“Green Book” director Peter Farrelly and star Mahershala Ali vouch for the authenticity of their “based on a true friendship” movie about an elegant, educated black jazz pianist who hires a rough, tough white bouncer to be his chauffeur on his concert tour of the Deep South in 1962.
“Almost all of it is real; what’s not real is the order,” said Farrelly, with Ali on a visit to The City to promote the movie, his solo directorial debut, opening this week.
Known for wild comedies (“There’s Something About Mary,” “Dumb and Dumber”) made with his brother Bob, Farrelly enters new territory with the heartfelt dramedy about the evolving connection between Dr. Don Shirley (Ali) and his driver Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen, who gained 25 pounds for the role).
Farrelly, who wrote the script with Tony’s real-life son Nick Vallelonga and his friend, character actor Brian Currie — both were bouncers in Los Angeles in the 1990s — says liberties weren’t taken in the screenplay’s major plot points.
A delicate incident at a YMCA following a gay encounter; an arrest by racist cops mitigated by lofty political connections, and Dr. Don prettifying letters Tony writes to his wife (Linda Cardellini) are real, says Farrelly, mentioning that Tony’s real-life brother, brother-in-law and son are in the movie.
“Those guys, when they saw what Viggo was doing, right down to the way he held his cigarette, they were brought to tears,” says Farrelly.
And when the film screened in New York, Shirley’s friends from Carnegie Hall — where Shirley lived, in an unorthodoxly styled apartment — were blown away by Ali’s performance.
The Oakland-born Oscar-winner for 2016’s “Moonlight” said he wasn’t familiar with “Doc” Shirley or the Green Book — a travel guide published from 1936-64 during segregation which listed places serving black people — before he took the role.
But upon reading the script, he knew he wanted it: “I was terrified by some of the things about the character that challenged me, but that’s when you know to say yes,” he says.
Although there wasn’t extensive historical material about Shirley, Ali says, “I got enough of the essence of who he was through the footage we were able to get our hands on. How he dressed, how his home was decorated, those things gave me a real clue into how particular and specific he was.”
But he adds, “I think what told me the most about him was his music. I could hear someone looking to find his place in his music and struggling with that. There is a layer of compromise in his sound. And we address that in the film.”
On tour, Shirley, classically trained but not professionally performing in the genre due to racist executives and promoters, wasn’t playing the music he loved best, says Ali: “It’s a real undercurrent in our story. Beyond the race, beyond the sexuality, he was struggling for ownership over his identity as an artist.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini
Written by: Nick Vallelonga, Peter Farrelly, Brian Currie
Directed by: Peter Farrelly
Running time: 2 hours, 10 minutes