‘My wife and I made a deal — I’d pick the state, and she’d pick the town,” says Andrew Shue, actor/producer/entrepreneur and a Princeton Township resident. Shue, a native of Maplewood, moved back to his home state four years ago with his wife, Jennifer, and their three young sons. “We had made a list: a) we wanted a place with a lot of history; b) it had to have great public schools; c) it had to have great recreational sports programs; d) it had to have culture; and e) it had to have economic and cultural diversity.” The Shues had been to a conference in Princeton and remembered how much they liked it.
Shue is most well-known as the likeable Billy Campbell, the character he played on “Melrose Place” for six years and for which he still gets stopped in the street by fans. His wife, who is Shue’s former agent, is the owner and head designer of Spruce Princeton Floral Design at 344 Nassau Street. While he says “I see my life in Princeton as personal,” it takes little prodding for him to offer up his favorite hotspots — Blue Point Grill; Tiger Noodles with the kids; and for him and his wife, “our home stadium restaurant is Mediterra.”
The sports analogy makes perfect sense coming from Shue, whose entire family played soccer; Shue himself played professionally for two years with the LA Galaxy (for a time he was the only actor working in Hollywood who was also on a professional sports team). Now soccer is merging once again with Shue’s professional life. He has co-produced a movie called “Gracie,” which is based on his sister, Elisabeth, an Oscar-nominated actress (“Leaving Las Vegas”) and her childhood experience as the only girl playing in South Orange and Maplewood in the town soccer leagues. The story is also inspired by their eldest brother, Will, who died in a 1988 swimming accident at the age of 26.
“Gracie” opens nationwide on Friday, June 1, and will receive a n advance premiere screening in Princeton on Thursday, May 31, at Princeton MarketFair. The film, set in 1978, tells the story of 15-year-old Gracie Bowen (played by Carly Schroeder), the only girl in a family of three brothers. Like the Shues, the Bowen’s family life revolves around soccer. Tragedy unexpectedly strikes when Gracie’s older brother, Johnny, star of the high school varsity soccer team, is killed in a car accident. Amidst the grief Gracie decides to fill her brother’s shoes by petitioning the school board to allow her to play on the team in his place. Though her father (Dermot Mulroney) tries to dissuade her, saying she’s not tough enough, Gracie perseveres, and according to a press statement, “finds reserves of strength she never knew existed, persists in changing everyone’s beliefs in what she is capable of, including her own, and in the process brings together her broken family.”
Shue, who plays a coach in the film; his sister, Elisabeth, who plays Gracie’s mother; and Elisabeth’s husband, Davis Guggenheim, who directed the film, will be in attendance at the May 31 screening. Proceeds from the event will benefit Princeton Young Achievers (PYA), a non-profit after-school program that helps children from low and moderate-income neighborhoods improve their school performance through one-on-one tutoring and homework support. Shue and his wife are friends with Clayton Marsh, a Princeton graduate, Class of 1985, who is now university counsel at Princeton and president of the board of PYA.
‘The reason we’re doing the screening,” says Shue, speaking via cell phone from Washington, D.C., where he is in the middle of a 12-city media tour to promote the movie (he had just finished an interview with AP before we spoke and was due to have a photo shoot with People magazine and more interviews in New York the next day), “is that ‘Gracie’ is an empowerment story, and PYA is all about giving underprivileged young people the attention they deserve so they can be inspired and motivated to reach their goals. It’s really important. The Princeton community is conscientious, it’s a very active community. And there are a number of citizens who don’t have some of the opportunities others have. It’s important for a community as a whole to look out for their own. So there should be no kid in this town — with all of its intellect and passion and commitment — no reason why there’s any kid who’s left on their own to find their way.”
The seed of Shue’s philanthropic drive was planted in childhood. Shue’s parents taught in Nigeria in the 1960s, before Shue was born. Shue’s father, a lawyer and public defender, was, says his son, “kind of an activist. We saved freshman baseball at the Board of Education, he had us marching as little kids to get the 18-year-old vote. He also ran for Congress in 1970 (he lost).” Shue’s mother, Anne, a bank executive, was the first female trustee member of the town council and worked for the United Way. While in high school, Andrew was student council president and created a foundation to help senior citizens. The group still exists today and received a service award from President Reagan in 1987.
