Ask James Waterston about looking remarkably like his famous father and he assumes you're talking about breaking into the business when you've got a successful parent.
"I thought you meant the advantages of being," he lowers his voice, " 'Son of Sam.' "
Yes, he sometimes gets called by his father's first name when being ushered into an audition, and oh, yeah, Variety got it wrong when it said he would be starring in the upcoming Merchant Ivory film "Le Divorce" -- his dad got that part.
But he struggles with the question of what life would be like were he not Sam's son. "I don't know what my career would be like if my father were a carpenter," he says. "It's hard when people see me as just a younger version of him."
James Waterston snagged some coveted screen roles when he was just 19: as Gerard in "Dead Poet's Society" and opposite John Hurt in "Little Sweetheart." Recently he appeared with Michael Keaton and Helena Bonham Carter in HBO's "Live From Baghdad." Now he's got a leading role in "Proof" at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.
Michael Bloom, the director who cast him, said this is only the beginning for the 34-year-old actor. "He's going to be doing more leading roles and character roles -- he can do both -- and movies. He has an inner brightness that the camera would pick up. And there's a kind of intensity and focus that he inherits from his dad."
There's that dad thing again. It's inevitable. James Waterston is tall like his dad, with dark hair like his dad. He looks most like Sam when he tucks his chin back to chuckle and his eyes almost disappear. A chip off the old block? Both are well educated. Dad studied at the Sorbonne, and James took an English degree with a theater minor at Yale.
But James has moved to Los Angeles to take his career in a slightly different direction; Sam tried once but never moved from the East Coast. And although Sam Waterston is well known for major movie roles such as Nick Carraway in "The Great Gatsby" (1974) and Sidney Schanberg in "The Killing Fields" (1984), he's had an even bigger career in television ("Gore Vidal's Lincoln," "I'll Fly Away," "Law & Order") and on stage.
"His stage career rivals anybody's," said James. "It's just unbelievable. He got to do 20 years' worth of Joe Papp's Shakespeare festival."
Sam Waterston was "very unopinionated" about whether his son should go into acting, James says. He said, 'If you're interested in this, here's some books you should read. But there are a lot of other things to do in the world.' "
So James was slow to make up his mind. "I grew up on sets and backstage and traveling. I saw what it looked like and what the life was like. But I didn't really find out how exciting it was to act until I did a production of 'Long Day's Journey Into Night' when I was 26. And from there I thought, 'This is what I want to do.' "
He played Edmund Tyrone first in Pittsburgh. Then in Syracuse. His co-star? Sam Waterston.
"It was the longest uninterrupted chunk of time we'd spent together in a long while," James said. "We were living in this little housing thing. We'd have dinner together, talk about the play. Walk back, talk about the play. Get to my door and he would stand in the doorway for 45 minutes talking about scenes.... He was talking with this passion; it was bliss."
James Waterston is married to a woman he met at Yale, and they live in West Hollywood. "She's Norwegian, and she likes the light in L.A. Wintertime up there is so dark." On Sunday nights when the last shows are done at SCR, he heads back home to rest. Monday is laundry night, and if there's any down time he spends it playing the piano. "I like early traditional jazz, Professor Longhair stuff."
And he keeps looking for great roles, parts that would catapult him to a place dad's never been. "I don't know what would happen to me if suddenly I opened my door and there were 400 people screaming my name." But does he want it? "Oh, yeah. That'd be fun. We'll see. What's that quote about fame by Keats? 'You make your best bow and bid adieu, and if she likes you, she will follow you.' "
Where: South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with weekend matinees at 2:30 p.m. Continues through Feb. 9.
Info: (714) 708-5555.
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James Waterston: the particulars
Date of birth: Jan. 17, 1969
Height: 6 feet, 3 inches
"Dead Poets Society," (1989)
"Little Sweetheart" (1989)
"A Dog Race in Alaska" (1993)
"Live From Baghdad" (2002)
"Without Warning" (2002)
"Christy: The Movie" (2001)
"Shrinking Violet" (2001)
"Law & Order" (1990)
New York credits include "Another Time," "The Lady and the Clarinet," "Circus Maximus" and "The Pollyanas." He has appeared in regional theater at the Globe Theatres, the Huntington Theatre, Pittsburgh Public Theater, Fulton Opera House and others. A founding member of Malaparte Theater Company with Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard. (The company is on hiatus.)
Yale, English degree with a minor in theater