It was as if an occult hand had passed over Nick Mancuso's face, momentarily transforming him into Tennessee Williams.
The darkly handsome actor, whose profile in Hollywood is on the rise, was recounting one of the more memorable exchanges he'd had with the Southern playwright when appearing in the Atlanta stage production of "Night of the Iguana."
"I was right out of college and still pretty idealistic about life," Mancuso, 36, said. "I couldn't understand why such a great man hung out with such fawning admirers. So one day I said, 'Mr. Williams, why do you surround yourself with such sycophants?' "
Mancuso faded away and Williams emerged, throwing back his head and belly-laughing in his trademark tobacco-ravaged rasp, then rolled out his response: "Because, dear boy, they l-l-i-i-i-ike me!"
As quickly as he'd appeared, Williams' countenance vanished, leaving the actor chuckling about the encounter.
Mancuso's energy was palpable during a recent interview as he talked about a variety of subjects. Although ostensibly seated on a couch, he rarely touched it, either balancing on one knee or jumping to his feet to illustrate a point.
His film career of late also seems as active. He appeared late last year as a dissatisfied womanizer in director Bobby Roth's critically acclaimed (though marginally distributed) "Heartbreakers" and as a rock star reestablishing a relationship with his son in "Blame It on the Night."
This year he'll be in three more movies with a range of subjects as eclectic as the actor himself.
In "Death of an Angel," Mancuso plays a mysterious messianic figure who wanders through the desert with a cross (and a cult following). His choice of roles may seem ironic, considering his highly acclaimed performance as the victim of a cult in "Ticket to Heaven."
In "Paroles et Musique," he is part of a love triangle (opposite Catherine Deneuve and Christopher Lambert, the "Greystoke" Tarzan).
In "Night Magic," a Canadian-made film written by poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen, he plays a poet. "It's very surrealistic--like a cross between Bertolt Brecht and Walt Disney," Mancuso explained.
Talking with the animated actor requires an agile mind, for the Sicilian-born Mancuso (his family moved to Canada later) seems the quintessential Renaissance man. He is fluent in several dialects of Italian, as well as French and Spanish. In a matter of minutes he will leap, skip and jump from Tennessee Williams stories to a discussion of Brecht's work, to a brief discourse on art, then medieval history--punctuating as he goes with quotes from Proust, Shakespeare or Henry Miller.
Mancuso's passionate discourse on such matters comes from 20 years of acting.
"I started at 16 and continued acting through high school and university (the University of Toronto). I've done summer stock, barn theater--where I slept in the hayloft between shows--street, regional and underground theater. I even formed my own theater (during his early years in Toronto)."
In addition, he said he's done "TV pilots, movies of the week, studio movies, B and C movies and critically acclaimed movies."
He's played Indians, Israelis, Latinos and even a mute Ukrainian boxer--but never an Italian.
Mancuso's devotion to his craft is such that during the filming of "Night Magic" in Canada, he ended up putting most of his salary back into the film so that it could be finished.
"After the last day of shooting, we had no more money and still hadn't shot the ending," he explained. "The producers couldn't put any more money into it because they had their money tied up in a bigger picture. The Canadian government (which often subsidizes productions shot in that country) wouldn't give us any more, so we were stuck. Well, I worked six days for free and I put my money back into the picture; Carol (Laure, also his co-star in three other movies) and the line producer also put their money back in, so we got an extra week.
"Someday I would like to not have to work under those kinds of pressures," he said. "I'm getting too old for that kind of stuff." He then quickly interjected, "I'm not complaining," then laughingly corrected himself: "I guess I am ."
The one film experience Mancuso hasn't had so far is being in a blockbuster.
"Every year there are about four movies that have great scripts, a wonderful cast, very good budgets and top-notch directors. . . all the elements. I've experienced each element separately, but never under the same roof."
The time is ripe, Mancuso thinks, for such an opportunity. "I feel like I've come to the end of a full cycle. I figure I must be at a point where something new is about to unfold, and I'm looking forward to finding out what it is."