Friday, May 12, 2023

Reverend's Interview: Altered Perceptions Reveals the Naked Truth

What would you do if you were gay, a global pandemic was raging, and you were freaking out over the future of humanity? Well, you probably don’t have to think too hard since that was our real-life situation just a couple of years ago! Now, we have a movie that reflects the LGBTQ+ community’s lingering concerns.

Altered Perceptions, by veteran indie filmmaker Jorge Ameer (Sabor Tropical, Oasis, The Family Tree), will be having its world premiere at this month’s Cannes Film Festival. It will subsequently screen as the Opening Night event of the Marina del Rey Film Festival on June 8th.

In this contemporary psychological thriller, the United States is on the brink of a potential Civil War. Things further deteriorate when the perceptions of many seemingly normal people begin to change dramatically, causing alterations in reality and behaviors that cannot be explained medically. Suicides, homicides and mass murders begin to increase at an alarming rate. A renowned neurologist and his team begin to unravel what appears to be the root of these behaviors: rapid aging of the brain. It is unclear how it’s being spread.

Oran Stainbrook as Alex in Altered Perceptions

Politicians and others on the conservative fringe begin to falsely claim this disease is affecting only LGBTQ and African-American individuals who have been vaccinated against COVID-19. This misinformation quickly becomes a hot political issue with some calling for these groups of people to be rounded up, quarantined and exterminated. Suddenly, a man who claims to be from the future arrives to convince the neurologist’s gay son, Alex, that his father is key to finding the answer to this plague. But is it too late for this mysterious — and intriguingly unclothed — man to help us save ourselves?

Altered Perceptions turns out to be a timely, sexy, sci-fi mind-bender featuring a strong cast that includes Oscar nominees Eric Roberts and Sally Kirkland. It is director Ameer's most ambitious and provocative film to date. Interestingly, the screenplay was written by an actual clinical neuropsychologist, Wayne Dees.

The movie also stars a talented young actor, Oran Stainbrook, making his feature film debut as Alex. This writer recently interviewed Stainbrook via email. Note: Some of his responses have been edited for length and/or clarity.

CC: You make quite an impression in Altered Perceptions, which I understand is your first feature or starring role. How did you get recruited/cast?
OS: So, I impulsively moved to Los Angeles for the first time in summer of 2021 without any semblance of a plan, a job, or a place to live. I had about $1,000 to my name and lived out of my old, beat-up ‘98 Jeep Cherokee for the first few weeks, until I found a cheap room to rent in a fairly run-down house in a not-so-great neighborhood right next to the freeway in East Hollywood. I didn’t have an agent or any idea of how to get an agent, so I started self-submitting to everything I could find on sites like Actors Access and Casting Networks.

When Jorge Ameer asked to meet in person regarding my self-tape for his film, I assumed it was a routine callback. I arrived to our meeting and it was just the two of us; no waiting room full of guys that looked like me, no casting director or cameras. Jorge simply offered me the role and I thought for sure I was being scammed or pranked. I’d been in town less than six months, it all seemed too good to be true. Now, here we are on the other side of making this film and honestly I’m still pinching myself!

CC: What was the experience of making this unique, intense film like for you?
OS: It was a peak life experience for sure. I couldn’t have imagined a better opportunity; my biggest childhood dream being realized, with such an original script, in such awesome company. I had an absolute blast. I did feel like a bit of an impostor and put a lot of pressure on myself, which led to some anxiety. But Jorge and Dr. Wayne Dees could not have been more supportive and encouraging. Jorge’s excitement about the film and his confidence in me really helped me to chill out, enjoy the experience, and settle into a mental place from which I could give my best performance. Getting to work with so many Hollywood legends and up-and-coming talents was also very educational and inspiring. I absorbed so much just being on set and observing everyone else.

Part of what makes the film so original and interesting is the fact that it’s made by a bunch of outsiders. Wayne is the farthest thing from a Hollywood screenwriter; he’s a neuropsychologist from Texas! He wrote the script from his real life knowledge, based on a lifetime of experience studying the brain and practicing psychology. Then, the film is directed by a self-made filmmaker from Panama! Jorge’s own journey as a filmmaker is really inspiring. He came to Hollywood from Panama with nothing but dreams, grit and determination, and built himself a career over the course of decades without any special favors or connections.

CC: Do I understand correctly that your "day job" in Utah is primarily architecture or real estate? What do you do when you aren't acting?
OS: Yeah, sort of a combination of the two I guess, and at the same time neither? My degree is in architecture but most of my work experience is as a self-employed designer-builder. After finishing school in Portland, Oregon, I cut my teeth in the Bay Area as a freelancer designing and building chicken coops, garden sheds, tiny houses, that sort of thing. I also spent some time working with Habitat for Humanity doing neighborhood revitalization and home repairs.

Oran Stainbrook

Then, in 2018, I realized my other childhood dream and - again, somewhat impulsively - bought a dilapidated old building in a tiny, rural mountain town in the central Utah desert. This 10,000 square-foot, 115 year-old general store building was originally the social and economic center of a now nearly-defunct former coal mining camp. I’ve been renovating this place (with occasional help from my partner, friends, and family) since then with a vision of establishing a creative retreat. I have a variety of spaces here now available for short or long term rent. All are welcome to come spend some time here at “The Store.”

