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Things Changing in the Acting Character of Joe Mantegna

Joe Mantegna may not look like your standard-issue sex symbol, but women sure fell for him last year when he starred in the David Mamet film “House of Games.”

An erotic thriller set against a seedy underworld of card sharks and small-time hustlers, “House of Games” featured Mantegna as a debonair con man with a hard-boiled heart and an irresistible bedside manner. A film noir anti-hero evocative of Bogart, Mantegna was a study in cool, white heat, and men and women alike couldn’t help but admire his slick style.

Mantegna, however, greets the news of his rising hunk quotient with a hearty laugh. Currently starring in “Things Change,” a buddy picture set against the Mafia worlds of Chicago and Lake Tahoe, Mantegna claims that “I’ve always thought of myself as a character actor rather than a leading man, and ‘House of Games’ didn’t change that.

“I never thought of that character as seductive,” says the 40-year-old actor. “I don’t know why women responded to him, although it could be because we all have a secret desire to do what he cons the woman in the film into doing--which is take a risk. He also represents the idea that people want to be seduced, and it’s hard to argue with that.”

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One of the people who saw “House of Games” and fell under Mantegna’s spell was pop singer Madonna, who wrote Mamet a fan letter and promptly got herself cast with Mantegna on Broadway in Mamet’s “Speed-the-Plow.”

“I found it endearing that Madonna wanted to work with me and she made a lot of progress as an actress during the course of the play,” says Mantegna of his former leading lady. “She’s very talented, but because she’s such a huge star she doesn’t have the luxury of starting at the beginning and building a foundation as an actress. All her mistakes are so public.”

The high media profile that comes with starring in a play with Madonna is something of a change for Mantegna, who has been quietly conducting an enviable career for 20 years. Often described as an actor’s actor, Mantegna has long had the respect of his peers but has never courted the kind of stardom that makes an actor’s name a household word.

The son of an insurance man, Mantegna was born in a working-class section of Chicago where he grew up dreaming about baseball. When he was 16, a friend dared him to audition for a role in a high school production of “West Side Story” and his course in life was set.

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High school theater work led to a scholarship to the Goodman School of Drama in Chicago and a part in a 1969 production of “Hair,” where he met his future wife, Arlene. The next six years were given over to stage work in Chicago with the Organic Theater Company, where he conceived and starred in “Bleacher Bums,” an ode to baseball currently in its ninth year in Los Angeles.

“ ‘Bleacher Bums’ was a fluke that I wrote with a lot of help,” Mantegna says modestly. “I’ve written other things since then that weren’t so good.”

Mantegna’s career took a major leap forward in 1974 when he met David Mamet. Hailed as one of the great playwrights of the modern era, Mamet saw Mantegna as the ideal vehicle for his work, partly because they had markedly similar backgrounds. Born two weeks apart in neighboring suburbs of Chicago, Mamet and Mantegna share an understanding and affection for gritty characters who speak in raw street slang as they struggle to make a score in life.

Mantegna’s first collaboration with Mamet came in 1977 when he starred in “A Life in the Theater.” Numerous other plays followed, most notably “Glengarry Glen Ross,” which netted Mantegna a Tony Award in 1985.

“Things Change” is their second film together and they plan to collaborate again in the spring when shooting begins on “Homicide,” which stars Mantegna as a New York cop.

“We in Chicago are used to working repeatedly with the same people because there are a number of good theater companies there,” says Mantegna of the ongoing collaboration. “The danger of working that way is you can get caught in a bag, but David continues to challenge me--in fact, ‘Speed-the-Plow’ took as much of an emotional toll on me as anything I’ve done.

“My character (a high-powered movie producer) was on stage the whole time and that adds a lot of stress because you never get to catch your breath. While I was doing the play I came down with Bell’s palsy, which is a stress-related illness, and I’m sure the play had something to do with my getting it. Another reason the play was tough was because I identified with the character perhaps more than any I’ve played, and maybe I revealed myself a bit in that part.”

A resident of Studio City, where he’s lived for 10 years with his wife of 13 years and baby daughter Mia, Mantegna continues to be something of an outsider to the Hollywood film industry. Making his movie debut in 1985 as a deliciously sleazy dentist in “Compromising Positions,” he has had small roles in a handful of films, but has yet to score the kind of commercial success that makes industry executives salivate.

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“Nobody thinks I live here,” he says with a laugh, “maybe because I never tried to gain entry into the Hollywood community. I’m not of the Harrison Ford school and have no interest in making films where I jump out of airplanes or swim with sharks, but I’m not opposed to doing Hollywood movies--in fact, I think I’ve made a few. I’m a whore like everybody else in that I can be tempted and have been.”

Though Mantegna’s new film will no doubt garner him more rave reviews, it’s not a Hollywood film by any stretch. The story of a low-level mobster instructed to baby-sit an elderly shoeshine man who has agreed to take the fall for a Mafia bigwig, “Things Change” recently won the Venice Film Festival’s best actor award, which was shared by Mantegna and co-star Don Ameche.

“The crux of the film is the relationship that develops between my character and the character played by Don Ameche,” Mantegna says, “and in making the film we developed a real friendship that parallels our relationship on screen. I’d like to be Don Ameche when I grow up, to be 80 years old and be able to look back on the kind of career he’s had.”

Reputed to be an uncommonly gracious actor, Mantegna seems to have laid the foundation for the long career he aspires to. An unpretentious man who seems refreshingly aware that there is life beyond Hollywood, Mantegna takes his wins as well as his losses in stride.

“My central strength as an actor is my apathy,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I’m kidding myself, but I’ve always said I’d walk away from this in a minute if someone gave me a better alternative. I don’t need to be on screen or on stage to be happy for the rest of my life and I work at not letting this business get me strung out.

“So hey, I got no complaints. I’m glad my career happened the way it has because I’ve had 29 years to prepare for this. It’s a big disadvantage to have your career explode when you’re real young because you pay your dues in this business on one end or the other. I paid mine up front. I’m not saying I’m done paying ‘em, but I paid a lot of them up front. A lot of actors pay on the tail end. They make it real big up front but they haven’t had the years of experience that teaches them how to handle it. They still have to pay those dues, only now everybody’s watching ‘em and we’re reading about their dues in the pages of the Enquirer.”


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