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The Gene Game

Listen Up: Jake Busey Is Not a Young Gary Busey

August 11, 1996|Anne Bergman | Anne Bergman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

"There's got to be something wrong with me," says Jake Busey, "something that makes me really enjoy being someone else."

If there's something wrong with Busey, it's not readily apparent. Fresh from shooting "The Frighteners," the 25-year-old actor went right into filming a major role in the action film "Starship Troopers" and he's already been tapped to star in "Contact," the first movie directed by Robert Zemeckis since "Forrest Gump."

Although the pace may seem exhausting and the attention has been long in coming, Busey's not whining.

His first role was at age 7 opposite his father, actor Gary Busey, in "Straight Time," released in 1978. But Busey wasn't bitten by the acting bug until he wandered into a drama class as a 17-year-old college student. Although he was inspired by what he saw, Busey also realized that to be a true actor, he needed more extensive training. He enrolled in an acting-on-film program led by James Best in Florida, the same one his father attended in 1968.

But that's where Jake Busey would like the comparisons to his father to end (although the resemblance is scary).

"I spent 2 1/2 years auditioning, and no one would ever hire me," he says almost bitterly. "It was easy for them to say, 'I don't want a young Gary Busey for this role.' But I'm not a young Gary Busey."

Gary Busey agrees. "I've always tried to get Jake to accept the fact that he's his own individual," says the actor, who was divorced from Jake's mother, Judy, when his son was 16. "His identity is real important. It was one of the proudest moments of my life to watch Jake walk by himself down the red carpet at the premiere [of "The Frighteners"]."

Striving to form a career apart from his father's, the green-eyed, white-blond Jake Busey acknowledges that it was difficult to keep his faith amid so much rejection: "I figured if I didn't work at all by the time I was 25, I'd quit."

But he managed to land a part in "Shimmer" for "American Play house" ("I spent my whole paycheck taking my friends to lunch. I was so excited," he says) and won public attention last year opposite Stephen Dorff in "SFW."

" 'SFW' really helped me a lot," he says. "I started doing a small amount of press and that perpetuated itself." Next, a role in the made-for-Showtime movie "Motorcycle Gang," directed by John Milius, led to his role in "The Frighteners" and a small part in "Twister," in which he played a member of the rival tornado-chasing team.

It was at casting director Victoria Burrows' suggestion that Busey was cast in "The Frighteners." "We loved him when he came in to audition," she says. "He has these very intense eyes, yet his smile is very winning. He's the devil, but he's charming all at the same time."

Busey's performance so impressed "Frighteners" executive producer Zemeckis that he cast the young actor as an evangelist in "Contact," opposite Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey.

Performing around a complex series of special effects in "The Frighteners" proved challenging for Busey. "It feels like 200 different things going on at once," he says of working against blue screens and being swung from the ceiling by a harness hooked to cables.

But Busey hopes to get beyond the "technical stuff" and expand his repertoire. "I look at what Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood were able to do in 'Bridges of Madison County,' and it was about relationships, not about a tornado or these giant bugs in outer space."

Says the elder Busey: "Acting's in his blood. Jake's learning to bring out the best in himself in his own way."

In the meantime, Jake Busey is content with what he's got going. "It's been a slow road," he says. "But I like that. I like the fact that it's been slow. I haven't had a lot of exposure. I got to work my way up and learn on the job. I got to see how it really is."

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