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In 'Ghostlight' a real-life family plays their reel selves


Therapy can come from the most surprising places. The family in the new movie "Ghostlight" finds it on stage.


KEITH KUPFERER: (As Dan) I'm not an actor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As character) Can you read?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character) The audition?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As character) Do you have a monologue we can see?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As character) Something classic?

KUPFERER: (As Dan) I should...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As character) What? Where do you have to be?

FRAYER: That's Keith Kupferer, as Dan. Tara Mallen plays his wife, Sharon. And Katherine Mallen Kupferer is their daughter, Daisy. Keith and Tara are real-life partners, and Katherine is their daughter. They joined us from our bureau in New York, and I began by asking Keith Kupferer where the audience finds this family as "Ghostlight" begins.

KUPFERER: They're going through this grief, sort of unspoken because no one in the family is really talking about it. And it's affected my work, my relationship with my family. I get laid off, and then I end up being dragged into this community theater troupe.

FRAYER: Tara, have you guys ever acted before together?

TARA MALLEN: Keith and I met doing a play 35 years ago, and we have been acting partners off and on for years. So yes, many, many times with Keith. But this was the first time the three of us have had the opportunity to be in a project together, so that was really exciting. And not something that you get to do very often.

FRAYER: And by the way, also, the filmmakers are partners in real life too.

MALLEN: That's right.

KUPFERER: Correct. Yeah.

MALLEN: That's right. They're...

KATHERINE MALLEN KUPFERER: And they just had a son, too.

MALLEN: (Laughter).

FRAYER: What is that like on the set? Everybody is family.

MALLEN: Yeah. It's a family affair.


MALLEN: I think Keith and I - he's my favorite actor. I always say that, no matter how much I'm hating him in any given moment, he walks out on stage, and I fall in love with him all over again.


KUPFERER: (Laughter) I got to keep walking out on stage, then.


FRAYER: Do you feel yourself ever in this movie slipping into your own family dynamic, though? Like, are there points where what we're seeing is real?

KUPFERER: I would say that we definitely brought that dynamic into the characters that we were playing. And at certain points, Alex Thompson and Kelly O'Sullivan, who wrote the script - she wrote it, and they co-directed - they would give us the liberty to improv a couple of little bits of business that we just took from our real lives.

FRAYER: Is there a time in the movie where you could bring us to that moment?

KUPFERER: One that stands out in my mind is the scene just before we do the deposition, and we're getting ready, and Tara and I are in the bathroom.


MALLEN: (As Sharon) Are you going to shave?

KUPFERER: (As Dan) [Expletive]. All right. Well, I'll shave now.

MALLEN: (As Sharon) Look, we don't have time. We just don't have time.

KUPFERER: (As Dan) What'd you bring it up for?

That's something that probably has happened a thousand times in our lives.

MALLEN: Yeah. And actually, it happened that morning. I mean, we were getting ready to shoot the scene and I was like, you're not going to shave?


MALLEN: And they overheard us saying it, and they said, oh, when the camera starts, do that.


FRAYER: Katherine, you play a theater kid, maybe theater geek in this movie. Are you one in real life?

MALLEN KUPFERER: Well, you know, it's, like, kind of a bad connotation.

FRAYER: I don't know. I was one.

MALLEN KUPFERER: I mean, I grew up making plays with my friends and, you know, in the Chicago theater community, and...

MALLEN: I run a theater company in Chicago, and I basically went into labor at the theater. We had Katherine and brought her right back there. So she really grew up in that community and is very comfortable in writing her own plays and forcing her friends to do things with her since a very young age.

FRAYER: Yeah. So the film is about a community theater production of "Romeo And Juliet." The leads are played not by young people but actors in middle age. The sets and costumes are not elaborate. You're a family. You play one in this film. What have you learned about one another from acting with one another?

MALLEN: Katherine, I think that's a good question for you.

KUPFERER: Yeah. What have you learned about us, my dear?

MALLEN: What have you learned about us?

KUPFERER: (Laughter).

MALLEN: I hope you say something nice...

KUPFERER: And there's nothing.

MALLEN: ...On National Public Radio.

MALLEN KUPFERER: I know. Let me - man, do one of you guys want to go?

MALLEN: (Laughter).

KUPFERER: Well, I learned that I knew my wife could act, but there's an expression if you have acting chops or not, and I found out that my daughter does indeed have acting chops. And I think she's got - hopefully, it's a capricious business, but I think if she sticks with it and wants to do it, I think she has a future in it.

MALLEN: And I think just to tag on to that, there are things that Katherine does in this film that we know she's really good at. She's really loud, and...

FRAYER: You didn't know that?

MALLEN: No, we knew that. We've known that since she came into this world - and, you know, being confident in her own skin. But as the story progresses, and her character deepens, and we begin to see some of Daisy's pain. I was really moved and surprised by her ability to drop in and be vulnerable and the complicated choices she was making. And, you know, the three of us didn't talk a lot about what we were going to be doing at home.

FRAYER: You don't rehearse over the breakfast table?

MALLEN: We would read through the scenes and make sure we knew our lines and things like that. But we would come in and there was a lot of surprising things that would come out of each other that was just so much fun and delightful to get to play and feel so safe with each other.


FRAYER: Katherine, have you read "Romeo And Juliet" in school yet?

MALLEN KUPFERER: Yeah, no, I did. Actually, last - yeah, ninth grade, I read it, so I had already analyzed it. I was pretty familiar with the "Romeo And Juliet."

MALLEN: And you had watched it already too, right?

MALLEN KUPFERER: Yeah, and I watched both the movies, too.

FRAYER: The Leonardo Dicaprio movie...


FRAYER: ...that you watch in the movie with your dad.

MALLEN KUPFERER: Yeah, I watched that one, and I watched the older one, too.

FRAYER: And so you're equals on stage in this film, and then you go home and your parents say, do your homework and you're in bed by 11 or whatever it is.

MALLEN: 10:30 - and actually, it's the opposite. We're always trying to get her to stay up and do things. She's like, I have to go to bed. I have school.

MALLEN KUPFERER: Yeah. It's like, come on, guys. You're supposed to be the responsible ones.


FRAYER: That's Keith Kupferer, Tara Mallen, and Katherine Mallen Kupferer. They star in this movie "Ghostlight." Thanks so much for joining us.

KUPFERER: Thank you.

MALLEN: Thank you.

MALLEN KUPFERER: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Corrected: June 17, 2024 at 8:29 PM CDT
An earlier headline misstated the title of the movie Ghostlight as Ghostlife.
Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
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