Dermot Mulroney, who takes a rare comic turn in the critically acclaimed "About Schmidt," made his name with "boyfriend" roles in movies such as "How to Make an American Quilt" and "My Best Friend's Wedding." But to director Alexander Payne, he was a natural for the part of Randall, the mullet-haired, overly earnest waterbed salesman -- who, as the prospective son-in-law of Jack Nicholson's repressed insurance actuary, drives the man nuts.
"I hope to have destroyed Dermot's leading man reputation," Payne said. "Like Marcello Mastroianni, he's a character actor trapped in a leading man's face. The film's dynamic depends on the audience liking Randall, our fool and truth teller. Dermot brought a sweetness to the guy rather than making fun of him."
His "leading man face" also helped Mulroney get cast as the self-absorbed Hollywood actor in last year's "Lovely & Amazing" and now in Rose Troche's "The Safety of Objects," an ensemble piece based on the stories of A.M. Homes that opened Friday. The low-budget ($7 million) IFC movie, co-starring Glenn Close and Mary Kay Place, follows four suburban couples over four days. Passed over for a promotion, Mulroney's workaholic lawyer -- reluctant to leave the office even during a bomb scare -- realizes that his storybook life is unraveling. Although he's gotten by on his looks, his charm is starting to wear thin.
"It's a risk for an actor who usually plays younger to portray the father of a 10- and 12-year-old kid, but Dermot was happy to do it," Troche observed. "He projects a comfort that makes him sexy."
That sense of self has been tested, at times, during Mulroney's 17 years in the business, waiting for what he calls his "moment." Sandwiched between Cameron Diaz and Julia Roberts as the love interest in the 1997 romantic comedy "My Best Friend's Wedding," he was said to be poised for stardom. Instead, he found himself in an underwritten role upstaged by Rupert Everett's witty, gay book editor.
Letting go of expectations, says Mulroney, 39, has helped curtail the frustration. Besides, playing character roles is more satisfying than tackling "straight and narrow guys." So what if he's still confused with "The Practice's" Dylan McDermott? (Psst ... he's the one with the scar over his lip, the remnant of a childhood fall.) Playing Jennifer Aniston's alluring co-worker in three episodes of "Friends" in January bolstered his profile more than feature films ever did, he notes. For the most part, he's been relegated to quirky roles in mainstream movies -- or, quite often, independent fare.
"It's funny," Mulroney observed between bites of an egg sandwich at a Westside cafe. "I was playing not only second banana, but third out of five. After giving up my career goals a few years ago, I got three great pictures -- 'About Schmidt,' 'Safety of Objects' and 'Lovely & Amazing.' Maybe there's a connection."
Mulroney's timing wasn't great when it came to making his mark. In the early and mid-1990s, he says, his roles in movies like "Bad Girls" and "Copycat" became sidekicks to empowered women.
" 'Thelma and Louise' reversed the balance of the sexes," he said. "I was essentially the 'wife,' in underdeveloped secondary roles. I was reluctant to take on 'My Best Friend's Wedding,' in which I got the first bad reviews of my career. There's no getting around it: Three out of four performances were special. Industry interest in me tapered off.
"Hollywood, I've learned, isn't a game with rules, but a machine driven by technological illogic," he continues. "You don't need tactics, just WD-40 oil. I try to keep motivation and competition separate because this isn't a meritocracy."
Spurning a music career
To Mulroney, one of four boys in a brood of five growing up in Arlington, Va., competition was second nature. He played the cello in six prestige youth orchestras, winning a few prizes, and performing solo as a teen. But a music career required four to six hours of daily practice so Mulroney put it aside.
Instead, he entered the TV-radio-film department at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., where he joined the school's improv troupe and appeared in "The Mikado." During his senior year, William Morris agent Barbara Gale auditioned drama majors in a search for Chicago talent. Signing him immediately, she got him the part of Bill Bixby's son in CBS' TV movie "Sin of Innocence." "He'll be a household name," Gale told the Washington Post at the time. "Everyone who's seen him says he's a better actor than Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks."
Before long, Mulroney surfaced in other TV movies, and in full-length films such as Blake Edwards' "Sunset" and the hit "Young Guns" in 1988.
In 1989, he appeared in the wilderness adventure "Survival Quest," a movie that had lifelong repercussions for the actor. On the shoot, he met actress Catherine Keener ("Being John Malkovich," "Lovely & Amazing"), who was caught in a river current during filming and floated precariously close to white-water rapids. Mulroney jumped in and the two of them were picked up a half-mile downstream. In 1990, they married and, nine years later, had a son, Clyde.
The couple is an acting tag team, advising each other on script selection and creative problems, flashing baseball signs ("louder," "slower") on each other's sets. They've also appeared together in four films, including 1995's "Living in Oblivion" (which Mulroney co-produced) and last year's well-received "Lovely & Amazing," Nicole Holofcener's tale of a dysfunctional Los Angeles family.
In his acting career, Mulroney has worked with some heavyweight talent: Robert Altman ("Kansas City"), Sam Shepard ("Silent Tongue") and Alan Rudolph ("Trixie"). He's kept his hand in music, as well. In the mid-'90s, he played cello, mandolin and guitar in the Low and Sweet Orchestra, a rock band whose album "Goodbye to All That" was released on Interscope Records. Mulroney also performed in a few concerts with the Manhattan Beach-based Beach Cities Symphony and on the Melissa Etheridge album "Never Enough."
"I didn't go into music because it was impractical," he said. "Acting isn't either, of course, but that's what I love about it."
Mulroney regards his role in "About Schmidt" as that of a straight man, even if it played more comedic. He calls the film a "very serious comedy" -- and Nicholson approached it that way. Instead of the jokester he expected, the star was all business.
"I treated Nicholson without any element of awe," he said. "It sounds self-aggrandizing, but because I've worked with Paul Newman, Richard Harris -- the list goes on -- I don't let an actor's previous work reflect in my eyeballs in a scene. You have to kick that out of you. Nicholson didn't want to be treated like that."
Others may regard Randall as a doofus, but not Mulroney. With his love for Schmidt's daughter, Jeannie, and his unbridled optimism, he says, the character is a "straight-up -- if slightly oblivious -- guy." Randall, it's true, isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. Unaware of his father-in-law's antipathy, he greets him with a bear hug. Oblivious to the fact that the family is on to him, he denies he's been peddling a pyramid scheme.
"It was all on the page," the actor said. "Knowing how he'd look, the white cotton sweater with the howling wolf, the mullet haircut and handlebar mustache, the splay-footed gait, made me do less," he said. "It was already a vivid picture."
The shoot for "Safety of Objects," with its tight schedule and multiple locations, was considerably more intense than "Schmidt," he recalls. So much so that at one point he "lost it," and lashed into the director. Was his character, stitched together from two short stories, making a credible transition? he asked. Were they being true to the book? Troche said she understood his concerns but told him to "simmer down, let it go."
Mulroney next plays the father of Jamie Bell ("Billy Elliott") in a moody, Southern action film, "Undertow," to be shot in the spring with director David Gordon Green ("All the Real Girls"). Scripts are coming in. But, when it comes to mainstream fare, studios still aren't serving up the plum roles.
That's OK, the actor suggests. Stardom has its trade-offs. In this roller coaster of an industry, he's become philosophical about the ride.
"I see myself as a journeyman actor," Mulroney said. "I don't worry about the outcome. In the end, I'm recognized for what I do rather than who I am."