Grant Rosenmeyer: 'I'm still not a man in the Jewish religion'

Grant Rosenmeyer's career as a child actor took him to Broadway and Hollywood. Now he's produced his first film - and immediately stepped into controversy


Grant Rosenmeyer, 29, has appeared in Wes Anderson’s classic comedy-drama The Royal Tenenbaums, Money Monster with Julia Roberts and George Clooney, the groundbreaking TV show Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, among other things, but he’s never talked about anything for as long as he’s been chinwagging about his latest film, Come As You Are. And he’s pleasantly surprised.

As the lead and producer of the modest independent feature, which had its première at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, in February last year, he never imagined it being seen outside the United States, he admits over WhatsApp from his home in coronavirus-locked Los Angeles.

“It’s just too big a dream,” explains Rosenmeyer. “You make a little movie for, like, a million bucks or so, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. You hope anybody sees it. You hope anybody likes it. So it’s definitely encouraging to see that it’s getting a life elsewhere. We’re now in 13 or 14 territories, which is kind of trippy.”

He is rightfully proud of the film, which had an impressive 95 per cent fresh critics score on the Rotten Tomatoes reviews site when this was being written. However, his casting, and that of two other able-bodied actors (Ravi Patel, Hayden Szeto), as the film’s three disabled lead characters has proved problematic for some. Rather than try to dodge the issue during our interview, Rosenmeyer wrestles with it, with bracing honesty. But more of that later.

First, some background. Come As You Are is based on a 2011 Belgian film, Hasta La Vista, which was in turn based on the life of Asta Philpot, a Leeds man born with arthrogryposis. After losing his virginity at a brothel in Spain, Philpot embarked on a mission, he wrote on his website, to “change the mindset of society when thinking of people with disabilities, sex and relationships”. So, he did the journey again, with two other disabled virgins, accompanied by a BBC documentary crew. The outcome was For One Night Only, which aired as part of BBC 1’s One Life series in 2007.

In 2013, Rosenmeyer was attending a writers’ workshop in LA where the screenwriter Erik Linthorst was working on an American version of the story. Week after week, Rosenmeyer would read the evolving part of Scotty, a quadriplegic who, like Philpot, masterminds a road trip to a brothel, this time in Montreal. “I was falling in love with it as it was being written,” he recalls. “It’s just such a beautiful, classic story. It makes you laugh. It makes you cry. It has an incredible message. What’s not to love about it?”

Things are rarely straightforward in the film industry, however, and the project looked like it might founder, along with Linthorst’s screenplay, until the rights reverted to the Belgian owners and Rosenmeyer asked them to give him a chance. He couldn’t pay them for the rights; he didn’t have any money. But, if he couldn’t get a deal done within six months they’d part company, with no one being any worse off. The Belgians agreed.

Six months later, Rosenmeyer had secured financing to make the movie. It hadn’t been easy, though, as the frank approach to disability and sex was a hurdle too high for some to leap. Was it taboo?

“Absolutely. We would get notes from these production companies over here, or financiers, and they would be like, ‘It’s a nice script. Cute. But we can’t sell a movie about people with disabilities having sex. Nobody wants to see that.’ I’m like, ‘Why the f*** not? Aren’t they people? Don’t you want to see people trying to have sex? Isn’t that one of the fundamentals of comedy, people trying to get laid?’ It was shocking some of the feedback we got. So yes, I do believe the subject is taboo.”

Come As You Are treats its subject and characters with empathy, dignity, humanity, and illuminating humour, at a time when the US administration, led by a president who publicly mocked a journalist with arthrogryposis, is further marginalising the disabled. Rosenmeyer says they were conscious of this backdrop, but also of the fact “there is an obvious marginalisation in the making of the movie where you have three actors who are able-bodied playing characters with disabilities.”

“I believe it’s the last time we will see a movie like this being made that way,” he adds.

Historically, they weren’t doing anything unusual and, he argues, because of the limited time they had to raise money and because a deal depended on casting “actors who were able-bodied and had certain credits”, it was make or break. “I’m not going to defend that,” he says. “I’m not going to justify it. We just knew, as a filmmaking team, we had to make a decision of, do we make the movie now, which is telling the story, which is a beautiful one, the way we can do it, or do we let it all fall apart?”

