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''Entourage'''s Connolly on directing his first feature

”Entourage” star Kevin Connolly talks about directing his first feature, the film legends who inspire him, and the pressure of being on HBO’s new No. 1 show

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For the past 10 years — since long before he started playing Vinnie’s manager Eric on Entourage — Kevin Connolly has been gunning to direct a movie. He started by helming a few episodes of his old WB sitcom Unhappily Never After and making a few short films. Finally, this year, he turned up at the Tribeca Film Festival with his debut feature, Gardener of Eden.

”It’s not like I just all of a sudden decided that I wanted to be a director,” Connolly says. ”It’s something that I’ve been working towards, and it took a long time.”

Produced by his friend Leonardo DiCaprio, the movie stars Lukas Haas as a wandering New Jersey college dropout who — looking for a calling in life — accidentally catches a rapist and decides to become a vigilante. Connolly was already back at work on Entourage when we got him on the phone to talk about his movie.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: The movie feels like it’s about Gen-Y malaise. Did you see it that way?
KEVIN CONNOLLY: Well, I didn’t want to go out and make a romantic comedy. I wanted to say something about something that I felt like I knew a little bit about. Look, I grew up on Long Island, and Long Island and New Jersey are different, but I can’t even tell you how many people I knew from school who are like the guys in the movie, people who graduate high school and give college a crack, but then fail out the first year and either go back home and make something of their lives or just sort of settle and live in mom’s basement and work odd jobs around town. I always thought there was something interesting about that. Obviously, it’s ridiculous to call it a mid-life crisis, but they’re sort of the lost years, while you’re finding your place. That’s what I liked about the movie.

But there are elements of satire too, since the guy ultimately becomes a vigilante, right?
It is sort of a satire. But I would never want to glamorize or justify the actions of this character, so it’s really more about the guy’s generation. I’m a movie fan, and I wanted to get into that throwback to the ’70s, Charles Bronson and Death Wish kind of thing.

A lot of reviewers are comparing the plot to Taxi Driver‘s. Is that big movie for you?
Yeah, of course. That’s one of the great movies of the ’70s. It’s certainly one of De Niro’s great early performances, so I’m not ashamed to say I was influenced 1,000 percent by Taxi Driver, and Scorsese, and that time in movies in general.

Did you get to meet Robert De Niro at Tribeca?
No. The truth of the matter is, the Entourage schedule is so tight that I really did not get to hang around the festival. Listen, I would have liked to go to the screening tonight. I’d like to go! Just to gauge the audience reaction and talk to people. I want to be out there like an independent filmmaker pounding the pavement, but unfortunately, my schedule just really wouldn’t allow it.

What other filmmakers do you like?
I’m a huge, huge, huge Oliver Stone fan. I think he’s made some incredibly important films, and he’s somebody that I really look up to. I love Scorsese, I love Kubrick, and I love the guys from that generation. Even guys like — c’mon, how great are guys like Spielberg? I love these guys that make these big monster movies that pack people into theaters. I aspire to be the kind of director that makes movies people go to see. [Laughs] And I love the new rash of directors. Fincher’s dope, and Paul Thomas Anderson. And going back, I love Billy Wilder, and obviously Hitchcock. I’m an old movie buff.

And this was the script you wanted to do?
I just knew that it was risky. The movie makes people a little uncomfortable, and I like that. It’s an emotion that I wanted to try to get out of people. And I’m a risk taker. I liked the idea of doing something that wasn’t so safe. There were times when Lukas and I were looking at each other thinking, ”Oh man, we’re going to get crucified!”

What was Leonardo DiCaprio like as a producer? Did he bust your chops, or did he stay out of the way?
He was fantastic, and so was [The Departed producer] Graham King, who’s the financier. These guys work with big directors, so they come from the Scorsese school, where they let their directors direct. They really, really just let me make my movie.

And you felt confident enough to let them let you direct?
Oh totally, man. Look, you gotta have a little confidence or else you wouldn’t have been able to get there in the first place.

Do you want to direct full time?
Well, no. Acting’s in my blood. I don’t see myself giving up acting altogether. But I certainly wanna do both. I really don’t want to say that I’ll do one or another. I mean, lots of guys do it. You look at a guy like [Friday Night Lights director] Pete Berg, you know? He’s a scorching-hot director and he acts. There are lots of guys that do both, and do both well. So I hope to be fortunate enough to have a career like one of those guys.

Have you scored distribution yet?
We’re working on that now. We’re meeting with people and there are mullings. I’m very optimistic that we’re gonna sell the movie. Look, it’s a dark movie, it’s not such an easy sell, but we got good people on it, and I like our odds.

You’ll direct again?
Yeah, I think so. Hopefully this movie allows me another opportunity.

How’s Entourage going?
We’re about halfway done with season four, which doesn’t start till June. Right now you’re watching season 3B, the extension of season three. And season four starts in June.

Are you guys sad The Sopranos is going off the air? Are you gonna be feeling pressure to be the No. 1 big HBO buzz show now?
Yeah. [Sighs] There’s that pressure, but I don’t think anybody could ever expect us to [match The Sopranos]. We’re trying to capture more of the Sex and the City type of buzz. I think The Sopranos is on a whole ‘nother level.

What are you going to do on your next break from Entourage?
I’m going to try to act again, get back out there and do a movie or something this summer, but I don’t know what. There’s a couple of things that I’m thinking about. The trick with doing the right movie is that sometimes it’s not always about what you do, it’s about what you don’t do. So I’m really not in a rush to go out and do a movie just for the sake of doing a movie. I want it to be a right movie, or I don’t want to do it at all. I just want to make smart choices, which is not always easy, because it’s hard to know what the smart choices are.

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