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SHOOTING STARS : 'Short Circuit's' Stevens No Foreigner to Ethnic Roles

Fourth in a series on promising new faces in the summer's movies.

August 02, 1988|STEVE WEINSTEIN

On stage, Fisher Stevens, a self-described "thin, white Jewish kid from Chicago," has played everything from a WASPy leading man to a thin, white Jewish kid from Brooklyn.

But in the movies, Stevens almost never gets to play an American.

"I'm like the U.N.," Stevens jokes. "I've played a Mexican photographer, an Israeli soldier, an East Indian scientist. I turned down a part as an Afghani in 'Rambo III' and right after that I was offered a role as a guy from Uruguay. I'm an actor and I love the challenges, but, yeah, sometimes it frustrates me that I only get cast as foreigners."

Stevens said he gets angry when he reads for a part that calls for "a white, big-city ethnic guy like me and they cast some pretty boy blond with a little nose just so all the teen-age girls will go see him."

All complaining aside, it's Stevens' knack for metamorphosis that landed him his first starring film role opposite a robot in this summer's "Short Circuit 2." (In the original "Short Circuit," he had a lesser role, playing the same character, Ben Jahrvi, the Indian scientist from Bombay who co-invents a talking robot.) For the part, Stevens, 24, had to grow a beard, dye his hair black, darken his skin with makeup, turn his blue eyes brown with contact lenses, speak with an East Indian accent and walk hunched over like a cricket player.

He was so convincing in the first film, said David Foster, co-producer of both "Short Circuits," that upon meeting him at a benefit premiere of the film in England, Princess Diana was shocked that he was not a native of India.

"At first he didn't think he could do it," Foster recalled. "But he studied Indian films and got a vocal coach and he proved he's a terrific actor. . . . I think Fisher Stevens is really an American version of Peter Sellers."

Stevens, who switched his name from Steven Fisher when he discovered that another Steven Fisher was already listed in the Screen Actors Guild, said he learned about transforming himself into characters with ethnic backgrounds other than his own by watching Sellers' movies.

"He wasn't always exactly accurate with all of his accents, but there was always an underlying reality to every character he played," Stevens said.

But even after creating his own reality in the original "Short Circuit," Stevens decided to spend a month living with families from several different castes in India before reprising his role. He returned to the States with dysentery and with the habits and idiosyncrasies of an adopted middle-class family from Bombay embedded in his acting psyche.

Then, during the shooting of "Short Circuit 2" in Toronto, Stevens immersed himself in that city's large Indian community--eating regularly in Indian restaurants, befriending Indian immigrants and even trying to date Indian women. Though he struck out romantically, he was able to convince the film's producers to hire an Indian accountant as his personal character consultant.

"I was completely afraid of becoming a parody," Stevens said, defending his obsessive study of Indian culture. "That's why I went and found my character a family in India that I could think about on the set. That's why I had an adviser who would tell me if something I was doing wasn't cool."

Stevens first thought about acting when he moved to New York from Chicago at 13. Up until then he described himself as a sports fanatic. His mother rented a loft in Manhattan to pursue her painting career and her boyfriend sold Stevens on the romantic idea of becoming a New York actor with a "capital A."

It all sounded great, Stevens remembers, but at first he couldn't even get a job as an extra in a toothpaste commercial.

Then, to help pay the rent, his mother rented out part of their loft to Dan Fauci, an acting teacher who built a stage and started The Actor's Institute in the living room. Every day, Stevens would come home from school and find an acting class going on in his home, and he was quickly seduced into hanging up his stick-ball shoes once and for all.

Stevens has been working steadily since he won a role in Harvey Fierstein's "Torch Song Trilogy" at 18. Since then, he has appeared in more than 20 plays including the Broadway production of "Brighton Beach Memoirs" and the late Michael Bennett's workshop production of "Scandal" with Swoozie Kurtz and Treat Williams.

On film, he's had supporting roles in two John Sayles' films, "Baby It's You" and "Brother From Another Planet," and as one of Matt Dillon's sidekicks in "The Flamingo Kid."

Stevens has yet to be smitten with the Hollywood dream, and his true love still seems to reside on the stage. He's a founding member of The Naked Angels, a small theater company in Greenwich Village that stages what Stevens calls wild and experimental events.

Beyond that, Stevens is hoping that his starring role in "Short Circuit 2" will help launch him to solid movie roles--as long as he doesn't get typecast as an Indian.

"With the beard and all the makeup, sometimes it was very difficult to get back to being me at the end of the day, and I'd go out still pretending I was Ben. It's fun, but I think I would like to play a white guy someday."

Stevens is getting his wish. This month he begins work on the Sundance Institute film project "A Matter of Degrees" in which he plays a politically aware white student in college.

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