Mike Fleming

EXCLUSIVE: After recently winning the Tony for best actress in a play for Venus In Fur, Nina Arianda will make her screen-starring debut playing 1960s rock icon Janis Joplin. Joplin, a film that looks back on the final six months of the singer’s life with flashbacks to her early career, will be directed by Sean Durkin, whose feature debut Martha Marcy May Marlene won him a slew of festival acclaim including Best Director at Sundance.

Nina Arianda Janis Joplin MovieJoplin will be made for a budget under $20 million, with production to start early next year, said producer Peter Newman, who with his partners have spent the last 12 years trying to put an indie film together with rights that include exclusive use of 21 of Joplin’s best-known songs. He said Arianda will sing Joplin’s tunes in the film, and that she has the chops to do justice to Joplin’s signature gritty sound.

Arianda certainly isn’t as well known as the actresses who’ve stepped in and out of this film over the last dozen years — Pink and Zooey Deschanel are among them, with Amy Adams and Renee Zellweger mentioned to play Joplin in rival projects. But Arianda has certainly won fans for her recent Broadway turn. In a recent New Yorker profile of the actress, Mike Nichols compared Arianda to Judy Holliday and Meryl Streep, in that “they were a tremendous shock the first time they were seen in a play,” Nichols said. Arianda has played supporting roles in films that include Midnight In Paris and Win Win.

Newman said that after viewing Venus In Fur, he, his backers and Durkin sparked to making a screen discovery, as Durkin did with Elizabeth Olsen on Martha Marcy May Marlene. “I’ve never in my life seen an actress walk on a stage and convey the duality of vulnerability with overheated sexuality, which is what Janis was all about,” Newman told me. He began trying to make a film about the wild life of the Texas-born 60s icon when he was a full-time producer of indie films like Smoke and The Squid And The Whale. The process of piecing it together was so arduous and frustrating that Newman back-burnered it for several years to focus on teaching. He’s now the head of the dual MBA and MFA program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, but this was the one project he was determined would get made and he has been re-energized by the emergence of Arianda and Durkin (both of whom also studied at NYU).

Newman’s trump card all these years was a contractual lock on the Joplin songs, as well as the life rights and arrangements of her backing band Big Brother and the Holding Company. He has the rights to Love, Janis, a collection of letters from the singer that was published by her sister Laura Joplin, and the David Dalton book Piece Of My Heart. Dalton was a Rolling Stone reporter who traveled with Joplin the last six months of her life before she died of a heroin overdose at age 27 in 1970. Hundreds of hours of recorded interviews are part of the package and will inform the film, as are three memorable appearances Joplin made on Dick Cavett before she died. While it’s possible to make a rock icon movie without rights — Andre 3000 is currently playing Jimi Hendrix in such a film right now –something certainly is missing when the star’s signature tunes are AWOL. Those rights come at high cost, and Newman said that is largely responsible for the $2.5 million in development costs incurred on the project so far. He believes there is finally light at the end of the tunnel for his investors.

Newman will produce with Durkin’s partners at Borderline Films, along with Uncommon Productions, Interal and Seven Hills Productions. Some of the production budget will come from the backers of The Squid And The Whale along with other equity investors that include those who’ve funded development of Joplin thus far.

Durkin is repped by UTA and Washington Square Arts, and Arianda by ICM Partners.

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