First published in Scarsdale10583.com on Thursday, May 30, 2013
Cantor Mia Fram Davidson of Westchester Reform Temple was at the park with her three-year-old daughter, Mikaela, when she got a call from a New York casting agent. He was looking for a female cantor to play the part of a cantor in the film version of Jonathan Tropper’s novel turned screenplay, This is Where I Leave You, which would be filming in Westchester. A friend had given him Davidson’s name and number. She would be needed on set for three days.
“I had to rearrange things at work, but they covered for me, and I was able to do it! I actually thought I was being punked until the moment that I showed up on set and it turned out that I was actually really in a movie. I wasn’t sure it was really happening until I pulled up and saw the trailers, and then they started doing my hair and make up and I was seated in between Tina Fey and Jane Fonda.”
As a journalist and a budding actress, I had to know: How awesome was that?
Pretty insane, Cantor Davidson agreed. “I was sitting in my chair thinking, wow, okay, this is really happening now.”
This is Where I Leave You is about a Jewish family coming together for the first time in years, to mourn for their father,confront their problems, and, hopefully, make peace with one another during the weeklong shiva that follows the funeral. Judd Foxman, the main character, played by Jason Bateman, has recently split up with his wife, and has a tense relationship with his controlling sister Wendy, played by Tina Fey, and dysfunctional brothers Paul (Corey Stoll) and Phillip (Adam Driver).
One of the highlights was getting to teach Jane Fonda – who plays the matriarch of the Foxman clan – how to sing the song Hineh Ma Tov. “That first day we were shooting a Shabbat scene at KTI (Kneses Tifereth Israel) in Port Chester and I had to sing Hineh Ma Tov over and over and over again, for about a bazillion different takes. And then I taught it to Jane Fonda so that she could sing along with me appropriately, as if she knew it. They kept the two of us after, when everyone else was having lunch, and I sang a line and then she sang a line and they recorded her singing it so that they could work it into the audio of the film.”
Davidson acted in three scenes, two that were shot at the synagogue in Port Chester and one set at the funeral, which begins the film. So, what were her lines, exactly? To answer the question, Davidson begins singing, “Heneh Ma Tov uma na’im….” And then adds that she also says the Sh’ma. “I was supposed to also perform El male rachamim, but it didn’t make the cut,” she added.
She said that she spent most of her time with Edgemont native Ben Schwartz (of Parks and Rec and House of Lies) who plays the rabbi in the film. “He’s probably the funniest person I’ve ever met…and so nice,” Davidson said. She told him the Jewish significance of what they were doing in the film – “and like how to put his tallit on correctly”, and he told her why the cameras were moving and what kind of shots they were getting and what we were doing next, “helping me understand the filming aspects of the movie.”
For the funeral, the cast spent a day and a half outside in the cold at a local cemetery. Tina Fey kept apologizing to Cantor Davidson about all the standing about they had to do in the bad weather, and for all the re-takes of the same scene.
“Half of acting is just pretending it’s not cold when it’s really cold outside,” Fey explained.
“I assured her that it wasn’t boring for me, and that I was totally fine and having a great time.”
During the funeral scene, Fey, who plays the mother of three, has to hold a real baby, “and there were three different babies coming in and out, and they would be perfectly happy until she would hold them and then they would scream their heads off when she took them, and she would say, ‘I’m here to torture you again!’ and ‘I swear I’m a good mom.'”
How can we not love Tina Fey?
Speaking of which, was Davidson star struck, or was she able to just chat comfortably with Tina, Jane, Jason and the gang? “It got better over the three days,” she said. “I’m not naturally a shy person, I’m able to talk to anybody, but I wanted to respect their stardom and not go on and on and bore them with what I wanted to talk about.” When the cast took breaks, Davidson says, they would sit together and talk about recent films and movie production, but she didn’t feel a part of that conversation, not only because she’s not in the business, but because as a young mom, she says that she hasn’t really seen any movies in the last 6 years. “So I’d check my phone and email, and try not to be intrusive, but they were very welcoming and warm and happy to talk to me.”
Overall, it sounds like Davidson had a blast. “They were the most fun three days of my whole life!” Davidson says, then adjusting her enthusiasm to balance it out with more meaningful life events, she adds, “Well, let’s call this a close second to my wedding day and the days my two daughters were born!” Why? “I expected to be an extra in the film, but they treated me like a movie star…touching up my makeup, putting me on the cast list for the day, and asking me if I wanted coffee…it was the opposite of being a mom. I came home to “Mommy, make me blah blah blah…’so it was a fun escape from the reality.”
After the experience, is Davidson ready to give up being a cantor in real life to play one on TV?
“Would I want to give up my cantoring to do that? No. I feel like what I do is very meaningful, and I enjoy my work a lot. But it was fun to have an escape for three days and be treated like a movie star. For three days. And I would certainly do it again…for three days.”
Amen to that.