By Michael Aushenker
You could say actress Elisabeth Röhm really is “Finding Happiness.”
At 40, the Venice resident and former “Law & Order” cast member is quietly cultivating a substantial movie career that will include a part in the much-anticipated “American Hustle” — director David O. Russell’s follow-up to the Academy Award-winning “Silver Linings Playbook” — and a starring role in the new independent film “Finding Happiness,” which screens tonight at Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex in Santa Monica.
Directed by Mar Vista resident Ted Nicolaou, “Finding Happiness” stars Röhm as a journalist interloper in the real-life Ananda commune near Grass Valley in Northern California. Through Röhm’s character, the film explores the community’s method of dealing with “death and dying, gardening, solar technology, how they sustain,” said Nicolaou.
For Röhm, the subject was intriguing.
“It interested me people living in a simpler manner,” she said. “These are high-minded people; it wasn’t just a bunch of hippies.”
And for Nicolaou, it was in part Röhm’s openness to the experience that made her right for the role.
“I sort of made [the film] like a self-portrait of the community and put her in my shoes. I knew nothing about this community. I don’t consider myself a spiritual person, but a magical-thinking former hippie. [Ananda] really challenged my feelings about how I lived my life — about being kind, giving, service. I came away from it more open-minded” Nicolaou said.
“Elisabeth is a really smart, very gentle and really dedicated actress who likes to enjoy herself. She basically embraced her experience at Ananda and really lived there while we [did the film],” he continued.
Initially, “Finding Happiness” was imagined as a documentary until producer Roberto Bessi suggested a central character — Juliette, Röhm’s fictional journalist — whose evolution viewers could follow through the film.
Röhm came to Nicolaou’s attention through a casting director who had learned meditation from Röhm’s late mother, Lisa Loverde.
Nicolaou met the actress at Venice Grind, a local coffeehouse.
“This was going to be a spiritual journey,” Nicolaou said. “It was obvious she could play skeptical [reporter] Juliette but also be so open to the people of Ananda.”
A seasoned television actress, Röhm already had experience on daytime soap operas such as “One Life to Live” and had played on “Law & Order,” “Heroes,” and “The Mentalist.” As part of the “Law & Order” cast, she was nominated in 2001 and 2003 for the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Drama Series.
Also no stranger to the kind of attention celebrity brings, Röhm landed on Maxim magazine’s “Hot 100” list in 2002.
But “Finding Happiness” presented a different kind of challenge.
Interacting with Ananda residents, “There was a lot of improvising,” Röhm said. “It’s certainly not like a traditional acting job.”
Röhm made residents of the self-sustaining community “feel calm and comfortable,” Nicolaou said.
The upcoming “American Hustle” — which reunites Russell with Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as well as Christian Bale, star of Russell’s 2010 film “The Fighter” — is the next milestone in the German-born actress’s transition to the silver screen.
Röhm said she can hardly wait for the film’s December release.
“It was the most spontaneous and crafted dynamic experience of my career,” Röhm said.
“[Russell’s] a certifiable genius,” she continued. “He’s compassionate and touches a very deep cord in our human experience. He really gets to a heart of family.”
Röhm shot “American Hustle” in Boston but said her heart remains in Venice.
“It reminds me of the best of a lot of different worlds,” she said. “It’s eclectic: Dogtown, Abbot Kinney, the canals, suburbia — the transition happening like what happened in SoHo. It’s an artistic community that remains pure.”
In trying to capture a pure essence of the Ananda community, Nicolaou stressed that he was careful not to impose any judgment or bias on the community but to let moviegoers decide for themselves.
“I tried to stay out of the way,” he said. “Once you meet the people of Ananda, you are disarmed and you don’t want to mock them. They are earnest, and they’ve kept at it for 50 years.”
As it was for Röhm, the film was also a departure for Nicolaou, who previously shot low-budget vampire movies in Transylvania, children’s fantasy films and bonus-feature documentaries for Disney DVDs.
“Finding Happiness” is “not an infomercial, but an honest portrait of the people of the community,” he said. “If you’re listening to what the people are saying, it’s fascinating.”
A special screening of “Finding Happiness” takes place Thursday, Nov. 14 at 7:30 p.m. at Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica. A Q&A session with Röhm and Nicolaou will follow the screening.
Hustle’ and ‘Happiness’: Venice-based actress Elisabeth Röhm is making her mark on Hollywood
By Michael Aushenker