Seriously. The Martin Scorsese-Mick Jagger-Terence Winter rock 'n' roll pilot collaboration for HBO that wrapped production this month has awards written all over it. Bobby Cannavale and Ray Romano star as two 1970s New York record executives in a world of sex, drugs and rock to which Jagger's affiliation certainly affixes instant verisimilitude. The project is based on Jagger's idea for a story about two friends going through decades of the music business together. Andrew "Dice" Clay plays a coke-snorting record station owner, James Jagger (Mick's son) plays the lead singer of a proto punk band, Max Casella is an A&R exec and the rest of the cast is filled with edgy and interesting actors. Look for it to bring back an era, and a business, ripe for fresh examination.
"I didn't realize record producers were really so crooked and slimy back then, taking advantage of the artists and everything," comments Michael J. Burg, who plays a German recording executive in the project — but came close to losing the role when it became painfully apparent that he couldn't speak German.
"It was really not a problem at first because I had two or three weeks to learn it, and then Martin Scorsese cast me," he relates of his foreign language gaffe. At one point, "The casting director came up to me and said 'Don't worry, we know you don't speak German. It's not a problem. We have other actors to speak the new German lines."
But a week later, Burg found himself walking into a penthouse suite in New York City for a rehearsal with Romano, Cannavale and J.C. MacKenzie, and Scorsese greeted him with "'Oh, hi, hi, hi — I've got something for you,' and he gave me eight pages of material in German." Burg's every-actor's-dream moment turned into a nightmare as he sputtered and stalled his way through a cold reading.
"Bullets of sweat were just coming out all over me. And I could just feel everyone's empathy for my humiliation," recalls the actor, who is also in the newly-opened "Love Is Strange" film with John Lithgow and Alfred Molina. He goes on, "Finally, I'm done reading and I look up and Martin Scorsese is just staring at me like, how did this happen? And Ray Romano — they were all staring at me. Ray finally broke the silence and he goes, 'So ... well ... play a lot of Germans?' But there was no laugh. Nobody laughed. I had done this play, 'Sophie's Choice,' a few years ago and thank God I remembered one line out of it, so I said it" — and quite emphatically, as he demonstrates. "Then everyone burst into laughter. I think that moment saved it. I think they would have replaced me for sure if I hadn't handled it with some amount of grace.
"But Marty was like, 'Don't worry, we'll rearrange it.' He was really, really so lovely and kind. I hear these people say Marty this, Marty that, and think 'Who are you to call him Marty.' But the minute you meet him, it's so natural because he's such an open, kind man. "
In fact, the production provided Burg with German language coaches to get the inflections right. "They were so nice in accommodating me. It was just an awful experience that ended up really wonderful. I saw how first-rate people can be," he says.
His character is an executive with PolyGram Records, "which was a German-owned company, and part of the storyline is PolyGram record executives are going to buy this record company owned by Bobby Cannavale and Ray Romano," Burg explains.
It's going to be a busy fall for Burg, whose claims to fame include playing Truman Capote three times (in "The Audrey Hepburn Story," "The Hoax" and "Life On Mars"). He'll be seen in a recurring role in "Person of Interest" — and taking some German classes.