‘Uncle Rafael’ Is Coming To a Screen Near You


By Alin K. Gregorian

LOS ANGELES — On a sunny morning in California (and a brutally snowy midday in Massachusetts), the star and co-writer of the soon-to-be-released major motion picture “My Uncle Rafael,” as well as the film’s director and one of its producers, discussed why the world needs more Rafael and less anger. If all goes to plan, the film will present for the first time, the Armenian-American community as the backdrop of a major movie.

Uncle Rafael, played by Vahik Pirhamzei, is more or less a universal figure who inserts himself in the lives of people around him, whether they like it or not. And often, he is able to come up with just the right advice to help the situation.

The story is about a reality show producer, played by Rachel Blanchard, who wants to find a replacement reality show. She chances upon Rafael, an old man, full of spunk. He agrees to move in with the downward-spiraling Schumacher family, where he has to help them save their family.

“Rafael doesn’t really think it’s a good idea,” but he ends up doing it anyway.

“The old Armenian uncle is put in an American family to save it,” Fusco explained.

Get the Mirror in your inbox:

Noted Fusco, “The concept is so unique because the Armenian-American culture is the central backdrop of the script and it’s fresh and exciting.”

Much of the story also takes place in the coffee shop young Hamo (also played by Pirhamzei) owns in Glendale, where Rafael spends most of his days, mingling with the various customers. At the same time, Pirhamzei explained, Rafael is attending English as a Second Language classes, because his 101- year-old mother told him to learn the language.

While Fusco praised the work of the makeup artists that transformed the young and handsome Pirhamzei into Rafael, he gave credit to the actor. “If you don’t embody a 71-year-old man in your body or spirit, it just wont do. Most of the time people watching don’t know it’s the same guy playing the two roles,” he said.

Producer Michael Garrity said, “We started with the script, which was our biggest weapon.”

The cast of the movie is diverse and well-known.

Blanchard appeared in “Where the Truth Lies,” the Atom Egoyan film also starring Colin Firth and Kevin Bacon. Also starring in the film is John Michael Higgins, who won many raves for his spot-on impression of David Letterman in the “King of Late Night Talk” on the Jay Leno and Letterman war over the “Tonight Show,” as well as appearances in hits such as TV’s “Arrested Development.” Missi Pyle starred alongside Sigourney Weaver and Tim Allen in “Galaxy Quest” and “Dodge Ball: A True Underdog Story,” among many others. Anthony Clark, originally a stand-up comic, appeared in the sit- com “Yes, Dear” for many years.

The cast also includes Lupe Ontiveros, a veteran actress who has appeared in many movies, including “My Family/Mi Familia” and “Real Women Have Curves” with America Ferrara, and television series including “Desperate Housewives” and “Veronica’s Closet.”

Pirhamzei had created the character of Uncle Rafael on stage (Rafael Keri) in three different productions in California. When he decided the character could lend itself well to film, he contacted Scott Yagemann, a veteran television and screenwriter, to translate the plays into a new movie that could appeal to a wider audience.

Said Pirhamzei, “In 2007, I did the first play and I wrote 99 percent of the character of Rafael.”

The two subsequent plays just added to the external world of Uncle Rafael.

He can be summed up, Pirhamzei said, as someone passionate about life, with a universal appeal.

“If Rafael worked at a McDonald’s, then it would be an American story,” said Pirhamzei.

Pirhamzei, an Armenian from Iran, had moved to Germany first and then headed to “Little Tehran” in Los Angeles, where for years he worked on stated and in television.

“I started as an actor and writer,” he said, in Los Angeles. We did SNL-type [Saturday Night Live] sketch comedy and played more than 20 to 40 characters.”

It was during that time that the character of Rafael came to be. “It was created very accidentally. I wrote the story and I had to create a character. I created a 71-year-old guy, limping, talking the truth, and saying anything that came to his mind. I wanted it to be an Armenian guy, but I wanted to give him a universal name.”

The film wrapped in December.

Pirhamzei said he was thrilled that people like Fusco and Garrity were involved with the movie. “These guys are coming fromthe big studios,” he added.

“We chose to make it more independently. That gives us more leverage and power” in distribution, Fusco said. Now the process of finding a distributor is just beginning.

The producers are beginning sneak viewings in Los Angeles and said Fusco, “the reactions have been really, realty positive.”

The interviewees agreed that the movie’s warmth lent itself to a holiday release. If all goes well, it could possibly be ready for distribution during the summer.

“No matter where you’re from or what your background is, the characters in this film are ones you can relate to, including the dysfunctional family,” said Garrity.

(To see a clip, visit www.myunclerafael.com.)

Get the Mirror-Spectator Weekly in your inbox: