NEW YORK — Actor Kevin Anderson, steady and sure as Julia Roberts' salvation in "Sleeping With the Enemy," is slightly bemused by his status in Hollywood: "I have somehow maintained--and I don't know how--always being a 'new face.' "
Yes, it is an interesting paradox for an actor who co-starred on Broadway last year with Vanessa Redgrave in Tennessee Williams' "Orpheus Descending," who has appeared in a handful of movies, and whose esteem in the industry has made him a player sought after by name directors. With that background, and at the age of 31, isn't Anderson just a little well-seasoned for "new face" status?
But then, new face is another way of describing an actor who hasn't yet broken through to a wide public, and so far, Anderson's roles and vehicles, while the choices of a serious craftsman, are not exactly of the sort that cause fan magazines to come calling: a fearful half-wit (the stage and film versions of "Orphans"), a small-town loser (the movie "In Country"), a seedy drifter (the Broadway and TV film productions of "Orpheus Descending").
Now comes Anderson's role in "Sleeping With the Enemy," and the clear prospect of his breaking out of the "new face" niche for good. For once he's in a commercial hit ($31.1 million in two weeks) opposite a hot young actress, in a role designed to set female moviegoers' hearts fluttering.
As Ben Woodward, a small-college drama professor who befriends a psychologically tattered woman on the run from her abusive husband, Anderson reveals a Gary Cooper-esque touch in his gentle-but-strong romantic leading man. "Kevin's the real thing," says "Enemy" director Joseph Ruben. "He's from the Midwest, a small town. He's got that kind of warmth to him. He's also got an edge."
When Anderson was presented with "Enemy," the actor went through his customary process of analyzing the pros and cons of the project, mulling points like whether the director was aptly suited to the work and weighing the role's inherent worth. He also wanted to be in a hit, and "Enemy" had the smell of that.
"It seemed like more of a commercial film than I've been involved with," said Anderson, during lunch at a voguishly plain diner close to his downtown Manhattan apartment. "I'd been looking for something to do that a bigger audience would see. I've been very finicky and picky over the years. . . . It was a nice opportunity to do something a bit lighter. I liked playing Ben because he had more of a sense of humor than roles I've had in the past. . . . He was a very earthbound character."
In fact, the easygoing Ben Woodward seems not unlike the Midwestern denizen Anderson might have become had he, too, not made it as an actor. Dressed in a checked flannel shirt and appearing slightly boyish without the stubble he wore in "Enemy," Anderson does, indeed, look like the authentic product of small-town America.
" Very small," the actor emphasizes when the subject of his upbringing in Gurnee, an hour's drive north of Chicago, comes up. Was there much theater in a town of 3,500 to fire up a budding thespian?
"No, none at all," Anderson says, smiling. "The reason I'm laughing is I remember seeing some sort of theater when I was in grade school and it was just horrible. Theater, when you were a kid, was something you'd throw spitballs at.
"You hear about actors who lived on the East Coast and their parents would bring them in (to Broadway) and they remember the first time they saw Irene Worth do something. Right there it changed their life. That didn't happen in mine. I guess I mainly got interested because I was the youngest of five and I was used to getting a lot of attention. I was just sort of a natural show-off."
In fact, Anderson's childhood taste in entertainment was distinctly middle-brow: TV variety shows, with a particular fondness for Dean Martin and the Golddiggers, Flip Wilson and Rich Little. If he had any show business aspiration, it was to play drums like Gene Krupa. At the urging of his high school forensics team coach, Anderson studied acting after graduation at the Goodman School of Drama, now part of DePaul University, and then embarked on a professional career with a "string of really bad musicals."
Finally, Anderson landed a respectable role, in a production of "Our Town" with the renowned Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. He stayed with the company for two years, then appeared in London, New York and elsewhere in the group's production of "Orphans."
"When I met them, it was like my acting, my life, everything just sort of came together," says Anderson, who refers to that first audition at Steppenwolf as the turning point of his career. "The seriousness with which they worked, their intensity, I enjoyed it."