About 12 years ago, Michael Cuomo was a bright-eyed young intern here at Baltimore magazine. After graduating from Loyola University, he moved to New York to study journalism at NYU. Somehow, he got bitten by the acting bug. So he dropped out of school and started taking acting classes with famed acting coach Joseph Chaikin.
Off-Broadway work and commercials—like the current one for an AT&T netbook where he’s trying to explain the nature of his device to TSA workers (“It’s a computer AND a phone”)—followed.
Now he’s at the SXSW Film Festival with his newest film, Happy New Year, where he plays a badly wounded (emotionally and physically) Marine staff sergeant being treated in the PTSD ward of a small VA hospital.
I caught up with Mike over the phone. Here’s a little taste of our conversation.
So wait? I thought you were a journalist, man. When did you become an actor?
My whole life I was really intrigued by movies. My parents would take me to see stuff at Center Stage. They had antique store in Howard Street. I was literally raised in a playpen in the back of the shop. Arts were a huge part of my life. But I was a really shy kid. My mom wanted to enroll me in acting class, but I never could go through with it. Even in college, when I tried to audition. I literally got sick to my stomach. I moved to NY for grad school for an MFA in writing. First semester at NYU, I said, “Who am I kidding? I’m always going to wonder about this.” I just had to go for it.
In 2007, Mike was cast as the lead in a short play called Happy New Year. This was essentially the last act of the current film. They turned that play into a short film, which made a small festival run, including a screening at the Maryland Film Festival. When the film’s writer and director K. Lorrel Manning decided to expand the film into a full-length feature, he asked Mike to collaborate on the story.
How’d you go about that?
We interviewed 75 soldiers—talked to them about their experiences. We talked to soldiers who had PTSD. We spoke to people inside the VA, who talked under the condition of anonymity. And we interviewed families. It’s not enough to just blame the VA, the lack of funding. There’s a degree to which the families themselves can not accept the fact that their son or daughter has come home broken. In the case of the father [in the film], he really can’t show up for his son. He can’t even look at him.
Although Mike’s character is bound to a wheelchair, he felt it was important to go through boot camp for authenticity. As luck would have it, one of the actors in the film, Joseph Harrell was an ex-Marine boot camp instructor.
What was that like?
I wanted to go through what a normal recruit would go through. Even though I was in a wheelchair the whole film—the way I held my body, the way I carried myself, I wanted it to look right. The last thing I wanted was to have people say, “Oh yeah. Another Hollywood actor playing a Marine.”
When I walked into boot camp, Joseph said, “I own you. It’s going to get ugly in here.” And I said, “Bring it on.”
At one SXSW screening, the film—which has been championed by former New York Times film critic Elvis Mitchell—played to an audience of military members and their families. Mike was concerned about their reaction, due to the film’s grim take on the emotionally fragility of these veterans.
So how’d it go?
What I find with the military is that there are definitely those who say, “Get it together, you’re a military person. Anyone who’s having trouble is a coward. PTSD doesn’t exist. It’s in your head.”
But PTSD is real. It’s an issue and it’s something we need to deal with. [Depression] in the military is taboo. Some people don’t want to discuss it. It’s that proverbial pink elephant in the room.
Mike has found that people have been confiding to him a lot about their own experiences with PTSD. At a SXSW party, he found himself talking to a guy whose close friend, a naval officer, had just committed suicide two months ago. The guy hadn’t seen the film yet, but was planning to.
What did you say to him?
What I ended up saying was, “I want you to see it. But human to human, this film will make a mark on you that will not go away for a long time.”
As Mike waits to see what happens with Happy New Year—the film’s representative, United Talent Agency, is seeking a distribution deal and Mike is also hopeful that it will play at this year’s Maryland Film Festival—he’s fortunate that his commercial work pays the bills.
So which is it: A phone or a computer?
It’s a mixture of a netbook and a phone! But I don’t have one. They’re not out yet! The commercial stuff is funny. I had never done any commercials. But a commercial agent told me, “Well, it’s a good way to make cash. And not have to bartend.” Which is true.
For a Samsung commercial, Mike was lucky enough to work with Giants quarterback Eli Manning.
I hope you talked some trash!
I said, “I’m going to give it to you straight. I live in New York. I am a Giants fan. But I’m a Baltimore native. In the event the Ravens play the Giants, I am rooting for the Ravens.”
Look for periodic updates on Michael’s career and Happy New Year right here on this blog.