Poised on the brink of movie stardom, Thomas Jane is a man to be envied. He's got the looks, he's got the career, he's got the glamorous fiancee (actor Patricia Arquette) and the cute young daughter, 14-month-old Harlow.
But consider what it took for him to become what he is - dropping out of school at 16, sleeping on the streets of L.A., eating out of garbage cans, living off the residuals of playing a guy in a chicken suit. For all the dues-paying he's done, success may be the least he deserves.
"I guess I was young and crazy," the sandy-haired Jane says between cigarettes in the bar of a posh Washington hotel. "I just didn't see myself doing anything else. I knew that I had to take some kind of action - that's a kind of boldness that lends itself to its own creativity."
Jane, 35, is the Baltimore-born, suburban D.C.-raised actor whose steady rise in the Hollywood ranks took a major leap this month with the opening of The Punisher (No. 4 at the box office last weekend), his first starring role in a major-studio release.
There really was no other way to go but up.
Disinterested in academics, determined to make it as an actor and convinced the Washington-area schools in which he was enrolled would be of no help, Jane chucked it all for a life of casting calls and agents, parts that don't materialize and parts you may wish had never materialized.
Nineteen years later, with his turn as Marvel Comics' vigilante killing machine having opened on 2,649 movie screens nationwide, Jane realizes how lucky he is to have gambled so much and won, in a game where losses are much more the norm.
"I just kind of felt it instinctually," Jane says, "that if I really wanted to do something, I had to do something about it, something outside the box. I had to jump in with both feet and just hit it as hard as I could. It turned out to pay off for me."
That appears to be true. While The Punisher, the story of how FBI agent Frank Castle evolved from law enforcer to vengeance-seeking vigilante, received tepid reviews, Jane has earned praise for the workmanlike solidity of his performance and his refusal to resort to caricature. The movie may not make him a major star, but it should help the steady ascent of an actor who has worked with such influential directors as Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), John Woo (Face/Off) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), and such screen mainstays as Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson.
"I always try to work with people who are better than I am, because I'm trying to learn as much as I can," he says. "I'm trying to hone my craft and become the best actor I can be. ... Stanislawski said it takes 20 years to make an actor. I think he's probably right. I've got a little bit to grow."
Jane's stay in his native Baltimore was brief - so brief, in fact, that the only thing he claims to remember is eating clams alongside his dad at Faidley's raw bar at Lexington Market. His father's job (he works in biogenetic engineering, developing tools and instruments) soon had the family relocating to the Washington suburbs. At age 9, Jane experienced something of an epiphany when his dad took him to see Ridley Scott's Alien. "I was fascinated," he says, "I discovered there was this other world there."
Jane began building sets for the school vaudeville review. "I sort of got cajoled into auditioning for the play we were building sets for, because I was always cutting up and acting the goof. I got in the play, and that kind of sparked it off that I [could] do what I wanted to do. So I dropped out of high school."
And into the arms of Ralph Tabakin, a Silver Spring acting coach who died in 2001 and is best known locally for the small roles he has played in every Barry Levinson film (on TV's Homicide: Life on the Street, he played medical examiner Scheiner). It was Tabakin who got Jane his first role on camera.
"Some Indians - from India - came to town, and they wanted to make a Romeo and Juliet-type story, about an American kid and an Indian girl. I got the job through Ralph, went off to India to live for a few months, toured all around this country making the movie."
One Bollywood credit doesn't guarantee a 17-year-old much in the way of a career, however, and Jane soon found himself pounding the Hollywood pavement. "I was basically penniless. I stayed in welfare hotels and lived off food stamps, played guitar on the street, slept on the street sometimes.
"I bummed around different little acting classes around L.A. for a while, I saw a lot of guys keep their waiter jobs and go to school on the side to be an accountant or whatever. Everybody had a backup plan. I did not. I ate out of trash cans, that was my backup plan."
Slowly, the parts came. Jane earned his union card for a commercial in which he wore a chicken costume and was featured in an AT&T; commercial deemed "too dark" by the company and never aired. He earned small parts in films like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), The Crow: City of Angels (1996), Face/Off (1997). "And then I got Boogie Nights (1997), which was my first real role," he says. "From then on, I felt that I could make a career out of being a character actor."
The trickle of parts grew to include starring roles in independent films such as The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997), based on the life of Beat writer Neal Cassady, and Thursday (1998), in which he played a reformed drug dealer whose past catches up to him. One of his first forays into what he calls "leading-man kind of stuff" came with HBO's 61*, director Billy Crystal's take on the 1961 home-run race between New York Yankees Mickey Mantle (Jane) and Roger Maris (Barry Pepper).
Other fame started coming Jane's way, not all of it welcome. In 2002, he was the victim of identity theft when a 30-year-old-man who looked a little like Jane was charged with bilking an Eau Claire, Wis., woman out of some $58,000 worth of property.
But all this was just a preamble to Frank Castle, aka the Punisher, a role that "is more true to what I wanted to do, who I was, and what I wanted to say as an actor," Jane says.
"It's important for him to be very real and a very human person. That he be identifiable in a way that a larger-than-life cartoonish character isn't.
"Ultimately, I feel isolated from a guy who can put on a suit and fly, or his laser vision shoots out. ... I've never been very much interested in playing a superhero, per se. Frank appealed to me because he has a lot more in common with the anti-heroes of the '70s than he does with the comic-book heroes of today."
Sounds like the kind of role upon which careers can be built.
"The Punisher is the film I've been waiting for a long time," Jane says. "Waiting to get good enough, waiting for people to notice me and give me the chance to do that kind of part."
Born: Jan. 29, 1969
Given name: Thomas Elliott (Jane is his mother's maiden name)
First movie: Bollywood's Padamati Sandhya Ragam (1986), as the American love interest of an Indian girl.
Movies in which you may not have noticed him: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992), Boogie Nights (1997), The Thin Red Line (1998)
What's in a name?: Though credits for The Punisher list him as Thomas Jane, he now prefers Tom. "Everybody just always called me Tom," he recently told ABC.