On stage at South Coast Repertory as Septimus Hodge in Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia,” Matt Keeslar embodies the charming confidence of a self-possessed 18th century tutor--serious, engaging, full of high purpose and mordant irony.
But relaxing over lunch in Costa Mesa the other day, the 25-year-old actor and Juilliard School dropout seemed the epitome of reticent Midwestern politeness.
Tall and attractive, his hair swept back in soft waves bleached blond from a recent movie role, he personifies youthful intelligence and shy sensitivity.
“I have no idea why [Juilliard] took me--my audition was horrible,” said Keeslar, who comes from Michigan and trained for the stage for three years at the prestigious arts conservatory in New York, where he still lives. Modesty aside, when Stoppard’s 1993 play opens tonight on the SCR Mainstage, Keeslar will have to carry much of the production’s considerable ambition on his shoulders. If Septimus does not convince, the drama falls apart.
Still, recounting his Juilliard audition, Keeslar insists he was a bust.
“I did Edmund’s speech during the mad scene in ‘King Lear.’ I’d never seen anybody do it or anything like it,” he said. “I didn’t even know people did Shakespeare for real until I saw Albert Finney in ‘The Dresser.’ That  movie was a big influence on me.”
Nor did he know anything about Juilliard, Keeslar added, “except that I’d seen a Barbara Walters interview with Robin Williams, and he said he’d gone there. I thought, ‘Wow! It must be good.’
“But it was difficult for me,” he went on. “Some people came there out of college. They had a sense of humor about the place. I was just out of high school. I took everything as gospel.” He wishes he hadn’t but admits that “the grief I went through there” paid off.
Keeslar was spotted during his sophomore year in a Juilliard production of John Guare’s “Moon Over Miami” by top ICM agent Sam Cohn and taken on as an unsigned “pocket” client.
Now, with a signed ICM contract and a handful of movies behind him--including an acclaimed starring performance opposite Finney in “The Run of the Country” (1995)--Keeslar has become one of Hollywood’s new quality actors.
Besides major roles in a pair of highly anticipated Castle Rock movies--Larry David’s “Sour Grapes” (due April 17) and Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco” (due in May)--he also played the son of Susan Sarandon and Sam Shepard in “Safe Passage” (1994) and co-stars with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Ted Danson in “Thanks of a Grateful Nation,” a Showtime movie about the Gulf War (May 31).
Yet even as a breakthrough screen talent who appears on the verge of a long-term movie career, which has already earned him more money than he could ever make on stage, Keeslar insists on working in the theater.
He played the title role in SCR’s 1995 production of “The Interrogation of Nathan Hale” and appeared recently in “Fit to Be Tied” at Playwrights Horizons in New York, as well as in the 1995 CBS Playhouse 90 presentation of “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Jessica Lange and Alec Baldwin.
“The difference between film acting and theater acting,” Keeslar said, “is that, in the theater, nervous energy can help you. Olivier often talked about nervous energy giving him his performances, giving him the boost he needed before going on.
“On stage it helps to get ‘psyched up’ because it’s part of overcoming the fear of being in front of people and exposing yourself. But for me--at least in film acting--nervous energy is the most destructive thing to your performance.”
Film acting requires doing “almost nothing” he explained, because the camera “captures what’s going on inside you. It’s creepy, but it’s true. You really don’t have to do anything. If you don’t feel completely comfortable, you automatically start ‘indicating,’ which is taking yourself out of the scene. It’s overacting.” But on stage, “acting is doing.”
In “Arcadia,” Keeslar wants to apply the filmic principle of staying relaxed while projecting the largeness of a stage performance.
The play, which has been praised for its use of scientific ideas including Newtonian physics and modern chaos theory, makes dramatic sense, he says, so long as it refrains from lecturing the audience.
“I don’t see any ‘intellectualism’ in the role of Septimus,” Keeslar said. “I’ve seen him played as very offhanded and blase. I’ve seen him played as too ironic. I’m trying to play a tutor who actually likes to teach, who’s interested in what the other person has to say, who’s ready to debate.”
Rehearsing with director David Emmes, Keeslar said, "[We] both came up with that sense of him.
“If you just play the roles instead of the ideas, the audience will understand the intellectual side of what we’re talking about. A lecture puts you in danger of making a very boring and stolid play that no one would sit through.”
Keeslar’s stage training has also come in handier for film acting that he thought it might.
Stillman cast him in “The Last Days of Disco” because “basically he liked the fact that I could speak a large amount of dialogue,” Keeslar said. “I think that’s what he liked. You don’t get an opportunity to do that much in movies because of the way film scripts are written.
“But Whit’s film scripts are written a lot like plays; they even have stage directions. Also, I could make sense out of all the district attorney jargon I had to say without necessarily having to understand it.
“It’s just like doing accents. The best actors can put on an accent like it’s another mask. The same with jargon. You’re not necessarily mimicking. You’re wearing it like it’s another part of your costume. The rest will take care of itself. “
* “Arcadia,” by Tom Stoppard, opens tonight at South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $28-$43. Through May 10. (714) 708-5555.