Jon Favreau always loved movies. Now, he makes them. A product of the city’s public schools and parents who taught in them, Favreau attended PS 220 in Forest Hills and JHS 157 in Rego Park, both in Queens, and the Bronx HS of Science. As a youth, he bonded with his father over Broadway shows and films: “He would take me downtown to the old revival houses, especially in Greenwich Village, before there were VCRs and you could rent movies.” Favreau first performed in elementary school. “You got a taste of the applause and the crowd. It was fun and I liked it, but it was never something I thought I could do professionally,” he says. He gravitated to science after his junior high biology teacher showed him that science could tell a story. “As humans, we respond to stories,” Favreau says. “If a teacher can paint a picture for you and bring emotion to it through their passion, it draws you in.” Favreau’s father, Charles, taught special needs children and had “tremendous passion” for teaching so “I knew I should seek that out” in a career, he says. “If you love what you do, that’s something you should expect from life; it’s not something you should compromise on.” Everybody’s passion is different, and for Favreau — the director of “Elf,” “Iron Man,” “The Jungle Book” and next year’s “The Lion King” — that passion became “storytelling, filmmaking and acting.”
I was in plays starting at PS 220 in the 1970s. At first, it wasn’t that glorious. We did “Finian’s Rainbow” and “Li’l Abner.” In junior high, it was “Guys and Dolls.” That was my mother’s favorite play. She had just passed away so it was very special that they had chosen to do it and I got to be in it.
I was curious about science in junior high and my curiosities were reinforced by the passions of my science teachers, so I wanted to take the test for Bronx Science.
Those four years, 1980–84, are indelible to me. It was a very different experience from my neighborhood schools: I traveled by bus and train and met people from all over the city. Only now can I appreciate what a great life experience it was. I got a good working knowledge of many different cultures and as I travel or meet people throughout my life, I can draw upon that.
We had earned our way into Bronx Science and considered it a privilege to be there. It was probably my most concentrated academic experience, more so than college. I had a heavy course load and for electives, I took classes like medical illustration and playwriting. I had a wonderful, rounded education and a lot of what I have been able to accomplish has been predicated on the skills I gained and experiences I had at Bronx Science.
Mr. Feinberg, my playwriting teacher, had a passion for theater. He talked about a Broadway production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” and how great it was. So later, when I was at Queens College and they were putting up that show, I auditioned and I got a role.
There is form and skill to playwriting; it’s not just being creative. My playwriting class at Bronx Science was one of my first forays into structured material. Mr. Feinberg was definitely one of the people who nudged me in the direction I ended up going. The right influence at the right time can change your trajectory.
I always felt teachers were our partners, even at PS 220. The reward of a teacher’s enthusiasm and approval, especially when you’re young, is a big deal. You’re forming your opinion of yourself and your identity based on the acceptance you’re getting. When your teachers encourage you for your creativity, it makes you more confident next time.
Traveling cross country during college, I stopped in Chicago and saw comedy and improv. I was 22 years old and I decided to give it a shot. It was an exciting time there with really talented people like Chris Farley and Mike Myers. It was intimidating, but my experience onstage in school had always been fun with no pressure so I just enjoyed it. Four years later, I got a part in the movie “Rudy,” moved to Los Angeles and began writing.
Technology is rapidly changing the film industry. As an actor and director, you have to be a quick study and become an expert on different subjects as you tell stories. I often find myself drawing upon information I know from my public school experience, especially in the sciences. Understanding the science behind the technical innovations allows me to engage and collaborate with the computer programmers, the hardware designers, the specialists in all fields, when I’m making a film. I feel very grateful for how well I was prepared.
It’s interesting how things I learned in school that seemed unrelated have come together in a strange and unique way and contributed to my success.