Dylan McDermott: Dylan Unplugged

Dylan McDermott may seem blessed with great fortune-- he's on the hit series "The Practice," he's starring in the upcoming film Texas Rangers and he's happily married-- but his successes have been hard-won. Here he discusses some of the lows, including losing his mother at age five and growing up on mean streets--and reveals some of his personal quirks, like not wearing underwear.

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It's really something of a mystery why it took an actor as ruggedly handsome and capable as Dylan McDermott 13 years, 15 films and three TV movies to find stardom. Then again, considering McDermott's upbringing, it's amazing he's even alive today. His parents split before his second birthday, and at age five he lost his mother (who was just 15 at the time of his birth) in what was, despite unanswered questions, ruled a gun accident involving her live-in boyfriend. The young Dylan was sent to live with his grand-mother in a rough town in Connecticut while his lather tended bar in New York City, and by his teen years he was used to getting in serious brawls. At age 16, things turned for the better when his father married Eve Ensler, an actress only eight years Dylan's senior, who eventually adopted him and turned out to be his guiding light. She saw him through his tough years when he worked at bars and partied hard at Manhattan discos, and finally persuaded him to stop drinking and start acting.

After studying with Sanford Meisner and appearing in a play directed by Joanne Woodward, McDermott moved to Hollywood. His film debut in I987's Vietnam War film Hamburger Hill was impressive, and a couple of years later he starred in Steel Magnolias, during which he became engaged to costar Julia Roberts. But he didn't make another successful movie until In the Line of Fire four years later, and the five films that followed, which included the remake of Miracle on 34th Street, and Jodie Foster's Home for the Holidays, did nothing to build his career further. He decided TV might be the way, so he took the lead in David E. Kelley's new TV series "The Practice" in 1997, only to face what looked like failure again during the show's first year. Then "The Practice" took and started winning Emmys, and today people have finally stopped confusing Dylan McDermott with that other actor, Dermot Mulroney. McDermott has never stopped making films the fit Three to Tango in during his "Practice" hiatus) and next he's in Texas Rangers. Now 38, McDermott lives with his 28-year old wife, Shiva, and their four-year-old daughter, Colette, in the Brentwood house his "Practice" paychecks allowed him to buy from Melanie Griffith and Antonio Banderas.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: How many times have you gone into a film thinking, "This is it," and it never went anywhere?

DYLAN McDERMOTT: There've been a few of those, certainly. I've been lucky to survive my failures. I've made some not-so-good decisions, and I've been through many agents and managers. Every actor feels he can make a movie better and I've busied my ass trying to do so, but what I've learned is, you can't you can only make it as good as the script is.

Q: Do you feel like you've ever scored with a film?

A: No.

Q: So you're batting zero for 13?

A: [Laughs] No, 15. Actually, I'd say my first movie, Hamburger Hill was there. I did a pretty good job in that. After that, maybe In the Line of Fire. And then Texas Rangers. Those would be my three.

Q: Do you hope Texas Rangers will make you a movie star?

A: It's all a gamble. But I saw the picture and it reminds me of Rid River at its best. Although it's aimed at a youth market, my performance is mature.

Q: Among your costars--James Van Der Beek, Ashton Kutcher, Rachael Leigh Cook and Leonor Varela--anyone's performance you want to talk about?

A: Besides mine? [Laughs] They're all talented, but what they have in store for them, I don't know.

Q: Do you think your performance is good?

A: I think that I really found this guy somewhere. It's a big departure for me, because the guy is dying of tuberculosis. That desperation fueled me.

Q: The director, Steve Miner, also directed Lake Placid, which was written by David E. Kelley, your boss on "The Practice." Is that how you got the job?

A: No, Kelley was not involved. Steve had directed a couple of episodes of "The Practice," so I had a familiarity with him.

Q: The adjectives used to describe many of the movies you've done would make any actor wince: "inconceivably wretched," "asinine," "witless," "inept." How do you take criticism?

