Anthony Edwards: Revenge of the nicest nerd

The former ER star Anthony Edwards shuns Hollywood hype and loves his geeky Thunderbirds role, he tells James Rampton
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The Independent Culture

In his time, the actor Anthony Edwards freely admits, he has endured a few long, dark nights of the soul. He certainly suffered after Top Gun (1986), which was, perversely, the film that brought him to public attention.

Sighing that he found the movie - in which he played Tom Cruise's doomed best mate, Lt Nick "Goose" Bradshaw - "very objectionable," Edwards lists the reasons why. "Everything I hate about Hollywood is embodied by that movie. It's the idea that you have to succeed at any cost. If you have to kill your best friend, that is OK, as long as you are the best fighter pilot. It's a pure capitalism message gone mad. I guess I'm just an old peacenik, because I don't believe you solve problems by killing people."

But the actor didn't hit rock bottom until six years later, when Edwards appeared in Pet Sematary II. This schlock-horror sequel turned out to be a gigantic self-basting turkey.

"Pet Sematary had been very successful," he says in mitigation. "It wasn't a genre I understood, but I appreciated the idea that maybe Pet Sematary II could be something interesting visually and exciting." And? "It wasn't!" Following such woeful fare as Hometown Boy Makes Good, How I Got Into College and Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise, the Pet Sematary II experience plunged Edwards into a slough of despond. The sole benefit was the fact that he met his wife, Jeanine Lobell, on the set; she was the make-up artist on Pet Sematary II and now runs the Stila cosmetics line.

Otherwise, the actor was so down in the dumps that at first he couldn't bring himself to audition when the writer-producer Michael Crichton asked him to read for a new TV medical drama he was developing. "ER came at a point where I was happy not to act again," says the actor, who will be 42 on Monday. "My wife had to explain that this was a role made for me. She was right."

Was she ever. Being persuaded to go for the role of Dr Mark Greene in ER was without doubt the best career move Edwards has made. The show was a hit, making the actor a household name. Edwards was catapulted from self-styled "wimp" in trashy horror pics to global, award-winning star.NBC were quick to recognise his value: when George Clooney left, the network gave Edwards a $35m three-year contract.

Over his eight years on ER (he left two years ago after his character was killed off) audiences fell in love with Greene's mild, self-effacing bedside manner. They even forgave the actor for Top Gun.

Still, Tony Scott's macho air-force picture did establish the "Edwards brand". He recalls: "I was hired for that movie for a very specific reason - to help the audience like the lead character. He had a best friend who was sensitive and funny and had a wife and died. I wasn't an action hero. I just died. That stuff - that's what I do."

Self-effacement comes easily to Edwards. Slender, with a hairline not so much receding as disappearing over the horizon, he's happiest blending into the background. He is all the more likeable because he appears to lack the usual "look at me" thespian gene. His more amenable way of operating "doesn't necessarily make for a fireworks display, but you sleep better at night".

He'd be the first to concede that his lack of extroversion can be a hindrance in his profession. "I'm self-deprecating to a fault. Skinny, bald men know they're skinny and bald. I don't bring a lot of heat into a room. I'm not dangerous, emotionally or sexually. George [Clooney] provides that. I doubt I could act 'flashy', although I've done it sometimes. I'm not happy preening in front of a camera."

But, on screen, the actor has an approachable, bloke-next-door persona to which viewers immediately warm. Noah Wyle - Dr Carter in ER - describes him as "the kind of father we should all have". Unlike many Hollywood big shots, he is cuddly rather than threatening, the kind of solid guy you'd marry rather than have an affair with.

"It's just who you are," Edwards muses. "Even before I was famous, people would say that I reminded them of some cousin. Some film stars come across as someone you'd never be able to meet. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for instance, is not a regular person. But some actors are regular and accessible, which is important. They provide a way for audiences into a story. If it looks easy, like anyone can do it, then we've succeeded."

Edwards is again putting those traits to good use in one of this summer's big movies, the live-action version of Thunderbirds. Jonathan Frakes' romp is inspired by the eternally culty - and much parodied - Sixties "supermarionation" puppet show about the Tracy family and their do-gooding organisation, International Rescue.

In über-geek persona, Edwards dresses up in irredeemably square glasses, lab coat and hairdo to play Brains, the speccy, stuttering boffin. He produces various flourishes from his bag of tricks to help the family combat the moustache-twiddling baddie, The Hood (Ben Kingsley).

Edwards, a card-carrying Anglophile after taking acting classes in London in his high-school days, relished the opportunity of a summer larking around in the fantasy world of Tracy Island, built at Pinewood Studios. The actor - and father of four children aged from two to 10 - also revelled in taking on such a cartoonish character after all the anguish of Dr Greene.

"I spent eight years on a television series, playing the most sincere and depressed doctor in the world," Edwards laughs. "So the idea of coming to this place of fantasy and fun was wonderful." Not surprisingly, his children weren't allowed to watch the doom-laden ER, "so it's really nice to be able to take part in a film my kids will really enjoy".

Then there were the toys. "I'm not really a gadget person, but it's been amazing fun to be surrounded by these huge toys that have been created. Also, I loved Brains' geekiness. If there is a sequel, selfishly I'd love to see him leave the control room, but I'm not sure how well he'd do in the outside world."

The movie will only serve to boost Edwards' profile - the side of the job with which the actor is least comfortable. He reckons that being famous is "like having a hump. People smile, shake your hand and pretend it doesn't affect them, but it's all they think about.

"Being on display, the monkey at the airport, isn't much fun. Celebrity is a completely contrived thing, created to sell commodities. But I'm smart enough to realise that it's a deal you make, and part of my job is to thank people and be part of the circus."

To remove himself further from the spotlight, Edwards recently moved his family from West Coast to East. He felt trapped in the LA bubble: "The nightmare of Hollywood is that you think nothing else exists." Now, he can walk his children to school and spend more time being a dad. "I wish we had more debate about the amount of time fathers spend with their children. We're so obsessed with success in the US - it gets me down. There's an intensity in places like Hollywood and Wall Street that leaves little time for family life."

Apart from one movie already in the can - The Forgotten, a thriller - the actor sees no need to charge back to work. Edwards' ER nest egg and his wife's high-earning potential make that decision much easier.

But does he really not fancy a more high-profile Hollywood career? He responds in mock amazement: "No one's asked me! You can't get kicked out of a party no one has invited you to. Films that cost a lot of money to make require a lot of hype to promote, and I'm taking great joy in bouncing around other worlds right now. I'd never turn down a good script just because it was a blockbuster, but I like what more challenging movies have to offer. They have a different story to tell."

So no chance of Edwards following in the footsteps of his old buddy Clooney and donning a cape to portray a big-screen superhero, then? "I don't think it would be an obvious move. I'd have to change my physique. Everyone finds a world in which they succeed, and I'm enjoying not trying to be someone I'm not - and who I am not is Spider-Man!"

But so what if we never see his Spider-Man - Edwards is that rarity, an artist entirely content with his lot. "I joke with my publicist that if only I had a drug problem to hide, or I was a big womaniser or an alcoholic, I might be easier to sell." No matter. Anthony Edwards is proof that nice guys don't always finish last.

'Thunderbirds' is released next Friday