Eat, Pray, Annoy
Hollywood hyphenate Mike White illuminates his latest offbeat venture, Enlightened, HBO’s hilarious new series about spiritual healing.
By Bettijane Levine 12/02/2010
When you click on HBO next year for the debut of Enlightened, you’ll get a look at the workings of the eccentrically fertile mind of writer-director-actor Mike White and some outrageous characters that have sprung from it. Indeed, those creative riches make this one of the most hotly anticipated TV series of the new year.
For starters, there’s the high-powered beauty executive brought to quirky life by series star Laura Dern, who suffers a mental meltdown right before your eyes. And then there’s her mother, played by Diane Ladd (also Dern’s real-life mother), who may or may not be helping the situation. Also in the mix is the requisite cast of madcap friends and colleagues who suffer hilarious consequences after Dern goes off in search of spiritual healing; when she returns, she decides she’ll henceforth live an “enlightened” life and try to entice all around her to do likewise. They’re all fictional, of course. But doesn’t everyone know someone who has found salvation in chanting, yoga or some other mystical path to self-realization — and can’t stop proselytizing about it? And don’t we all sometimes wish they’d just shut up?
Enlightened is the latest brainchild of White, 40, one of Pasadena’s most creative native sons. He has an enviable track record of writing films that showcase their stars’ particular talents — sometimes obvious, other times less so. Not a fan of rock music himself, White wrote The School of Rock (2003) for Jack Black so the puckish actor could perform his favorite rock music. He also wrote the 2002 tragicomedy The Good Girl, so far the only vehicle in which Jennifer Aniston has demonstrated acting chops that go way beyond her bubbly Rachel persona from Friends. Chuck and Buck (2000), White’s first film, has become a cult classic, called by one observer on IFC.com “the most sweetly demented stalker film” ever written.
White also acts, produces and directs, mostly for movies and TV shows he has conceived. And in a possible sign of his growing stature, he recently signed on to direct the first project that didn’t originate in his fecund imagination: Lionsgate’s adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s bestselling novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, an unlikely blend of Jane Austen’s genteel classic tale and a comedic swath of blood, guts and zombie gore. (He replaces David O. Russell, who reportedly left behind a script on his way out the door.)
And when White is not directing his own work, there’s plenty of top-tier talent willing to do it for him. Like Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs), who directed two episodes of Enlightened. When HBO announced in April it had greenlighted production on a full season, White issued a statement saying he felt lucky to have an opportunity “to make something original, heartfelt and weird.” And that about sums up his body of work.
Beyond that, it would be fair to say that White is himself enlightened. On a recent Sunday morning, his white Prius was sitting in the driveway as he opened the door of his Westside hacienda built around a sunny brick courtyard, wearing jeans and a faded navy T-shirt with the words “eat no” above a picture of a cow. He patiently explained to a visitor that his vegan diet (no meat, fish or chicken) offers more than enough protein to be totally nutritious, and that his health and energy levels have peaked under this regime.
Not your typical slick Hollywood type, White seems pretty much like the shows he creates: independent, gently off-center, with an absurdist view of life’s tragicomic zigs and zags. Let’s just say that if Woody Allen had been born a WASP in Pasadena, like White, the two might have been co-conspirators. And talk about degrees of separation, Diane Keaton (who won her only Oscar in Allen’s Annie Hall) happens to have worked with White too. She directed a segment and executive produced his ill-fated 2001 Fox TV series, Pasadena, inspired by his beloved hometown. But the timing was unfortunate: The show debuted two weeks after the 9/11 tragedy, and a traumatized nation did not tune in. Although 13 episodes were filmed, only four aired that first year. Pasadena never totally bit the dust, however. Called “one of TV’s buried treasures” by Entertainment Weekly, it’s currently airing in Belgium after runs in Romania, Bulgaria, Colombia, Croatia, Serbia, South Africa, New Zealand and China. In 2005, all 13 segments finally aired in the U.S. on SOAPnet.
Of course, foreign viewers probably think they’re seeing the real Pasadena when they watch the show. They’re not. Due to tax credit considerations, the show was actually filmed in Vancouver, B.C., White says. “It’s so ironic,” he continues, relaxing on his beige living room sofa. “I love Pasadena; it’s where I grew up. I do a lot of filming there. I shot much of Year of the Dog in Pasadena,” he continues, referring to the 2007 film he wrote and directed, which also featured Dern. The two have long been friends, and White says he wrote Enlightened with her in mind. The regard is mutual; as Dern told Moving Picture magazine, “I have loved [Mike White] for a long time as a writer… He has a really profoundly unique and important voice in film for the future...” She added that she’d like to make a “very long movie” with him in some far-off place. “I’d laugh my ass off and never be bored.”
White directed the pilot of Enlightened — there will be 10 episodes this season — and he shot much of it in Pasadena, too. “I think people will see when the show comes out that I did a pretty good job of capturing a certain kind of Southern California light and palette that is very nostalgic for me, something I don’t always see in film representations of the area.”
You may have seen White play the gay stalker Buck of his first film or the store security guard in The Good Girl or perhaps Jack Black’s roommate in The School of Rock. But his biggest exposure came last year, when he teamed up with his father, Mel White, on the 14th season of the CBS reality juggernaut The Amazing Race. The show pits multiple teams against each other in a global race for $1 million; the Whites made it through seven legs before being eliminated in Thailand. And the real-life saga of this father and son is at least as interesting as any plot the junior White ever invented.
White describes his childhood as idyllic. “I had two great homes — one with my parents and older sister in Eaton Canyon, the other at the Polytechnic School, where I went from kindergarten through 12th grade,” he says. “I spent lots of time at my friends’ houses, and they always loved coming to my house. My parents were outgoing and fun to be around.”
White’s father, the Reverend Mel White, was a prominent Pasadena clergyman and author, often commissioned to ghostwrite books for religious right leaders such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. When Mike was about 12, his father announced to the family that he was gay and asked them all to keep it a secret until the children had completed school. They did.
After graduating from Polytechnic, White went on to obtain an Ivy education at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. His father eventually came out publicly, his parents divorced amicably and, in 2008, his father married Gary Nixon, whom he’d known since they’d met, 27 years earlier at Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church. (The younger White himself came out as bisexual in The Advocate in 2002.) Nixon and Mel White now live in Lynchburg, Virginia, and lecture at university campuses across the country on what they call the “soul force” philosophies of Gandhi and King, encouraging youth to confront religious leaders’ anti-gay rhetoric.
Despite his father’s new life on the East Coast, the family has remained close, Mike says. It helps that his mother and sister, who has children, still live in Pasadena. “I’m frequently over there visiting them and my friends,” he says. “My dad comes to visit us a few times a year.” Whatever heartaches may have occurred are now well in the past, and a huge smile spreads across his face when he’s asked if he’d like to write a part in one of his films for his dad to play. “Oh, yes, I would. It would have to be the right part, of course. But I hope we can do it some day.”