One of the first Sundance movies that caught my eye was Marvelous and the Black Hole, admittedly because of the casting of Rhea Perlman, because that just seems like an inspired choice. Perlman plays Margot, a magician and mentor, of sorts, to Sammy (Miya Cech), a teenager who is having a rough time both at school and at home, but has taken a liking to magic.
Director Kate Tsang cast Perlman because she needed someone who was not “bubbly and soft,” and, no, when we think of Perlman, especially the characters she’s played over the years, those two words don’t appear much. Ahead, Tsang and Perlman explain how this Sundance hit all came together. (Also, I couldn’t resist asking Perlman a question about Cheers that I’ve been wondering about since the 1980s. Specifically, this very weird incident when an episode of St. Elsewhere was filmed on the Cheers set. It’s just the oddest thing. Anyway, Perlman explains what happened ahead.)
How did you two come together? Did you know each other at all before?
Rhea Perlman: Well, I got a call actually from a mutual friend, a director I had worked with, and she said, “My friend, Kate, wants you to do her movie. Do it.” And then I got the movie sent to me by my agents, out of the blue, and I loved it. I mean, I just loved the script. I loved the idea of playing a magician and with this girl as my partner. Well, not my partner, but you know what I mean. And I hadn’t met Kate, but I saw her short that won a lot of prizes, and well-deserved. She’s so creative. And then we met. That was it.
What made you decide, oh, I’m in?
Perlman: Well, it’s a very original story. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s about problems that some people have with parents and with acting out in anger and frustration and self-destruction. And the themes were very universal, but the actual characters were very individual. And, so, I felt like it just had the potential to be a really moving and wonderful movie. And I hope that’s what people think it is.
Kate, When you were casting this, why did you think of Rhea Perlman?
Kate Tsang: So, because Sammy is such a sort of closed off, angry teenager, I knew that the character who could get through to her couldn’t be somebody bubbly and soft. They had to speak on her level. And Rhea is somebody who has grit. But also warmth. And, so, I just knew I really wanted to reach out to Rhea with this. And I’m so, so glad that she said yes.
Rhea, do you have any background in magic? Did you have to learn these tricks, or this movie magic?
Perlman: I had to learn! I thought for sure, before I met Kate, that this was going to all be somebody else’s hands. It would all be substituted by a real magician and I’d just be there for the acting. But, no, it all had to be learned. And I had an amazing tutor. And I have incredible respect now for magicians, which I’ve always loved magic. But as an audience, because I’m very easy to fool. I mean, I really am. And I love that. I love that feeling. But the amount of work that goes into learning any trick, any particular trick, is just incredibly time consuming. And they pretty much have to work at it all day long, every day of their life. And so just learning how to hide a card, or a ball, or anything, even for little tiny kids, that it’s incredible. But, no, I didn’t know any tricks beforehand.
As you were saying that, this actually just popped in my head. But are you more appreciative now of the Harry the Hat episodes of Cheers? When Harry Anderson would come on and do those tricks?
Perlman: I loved Harry Anderson. And I knew he was a great magician. Yeah, those are great. I should actually go back and watch a couple of them.
Well, now you can do tricks at parties, if we ever have parties again.
Perlman: [Laughs] I’ll say yes, but I’m sure that I won’t ever do tricks at parties. But yeah, I’ll do a few tricks at the next party.
Kate, was this movie supposed to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and then the whole world collapsed and now you’re in Sundance? Do I have that right?
Tsang: So my producer, Carolyn Mao and I, were the winners of this incredible grant from Tribeca Film Institute. And part of that amazing award is that you have a year to make your film. And at the end of it, it debuts at Tribeca Film Festival. And we were on track, trying to finish our film, rushing to finish it in time for the premiere, when everything shut down. So the premiere was canceled. And of course, it was very disappointing, but it gave us the time to sort of finesse our film and take a little bit more time with it. So getting into Sundance is definitely the silver lining of what happened.
Are parts of this story from things that happened to you?
