Call Me by Your Name left an impression with Michael Glover Smithbut maybe not the one a viewer might think.
The Chicago filmmaker "didn't buy the chemistry" between the leads. "I went home and Googled, 'Is Armie Hammer gay?' [and] 'Is Timothee Chalamet gay?'" said Smith, who is straight. "I didn't want people to have that question while watching my movie."
Rendezvous in ChicagoSmith's third feature film that he wrote and directedchronicles a relationship's beginning, middle and end through three different segments. The second, "Cats and Dogs," follows Andy and Rob, a gay couple who have recently moved in together. As they walk through Rogers Park, a nervous Rob marks time before proposing.
Smith wanted "the film's most romantic segment" to feature two gay men. "If an alien studied our movies and TV, they would come to the conclusion that we don't have many gay people," he said. "Making these characters queer was my attempt to be a good ally."
He also didn't audition straight hopefuls for Rob and Andy. "We had a really great casting director, Clare Cooney. I told her I only wanted to see queer actors and she was able to funnel them my way."
Enter Rashaad Hall, who's appeared at Goodman and Victory Gardens and acted in the Emmy-nominated webseries Brown Girls.
"Being a queer man of color, it puts me in another category," Hall said via phone while while out of town with his partner Isaac Gomez, whose play La Ruta is currently running at Steppenwolf. "When we think of queer or gay characters, we think of one kind. So I'm really thankful to Michael for casting me in this way, and giving me an opportunity to show there are multitudes of representation."
"Rashaad immediately owned the character of Andy," said Smith. "I had done bios for each character and described Andy as cool and laid-back. Rashaad was just perfect."
When casting Rob, the director said, "it became a question of who had the best chemistry with Rashaad."
That was Matthew Sherbach, who had previously worked with Hall. "Part of why the script appealed to me is that [it] is very simple," said Sherbach, who's acted in Chicago for the past 13 years. "It's a sweet, heartfelt story about people who truly get along. I find that extremely compelling, especially for a queer narrative."
As an actor, Sherbach often found himself pigeonholed. "In my twenties, I kept getting called in for roles that were all about gay teenagers who were hyper-precocious and using their sexuality as a weapon," he said. "My agent and I were like, first of all, I'm 27, and why is this a recurring theme?"
Sherbach called Rob and Andy's storyline "deeply refreshing" in that "two gay male characters live their lives. Heterosexual narratives get to have that a lot, and I feel like every time a queer story gets told, it's only one type. And we contain multitudes."
During the two-day shoot, Sherbach and Hall had to generate believable chemistry. Director Smith had to illustrate a gay relationship, which he has never experienced. Thankfully, all were ready to work.
"I said to Rashaad and Matt, like I say to all my actors, if something doesn't sound right, we'll change [the words] to make them more authentic," Smith said.
"I'm a natural worrier, and I didn't worry about Rashaad," said Sherbach. "I felt confident that I had a good partner, that I was safe in his care. We wouldn't have to act the warmth between our charactersthat already existed."
"Matthew is a phenomenal actor," Hall said. "He's also hilarious as a person. In between takes, we would be cracking up at our off-kilter, very goofy sense of humor." Shared jokes went a long way: "[W]e were able to dive in and shake off the nervous energy."
Both actors complimented their director's active listening.
"Working with Michael was a pretty collaborative process," Hall said. "I might say a line slightly differently than [he'd] written, and he'd run over and say, 'I like that better.' He really works in the moment and allows our voices to shine through."
"It doesn't escape my attention that a straight, white cisgender male wrote and directed this film," said Sherbach. "But Michael wasn't trying to impose his vision on who this couple was and what it was like to be gay," he added. "Which, hopefully, is why that scene seems real. I think it's a credit to Michael that he gave us the floor."
Rendezvous in Chicago has already won awards at the Adirondack and Strasburg Film Festivals, as well as "Best Ensemble" from the website Indie Outlook. Hall couldn't be more excited for what this means in terms of representation.
"It's a blessing folks are vibing with it," he said, "and aren't batting an eye to see a queer couple just living their lives like everyday people."
Rendezvous in Chicago will open in February at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St. For more information, follow the film on Facebook or the director's website at whitecitycinema.com .