At 43, LaPaglia settles comfortably into his skin

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Movie audiences knew Anthony LaPaglia as the funny, courtly Mafioso in Betsy's Wedding (1990) or the menacing mobster Barry "the Blade" Muldano in The Client (1994). TV audiences knew him as an intense L.A. lawyer in Murder One (1996-7) or as Simon Moon in Frasier. And theater audiences knew him as troubled Brooklyn dockworker Eddie Carbone in an acclaimed revival of Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, for which he won a Tony Award in 1998.

From now on, he will be known for Lantana.

"It's one of those movies that actors and particularly filmmakers really seem to like," LaPaglia says. "It represents a kind of filmmaking that's quite rare now. It's about something, it's intelligent and it doesn't insult the audience."

The chance to appear in this audacious psychological drama brought the actor, who just turned 43, back to his native Australia. (He moved to New York roughly 20 years ago, after Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Art rejected him.) And the Down Under film scene re-invigorated him.

"One thing that impresses me about Australian filmmaking is that they haven't figured out that it's a business yet," he says. "The directors are still in charge: there's not some studio dink telling them how to cast it or shoot it or tell the story. It makes a big difference when you let talented people make the decisions you hired them to make, because they will make decisions based on the content, not the money."

In the case of Lantana, creative autonomy paid off, with seven Australian Film Institute awards, five Australian Independent Film awards, and the best reception at the box-office for any Australian movie last year. It has become a rallying-point for other moviemakers. In interviews for his own movie Last Orders (a British production due out here this spring), director Fred Schepisi, one of the Grand Masters of Australian film, couldn't help asking, "Have you seen Lantana? Isn't it wonderful the way it twists around in ways you wouldn't expect?"

'An intricate pattern'

The movie is an improbable wonder, and LaPaglia is the Krazy Glue holding it all together. He plays Sydney police detective Leon Zat, a man who's lost his vital spark. He treads like a zombie through the home he shares with two sons and his sharp, lovely wife (Kerry Armstrong); he only to some extent vents his frustrations on the job. The search for a missing person who may have been murdered requires Leon to assess a welter of relationships. They include his own affair with a separated woman (Rachael Blake), and the troubled marriage of a psychotherapist (Barbara Hershey) and an academic (Geoffrey Rush), whose 11-year-old daughter was murdered two years before.

Adapted by Andrew Bovell from his own play, Speaking in Tongues, this movie is a virtuoso ensemble piece, with a dozen characters who impinge on the main action and make up a cross section of the contemporary middle class and its discontented. The director, Ray Lawrence, only has one previous feature credit -- the 1985 surreal satire Bliss -- but is a renowned maker of TV commercials.

LaPaglia has been one of Lawrence's biggest fans since he first met his wife, Gia Carides, who appeared in the director's debut movie. "When we met each other, we did the whole I'll-look-at-your-movies-if-you'll-look-at-mine thing," LaPaglia says. "So I watched Bliss and I loved it."

With Carides playing creative matchmaker, Lawrence and LaPaglia had lunch, clicked, and agreed to collaborate some day.

The cliche idea of a TV-commercial director is that he's an expert in gloss. But LaPaglia says that Lawrence "has a reputation that's based not on lighting, style, or slickness, but on his ability to tell a story in 30 seconds. In this movie he tells tons of little 30-second stories. They make quite an intricate pattern."

Lawrence sent LaPaglia the script for Lantana. The actor told him, "Just tell me you want me for Leon." At an age when most actors are fighting for romantic leads, LaPaglia isn't the first performer you'd expect to go after a burnt-out case. But LaPaglia embraced the mixed-up, embattled family man. When the New York Times Sunday Styles section did a front-page feature titled "Middle-Aged Lovers Jostle Onto the Screen," the picture they used was of LaPaglia and Armstrong.

"I'm proud to be there," LaPaglia says. "When I was younger, I kind of fell between the cracks: I was a character actor who could play some offbeat leading-role stuff. Now I'm at the age at which I always thought I'd be most comfortable; I always figured that I would hit my stride in my 40s. And what's happening is that I fit into my skin better."

'All about performance'

That comfort level was crucial for anchoring this film: to flesh out Bovell's rich, ambiguous writing, Lawrence threw the actors back on their own resources.

"So many times when you're asked to explain something that happened in your life, you actually can't," LaPaglia says. "There's nothing clear or rational -- it just kind of happens. The writing here allows for that. Audiences have to make their own minds up about what they think is happening, because we're not sure either. In a lot of ways you can imprint your own experience on this film."

When Lawrence was directing the film, he connected intimately with the actors without giving them explicit instructions. "He asked a series of questions, like, 'What would you do in this situation?' " LaPaglia says.

"It was a luxurious process for an independent film. It was all about performance. Ray's thing with me was stripping away stuff -- and it was tremendously liberating. He would say, 'The audience is a step ahead of you; take that into consideration.' He just wanted us to tell the truth on screen. The writer did the job of being clever; our job was to impart whatever emotional experience we had onto his lines.

"It's what you dream of as an actor: being able to inhabit a role so that ultimately you're wandering in front of a camera and behaving."

LaPaglia communicates complex feelings even in simple scenes -- for example, when Leon attends a salsa class with his wife. "He's there against his will," LaPaglia says. "He's there because he understands that she's attempting to do something with him. And while he's not sure what's going on in their marriage, he knows he's obliged to try and go along with it."

'King Lear' for Italians

The star was so happy with Lantana that he enlisted writer Bovell in his latest dream project: bringing A View from the Bridge to the screen. (The script, in its second draft, is about to be sent out to directors.) As he explains it: "Arthur Miller didn't want to do the adaptation, so we needed someone who was (a) willing to tackle Arthur Miller and (b) able to open up a play and write new scenes that look like Arthur might have written them."

LaPaglia loved the way Bovell excised the theatricality of Speaking in Tongues and "re-inserted the real-life stuff" for Lantana. And he dubs the writer's work on Bridge "amazing."

LaPaglia is fanatical about A View from the Bridge, though it's usually considered a "problem" play in Miller's corpus. The actor sees "an emotional connection" between Leon Zat and Eddie Carbone: both are conflicted in their love lives, confused in their social roles, and unable to articulate their true desires. Eddie's attraction to his niece leads him to betray her illegal-immigrant suitor to the authorities, knowing it will cause his own shunning in the community. (Eddie may also be sexually drawn to her suitor.)

Like Leon, Eddie is thrilling, counter-intuitive casting for LaPaglia: "Eddie is supposed to be in his 50s. I played him when I was 38. But I didn't play him as a 50-year-old -- I played him as a 38-year-old, and it made the play more interesting. He became much more of a sexual threat."

The 1998 stage revival succeeded, according to LaPaglia, because it opened up the action from Eddie's apartment to the streets and suggested all the possibilities in the material. "When I read it as a young guy, I always thought it was King Lear for Italians," he says. "It always had an operatic feel. And that's what we did with it: We made it big."

There may be a thematic connection with Lantana as well -- both stories are partly about loyalty to your partner or your friends. LaPaglia says of Bridge: "At that particular point in time, your neighborhood was everything, and your relationship to the people there was everything, and consequently you could never rat anybody out.

"The brilliance of Arthur's writing is that it's so subtle. One of the things he said to me is, 'I write very lean; I get rid of all the fat. If you commit to the material, when you play it, you play it with speed -- you don't stop and take big dramatic pauses because there's no room for that.' And what you realize is that if you play this thing straight down the line, the emotional stuff just flies out of it. It's an incredible piece of writing, a genius piece of writing.

"Anyway, it's become my obsession."

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