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MOVIES : Unmasking Eric Stoltz : The actor, who has four films due out by year’s end, prefers exploring his dark side to the boy-next-door roles of his early career. Face it, villains are more fun.

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Laziness, actor Eric Stoltz maintains, is an underrated virtue. On an ideal day, he’d read newspapers in bed, lunch with friends, indulge in some mid-afternoon sex, and cap off dinner with a really great film. Still, with four of his own movies surfacing by the end of the year--and three more in 1995--it’s a case of “do as I say . . . not as I do.”

The actor appears as an ex-junkie/bank robber in “Killing Zoe,” which opened last month, and as Meg Tilly’s misogynistic husband in MGM’s “Sleep With Me,” due Sept. 23. He plays a heroin dealer in Quentin Tarantino’s “Pulp Fiction” and a suspected murderer in “Fluke.” Only the role of an angel in “God’s Army” and another in the holiday release “Little Women” recall the early Stoltz--a wholesome, slightly gawky boy next door.

“The Waterdance” (1992), in which Stoltz played an embittered paraplegic, was the turning point. Surrounded by actors with parts more flamboyant than his, the actor emerged as the anchor for the picture that won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival and two Independent Spirit Awards for best picture and screenplay.

“People started looking at the kid in ‘Mask’ as an adult,” observes Tarantino. “For all his intensity, Eric never had ‘edge.’ Now he does. He’s on ‘the list.’ He’s cool.”

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In fact, Stoltz is anything but cool sitting poolside at a Westside hotel, having his picture taken during a record-setting heat wave. A dark green suit and crisp white shirt set off red shoulder-length hair and a goatee he’s sporting for a part in “Rob Roy,” an 18th-Century adventure now shooting with Liam Neeson and Jessica Lange in Scotland. His humor is dry and self-deprecating. (“My role? To make Neeson look bigger and more handsome.”) His manner is gentle and unfailingly polite. (“You must think I’m the black hole of hotel guests,” he remarks to the front desk after losing his second room key in two days.)

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“Other actors of his generation, most notably the Brat Pack, went for big roles in bigger pictures,” observes director Michael Steinberg (“The Waterdance,” “Bodies, Rest & Motion”), who also co-produced “Sleep With Me.” “But Eric distanced himself by sidestepping the obvious. Ironically, his approach seems to have worked. He’s here--and they’re not.”

Still, two dozen films to his credit, the 32-year-old Stoltz is one step removed from a household name. “I’m often mistaken for (World Cup soccer player) Alexi Lalas and, until recently, for (late Nirvana lead singer) Kurt Cobain,” the actor acknowledges. “Without facial hair, people confuse me with Jodie Foster or Suzy Amis.”

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When it comes to choosing roles, gut rather than pocketbook predominates. Stoltz is as open to ensemble pieces as to bravura parts. If possible, some of each year is reserved for the stage. A regular on the Off Broadway scene, where he played a serial killer in last year’s “Down the Road,” the actor won a Tony nomination for his 1988 Broadway debut as The Everyman, George Gibbs, in Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

“I’m not a career builder,” Stoltz says. “I’ve never plotted out how to become a ‘marketable persona.’ Poor Creative Artists (Agency), God love ‘em, they’ve accepted me for what I am. They channel the billion-dollar scripts Tom Cruise’s way and send the smaller, independent films to me. I have homes in Manhattan, New Mexico and L.A., but I don’t live high on the hog. I haven’t owned a TV since 1979. I rented a tux for the Tony Awards.”

So why’s a nice guy like this playing such sleazeballs? For one thing, he’s maturing, getting in touch with the darker elements of his personality. Besides, he suggests, playing villains is more fun.

“Darker roles are very appealing to me,” Stoltz says, taking a sip of blood-red orange juice. “Since most of the evil people I’ve met are quite charming, it’s a challenge to paint them in shades of gray. What’s fun about acting is that you get to behave outside the bounds of societal rules. Much healthier to do it in a ‘Pulp Fiction’ or a ‘Killing Zoe’ instead of in real life.”

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No chance those images could lead to violence instead of diffusing it?

“Only psychopaths can’t distinguish between story and reality,” Stoltz shoots back. “Keep antisocial behavior out of movies and you end up with fluff--happy-go-lucky stuff they show on airplanes.”

Some critics have lashed into the amoral violence of “Killing Zoe,” a tale in which Stoltz, an American safecracker with a quasi-humanist streak, is drawn into a heist planned by some drug-crazed Parisians. Stoltz prefers to see it as a psychedelic fable--a cross between “Alice in Wonderland” and Roger Corman’s “Bloody Mama,” both of which propel an innocent into a world of madness. First-time director Roger Avary wrote the role with Stoltz in mind, much to the amazement--and skepticism--of the powers-that-be.

