Johnathon Schaech: Reappearing Act

After taking beefcake roles in That Thing You Do! and Hush, Johnathon Schaech took a break from mainstream films. Now he's hoping that playing magician Harry Houdini for TNT will prove he has chops beneath the chisel


"I was beaten to death. I was thrown in water, tied, buried alive. I had bruises and cuts." No, Johnathon Schaech (rhymes with deck) is not describing what he went through during his guest stint on Aaron Spelling's Models Inc. Nor is he referring to the three grueling years he spent trying to break into Hollywood. He's talking about what it took to play master magician Harry Houdini in this month's TNT movie Houdini. He's hoping his suffering will pay off. Although he first gained notice as a psychotic drifter in Gregg Araki's The Doom Generation and played a scruffy kidnap victim in the recent indie Welcome to Woop Woop, Schaech hasn't been able to live down the roles that exploited his model good looks--the country boy who tempted Winona Ryder in How to Make an American Quilt, the heartthrob singer in That Thing You Do! and the hunky husband of Gwyneth Paltrow in Hush. Though plenty of Schaech's flesh is visible in Houdini too, he's hoping that what people will come away with is the idea of how good he is in a lead part.

DENNIS HENSLEY: How important is your role in Houdini for your career?

JOHNATHON SCHAECH: I'd love it if it put me in a place where I could compete for really great roles. I put my heart and soul into this. If the Industry doesn't see my ability, they're never gonna see it.

Q: I heard that in one scene your costume is a thong. Did you mind wearing so little?

A: If my character would do it, I have no problem with it. For Houdini, it wasn't, "Look at my bare skin," even though he knew that was a selling point. It was, "Not only do I have nothing up my sleeve, I have nothing up my ass."

Q: Did anything surprise you about Houdini during your research?

A: At first, I thought he would be a bulldog. But he was kind and he had this incredible, loving relationship with his wife. I wish I could find love like that.

Q: According to gossip columns, you have a love of some kind with Christina Applegate. How did you two meet?

A: Gregg Araki brought her to a play that I was in. I saw her afterwards and I just kept looking at her. Finally, I introduced myself to her and saw a beautiful look in her eyes. I called Gregg to get her number and he said she had been waiting for me to call. So we went on a date. We took our time trying to build a relationship. I haven't given my personal life much of a chance in the last nine years, but now I am.

Q: Did you have any Kelly Bundy baggage to get over?

A: She doesn't act or look like that. But when my parents were in town there was always a rerun of Married...With Children on. Christina was in Hawaii at the time so they didn't get to meet her. I had to say, "She's not like that, Dad." Then someone at my dad's work said, "I can't believe he's going out with that slut!" I mean, they're talking about a friggin' TV series.

Q: I heard you were engaged.

A: I care for Christina a great deal, but it's not true. The gossip columns came up with that.

Q: What's your favorite tabloid story about yourself?

A: That I was Ellen DeGeneres's boyfriend. This was about two years ago. Needless to say, we're just good friends.

Q: You originally came to L.A. because you received an offer to dance for Chippendales, though you never ended up doing it. Now Barry Sonnenfeld's making a Chippendales movie. Are you going up for it?

A: It's a studio film, so I probably won't get an opportunity to read for it. [Laughs] The studios won't touch me because I haven't had something big in the marketplace for a very long time. It doesn't help that I haven't had an agent in a year, but I just got one. Right now, I'm not on anyone's list, but things change like that.

Q: In the last couple of years, you've made a string of indies, including Welcome to Woop Woop and Finding Graceland. Do you regret not doing bigger films?

A: My choices define who I am and I'll stand behind them. I love the movies I've made. I know they're not going to turn me into this huge movie star, but they've strengthened me as an actor.

Q: In your first major movie, How to Make an American Quilt, you made quite an impression as you seduced Winona Ryder. Did you two create sparks off camera?

A: No. She saved it for the film. I tried to hypnotize her by studying her breath but I don't think she fell for it.

Q: What's your favorite Gwyneth Paltrow memory from Hush?

A: [Laughs] Her dog had a crush on me. He was very confused about his sexuality. As hard as that film was--with all the rewrites and reshoots and how it was supposed to be my big launching pad and how it wasn't anything--I wouldn't give up that experience. I learned so much about acting from Gwyneth and Jessica Lange.

Q: What's the first thing you ever auditioned for?

A: To be a dancer on Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour.

Q: You're kidding! I auditioned for that, too. How did you do?

A: I couldn't do any of the dances. Madonna was laughing at me, so I started chatting her up. She was dating Warren Beatty at the time and she said, "Warren's gonna kill me," because I was talking to her. Then I got cut.

Q: What's one of the great perks of your chosen profession?

A: Taking my grandma to see a movie that I'm in. She's in her 70s and was really, really sick last year. I went to her bedside and I stuck with her every single day. When she was feeling better, I flew back to Baltimore just so I could take her to Hush. Just me and her on a date.

Q: Do you fit in at Hollywood soirees?

A: I don't fit in pretty much anywhere I go. My heart starts beating really fast and I can't catch my breath. I'm never comfortable. So if I don't need to go, why push myself?

Q: What's your favorite souvenir from Houdini?

A: I have this fantastic medieval leather straitjacket. It looks really good hanging on my bed. It's very dungeon-y and B&D.

Q: Has Christina ever worn the straitjacket?

A: [Laughs] No one's worn it.

Q: What's up next for you?

A: I was supposed to play Montgomery Clift in a biomovie, but the financing fell through. It screwed me up because I turned down other movies because of it.

Q: What attracted you to playing Clift?

A: He allowed himself to be a victim and I can understand that. Playing him would either have been a healing process or it would have killed me.


Dennis Hensley interviewed Ray Liotta for the August 98 issue of Movieline.