Building a career in the arts is a little like making a quilt. You stitch together bits of things and — sometimes slowly, sometimes all at once — a pattern emerges.
Nicol Paone, 52, was a psychology major in college. Then she got into improv, working with L.A.’s famed The Groundlings. Next came acting — “Punk’d,” “Funny or Die,” “The Big Gay Sketch Show.” Writing and producing her own shorts, too. Which led to her directing her own screenplay, “Friendsgiving,” in 2020.
“Suddenly I realized, oh my goodness, I’m a director,” she says with a laugh.
And she continues to be.
Paone has a couple of projects on hold, waiting for the actors’ and writers’ strikes to end. “I’m also doing a lot of picketing,” she adds. But she took some time out to talk about growing up in the Garden State, working with Uma Thurman, and her new film “The Kill Room,” a black comedy about Jersey mobsters and the New York art world.
Q: I had a lot of fun with the film but let’s start off by talking a bit about your Jersey roots, which I know you’re very proud of. Where did you grow up? What was your childhood movie theater?
A: I grew up in Lyndhurst. We actually ended up filming the restaurant scenes there, at Angelo’s Ristorante; I’m so thrilled I got to take Uma Thurman and Sam Jackson to Angelo’s! My neighborhood movie theater … well, I had two of them. The first was a town over, in Rutherford; it’s now The Williams Center, a nonprofit. We’re having our little New Jersey premiere on Saturday (Sept. 30). My best friends from high school have thrown it together, and the mayors of Rutherford and Lyndhurst and Jersey City are coming. It’s going to be a big bash. Oh, and the other theater I used to go to was The Lincoln in Kearny. We used to call it “The Stinkin’ Lincoln” because it had these sticky floors and really creaky seats. But I saw so many great movies there.
Q: And did you feel this pull to the arts right from the start?
A: No, growing up I was more into sports. I always dabbled, but people weren’t saying, ‘Oh, Nicol, she’s going to be an actor or a director.’ I don’t think I ever considered a career in it. It just sort of happened. I ended up with The Groundlings, and then I was acting, and producing, and finally I got thrown into directing, and I realized that was the right fit. I was kind of a decent actor, but you can see me onscreen always sort of looking around and trying to figure everything out. I was always doing that instead of just being.
Q: How did “The Kill Room” come about?
A: It’s funny, one of my old producing partners sent me the script, but as an actor. And I said no, first of all because no one is going to finance a movie with me as the lead. But also because what I’m really looking for is something to direct. And they said, “Well, no one is attached to direct yet.” So I got involved that way. And then for two years (screenwriter) Jonathan Jacobson and I worked on the script, trying to make it a little more character-driven and dramatic. There had been some monologues in there early on about art that were just a little TED Talk-y.
Q: Is that when the script got its Jersey slant?
A: Yeah, the characters were all originally from Brooklyn, but my producers were like, “New Jersey has an incredible tax rate, we have to shoot as much as possible in New Jersey.” And I’m like, “OK, how about this: Now the characters are from New Jersey!” I’m not going to try and turn Jersey into Brooklyn. So I switched that around. Uma’s art gallery is still in New York, but we shot in Jersey City, Hoboken, Lavallette, all over.
Q: Was that fun?
A: Oh, it was great. You know, one day I was shooting in Hoboken and there were these four police officers there, just keeping an eye on things. I walked over to them, because I don’t want to be seen as some kind of Hollywood interloper, and I started talking to one and told him I was from Lyndhurst. And he said, “Oh yeah, I just bought a house in Lyndhurst.” And I’m like, “What part?,” and he said by the Burger King, and I said, “What street?,” and then he names the street I grew up on. And I’m like, “OK, what house?” And it turns out he had just bought my childhood home. I cried! I mean it everything felt like kismet, seriously.
Q: Does Jersey make it easy on filmmakers to shoot here?
A: One hundred percent. Everyone from the film commission to the people where we were shooting, everyone embraced us. It was really lovely. And you know, New Jersey has such a bad rap because all people see on TV is the “Real Housewives” or “Jersey Shore” or “The Sopranos” — and that’s one part. But New Jersey has everything. It has cities, it has beaches, it has mountains, it has farmland, it’s urban. It’s an incredible place to film. I want to shoot a TV show here next. I want to come back, set some roots down.
Q: Let’s talk about the casting, which is simultaneously surprising and perfect. I mean, you’ve got Joe Manganiello, who is playing a hitman. It’s a long way from “Magic Mike XXL.” Yet although this is a black comedy, he plays it straight. He’s not winking at the audience.
A: One hundred percent and I was so excited he was playing Reggie. People associate Joe with other things, but he’s a classically trained actor — I mean, he went to Carnegie Mellon. So he came in prepared. He came in more than prepared, but he was also able to switch things up. They all were. Uma Thurman is such a master of the craft, she could give me the same line with six different emotions but always with the same rhythm so later, in the editing room, we could literally take a line out of one take and drop it in another. She was wonderful. I mean, I told her how much I loved “Kill Bill,” and she loaned me that yellow warmup jacket to direct in. And I didn’t care it was a little tight. I wore it on the set all the time.
Q: What was the flash of inspiration that led you to cast Samuel L. Jackson as a money-laundering, Yiddish-speaking bagel-maker?
A: That was Uma too! We had been discussing who would play this character, who was supposed to be a 72-year-old Jewish man named Hershel, and Uma texted me “Is Sam Jackson an option?” And I texted back, “Yes, Sam Jackson is definitely an option.” So in like one day, Jonathan and I quickly rewrote the script, turning Hershel into Gordon. Which just made everything better. It’s amazing, but once you have the idea of someone iconic like Sam playing a part, the character, the whole script is just re-informed.
Q: It all feels very fresh, but comfortably familiar, too. There’s a real mix of moods, but there’s also a straightforwardness to the storytelling, a real clarity to the characters.
A: The script is a little nostalgic at times, I guess, but I’m not afraid of that word. I don’t think everything has to be completely new. I think we can go back to the things that were working in film and television, but sort of put a new twist on them. I think audiences are hungry for that. People kept saying they don’t make movies like this anymore, and I said why? We can’t just have superhero movies all the time. I think audiences want movies like this, too. I hope so. Anyway — we’ll find out soon!
Nicol Paone and Lucky Ducky Productions will present the New Jersey premiere of “The Kill Room” at 6 p.m. Sept. 30 at The Williams Center in Rutherford. The event includes a cocktail reception at 4 p.m. and an after-party with live entertainment. Visit williamscenter.co.
Here is the film’s trailer:
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