Sunday, May 12, 2002
New York Chris O'Donnell can't get Arthur Miller out of his head.
The 31-year-old actor has been lying awake at night, stressing over his role as the title character in Miller's "The Man Who Had All the Luck," being revived on Broadway.
"The last couple days it's been driving me a little bit crazy," O'Donnell says. "These lines just keep going through my head.
"I'll wake up in the middle of the night, worried about something. Then I realize I've been thinking about mink," he says with a laugh. O'Donnell's character, a part-time animal farmer, spends much of the play's third act attempting to rescue his brood of mink from death by food poisoning.
"Even walking around town, if someone says something that sounds like a line from the play, I kind of finish it. It's bizarre."
O'Donnell's photographic memory is partly to blame: He still remembers Shakespearean monologues he had to learn in high school. And performing the script nightly, a novel experience for the film actor, has kept his mind preoccupied.
But stage butterflies are another ï¿½ perhaps the most important ï¿½ culprit.
"The Man Who Had All the Luck," on view through June 30 at the American Airlines Theater, is O'Donnell's first professional play. The only other time he appeared on stage was in eighth grade, as a chorus boy in a school production of "Give My Regards to Broadway."
He's understandably uneasy to be making his debut in a play that will be closely scrutinized, if only because of its pedigree.
"I mean, it's an Arthur Miller play," O'Donnell says.
"The first performance we did ... my hands were shaking. I have this line where I say, 'Look at my hands, they're shaking.' And I actually had to bring my hand down because I was worried people would think I was overdoing it."
O'Donnell plays David Beeves, a prosperous but troubled man who can't convince himself that he deserves his good fortune. The play, a flop on Broadway in its original incarnation in 1944, was inspired by a successful friend of Miller's who killed himself.
O'Donnell first appeared in the play last summer, when it played at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in Massachusetts. Many of the same cast and crew from that production are also involved in the Broadway version.
According to Scott Ellis, the play's director, O'Donnell has proved himself a capable stage actor. "His instincts were always very good," Ellis says. "And through this process, he's learned a technique ï¿½ the questions you ask yourself as you approach this character."
Ellis cast O'Donnell in the role after seeing him audition last year.
"When he was submitted for the role by his agent, I thought it was great, but I said I can't offer it to him automatically ï¿½ he has to come in to audition. I didn't expect him to come," the director says.
And O'Donnell almost didn't do the audition. Nerves again.
"I was intimidated about doing a play," O'Donnell says. "But I read it, and it was really good, and I realized I'd be a complete wimp if I didn't go out and try to get this part."
As rehearsals began, Ellis gave O'Donnell a copy of Uta Hagen's "Respect for Acting," a theater classic. He also encouraged O'Donnell to view Miller's play as a cohesive whole ï¿½ not as a string of individual scenes, as actors often approach movies.
Changing his focus
Jitters aside, O'Donnell says the experience of acting in a play has been a welcome change from the big-budget action films ï¿½ "Batman and Robin," the mountaineering thriller "Vertical Limit" ï¿½ that have characterized his recent career.
The lengthy shoot for last year's "Vertical Limit" inspired a career re-evaluation. "It was an awesome experience. But it was eight months of filming and it was really technical stuff." He spent a month learning to climb mountains and performed his own stunts in the movie.
"Yeah, I felt prepared for the Eco-Challenge, but I'm an actor. And I just wanted to get back to that a little bit," he says with a laugh. "Although the Eco-Challenge would have been cool, too."
O'Donnell hints that his portrayal of Beeves in "The Man Who Had All the Luck" marks the beginning of a move to do more serious roles.
"As you get older and you're in the business longer, your tastes change. It's like anything ï¿½ you start drinking wine, collecting art. And the really great experiences I've had on movies are where I've had characters that I've really enjoyed getting into."
O'Donnell was among the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood in the mid-1990s, when he played Robin in two "Batman" movies. His involvement in a project was, by itself, enough to get a film produced.
However, by his own design, his spotlight has faded slightly. He never felt comfortable as an "It" boy, choosing marriage and children (he has two toddlers by his wife, Caroline) over swanky parties and nightclubs.
His "regular guy" aura remains a large part of his appeal. Several hours before curtain, he wears khakis, a plain blue sweat shirt and a baseball cap. He has an easy way with conversation and speaks so quickly that it is difficult to imagine he is concealing much.
"Maybe I should have, at some point, been more mysterious or less revealing of myself, but it's just kind of the way I am," he says, shrugging. "Maybe I'm too accessible sometimes."
Minutes later, he picks up his cell phone and calls his wife to make plans for the day, not at all concerned about who else is in the room to hear.