Kevin Anderson Breaks Through : Thanks to 'Sleeping With the Enemy,' Stage Veteran Is a 'New Face' No More

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Actor Kevin Anderson, steady and sure as Julia Roberts' salvation in "Sleeping With the Enemy," is slightly bemused by his status in Hollywood: "I have somehow maintained--and I don't know how--always being a 'new face.' "

Yes, it is an interesting paradox for an actor who co-starred on Broadway last year with Vanessa Redgrave in Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending," who has appeared in a handful of movies, and whose esteem in the industry has made him a player sought after by name directors. With that background, and at the age of 31, isn't Anderson just a little well-seasoned for "new face" status?

But then, new face is another way of describing an actor who hasn't yet broken through to a wide public, and so far, Anderson's roles and vehicles, while the choices of a serious craftsman, are not exactly of the sort that cause fan magazines to come calling: a fearful half-wit (the stage and film versions of "Orphans"), a small-town loser (the movie "In Country"), a seedy drifter (the Broadway and TV film productions of "Orpheus Descending").

Now comes Anderson's role in "Sleeping With the Enemy," and the clear prospect of his breaking out of the "new face" niche for good. For once he's in a commercial hit ($31.1 million in two weeks) opposite a hot young actress, in a role designed to set female moviegoers' hearts fluttering.

As Ben Woodward, a small-college drama professor who befriends a psychologically tattered woman on the run from her abusive husband, Anderson reveals a Gary Cooper-esque touch in his gentle-but-strong romantic leading man. "Kevin's the real thing," says "Enemy" director Joseph Ruben. "He's from the Midwest, a small town. He's got that kind of warmth to him. He's also got an edge."

When Anderson was presented with "Enemy," the actor went through his customary process of analyzing the pros and cons of the project, mulling points like whether the director was aptly suited to the work and weighing the role's inherent worth. He also wanted to be in a hit, and "Enemy" had the smell of that.

"It seemed like more of a commercial film than I've been involved with," said Anderson, during lunch at a voguishly plain diner close to his downtown Manhattan apartment. "I'd been looking for something to do that a bigger audience would see. I've been very finicky and picky over the years. . . . It was a nice opportunity to do something a bit lighter. I liked playing Ben because he had more of a sense of humor than roles I've had in the past. . . . He was a very earthbound character."

In fact, the easygoing Ben Woodward seems not unlike the Midwestern denizen Anderson might have become had he, too, not made it as an actor. Dressed in a checked flannel shirt and appearing slightly boyish without the stubble he wore in "Enemy," Anderson does, indeed, look like the authentic product of small-town America.

" Very small," the actor emphasizes when the subject of his upbringing in Gurnee, an hour's drive north of Chicago, comes up. Was there much theater in a town of 3,500 to fire up a budding thespian?

"No, none at all," Anderson says, smiling. "The reason I'm laughing is I remember seeing some sort of theater when I was in grade school and it was just horrible. Theater, when you were a kid, was something you'd throw spitballs at.

"You hear about actors who lived on the East Coast and their parents would bring them in (to Broadway) and they remember the first time they saw Irene Worth do something. Right there it changed their life. That didn't happen in mine. I guess I mainly got interested because I was the youngest of five and I was used to getting a lot of attention. I was just sort of a natural show-off."

In fact, Anderson's childhood taste in entertainment was distinctly middle-brow: TV variety shows, with a particular fondness for Dean Martin and the Golddiggers, Flip Wilson and Rich Little. If he had any show business aspiration, it was to play drums like Gene Krupa. At the urging of his high school forensics team coach, Anderson studied acting after graduation at the Goodman School of Drama, now part of DePaul University, and then embarked on a professional career with a "string of really bad musicals."

Finally, Anderson landed a respectable role, in a production of "Our Town" with the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. He stayed with the company for two years, then appeared in London, New York and elsewhere in the group's production of "Orphans."

"When I met them, it was like my acting, my life, everything just sort of came together," says Anderson, who refers to that first audition at Steppenwolf as the turning point of his career. "The seriousness with which they worked, their intensity, I enjoyed it."

Years later, another of Anderson's auditions took an unexpected turn. The actor had flown to London to do his final reading for a part in "Miss Saigon" when a meeting was hastily arranged with the British director Peter Hall. Hall had recently scored a West End hit with Williams' "Orpheus Descending" and planned to bring it to Broadway.

"There's always an experience in an actor's life where there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason, when it rains it pours, and suddenly all these things start coming at you all at once," Anderson says. "Peter and I just sort of hit it off right away, and he said, 'I'd like you to meet Vanessa tomorrow.' We read together . . . and I got the part."

Presented with roles in a hit musical and a classic American tragedy, did he make the right choice in "Orpheus Descending" (not to mention a movie role that had been offered too)?

"It was a very difficult thing. I'm not going to lie to you," Anderson says of his Broadway debut. "It was a combination of a lot of things, and at the risk of sounding sort of esoteric, there were a lot of myths coming together at once. I'd never been on Broadway. . . . The element that it was a Tennessee Williams play, and all the preconceptions people have of the past and all the great actors that have been in his plays. There's the thing of Brando having played my part in a movie ("The Fugitive Kind").

"And then there was this British thing--Peter and Vanessa, dealing with Vanessa Redgrave and Peter Hall. Coupled with the fact that it was touted as the theatrical event of the season. It was like baptism by fire. "

Surprisingly, for an actor so grounded in theater, Anderson says he found filming TNT's presentation of "Orpheus Descending" with Redgrave last summer more satisfying than the stage version. "Val (his character) is very internalized, mysterious and very quiet, like a lot of Williams' men," Anderson says. "I just felt much better with the TV film because it was much easier for the audience to see what was going on in my head."

And then there is the simple allure of making films, which Anderson readily admits he'd like to do more of at this point in his career. "Mainly because it's a newer thing for me. I've been on the stage for 12 years. I've done six or seven movies, but I still have a lot more to learn."

Playing a good and strong Midwesterner in a slick thriller does not signal a change for him, though. Last fall, Anderson wrapped up filming on "Liebestraum," written and directed by Mike Figgis. In it, he plays an architect who is summoned to the deathbed of his birth mother (Kim Novak), whom he has never met. Once there, the architect begins to realize something grim in the past.

Sounds like something up Anderson's alley: "This guy's very somber. It's a very dark movie, sort of like a karmic nightmare."

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