"Success doesn't stick on you forever," actor Robert Macnaughton announced, "but the same questions (about it) do."
It's been 5 1/2 years since the release of "E.T."--in which Macnaughton, who grew up in Irvine, played the older brother--but public curiosity is still high:
"The first thing people always ask is, 'What was it like working with Steven Spielberg?' I say, 'It was really great.' Or sometimes I substitute 'fun.' Or 'inspiring.' The second question is, 'Was Drew Barrymore a brat?' The answer is no." Macnaughton shrugged. In spite of having been part of such a famous and successful motion picture, the actor is not impressed by his movie credentials. Most of the time, he would rather work on the stage.
Currently he is playing Tom Kent, a young actor making his first professional outing, in David French's backstage comedy "Jitters" at the Gnu Theatre in North Hollywood.
"It's not a farce--but close to it," he explained, "and unlike (Michael Frayn's) 'Noises Off,' it's about characters . It's not funny because someone dropped their contact lens on the set and everyone's tripping all over themselves to find it, or someone gets whacked on the head and there's a funny popping sound. The comedy comes out of the characters--which is great for me, since I can't just say a line and have it be automatically funny. But if people believe in me as the character, they'll find it funny."
Macnaughton, 21, began acting when he was 12. "My parents were never stage parents," he said. "I dragged them into it. I mean, they supported me--my mom drove me everywhere--but it was never her ambition for me to be in commercials. And doing plays as a kid, there wasn't much competition because most of the stage parents really aren't interested in their kids' getting $200 a week in a play when they can do a commercial for $30,000."
But Macnaughton loved the theater--and still does. ("The stage is something you aspire to," he said in earnest when reminded that many performers view it merely as a steppingstone.) Acting classes at South Coast Repertory when he was a youngster led to work in dinner theater, a stint in "A Thousand Clowns" in San Diego and the occasional bit part on television. But it wasn't until a 1980 trip to New York and his landing of a role in Jim Leonard's "The Diviners" at Circle Rep that things really began to change.
"Lots of casting directors saw me in that, and I got cast in a lot of TV shows," he said. "I hate to say it, but for some reason, New York stage actors have a better reputation among casting directors--maybe not earned, but they do. I'd done all these plays out here; then one play in New York and that was it. Before, I was just some nameless face doing a play in Long Beach.
"The best work I've ever done was 'Master Harold . . . and the Boys' at South Coast; unfortunately, the casting directors who get down there number in the tens."
It was while appearing in "Diviners" that he was flown to Los Angeles to read for the film "The Entity." "The casting director felt sorry that I'd come all this way just for that, so she said, 'I hear there's something going on at Spielberg's' and called (casting director) Mike Fenton. I went in on a late audition; it was the same day that President Reagan was shot. At the first meeting with Steven, he asked me about my interests. I said 'bicycle riding.' He said, 'That's good.' "
When "E.T." premiered, Macnaughton was in Vermont, working on the film "I Am the Cheese." It wasn't until his return to Orange County that he noticed that something really big was going on.
"All of a sudden, I was getting invited to all these jock parties. I loved (the attention) at first, thought it was what I'd always wanted. Then I realized, 'That's not what it's about. And if I let myself depend on this, when it suddenly isn't there. . . .' "
The same goes for media hype.
"Being a struggling stage actor isn't very romantic, but it's better than selling out totally. My definition of that? Doing anything to get me on the cover of People magazine: Doing 'Meatballs 2 and 3,' or something with a plastic doll--although Dennis Hopper did it, so what can I say. Unfortunately, the kind of work I do doesn't tend to further your career much. But I'm not jealous (of others' successes). Sometimes I feel bad for them. The trap is that you become more of a personality than an actor. Actually, I don't think that could happen to me."
The actor smiled good-naturedly. After some painful rejections ("when you're a teen-ager, you're more paranoid, sensitive"), he's clearly comfortable with his career choice. "On auditions, they never treat me as a kid. It's very professional. On the other hand, I don't demand respect. Just cast me and I'll do my work. I'm not going to take offense because there's no respect shown me, or I'm called to work at 6 and don't work till 8. I've always felt that actors are lucky to be hired--and, on a movie set, pretty much overpaid. Which is OK, of course."
"Jitters" by David French is at the Gnu Theatre, 10426 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood, Thursdays through Sundays at 8 p.m. Tickets: $15. Information: (818) 508-5344.