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Nicky Katt, a Go-To Guy With a Can-Do Attitude

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Likening himself to a chameleon, actor Nicky Katt says he tries to be so different in every role--the displaced detective in “Insomnia,” the cutthroat stockbroker in “Boiler Room,” the insensitive boyfriend in “One True Thing"--that people who know him and see his films sometimes don’t even realize he was in them.

“That happened with ‘A Time to Kill,’ ” Katt says. “I had a very small part (as a racist rapist). People said, ‘I’m sorry you got cut out of the film.’ I said, ‘No, I was the fat guy!’ ”

That kind of anonymity could change with Steven Soderbergh’s film within a film, “Full Frontal.” Katt, 32, steals scenes with a particularly knowing and funny performance of an egomaniacal actor playing Hitler as an ordinary guy with commitment issues in an experimental Los Angeles stage play, “The Sound and the Fuhrer.” Katt’s character bullies his director (Enrico Colantoni), doesn’t bother learning his lines and teaches Pilates on the side.

For Soderbergh, the backstage antics between the self-absorbed actor and director represented “a comic exploration of a director’s worst nightmare.... I knew I wanted Nicky for this,” says Soderbergh, who had directed him as a hit man in “The Limey.” “He’s absolutely fearless. No idea is too outrageous. He’ll try anything.”

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Katt has built a career on his dark good looks and what Soderbergh calls “dangerously out of control” but rigorously prepared performances. For “Full Frontal,” a low-budget film with a bushel of big-name actors (Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Catherine Keener, Blair Underwood, David Hyde Pierce, David Duchovny), Katt filled a notebook with his ideas about his character and improvised much of the part, which was basically shot in one day.

“I think he understood that there’s no way to treat Hitler as anything but an abstraction. So the humor is in attempting to humanize him, because it’s impossible,” Soderbergh says.

Katt says he started fleshing out his character with the costume. Soderbergh required the ensemble cast to be responsible for their own makeup and wardrobe. “Once I got the sense we could do whatever we wanted, I started to go off on this tangent,” Katt says. He scrapped original plans to imitate surrealist painter Salvador Dali, who once wore scuba gear to an art exhibit opening. Eventually, he pulled himself back and decided to order Hitler uniform accessories with help from New Orleans historical costumer Tim Pickles. He had them applied to a tuxedo.

“I also went to a martial arts supply place and got a ninja outfit. I took some of the extra armbands and Hitler SS things and put it all over this outfit. I was a ‘Ninjazi,’ ” he says. The costume survives in some scenes on the upcoming DVD when Hitler works out at the gym. In other scenes, Katt supplied his own dog, a pit bull/boxer named Tuddy, who wore a studded collar. And in a scene where his character tap dances at a birthday party, he contributed his own dance steps, recalled from childhood tap and jazz classes.

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As an actor, Katt has found steady work in films, won prizes on the festival circuit and now co-stars as a teacher in the TV drama “Boston Public.” Still, he says it was liberating to step back from his profession and channel all the frustration, desperation and inspiration he finds in Hollywood into his role as an actor.

“There’s so much desperation in the air, in Los Angeles especially. You don’t notice it in New York as much,” he believes. “Everybody plays it a little cooler there and people have a lot more interaction with each other. I think Stanley Kubrick called the vibe in L.A. a ‘low-level malevolence.’ It eats away at you at some point.”

Even if they’re not desperate, most actors are frustrated, he says. “There’s that quote from Agnes DeMille about how a true artist never feels any sense of satisfaction. The closest they get is some sort of divine dissatisfaction.” Like his “Full Frontal” character, Katt salts his observations about the acting life with quotes he’s picked up from theatrical personalities, Kubrick and DeMille, and with references to actors Klaus Kinski and Jerry Lewis and directors Richard Lester and Robert Bresson.

“You should never name-drop,” he jokes. “De Niro told me that.”

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Sitting outside on a hot morning, Katt smokes on the dusty, peeling back porch of his friend Monte Hellman’s home. In ill-fitting rolled-up jeans, T-shirt and cap, he looks more Bakersfield than Hollywood. A tattoo on his neck recalls one of his idols, Roy Rogers; another shows two hands around a wrench, symbolizing, he says, the Zen-like nature of motorcycle maintenance, his only work experience besides acting. Unmarried, he maintains one home nearby in the Hollywood Hills and another in Austin, Texas, where he hosts local premieres of his movies, including events for the Austin Film Society. This week, he and Colantoni will present “Full Frontal.”

He says he’s heard rumblings that some people find “Full Frontal” confusing, that they’re upset because to them, Soderbergh’s latest effort seems rushed and jumbled.

“You know what? It’s a $2-million comedy,” Katt says. “I don’t know what anybody’s problem is. If anybody has the right to experiment with film, it’s him, and I think we’re really in big trouble if people like that aren’t allowed to do what they want to do. If people get misled and think it’s “Notting Hill” or something, it’s their problem.”

Katt admires actors who don’t wait for the phone to ring. He says he hopes to harness the momentum his career is generating to produce some projects of his own. He’s acquired rights to three books and also wants to make a movie with Hellman, an aging but little-known director (“Two Lane Blacktop”).

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He’s aware that he doesn’t carry much clout around town. “Sometimes I think if I did more sit-ups and went to the tanning salon, I could have a lot more power than I do now. At the end of the day, you do what your gut tells you to do.”


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