Besekda Johnson and Dree Hemingway in a scene from Sean Baker's film "Starlet"

A ‘Starlet’ is Born: Besedka Johnson’s 86-Year Journey to the Big Screen

A few weeks before cameras started rolling on his third feature “Starlet,” Sean Baker was getting nervous. The “Prince of Broadway” director wasn’t concerned about the film’s occasionally risque subject matter, which is why Music Box Films will release “Starlet” in theaters this Friday unrated rather than risk the wrath of the MPAA. Instead, he worried more about the larger issue of finding the right actress to play Sadie, the brittle octogenarian who accidentally leaves several rolls of $100 bills in a vase and comes to befriend the young woman (Dree Hemingway) she sells it to at a yard sale. Fearing he’d never get as lucky as his character in making a discovery, he got a text from one of his executive producers Shih-Ching Tsou from the locker room of the West Hollywood YWCA.

“She texted me, ‘I think we found our Sadie,'” Baker says now, immediately struck with the cell phone picture Tsou took of the woman. “I texted her back, “Okay, approach her, but don’t scare her.”

Indeed a rare creature, just over a year later, Besedka Johnson is sitting pretty at the Standard Hotel. It’s an unusual sight at the trendy Hollywood hotel populated by hipsters, yet nonetheless it’s a place that should feel like home for Johnson not just because she lives nearby, but because with “Starlet,” she has joined the grand Tinseltown tradition going back to Lana Turner who have been “discovered,” just a little later than most.

“My inner voice is like c’mon, I’m 86 years old. Who the hell wants somebody at this period for?” Johnson recalled at the film’s recent press day before adding, “But I loved being Sadie.”

While Johnson admitted that may have been because she relished playing the more curmudgeonly side of the character who is at first skeptical of Jane, the slinky blonde twentysomething who persists in trying to help her as penance for the thousands of dollars she finds in what she believes to be a “stylish urn,” there’s no doubt that Baker knew as soon as he met her that she could pull off the warmth that eventually radiates from Sadie once Jane earns her trust since it was only two days after an hour-and-a-half meeting that she was cast.

Like her character in the film whose dreams of going to Paris are limited to the Eiffel Tower replicas that line her humble Southern Californian home, Johnson had fantasized as a teen about following in the footsteps of her father who had appeared in silent films, but never actually expected to reach the silver screen. Even when she took some acting lessons in her thirties, it was meant to serve as therapy from a recent divorce.

“I thought it would be kind of fun because somewhere in my studies of astrology and other kinds of stuff, it was a way that I thought would bring out your inner personality,” said Johnson. “I didn’t think I would be acting [professionally]. It was just a way of using what I had learned was helpful in finding out about yourself. Number one, don’t be angry.”

These days, Johnson can’t be anything but pleased with how her screen debut turned out, earning a Special Jury Recognition for her performance at SXSW, the acclaim of critics and better yet, the kudos of her friends, who have come out to local festivals such as Mill Valley and this week’s AFI Fest. (She reports after a Mill Valley screening, a pal rushed to tell her, “Oh my God, that’s a good picture.”) Still, Johnson says you shouldn’t expect an encore any time soon, unless Baker would direct her again.

“Not unless he was there,” said Johnson, praising the filmmaker’s patience. “The thing that surprised me about making it was we shoot the scene 30 times from this side, from that side, from this side and it didn’t come to me until when he was doing the editing, but it occurred to me you’re taking all those 30 scenes you took and you’re finding the one that’s perfect. God, that’s got to be a hell of a job. [But] he can bring it out of me.”

“Starlet” plays once more at AFI Fest in Los Angeles on November 7th at the Chinese 5 at 10 p.m. It opens in New York at the Sunshine Cinema and the Elinor Bunin Munroe Center and in Los Angeles at the Sundance Cinema Sunset 5, the Encino Town Center 5 and the Pasadena Playhouse 7 on November 9th. A full list of theaters and dates can be found here.

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