WKU alumnus writes, directs, produces and stars in “Back in the Day”

WKU alumnus Michael Rosenbaum (left) and Morena Boccarin star in “Back in the Day”, set to release January 17, 2014.

Kristina Burton

It’s safe to say that WKU graduates don’t usually go on to be Lex Luthor, get phone calls from Adam Sandler, writing tips from Princess Leia and direct, write, produce and star in their own upcoming film.

This is, however, the case for WKU alumnus Michael Rosenbaum.

Rosenbaum has done a variety of television and film work throughout his career so far, including roles on “Smallville,” “Justice League,” and his upcoming independent film “Back in the Day.”

“I’ve always felt like without WKU I wouldn’t be where I am today,” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum said he grew up in a small town in Indiana, where he was the smallest kid in his high school. A buddy convinced him they should attend WKU together, and Rosenbaum said the experience he got there is what made the difference in his career.

“Experience is confidence—when you have that you can do anything,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s all about being brave, and WKU had everything I needed.”

Rosenbaum said he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do when he started attending WKU, so he tried a variety of things including being a DJ at a local radio station and a sports announcer, as well as auditioning to be a TV anchor for a WKU news program.

“WKU just provided me with so many resources to choose from career-wise,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s hard to find a path, but for me it made the decision easier when I was able to direct plays, be in them, do musicals, and so much more there.”

Dr. Bill Leonard, a current member of the Emeritus Faculty at WKU, was one of Rosenbaum’s professors and mentors during his time at WKU.

During a production called “The Seagull,” Leonard cast Rosenbaum as a middle-aged doctor. When Rosenbaum asked what Leonard was thinking casting him in such a role, Leonard said it was because everything he’d done up to that point had been so easy for him.

“In order for this character to be decent, I told him he was going to have to work at investigating the character and its overall philosophy of life, which I’d never seen him do,” Leonard said. “I told him, ‘You can always go on stage and be Michael Rosenbaum and it always works, but you can’t do that with this role.”

Leonard said that Rosenbaum really worked and did a nice job with the role, and he considers their work on “The Seagull” to be the best relationship as teacher and student he and Rosenbaum had.

A moment that Rosenbaum said really stood out to him from his time at WKU was when Leo Burmester was a guest speaker and five students were given the chance to perform a monologue for him. The five students were supposed to be seniors only, but sophomore Rosenbaum begged until they let him perform a monologue, as well.

“I knew it was an opportunity,” Rosenbaum said. “Someone successful was coming here and I wanted to show off and prove I was good enough and had what it would take to impress him.”

Burmester ended up telling Rosenbaum’s professors that he felt Rosenbaum was the one out of the five performers that was going to go somewhere. Burmester and Rosenbaum later formed a friendship, and Burmester introduced Rosenbaum to agents.

“If I can encourage or give confidence or insight on how to be successful as an actor, I go back to what that did for me,” Rosenbaum said. “It gave me confidence.”

During Rosenbaum’s senior year, he took a class called Acting for the Camera. In the class, his senior project was to do a commercial and sell it on tape. After graduating, Rosenbaum went to New York and auditioned for an agency who asked if he had any experience on camera.

“I remembered what I did for my senior project,” Rosenbaum said. “It was this coffee commercial, and that’s what ended up helping me get my agent.”

After years of doing many different projects, Rosenbaum started wanting to do more writing.

“I remembered enjoying creative writing class, but I stopped because I was so busy acting,” Rosenbaum said. “I had written stories about my childhood and college and all sorts of crazy things.”

Rosenbaum said he handed some of his work to Carrie Fisher, known for her role as Princess Leia in “Star Wars” and also as a best-selling author, and asked if she would tell him if he “sucked completely.”

“She said, ‘Did all these things really happen? This is great. One of the best things you can do is write what you know,’” Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum said as he further evolved, he realized he liked acting, writing, directing, and producing.

“I wrote a fun script about going back home and how everyone gets caught up in life and when you get to go home you get excited,” Rosenbaum said. “As much as you want to stay home, if your calling is somewhere else, you have to do that certain thing. I always come back here to Los Angeles, but there’s a part of me that’s still in the Midwest.”

