The crux of casting A WINTER ROSE would be finding the film’s eponymous character. At first, Riz Story hoped to convince the young woman who inspired his creation of Winter Rose (Singer and Actress ETHEREAL) to take it on, but that proved impossible. “In true Winter Rose fashion, she straight up turned it down,” muses Story.
Thus began an intensive search for someone who could embody that same type of persona, while also possessing a magnetic voice. Much like Rachal Love does in the film, the filmmakers poured through some 2,500 submissions from around the world, but when Kimberly Whalen walked in the door, the quest abruptly ended. A Texas native, Whalen performed in “The Fantasticks” on Broadway and was seen briefly in Terrence Malick’s TREE OF LIFE, but this would be her first major screen role. Story was convinced she had what it would take to get inside the skin of a woman breaking out of her shell romantically, emotionally and artistically for the first time. Though he wasn’t in search of a specific look, she even had red hair and a wintry complexion, a visual reflection of her character’s name.
“She had that unusual mix of charm and naturalness with a touch of vulnerability that the real Winter Rose has and then when she sang, she blew the roof off,” the writer-director remembers. “As soon as she left the room, I said, ‘that’s our Winter Rose.’”
On set, Whalen immediately started taking emotional risks. “I had originally pictured the character as more of a sloppy, sexy kind of Jim Morrison type,” Story notes, “but Kimberly brought her own take on Winter as someone with a very open heart and she took her in a new direction. In her performance you see Winter as someone who might be caught up in dark lifestyle, but only because she’s searching for who she is and her vices are only of temporary obstacles.”
Whalen was excited right away by the rare chance to embody a singer. “I thought the script was really sweet and I loved that it was about how music affects us in ways we can’t really even explain,” she says. “My career started with music and I was really excited to have the chance to marry that with acting in a way I never have before.”
Still, she acknowledges that Winter Rose is not exactly typical in today’s cutthroat world where music has become a competitive numbers game. “She’s really fascinating to me because she’s someone who cares only about the craft, about perfecting her art, and not at all about becoming famous,” she notes. “On the contrary, she doesn’t want the spotlight of fame. She obviously wants to survive and to be able to do her music, but in the beginning she’s comfortable staying in her little bubble, living in her squalid apartment. If she desires more of anything, it’s only to be a better person.”
For Whalen, Winter’s wariness of the trappings of fame makes a lot of sense. “She’s a very sensitive girl who needs her privacy,” she explains. “People can be so invasive and vicious these days, and I think we can all relate now to how much that can really tear into your soul. And we’ve all seen the young musicians going through really bad times because they can’t take the pressure and the public pounding on them. I think Winter knows there is a cost.”
And yet, that cost becomes worth it, when Winter is offered the opportunity of a lifetime by the legendary Rachal Love. “Rachal is Winter’s idol – which wasn’t hard for me to play with Theresa Russell because I really look up to her and was learning so much from her,” says Whalen. “And I think the fact that Rachal was once a screw-up who found her own path really makes an impact on her. She sees that redemption is possible.”
To fill the vital roles of Rachal and her husband/manager Skippy, who give Winter the confidence to confront the fears holding her back, Story again turned to Robert Miano, who suggested the unique pairing of two of the strongest, most nuanced actors he knows: Theresa Russell and Paul Sorvino.
Russell has been named as one of “the sexiest stars in film history,” and has traversed a vast amount of cinematic territory, making her debut opposite Robert De Niro in THE LAST TYCOON, and going on to star in an eclectic range of stories spanning from the thriller BLACK WIDOW to the indies TRACK 29, COLD HEAVEN and ARIA to the drama THE BELIEVER with Ryan Gosling to the blockbuster SPIDER-MAN 3. It was her role in THE RAZOR’S EDGE opposite Bill Murray that first brought her to Riz Story’s attention and he was thrilled to have the chance to work with her.
“I went berserk when I heard she liked the script because I’m a huge fan of hers and when I met her, I knew she was perfect for this role,” he says. “Rachal Love is modeled after a certain kind of person I’ve encountered in the music world – these sort of laid-back, spiritual rock women who lead a kind of independent, rogue life that seems to be in a different stratosphere. Theresa is also one of those kinds of people. She lives in Ojai where she tends to her garden, and she’s a true hipster in the sense that she’s been there and done that but she’s beyond caring about being a screen icon. She came in so prepared and gave us something so compelling, real and textured.”
For Russell, the attraction was in a story that is about giving whatever you can to others. “I really liked the arc of Riz’s script because I love the idea of passing good things forward,” she explains. “It’s something I believe in and that I try to do in my own life and I found the way Rachal tries to give of herself to Winter in her last days very moving and very positive. It felt like this was a fresh, new take on the classic story of the making of a star.”
Russell also enjoyed building a loving, but complex, portrait of a marriage with Paul Sorvino as her husband. “He was so fun to work with and he’s an incredible raconteur,” she observes. “I think we both have that thing as actors where we really want to feel that personal connection, and that adds to the weight of this marriage.”
