Bay Area actor makes his name as ‘Backseat’ driver

Palo Alto native Josh Alexander isn’t quite the man of a thousand faces, but you’ll have to forgive him if he suffers identity confusion every now and then.

Not only will he answer to both Josh Alexander (his screen name) or Josh Weinstein (his birth name), but the Berkeley-born actor even had his identity flipped in an indie comedy opening in the Bay Area next week.

Right before filming of “Backseat” began in 2004, director Bruce van Dusen suggested that Alexander and co-star Rob Bogue switch the leading roles of Colton and Ben.

“It was really wild … In the casting process, we were rehearsing and thought it was working well,” says Alexander, who not only stars as Colton, but also wrote and co-produced the film.

“But when we switched, all of a sudden we were playing against type … and the characters came to life and were much more real.”

The movie is a Gen-X “coming of age late” story about two friends who flee New York City on a road trip to Montreal in an attempt to meet legendary actor Donald Sutherland. Its vibe — a combination of offbeat comedy and pseudo-realistic documentary — recalls such guys-on-the-road flicks as “Sideways” and “Swingers.”

The film traveled the festival circuit in 2006 and 2007, winning the Audience Award at the Austin Film Festival. Eventually, it was picked up for theatrical distribution by Truly Indie, a company co-owned by Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban.

Truly Indie — created to help move films from festivals to theaters — proved to be a perfect match for “Backseat,” although Alexander says it was an “incredibly long road” to get the film from conception to production to distribution.

“I wrote the movie in 2001. We raised money, we lost money, raised money again, lost money again,” says Alexander. “We finally shot it in 2004 and it was picked up for theatrical distribution last fall. It’s exciting because less than 1 percent of indie films get theatrical distribution.”

Alexander was born in Berkeley as Josh Weinstein and grew up in Palo Alto, attending Gunn High School and Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo, where he was bar mitzvahed by Rabbi Peter Rubenstein (now head rabbi at Central Synagogue in New York.)

His parents, Harvey and Rhona Weinstein, are both retired professors living in Berkeley, and he also has a twin brother (they look nothing alike, according to an online movie site).

As for his name change, he says his family wasn’t necessarily thrilled about it — but that they understood why he did it.

“It was a difficult decision,” says Alexander. “But when I joined SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), there was already a Josh Weinstein.”

Alexander kept a family connection, though, taking his new surname from his grandfather’s first name.

Even before that, Alexander says he became the “black sheep” of his family for going all the way to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., to pursue a liberal arts education at Vassar College. And then, after earning his bachelor’s in drama, he stayed in New York City to pursue an acting career.

He has worked as an actor on Broadway and off-Broadway, and in more than a dozen films and television shows, including two appearances on “Law & Order” in 2007 and one on “All My Children.”

He says doing theater in New York City was akin to graduate school for acting. As for choosing New York City over Los Angeles to pursue his acting career, Alexander says it’s two different worlds.

“It’s easy to leave the office and become anonymous here [in New York], whereas it [the film/TV industry] is everywhere in Los Angeles,” says Alexander.

Regarding the next step in his career, Alexander describes it as a process of looking to the future while still finishing with the past.

“Ironically, what’s remarkable about indie film is that it’s been a full-time job getting this out,” says Alexander of the marketing and advertising work for “Backseat.”

Still, in his spare time he’s written some TV pilots and co-written a script called “Sandy Falls” with novelist Beverly Coyle.

A period piece at the end of the 1950s, this film will be a much bigger film than “Backseat,” according to Alexander, and is in the process of being packaged.


“Backseat” opens in the Bay Area on April 4 at the Landmark Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley and the Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco.