Going off script

Times Staff Writer

It TOOK Jenny Lumet almost three decades to find her true calling.

Initially, she wanted to be an actress. And her father, director Sidney Lumet, gave her juicy role in his 1990 cop thriller “Q&A;” as a drug kingpin’s lover whose life becomes more complicated when her old boyfriend, now an assistant district attorney, reenters her orbit.

Her reviews were pretty good, she recalls. “It wasn’t a flat-out disaster by any means, but I just couldn’t get another job.”

She continued to audition because “I didn’t have the confidence to try anything else,” admits Lumet, 41. “I thought that is what I was supposed to do. It’s an excruciating profession. I don’t know if I was unhappy I couldn’t get a job or I couldn’t get a job because I was unhappy.”


But it turns out that happiness was just on the other side of the camera for Lumet, the daughter of journalist Gail Lumet Buckley and granddaughter of singer Lena Horne. For the last eight years, she’s been teaching drama at her son’s school in Manhattan -- a job she still has -- and writing screenplays, including the powerful and emotionally poignant dramedy “Rachel Getting Married,” which opens Friday.

Directed by Jonathan Demme, the tale revolves around Kym (Anne Hathaway), a young woman who has battled substance abuse problems for years who returns to the family home for her sister Rachel’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) wedding. The film paints a portrait of a complicated relationship between the sisters, one darkened by shades of jealousy, guilt and other emotional fallout from a seemingly unforgivable act.

“Writing started with my first pregnancy,” Lumet explains. “And teaching started with my first pregnancy. My son -- he’s 13 -- goes to a school called Manhattan Country School, which is a hippie school on 96th Street. They don’t have any money, so I said, ‘I’ll start a drama program.’ I know absolutely if it wasn’t for being a teacher and being in front of 12- and 13-year-olds, there is no way I could have had any nerve to write this script, let alone any script.”

To create the film’s realistic and complex characters, Lumet says she pilfered from friends and family. “My dad is a notorious maker of sandwiches and a feeder of guests and a dishwasher lunatic,” she says, explaining traits she ascribed to the father in “Rachel Getting Married.”

“I think families are weird and insane. They are the best source material on the planet.”

Lumet herself has never had any problems with drugs or alcohol. “But everybody knows somebody who is dependent, who is addicted to something,” she says. “I have known so many people who have gone through this or are going through this. But I don’t necessarily think this is a movie about addiction but a family that has something they are not dealing with.”

But like most writers, Lumet mined her own life to create “Rachel’s” central universe. Lumet also has a sister -- Amy -- who is a sound editor. The parents in the film (played by Bill Irwin and Debra Winger) are divorced; Lumet’s parents divorced 30 years ago. Kym and Rachel’s father has remarried, to an African American woman (Anna Deavere Smith); Lumet’s parents were also an interracial couple.


In addition, the movie’s titular character is marrying an African American. But race isn’t an issue in the film. It’s so much not an issue that it’s never even discussed.

“Isn’t that lovely?” Lumet asks. “Race doesn’t matter.”

But it did matter way back when her grandmother married white composer Lennie Hayton in 1947. Interracial marriages were illegal at the time in California, so they moved back east. And Lumet says eyebrows were raised when her parents were married in 1963.

But this is not the world of “Rachel,” nor the one inhabited by her children (she also has a 4-month-old daughter). “My first husband -- actor Bobby Cannavale -- is Cuban,” she says. “And my second husband, Alex Weinstein, is a nice Jewish boy. My children look like a lot of things. They look like Americans.”