At first glance, it looks like a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production. When the final credits roll, you feel you've watched a TV movie with a high-caliber calling card. So, can this really be airing on the USA Network?
Yes. The popular basic cable network, heretofore known for its B-movie originals, presents "My Antonia" on Wednesday night. It's based on a novel (as in literature) by Willa Cather, is directed by one of television's most prestigious names (Joseph Sargent) and stars actors of no small acclaim (Jason Robards, Eva Marie Saint and Neil Patrick Harris). It also marks the television acting debut of Elina Lowensohn, a dynamic young woman cast in the title role.
"This is a definite change of course for us," says Tom Piskura, a vice president at USA. "After 150 films over eight years, the public perceives us as the 'film noir, lady in jeopardy' network and I'd like to show that we can do more. Quite honestly, I'd also like to raise critical opinion."
The latter will surely happen, but fans of USA's Weekly World Premiere movies need not fear: "My Antonia" may by the first of only two or three similar classy productions a year.
Piskura said what appealed to him was Cather's story of an immigrant family trying to make a new life in America's heartland. "That experience is very mainstream--a strong vein that runs through this country," he says. "So the values presented are very relatable."
The immigrant experience was just one element that first attracted writer-producer Victoria Riskin, who, unsolicited, adapted a screenplay (her first) after reading the book. "To me, the story is about love that endures over time," says Riskin, referring to the main relationship between Antonia, a young Czech girl who moves with her family to Nebraska, and Jimmy (Neil Patrick Harris), a boy who moves to a neighboring farm to live with his grandparents (Robards and Saint).
"Antonia touches Jimmy in a way that has an indelible impact on him," says Riskin, who found Antonia one of the stronger and more appealing female characters to hit television in a long time. "She grows into a woman who knows her own being and is the ultimate survivor."
Fortunately, the actress chosen to play Antonia is up to the challenge. Lowensohn, who moved to New York from Romania 14 years ago (she's now 28) has worked mostly on stage, in independent films and in a small role in "Schindler's List." In this USA movie, she ages from a young teen to a woman in her 40s.
"Most of my other roles have been cold, detached, mysterious," says Lowensohn, who won the part by auditioning on tape from France, where she spends part of each year with her French husband. "But Joe (Sargent) wanted me to use everything for Antonia, which was not easy for me in the beginning. I feel safer giving much less. But Antonia is a character who gestures a lot, talks a lot with her face and is so full of life. What I love about Antonia is that no matter what was going on around her, she always had an inward happiness and fulfillment."
While Antonia is an active character in every way, that's not true of the narrator of the story. As Jimmy, Harris ("Doogie Howser") says his challenge was making reacting dramatic. "He is basically a passive character," says Harris, 21, "and sometimes it's hard to be the hub around which everything else is moving. On the other hand, it's kind of nice not to have to learn 5,000 lines of dialogue, so being the observer has its good points. For me, the greatest difficulty was playing all the different ages and making the changes as subtle as I could."
Harris points out that his work was made easier by the acting skills of his co-stars in the film. And officials at USA concede that another reason for doing the occasional upscale production is to get high-quality names. "It allows us to bring different kinds of actors to the table," says Piskura. People like Eva Marie Saint who, coincidentally, had recently been doing live readings of works by Willa Cather.
"I don't have cable so I wasn't really aware of USA," says Saint, "but I was told this was a prestigious thing and I truly enjoyed doing it. I loved the character's strength, her love for the land and her ability to keep her family together. I have been amazed at how many people really love (Cather's) work. I think they are hungry to hear such beautiful words."
Writer-producer Riskin admits that when she first finished her script, there were visions of a feature film or the more "traditional" networks in her head. But USA's interest was swift and sincere. It agreed to almost double its "original movie" budgets and allowed cast and crew to spend four weeks filming in Nebraska.
"A key character is the landscape," says Riskin, who says she has no regrets about ultimately dealing with USA. "The most important thing for me was to get this made, and there was some time pressure because there were two other 'My Antonia' scripts going around town." (Cather's work is in the public domain.)
"The magic is that if you do something that touches people, you'll get good actors," she adds. "And now I have the great pleasure in knowing millions more will be touched by this story."
"My Antonia" airs Wednesday at 9 p.m. on USA.