Maya Forbes and her younger sister China grew up in unusual circumstances. Their father Cameron Forbes was born into a wealthy Boston family — Secretary of State John Kerry is a relative — and suffered from bipolar disorder. Their mother is African American and met her husband when they worked at a public TV station in Boston in the 1960s. Cameron Forbes was hospitalized at times because of his illness but was a strong, loving presence in his daughters’ lives and became their primary caregiver when their mother attended graduate school in New York.
Both women graduated from Harvard University (as did their father) and went into the arts. Maya Forbes became a screenwriter, first for “The Larry Sanders Show” and later for movies (“The Rocker”) and TV miniseries (“The Kennedys”). China Forbes is the lead singer for Pink Martini and a longtime Portland resident who has released a solo album and is studying opera.
Their childhood has been a continuing source of inspiration. China Forbes has written a number of songs about it and Maya Forbes’ new movie “Infinitely Polar Bear” is a lightly fictionalized account of their lives during the period when their mother moved to New York. Mark Ruffalo plays their father, called Cam Stuart in the movie, and Zoe Saldana is their mother. Imogene Wolodarsky, Maya Forbes’ daughter, plays a character based on the young Maya Forbes.
China Forbes, left, and her sister Maya Forbes. Maya Forbes wrote and directed “Infinitely Polar Bear,” a movie about their childhood. (Wally Wolodarsky)
The Forbes sisters laughed easily and teased each other affectionately in a joint interview. Maya Forbes started by talking about how long she worked on the script and got it made with the help of J.J. Abrams, the “Star Wars” director.
“I worked on it and worked on it and tried to get the tone right,” Maya Forbes said. “I wanted a tone that would be both poignant and have a lot of pathos to it but also humor. That took me many years, working on it not consistently but working on it and setting it aside, working on it and setting it aside.
“When it was finally finished I got it to J.J. Abrams, who embraced it and wanted to help get it made. Then we got Mark Ruffalo attached and it took some years to get the financing before we finally shot the film.”
I asked Maya Forbes if it was hard to put her feelings aside and write about herself as a character in a movie.
“Well, I never put feelings aside. I put feelings into the script (laughs),” Maya Forbes said. “I wanted to put complicated feelings across — there was a lot of love but also anger and frustration and for me wanting to take care of my father and have him be OK. For him, wanting us to launch into the world, his two girls, but also wanting us to be with him. All of those complicated feelings I put into the movie.”
At this point China Forbes joined the conversation, and Maya Forbes asked her the same question: “China, do you think it was hard for me to do a personal project?”
“No, but it was such a long time coming in your career,” China Forbes said. “I kept expecting you to do something much more personal than you were doing, and when it finally started it was a relief to all of us. I don’t think there was any hesitation about you tackling the subject matter. I don’t think you were holding back at all.”
Maya Forbes: “It definitely was difficult, but I wanted to humanize somebody I loved. I wanted to do this portrait of a person that I loved who suffered from bipolar disorder and some of the things that were hard about it and some that were really great about it.
“He was a person. He was not just a person with an illness; he was a full person, in some ways a bad father and in some ways a wonderful father. Ultimately a wonderful father, I felt, even though when you put those things on paper it might not look like the greatest father. After having children of my own and reflecting on my childhood I felt that I had learned so much from him and from this whole experience that we went through. I evolved as a person, maybe sometimes too quickly, growing up too quickly. But we all go through life wrestling with different emotions and I feel like I learned how to do all that very well.”
I asked China Forbes how it felt to have her sister make a movie out of their lives.
“I was really excited because first of all it’s an amazing experience to sit in a theater and watch something very close to your childhood on the screen,” China Forbes said. “It’s an incredible gift. When I was at Sundance and I saw the movie, the final cut for the first time, it was like a living, breathing photo album of my childhood. Having lost my dad so long ago it was a gift to see him again. I was just captivated and delighted and crying.
“It wasn’t hard for me, I guess because I’m a songwriter and I put my personal life into my songs. For me, it’s just been a joy.”
Maya Forbes’ daughter plays her in the movie. But who could capture the young China Forbes?
