Not to nitpick, but somebody who worked for Ralph Nader in his Nader’s Raiders consumer advocate heyday and votes for him whenever he runs for president better be making a legitimate segue back to the New York City rental scene. Henriette Mantel, who has been in Hollywood the past 13 years and is about to release “An Unreasonable Man,” an Oscar-short-listed documentary about Mr. Nader and his devastating feud with the Democratic Party, swears that she is. Nothing under the table for her.
“Welcome to my legal sublet,” she says, opening the door to the dim, ground-level apartment on one of Chelsea’s brick-lined streets where she lives with her two cats, Betty and Katrina, the latter rescued from New Orleans. Ms. Mantel is a bit of a cat whisperer; her previous cat, Buck, was toilet-trained, jumped through hoops and fetched like a dog.
"I was sick of people yelling at me about how Ralph ruined the country and lost the election for the Democrats." Photo: Ruth Fremson/The New York Times
“Legal sublet,” she repeats, and admits to being the source of the egg-yolk yellow paint on the living room walls. Strange palette selection for a woman who grew up despising the chickens she fed on her family’s farm in Newfane, Vt. She remembers the day her father displayed the sprinting abilities of a chicken with its head cut off as if it were yesterday. It was hideous.
“I have no emotional attachment to chickens,” she says with the authority of a self-actualizer who has been in treatment with the same Central Park West therapist since a time when sessions cost just $25. “There’s never an end to an artist trying to find out who they really are,” she adds, facetiously.
Ms. Mantel started finding out after college: in lieu of job-hunting, she wrote to three people she admired, Charles M. Schulz, Margaret Mead,and Mr. Nader, and asked if she could be of any use. Mr. Nader was the only one who wrote back. Now, she is returning the favor.
And now Mr. Nader and Al Gore (“An Inconvenient Truth”) are competitors all over again. “Well, the weather certainly is on his side,” she says of Mr. Gore’s Oscar chances.
Unless Hollywood wants her to reprise her role as Alice the maid in a sequel to the sequel of the “Brady Bunch” film, the pinnacle of a peripatetic acting career that kicked into gear with a regular role on “Good Advice,” a CBS sitcom, Ms. Mantel envisions a permanent return to New York City. And more documentaries: “There is nothing I love more than telling a story from reality, shooting for the truth.”
Never the bride, on-screen or in real life, Ms. Mantel, who also has a bizarre auxiliary career ghost-writing speeches for celebrities with chronic diseases, is an unapologetic 52. (“Why have I never married? Nobody asked!”)
She says her acting career, due to extreme stereotyping, has confined her to roles as nurses, maids, lesbians and the occasional oddball mother, “none of which I am or have ever been.”
As a writer, she won an Emmy (hers has worn a lei) for “Win Ben Stein’s Money” and collected an Emmy certificate as a member of the army of writers and producers behind the debut season of “The Osbournes.” A certificate instead of a heavy metal statue? They ran out.
Call it Hollywood’s version of the glass ceiling. Not that she’s complaining. Residual checks kept her in cornflakes and health insurance during the years she and her co-writer/director/producer, Steve Skrovan, a writer/executive producer for “Everybody Loves Raymond,” devoted to writing, researching, and wrapping “An Unreasonable Man” for the 2006 Sundance Film Festival.
In November, the film, the first either of them has made, was short listed with 14 others for the Academy Award; the list shortens to five finalists next week. The New York City opening is Jan. 31, and Mr. Nader will be on hand to parry comments from the audience.
Ms. Mantel and Mr. Skrovan met while both were comedians at New York’s Catch a Rising Star in the 1980s.
Ms. Mantel, in a funk after her closest brother died in a motorcycle accident, experienced a career epiphany: make people laugh. Her collaboration with Mr. Skrovan began as a sitcom pilot based on her job in the late 1970s as manager of the Center for the Study of Responsive Law, Mr. Nader’s hectic Washington office, which she left when her brother died.
The pilot was rejected, but after Mr. Nader’s third-party presidential bid in 2000 recast his reputation from consumer crusader to egomaniacal spoiler of Mr. Gore’s candidacy, they decided to reprise his career in documentary form.
“I thought he was a genius, and I don’t use that word loosely,” she says. “He was proof that yes, you can take on General Motors, and you can fight City Hall. Ralph is always up for a good confrontation with people who disagree with him; Ralph just does what he thinks is right. Part of the reason I did the movie was that I was sick of people yelling at me about how Ralph ruined the country and lost the election for the Democrats. I wanted someone from the other side to change my mind. I was open to someone proving it to me that it was Ralph’s fault that Gore lost.”
Ms. Mantel voted for Mr. Nader in 2000; Mr. Skrovan went with Mr. Gore. “The whole country was mad at Ralph in 2004, but I voted for him again; so did my mother,” she says.
Hence the story arc for Mr. Nader (from an influential consumer advocate to a pariah) and a producer (Alice the maid to documentarian).
Copyright © 2007 The New York Times Company