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'The Prank': Maureen Bharoocha directs Rita Moreno as a leather pant loving, cruel teacher in movie

Bharoocha balances comedy with thriller genre elements in a "timeless" but "unique" clash between students and their teacher

Former segment director on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, Maureen Bharoocha, had an "out-of-body experience" directing legend Rita Moreno in the film The Prank, a comedy-thriller genre mashup movie.

"I had been dying to work with Rita Moreno my whole life and I had another idea for a script that I wanted to send her, but once this came, I was like, it's kind of similar in tone and she's never done anything in this genre, or in this tone," Bharoocha told Yahoo. "So I thought, when I was reading it, this might be the opportunity to get her this script, and get to finally work with her."

"She's still at the top of her game for being in her 90s now. ... That's kind of unbelievable. ... So often actors do want to do things that stretch them and put them outside of their comfort zone, or things they've never done. And for somebody like Rita, who's a legend, to not have done something in this dark comedy space, I thought that there was a good chance that she would at least be interested."

But Moreno had a few requests for Bharoocha after initially reading the script.

"She called me and she's like, 'I'd love to do the movie, but I have two questions. I'd love to wear leather pants and smoke a cigarette,'" Bharoocha recalled. "And I said, you can do that. So after that, it was kind of off to the races."

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 13: (L-R) Actress Rita Moreno and director  Maureen Bharoocha attend the Los Angeles premiere of
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 13: (L-R) Actress Rita Moreno and director Maureen Bharoocha attend the Los Angeles premiere of "The Prank" at The Montalban on March 13, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

The Prank, which premiered at SXSW, was written by Rebecca Flinn-White and Zak White. Moreno plays a "tough as nail" physics teacher, Mrs. Wheeler. Her stern teaching style leads students Ben Palmer (Connor Kalopsis) and Mei Tanner (Ramona Young) to prank Mrs. Wheeler, which involves framing her for murder, using the power of social media.

"When I first read the script, written by [Rebecca Flinn-White] and Zak White, it just kind of really leapt off the page," Bharoocha said about what drew her to this project. "I think that so often you get boring scripts or things [where] nothing happens, but this just felt really unique and special, and also felt like something that's timeless."

"We all have teachers that are tough as nails on us, or you think are really being hard on you, and then later you find out, oh they just believed in me, or they saw something special. Kind of an old school way of teaching."

Bharoocha, who also came up through Upright Citizens Brigade comedy group, works with her actors with the mindset that, "whoever has the best idea wins," and knowing when there's time to play and effectively use improv, versus staying tethered to the script.

With an icon like Moreno, the director highlighted that she absolutely does not have an ego on set.

"She was just down to try things," Bharoocha said. "She was really open minded and she really was just having a lot of fun."

"She's just very normal and very excited about movies. ... She had just come off doing the West Side Story remake and then she came into this small indie thriller, and she was as excited about little gags we were doing on set. She was sitting on apple boxes behind the camera, to do those lines with the teenagers. So she really was a team player. She steps on a set and there is just a level of reverence and awe that she brings anywhere that she goes. So that was really exciting to be a part of."

Connor Kalopsis and Rita Moreno in The Prank (Sneak Peak Entertainment)
Connor Kalopsis and Rita Moreno in The Prank (Sneak Peak Entertainment)

A teen boy and girl can be platonic best friends

When Bharoocha came on as the director of The Prank, there was one change she wanted to make to fill a void we've had historically in movies, particularly for stories centred around teens.

"Originally the script had two boys as the leads and so I thought it would have been really fun to make one a girl, because so often we don't get to see movies with platonic best friends," Bharoocha explained. "So that was one of the major ideas that I had when I read the script, was to change the lead to a girl."

"Some of the producers were like, 'Well then maybe people are going to ask the question, why aren't they together? They must have a crush on each other.' I don't know if it's a gendered thing, they happen to all be men. I had many guy friends in high school and never had a crush on them, and I think it is something that we should see more of, because I think it's so true to life."

HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 13:  (L-R) Actor Connor Kalopsis, director Maureen Bharoocha and actor Ramona Young attend the Los Angeles premiere of
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - MARCH 13: (L-R) Actor Connor Kalopsis, director Maureen Bharoocha and actor Ramona Young attend the Los Angeles premiere of "The Prank" at The Montalban on March 13, 2024 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Michael Tullberg/Getty Images)

Generally speaking, when Bharoocha reads a script, if she can visualize the story then she knows it's a project she should work on.

"I'm such a visual person and I'm also dyslexic, so if something can hold my attention and help me visualize something in my brain, I know that it's good for me," she said.

"That being said, I really do love things that have an edge, whether it is a comedy, or it's a romance, or an adventure. I think something that doesn't feel safe. ... Something that takes risks. It might not be for everybody, but I can make it my own, and it can feel special and niche. ... I'm really, really interested in movies and television that take different genres, different tones, and blend them."

Being a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, the blend of thriller and comedy is something that particularly appealed to Bharoocha about the script for The Prank.

"There is something so fun and devilishly humorous about so many of [Hitchcock's] movies," she said. "So I think that the blend of comedy and genre really lend itself, if you can kind of ground yourself in reality, but then be able to take something that's real, and kind of twist it and make it scary."

"I'm really a big fan of straddling tone, and that might be from, I grew up in an Irish Catholic and an Indian, Pakistani, Muslim house. Two things that don't go together, somehow making them work, and finding that tonal blend, and walking that tightrope, is really exciting, and challenging."

The Prank is now in theatres