When Richard Pimentel was a child, a teacher told his grandmother he would never do anything but sell newspapers. Incredulous, his grandmother defended him, saying her grandson wouldn't sell newspapers, he'd be in them. Decades later, Pimentel isn't only in the papers, his life is the subject of Music Within, which will be released in theaters this weekend. After being disabled in the Vietnam War and inspired by similarly affected veterans and friends (including well-known Portland artist Art Honeyman, who has cerebral palsy), Pimentel wrote "Tilting at Windmills," the training program that eventually laid the foundation for the Americans with Disabilities Act, passed in 1990. Now a Nampa resident, Pimentel chatted with BW about Music Within, getting to know Ron Livingston, and his thoughts on the ADA.
People joke about having a movie made of their life, but that's actually happened to you. What's that like?
Very surrealistic. When Steve Sawalich first came to me and said, "I'm a movie director and a producer, and I want to make a movie of your life," the first thing I did was look over his shoulder to see who the next person was who wanted to talk to me. It was my impression that a) no one ever made a movie about you until you were dead, and I thought maybe he knew something I didn't, and b) it's easy to get a movie made about you if you've killed and eaten someone, and I hadn't done anything that bad. I think my main fear was that he was going to make a movie where I was this really incredible, good person who did all these wonderful things, and that's not the way anyone really is. We just sort of fall into what we're doing.
Are you happy with the final product, not only how you're portrayed but how the entire movement was portrayed?
Absolutely. When I first started with this, Steve asked me to start writing a book so he could get some idea of what the movie would be about. For the first two pages, I was mainly worried that I would look like the hero of my own life. After I got to two pages, I wasn't worried about looking like the hero anymore. I was worried about looking like the villain of my own life.
How much of the film is you and how much is Hollywood?
It's very much me. In fact, everything Hollywood tried to do with it, I vetoed. When I started to write, they told me to start with being born, the story of my mom and everything. And then I asked, how do I know about being born? I realized that all of our earliest memories are lies. They are—like the movie says—family mythologies that have been ground into us since our birth, and we have come to believe them as if they are real. What I went on to write is that it doesn't matter if they were real or true or not because as long as they are true to us, it has affected and shaped our character.
The movie is very accurate, but there are some concessions to time frame. I did manage not to live my life in an hour and 30 minutes. There's a few concessions to the order of things because they spanned nearly 30 years, but the sense of it is that I felt very strongly that I owed a sense of real accuracy—by that I mean you can be truthful in fact but lie in the way it's interpreted. But I wanted to be truthful in the way it's interpreted. I owed that to the people I wrote about, like Ben Padrow, my mentor, who has now passed away. And dear Art wouldn't let me get away with anything.
In fact, when they were shooting the pancake scene, they had Art and me come in and see them shoot the scene. It was very stressful on the actors because there's the real Richard and the real Art watching them play Richard and Art. Right in the middle of the scene—we were way in the back where we couldn't be heard—Honeyman looks at me and he says, "You know, Richard, you were never that good-looking." I turned to him and said, "You were never that witty."
Did you choose who played you?
I don't think I had a choice on who would play me, but I had a choice on who wouldn't. When Steve came to me and said Ron Livingston, the first thing that popped in my head was Office Space, and I think everyone loves—well, anyone who doesn't love Office Space I probably don't want to have a beer with. And I thought, "I love that movie, but can he play me?"
So I said I wanted to meet him. He was in Minneapolis at the time so I flew in, and we spent two days together, and it was excellent. Ron was very thoughtful. He asked me tons of questions, but not a single question was a question I would have anticipated. I thought he was going to say, "How do you walk?" and "How do you move your arms?" But he didn't. He said, "How do you process information? How do you feel about this? What makes you say something to someone when they irritate you or choose not to?" I told him, "Ron, I want you to play me warts and all. Don't try to glamorize my life." And he told me he thought that freed him. I thought he did a really excellent acting job, and I think it's maybe his best work so far.
How you feel about the ADA 17 years after its passage?
The ADA is made up of five titles. One deals with transportation, one deals with accessibility of government services and another with telecommunications. I'm perfectly satisfied with most of those. Title One deals with employment, and it's been a bitter disappointment to me. The unemployment rate for people with disabilities today is as high as it was in 1990. The courts have made some very strange decisions. It's very difficult for people with disabilities under ADA now to even prove they're disabled. The court has taken a very narrow view of what a disability is. Employers win over 80 percent of the disabilities cases, and Congress right now is looking at a reauthorization of the ADA, and there's a big trend to want to liberalize ADA so they can swing the pendulum back so that people with disabilities win all the cases. That disturbs me as well because we never put the ADA together to be the lawyer's annuity act of 1990. It was a promise to people with disabilities that their ability and opportunity would be equal. And it was also a promise to employers that we would give them a way of thinking and a way of doing things which would effectively allow them to hire people with disabilities and make them a part of the mainstream. ADA has failed on both those issues, and it needs to be redone.
Had you walked into a world where the disabled already had equal rights, what would you be crusading for?
The only real differences we make that are important are the differences we make with the individuals we come across and we affect. I think what I would be striving for is not a classic minority group or civil-rights group but the idea that everyone should be looked at one more time, and no one should ever be discounted. In fact, [recently] they put makeup on me, and the lady who did it came up to me and she said, "I'm Jackie, just the makeup girl" And I took her hand, and I said, "There's only one thing you could ever say to me that will make me angry: never put the word 'just' in front of your name unless you mean like 'Edward the Just,' because no one is just anything." So the idea that no matter who it is, there's always someone in there worth knowing, that's what I would say to everyone. And in fact, that's not just what I would be fighting for today, that's what I am fighting for.---------
Music Within (R)
Directed by Steven Sawalich
Stars Ron Livingston, Melissa George, Michael Sheen, Yul Vazquez, Rebecca De Mornay
Opens Friday at Edwards 21