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Intense Actor Finds His Way as a Director Too : Movies: Gary Sinise, who makes his film acting debut in ‘A Midnight Clear,’ also stars in and directs the upcoming ‘Of Mice and Men.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The screen fills with the agonized, twisted face of a screaming man, an Edvard Munch) painting come to life. As the frame widens, the man bolts through a snowy forest, ripping off his military fatigues. When the camera closes in, the half-crazed soldier is stark naked, squatting in an icy cold winter stream.

It’s an entrance an actor would kill for. In less than a few minutes of screen time, 37-year-old Gary Sinise makes a character nicknamed “Mother” Wilkins both visceral and vulnerable, more Angst -ridden than a roomful of German Expressionists and more volatile than an unpinned grenade.

The opening scene of “A Midnight Clear,” based on William Wharton’s World War II novel, marks Sinise’s film acting debut. He’s no newcomer, though, to performing and directing.

Best known as a founder of one of America’s premiere stage ensembles, Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company, and for his Tony Award-nominated performance as Tom Joad in the stage version of John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” in 1988-90, Sinise is a veteran of the boards.

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The word used most often to describe his acting is intense . “He finds a core of a character inside himself and the character takes over,” says “A Midnight Clear” producer Dale Pollock. “It’s interior to exterior, a kind of Method acting as opposed to relying on physical characteristics.”

Sinise also directs. His body of work spans more than 15 years, he has been at the helm of such notable Steppenwolf productions as “True West” with John Malkovich and “Orphans,” both of which went on to New York, as well as many others. Sinise also staged the 1984 Off Broadway outing of “Landscape of the Body” and the London production of “Orphans,” featuring Albert Finney, as well as episodes of TV’s “China Beach,” “Crime Story” and “thirtysomething” and the 1988 film “Miles From Home,” with Richard Gere, Brian Dennehy and Malkovich.

Now, Sinise is breaking out in “a whole new step, a whole new life,” as he describes it. Besides his “A Midnight Clear” debut, he is directing and starring in a Horton Foote adaptation of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” The MGM/Pathe film, which features Sinise as George opposite Malkovich’s Lenny, is being shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, which gets under way next week. Later this year, Sinise appears in 20th Century Fox’s “Jack the Bear” with Danny DeVito.

While plying his trade in an industry notorious for the way it homogenizes talent, Sinise intends to continue working in the theater, returning to Steppenwolf to act and direct whenever he takes a breather from the lights-camera-action regimen.

“It’s the reward for having put in 15 years on one thing to have it now be strong enough that it’s not going to fall apart if you leave,” he says of the Chicago company. “We have good people that run the theater, which allows all of us to pursue our individual careers. I’ve got a place there, and when I want to come back and do theater I can.

. “But right now it’s time to seek other things,” Sinise continues. “I’m content to figure out where I should go in the film business.”

Born and raised in a Chicago suburb, Sinise decided at 17 to forgo college and follow his calling.

In vintage Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland “Hey kids, let’s put on a show” style, Sinise and fellow actors Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney founded Steppenwolf in a Highland Park church basement in 1974.

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“I don’t know that I could start a theater now with the same kind of raw blindness,” says Sinise of his youthful zeal. “Twenty years old and all we cared about was doing our work, eating macaroni and cheese if we had enough money.”

The lifestyle may have been bohemian, but the artistic inspiration was not. “We were influenced by the films we were seeing in the early ‘70s: Coppola, Scorsese, Pacino and De Niro,” says Sinise. “They were all busting loose with this gritty style of acting. We used that as a catalyst for starting our own basement rebel troupe of actors.”

They forged a company whose hallmark became plays that former Steppenwolf executive director and longtime Sinise colleague Russ Smith describes as “about men’s relations with each other--those intricate relationships that no one’s ever been able to understand. But I don’t think (Sinise) wants to be defined by that.”

The ensemble also developed a sophisticated and muscular realism that rendered such drama emotionally compelling. “The cliche is intensity or passion,” Smith continues. “More substantially, Gary likes to make things as crystal-clear real as possible.”

