TOM HULCE is being badly upstaged. Billy, the culprit, has liquid brown eyes, a yearning expression, and a way of planting herself in front of the star just as he's about to get off a good line. Only a dog like Billy could upstage Mr. Hulce, the actor who compels watching as fireworks do, with a sparkling brilliance that astonishes. In films, we remember his dazzling performance in ``Amadeus'' as the frisky genius Mozart and his larky portrayal in ``Parenthood'' as the desperate black-sheep son.
Now, on stage, he seems poised for a hit as the star of ``A Few Good Men,'' the military thriller which opens tomorrow on Broadway. Mr. Hulce plays the brash, funny, fast-talking Navy lawyer who says anchors away to his playboy attitude when finds himself defending two Marines in a murder trial at the US Naval Base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
We are backstage in Hulce's dressing room at the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater, where ``A Few Good Men'' had its world premi`ere before moving on to Broadway.
Hulce, sitting cross-legged on a couch, eats a green apple and talks about his role. (Crunch) ``This guy [Lt. j.g. Daniel A. Kaffee] thinks so fast - he thinks so much faster than me that that's the most exhausting part of it.''
Asked if that isn't unnerving, like having someone else walking around in your body, Hulce laughs. ``Well, I'm guessing that we all have the capacity [to go beyond ourselves]. It's just that we don't somehow tap into it. It's just that, you know, mothers have the strength to lift cars if their children are under them. And people have pretty amazing psychic abilities when called on.''
What lured him about the role, Hulce says, is ``the smartness of the writing, that [the character is] as funny as he is ..., that it deals with big issues, and that it would be a big old workout.''
``A Few Good Men,'' by Aaron Sorkin, deals on the surface with a murder mystery, which unfolds before our eyes. But in a deeper way it also deals with an obsession with military codes and discipline gone berserk, resulting in the sort of human tragedy we have seen in ``The Caine Mutiny'' and ``Apocalypse Now.''
At first glance, three such disparate roles as that of Mozart in ``Amadeus'' the gambler son in ``Parenthood,'' and the trial lawyer with the one-liners in ``A Few Good Men'' seem unrelated. But there is a thread which unites many of Hulce's performances: the jet-propelled energy he brings to his roles; the unpredictable, risky characterizations that succeed; the flippant rebel quality that gives a sharp edge to the roles.
It is a surprise, then, to find that offstage Hulce is so low-key, that the bubbling energy of his performances is turned on simmer. His wayward hair is a jumble of leaf-brown waves that seem to have been combed with a small rake, and it falls boyishly over blue-gray eyes. He is just under medium height, a compact man wearing rumpled chinos, a long gray shirt, cream-colored socks, and high-top working boots. At times he looks like an ordinary guy who's been putting in a lot of overtime, but when the subject intrigues him, he lights up, and you see the near-handsome face familiar from screen roles.
Hulce and company have been rehearsing for five hours each day, in addition to the performances themselves. ``It's exhausting; it's exhausting,'' he say with a sigh. ``It's as much about endurance as it's about all the rest of it. That's where your technique comes in. Also there's been a lot of rewriting going on to simplify the complex play.''
Hulce says he hasn't been able to do the kind of preparation for the role he usually does - like a crash course in piano for the title role in ``Amadeus,'' the performance that won him an Oscar nomination and rocketed him to fame. That's because it was slam-bang, no time off between his last part and this one. He had been in Georgia playing Mickey Schwerner in an NBC film about the three civil rights workers (Schwerner, Chaney, and Goodman) who were murdered in Mississipi.
Hulce grew up on a farm just outside of Anne Arbor, Mich., as the youngest of four children. As a kid he ``went out and cleaned the stalls in the cold and dark and then walked a quarter-mile to the corner to get the bus to school.'' When he hit his teens, all that changed.
``I totally lost interest in learning,'' he says. ``I knew that I wanted to be an actor and learned how to do that....
THERE are still some roles he'd like to sink his teeth into. He says he and Michael Kahn, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Theater here in Washington, ``still have our periodic Hamlet discussion.'' He adds that he's really excited about a role later in a movie to be shot in Russia about the end of Stalin's reign.
``It's the best part of this kind of work, getting to climb into other parts of the world and [getting] to live out other people in other times. And then there's the part of me that's just yearning to get back to Seattle [he has bought a house there] that's just trying to get home.''
But if everything goes the way he's hoping, if ``A Few Good Men'' is a hit and other things fall into place, ``I won't have a vacation till a year from Christmas.''