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Coming out on September 28 is the movie ‘Won’t Back Down’, about two women, standing up to the school system. It stars Viola Davis and Maggie Gyllenhaal but playing another teacher, Michael, is Oscar Isaac, one of today’s most in-demand actors, who is currently on screens as a covert operative in ‘The Bourne Legacy’.
Isaac’s Michael is a progressive teacher who employs innovative methods to make learning exciting for his young pupils. When he meets Jamie, romance blossoms, and Michael is caught up, reluctantly, in her and Nona’s quest. “Michael’s teaching style is working for his class, so he’s reluctant to uproot what seems to be successful and rewarding,” says Isaac. “But Jamie forces him to look at the bigger picture and see how he can make even more of a difference in the lives of the entire student body.”
Academy Award nominee Rosie Perez portrays Breena Harper, a teacher torn between the crusade led by Jamie and Nona, and maintaining an imperfect status quo. “Breena’s at a crossroads,” says Perez. “She’s flawed but has a great heart, and that’s what makes her relatable.”
In casting the role, director Daniel Barnz had told his casting director to pursue a “Rosie Perez-type,” skeptical that he could land the actress. “But we got her!” says the director. “Rosie has extraordinary passion for the character and subject matter. She is vibrant and funny, and well-versed in the issues facing so many teachers today.”
Rounding out the starring cast is Academy Award winner Holly Hunter, who takes on the role of Evelyn Riske, the conflicted head of the teachers’ union. “Evelyn asks a lot of questions about herself and her positions,” says Hunter. “She’s torn between her role in the system and making the changes that best serve the school and the kids. She’s facing a big shift in her thinking.”
“Holly is one of our most beloved actors, even when she plays an antagonist, as she does in ‘Won’t Back Down’,” notes Barnz. “She brings warmth, sympathy and complexity to the character.”
Taking on co-starring roles are Lance Reddick (“Fringe”) as Nona’s estranged husband Charles Alberts; Marianne Jean-Baptiste (an Oscar nominee for “Secrets and Lies”) as Olivia Lopez, the chairperson of the board of education; Golden Globe winner Ving Rhames as the school’s principal, Emily Alyn Lind, as Maggie’s daughter Malia; and Dante Brown and Nona’s son Cody.
‘Won’t Back Down’ was filmed on location in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which Barnz lauds for its “great spirit, and mix of Midwestern flavor and Eastern (U.S.) feel.” Adds producer Mark Johnson: “It’s an aggressively proud city, with an impressive beauty,” noting Pittsburgh’s downtown triangle area, and convergence of three rivers.”
Barnz, production designer Rusty Smith, and director of photography Roman Osin, BSC wanted a palette that evolved through the story. For early scenes, they created a cold, wintery environment with a desaturated color palette. As the characters’ journeys progress, and their dreams and plans come to life, the colors deepen and become richer. Says Smith: “By the end of the story, we’re in spring and everything is vibrant and full of hope.”
Osin’s camera is constantly on the move, enhancing ‘Won’t Back Down’’s strong energy and helping convey the characters’ restlessness and relentless pursuit of their cause and for their battle.
But what drives the film most of all, is the cast’s and filmmakers’ passion for the material and the struggle it depicts. Says Barnz: “My hope is that audiences connect to ‘Won’t Back Down’ whether they’re a parent or not. The film deals with universal and relatable themes, including taking on something bigger than oneself, and discovering you have the strength to accomplish anything.
“That’s a powerful message for audiences, everywhere,” he continues. “It’s not just an American story.”