They did all they could to be inclusive. They cast disabled actors in minor roles, enlisted disabled organisations to monitor the production and worked closely with Philpot, who coached Rosenmeyer and briefly appeared in the film. On the day they wrapped, they were excitedly preparing a press release announcing the end of filming when a report arrived saying Scarlett Johannson was stepping down from playing a transgender character in Rub & Tug, after initially dismissing criticism from the trans community. It was clear there was fury brewing around the question of representation, says Rosenmeyer, and they dumped the release.

“We realised we were going to have an issue and we knew that the conversation was growing.”

Rosenmeyer expected a backlash and “there has been one”, he says. When I ask if I can read him a tweet attacking the casting in Come As You Are, he gamely agrees, telling me, “I’ve read a lot of them.” Ultimately, he says: “I’m on the fence about this whole thing. On the one hand, I’ve made a film I’m incredibly proud of. On the other, I have to reckon with the fact there’s a group of people that’s offended. And that’s just never something I ever wanted to do. But maybe it’s a good thing if people are talking about it.”

Rosenmeyer knows what it’s like to be talked about, having been in the entertainment business since childhood. He was born in New York but grew up in Connecticut, a Jewish boy in a town of mostly Catholics. (“But Jews, they find each other. So I did have a small group of Jewish friends. And I celebrated High Holidays.”)

An only child, he longed for a little brother and filled the empty space with his imagination.

“You spend a lot of time in your head,” he says. “I’d dress up as Superman and Batman and run around the house. All my relatives thought I was weird and wished I’d like sports and be normal. One day, my parents just thought, ‘Why don’t we try him in theatre’.”

Before long, he was playing Gavroche in Les Miserables on Broadway, and acting alongside Ben Stiller, Gene Hackman and Anjelica Huston in The Royal Tenenbaums. Next, he went to LA — chaperoned by his mother — to play the eponymous lead in the sitcom, Oliver Beene.

Although the responsibility of shouldering a multi-million-dollar TV show at such a tender age was massive and he had to grow up fast, his mother, he says, “did a really good job of sheltering me from some of the more psychologically taxing elements. I had no idea how much money I had made until I was in college. And I think that that was probably a good thing, that I didn’t have a concept of money at the time, because I think it would have overwhelmed me.”

Being on TV felt “cool”, but it was also challenging. He never stopped going to school throughout filming, so every day he would have to do both. “I was always tired. I was sick often.” He’d also go on late-night chat shows, which brought their own complications.

“They’d ask you to do things and you’re considering, ‘Is this going to get me beat up in class?’ Like, ‘If I get a pie in the face here, is that going to make me appear vulnerable to the other students?’ That’s a lot for a kid to have to take on. And you’re just not really ready. You don’t have the emotional/psychological fortitude to deal with a lot of these things, which is why a lot of these kids are home-schooled and they’re kept in a bubble, and it’s not a very healthy one. So it was a lot.”

When he was in middle school, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was released. “So,” recalls Rosenmeyer, “I was on TV, and Jewish. So at first, everybody wants to fight the kid on TV, and then everybody wanted to fight the kid who killed their Lord. That was an interesting time,” he says drily.

He feels the business “robbed” him of his relationship with faith, because he was always working. And while his school was supportive of his career, the temple was less so, because he couldn’t always be there. Consequently, he didn’t have a barmitzvah.

“It’s something that in the wee hours of the morning, when I’m tossing and turning and trying to sleep, makes me go, ‘I’m still not a man in the Jewish religion’.”

In the past decade, he has become much prouder of his Jewish heritage, but is alarmed by the rise of antisemitism in America, under a leader “who promotes and forefronts hate and division”.

“Everybody hates us,” he says. “I don’t understand it. Everybody hates the Jews.” He laughs. “We’re the Chosen People. They should be taking notes!”

Rosenmeyer’s life, like everyone else’s, has been thrown into confusion by the coronavirus. When everything shut down, it pushed back a film he was due to produce and star in in September to November, and now probably until next spring. Offices in LA are closed through to next year, he says, while friends working in the theatre in New York have told him 99 per cent of Equity actors and stage crews are unemployed. There might be a bit of light at the end of the tunnel: the day before our interview, he read a script he’d been sent for a series that takes place entirely over Zoom.

“I don’t know,” he sighs, “it was like, ‘This is my life. So now I’m going to watch a show that’s basically life in quarantine?’ I wonder if people are going to want to watch that. It’s so hard to say. I just really hope we can go back to the way things were.”

Available on Premium Video On Demand and in selected cinemas from 17th July

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