Putting Bedside Manner to Work on the Big Screen


Put yourself, for a moment, in Anthony Edwards’ shoes.

As a lead actor in “ER,” you star in one of the biggest TV shows of the last decade. You’ve already proved you can deliver on the big screen; people still talk of your scene-stealing role as Tom Cruise’s sidekick in “Top Gun.” The Hollywood studios know this; each year before “ER” takes its summer hiatus they’re on the phone to your agent, trying to interest you in movie roles.

How easy it could be to look at how your “ER” colleague George Clooney spends his time away from the emergency room--earning megabucks in big-budget movies like “Batman & Robin,” “One Fine Day” and “The Peacemaker,” alongside glamorous co-stars like Uma Thurman, Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman.

But Edwards has done none of the above this summer. Instead, he slipped discreetly into Britain to produce and act in “Us Begins With You,” a romantic comedy with no other major stars attached, a first-time screenwriter and feature director--and a total budget less than Clooney’s current asking fee for a movie.


“The script is what some people would consider soft,” mused Edwards, resting in his trailer between scenes in Brixton, an area of south London that has been noted for poverty, unemployment, social problems and racial unrest. “There are no big action sequences, no huge stars.” He shrugged.

Edwards’ participation in “Us Begins With You” began two years ago when he paid one of his frequent summer visits to London. At a tennis tournament, he met British stage producer Bill Kenwright and his girlfriend, actress Jenny Seagrove; Kenwright was looking to produce a movie with Seagrove in a leading role. Two months later, he sent Edwards a script that had been written with Seagrove in mind.

“I liked the script immediately,” Edwards said. “It’s quirky and it has an original voice. We tried to shoot it last summer, but we couldn’t get a director, so I went off and did the TV miniseries ‘In Cold Blood’ instead. Bill persisted, so last December we committed to it.”

The “we” includes his business partner Dante di Loreto, a producer and ex-actor with whom Edwards has been friends since they were teenagers together in Santa Barbara. The two men had been looking for the right vehicle for their company, Aviator Films, which has a development deal with Warner Bros., to make its producing debut; “Us Begins With You” fit the bill. British director Willi Patterson will be at the helm.

In “Us Begins With You,” Edwards plays Tony, an American sports therapist living in London with a faltering career who is about to return to the United States. He starts a romance with Suzanne (Seagrove), a widow with two children, one a 14-year-old boy, withdrawn and under-achieving since his father’s death. Tony coaches the boy in track events. Suzanne must fend off the advances of a philandering dentist (Charles Dance), while her friends (led by Jane Leeves of TV’s “Frasier”) confer often to discuss her romantic future.

Stretching his long legs across almost the whole width of his trailer, Edwards looked like a man enjoying himself. “This is a perfect summer vacation in a way,” he reflected. “The pressure’s not on like it is in ‘ER.’ We’ve had two weeks’ rehearsal on this, whereas for each episode of ‘ER’ you just have to come in shooting. The show’s more of a formula. This is more of a gamble.”


So why take it? Edwards pondered a while. “You see big studio movies, and the contrivance of it all. . . . It’s a business,” he said. “They’re not pretending to be making art films. From my perspective, it’s like being in a circus. There’s the high-wire acts, which draw in the crowds with their spectacle. And then there are the sideshows--which I get drawn to.”

Edwards has already proved this point in his own career: “I did ‘Top Gun’ precisely so I could make those small movies. I knew that film had success written all over it. But it wasn’t the type of movie I look for, or have ever tried to repeat. Because it’s jingoistic, it rationalizes bad behavior, and it doesn’t attract me as an audience.”

In the wake of “Top Gun,” Edwards starred in a small independent movie, “Miracle Mile,” about impending nuclear holocaust in Los Angeles. Predictably, its grosses were modest. “But after ‘Top Gun,’ my name became helpful enough to small films to mean something to them,” Edwards said.

Next year, Edwards and Di Loreto will produce “True West,” the film adaptation of Sam Shepard’s stage play about two brothers. “I’ll direct, but I won’t appear in it,” Edwards said. “I can see so clearly how I want to make it, I don’t think I’d add anything by acting in it, too.”

Kenwright for his part is delighted that he and Edwards are involved together in the first film producing venture for them both. “He decided to do this two years ago, and he’s remained faithful,” Kenwright said. “In that time the studios have been courting him, trying to buy him out of this contract. People have said to me, ‘He’s an actor, he’ll let you down.’ But he never has.”

Kenwright revealed that the budget for “Us Begins With You” is about $7 million. He has bankrolled the film entirely himself. “It’s a gamble, and I’m an absolute virgin at this game,” he noted. “But then I’ve gambled money and lost on plays, too.”


Some of his gambles have paid off handsomely, of course. Kenwright has produced some 350 stage plays and has achieved his share of success in London’s West End. This year his production of Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” which transferred to Broadway, won four Tony Awards. “And remember,” Edwards noted, “there were certain West End theaters which didn’t want to find room for ‘A Doll’s House.’ Taking risks is what Bill’s about.”

Although co-star Seagrove appeared in such well-received British films as “A Chorus of Disapproval” and “Local Hero,” it’s Edwards who will unquestionably draw an audience for “Us Begins With You”--in part because “ER” fans feel affection for his character, the beleaguered nice-guy Everyman Dr. Mark Greene. His average-Joe quality makes many people wonder what Edwards is like in real life; many assume, as they do with, say, Tom Hanks, that he must be a nice guy off screen, too.

“Well, I’m not Mark Greene,” Edwards insisted. Indeed, he is less harassed, thankfully, and somewhat more forceful. And he doesn’t wear glasses. But like Greene, Edwards is pleasant company, with down-to-earth values and seemingly few of the ego problems that plague actors.

“Even before I was famous, people would say about me that I reminded them of some cousin,” Edwards said. (Minutes before, on set, one woman could be overheard telling another: “George [Clooney] you’d have an affair with, but Anthony you’d marry.”)

Typecasting doesn’t faze Edwards.

“I get hit with questions like ‘George [Clooney] is a sex symbol; does that bother you?’ ” Edwards said. “How would it bother me? What was the goal going into this line of work? To be marketable as a sex symbol, or to play characters in stories?”

He began acting at 12 (when he first befriended Di Loreto, four years his senior) and turned professional at 16. “I did a lot of theater for 12 years, and traveled for 10 months a year,” he said. “Back then, I couldn’t have imagined what happiness is.”


In this, he is referring not to professional success, but family life. His wife, Swedish-born Jeanine Lobell, is a former makeup artist who has created her own cosmetics line. “I long to be Mr. Lauder,” Edwards quipped. “She can be Estee and run the company, and I’ll ask her for spending money.”

The couple have a son (Bailey, 3) and daughter (Esme, 5 months), and all the family have been together in London this summer. “Jeanine has been a big influence on me,” Edwards said happily. “It was she who convinced me to do ‘ER.’ My fault as an actor was taking the soft, artsy route. I needed something like ‘ER’ to put me in the marketplace so I could make the films I always [griped] about wanting to make.

“So now I’m doing this film here, and ‘True West’ next summer. I’ve eliminated all the excuses. When I hear myself whine now, I stop and think, wait, I pretend for a living, and we have a bizarrely nice lifestyle. Even if I work hard on ‘ER,’ I’m only 10 minutes from home. And I can bring my kids to work.” Another shrug of his long, lean frame: “What’s not to like?”