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Inspiration in a protest turned upside-down

Stuart Townsend, disenchanted with acting, tries writing and directing in 'Battle in Seattle.'

September 28, 2008|Cristy Lytal | Special to The Times

Stuart TOWNSEND has often played the pretty boy, in roles ranging from the garden-variety cad in 2007's "Chaos Theory" to supernatural heartbreakers such as the vampire Lestat in 2000's "Queen of the Damned" and the dandy Dorian Gray in 2003's "The League of Extraordinary Gentleman." But the 35-year-old Irishman is the first to say how little these roles have meant to him.

"The last acting job I had that I really loved was a theater job that I did in 2000," he says. "It was Tennessee Williams' 'Orpheus Descending' at the Donmar in the West End of London, which is a beautiful theater. And then when I came to America, there hasn't been one thing I've really loved. It's been a long time since I have enjoyed acting."

Tired of uninspiring stories, Townsend decided to write and direct his own for the first time. Based on the demonstrations that erupted in Seattle during the 1999 World Trade Organization millennium conference, his film “Battle in Seattle,” which hit L.A. theaters Friday, blends documentary footage with fictional narratives, following a handful of people who find themselves swept up in a peaceful protest turned full-scale riot.

"Here's a clear example of democracy in action by the people," says Townsend. "And as soon as their strategies and their tactics are effective at shutting down something so important as the WTO, democracy disappears on the streets, and this police state comes out in full force. It was a good illustration of the limits of democracy in this country, because I grew up in what I consider a real democracy."

Born in 1972 in Howth, a small fishing village outside Dublin, Townsend never had much interest in school until a girl he was dating urged him to enroll in an acting class. Even now, Townsend admits that writing the screenplay of "Battle in Seattle" was about as much fun for him as writing a term paper.

"I'm never going to write on my own ever again," he says. "If there is any defect in 'Battle,' it comes from the writing."

The cavalry arrives

When IT was time to assemble a cast, Townsend learned how hard it is to get an agent to show a client a script when the job pays next to nothing. He was one day from shutting down the production when Woody Harrelson and Townsend's longtime partner Charlize Theron signed on to play a riot cop and his pregnant wife. Before long, Martin Henderson, Michelle Rodriguez, Jennifer Carpenter and Andre Benjamin all agreed to portray protesters, and Ray Liotta took on the role of the Seattle mayor.

"Charlize was on set, and she called me by my pet name," recalls Townsend. "And then the crew started doing it. I was like, 'I'm trying to be a serious director here. Enough with the pet names.' "

But Townsend and his crew had little time for on-set shenanigans, given the intense 29-day shooting schedule. "There were some moments where I was directing three scenes simultaneously and running from one to the other," he says. The rapid-fire pace lent a frenetic energy to the protest scenes. Even with only 250 extras, Townsend had to use a megaphone with a police siren to signal when it was time to call "cut" on a scene.

To outfit these multitudes, Townsend was able to get ahold of many of the costumes -- including a large number of turtle outfits -- that were worn during the actual protests.

"I put the turtle costume on two days before Andre Benjamin did, and I looked like an idiot," Townsend recalls. "And then he put the costume on, and he looked completely cool. I mean, there were turtles on the street, and there's real footage of them in the film, of the real-deal turtles. All that creativity, all that color was beautiful."

Townsend hopes that the film will serve as a jumping-off point for a new generation of protesters and citizen activists. In addition to screening the film at the Democratic and the Republican national conventions and for a group of the protesters who were actually in Seattle in 1999, Townsend has created a dozen websites -- including Whocontrolstheworld .com and 5actions.org -- where people can network, sign petitions, organize protests or simply become informed about issues related to the film.

"Ultimately, I'm trying to make this film for all those young Barack Obama supporters who are energized, who realize the stakes are high, who are becoming political, becoming aware and educating themselves," says Townsend. "It's those younger, more idealistic people who see this movie as a clear example of how change really happens. It's actually putting your boots on the street and using your voice. That's how change happens."

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