted, there’s a certain static quality to the original story that they had to work around. “You have to be involved in the ideas to make it fly,” Amari admits. “As an actor, you try to personalize it and make it objective because what is personal to you will show your emotional connection to an objective goal. An objective goal that represents idealistic needs of a character can be understood by anyone so that the character can be seen dealing with ideas.”
He takes this idea and spins it out a bit. “There’s a very strong element in every actor’s performance when he has to understand what drives a character, what a character believes. Sometimes even if a character disbelieves or doesn’t believe in God, that can be the spiritual side of the character. Even the most evil character in the world has a spiritual side.” Dramatic case in point: a doctor he played in “Forensic Files” who killed his wife: “Even though he was a surgeon who had helped thousands of people, he was still capable of committing murder, and he was positive that his decision was the best possible one for himself.” Amari describes it as “one of those techniques that is part of the acting craft – as an actor portraying even the darkest of characters, one must be able to justify his character’s actions on positive life-affirming reasons.”
He approaches the writing and staging of his own plays in this same open, intuitive manner. “I would bring in the words, and the actors would bring in stuff that you would never imagine,” Amari recalls. “That’s what makes the collaborative effort so rich. You’re not just working in a vacuum: there’s another person coming in with a slew of ideas….The actor will always show the writer something different from what he has in mind because the actor sees the end result and the writer sees the motivation. The actor will see a key line or a group of words that are really at the heart of what the character is doing to get what he wants….That is ultimately what drama is about.”
And yet for him, the spirit of his writing has remained intact. “In regards to hearing and seeing my plays performed,” he observes at another point, “I cried at every performance, not really cried, but you know how it is when you hear your own words, especially shared with a room full of people you don’t know. It feels like being in a sleep for a long time and then waking up to realize that everything before was an unpleasant dream – like understanding completely the emotion we call love. Ultimately for me, it feels like I have become a slightly better person.”
The talk turns specifically to “The Owners,” a play that Amari is currently adapting into a screenplay. Onstage, one of the male characters, Bob, was actually played by a woman. “It worked amazingly well,” Amari says. “There’s this duality that comes into the play when you have a woman saying male-driven or masculine lines.” It also shifted the play’s focus from male-female relationships in general to empowerment.
Even without that twist, “The Owners” is still powerful stuff, thanks to some vivid imagery and moving speeches. Most of the latter come from Adam, a terminally ill gay man: “So I am dying, and I cannot share that thing with anyone because it is happening to me, and I have no words to describe what I feel. I’m stuck in the middle of it.” Or, later to his sister, Katy: “I own this body, and I don’t know what’s going to be here because all I know is this is where I live, and I’m being evicted…they’re turning off the water and electricity and letting the building go.” There’s a raw-boned honesty, a fierce yearning to those lines that grabs the viewer or the reader by the throat.
"With 'The Owners,' I wanted there to be moments when the characters would break," Amari explains. "They would have these moments where they could go into these long operatic pieces where they had a chance to do something with a monologue." Now that he's switching genres, "a lot of it's getting changed....Dialogue in the movies is so tough. You really have to be a stylist -- you have to have characters who come in and cut right to the quick."
This point came up a lot when he was teaching script-writing at Columbia. He had fiction writers come into his classes, looking to write screenplays or stage plays. "They had characters talking like prose from a novel," Amari recalls. "'And I'm going, 'No. You won't be able to get anyone to sit through this because characters come in when they want something: they come in to get it, and most of the time, the dialogue represents their trying to get what they want.'...In soaps and other T. V. shows, you have characters who look at other characters and say, 'Why did you come here?'" He starts inventing dialogue as he goes along. "'Yeah, I came because you have my diary, and I'm not gonna let you blackmail me anymore. So, you either give it to me now, or I'm gonna shoot you.' Or courtroom scenes. It's the easiest way to get information out there."
One last turn of the kaleidoscope brings us to the story he has been running on Facebook. More about the process, really, than about the story itself. “It’s funny, it’s kind of great,” Amari says with a laugh in his voice. “I have to read it aloud to myself – I guess it’s probably my acting training. But I have to hear how the words are tumbling out.” There are space limitations on Facebook, of course, but he has made those limitations work for him, “creat[ing] tension to drive the story….As a writer, it forces you to condense words and meaning and produce a more intense experience for the reader.
“It’s just a story now,” Amari reflects. “But by the time I finish, it could be an exciting screenplay…. Writing is hard. I get up in the morning, and I say, ‘Why am I doing this?’ I have to do this.” The same holds true in regard to his acting – a feeling that’s summed up for him by a remark he once heard actor Harvey Keitel make at a workshop about there being “`two kinds of actors – those who want to act and those who need to act, and those who need to act are going to be doing it the rest of their lives.’ And I guess that’s what I consider all the time. The desire to be an actor supersedes any measure of success based on financial gain. Sometimes just making that decision to pursue some measure of success by means of a particular craft can be considered success.”
Amari returns to this thought near the end of our talk, referencing the business manager in "Citizen Kane": "He has this great line. He says, 'You know, making a lot of money is not a difficult thing to do if all you want to do is make a lot of money.' And during the course of the film, you realize how making a lot of money -- if that's all you want to do -- that's basically how you've defined your life. And at the end of your life, what do you have?"
Photo by Alina Oswald.