Speaking up for the 'middle-class actor'

Hollywood Stories

Joe Pantoliano has learned the art of gratitude. "I always thought I wanted to be a movie star," he says, as he looks forward to the opening of his latest film, "The Taxman," which starts in limited release today.

But that's not the way his two-decades-plus in the business have turned out. "I'm not [a star]," he says simply, "but I've become a good actor along the way."

His ability to endure as what he calls a "middle-class actor" or "the third guy through the door in a major feature film" has made him as grateful for the journey as the destination. "I've seen movie stars come and go, but I'm still here."

The man known as Cypher to fans of spring's sci-fi hit "The Matrix" (and just released on VHS and DVD) reveals his secret: Learn to love the process of acting. As an example, he points to his current project, in which he both stars and produces.

"The Taxman," which details the triumph of a lone tax investigator determined to make his life meaningful, was made in 33 days for under $2 million. Mr. Pantoliano says he was paid scale ($50,000), which amounted to donating his regular salary of close to half a million dollars.

Nobody on the film had a trailer or even a dressing room. Lights? When sunset approached, the shooting stopped. "We got used to the idea that you didn't need all [those] fancy, shmancy creature comforts," he says.

Beyond that, because of time limitations, everyone pitched in. "It's a team effort, like helping your wife clean the bedroom and fold the laundry," Pantoliano says. "You don't say, 'I'll take the towels,' you just grab stuff." At the end of the day, he adds, "I don't care who's responsible. I care about the end result being good."

"Joe's an extraordinary actor," offers director Avi Nesher, who says Pantoliano's modesty about his spot in the Hollywood universe is unwarranted. "He has one of the finest emotional ranges of any actor alive.... He reminds me of a young Gene Hackman."

Born and raised in Hoboken, the New Jersey native attributes his appreciation for work to his stepfather. "He raised me to believe that if you put your mind to something, you get [the job] done," he says.

His first appearance as the stuttering Billy Bibbit in a touring production of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" began a career that has lasted more than 20 years, including roles in more than 60 films and numerous roles on television.

As with any actor who has been around such a big Hollywood block, the siren call of more creative control inevitably beckoned. Pantoliano regards his foray into producing with "The Taxman" as an important step toward answering that call. The ultimate goal of directing is only one project away.

"I've stayed away from directing [until now] because it's hard work," he explains. "Just Like Mona," a joint project with his writing partner, will be his first step into what he acknowledges are the vastly more complicated responsibilities of being a director.

"As an actor, you can blame the script or the director or even the distributor," he says. As a director, he adds, "There's nobody to blame. It's just you up there, and it's a very vulnerable position."

Hollywood places such an emphasis on profitability that many directors define their success by a film's earnings.

He concedes that directors must pay attention to the bottom line, but looking at that alone is "one of the curses of this industry; people are just interested in the end result.... They just all want to get rich," he says.

Beyond that, he says, the emphasis on money sets a vicious cycle in motion.

Studios demand big stars to pull in ticket buyers to cover the big budgets, and the top names require sky-high salaries.

"The money for those salaries comes out of the budget for the middle-range actors, like me," he says. That, in turn, reduces the overall quality of films when nobody but the stars is being paid well, he adds.

Pantoliano, who garnered a certain cult status with his role as Cosmo Renfro in "The Fugitive" and "U.S. Marshals," says that staying creative requires wrestling with your deepest fears.

"When you're frightened, you're alive," he says. Some people withdraw from what scares them, he says, but the fear of failure is what has motivated him.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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