Even during his early days on the Seattle theater circuit, John Billingsley, 43, quickly came to realize his offbeat looks and manner would naturally steer him to certain kinds of roles. "I think the first job I had was playing a mentally retarded boy who had cerebral palsy," he says. "I just thought, 'I can see where this career is heading.' "
In the new film "Out of Time," directed by Carl Franklin and starring Denzel Washington, Billingsley has his biggest screen role. As Chae, the beer-drinking, chain-smoking medical examiner for a sleepy Florida town, his rumpled presence adds a strange charge to every scene he's in.
Having previously worked with Franklin on "High Crimes," where he had a small but pivotal role, the actor was brought in to read for the part of an insurance agent in "Out of Time." He was surprised when he got called back in to read for a different part -- that of an old Chinese man.
"It was originally written as kind of a Pat Morita part," Billingsley says, "and I don't know why, but Carl decided he wanted me and really fought for me. I'm sure there were plenty of people who thought I was more trouble than I'd be worth."
The trouble came from Billingsley's regular role as Dr. Phlox on the "Star Trek"-related TV show "Enterprise." For the course of Billingsley's shoot on "Out of Time," schedules were coordinated around him, with L.A.-based "Enterprise" creating a special four-episode arc to accommodate his Miami film shoots.
For now, Billingsley continues to audition and is happy to have the security a TV series provides. "I wouldn't say I've given up hope about one day getting lead parts, I don't think any actor would throw ambition entirely out the window, but I'm a realist. And I tell you, so far the checks do not bounce."
-- Mark Olsen