Thirty-five years after his death at age 36, actor Sal Mineo continues to hold a fascination over film buffs. The rumors — usually concerning a gay tryst gone awry — that surround Mineo’s 1976 murder from a random stabbing committed during a botched robbery, have sometimes overshadowed the actor’s notable career achievements. Perhaps most prominent on his acting resume is Mineo’s indelible portrayal of Plato, the lonely, likely gay teen smitten with James Dean's character Jim in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause. Mineo would receive an Academy Award nomination for the film, as well as a second for 1960's epic Exodus. His career faltered during the 1960s, but Mineo gained notoriety for performing a full frontal nude scene — the first by a well-known actor — onstage in the gay-themed play Fortune and Men's Eyes.
Last year Sal Mineo: A Biography by Michael Gregg Michaud, which offers a definitive look at the life, career, and untimely death of the complex actor, was published to rave reviews, and James Franco quickly purchased the film rights. Franco will direct the biopic, titled Sal, this summer in Los Angeles. To play Mineo, Franco has cast actor Val Lauren, who has guest starred in numerous television series, including Hawaii Five-0 and Monk, and his film credits include the 2003 independent film Dallas 362 and Help, a short film he wrote, directed, and produced. Lauren tells The Advocate how he learned the news, the way he’s preparing for the role, and whether the film will accurately depict Mineo’s sexuality.
The Advocate: How did you find out you’d been cast as Sal?
Val Lauren: I was sitting on the rooftop and my phone's e-mail alert went off. It was a message from James Franco that read, "You are Sal. Cool?" I must have checked that e-mail 47 times before responding to make sure that the hot sun wasn't cooking my brain.
How familiar were you with Sal before you were cast?
I was exposed to Rebel Without a Cause as a kid. My mom is a big fan of the oldies and she made sure to introduce me to them. We watched everything… Brando, Clift, Dean, Malden, Bogart. I remember wanting to pretend I was James Dean's character but knowing inside that Sal's character was who I really related to. By the end of the movie Sal had won me over. When I started training as an actor at Playhouse West, my teacher Robert Carnegie handed me a curriculum consisting of books that I needed to read and films that I needed to watch. I think he and my mom had the same list. Sal Mineo was peppered on that list and I always dug him. With his hot blood and pure soul, you gotta love him. What I had no idea about until recently was how extensive his talents were. It blew my mind. The man was the youngest actor to be nominated for two Academy Awards. He sold out stadiums all over the world as a musician. He was writer, a director, a prankster, a painter, a goof, a playboy, a lover...and he made tremendous contributions worldwide with all of those avenues. Who knew?
What kind of research are you doing to prepare for the role?
I'm learning as much about him as an artist and more importantly as a person as I can. He lived a fascinating life and the trick has been to piece together his outlook so I can better understand why he made the choices that led him to have a very unconventional life. The man was ahead of his time. Michael Michaud has been instrumental, a touchstone of sorts. The man spent 10 years understanding Sal and writing a book about him. 10 years! It's a testament to his patience - patience that has probably kept him from wrapping his hands around my throat as I ask him a million and one questions. My hat’s off to him. Most importantly I'm finding Sal in myself. If I do my job right, I think we all will.
What conversations have you and James had about the film?
We spoke about the approach to telling Sal's story and he summed it up beautifully. "We're going to tell the story of an unconventional man, who led an unconventional life, in an unconventional way." After hearing that, I'd follow James right off the side of a cliff if he lead me.
Will the film be a comprehensive biography or just focus on a specific period of Sal's life?
I can only say that it will focus on Sal. Boy, will it focus on Sal!
OK. Does the screenplay accurately portray Sal's same-sex relationships?
Hell, yes! Sal was technically the first openly gay actor, which was a huge deal at that time, and it cost him. Man, did it cost him. That being said, he refused to be labeled. Not as a homosexual, a bisexual, an actor, a director, a bad boy, or anything else. He was an artist, and that’s the only label that he would accept. I guess when I was a kid I was relating to the rebel, after all.
What are you most looking forward to with the project?
The process, definitely. It's a whole different beast to play a character that not only existed among us in reality, but was very well known around the world. I respect it and I am humbled by it.