By Gail McCarthy
The town of Rockport, which can count its murders on one hand, provides the backdrop for "The Last Harbor," a thriller filmed in town last year, featuring a face known in police-like roles, Wade Williams.
But Williams, son of a preacher and a teacher, came to the screen after years of musical theater. He was on the road performing in the award-winning Broadway musical "Ragtime" in Los Angeles when he made the jump to television and movies.
"The Last Harbor" will make its world premiere at the 26th Boston Film Festival on Monday, Sept. 20, at 9:15 p.m. at Stuart Street Playhouse. Tickets for films and parties are now available online for the festival that runs Sept. 17 to 23.
The $5 million film was shot primarily in Rockport, using the historic Emerson Inn by the Sea and the Rockport Police station as locations. The film was also shot at locations in Gloucester and Boston.
In addition to Williams, the film stars Samaire Armstrong, Stephanie Lemelin, Tracey Needham and Ryan Sypek.
The mystery features Boston police Detective Ian Martin, who, after botching another arrest, is given one last chance. The stressed-out detective, known for his affinity to drink, is reassigned to his tranquil hometown, Salem Harbor, where he will face inner turmoil as the story unfolds.
Scouts for this film, like many others over the decades, became enchanted with the scenery that the seaside town of 7,000 has to offer. Coupled with the commonwealth's tax incentives for filmmakers, the Rockport location became a reality.
Robin Dawson, executive director of the Boston Film Festival, said Rockport aesthetically has one of the most appealing looks for both independent and major studio filmmakers.
"Historically, it has been that way, when they are scouting locations, Rockport comes back as a top contender," said Dawson, a Rockport resident. "It almost looks like a Hollywood backdrop. You always get comments like 'Is this real? Do people really live here?'''
"The Last Harbor" was among the roughly 50 films chosen for the Boston festival out of thousands of entries, Dawson said. The film is described as a murder mystery that, at its core, is a story of "family, redemption and dependence."
Williams, who was born in Atlanta and moved to Tulsa, Ariz., at the age of 13, described Rockport as something out of a "picture postcard."
"The backdrop is so gorgeous," said Williams who enjoyed the chowder, lobster and Gloucester's Good Harbor Beach, adjacent to where he stayed.
"We were there just as the trees had changed and we got a lot of the color," he recalled. "Then the leaves fell off and it was dreary and dark. But we had the seascapes with the fishing village. It was just a good shoot."
Peter Epstein, the director and writer based in Manhattan, said the location was appropriate for the story.
"It's a very beautiful area and I was instantly drawn to it, especially that time of year. The landscape and weather is very dramatic. There is the wind and the seas. It has a lot of texture and is interesting to look at — moody and atmospheric," he said.
The film's initial working title of "Hatteras Hotel" was changed in the final production phase.
"It was an interesting name, but it didn't tell the story," said Epstein. "The story focuses more closely on the main character, and suggests somebody who has reached the end of his rope, perhaps found a haven. The new name has more storytelling power and lot of the action takes place on the coast."
As the temperatures dropped during filming last fall, Williams began to wear two layers of long-john silks. But he, and others, came down with what they called the "Hatteras hack."
But Williams said he learned much about stamina on stage. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Tulsa and his graduate acting degree at Rutgers University because he wanted to be close to New York City.
He worked at Diamond Jim's piano bar, where he sang musical theater tunes and served drinks as a student. He got his start in summer stock and regional theater, doing everything from "The Fantasticks" to "Glass Menagerie."
"I really loved musical theater and after grad school, I went to New York," he said in a telephone interview. "In musicals, a pretty voice is as good as a pretty face, and is only good for about 16 measures.
"If you don't have anything going on, people will stop watching," he said. "But if you're a good actor and know how to tell a story, people will watch the whole show and hopefully be moved by what you did."
His early jobs included work with Joseph Papp's Public Theater and its summer home at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. He performed in "The Taming of the Shrew" with Morgan Freeman and "Richard III" with Denzel Washington.
"Then I got into 'Les Miserables,' and I was an understudy for 14 different people. That was my Broadway debut," Williams said. He also performed the role of Sky in "Guys and Dolls" on Broadway for a couple of months before he went on tour with "Kiss of the Spider Woman," a job he took to pay off student loans.
After performing avant-garde theater in Denmark, he returned to the United States where he took the job in "Ragtime." But after successful auditions for film and television, he settled in Los Angeles in 1998. His film and TV roles include "Jarhead," "Collateral" and "Erin Brockovich," but he is well known for his role in "Prison Break."
He just finished a job with a new television show "The Whole Truth" in which he plays a detective. He also played the role of American poet and activist Allen Ginsberg in "The Chicago 8," which just won best feature film at Peachtree Village International Film Festival.
"There's no singing and dancing in that," said Williams of the film about the Vietnam anti-war movement.
Epstein, who will attend the Monday screening, has worked in the film industry for more than a decade.
"The actors and crew said they felt the warmest possible reception on Cape Ann," he said.
Williams would like to return to the area but in the summer when he can enjoy the warm weather and witness the "greasy pole" event, which he heard so much about, during the annual St. Peter's Fiesta each June.
"I had a great time there," said Williams, whose father now lives in the Boston area where he is a Russian Orthodox monk living in a monastery.
Dawson noted another Boston tie related to another actor in the film, Stephanie Lemelin, who is the daughter of Reggie Lemelin, the former Bruins goalie.
The festival also features films receiving some early Oscar buzz, like "Conviction" starring Sam Rockwell, Juliette Lewis and Hilary Swank.
Tickets to film and parties are available on line at www.bostonfilmfestival.org.
Gail McCarthy can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3455, or at email@example.com.