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Suddenly Famous

We Thought We'd Bring Academy Award Nominees Geoffrey Rush and Billy Bob Thornton Together So They Could Talk About Hollywood. They're Not Your Typical Movie Stars, in Case You Hadn't Noticed.

March 23, 1997|CLAUDIA PUIG | Claudia Puig, a Times staff writer who covers the film industry, last wrote about Nicolas Cage, who won last year's Oscar for best actor

Two months ago, Billy Bob Thornton and Geoffrey Rush were probably more concerned with securing their next job than with fending off the paparazzi. Today, after receiving nominations for Hollywood's most prestigious acting award, the two are mobbed at premieres as if they were in the cast of "Friends."

Both star in critically acclaimed films made outside the studio system, and both are more appropriately classified as character actors, not movie stars or even leading men. Still, they are up for best actor Oscars, vying for the statuette with such big names as Tom Cruise, Woody Harrelson and Ralph Fiennes.

Thornton, 41, grew up in the small town of Malvern, Ark. He's nominated for the starring role in "Sling Blade," in which he plays Karl Childers, a man greatly traumatized in childhood and released after 25 years in a mental institution, where he was sent for murdering his mother and her lover. "Sling Blade" is Thornton's first solo-written script and his directorial debut. His screenplay has also received an Oscar nomination. He co-wrote last year's racial drama "A Family Thing," co-wrote and starred in the graphic thriller "One False Move" in 1992 and appeared in "Dead Man," "The Stars Fell on Henrietta" and "Indecent Proposal." He was a regular on the sitcom "Hearts Afire" and a frequent guest on "Evening Shade." And he will soon begin shooting "Primary Colors," taking on the role of political advisor James Carville.

Rush, 45, was born in Toowoomba, Australia, where he, too, led a small-town life. He is nominated for portraying the emotional struggles of real-life Australian piano prodigy David Helfgott in "Shine." The gangly, dark-haired Rush, primarily a stage actor who has played major characters from Gogol, Chekhov and Shakespeare, has already swept most of the pre-Oscar awards, including the Golden Globe award. He has a key role in the upcoming "Children of the Revolution," a dark comedy that gained acclaim at the latest Sundance Film Festival, and he will soon begin filming "Les Miserables," which co-stars Liam Neeson and Claire Danes.

The two actors met face-to-face for the first time on a recent warm, cloudless Friday afternoon at the Four Seasons Hotel near Beverly Hills, each bearing gifts. Rush brought Thornton a card praising Thornton's performance in "Sling Blade" and a gift-wrapped "little token of esteem: a nice bottle of Australian red." Thornton presented Rush with a red T-shirt bearing the logo for Sun Records, where Elvis Presley recorded his music. "Everybody needs a little bit of Elvis," he explained, also promising Rush a shirt from an electric company at which Elvis drove a truck.

They met the day before the Screen Actors Guild awards (which both attended and at which Rush won best actor) and discussed the new sensation of fame, the fascination people have with the emotionally troubled characters they portray, the art of transforming oneself into a role and the novelty of wearing tuxedos. They were also, clearly, big fans of each other's work.

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Thornton: You know, I've got to say something to you before we even get started. I have such high regard for you, as an actor and as a human, for what you said to me while we were on the "Today" show [when they met via satellite the morning their Oscar nominations were announced. Rush had said then that he considered Thornton a colleague, not a competitor]. Now I feel like I hope Tom Cruise wins, just so we can be like regular guys together. You know what I mean? What I want to say is: I hope you win.

Rush: People have been whispering to me this week: "You know, it's probably good for you to lose because there will be so much competition." But it's pretty wild to be where we are at the moment.

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Question: That's exactly what I wanted to talk to you about. How has this nomination and this newfound fame changed your daily lives?

Rush: It's put me into a real Jekyll and Hyde sort of picture for the last six months. I've been commuting to work here from Melbourne, which is a 17-hour trip or 22, if you're going to New York. And my family life is there--my wife and kids, and they're quite young. I go home and I go straight into family life. The kids have got colds or they're going through a bad sleeping phase. They're up at 3 in the morning, doing all that. And then I come over here and I'm only here for four days and there are limos and intense press. So, I'm still trying to kind of balance that.

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Q: Is it jarring to lead both existences?

Rush: In some ways it's pretty exhilarating because there's a small percentage of my brain that still keeps me here as a tourist. I'm still going, "Wow! Look at this here." I'm getting to go to places I never would have been to.

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