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When Emilio Estevez started writing The Public 12 years ago, he had no idea that the plot lines in his movie about a local library that becomes occupied by the homeless would actually start coming true. From Occupy Wall Street to what feels like a near-annual polar vortex, the pic started to become eerily relevant.
“It was very frustrating to think that, when I would finally able to do the film, that I would be accused of being an opportunist. When in fact, that’s not the case,” Estevez told The Hollywood Reporter at the New York premiere on Monday night at the New York Public Library. “This is just a sad reality … and I’m not saying I’m even that prescient. But I think the writing was on the wall for a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with, so it’s not a real surprise how they’re unfolding.”
Written, directed and produced by Estevez, The Public follows a librarian, also played by Estevez, who finds himself in the middle of an act of civil disobedience when a group of homeless patrons decide to occupy a library on a particularly cold winter evening. Estevez was inspired to write the movie when he read a piece in the Los Angeles Times by a retired librarian talking about how libraries have become de facto homeless shelters.
Alec Baldwin, who stars as the police investigator, told THR he’s been trying to work with Estevez for years. “I’ve known him casually, run into him here and there, loved his dad [Martin Sheen] forever and when that opportunity comes with someone like him, if you’re free, you go,” the actor said. “I guarantee you, next time you drive by a library, you’ll have a different perception.”
Taylor Schilling also said that Estevez was the selling factor for her on joining the cast. “You can make a documentary about homeless populations and lack of funding, otherizing, dehumanizing people, but what [Estevez] did so brilliantly is he brought many meaty roles to the table for a lot of really great people to chew on,” she said. “Emilio has managed to humanize the other, which I think is so nice to be able leave a theater of any kind and feel like you’ve been able to inhale someone else and there’s less of a chasm between all of us.”
Gabrielle Union was excited by the challenge of playing a reporter with a loose definition of the truth after playing a journalist on Becoming Mary Jane for years. “[It’s] what we’re seeing these days with a lot of journalists who are paid by larger corporations who have agendas and they have to bend and shape-shift the truth to fit certain narratives, and she’s caught up in that,” Union said of her character, adding that she hopes the film sparks a discussion about taking action. “A lot of times people think tweeting a hashtag is the same as actually doing real work. What is it beyond the conversation, what are you actually doing to create change in your communities? Social media is a start, but what tangible things are you doing to combat all the isms that go into a lot of the larger themes that we’re talking about?”
The Public is particularly personal to Michael K. Williams, who plays a homeless veteran who organizes the protest. As the cast was introducing the film, Williams noted that the Bryant Park area surrounding the New York Public Library is particular meaningful to him as he spent time at Daytop Village, a center that serves homeless people, individuals struggling with addiction, the elderly, veterans and more.
“I would hope this conversation would remind us it’s not normal for your only option to be to live on the streets in a country like America. That is unacceptable and it’s not normal,” Williams said. “I got desensitized because I see it so much in my community, and this movie reminded me that it’s not normal and it’s not okay.”
Williams also said that the cast spent almost all of their downtime in the library. While they had trailers, they were in night shoots and it seemed to make more sense to stay with the group rather than venture to a trailer in the middle of the night.
“We got a glimpse of what the men and women that we’re portraying actually do in the daytime. It was a very family-oriented set,” he said.
After the screening, guests ventured to the Magic Hour rooftop, where Estevez, Union and Schilling posed for pictures in a corner as a small crowd gathered. Donations were also taken at the front for Covenant House, an organization that helps homeless, runaway and trafficked young people.
“Listen, the movie doesn’t pretend to solve the problem, but it does invite a conversation, and if you’re not in the conversation, it invites you to start,” Estevez said. “How we treat the less fortunate, how we treat the poor and the marginalized, how we treat other people because of their situation. Homelessness is not a condition. It is a situation. It’s a situation that if we can get our arms around, we can solve.”
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