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The Door Has Opened Wide

Can't put the name to the face you've seen in a decade's worth of movies? That could change this year for Oliver Platt.

September 20, 1998|Steve Hochman | Steve Hochman is a regular contributor to Calendar

There's a running gag in "The Impostors," a screwball farce starring Stanley Tucci and Oliver Platt as bumbling, out-of-work Depression-era actors. Several times the pair's profession is mentioned to new acquaintances. The response is invariably along the lines of, "Really? Would I have seen you in anything?"

It's a great inside joke in a movie, written and directed by Tucci, that features a cast stuffed with character actors, from veteran Dana Ivey to such contemporary New York indie film mainstays as Lili Taylor and Steve Buscemi. You can bet that everyone in the film, which opens Oct. 2, has heard that conversation-stopper hundreds of times. For the most part, their names are not of the household variety.

But it's a question that Platt, 38, may not be hearing much longer. With the accumulated recognition of a nearly 10-year run as a particularly versatile actor--"adaptable," as he puts it--bobbing occasionally above the mainstream waterline, he's now poised to pop full-fledged into public consciousness.

"Yes, this is definitely the planets lining up in some sort of way right now," he says, his full frame reclined in a comfy chair in a Hollywood hotel room, his brown-socked feet perched on an ottoman.

"The Impostors" marks Platt's first above-the-title role, as he and Tucci recall an earlier Stanley (Laurel) and Oliver (Hardy) playing hapless characters they first developed as friends more than 10 years ago. As a physical comedy part, it's in keeping with many of his best-known appearances, from his screen debut in Jonathan Demme's "Married to the Mob" to his role as Porthosin 1993's youth-skewed "The Three Musketeers" to Warren Beatty's manic campaign manager in this year's "Bulworth."

At the same time, a different side of Platt is featured in the recently released "Simon Birch," in which he plays a good-natured, big-hearted father substitute--no pratfalls or comic facial takes. And he's just finishing work on two other potentially high-profile films; he's a pompous mythology professor alongside Bill Pulman and Bridget Fonda in "Lake Placid," a comic killer alligator adventure written by "Ally McBeal" creator David E. Kelley, and he's a gay architect in "Three to Tango," a "comedy of mistaken sexual identity," as Platt calls it, which also features Matthew Perry, Neve Campbell and Dylan McDermott.

Don't ask Platt, who's every bit as down-to-earth and engaging as he seems on screen, what it all means, though. He might keep you a long time. Fidgeting, he hems and haws, feints and obfuscates, generally side-stepping the matter.

"I don't want you to think I'm avoiding the question," he says, finally, stirring a foamy cappuccino in a china cup. "But maybe I am trying to avoid it. I really try to not think about it that way.

"The planets have lined up before," he says. " 'The Three Musketeers' and 'Indecent Proposal' came out in the same year. That was one bump for my career. And 'Flatliners' before that. I could count my big breaks on two hands. The good thing about having had that before is you learn how to enjoy it without investing too much in it."

And enjoying it he is. Shooting "The Impostors," he says, was the most fun he's ever had doing a film.

"It was a very unusual situation," he says. "Stanley's one of my closest friends. And everybody on that movie, we all know each other. It wasn't like going to work."

"Simon Birch" was more like work--especially a grueling rescue scene in a very cold lake. But the rewards, though different, were also considerable.

"I watched 'Simon Birch' for the first time the other night, and usually--ask any actor--the first time you watch yourself in a movie is a totally unnatural experience," he says. "You think about all the things that happened that day and, 'Oh, they lost this piece. . . . Oh, that loop didn't work so well.' But watching it, I actually kind of enjoyed watching me being reserved and quietly eccentric and not, you know. . . ."


"Yeah," he says. "Don't get me wrong. Nine times out of 10 those parts are more fun to play, the ones with all the aberrant behavior. But ["Simon Birch"] is such a nice script."

Together the roles clearly constitute a breakthrough for which he is very grateful. But it's not like he's expecting to start getting offers for the same roles as Harrison Ford.

"I'm realistic," he says, pushing his roundish face into a self-mocking mug that pretty much is stamped "character actor." "A lot of people assume that [kind of stardom] is what everybody wants. But look at what I've got for a second. You know what I mean? I've got standing employment. I have interesting roles. I make enough money. And my fortunes don't rise and fall to the same degree at all with every movie opening as those guys' do.

" . . . I would like to think that I could parlay my little chips into a little heap that would allow me to, on a much more manageable level, be able to do the things I want to do."

And that is?

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