Film career new act for retired SU prof

Posted: November 9, 2012

The Winchester Star

James Laster during the filming of The Hypnotist, a film being produced by a Temple University student.

Winchester — Finding a new career at age 78 has been a great adventure for James Laster.

The retired music professor is no stranger to performing, but in the last year, he has taken on a new challenge — film acting.

The Winchester resident has acted in four movies this year, including three independent projects and one student film.

“I feel very satisfied because I am doing something I have discovered and really enjoy,” said Laster, who retired in 2000 as a music professor after 27 years at the Shenandoah Conservatory of Shenandoah University.

The movies have come in a relatively short period of time — the first one filmed in June and he is still working on the fourth — and Laster has taken on a variety of characters. So far this year, he has played a scientist, a priest, a choir director and a hypnotist.

It has all been a kind of roller coaster for Laster, but one he has no intention of getting off of yet.

“I would like to continue doing this as long as I am mentally and physically able,” he said. “There are some wonderful roles for older men — some I have done and would like to do again.”

So far, most of the work has been without pay, but that pales next to the fun of the new experiences he is having, Laster said.

“It is something I am learning because I am not trained in it, but it has been a joyful new venture at this stage in my life,” he said.

Acting career

Laster didn’t take up acting in any form until 1996, when he started performing in plays at Wayside Theatre. Once bitten by the acting bug, he was hooked.

Roles as an extra in movies were next, including a nonspeaking role as a professor in the 2005 film “Syriana,” starring George Clooney.

He had his first major role this year, when a friend — writer and director Tom Haun — asked him to look at the script for “The Curse of the Rattlesnake People.” He wanted Laster to play Dr. Price, a scientist who is working with rattlesnake venom as a possible cure for cancer when something goes wrong.

The movie was filmed in Toms Brook.

It was an intriguing premise, Laster said, and made even more appealing when he came home from the first day of rehearsal and saw a program on NOVA about positive medical uses for poisonous serums.

“It was interesting to see this wasn’t just a whim off the top of someone’s head. It was [partly] based on fact,” he said.

Silent film

It took three days in July for Laster to finish his part in “Christmas Dreams,” which was filmed on a sound stage in Philadelphia. The movie marks Laster’s second time working with director Andrew Repasky McElhinney, whom he worked for in 2005 in a film called “Animal Husbandry.”

“Christmas Dreams” is a silent film with a score that is a blend of acting, movement and dance, McElhinney said. He asked Laster to take the role of the choir director for a group of carolers because he wanted to work with him again.

“He is a consummate professional. He is a great team player,” said McElhinney. “He not only delivers himself, but he inspires other castmates to do the same. He is an actor that I as a director know I can completely trust.”

Given the unusual format of a film without dialogue, Laster’s background gave him two advantages, McElhinny said. As a stage actor, he is used to “carrying moments and recognizing the architecture as a whole.” As a musician, he is also “very conscious of rhythm and tempo.”

Latest work

Since September, Laster has been working on “The Hypnotist,” which is being directed by Michael Marchetti, a senior at Temple University. All of the filming has been done in Philadelphia, so Laster and his wife, Madlon, have been driving up every weekend for the shoots.

Laster plays Marius, an aging hypnotist who loves the thrill of a con. But a young woman who comes to him to learn magic may show him the error of his ways.

“I have seen footage, and I think it looks amazing,” Laster said. “I am very pleased with the quality of work these students are turning out, and I am glad to be part of it.”

Film premiere

One of Laster’s roles was in “A Little off the Top,” an independent movie directed by Joseph Durbin that was filmed locally and will premiere at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Kernstown.

In this short film, he plays a priest hearing the confession of Joe, a barber who went on a killing spree, played by Nick Nerangis of Winchester. The scenes were shot in one day at Warren Memorial Hospital in Front Royal.

The pair had acted before in local theater productions, and knowing Laster’s talent, Nerangis suggested he audition for the movie.

“He is believable, he is honest, he is great to watch, he has got a wonderful character face, and he is just a peach to work with,” Nerangis said. “That is why I suggested he come to auditions.”

The one day of filming for “A Little Off the Top” was July 7, and was a little fragmented, Laster said. The story is told in a combination of the confessions to his character, Father Mike, and flashbacks showing what actually happened.

— Contact Laura McFarland at lmcfarland@winchesterstar.com