THE PERFORMANCE

Times Staff Writer

He's played a brooding, chain smoking journalist, a diabolical Hollywood pimp and a high school English teacher who brazenly slept with Tony Soprano's wife. In a 30-year acting career, David Strathairn has been identified with dark, introspective characters who smolder their way through memorable performances.

But now he's appearing as an aging, eccentric uncle in "The Spiderwick Chronicles," opening today, and the contrast is striking: Strathairn spends much of his time on screen interacting with computer-generated characters. It's a visual effects-laden fantasy that's a far cry from his Oscar-nominated turn as newsman Edward R. Murrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck."

Is it a radical departure? "More like on-the-job training," he joked, in a phone interview from his upstate New York home. "It was quite a learning experience, both fascinating and intimidating."

As Arthur Spiderwick, Strathairn's character has written a long-forgotten book that, once opened, unleashes a world of strange, unseen creatures. The film, featuring a blend of young actors and seasoned stars -- including Nick Nolte, Mary-Louise Parker and Joan Plowright -- becomes a high-voltage battle between good and evil.

For Strathairn, 59, the challenge was getting used to the intricacies of green screen work: "The mark where you are placed on the set is measured and related to something that's going to happen way down the road, so there are more constraints as far as action is concerned. You're relating to a giant griffin, which is actually a piece of white tape on a grip stand. All of this becomes a real test of the actor's imagination and concentration."

Not exactly what the actor -- or his fans -- have become accustomed to in a career including seven films by John Sayles (one of his closest friends and one of the screenwriters for "The Spiderwick Chronicles"). Other roles have included Pierce Patchett in "L.A. Confidential," as well as parts in "Silkwood," "A League of Their Own," "Bob Roberts," "Lost in Yonkers," "The Firm," "Losing Isaiah" and "The Notorious Bettie Page," among nearly 90 movies.

Strathairn said some of his most noteworthy moments have come from work with iconic, fiercely independent writer-directors. The richness of his experience as an actor has been kindled by the sense of community they create.

He noted, for example, that Sayles, whom he befriended in the 1960s, has a rare gift for ensemble filmmaking: "What's special about working with John is that after a while you develop a shared intuition about what he expects," he said. "There's a wonderful shorthand that develops. It's a case where familiarity breeds clarity."

Strathairn, born in San Francisco, began his career in 1980 with Sayles' "Return of the Secaucus Seven," later appearing in the filmmaker's "The Brother From Another Planet," "Matewan" and "Eight Men Out." And even though his appearance on "The Sopranos" was limited to three episodes, he relished the ensemble world created by David Chase. "That was such a well-oiled machine," he noted. "And I was one of the few characters who crossed the family and survived." Asked about his on-screen seduction of Carmela Soprano, he answered with a laugh: "I actually lived to tell the tale. That about says it all."

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josh.getlin@latimes.com

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Where you've seen him

David Strathairn, who began acting at Williams College in the 1960s, earned an Oscar nomination in 2005 for his portrayal of Edward R. Morrow in "Good Night, and Good Luck." He has appeared in "The Bourne Ultimatum," "L.A. Confidential" and other films, including seven by director John Sayles. He stars next in "My Blueberry Nights," playing an alcoholic policeman, in a cast that includes Norah Jones (in her screen debut), Natalie Portman, Rachel Weisz and Jude Law.

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