Eric Stoltz: True Confessions of a Faux Paraplegic

Though Stoltz had small parts over the next few years in various movies with names like Surf II, the first opportunity he had to employ his new technique in a starring role was in The Wild Life (the sequel to Fast Times), in which he played a recent high-school grad who rents an apartment in a swinging singles complex. "I got a job at a bowling alley, moved into Oakwood Apartments in Burbank and tried to live that life. It was awful. I had to clean other people's shoes, deal with women's bowling day. The time really dragged. On one level it was no fun at all, but on another level it was real interesting. I had the opportunity to hang out in the apartment complex's clubhouse and down by the pool. The place was filled with recently divorced people who were licking their wounds. I did that for two months. And, ultimately, it did make it easier to do the character."

Stoltz's technique and determination were vindicated in 1985 when he won a role that would, ironically, leave him relatively anonymous. The casting agents for Mask, the story of Rocky Dennis, a teenager with a horribly disfigured face, had refused to let Stoltz read for the part. When he had finally finagled his way into an audition via a sympathetic receptionist, he arrived for his big chance before the casting people wearing a stocking over his face. And he got the part. Now he really put the technique to work. Reportedly, he, like his pal Sean, insisted on being called Rocky, never Eric. But he went further than that. "I walked around town with the mask on," he says matter-of-factly. "It was important to get people's reactions in grocery stores and post offices and see what they would say when they saw me strolling down the street. I just wanted to get an idea of how Rocky may have felt, which was horrible. People were generally cruel and mean. They would make snide comments. Kids threw things at me. People took pictures and asked, 'Hey, are you in the circus?'"

Mask created screen careers for both Stoltz and Cher, who played his mom. But Stoltz's has not been a slide from one classy project to the next; he got fired off Back to the Future to make way for Michael J. Fox's screen career, and, over the years, he's been shanghaied into some terrible stuff, like The Fly II, in which he played the insect son of Jeff Goldblum. We do not discuss how he went about getting into that character, but he explains his presence in the film with what I'm beginning to see is his typically under-played, wry demeanor: "I wanted to be in every category of the video store-- teenage, drama, horror, porn... well, I haven't made the porn yet."

He's also made bad, but not all that embarrassing, movies like the Southern Gothic Sister, Sister, in which he starred with his then girlfriend Jennifer Jason Leigh. And he's made some interesting, little-seen movies he can be proud of, like Ivan Passer's Haunted Summer, in which he played the Romantic poet Shelley, with Alice Krige as Mary Shelley, Philip Anglim as Byron, Laura Dern as Claire Clairmont and Alex Winter as John Polidori. "Actually, Laura Dern got me that role. She brought me the script and told me that I should meet the director. Passer took us to dinner and offered me the role. Some directors just want to hire you after getting a sense of who you are and others want you to read a million times. Either way is fine with me. Although it's a lot more fun to just go out to dinner."

Stoltz's technique was a painless one on Haunted Summer. "We lived this sort of bohemian existence during that film. We thought of those people as the rock and roll stars of their day, young, hedonistic people pursuing anarchic lifestyles, shocking society. We were all passionate about it. I already had a knowledge of the Romantic poets, but I didn't know much about Shelley. So I read every book about his life. I read this man's mail. I went to the places he went. I had a great time. I remember one night on Lake Como when there was an incredible thunderstorm. All the power went out in our hotel. I went out on the balcony and saw Laura and Philip on a balcony, and Alex on the balcony next to them, watching the lightning. And I thought, this was what life should be like."

Stoltz tends to be equally droll about both won and lost opportunities. I ask him about the projects he's passed on for better or worse. "I've turned down a few that I've regretted after I saw the finished film," he says with put-on gravity. "I probably shouldn't have turned down Serpico. I guess that was a mistake. But Al did such a good job with that. Last Tango, I think turning that down might have been a mistake. I try not to look back."

