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From stage to screen: ABQ native Jay Roach turns ‘Coastal Elites’ into an HBO special

New Mexico native Jay Roach’s latest project is HBO’s “Coastal Elites.” (Chris Pizzello/Associated Press)

Take the time to step back and figure out a different way to execute a project.

This is the path Jay Roach took as he directed “Coastal Elites.”

The special presentation from HBO marks the first project for the cable network to be filmed entirely under quarantine.

The Emmy- and Golden Globe-winning director was in the driver’s seat.

“It was unique and challenging at times,” the New Mexico native says during a recent interview. “(It) had it’s own beneficial aspects to it. We needed a tiny footprint, and you were involved in an intimate setting. It became very fulfilling in a way. It was focused on the actors and the script.”

“Coastal Elites” will premiere at 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 12.

Originally planned as a performance at the Public Theater in New York City, “Coastal Elites” took the leap from the stage to the screen at the beginning of the pandemic and evolved in real time as the unprecedented events of 2020 unfolded. Filming took place earlier this summer under quarantine guidelines.

It spotlights five distinct and impassioned points of view across the United States. When the shutdown forces these characters to cope in isolation, they react with frustration, hilarity and introspection.

Each character breaks down and breaks through as they grapple with politics, culture and the pandemic.

Roach says being able to work with a high-caliber cast added to the magic of the script.

Bette Midler plays Miriam Nessler, a longtime teacher in New York City who loves her students, The New York Times and the theater, and who finds herself in police custody. (Courtesy of HBO)

Bette Midler plays Miriam Nessler, a longtime teacher in New York City who loves her students, The New York Times and the theater, and who finds herself in police custody.

Kaitlyn Dever plays Sharynn Tarrows, a young nurse from Wyoming who flies to New York to volunteer at a hospital at the height of the area’s COVID-19 crisis.

Dan Levy portrays Mark Hesterman, who is a young actor in West Hollywood videoconferencing with his therapist at a moment of peak career and personal stress. (Courtesy of HBO)

Dan Levy portrays Mark Hesterman, a young actor in West Hollywood videoconferencing with his therapist at a moment of peak career and personal stress.

Sarah Paulson plays Clarissa Montgomery, a YouTube personality filming the 28th episode of her “Mindful Meditations,” hoping to soothe, inspire and heal her followers.

Issa Rae portrays Callie Josephson, a well-connected philanthropist whose prep school network leads her to the highest levels of government. (Courtesy of HBO)

Issa Rae portrays Callie Josephson, a well-connected philanthropist whose prep school network leads her to the highest levels of government.

“Coastal Elites” was written by Paul Rudnick.

Roach, Rudnick, Jeffrey Seller, Flody Suarez, Scott Chaloff and Michelle Graham are executive producers.

“We always thought of Bette Midler for Miriam,” Roach says. “We didn’t know we would get everything we wanted and top-flight actors.”

Kaitlyn Dever plays Sharynn Tarrows, a young nurse from Wyoming who flies to New York to volunteer at a hospital at the height of the area’s COVID-19 crisis. (Courtesy of HBO)

Roach says it was Rudnick’s wit and intelligence in writing that captured each person’s passion and vulnerability.

“I found it all very cathartic,” Roach says of the writing. “The connection and depths that you have with the actors are very specific.”

Roach and crew spent a month to six weeks in production.

Over the course of that time, there were numerous talks on how to keep everyone safe.

“A lot of the talks were how many people can be outside while we were filming,” he says. “We put together every single situation.”

Luckily, the only set that needed to be built was where Midler would film her scene. There were never more than five people on set, and they were never in the same room.

Roach says that there were plenty of rehearsals and that Rudnick was rewriting the script to include current events.

In fact, Rudnick wrote Dever’s part in “Coastal Elites” as the Black Live Matter movement and George Floyd’s murder were at the forefront of the news cycle.

“Those were referenced, and each actor gave us so much to work on,” Roach says. “Each one had so much to offer, and the actors teach you something. Paul is very open to that.”

Roach connected with each character on some level.

Sarah Paulson plays Clarissa Montgomery, a YouTube personality filming the 28th episode of her “Mindful Meditations,” hoping to soothe, inspire and heal her followers. (Courtesy of HBO)

But it was Paulson’s character he understood the most because it her understanding of different points of view.

Roach was born and raised in Albuquerque. His father worked at Sandia National Laboratories.

“A lot of people in my family came from Texas,” he says. “I grew up trying to understand that (conservative) point of view. Sarah Paulson had to navigate that, and I tend to try and find that commonality. (It’s) universal, and we’re all trying to figure out what we have in common. How, then, shall we co-exist and accomplish things? Through government. Through community. Through art.”

Roach is no stranger to directing projects with a political flair. He’s helmed the Emmy-winning “Game Change,” as well as “Bombshell,” “Trumbo” and “All the Way,” a biopic on President Lyndon B. Johnson.

He knows that some of “Coastal Elites” will be controversial.

“You’re eavesdropping on people who aren’t managing what they are saying,” he says. “That’s one of the great things. Paul channeled these characters. (They) are baring their souls in a way that would happen in a Zoom therapy session. It’s revealing, and an audience can empathize.”

The Eldorado High School alum has forged a successful career as a director.

Widely known for the cult classic spy action movie “Austin Powers,” Roach has directed and produced box-office hits ranging from “Meet the Parents” to “Borat.”

In fact, his films have grossed nearly $1.1 billion.

Roach returns as often as he can to Albuquerque.

His parents recently moved, but he still has some buddies in the area.

“I miss it,” he says. “It’s my blood. I didn’t leave there until I was 18. I’m still connected to the land.”

During his college years, he would come back to New Mexico in the summers to work.

“I used to deliver mattresses for SleepWorld,” he says. “All over the northern part of the state. From Gallup to Grants and Los Alamos.”

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