A: I wouldn't disagree with some of those. Criticism when done properly is good. There are too many critics now.

Q: Let's talk about some of your movies. I know you like Hamburger Hill. If you'd been eligible for the draft, would you have gone to Vietnam?

A: I was terrified of the Vietnam War when I was 13. I thought I was going. The draft was such an ominous thing, I felt as if it was going to trickle down to me. I probably would have gone.

Q: What's your take on the 1988 indie Twister, which was not the Jan De Bone disaster movie?

A: A terrible mess. Michael Almereyda, who directed Hamlet most recently, was smart but he was overwhelmed with this project. It was like bad jazz.

Q: You did another little indie, The Blue Iguana--wasn't this supposed to be the next Crocodile Dundee?

A: That's right. Boy, it wasn't. Another mess.

Q: Then came Steel Magnolias.

A: That was my introduction to a big Hollywood picture. It was no longer the independent world. It was like, whoa, catered lunches, trailers, dinners at night, 10-hour working days, movie stars. It was an easy experience.

Q: This is the one where you almost became Mr. Julia Roberts.

A: Julia at that point was not terrifically famous--it was Pretty Woman right after that. And then we broke up. So I got a taste of that and learned from her and saw what stardom was.

Q: You've said that until you met your wife you never pursued women, they always pursued you.

A: Right.

Q: Was this the case with Julia as well?

A: Oh yeah. Not bad, right?

Q: Did you get her a basset hound when you broke up?

A: No, we already had a dog and she got the dog.

Q: How heartbreaking was it when she canceled the engagement?

A: Any ending is not the most pleasant of things. We had our time together and it ended. I went off and made Hardware, which was perfect--the last man on earth dealing with a killer robot. That was an ideal situation. I thought it was completely different from a typical low-budget horror movie and from Steel Magnolias, where I was a goody-goody guy. On paper it felt good.

Q: You went on to work with Sharon Stone in Where Sleeping Dogs Lie. Did she come on to you?

A: I can't answer that. I just saw her in Paris.

Q: Did she come on to you in Paris?

A: [Laughs] I'm a married man.

Q: All right, Jet's move on with your oeuvre, Jersey Girl.

A: We made it as a feature, but Fox sold it to its network, so it went straight to TV.

Q: Would you say In the Line of Fire was the most significant film for you?

A: I was in a very down place when I got the role, because all the movies I'd done were just not happening. Steel Magnolias kept me going because of its visibility, but the other ones were just trouble, trouble, and trouble. Luckily I had casting directors champion me, and Wolfgang Petersen is such a competent director that he said yes. I didn't have to audition. That's a very rare thing.

Q: You've called it one of the greatest experiences of your life. Why?

A: Because I had a director who knew what he was doing, and Clint Eastwood, who's a consummate professional, and a great script.

Q: Any Clint Eastwood stories?

A: Clint showed up for work one night, did a cake and Wolfgang said, "Let's do one more." Clint said, "Was I in focus?" Wolfgang said, "Yeah, you're in focus." Then Clint said, "If I was in focus, then let's move on." [Laughs]

Q: Did you get to know Eastwood afterward?

A: Oh yeah. He's always been a big supporter. We spent seven hours in a car doing a scene where I had to break down. Man, that's where I fell in love with the guy, because he was there the whole time, when he didn't have to be.

Q: What was the connection between In the Line of Fire and meeting your wife?

A: I met my wife and I got In the Line of Fire on the same day. It was one of those great days. The world opened up.

Q: We'll get to your wife, but let's stick with your films for now. Was it at all uncomfortable costarring opposite Kiefer Sutherland in The Cowboy Way since he was the guy Julia Roberts left you for?

A: No. I didn't give a shit, I was way over it. It was sort of a guy thing--we left it alone. Because it was over for him, too. We had both moved on. The Cowboy Way just didn't work.

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