“No one wanted to see Eric,” recalls Tarantino, who executive-produced the film. “I got a script to him after running into him on the street. Though Eric was annoyed when a reviewer accused him of doing a Mickey Rourke impersonation, that’s not really off-base. His performance in ‘Zoe’ was an unconscious homage to Mickey Rourke-style roles--that don’t-give-a-(expletive) attitude delivered in a tough monotone.”

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To prepare for the role, Stoltz hung out with a junkie to observe speech patterns and body movement. He dug even deeper on other films. For “The Waterdance,” the actor remained in a wheelchair for two months, refusing to get up even at the director’s request. For “Mask” (1985), he wore his makeup in public to get a sense of the ridicule his character--a severely deformed adolescent--had endured. The 22-year-old Stoltz was changed by the experience. He saw what human nature was like--and it wasn’t a pretty picture.

“Eric walked around in 105-degree heat in makeup which took four hours to apply,” recalls “Mask” director Peter Bogdanovich. “Fake teeth prevented him from eating solid foods so he lost a lot of weight. I started out as an actor and used to pride myself on not asking an actor to do anything I wouldn’t have done. But that wasn’t possible with him. He deserved a Purple Heart for that role.”

What sets him apart, Bogdanovich observes, is a keen intelligence (“Some actors, you have to put glasses on”), good instincts and those remarkably blue eyes.

“Eric has very expressive, beautiful eyes that are able to convey a lot,” the director explains. “That’s what the part needed because there wasn’t anything else. After one scene, I yelled, ‘Cut!,’ and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs commented to me: ‘He just wrote a sentence with his eyes.’ The picture would have been unthinkable without him but instead of riding its success, Eric went off to Paris, where he lived for a couple of years.”

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As passionate as Stoltz is about the work, say his colleagues, he’s able to disengage. On the set of “The Waterdance"--a low-budget, intense shoot in need of some levity--he was the cheerleader/court jester. He’s regarded as an inveterate “teaser,” fond of testing people to find their limits.

“Eric’s a bit of Peck’s Bad Boy,” says “Waterdance” co-star Helen Hunt (TV’s “Mad About You”). “I was the only woman working around a group of men in wheelchairs who viewed me from waist-height. He took full advantage . . . but only because he knew I’d come back strong.”

Like last year’s “Bodies, Rest & Motion,” a Generation X comedy in which Stoltz played a house painter, Rory Kelly’s “Sleep With Me” targets relationships in the ‘90s--in this case, the complications posed for three friends when one (Craig Sheffer) falls in love with the other’s wife (Meg Tilly). The project got its start in a Manhattan bar where Stoltz and some pals were ruminating about life and love.

Originally intended as an up scale home movie--a $10,000 16-millimeter black-and-white affair shot for fun or possibly film festivals--the picture changed course when Tilly signed on. Shoot it in 35mm, the money men said, and the financing is yours. Two months later, the $3-million shoot was under way.

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During the rather unorthodox script-writing phase, each of six writers was assigned a scene and briefed on the points to be covered. Characters were based on people they knew. The actors worked for peanuts.

“It was like guerrilla filmmaking in a commune,” Tilly recalls. “We clasped hands and jumped off without knowing if our parachutes would hold up. But at least we’d die with great people. Eric is unusual, more successful than 99% of the actors I know. It’s not about selling tickets but about having your head on straight. He has his own personal boundaries. He’s not a diarrhea-mouth who spills everything out.”

Stoltz admits to being shy, which is one reason he turned to acting. Hiding behind a character not only makes it easier to reveal oneself, he observes, but that much safer to explore. The topics investigated in “Sleep With Me"--marriage, infidelity, friendship, lust--struck a particular chord. Like many Hollywood romances, his four-year relationship with actress Bridget Fonda (“Point of No Return,” “It Could Happen to You”) is a bit of a high-wire act--on the heels of some difficult and failed relationships. Though they worked together on “Singles” and “Bodies, Rest & Motion” and visit each other on the set, the “migrant worker” lifestyle and “predatory co-stars,” says the actor, take a toll.

“You’re in different cities, different environments . . . usually romantic,” Stoltz begins. “You’re encouraged to disconnect from reality. And many of your co-stars feel it’s their right to seduce you--whether you have a relationship off the set or not.

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“I’m not above it,” he adds. “I had a few on-the-set romances myself when I was in my 20s. Dumb, but understandable. Actors and rock stars are treated like gods in our culture and some begin to think they’re beyond reproach. They’re often charming, talented people who just weren’t raised right.”

That certainly wasn’t the case with Stoltz, however, a native Angeleno whose early years were a curious mix of “Leave It to Beaver” and “South Pacific.”

