PEABODY — The last year has been good for Brian Hayes Currie. The 57-year-old Peabody native and graduate of St. John’s Preparatory School in Danvers has been piling up awards for co-writing the screenplay for “Green Book.” The film is based on a real-life story of co-writer Nick Vallelonga’s father, “Tony Lip,” an Italian American bouncer who drove African-American pianist Don Shirley on a tour through the South in the 1960s. Tony Lip was played by Viggo Mortensen while Mahershala Ali won the best supporting actor Oscar for his portrayal of Shirley. After winning more than a dozen film festival awards last year, Currie hit the jackpot, twice, with a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for best picture and best screenplay. He is in town this week to speak at Salem State University Thursday about writing, acting, and producing Hollywood movies. Currie spoke to reporter Thomas Grillo about who inspired him, how life has changed since he took home the Oscar, and where he keeps it.
Q: How long has it taken you to become an overnight success?
A: I was lucky enough to sell the first seven things I wrote in the ’90s and was able to pay the bills, but they weren’t being made into movies and the studios held onto them where they rotted. But I came back to Peabody in 2004 when my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimers disease. My mother passed away after 10 years and I was running out of money. I moved back to Hollywood and took on the Green Book project.
Q: Did you ever imagine you would be attending the Golden Globes and Academy Awards?
A: I really thought we had something great with Green Book. I felt extremely confident even before I wrote it because of the subject matter. The characters were total opposites and that always works out whether it’s the Pink Panther with Inspector Clouseau or The Odd Couple. The main characters couldn’t have been more different. And once we landed Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, I knew we were going places. At first, it was pie in the sky, but winning the Toronto Film Festival put us over the edge. It was screened at a 1,700-seat theater and when the movie ended everyone jumped to their feet and gave us a five-minute standing ovation. We ended up winning 16 other film festivals.
Q: How has your life changed since winning Oscar gold?
A: Offers are coming in regularly. I don’t have to chase them and people answer the phone when I call, which is nice. Hollywood is a connection business. Obviously, the money is considerably better. The movie was so well-received and people liked it.
Q: Well, not everyone. As you know, Dr. Shirley’s family has spoken out against his portrayal in the film. Carol Shirley Kimble, his niece, said the film is, again, a depiction of a white man’s version of a black man’s life. “To … make the story about a hero of a white man for this incredibly accomplished black man is insulting, at best,” she told a reporter.
A: We wanted to please everyone, but that’s not possible. Dr. Shirley said he trusted Tony Lip implicitly and his son met him many times. We have heard from Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, and Martin Luther King III, who all told us they loved the movie. This is not the definitive story on Dr. Shirley. This is a slice of life, with two guys on a road trip.
Q: Who inspired you growing up on the North Shore?
A: My mother was a classically trained pianist, so she influenced me. At St. John’s Prep there were great teachers like Brothers Linus, Sullivan, and Father Tony Penna. They told me to follow my heart and do what I love.
Q: Where do you keep your Oscars?
A: I will be traveling for two months and I was worried I’d be overseas while someone was breaking into my house and stealing the 24-carat gold Oscars. So I called the Academy and they told me they would keep them in a vault until I get back. That’s where they are today.
Q: Can you tell us about any new movies you’re working on?
A: I will be working with Green Book director Peter Farrelly again on a big budget film, but I can’t say more. As soon as we get going on this major motion picture, I will call you.
Currie will appear at Salem State University on Thursday at Meier Hall on the north campus at 358 Lafayette St., Salem, from 2:30 to 4 p.m. Admission is free.