Producer Paula Wagner reflects on her Youngstown roots
At age 13, Wagner got her start in acting at the Youngstown Playhouse.
By MILAN PAURICH
As the "W" in C/W Productions -- "C" is international superstar Tom Cruise -- Youngstown native Paula Wagner nee Kauffman is one of the most powerful women in Hollywood. Winner of numerous prestigious honors (including the Producers Guild Nova and Visions Awards and Premiere Magazine's Icon Award), Wagner spent nearly 15 years in the trenches as one of the industry's leading talent agents at CAA before switching careers. During a recent telephone chat, Wagner discussed her Youngstown roots and the long, precipitous road that led to her becoming a Tinseltown mover-and-shaker.
Q. Can you tell me a little about your background?
A. I grew up on Youngstown's North Side and went to Harding Jr. High. When my family moved off Warner Road, I attended Hubbard High. I started acting at the Youngstown Playhouse when I was 13 years old. My mother was incredibly supportive. She would drive me there and wait in the car during rehearsals. I had the privilege of working with some extraordinary people there, including a wonderful young actress named Elizabeth Hartman, whose career I greatly admired. The Playhouse is where I learned my craft; it was just such an amazing theater company.
Q. Where did you go to college?
A. Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. During vacation, I did summer stock, usually ingenue-type roles. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon, I moved to New York because my dream had always been to be in the movies or on Broadway.
Q. Did that work out for you?
A. I co-authored a play, "Out of Our Father's House," that was performed at the Carter White House and on PBS, and when Meryl Streep left to become a big star, I replaced her at the Yale Repertory Theater. Over the years, I did lots of off-off-Broadway and a little bit of TV and film in California. Then, out of the blue one day, my agent at Susan Smith & amp; Associates said to me, "I think you'd make a great agent."
Q. Was that something you were interested in?
A. Well, that was the last thing I wanted to do [laughs]. But I decided to give it a try, and discovered that I had a real knack and love for the business. In a sense, I never really gave up my acting career; it just evolved into something else.
Q. When did you first meet Tom [Cruise]?
A. In the early 1980s, I got recruited by CAA where I started working with young actors including Demi Moore and Val Kilmer, and director-writers like Oliver Stone and Robert Towne. Tom [Cruise] was one of my first CAA clients.
Q. How did C/W Productions come about?
A. In 1993, Tom and I decided to form a production company [C/W Productions] at Paramount Pictures, and we've been there ever since. "Mission Impossible" was our first movie. Since then, C/W has produced "Without Limits," "Mission Impossible 2," "The Others," "Vanilla Sky," "Narc," "Shattered Glass," and "The Last Samurai." Some projects Tom inaugurates. Others -- like "Suspect Zero," our latest release -- I do.
Q. Could you explain to our readers what a producer actually does?
A. The producer is the glue that pulls it all together. It's the one job that doesn't have a clear-cut definition since the job varies from film to film. As a producer, you have to keep one foot in the creative world and one foot in the business world. You're there from the inception of the project: hiring a writer, bringing in the director, handling the budget, scouting locations, interfacing with the studio and the bank. Once shooting is finished, you become involved in the post-production process to make sure that everything goes smoothly. A producer shepherds a film all the way until the last DVD is shipped. As head of a production company, you're there to support the director, the cast and all the various creative people to help bring a script alive.
Q. What are you working on now?
A. We're currently shooting Cameron Crowe's "Elizabethtown" with Orlando Bloom and Kirsten Dunst in L.A. and Kentucky. Just recently, C/W wrapped on Robert Towne's new movie, "Ask the Dust," starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. We shot that in Capetown, South Africa.
Q. Do you have any updates on "War of the Worlds" that you can share with us?
A. It's pretty intense. That's a film that Tom and Steven [Spielberg] had been working on for awhile. After "Mission Impossible 3" got pushed back till next June, "War of the Worlds" was moved up so now we have an accelerated 10-week pre-production schedule. It begins shooting in November and should be out by next summer.
Q. Would you ever consider producing a film in Northeast Ohio?
A. I'd like that. I think it would be really interesting to shoot a movie in Youngstown since there are so many stories there.