Though Russell was never a recording artist on the diva level of Rachal Love, she did have a taste of it. Several years ago she began performing in jazz clubs with her late partner, the Grammy Award-winning jazz legend and pianist Mike Melvoin, who passed away shortly before production.
“Mike really believed I could sing,” she recalls. “Since he died, it’s been tough to ever think about it, but maybe I would revisit it someday if something came up that I truly couldn’t resist.”
Regardless, Russell has a strong understanding of what it takes to put yourself out there in the riskiest fashion as an artist – and that’s what Rachal tries to share with Winter. “It was lovely working with Kimberly who has that refreshing quality of a newcomer, “ she says. “You want to root for her, and that’s part of what Rachal sees. She wants to say to Winter, ‘let go of all your baggage, and realize the amazing thing that is being offered.’”
Whalen was thrilled to learn from Russell the way Winter learns from Rachal. She was especially awed by Russell’s naturalism in the role – revealing Love as a woman who has become so comfortable in her own skin, she can be relaxed and free-spirited even in the face of massive celebrity. “Theresa as Rachal came off to me like this perfect mix between Stevie Nicks and Barbra Streisand, this wonderful, spirited rock goddess who is everything Winter wishes she could truly be,” Whalen comments.
To play Rachal Love’s husband and manager, Story knew he would need an actor of considerable depth. The role is a catalytic one, as Skippy becomes a kind of grounding force not only for Rachal but also for Winter in the midst of overwhelming changes. Story was ecstatic to have an actor of Sorvino’s caliber bring an essential humanity to the role.
“Paul was over the moon about this character when we first spoke, in part because music is his first love,” remembers Story. “He’s a kind of modern renaissance man, a lot like Skippy is. He sculpts, he’s an opera singer but most importantly, he’s a standout virtuoso as an actor who can be a teddy bear or the most feared boss of the mafia. He can do it all and he just absolutely embraced this character so much that it was inspiring. As a director, I really believe that you hire the most brilliant people you can and then give them the freedom to use that brilliance, and with Paul, that was easy. He’s 100% committed to everything he does.”
Sorvino has played an astonishing variety of roles but one common characteristic often running below the surface is a profound sense of authority, whether as a criminal with a code, a cop on the case or, as in A WINTER ROSE, a candid father figure. He may be best known as Paulie Cicero in Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS, but his prolific work ranges from Warren Beatty’s REDS to Oliver Stone’s NIXON (playing Henry Kissinger) to Sydney Pollack’s adaptation of THE FIRM.
With A WINTER ROSE, it was the story that grabbed Sorvino. “It has heart, it has music and it’s about the salvation of a young person, which is always a very powerful thing to see, and of course there was the chance to work with Theresa Russell,” he adds.
He was equally drawn to Skippy -- in part because it is a role not too distant from his own personality, whereas he frequently works in far more imaginary realms. “Skippy’s a guy who’s a little like me, which I rarely get to do,” Sorvino explains. “I also liked that it was a smart part. You have to have a certain kind of intelligence to deal with powerful people without losing yourself and Skippy has that quality. And I think I’m somewhat of an old-fashioned actor in that I really like playing good guys and heroes.”
Story was taken with how Sorvino created a man who comes across with instantaneous trustworthiness. “I think we all dream of having someone like that who really has your back the way Skippy has Rachal’s. A lot of artists feel the need to detach a bit from the world in order to keep alive that sense of wonderment and magic you have as a child, and that means they need protectors. In that sense, Paul plays the ultimate rock’n’roll manager,” he says.
As for jumping into a long-time marriage with Russell’s Rachal Love, Sorvino says: “It’s easy to find that kind of feeling when you have someone as beautiful, charming and talented as Theresa. As actors, we’re trained to believe in an imaginary life, and we both believed in this marriage.”
That belief turns to stirring emotion at the climax of the film in a scene that Story says profoundly moved everyone on set. “Paul nailed the scene the emotional, climactic scene with Rachal on the first take,” recalls Story. “I wiped away my tears and said ‘we’ve got it.’ In typical Paul fashion he was ready to give me many different versions, but that first take was the one.”
Producer Miano stepped into the role of Winter’s first manager, a former singer who himself gave up on his career. Miano, who started recording at the age of 15 with the doo-wop hit “Kingdom of Love,” related to the character. “I come from a music background, too, so the part had a lot of me in it,” he says. “I think Jimi’s a guy who has been there and he knows that Winter has an ability to move people that she shouldn’t turn her back on.”
Rounding out the cast in supporting roles are Taryn Manning, Billy Zane, Eddie Furlong, George Lazenby, Gary Alan Kauffman Silvia Spross and J.D Parsons. Story was thrilled to have so many highly experienced actors attracted to the material. “We have Robert Miano to thank for putting together this cast,” he concludes. “He was really our casting guru and on top of being a very fine actor himself he found a top-of-the-line group who are tremendous together. We both agreed that the most important thing was finding the very best players, the kind who bring a timeless quality to their work.”