Tsang: Yeah, this story was inspired by my relationship with my grandfather growing up. My parents got divorced, and I was bounced back and forth between their homes in Northern California and Hong Kong. And I was a very depressed and isolated feeling kind of kid. And when I was in Northern California, my grandfather came to raise me. And he could see I was really struggling. And he reached out to me. He became the lifeline I needed, the confidant that I needed, my friend. And I also had a lot of sleeping issues. I had insomnia. And I would have nightmares when I did fall asleep. So he would tell me bedtime stories. And it was only later on that I realized that these stories he told me were actually his own horrifying experiences with the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong that he had transformed into these cathartic fairytales. So he taught me the power of channeling pain into something beautiful or powerful. And that’s the same lesson that Margot teaches Sammy.
Did Miya know who Rhea was? Like, “oh, you’re one of the most well-known actors that has ever been on television”?
Perlman: I never got that feeling, like I was a big celebrity to her or something. But I felt very connected to her, as a young girl. I just felt like she was very open and incredibly professional and also up for fun. She was easy to hang out with. Her mom would come with her to the set, and to my house, when we first were practicing some magic together. And she was also great. I loved her. I love her. Yeah. I think that I’m very close with my family and I think she is too, even though she works away from them, some of the time, or a lot of the time. I think family is important to her. And it’s very important to me and it worked out great.
What did you guys do for fun?
Perlman: Like a kid, she wants to do silly things like fooling around with the dogs. And when we were learning to throw confetti in the air, in a certain way, that was sort of like, yeah, this is the best part of the day.
At this point in your career, what are you looking for? You’re Rhea Perlman, I feel you don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to.
Perlman: I really like to work. I really like to act. And having been especially not working very much, or hardly at all, except for doing voice work during this whole pandemic … I’ve been doing a voice on an animated show. So it feeds me to work, as an actor. So, when something comes along, that isn’t just thoughtless, it’s just a gift. I feel like it’s a gift. I love it. And to that end, about the story of Margot, my character, there is some of that grandfather story in it, because she’s come through a very difficult background herself. We won’t go into that, because most people haven’t seen the movie yet.
It sounds like we’re going to see you a lot once the pandemic ends.
Perlman: Well, I hope so. I’m here. Yeah, I’d love to do a few more things in my life. You know? I mean, look at Ted!
Oh, yeah. He’s on another show already.
Perlman: I mean, he never stops working.
Yeah, I saw him on Seth Meyers last night promoting his new show. He didn’t even take a break.
Perlman: He’s so great. I love him.
Okay, here is my only Cheers question.
Perlman: I hope I know the answer.
Do you remember the time you played Carla on St. Elsewhere. It was an episode of St. Elsewhere and the doctors went to Cheers. I just think that’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen. What even was that?
Perlman: Yes! Well, St. Elsewhere actually came to our bar. Yeah, because they both took place in Boston.
What’s weird about it is you’re insulting them as they’re sitting there. Like you would on a normal episode of Cheers, but there’s no laughter from the audience. So it comes off as really dark.
Perlman: Yeah, it was a very odd time. I mean, I can’t remember it that well. The thing I remember the most about it is you know how there’s different kinds of acting on different shows? That’s sort of a style on a sitcom?
Perlman: Even though your mic-ed and everything, it’s louder. It’s just kind of a louder, connecting with the live audience. And on St. Elsewhere, it’s like everybody’s just talking calmly, like we’re just here in this cafe. So, there was a very odd dynamic between all of us, even though I like all of those guys.
Right, because they say they work at St. Eligius. And you do a gagging sound and stick your finger in your mouth, but there’s no laughter. And it’s like, oh, wow, that comes off very differently without an audience laughing.
Perlman: I don’t know why they didn’t put it in laugh, because they came to us! There wasn’t any audience there when they came, and they didn’t want to put it in a laugh track.
Well, you have answered my question.
Perlman: That’s hysterical.
‘Marvelous and the Black Hole’ premiered this week at Sundance. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.