The Reel Queens: Astoria restaurateur’s film snags Obama in supporting role

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An Astoria restaurant owner managed to snag one of the nation’s most familiar faces for a new short film in which he acts and makes his debut as a producer.

John Solo, co-owner of the popular Grand Cafe on 30th Avenue in Astoria, has worked for years as an actor on popular television shows such as “Law & Order” and “All My Children,” as well as taking on roles in short films, independent features, a Greek miniseries and TV movies.

Last fall marked his debut as a producer after he worked with writer-director Justin Foran on the 14-minute short “Hope,” which stars 11-year old Newark native Naim Omari as a resident of Long Island City’s Queensbridge Houses. The movie, which will screen Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at Bellmore Movies in Long Island as part of the Long Island International Film Expo, also includes a little star power: President Barack Obama.

Solo and Foran kicked off their production in November at Obama’s inauguration, capturing his speech on film and shooting sequences with his actors among the melee.

“We caught his actual speech,” said Solo, who formerly lived in Astoria and now resides in Hell’s Kitchen. “We were on the mall, which was the most exciting part. But it’s also the transition in the film, what brings all the characters together.”

The $10,000 film follows the story of a young boy whose mother has died and father has lost his job amid the economic recession. He runs away, takes a bus and meets a girl who inspires him as the pair make their way to the inauguration.

Solo said the film’s crew had to obtain a slew of permits to shoot during the inauguration.

“For some shots, we didn’t have permits, so we did it guerilla-style,” he said. “But they were not too bothered about a guy with a camera. They were concentrating on bigger things.”

The crew returned to Queens following the Washington, D.C., shoot and filmed the majority of the movie at the Grand Cafe, around Queensbridge, near the Queensborough Plaza subway station and various Astoria sites. The movie also features 21-year-old New York University student Lena Nguyen as the story’s 15-year-old source of inspiration for its protagonist, while Solo and Foran portray a gay couple opposed to California’s Proposition 8 who accompany the youths to the capitol.

“It’s a sweet little movie, but there’s a lot in there about the times we’re in,” he said. “It has the Obama inauguration, Proposition 8, the economy.”

Solo said he was surprised at the amount of cooperation from the large crowds of people at the inauguration who ended up playing extras in the film.

“It was pure adrenaline,” he said. “We were working a 20-hour day. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It’s going to be hard to shoot another film and not have that.”

“Hope” will debut at the Long Island expo and has been submitted to the Hamptons and Savannah film festivals.

The film will be available for purchase at hope-themovie.com in the near future.

Solo and Foran are teaming up for a feature comedy called “Sex Magic” they plan to shoot in Astoria. The script, written by Foran, is about a Napoleon Dynamite-esque character who tries to break into the world of rhythm and blues music as a sensual crooner. The filmmakers are currently seeking an available school site in the neighborhood where they can film during the holiday season.

In the meantime, they plan to take “Hope” to film festivals across the nation. Debbie Dickinson, an actress and model who is helping market the short film and will act in “Sex Magic,” said she believes “Hope” will move all who see it.

“It’s a very important project,” she said. “It has a quality that a lot of films today do not. It’s about good family values. It spoke to my heart and we hope it will touch a lot of souls.”

Read film reviews by Nathan Duke at criticalconditions.net.

Updated 6:34 pm, October 10, 2011
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