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Although he most recently played Prince Philip on The Crown, Matt Smith previously amassed a TV following when he played the Doctor on Doctor Who. And one of his young fans helped him parlay his role as the time traveler into starring as controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe in a biopic of the same name that premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Writer-director-producer Ondi Timoner, who spent 12 years working on Mapplethorpe, after optioning the rights to the artist’s life story, explained that she cast Smith on the advice of her Doctor Who-loving son.
Timoner recalled, “He said, ‘You have to cast Matt Smith. He’s so amazing in Doctor Who!’ And I thought, ‘That is ridiculous — the idea of Doctor Who as Robert Mapplethorpe, that doesn’t make any sense.'”
But after meeting Smith and finding him to be “a completely different essence of a human” compared to his role in the hit series, she realized her son was right.
“He had all of the gravitas and all of that … indecisiveness, a tortured soul,” Timoner told The Hollywood Reporter at Mapplethorpe‘s world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival on Sunday night. “There’s just something to Matt where he’s just always in turmoil. There’s something brewing underneath all the time. There’s a mysticism that Robert possessed in my eyes and my script.”
As for how he prepared to play the cultural figure who died from complications of HIV/AIDS in 1989, Smith said, “Like any movie, really, you sort of invest in the context of the time and the culture of the person as much as you can and explore their emotional makeup and also their artistic personality, in this case, and his instincts and his pursuits as an artist really and try and understand a bit about how he became the artist he did, because that’s really the most interesting thing about him in many ways.”
Timoner said she was drawn to Mapplethorpe’s story because he was an “impossible visionary,” like her other subjects.
“He’s an uncompromising artist who’s a cultural lightning rod, and I make all my films about impossible visionaries, as I call them — people who cannot resist what they do,” Timoner said. “They can’t help it. They act impossibly because they are taking on the impossible and they have to resist the doubt and ridicule of other people on the way.”
Actress Eliza Dushku, who produced the film with her brother Nathaniel after seeing an earlier version of the script in 2002, shared Timoner’s interest in “controversial characters” like the ones she’d played in her career, she said.
“The world knew [Robert Mapplethorpe’s] art and there were pieces of his story as a man as he came to be the artist that he was,” Dushku told THR. “But we wanted to fill that in and show his humanity because I think we focus on his controversy a lot, but there was a man in there who also was really special and we felt like we wanted to share that story.”
Dushku shared that her brother’s own experience also made Mapplethorpe’s story resonate with them.
“Nate was a young artist who had moved from Boston and was studying acting at NYU and there was some parallelism we felt with Mapplethorpe,” she said.
The pair started tracking the project and learning more about Mapplethorpe before Timoner optioned the script and they joined forces on the project, later signing the rights to replicate his artwork for the film.
“At that point it was like no turning back. There have been a lot of challenges since then, but now here we are,” Nathaniel Dushku said.
The Mapplethorpe premiere served as one of Eliza Dushku’s first public appearances since she claimed in January that she was molested as a 12-year-old on the set of the film True Lies. Speaking about how it felt to have shared that experience, Eliza Dushku said she was “grateful.”
“I’m just really grateful for the support of my family,” she told THR. “This has been a really powerful year in terms of stepping out from being in front of the camera and telling people’s stories. It’s very cathartic and something I’m very fortunate to be able to do.”