Susan Martins-Phipps decided to treat herself to an afternoon showing of “Little Women.”
“I was dying to see it, and it never worked out with anyone.”
After finishing work early one day at Phipps Realty, she made a date with herself for the Showcase Cinemas at the Warwick Mall.
One particular moment in the film remains with her. During the emotional scene as the March family is gathered outside the door of the bedroom, Beth’s face is dotted with sweat, her cheeks rosy on her pillow. Laurie’s grandfather, Mr. Laurence, confers with the doctor, who gravely diagnoses her with scarlet fever.
The moment was startling, not merely from a literary sense, but for Susan, because someone looked very familiar.
“Wait a minute,” Susan almost said aloud, the spell of the film broken only for a moment. “That’s Tony! I just talked to him yesterday!”
She was referring to Tony Estrella, artistic director of the Gamm Theatre and Rhode Island native, who portrays the doctor in “Little Women.”
Director Greta Gerwig’s Academy Award-nominated film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s classic earned this year’s Oscar for Best Costume Design, the creations of Jacqueline Durran. Tony recalls even the focus on his character’s pocket watch on a chain.
“More attention was paid to it than the actor!” he chuckled. “It was emblematic of the artists’ craft.”
When I met Tony at the Gamm Theatre, I didn’t recognize him in a cable knit sweater and jeans instead of his Victorian suit with his doctor’s bag. He led me to the inner sanctum of the Gamm, where the scent of freshly sawn pine permeated the air, to the stage as it was being transformed from a proscenium style to a more intimate theatre-in-the-round. In the center, he explained, an orchestra of three will be positioned during next month’s production of “Assassin,” which he is directing.
We spoke about this particular film adaptation of Alcott’s much-loved book. “Films deal with emotion. A novel is the source. A novel may be the size of a doorstop, but the film version is compressed, concentrated into two hours and 10 minutes.”
I was reeled in immediately when I discovered the director employed flashbacks in her telling of the familiar story. Tony pointed out this was achieved not only through the characters’ clothing, but also through light. “The director asks the audience to lean in,” he added.
Filming took place during the fall and winter of 2018 to catch the brilliant autumn foliage and the delicate snowfall. While this could have been reproduced in the hermetic seal of a sound stage, the story’s New England setting, filmed in Franklin, Massachusetts, “was honored by the authenticity,” Tony says.
The director asks the audience to suspend their belief upon entering the March family home, to merely glimpse at painted scenery outside the windows of the house, and remain unaware of the film crew and their microphones just off camera in each scene.
As soon as the director yelled, “Cut!” the actors lapsed into their respective Irish and English accents. I wondered if Tony put on a classic Rhode Island accent before returning to filming. He smiled as he recalled meeting the dialogue coach for his role as Vincent in the 2006 “Brotherhood” TV series, set in Providence. “I had no problem with the accent!”
Tony moves seamlessly as an actor between film, television and theatre, and from actor to director to producer, as well. What is distinct about performing in a film, as opposed to the stage, besides the time involved?
“The difference between emoting, in a film versus on stage, when you are trying to convince the audience that you are speaking in a whisper, is that it must be audible. It’s more expressive. While you are your own editor on stage, the editor and the director of the film have the final word. Of course, they are there to make you look good!” he said.
But there is some sense of a nerve-racking feeling when you wonder, “could I have done it better?” Gerwig covered every angle in the film, he said, and as he tells his theatre students, “If there are 200 audience members, there are 200 cameras.”
Tony was out of town for the cast and crew screening of “Little Women,” so his experience of the movie was a bit like Susan’s, in a theatre with an audience. “It was rather dislocating!” as he describes it.
Years ago he became enamored with the work of Martin Scorcese, whom, in the company of William Shakespeare (whose likeness sits on his office shelf) he considers his artistic inspiration. “I have my own personal fan club.”
In 2006, Tony was teaching at his alma mater, the University of Rhode Island, the day he announced class was canceled after getting the call to meet Scorcese at a Boston hotel to read for him. Tony was cast in Scorcese’s “The Departed” for a small role as a police camera tech. In the end, a little more screen time was added when it was decided a departure would be taken from the script; his character was to be beaten up, in what was already a very tense scene.
Most recently, Tony finished filming “The Good House,” starring Sigourney Weaver, in November in Nova Scotia, starring. How does he give his attention to so many projects simultaneously?
“Actors have an allergy to the word ‘no,’” he quipped, and referred to the “strike while the iron is hot” adage. Media keeps him constantly connected.
“I’d never been to Nova Scotia.”