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The Steppenwolf artists were also motivated in the early years by dissatisfaction with the usual actors’ routine. “None of us had the desire or will to lead the nomadic actors’ life of beating on doors and waiting on tables and hoping that you get an agent. We were interested in controlling our work right from the beginning.”

In the early ‘80s, Steppenwolf reached “the major turning point” when it took Sam Shepard’s “True West,” featuring Sinise and Malkovich as the brothers, to New York. It was the third show that Sinise had staged since becoming artistic director in 1980. “After that, we took a show to New York each year for five or six years. It provided us with a new audience base and an increase in national funding.”

Steppenwolf has lasted 10 years longer than New York’s famed Group Theatre, and is one of a handful of U.S. companies to have produced a consistently high level of work. This is especially remarkable, given the increased dependence on itinerant vs. resident acting ensembles. Last year, the company moved into its own $8-million, two-theater facility.

Sinise resigned as artistic director in 1986. “Being the artistic director of a company of actors is different than just being the artistic director of an institution,” he says. “Your job revolves around people’s needs. You’re trying to appease them and keep the theater’s artistic movement strong.”

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Sinise moved to L.A. in 1987, and, a year later, he embarked on a two-year stint with the Steppenwolf “The Grapes of Wrath,” which played New York, London, Chicago and La Jolla and received both Tony and Drama Desk nominations for his performance.

It was a watershed experience for Sinise, who credits the role with leading to his securing the rights for “Of Mice and Men.”

“After I finished ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ I wanted to come back here and bear down on film work, to change my course a bit,” he says. “Those stories about people (for whom) things just fall into their lap are the minority. You have to make it be on the horizon.”

Sinise is slow and careful with his answers--and a bit wary--as he sits behind a desk in a near-bare office at an MGM post-production annex in Culver City. He alludes to having been portrayed unfairly by interrogators past, and he’s enlisted the high-ticket public relations firm PMK to buffer his relationship with the press.

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But that reticence might also be due to what one associate calls Sinise’s “un-Hollywood” personality. He is soft-spoken and focused--a far cry from the confused and manic character Sinise plays in “A Midnight Clear.”

“He’s insecure in the best way as an actor,” says “A Midnight Clear” director Keith Gordon, himself an experienced actor. “He’s meticulous. He always thinks he can do it better. If I could have given him 40 takes, he probably would have found something new each time.”

Sinise, one of the last of about 150 actors to read for the part, also brought a director’s insight to the actor’s task. “Certain actors read this piece and counted the lines,” says Pollock. “Gary understood from the outset that everything happens because of this character, that his is the pivotal role.”

If Sinise is a director’s actor, he is also an actor’s director. “He has a clear understanding of writing and he can translate that to actors in a way that they completely understand,” says Smith. “He doesn’t have to go through long-winded explanations. Because he is an actor, he can get down in their souls.”

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Sinise acknowledges his good fortune in forging simultaneous acting and directing careers, but not without reservations. “Directing is an agonizing and exhilarating experience,” he says. “When I’m directing, I’d rather be acting and when I’m acting, I’d rather be directing. Each one feeds the other, and each one is equally frustrating.

“When I’m directing, I envy the actors, getting a suntan and eating granola bars, talking on their cellular phones. It’s like a vacation compared to directing, where you’re thinking about the film 100 hours a day. And as an actor, sometimes you get directing ideas and you want to be heard, and some people don’t want to hear it.”

Sinise is also quick to tell you he hasn’t much interest in being a hired gun. “It’s difficult for me to just job around as a director,” he explains. “I much prefer developing my own things because it’s coming from some place inside.”

Staying true to that impulse isn’t easy. “If you’re hot right out of the gate, 23 years old and just out of USC film school, they want to give you the big budget and there’s your shot,” says Sinise of the youth-ethic of current industry practice. “Then, you have to hit, or it’s on to the next AFI or USC guy.”

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