Vereen Hopes Work Starts Dialogue on Homelessness, Human Compassion

As Ben Vereen sits in a Sarasota restaurant wearing a cap that reads “Spiritual Enforcer,” intermittently piping pleasant sounds from a wood recorder, he waxes about the promises Baby Boomers made for the future, recounting his hopes from the past to a reporter born well after the Vietnam War. “Taking things back to the ’60s,” he recalls, “we were going to make it a better world for you guys.” He ponders that promise for a moment, then speaks up again. “I’m sorry.”

But whatever ills of humanity his generation failed to expunge, whether by negligence or because such goals were futile to start with, Vereen himself has never given up. Today, he takes a break from preparing a production of Hair—his revival of the musical his the stage at the Venice Theatre in the fall—and discusses his role in Time Out Of Mind, a drama about homelessness set to open the Sarasota Film Festival this evening. “We need a dialogue,” he says. “That’s the first solution.”Vereen in the film plays the role of Dixon, a homeless man hopelessly stuck in a system he fell into after a child died of AIDS. He works alongside Richard Gere, whose passion brought this film to fruition. So can Vereen, a Tony winner, and Gere, an Oscar winner, pull off convincing performances as street vagrants? Sarasota audiences can judge tonight, but on set, the two already proved they could fool much of the public.

“We were panhandling in the streets,” Vereen recalls. “We didn’t go to set in limousines or trailers or cars.” The two, instead, grew out beards and walked the alleys and roadways as transients themselves. For two recognizable faces, it was startling how little attention was paid once the two mocked up in worn-out trousers and coats. “No one noticed,” Vereen says. “No one would even make eye contact.”

While Vereen remains frustrated at the lack of human progress up until now, he remains hopeful this film can spark some change in the compassion with which the homeless are treated. “We as actors are mirrors of society, the one to tell you or show you what you consciously have to correct,” he says. “When I signed up to be an actor, that’s my job. I go through pain as these people I play and say, ‘Here is what it looks like.’ It is for me to portray the emotions, and for society to say ‘I get it’ or ‘I don’t get it.’ ”

Time Out Of Mind screens tonight, April 10, at the Sarasota Opera House at 6:30pm. Vereen and director Oren Moverman will walk the red carpet before the screening.

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