The seed of Shue’s determination was soccer. His brother Will captained the Columbia High School team in Maplewood and scored the winning goal in the 1978 state championship. Younger brother John went on to become a Regional All-American while at Harvard. Andrew was recruited by Dartmouth to play soccer, where, in his senior season, the team earned a share of the Ivy League crown in 1988. He graduated in 1989 with a bachelors in history. In an interview with Ivy50.com, he says, “Soccer gave me the grounding for succeeding. It immediately creates a community for you and gives structure to your daily life that allows you to do better. I always did better academically in the fall.”
In a press statement for the film Shue says, “soccer really was our family’s lifeblood. It was the thing that defined us. It was the thing that helped give each of us our confidence. It also gave us a connection to our father, who had played [he captained Harvard College’s team in 1958], and gave us that real sense of a shared history and that connection between the generations. I think soccer is the sport most like life. It is free flowing. You have to work and work and work, and if you are lucky you put the ball in the goal once. Sometimes that is enough to win.”
After graduating from Dartmouth Shue spent a year living in Zimbabwe with his childhood friend, Michael Sanchez, where he taught math to 200 African high school students. He also played soccer as the only white player in the African First Division for the Bulawayo Highlanders, a team his Dartmouth coach, Bobby Clark, had coached prior to coming to Dartmouth.
Once back in America Shue spent a year in New York, setting his sights on acting, and then followed his sister Elisabeth’s path to Hollywood. After landing the role on Melrose Place he had his greatest acting experience playing a pivotal role opposite Matt Damon and Claire Danes in Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Rainmaker,” based on the John Grisham bestseller.
But Shue seemed destined not to only act, not to only play professional soccer. “Being an athlete, you get carried away with your own thing. But you need balance. I think that really pushed me to want to do things in the community, things that would be really fulfilling.”
Shue once said that he always thought of himself more as an entrepreneur than an artist, and he has enjoyed tremendous success in that regard. In 1993 he and Sanchez co-founded DoSomething.org, designed to inspire school-aged kids to get involved in community service. Taking advantage of his high profile as an actor Shue has helped raise tens of millions of dollars for the organization — which now works in 15,000 schools nationwide — and built partnerships with such major companies as MTV, Fox, Blockbuster, and America Online.
Through DoSomething.org Shue found the balance that he had so badly wanted. “Once you get that taste of what it’s like to impact others, it’s really fulfilling. I saw kids who you would never have imagined have that light go on.” He says, for example, there was a young woman, confined to a wheelchair, who saw him on Good Morning America and contacted the organization. She became an intern in DoSomething.org ’s New York office and later became a social activist herself.
‘For me, the fulfilling part is when you’re looking over someone’s shoulder and you know you’re connecting to people, that you are propelling them forward in their life. I guess it’s the teacher in me; I even feel that with my own kids. You can do all these things, start organizations, and so on, but if you’re not connected, it doesn’t matter,” says Shue, adding that his greatest inspiration to give back to the community was his brother Will. “He was an Eagle Scout. He always treated people with respect.”
In 1999 Shue and Sanchez, along with former host of “The View” Meredith Vieira, and a number of other marketing and media executives, co-founded their next venture, ClubMom.com, with a vision “to create an organization that would celebrate and reward moms for all that they do every day.” ClubMom is free; members get savings on and rebates fromparticipating companies such as Olive Garden and Playskool. ClubMom makes money from offering family-oriented companies the opportunity to reach its 2.5-million-strong membership.
In a 2002 interview with People magazine Shue says his own childhood — his parents divorced when he was five — led to his particular interest in moms. “Men are very clear about what they want to be doing,” Shue says in the interview. “I think it makes it tougher on moms, who deep down want to be taking care of their kids but also want to have a life for themselves and pitch in to the family financials.” After his parents split, Shue says “it was hard, so the siblings really focused on each other.”
