Swan Song Director On Working With Lead Actor To Portray A Real Person

Udo Kier sits on a couch in a bright green suit as Pat Pitsenbarger in Swan Song
(Image credit: Magnolia Home Entertainment)

Drawn from the phrase used for a final gesture, Swan Song tells the fabulous tale of retired hairdresser Pat Pitsenbarger (Udo Kier) as he learns of a dying wish from his former socialite client for him to style her final hairdo. He leaves his nursing home and journeys through town to pick up supplies, and along the way, the story becomes one gay man’s path to rediscovering himself. Since Pat Pitsenbarger was a real person, director Todd Stephens has shared how he worked with star Udo Kier to be true to the real Pat while also bringing his own thing to the role as an actor.

Udo Kier gives an absolutely stunning performance in Swan Song. Every moment is intentional, and the audience really connects with this older gentleman who has lost his sense of purpose and excitement. As he reconnects with the communities to which he belongs, the hairdressers, the gays, the creatives, he reignites his passion for individuality and embracing and expressing who he is. I got to chat with director Todd Stephens for an interview with CinemaBlend, and he shared the following on working with Udo to portray the real-life Pat:

It’s challenging to have the actor try to do an exact impersonation of a person. And there’s not even any video that exists of the real Mr. Pat, so that would’ve been hard to do anyway. So I wrote what I wrote in the script and talked to Udo a lot about Pat. The one thing that, to me, had to be right was how he held the cigarettes. Pat held a cigarette a certain way. That’s one thing that I would keep saying to Udo when we were shooting, ‘put your hand back father!’ Udo asked me one day if he could see some pictures of Pat. And you don’t want to make an actor self-conscious, that they’re trying to talk a certain way, and that what they’re going to bring to it gets lost. It’s Udo’s interpretation of Pat, not Udo trying to be Pat. Pat’s family gave me some photos of Pat, and he held his arms this certain way, and he always had his lighter, and I didn’t tell Udo to do this but he integrated that into Pat’s posture and into the performance he created, and I thought that was really cool. But I didn’t want to force it, I just let it happen naturally.

It sounds like there is a delicate balance there. An actor’s job is of course to become someone else, but that’s very different when the person is being created, and the actor has all of this freedom to write their own backstory, add in certain mannerisms they believe the character should have, etc. When portraying a real person, it’s important to be true to them, especially for those who knew them that are going to see the film, so the actor needs to study the backstory that already exists, but still be able to put their own spin on it. Through multiple conversations between Todd Stephens and Udo Kier, they got it just right.

Swan Song also features soap opera icon Linda Evans, who plays Rita, the woman whose dying wish was to be styled by Pat, and Pat’s former protege who is played by Jennifer Coolidge in a rare dramatic role, and Michael Urie as Pat’s gay nephew. All of the performances in the film are stunning and come together to create a comical, heartfelt, and bittersweet journey to rediscovery that provides an insightful look at the generation of gay men that came before us. Swang Song is available on Digital and DVD November 9.

Samantha LaBat

Obsessed with Hamilton and most things Disney. Gets too attached to TV show characters. Loves a good thriller, but will only tolerate so much blood.