The script evolved into Rosenbaum’s upcoming film, “Back in the Day,” which he shot in Indiana where he grew up.

“You don’t know what’s going to happen until you just do it,” Rosenbaum said. “That confidence comes from WKU.”

Rosenbaum said the inspiration for “Back in the Day” was the simplicity of people in the Midwest, and the fact that they’re engaging, helpful and want to look out for one another.

“Growing up, we used to jump over fences to friends’ yards, drink out of water hoses, catch fireflies and play whiffle ball,” Rosenbaum said. “I wanted to incorporate that into the movie.”

Rosenbaum said that in the Midwest you can tell an obvious difference between the seasons, people talk to each other and are often family-oriented.

“In Los Angeles you don’t really get that,” Rosenbaum said. “It’s always the same temperature, smoggy, trafficky, and no one really talks to each other. I always miss that sense of home.”

Rosenbaum also said he would like to eventually shoot another movie and WKU was one of the places he thought about shooting at.

Rosenbaum described “Back in the Day” as a movie about Jim Owens, a guy who left his small hometown after high school to become an actor. Years later Owens is just the face of an insurance commercial when he gets invited to his high school reunion. Certain that people he graduated with can’t be happier than him, Owens discovers that people are actually content, have families and are happy. He then realizes he’s missing something and reverts back to his old ways to find out what makes him happy.

“It’s a coming-of-age story where a guy learns from his friends what life is all about,” Rosenbaum said. “When most people hear ‘independent movie’ they think artsy and boring, but that is the opposite of this movie.”

“Back in the Day” stars Rosenbaum, Morena Baccarin (“Homeland”), Nick Swardson (several Sandler films), Sarah Colonna (“Chelsea Lately”), Harland Williams (“Dumb and Dumber”), Isaiah Mustafa (Old Spice commercials), Jay Ferguson (“Mad Men”) and more.

“The movie is an hour and a half of fun,” Rosenbaum said. “You don’t always have to wait for the $50 million movie to come out. Independent movies can be just as funny.”

Rosenbaum said he got a call from Sandler, who said he loved the movie.

“I feel like this is a Sandler meets John Hughes kind of movie, and I feel like it’s already a huge achievement.”

Rosenbaum said he hopes people will look at “Back in the Day” and be wowed with what he did with such a small budget.

Rosenbaum said that he wants all WKU students to know that, although it’s cliché to say, dreams do come true.

“You have to believe in yourself,” Rosenbaum said. “If you don’t believe in yourself, no one else will, but when they see a spark or confidence in someone, they shine.”

Rosenbaum said it’s also very important to love whatever it is you’re doing.

“If you want to be an actor to be famous, you’re in the wrong business,” Rosenbaum said. “If it’s because you love the craft, that’s when you should really go after it and believe in yourself.”

Rosenbaum said you have to be willing to go after your dreams.

“There’s this common misconception that they’re just going to happen—either you’ll get discovered or an opportunity will just fall in your lap,” Rosenbaum said. “All of life’s a stepping stone. If you don’t take a step, you won’t go anywhere.”

Rosenbaum said that WKU has many “steps” and a lot of opportunities for its students.

“Just explore the university and explore within yourself to find what you want to do,” Rosenbaum said. “It was the perfect university for me.”

Rosenbaum said he is extremely thankful for his professors at WKU, such as Leonard, who gave him confidence and thought he had something.

Leonard said he feels that by acting, writing, producing and directing, Rosenbaum is setting up his own area of creativity.

“It’s a wise decision on his part, and it’s certainly an exercise that won’t be a waste of time,” Leonard said. “He’s one of those that’s capable of it.”

Rosenbaum said although he was insecure in high school, he realized he had to be gutsy if he was going to make it far in life.

“You’ve got to take the bull by the horns and run with it,” Rosenbaum said. “You’re not going to die if you fail. You’ll just regret it if you don’t try.”

“Back in the Day” will be available for download on Video on Demand on Jan. 7. It comes out in theatres on Jan. 10 in select cities and nationwide on Jan. 17.

“Back in the Day” trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0Xy1tUmgiv8

Michael Rosenbaum on Twitter: @mrosenbaum711