Eric Stoltz: True Confessions of a Faux Paraplegic

Eric Stoltz talks about growing up barefoot, falling back in love with Bridget Fonda and spending three months in a wheelchair for his role in The Waterdance.

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When Robert De Niro gained 50 pounds to lend believability to his portrayal of fighter Jake La Motta's nightclub shtick days in 1980's Raging Bull, he unwittingly set a contemporary standard of dedication that has since been held up to younger actors. Needless to say, most young actors are unlikely to be offered a vehicle worthy of such artistic sacrifice and are unlikely to match De Niro's accomplishments in any case. Nevertheless, throughout the '80s a number of fervent, ambitious young talents, many of them disciples of the late, revered acting teacher Peggy Feury, went to some amusing or astonishing lengths to get into character.

As early as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (not exactly Raging Bull territory), Sean Penn was so deeply immersed in the subtleties of his character, Spicoli the fuckup, that he insisted on being called by his character's name for the duration of shooting and refused to fraternize with cast members not in his in-story social set. Among actors of this generation, however, the pace of excess was set early on by Nic Cage, who reportedly had teeth extracted for his role in Birdy and went on to the greater glory of eating a live cockroach on-screen for Vampire's Kiss. Other examples appear piddling next to Cage's heights, but one could also point out that Val Kilmer hardly removed his leather pants during a long stretch of time that began well before he was even cast as Jim Morrison and ended not until well after shooting of The Doors was finished.

This is the milieu in which Eric Stoltz has grown up as an actor, and he has, in his quieter way, indulged in similar excesses. In terms of real life, he has never kept up with these other guys--no drugs, drink, fighting or helicoptered weddings. But in his passion for assuming other identities on screen and stage, he's gone his own distances in pursuit of excellence within projects that have and have not merited such dedication: Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Mask, Some Kind of Wonderful, Sister, Haunted Summer, Manifesto, The Fly II, Memphis Belle and, on stage, Our Town.

Stoltz's longtime friend James' Spader recalls their adventures playing the sons of Robert Mitchum on a TV movie called "A Killer in the Family," during which Spader himself was, thanks to activities he neglects to detail, getting very little sleep. "It was kind of ironic," he says, "because the characters that Eric and I played were both on the lam and neither of them were getting much rest." Spader claims his insomnia had nothing to do with getting deeper into his role: "I wanted to sleep. But Eric, as an acting exercise, was intentionally depriving himself of a great deal of sleep. It was very funny. As I stumbled down to the steam room at three o'clock in the morning to sweat the poisons out of my system, I'd run into Eric. He was there simply to keep himself awake."

Stoltz has most recently inhabited a character and a role actually worth some degree of actor excess, the lead in The Waterdance, writer/co-director Neal (River's Edge) Jimenez's semi-autobiographical story of a writer's experience in a rehabilitation hospital after an accident that has left him paralyzed from the waist down. Jimenez is very respectful of the focus shown by the actor who plays his alter ego: "Eric is a low-maintenance actor--he goes into a project assuming the director will be a traffic cop. He arrives on the set absolutely prepared to direct himself." But Jimenez was plenty taken aback when Stoltz arrived for an early meeting at a trendy L.A. restaurant already well into character: "Eric showed up at L.A. Trattoria in a wheelchair--which he continued to use throughout the filming."

It's just this sort of thing I want to talk to Stoltz about when I meet him one sunny Thursday morning at the Beverly Boulevard coffeehouse he's part owner of, Java. Stoltz has just flown in from New York following the close of his Broadway play Two Shakespearean Actors. He's dressed in beat-up jeans, a jacket with a tight plaid pattern and a bohemian goatee that goes suspiciously well with this extracurricular enterprise. Strolling past solitary, earnest coffee-sippers hunched over newspapers and scripts, Stoltz nods at the woman behind the counter and asks for chamomile tea "We're out of chamomile," she tells her boss. "How about a pot of Sleepy Time?" Stoltz glances at me, and at my tape recorder. "We better not have Sleepy Time," he tells her.

Moments later, peppermint tea in hand, Stoltz leads the way to a small table, sits down and faces me, his eyes suddenly flinty, his manner slightly skeptical and more than slightly guarded. I start out by asking him how he prepared for portraying the emotional difficulties his character faces in The Waterdance. "I won't go too deeply into the incidents I've used in Waterdance," Stoltz says carefully. "Things happen to everybody in the course of a lifetime. Relationships end, people die, tragedy befalls everyone. So everyone has this wealth of experience, and the older you are the more you have to draw on."

In an attempt to circumnavigate Stoltz's reticence, I decide to go back a few years to when this actor indeed had much less experience to draw on. One of the odder, if not most extreme, examples of Eric's getting into character that I heard about when I asked around concerned his work on John Hughes's 1987 Some Kind of Wonderful, the feel-good teen film in which, you may remember, he played the jittery virgin boy who lusts after the unreachable Lea Thompson and is lusted after by the undesirable Mary Stuart Masterson. It was understandably going to take some work for a 26-year-old Hollywood actor to get into the soul of a sexually pent-up teenager in Apple Pie, USA. But, I ask Stoltz, did he really decide to remain celibate throughout the shooting? Stoltz looks at me as if I have just struck him. "That's outrageous," he says. Then his voice picks up a little steam. "This is outrageous. Have you been seeing an old girlfriend of mine or something?"

"Is it true?"

"Yes," he admits. "It sounds so stupid, though. It wasn't stupid for me to do, and it helped me to play the character. But when I hear it now, years later, it's like something I did in the past. I'm imagining this in print and thinking about how ridiculous this will look."

Yeah, well, it isn't exactly eating a live cockroach. But Eric tells me he hates talking about his technique. From a certain point of view it is a no-win thing to do, since, he correctly points out, having the audience know these background details can detract from the effect of the performance. And, of course, actor stuff can sound a little silly. So we change subjects and Eric tells me how he came to the strange profession of acting. "My parents moved to American Samoa when I was three or four years old. My dad was principal of a high school there. It was idyllic for a kid. I had a whole island for a backyard. I lived there until I was eight years old and we moved to Santa Barbara. That was a rough transition to make. I remember being the only kid in second grade who couldn't tie his shoelaces, because I had never worn shoes on the island."

Stoltz studied drama at USC, where he fell in love with Ally Sheedy. "We met in history class. Neither of us were acting [in films] at the time. We were just kids in college. We lived together in a commune on Hollywood Boulevard. It was a huge old Victorian house called the Harris Hollywood House, and there were four or five rooms filled with expatriots from England, a handful of homeless people, lots of young, aspiring actors. It was cheap and the atmosphere was exciting. It was a wonderful, messy, fervent time filled with crazy people starting their careers and very excited about what might happen."

Stoltz made his film debut as a stoned-out surfer in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, during which he asked Sean Penn to recommend an acting school for him. Penn touted his own teacher, Peggy Feury, and Stoltz began studying at her Loft Studio. It was under her influence that he began to take acting seriously. And it was her variation on the Method that he took to heart.

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