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'Trumbo's' Dean O'Gorman plays Kirk Douglas and earns praise from the legend

'Trumbo's' Dean O'Gorman plays Kirk Douglas and earns praise from the legend
Dean O'Gorman stars as Kirk Douglas in "Trumbo." (Hilary Bronwyn Gail / Bleecker Street)

When Dean O'Gorman was cast in the plum role of Kirk Douglas in "Trumbo," the new biopic about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, he decided to ask the legendary actor if he wouldn't mind offering up a few tips on how to play him.

"I wrote him a letter," said O'Gorman, 38, by phone from his home outside of Auckland, New Zealand.

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And Douglas, now 98, wrote him back. "He was very nice," said O'Gorman, best known as the dwarf Fili in Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit" trilogy. "He said, 'Don't worry about being me too much, just play the role, play the scene." I thought it was a great answer. I think it was Kirk Douglas' way of saying no one but me is me."

When Douglas enters Trumbo's (Bryan Cranston) life in the late 1950s, the screenwriter had long been forced to churn out screenplays under various pseudonyms. As a young actor and producer, Douglas hired the writer to adapt Howard Fast's novel "Spartacus," the 1960 epic he was producing and starring in as a Roman slave who leads a revolt. Despite threats that publicly using Trumbo would ruin his career, Douglas insisted he get screen credit on the film directed by Stanley Kubrick, helping to break the lengthy blacklist against Trumbo and other writers.

Douglas, said O'Gorman, has admitted that had he been older at the time he may have been more hesitant to use Trumbo's real name in the credits. But being so young, O'Gorman added, he was a little more headstrong. "One thing he has said is that he hated being told what to do. He was really inspired by the injustice of it. He could have lost a lot, and he was really nervous about the outcome of it."

O'Gorman had long been a fan of Douglas. "I read his autobiography, 'The Ragman's Son,' when I was a teenager," he said. "I always thought he was a fascinating force of nature."

Though he was aware of the Hollywood blacklist, O'Gorman didn't know the full story until he began work on the film. "It was quite shocking to find out these people who were deemed to be a threat to the nation were — only two years prior — sort of being revered as these incredible artists. And they were pushed aside."

O'Gorman, who looks strikingly like the young Douglas, heeded the advice of the veteran actor and "Trumbo" director Jay Roach not to do an impression. So there is no muscular posturing or "I'm KIRK DOUGLAS!" proclamations.

In an email interview, Roach noted, "Dean's interpretation of Mr. Douglas required more overlap of Dean's own heart and soul with the essence of Kirk Douglas. If Dean had tried to mimic Douglas, the iconic mask might have gone more opaque. What Dean did is much more like channeling Douglas through his own face and body."

One of the most difficult aspects of playing Douglas was having to wear the form-fitting "Spartacus" duds. "It took a while to get used to wearing little leather undies," O'Gorman said with a laugh.

Douglas, noted Roach, has seen "Trumbo" and went out of his way to compliment O'Gorman's performance. "He said the only guy who could have done better at playing Kirk than Dean was ... Kirk himself," said Roach. "Douglas said he was upset we didn't ask him!"

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