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Diary of an Acting Coach : Movies: Roy London, a sought-after tutor, makes his directing debut with ‘Diary of a Hitman,’ and students Sharon Stone, Sherilyn Fenn and James Belushi lend a hand.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cast of the low-budget film “Diary of a Hitman,” which opened Friday, includes some of the hottest young actors in Hollywood--Sharon Stone, Sherilyn Fenn, Forest Whitaker and James Belushi.

They worked on the film for a first-time director on location in rural Pennsylvania. In the winter. For scale.

“Money is not why we did it,” said Stone. “Roy London is why we did it. When you hear that he is finally going to direct a film, you crawl through broken glass to be there.”

London is one of Hollywood’s most sought-after acting coaches, with a client list that includes Stone, Fenn, Belushi, Michelle Pfeiffer, Geena Davis (who thanked him when she won her best supporting actress Oscar for “The Accidental Tourist”), Patrick Swayze, Jeff Goldblum, Daryl Hannah and Garry Shandling.

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His directorial debut is not meant to be flashy or high concept. Distributed by Vision International, the film is a quiet thriller about a hit man, played by Whitaker, best known for his roles in “Bird” and “Good Morning, Vietnam,” who begins to question his role in life after he is hired to kill a baby.

The unorthodox story has already proven itself attractive to audiences. In its U.S. debut last month at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, “Diary of a Hitman” won the Best of the Fest popularity poll among festival-goers.

No matter the story line, London’s clients were anxious to participate in the production.

“When I was starting out, people told me that if I found one great teacher in my life, I’d be lucky,” said Fenn, who started studying with London shortly before she did the “Twin Peaks” TV series.

“Well, I found him. He changed my career. He changed my life.”

With that kind of devotion among celebrity clients, London could be doing infomercials with guest stars popping in to give testimonials. But he has taken just the opposite route, going out of his way to avoid the limelight.

London’s telephone number is unlisted, he doesn’t advertise and he refuses to give out information to star biographers.

“I could have stayed hidden away in my acting classes and in my private coaching, which is my life and a very pleasant life,” said London.

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With his soft-spoken manner and full beard, London, 49, seems more professorial than a Hollywood type.

“But I’m always telling my students how important it is to be doing new things. I tell them that good acting is when you are hired to do something you can do well and then delivering the goods.

“But great acting, which is what I am interested in, is about setting things up so that you are experiencing something for the first time.

“I guess that’s why I decided to direct. And now I want to help promote the film.”

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In his own career as an actor in the 1960s and 1970s, London played parts in several landmark productions. As one of the original members of the Open Theater in New York, he was in the controversial protest musical “Viet Rock” and in Jean-Claude van Itallie’s “America Hurrah.”

Peter Brook saw him in the Van Itallie play and brought him to Britain to be in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of “The Tempest.” Back in New York he was a founding member of Circle Rep, a company that also put on several plays he wrote.

London came to Los Angeles in 1975 to act in the play “The Two of Us” with Lynn Redgrave.

“When I got here, friends said to me I should try writing for television, that I could make a living from it,” London said.

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“Thank God that never really happened.”

He did write one television movie, “California Gold Rush,” that was on NBC in 1981. But his chief discovery was that he could teach.

“People that I knew started asking me to help them prepare for roles, and it just grew,” he said.

London is loath to be specific about his approach. “What we do is so intimate and personal, even in the group classes,” he said, “that I fear if I open it up to allow outsiders to comment on it, write about it, videotape it, it could get destroyed.”

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He is, however, willing and even anxious to talk about acting in general terms.

“Anything we do becomes calcified at jet speed,” London said. “A person breaks into something new and before you can turn around, it’s an act; it isn’t who they are anymore.

“In acting you can see that happening and do something about it. In life, it’s much harder.

“I can’t teach life, so I teach acting.”

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London wrote one feature film, “Tiger Warsaw,” starring Patrick Swayze (before he was a London client) and Piper Laurie. It made only a brief appearance in 1988, but the producer, Amin Chaudhri, who specializes in low-budget films, offered London the chance to direct if an appropriate script could be found.

London knows he got the offer because of his client list. “He, of course, wanted me to use my students and my students had been urging me to direct,” London said.

London found a short play by Kenneth Pressman and asked him to expand it into a screenplay, tailoring some of the parts to his students.

From the beginning, he had Fenn in mind to play the mother of the hit man’s intended victim. “I suggested to the writer things I felt that she had in her that we had not seen yet in her work,” London said.

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Fenn agreed to take on the role, but she did harbor doubts about doing the $2.5-million film.

“I have a tendency to mess with my head,” she said, speaking from New York, where she has a role in the film, “Three of Hearts,” with Billy Baldwin and Kelly Lynch. “So a little part of me was thinking, ‘Roy is just using me to help get his movie made.’

“But not long after I was on the set there was a situation where the producers wanted Roy to go ahead and shoot a scene before the actors were completely ready. Roy told them he would simply walk out rather than do that.

“That did it for me. The little bit of doubt I had was gone and I could let the work happen.”

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For the title role, London wanted Whitaker, although he had never worked with him or even met him. “I was a huge fan of his work,” London said.

The actor and director had to go through a bit of a shakedown cruise on the set. “Forest is a great artist and a formidable man, and I knew I was in for a challenge,” London said. “He was not going to dance for me without seeing who I was and what my vision of the film was.”

Whitaker, who is now preparing to make his own directorial debut in a film for HBO, had never before worked with an acting coach. “I didn’t know the process,” Whitaker said. “But when I got there I saw how he worked so differently with each person to give them what they needed. He was so passionate about it.

“I thought, ‘This guy must know what he is doing,’ and after a few days we did just fine.”

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London is writing a script he hopes to direct. But he plans to keep teaching.

“I might take a break from teaching now and then if it works out,” he said. “But teaching is what I do, every day and most nights.”

London talks quietly and passionately about his work, often not realizing he has moved into a teaching mode.

“Even in everyday life I can’t get away from sounding like a teacher,” he said, shaking his head and smiling.

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“I don’t socialize very much because of that. But it’s what I do.”


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