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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Living on the Street

The story behind the movie The Soloist

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As a longtime journalist, Steve Lopez knows a good story when he sees one. Lopez was walking down the street, near his office at the Los Angeles Times, when he first noticed a disheveled man playing the violin in Pershing Square.

"Here was a guy who was getting pretty good sound off of a violin that only had two strings, and he looked like he was living on the streets," Lopez recalls. "I thought to myself, 'What the heck's going on here? This might make a good column.'"

Lopez did some research and discovered that the man, Nathaniel Ayers, had once attended the prestigious Juilliard School of Music on a scholarship. He had been one of the scant African-American students at the institution, before suffering a nervous breakdown and being institutionalized. Following his release, Ayers lived with his mother in Cleveland until she passed away in 2000. Thinking that his father lived in Los Angeles, Ayers drifted out west. Unable to locate his father, Ayers fell into homelessness, playing for change as a street musician.

Ayers became the subject of a series of poignant columns by Lopez. Culled from a series of these columns, The Soloist: A Lost Dream, an Unlikely Friendship, and the Redemptive Power of Music is a nonfiction account of Lopez's relationship with Ayers. The book has been adapted into a film, The Soloist, starring Robert Downey Jr. as Lopez and Jamie Foxx as Ayers, scheduled for release April 24.

"I've always written about characters who were up against it for one reason or another, but nobody that was quite this challenged," Lopez says. "Nathaniel did nothing to bring this mental illness on. His career was about to take off, then instead he went off a cliff. I loved the way that music sort of saved him.

"The more that I got to know him, the more fond I became of him and the more inspired I became by his perseverance in struggling through the years to fight back against his illness," he adds.

Eventually, Lopez became involved in getting Ayers back on his feet. Despite the stark difference in their circumstances, the 55-year-old Lopez had certain traits in common with Ayers. "We're almost the same age and shared many of the same cultural references," he says. "He'd be humming the theme song from shows that I watched when I was growing up or talking about the same sports teams and stars that I recalled."

Lopez acknowledges his trepidation about depicting Ayers' struggles. "I had concerns about every column that I wrote about Nathaniel, then turning the columns into a book, and then about turning the book into a movie, because it put a bigger piece of his life on public display," he says. "Although I could control the columns and control the book, I realized that there's no way to control a Hollywood movie. I was concerned that he might be misrepresented or characterized as something other than he is. Most importantly, I was concerned that he wasn't going to be able to handle the exposure and that the movie would be an oversimplification of his challenge."

Lopez discussed his reservations with the mental health director of Lamp Community, a treatment facility in Los Angeles, as well as with Ayers' sister. "They convinced me that this was a rare opportunity in which people give a damn about somebody who was a homeless, mentally ill guy. There's a great potential to humanize him," Lopez notes.

Lopez admits that he also had qualms about casting, so he was relieved to hear that Downey Jr. would portray him. "I think that a lot of successful Hollywood people are celebrities, rather than actors," Lopez says. "I was always really, really impressed by [Downey Jr.'s] raw talent and intelligence, when I've seen him on screen."

As for the biggest lesson he has learned from his relationship with Ayers, Lopez says, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

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