Campbell Scott: Almost great Scott

Tired of appearing in Hollywood 'crap', Scott just walked away. He talks to Geoffrey MacNab about integrity, unemployment and living in his dad's shadow

Friday 18 July 2003 00:00

There was a time when Campbell Scott was being groomed as Hollywood's newest leading man. He was handsome, clean-cut and well-spoken, "a nice, solid guy" in one producer's estimation. He had a famous father (George C Scott), which helped, too. In 1991, he was cast opposite Julia Roberts in Joel Schumacher's trite melodrama, Dying Young. (He was the millionaire's son suffering from from leukaemia. Roberts, true to Pretty Woman type, was the working-class Catholic who fell in love with him.) A year later, he was one of the leads in Cameron Crowe's Singles, about the romantic misadventures of a group of young friends in Seattle. That, though, was the last Hollywood film Scott made.

The 41-year-old actor, producer and director can't remember precisely when or why he decided that studio pictures were not for him, but he won't be changing his mind any time soon. "I wish there had been a moment of epiphany," he ruefully reflects. "It would have saved me years of crap."

For much of the past decade, Scott has been operating (by choice) in the margins of the industry, acting on stage or in ever-more inscrutable indie movies, some of which he has also directed (most notably Big Night, in collaboration with Stanley Tucci). Along the way, there have been eyecatching roles. He played the satirist Robert Benchley in Alan Rudolph's Mrs Parker and the Vicious Circle, and was the scientist hero in David Mamet's playful, Hitchcock-style thriller The Spanish Prisoner. Yet he is far less recognisable to the public at large today than in the early 1990s. "I don't have a bunch of offers waiting on the porch," he admits. "Mind you, I've put myself there. I don't blame anyone else."

When new roles do come to Scott, they arrive in strange ways. In the summer of 2001, he was sitting having a cup of coffee in a New York diner, minding his own business, when he was accosted by a nervous looking film-maker who thrust a script into his hands. Most established actors would either have ignored such a clumsy overture or told him to send the script "to my agent" (a euphemism for "Go away!") Scott, either because he was curious or polite, did neither. Instead, he agreed to read Dylan Kidd's screenplay and get back to him in a couple of weeks. Even then, Kidd - who had suffered years of rejection since leaving film school in the early 1990s - was sceptical that he would ever hear from the actor again, but Scott kept his promise. A fortnight later, he called back, told Kidd he'd like to play the lead role and volunteered to exec-produce Roger Dodger. He put Kidd in touch with financiers and enlisted a couple of his famous friends (Isabella Rossellini and Jennifer Beals) to co-star. "He seemed like a nice guy," Scott recalls dryly when asked why he didn't brush Kidd off that day in New York. "For once, it all worked out... and within months we were filming the damned thing."

Not that Scott's actions were entirely disinterested. Roger Dodger offers him a chance to escape his usual image as the clean-cut leading man ("It's not a part anyone would have given me except for someone like Dylan"). He plays Roger Swanson, a good-looking, Lothario-like yuppie working as an advertising copywriter. Roger's pet hobby is preying on the weaknesses and insecurities of anyone he meets. He sees himself as a ladies' man, but when he attempts to teach his teenage nephew, Nick (Jesse Eisenberg), the art of seduction, it quickly becomes apparent that he's a neurotic misogynist whose life is hurtling out of control. Scott excels in the role precisely because it's such unlikely casting. He lulls us into trusting and even sympathising with this sociopath who launches into superficially impressive monologues on such subjects as the redundancy of men ("artificial insemination will render sperm as useless as an assembly worker in Detroit"). Then the spiral downward begins.

"There were people who would be so edgy that it would become like a horror film," Dylan Kidd notes of Roger Dodger. "If you put Ray Liotta in that role, it would become literally about fearing for Nick's life. With Campbell, we got a guy who was on the fence in not projecting what the movie would be."

Roger Dodger, which has become a sleeper hit in the States, isn't the only new film in which Scott strays from type. He can soon be seen in Alan Rudolph's new project as a jealous dentist who falls prey to hallucinations. Even Scott struggles to pitch this one convincingly. ("It's almost impossible to describe. If I tell you it's about a family falling apart, that won't do the film justice. But these are the kind of projects I like. It's a great, weird, wonderful movie.")

Also likely to turn up in British cinemas later this year is Scott's most recent film behind the camera, Off The Map. In synopsis, this sounds even more excruciating than The Secret Life of Dentists. It's a tale about an tax inspector who ventures into the New Mexico deserts to audit the books of a gloomy homesteader (Sam Elliott) who lives with his oddball family in a bungalow somewhere near Taos. It wasn't an easy pitch - movies about tax men and manic depressives rarely are. That's why Scott has spent almost 10 years trying to get it made. "Most companies just rejected it outright," he says. "And every company that did have the talent and taste to call it one of the best scripts they'd ever read also said they'd never touch it." His lead actress, Joan Allen, rejected him half a dozen times, but he kept on badgering her until she accepted the part. Not that any evidence of the battles behind the screen are evident in the completed film. Off The Map has the same laidback charm as Percy Adlon's Bagdad Cafe. The tempo of life in Taos is languorous and, as a director, Scott is in no hurry either.

Still, he doesn't hide his frustration about his constant struggle to find meaningful work. As he points out, plotting a career was much easier for his dad (who died in 1999). The star of The Hustler, Dr Strangelove and Patton: Lust for Glory (for which he won an Oscar), Scott snr never had to agonise about the merits of studio films, or wait years for the right part to come along. Scott's mother, Colleen Dewhurst, also a distinguished stage and screen actress, likewise had a largely unchequered career. But no, Scott says, he isn't daunted by the challenge of living up to their reputation. "I never found it oppressive at all. I looked to both of my parents as people who regarded the profession with a certain amount of dignity and taste."

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Scott cites his father's determinedly offbeat 1968 film, Petulia - a "psychedelic melodrama" directed by Richard Lester, shot by Nic Roeg and co-starred Julie Christie - as the kind of movie that no studio would even consider making these days. "Why is it different now? I could say that in the Sixties and Seventies, the studio films were where all the great acting, writing and directing was. That doesn't mean that there isn't still talent in Hollywood today." He sighs. "It's just that there's more of a quantity of crap."

Given his own scepticism about Hollywood, it's little surprise that Scott and his girlfriend Patricia Clarkson (High Art, Far From Heaven, All the Real Girls) are now planning a screen version of The Dying Gaul. First performed in Britain at the Citizens' Theatre, this is a barbed, satirical play about a gay writer who manages to sell an autobiographical script to Hollywood - on the condition that the love affair is changed from boy meets boy to boy meets girl.

Scott, one guesses, would never make such compromises himself. Yet the fact that he isn't a household name isn't entirely attributable to his high-minded idealism. "Don't misinterpret me," he says. "Anyone you talk to will tell you, 'Oh, Campbell is one of the most psychotically unambitious people we've ever met', which is really true. I'm also really snobby."

He won't reveal his feelings about Clarkson's new-found status as the "queen of US indie cinema" (Clarkson had four new films in this year's Sundance Festival alone) but it's clear he knows his own career is at a dangerous juncture. If success is measured in peer group approval rather than status in Hollywood, Scott has little to worry about. ("He has total credibility," Dylan Kidd says of him. "Now that we've done Roger Dodger together, I understand why people will walk over glass to work with him.") But the man himself, who turns 42 tomorrow, admits he'd definitely like to be a little busier.

"I'm presently unemployed," he confides. "I'm trying hard to get a job almost all the time. I have a few things I'd love to direct, but I'm not doing a damned thing right now."

'Roger Dodger' is released on 15 August

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