One classy project Stoltz really was offered and did not turn down was Memphis Belle, the 1990 WWII story of young airmen making a last treacherous mission over Germany. Stoltz is happy to talk about his work on this film, mostly because the preparation he did was someone else's idea--director Michael Caton-Jones's. "Michael was a little twisted. He had us spend three weeks running five miles a day with packs on our back and sleeping with 20 other smelly, grumpy guys. I think he wanted to see spoiled Hollywood actors tortured and beaten down so he could come in and direct. After boot camp we were putty in his hands. He wore a general's cap on the set and occasionally walked around with a riding crop. He's a good director, but his sense of humor is obviously strange."

It was at Caton-Jones's house that Stoltz rekindled an old romance with GQ cover girl and dynastic heir Bridget Fonda, whom Caton-Jones had directed in Scandal (and who is starring with Stoltz's ex Jennifer Jason Leigh in the upcoming Single White Female).

Stoltz's romantic life has featured a distinguished sequence of actresses--the aforementioned Ally Sheedy and Jennifer Jason Leigh, plus Lili Taylor and now, for the second time, Fonda. ("I never look to fall in love with anybody. It's not like I said, 'I want to get involved with actresses.' They're the ones I happen to meet. And it makes life easier when you're involved with people who do the same thing you do.")

"Michael was throwing a pool party. Bridget happened to call and Michael invited her over. We hadn't seen each other for five or six years, so there were no hard feelings. It seemed natural to just sit down and talk. We became friends again for five or six months before getting romantically involved, and it's turned out to be quite wonderful. We felt like we had known each other since we were kids. It was sort of like getting into a warm bath."

Stoltz's first major role since Memphis Belle is one that, if you're going to go overboard getting into anything, truly merits it. The story in The Waterdance involves nothing more or less than the process of his character, writer/co-director Neal Jimenez's alter ego Joel Garcia, making the agonizing physical and psychological adjustments to life as a paraplegic. "The role required a lot of research. I spent every day for three or four months at the hospital, never getting out of the wheelchair. I would have lived there, but there aren't enough beds as it is."

One of the most wrenching scenes in the film is also one of the least obligatory sex scenes in the history of cinema. Joel, attempting to have a sexual reunion in a hotel with his girlfriend (Helen Hunt), ends up urinating on himself, and the tender emotion turns to pain and wrath. "Everybody's had bad sex," Stoltz says of how he approached this scene. "Everybody's been there. I've been there. I had some fears about doing the scene, but I knew it was an integral part of the story. It was no fun and difficult and embarrassing. I mean I was lying there, buck-naked, with a catheter on. But all of those embarrassing emotions help the scene, and, to me, the scene was more important than my personal feelings. As long as it helps the scene, I'll do just about anything. I don't care."

Stoltz's performance in The Waterdance has been justifiably praised. Among other intelligent touches, he shows a sardonic, pained meanness we've never seen from him in any other role but that here, as part of Joel, is necessary and believable. The months in the wheelchair were clearly worth it. But I can't help myself--I'm curious just how far Stoltz took his campaign toward empathy with his character. What about the catheter, or "gizmo," as it's referred to in the movie? Did he actually use it while he was in his wheelchair? Stoltz looks at me with astonishment. "Oh, my God," he says in answer to my out-of-bounds questions. Then he punches off the tape recorder, answers off-the-record and trundles off to the men's room at the back of Java.

When Eric returns with a last cup of tea, I ask him why he keeps such a tight lid on his discussion of his personal and professional life. "I'm in one of the most public professions in existence," he says. "But I've always felt that the less you know about an actor's personal life, the more you can get involved in the story in which he's playing a character. And I don't like to see movies where you know about everything that happens behind the scenes. I can't engage in the story if I know what's going on in the actor's head. I don't want to see the zipper in the back of the monster suit. Like everybody else who goes to the movies, I want to believe the monster is real."


Michael Kaplan interviewed Mercedes Ruehl for the May issue of Movieline.

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