Award-winning singer-songwriter Matt Zarley has gone cinematic with his new project, a musical short film titled hopefulROMANTIC. Zarley not only pens the songs for the flick, but handles the leading role with confidence and sensitivity. Co-starring with him in the mini-movie musical is TV icon, LGBT activist and everyone’s favorite “gay uncle,” George Takei, who is also currently making his long-awaited Broadway debut at the Longacre Theater in the new musical, Allegiance. Takei is suddenly a “veteran” of musical endeavors, it seems.
Zarley is an out singer-songwriter and People magazine’s first-ever openly gay “hottest bachelor” back in 2002. Having performed the title roles in both The Who’s Tommy and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on Broadway, Zarley moved to Los Angeles where he’s worked in TV, film and the recording industry with artists such as Whitney Houston and Olivia Newton-John. His last musical effort, Change Begins With Me, won the OUTMusic Award for Single of the Year and Album of the Year.
While it may sound like a somewhat familiar story of boy meets boy, boy loses boy, boy breaks into pop song, Zarley says what makes hopefulROMANTIC unique is the way in which it is told. Directed by Benjamin Pollack, the nearly dialogue-free narrative is articulated solely through a soulful pop score by Zarley and Grammy-winner Andy Zulla (the soundtrack is now available on iTunes and you can see the music video for “Let Me Let Go” below). Zarley plays the central character who copes with a sudden love loss, and Takei takes on the role of “The Mentor,” who guides Zarley on his journey to the other side of heartbreak. hopefulROMANTIC has been received with critical acclaim, having been chosen as an official selection by dozens of prestigious film festivals around the world, including the Cannes Short Film Festival and screens tonight at the Chelsea Film Festival in New York City. Queerty chatted with Zarley and Takei about the evolution of the film and what kind of romantics they are.
Matt Zarley: I’ve been approached a couple of times about writing a musical, and I thought, maybe this is an opportunity to explore that idea for my next album. I began the project with the idea of creating a single narrative about this journey: being in love, getting your heart broken, then picking yourself back up and moving on. My first thought was doing three separate music videos to tell the beginning, middle and end of that story.
How did you go from three music videos to a short film concept?
Zarley: Probably about a month after finishing the songs, I was kind of in love with all of them, as everybody is when you’re writing things. I realized a short film with a clear narrative would be a really cool way to incorporate more of the songs in the story. Before we knew it, it became this full-fledged musical. It’s non-stop music from beginning to end.
I’ve found that a lot of people have problems with movie musicals, and musicals in general, but they don’t have a problem with music video with a narrative. So I sort of put them together. Is it a music video? Is it a musical? Is it a short film? What is it? Yes. It’s all of them.
George Takei, television legend, pop culture icon, how did you get involved in hopefulROMANTIC?
George Takei: Well, a call came. My manager, who is my husband as well, Brad, told me about it. It sounded fascinating. So we said, “why don’t we do it?” We shot the film on a beautiful, wonderful, sybaritic day in Malibu.
Matt, when it came to casting, was George always “the one that you wanted” (I’ll stop with the musical film references now).
Matt: Absolutely. When he said “yes” to the project, I was speechless. Everyone loves him. Lovely. Gracious. Funny. Inspiring. His appeal is he’s so relatable to everybody.
I felt Matt’s passion for the project. He really was a pregnant mother who was giving birth, or going through that process. But I could feel his passion and his love and his determination to get it right. And his romantic spirit.
Matt, was translating the songs to film the experience you expected?
Ultimately, it was a lot more than I expected. I’m thankful for how much I learned, and grateful for what was uncovered in terms of skills I never knew I possessed.
George, you are famous for that magnificent speaking voice, but in this film you have no dialogue. Were your scenes scripted or did they evolve on set?
Well, the situation was set, and so we improvised on that situation. Matt is also a wonderful actor. We just relaxed and improvised, and it flowed. The work came organically out of the situation, and out of us. I’ve been a kind of “guidance and advice giver” to so many of my friends who’ve had heartbreaks, so I used my life experience.
Now that the project has been so well received at over two dozen film festivals, what are your thoughts as you look back at the journey of this film?
Zarley: I learned a lot. The next round will be much less of a guessing game on how to approach this kind of project from day one. That’s how art is created, though. Always evolving.
Takei: Everybody involved was there because of love. And to see it now, finished on screen, was a beautiful experience. I can’t wish you well enough, Matt. It’s such a beautiful job.
Considering the title of the film, what kind of romantic would you say you are?
Zarley: I definitely think of myself as a “hopeful” romantic. But, I’m human, so I’m sure there are “hopeless” days. But, for the most part I’m “hopeful.”
Takei: Well, I am a romantic. And the adjective changes, evolves with the situation. Sometimes I’m an absolutely “head over heels” romantic. Other times, I’m a hopeful romantic. Sometimes, I’m a helpless romantic. And sometimes, I am a driven romantic when I want to make a conquest. [Laughs]
Watch the Queerty exclusive music video of Matt Zarley and Jeb Havens singing an acoustic version of “Let Me Let Go,” one of the film’s main songs below and scroll down further for the film’s trailer.