During the span of an interview, Peter Gallagher comes across as a nice, earnest guy--a trifle shy and soft-spoken.
In short, nothing like his on-screen image.
The 35-year-old actor usually plays the fellow audiences love to hate, like the manipulative murderer who set his sights on Mare Winningham in last year's ABC movie "Love and Lies," or the boorish '40s movie star in the "American Playhouse" version of Clifford Odet's "The Big Knife" three years ago. Gallagher was most memorably odious as the cheating spouse of frigid Andie MacDowell in Steven Soderbergh's 1989 hit film "sex, lies, and videotape."
"I don't know when I started to play those characters," Gallagher said with a shrug of his shoulders. "I mean, I wasn't discouraging them because they're just more interesting."
Audiences will see a kinder, gentler Gallagher in the miniseries "An Inconvenient Woman," airing tonight and Monday on ABC. Based on Dominick Dunne's 1990 bestseller, the four-hour drama dissects the shallow manners and mores of the rich and famous in Los Angeles.
Gallagher plays Philip Qunnell, a writer new to Los Angeles who becomes friends with Jules Mendelson (Jason Robards), a financier and art collector, and his socialite wife Pauline (Jill Eikenberry). When Pauline's good friend (Paxton Whitehead) is murdered, Jules steps in to cover up a scandal and arranges to make his death seem a suicide.
"Ultimately, I have to admit to having some integrity," Gallagher said during a break in the filming of "Woman" in downtown Pasadena. "I can't stand by, having seen this man murdered, and say it was suicide."
Gallagher was drawn to "An Inconvenient Woman" because he wanted to play "someone who is ultimately honorable. I don't think I have played that at all in the movies or have been alive to the end of the movie or have had a relationship that lasts until the end of the movie."
The miniseries also is just plain fun, he said.
"It's a real, real compelling story because it is rich-bashing a little bit," Gallagher said, breaking into a grin.
Good roles seem to be coming Gallagher's way. "I got the Mare Winningham movie right out of the gate. And the producers came to me with ('An Inconvenient Woman.') "
For that, Gallagher has "sex, lies, and videotape" to thank.
"That movie was good for all of us (McDowell, James Spader and Laura San Giacomo)," he said. "You don't get the same kind of volcanic response to that kind of work as if you do the good guy. But even for me it was sort of an endorsement, especially because that film was primarily character-driven. The performances were able to be showcased because there was nothing else really supporting the film except for the writing and the filmmaking."
Gallagher recalled he initially had his doubts about "sex."
"I became depressed," he said. "I didn't think the script could measure up to the title. But it did. I just loved it. The sort of visceral experience of making that picture was great."
Gallagher had the same feeling making "The Cabinet of Dr. Ramirez" last fall. The silent film was directed by Peter Sellars, the avante-garde theater and opera director. Joan Cusack and Mikhail Baryshnikov also appear in the film, which is set to screen at the Cannes Film Festival this month.
"With 'sex, lies, and videotape,' I knew the dailies were great and the script was great," Gallagher said. "But I didn't know how Soderbergh was going to cut it. I was worried about ("Dr. Ramierz") being a little boring. I am not worried about this being boring. The only thing I am worried about is that there will be a coherent story the audience can respond to, but apparently there is."
"Dr. Ramirez" is loosely based on the 1919 German silent classic "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," but it is set after the Wall Street crash of 1987. "It's about what really happens to people who have had a certain kind of success and accumulation in their lives and when their world falls apart," Gallagher said. "It was terrific because there was no obligation to speak. Our lips never move."
It's all a long way from a decade ago. That's when Gallagher decided to take charge of his young career after the disappointing box-office performances of his first two films, 1980's "The Idolmaker" and 1982's "Summer Lovers." Fearful Hollywood wanted to turn him into the teen dream of the month, he packed his bags and went to Broadway, where he appeared in "The Real Thing," "The Corn is Green" and "Long Day's Journey Into Night." He received a Tony Award nomination for the latter.
"Maybe I was naive in thinking that, but I thought the opportunity for me to work with the best material that I could possibly find was in the theater," Gallagher said. "I wanted to be a good actor and I still do."
"An Inconvenient Woman" airs tonight and Monday night at 9 on ABC.