When Shue’ decided to make a movie to honor his brother Will and tell his sister Elisabeth’s inspirational story on the soccer field, he didn’t shy away from raising the money, which in this case was $10 million, to make an independent film. “The motivation for the way we financed the film was to have control over the story. If you want to say how the movie gets made, you have to raise all the funds. And in order to make sure the movie would come out nationwide, we had to get a distributor before we even made the film,” says Shue. “The only other way to get distributed nationwide is to sell it to a studio, and they would be making the decisions. And this story’s too personal.”
The kingpin of the financing turned out to be Gatorade (not surprising, given Shue’s sports connections and the film’s focus on soccer). “The key,” says Shue, “was to get Gatorade on board as national sponsor. We’re on 9 million packages, and Gatorade also helped finance the production.” (Yes, the soccer players in the filmdrink Gatorade.) PictureHouse, a TimeWarner company, will distribute the film.
In addition to funding from Octagon, an entertainment investment fund based in New York, Shue says the other key partner was the New Jersey Economic Development Authority (EDA) and its New Jersey Film Production Assistance Program, which provides funding for filmmakers who agree to spend a certain amount of money in the state while filming and to film a certain number of days in the state. Working with the EDA’s Michael Conte and Preston Pinckett, Shue was able to secure in 2006 a $1.5 million loan guarantee and a $500,000 EDA direct loan.
Shue was very happy to shoot “Gracie,” which takes place in 1978, in his home state and not in Canada, where many films are made, because costs are lower there than in the United States yet much of the physical terrain, both in the cities and country, are similar. Shue says an 80-member crew shot in and around South Orange. “We just felt it was crucial to film it in New Jersey. It’s been great coming home and spending time in the area.” Scenes were shot at Columbia High School, local pizzerias, other teenage hangouts, and the Church of the Holy Innocents in West Orange. And in the ultimate New Jersey stamp of approval, the Boss himself, Bruce Springsteen, lent a song, “Growin’ Up,” to the soundtrack, which features other 1970s classics from Boston, Blondie, and Aretha Franklin.
The production of “Gracie” involved virtually the whole Shue family. In addition to their acting roles, both Shue and his sister, Elisabeth, are co-producers, along with the director, Elisabeth’s husband, Davis Guggenheim. Guggenheim was also the director and executive producer of the Academy Award-winning feature film documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and producer and director of the Emmy Award-winning HBO series “Deadwood.” Shue’s younger brother, John, who graduated from Harvard Business School, was also involved in the financial end. (On the day the funeral scene was shot, Shue’s mother and father and several relatives joined the family on the set as extras. Two of Shue’s three sons also appear in the scene, as the coach’s sons.)
“The process,” says Shue, “was hard and tumultuous, it was difficult, and so many times we wondered if we would make it. But that’s very normal in making an independent film. We were closing deals right up until the time we were ready to film, and to finalize the marketing, we’re still closing deals, and the movie’s coming out in two weeks.”
Shue says he treaded many parallel paths to keep everyone happy. But, he says, “the end product is better than I could have imagined.” After preview screenings he says that seeing the reactions of teenage girls has touched him most. “Teenage girls have been completely moved by this movie. The girls say, ‘This is my movie, this is the movie that speaks to me.’ On the surface they’ll talk about the plot but then they say, ‘I’ve watched her (Gracie) struggle, I know that struggle, deep down.’”
I ask Shue, who just celebrated his 40th birthday, what’s next? “41,” he says with a laugh, but then adds, “I’m really going to be working on CafeMom, the largest online social network for moms; it’s like a MySpace for moms.” CafeMom, which is gaining an average of 3,000 new members daily, is an affiliate website to ClubMom. In between meetings that take him all over the country and time spent in his Nassau Street office, Shue will also be doing what he loves most — coaching soccer for his sons.
“Gracie” benefit screening, Thursday, May 31, 7 p.m., United Artist Movies at MarketFair, 3521 Route 1 South. Proceeds from the screening of “Gracie,” produced by actor/entrepreneur and Princeton Township resident Andrew Shue, benefit Princeton Young Achievers, an after-school program that helps children from low and moderate-income neighborhoods improve their school performance. $50. E-mail name and ticket request (five ticket limit per family) to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.princetonyoungachievers.org.