CC: How did your upbringing prepare you, if at all, to help tell an unusual story like Altered Perceptions?
OS: Like most people, I loved playing make-believe when I was a kid. I loved creating and inhabiting my own worlds of fantasy. That spirit of playfulness and freedom of self-expression is something I have protected and nurtured my whole life. It led to me doing a lot of theatre in school, and eventually writing short stories and making short films with friends. I did abandon all that sort of stuff while I was in university, due to the time constraints and financial pressures of working my way through school and all the time I spent exploring other interests: art, architecture and gardening, primarily. In the end, I’m glad I spent a solid 15 years away from acting pursuits because coming back to it in my mid 30’s has been a really joyful process of re-discovery.

I’m grateful for having had a really well-rounded life experience so far. I think great art -- whether comedy, acting, or architecture -- is often informed by a unique combination of life experiences had by the artist. Having a theatre background actually heavily informed my approach to architecture in school. I always thought of buildings and spaces as theatrical experiences. Experiencing architecture makes you both the viewer and the star of the show. Architecture tells you a story, and allows you to inhabit that story in the first person.

CC: You play a gay character, Alex Feretti, and there is plenty of other LGBTQ content in the film. How did your personal sexual orientation or experience inform your performance?
OS: So, I grew up Mormon and was taught from a very young age that homosexuality was wrong, was a sin, and something you would burn in hell for eternity for practicing. Coming to terms with my own complicated sexuality and witnessing some of my friends do the same was one of the biggest weights that “broke my shelf,” as we “ex-mos” like to say. Finding my way out of Mormonism -- a years-long process from about age 15-20 -- was an intellectual journey that just completely shattered my whole model of reality and forced me to build a new one from scratch. It was incredibly disturbing to uncover the truth about the Mormon church’s connection to gay conversion therapy practices, and see first-hand how the religion’s oppressive ideology led to an epidemic of LGBTQ youth being rejected by their families and communities, sometimes being made homeless and/or leading to substance abuse, addiction and suicide.

Needless to say, I feel extremely protective of the LGBTQ community in the face of all this, which made getting into character pretty effortless. Alex is extremely conflicted about working for a politician whose values are not in alignment with his own but does the job believing that, if he can work his way up to a place of influence, he can make positive change within the system. Alex is highly motivated in his mission because his father and step-father are the only family he has. His love for them is what gives him the strength to ultimately do what is necessary in the face of evil.

CC: What was it like working with the very hot and perpetually-naked Joseph DeMatteo (who plays the film’s visitor from the future)?
OS: Joseph is indeed very hot and very naked in the film. You’d be surprised how sweet and endearing the man underneath all that muscle is! I think it’s generally rude to gawk and ogle people’s bodies, so I tried not to stare. But just being in the presence of that man’s physique was, umm… some kind of spiritual awakening? Definitely inspired me to get into the gym myself more. All that sexiness aside, I really like Joseph and enjoyed our time together.

Joseph DeMatteo in Altered Perceptions

CC: Jorge and Wayne tell a very serious story in Altered Perceptions, one which seems to grow more timely every day in the USA. What positive/constructive message(s) or meaning(s) do you hope viewers will take away from the film?
OS: Aside from being entertaining and thought-provoking, this film is very timely considering the stakes of the upcoming US elections and some of the cultural issues being battled over in this country and the world. I think the themes of the film will resonate widely. At first, they might seem like a horrifying what-if scenario but afterwards you get a “oh wait, this is already happening” kind of gut-punch feeling.

I hope viewers walk away from this film feeling more keenly aware of the consequences of what happens when we all lose our minds as a result of giving in to fear. The current paradigm of for-profit media companies and news networks is designed to encourage fear, hate and division. There is a kind of rabid insanity that has taken over both the left and right ends of the political/ideological spectrum, encouraging extremism that shames and shuns dissenters, moderates and free-thinkers into silence and compliance. Psychopaths and bullies on both sides are being allowed to control the narrative and dominate everyone else.

We need a profound shift of perspective and values. I like the phrase “the future is non-binary” because it applies to a number of things. Obviously, gender identity and sexual practice is part of it but so too is political ideology. Look to nature for the design solutions. We should strive for complexity and diversity; real diversity of thought, opinion, and self-expression. I say reject the two party system. Reject division. Reject group-think. Be original. Be a free-thinker. Be a revolutionary. That is what will make humanity as a whole resilient to evil and allow us to thrive going into what could be a truly awesome and beautiful future.

CC: Anything else you would like my readers to know about you and/or the film?
OS: Thank you guys so much for featuring me and the film. It’s quite an honor. I’m proud of my own and everyone else’s work on this film, and stoked to see it go out into the world and take on a life of its own. It is having its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival and should have a lengthy festival circuit showing after that. We’re also very honored that it was selected as the Opening Night film of the Marina del Rey Film Festival. So you can catch me and Jorge and much of the other cast and crew there on June 8th at 7:30pm at the Cinemark 18 in the Howard Hughes shopping center.

With the film industry being so saturated with formulaic blockbusters and re-boots, original indie films like this ought to be supported and celebrated! At the end of the day, it’s a work of art and art is meant to make you feel something and get you talking with other people about it. Altered Perceptions is sure to do both of those things.

For more information, visit the official websites for Altered Perceptions and/or the Mariana del Rey Film Festival.

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.