The Soloist: Healing with Music
May 5, 2009 by The Dove
While the film The Soloist brings attention to homelessness and mental illness, it also highlights the importance and impact music can have on our lives. In this exclusive interview, L.A. Times journalist Steve Lopez tells how his friendship with Nathaniel Ayers changed his life, how the film made him more self-aware and how music impacts him.
TGD: What do you believe firstly your LA Times article, then your book and finally The Soloist film has done for raising awareness of the homeless?
SL: I think the story raises awareness about who those people are out there and how they ended up on the pavement. We’d like to think, for our own benefit, that they all made a decision to be out there, or simply couldn’t pay the rent because they’re laggards. In fact many of them, including veterans, were hit with severe illness that is both terrifying and debilitating. On the west side of L.A. does it make sense to anyone that physically and mentally wounded vets sleep in Palisades Park and on the street just a few miles from abandoned VA barracks? One thing I’ve learned is that we know how to help people but haven’t made a big enough commitment to the right programs. On the west side (of Los Angeles), programs like Step Up on Second (www.stepuponsecond.org) and the Ocean Park Community Center (www.opcc.org) do both the humane thing and the cost-effective thing, helping people rebuild their lives rather than churning endlessly through courts, hospitals and jails. Anyone who wants to make a difference should check out their websites and either donate, volunteer, or learn what they’re about and spread the word.
TGD: Describe what it was like having an actor portray you? Did this experience make you more self-aware? If so, how?
SL: Its always a strange out-of-body experience, having seen the film several times. Did Robert Downey Jr. just say he was Steve Lopez? I guess he did. I joked with Downey that he doesn’t look like a Lopez. The joke of course is that I don’t, either. My grandparents are from Italy and Spain, and yet I’ve taken complaints from readers and journalists who are disappointed that I didn’t insist on being played by a Latino. Each time I see the movie I catch some new and different element of Downey’s portrayal. He accomplished something amazing: he created an original character, yet captured elements of my personality and drive and the essence of my journey with Mr. Ayers.
TGD: In the film, you were instrumental in adding richness to Nathaniel’s life. In what ways did Nathaniel add richness to yours?
SL: I learned patience, hope, strength, and passion. Few people are lucky enough to find their true ambition and to live for it. Mr. Ayers fights through his troubles each day and ends up in the embrace of music, which transports him to a beautiful, safe, sane world. In letting me know him well enough to tell his story, he has shined a spotlight on our public policy failures, he has helped humanize thousands like him and he has helped destigmatize mental illness. I’ve also learned to appreciate classical music and like Mr. Ayers, I now have friends in the L.A. Philharmonic.
TGD: Music changed Nathaniel’s life. How has music changed you?
SL: Few things in life are just inherently good, uplifting and therapeutic. Music is all of that. I envy Mr. Ayers’ talent and wish I could play something, but despite years of lessons on guitar, I’m a bit of a hack once I get beyond songs like Rainbow Connection and Eensy Weensy Spider. Fortunately, because she’s only five, my daughter thinks I can actually play the instrument.