Maya: “I did think about that. I thought about her love of purple (laughs).”
China: “I do love purple!”
Maya: “You really loved it then!”
China: “Lavender, a whole lavender outfit!”
Maya: “I certainly wanted to find a little girl who had a lot of flair. The funny thing is that my daughter, who plays my character, reminds me a lot of China when China was little. She’s a performer, and she plays the “me’ part, and I’m not really a performer.”
China: “Although Maya was the lead in ‘Anything Goes.’ She played Reno Sweeney. And you did some theater in high school. You were in ‘The Fantasticks.'”
Maya: “I was a performer, but not now.”
China: “No, not now.”
Maya: “Oh thanks! … Yes, I looked for a little girl with charisma and flair and has the singing/dancing gene, although it’s hard to find someone who can sing as well as China.”
Maya: “And then my mother found out she would be played by Zoe Saldana, who’s such a graceful, wonderful actress — everyone was happy. My father obviously is not alive but I think he would have really hit it off with Mark Ruffalo. That’s not really what you’re going for when you make a personal project — when you ruffle feathers, you ruffle feathers. But I approached the project with such empathy — I was angry at other people at the time we depict in the movie but I’m certainly not angry now. It didn’t dissipate for a long time but I really wrote the movie from a place of really appreciating what everybody had to go through.”
I asked China Forbes whether she felt that her childhood made her a more artistic person.
China: “I do. I think it’s not an accident that we are both artists because I think when you go through that kind of childhood you need to make sense of it for the rest of your life. Expressing it through writing or music is incredibly cathartic. I think I’ll be having my own internal wrestle with that for a lifetime as well.
“When I look back I wouldn’t change a thing. But at the time, of course, when I was 8, I would have changed everything. Maya really captured the embarrassment of living in an apartment where we didn’t want anyone to come over. Now I have a beautiful house and I want everyone to come over. I righted that part of my struggle and become very home-oriented.”
Maya: “Your house is very beautiful, and you’ve taken part of it from our childhood.”
China: “Yeah, it’s like I’ve taken what’s beautiful instead of what was squalid (laughs) and created this bohemian fantasy (laughs).”
Maya Forbes made “Infinitely Polar Bear,” and China Forbes wrote songs about the same period.
China: “Oh yeah, from the beginning. I put out an album in 1995 and there’s a song called ‘Doorways’ that’s about my dad and a song called ‘I Can’t Cry’ about not being able to deal with your emotions. In the movie my character says ‘I don’t cry anymore’ but Maya’s character totally cries. She’s always the emotional gateway to whatever’s happening with our family. She’s the one who experiences it and I’m sheltered by the older sister and shut down from all feelings. Years later I wrote about that and I had to work to try to undo that shutdown I created for myself as a protection.
“And then of course my song ’78,’ which was the title song of my last album, is all about this exact moment when my mom goes to New York, which is what this movie is about. I wrote a song about it and Maya wrote an entire movie about it. Which is typical because she’s the older one and she’s smarter and will write a really long, 90-page version of it and I’ll write a three-paragraph song (laughs).
Maya: “That is not true! But for you to say it is so sweet! … I want to add one thing about why we’re both artists. Our parents did love art — we went to the movies all the time and the theater all the time, and they really encouraged self-expression. It’s not always the greatest when your kids are expressing themselves loudly and obstinately right and left, but I do think my father — both of them — I think they understood that we were going through a difficult situation and it was important to express yourself even though it wasn’t always fun to hear it.”
China: “I remember one time I was playing and singing so loudly that our cat jumped on my back and chased me out of the room. It was speaking for the family, I think. My dad was really nice and he wouldn’t say ‘Shut up!’ But the cat did.”
Maya: “I couldn’t use that! Unfortunately you can’t train a cat … I’m laughing so hard because I witnessed that moment and it was crazy.”
China: “That kitty was so mean.”
By Jeff Baker | The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian July 17, 2015
Pink Martini with China Forbes will be at the Shubert for One Night Only
Friday, December 16, 2016 at 8pm.
For tix: shubert.com