Mom was a first-grade teacher, dad a high school principal. When Eric was 3, they took him and his two older sisters to live in American Samoa, returning to Santa Barbara when he was 8.

As a child, young Eric fell in with the Santa Barbara theater crowd, playing the piano for local productions and road shows. Because music was so solitary, however, he refocused his sights on acting. By the time he enrolled at USC in 1979, he had appeared in nearly 50 plays.

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Frustrated by the regimentation of college and itching to see the world, Stoltz dropped out of school in 1981. He then hooked up with a troupe performing repertory at the Edinburgh Festival, where he stayed until he was broke.

Back in Hollywood, Stoltz won a role as a surfer in Amy Heck erling’s “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (1982). The film, he says, was “one long party,” and the celebrants included such soon-to-be-stars as Nicolas Cage, Forest Whitaker, Phoebe Cates and Jennifer Jason Leigh, with whom he later became involved.

After completing “The Wild Life"--the first of his four collaborations with Cameron Crowe (“I was his mascot”)--Stoltz landed the lead in “Back to the Future.” His euphoria proved short-lived, however, when director Robert Zemeckis fired him and replaced him with Michael J. Fox three weeks into the shoot.

Stoltz says it was a “brutal” time--fired without warning from his first big film. Though Zemeckis took full responsibility for miscasting him, the actor was so shaken that he headed straight to acting class.

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“Zemeckis told me I was giving a good performance in a film he didn’t want to make . . . contemplative and thoughtful instead of comedic,” the actor recalls. “I felt I could have done the part had he pointed me in that direction.”

“Mask’s” success took the edge off his pain. Scripts came pouring in. Hollywood executives, curious about how he looked without makeup, came to check him out. Life, too, has provided perspective--most notably, the death of his 67-year-old mother from cancer three months ago.

“Getting fired? Nothing comes close to dealing with death,” Stoltz maintains. “Life would be so much fun if we didn’t have to contend with that at the end of it. I’m still reeling, stunned, confused. The loss is so profound and all-encompassing that it’s hard to see beyond it.”

The actor rubs his goatee and lowers his gaze. “Sorry . . . the sorrow just comes over me,” he says softly. “Right now, it’s about getting up in the morning and sleeping through the night. Not thinking but accepting.”

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Stoltz has an easier time discuss ing producing, an area in which, in a rare burst of immodesty, he concedes he’s “pretty good.” Since none of the other producers of “Bodies, Rest & Motion” had made a film before, his production debut was a “trial by fire.” Co-producing “Sleep With Me,” however, was considerably more comfortable.

“In a way, it’s a relief to be on that side of the camera,” the actor says. “You don’t have to look good and you can go home and forget about work and that obscene hierarchy of egos. Still, acting and producing simultaneously creates a lot of headaches. One moment you’re concerned about losing the light. The next, you’re proposing to Meg (Tilly), forced to be romantic when you’re really furious and anxious inside. I have enormous respect for people like Clint Eastwood who can do it all at once.”

Though directing is of no immediate interest to Stoltz, writer-director Neil Jimenez (“The Waterdance”) regards him as a natural-born filmmaker. “Eric is very aware of how a movie is put together, where he fits in the story,” he explains. “He’s not out to build up his character or shove himself into scenes in which he doesn’t belong. Eric can put vanity on the middle burner, if not the back one. That’s a rare trait in an actor--or anyone, for that matter.”

Though Stoltz has made five films since “Sleep With Me,” he bucks the label “workaholic.” When it comes to his career, he insists, he has very little control.

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“I planted some garden plants in the wrong place four or five years ago,” Stoltz says, by way of explanation, “and every once in awhile they bloom. There were 40 flowers a few months ago and now, for no apparent reason, there are two. I always tend it but it has a life of its own. My career has a similar dynamic.”

Though he loved living out of a suitcase in his 20s, Stoltz says, he now has to work up the energy to go to Scotland for three months. He has less sense of adventure and doesn’t know how to rectify that. Still, there’s little evidence, on the face of it, that the actor will be pulling back. He dreams of tackling Shakespeare--on stage or on film. And he’d like to hook up with the “usual suspects"--Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese, Stanley Kubrick and Terence Malick--before checking out.

All well and good, says Stoltz pal and collaborator Michael Steinberg. Just don’t go “mainstream” and leave us in the dust.

“Sundance this year could have been renamed ‘The Eric Stoltz Film Festival,’ ” the director quips. “On every picture I’ve done, he’s gotten the ball rolling. Without him, a lot of directors would have a hard time getting work.

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“Any book on independent filmmaking should begin with a chapter entitled: ‘Get a Good Script.’ Chapter 2 should be ‘Show It to Eric Stoltz.’ ”


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