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A clear sense of self

November 06, 2003|Ellen Baskin | Special to The Times

Wentworth Miller makes his film debut in "The Human Stain," an adaptation of Philip Roth's acclaimed novel, but the actor is no novice when it comes to literary classics. He majored in English at Princeton University, and, as to his unique first name, "according to family lore," Miller says, "my great-grandmother plucked it out of Jane Austen." Thus, "Persuasion's" heroic Capt. Wentworth has been further immortalized; the current keeper of the name is actually Wentworth Miller III -- but he wryly promises that "when I have a son, his first name will be John."

Although he didn't act in college, his love of movies and TV propelled him to Los Angeles after graduation. A childhood dream of acting was rekindled, and Miller felt that "if I didn't at least try, I would always regret it."

He did temp work while going to classes and auditions. He persisted, eventually wrangling a number of TV guest spots, then the lead in the 2002 ABC miniseries "Dinotopia." After wrapping "The Human Stain," Miller had a small part in "Underworld," a hit horror flick that opened earlier this year.

"The Human Stain" opened to mixed reviews, although Miller was singled out for praise. The cast includes Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman, Ed Harris and Gary Sinise -- but because Miller is seen only in flashbacks (as Hopkins' younger self), he doesn't appear with any of them.

Much of the drama of "The Human Stain" stems from a life-altering decision made by Coleman Silk (the role shared by Miller and Hopkins) in the postwar 1940s, planting an action taken by Miller at its thematic core. The film begins in the present, then, after establishing what we think is a clear sense of who Silk is, cuts to the past, revealing a shocking truth he has kept from everyone.

"I wanted to take the two of them and create one composite character," director Robert Benton explains. "With Wentworth, we show the formative act that made Coleman Silk who he is, and then we see [Hopkins as] Coleman at the end of his life. Together, the different pieces line up next to each other to make one picture of this man." But they're dissonant images, "like a Cubist painting," Benton points out.

Benton was impressed with the unseasoned Miller's ability to play certain key moments. "There's an enormous temptation, especially if you're a young actor starting out, to show the world you can act in every shot, to always be busy," he says. "But if you look at Wentworth in certain scenes, there's a stillness to him, and it's quite powerful."

The scenes involving the young Silk disclose the story's dramatic twist. After being accused of racism and being ostracized from his prestigious academic position, the '40s-era sequence reveals that Silk is a black man who has been passing for white. This is a subject that holds great personal resonance for Miller, who is biracial. (Hopkins is not.)

"My father is black and my mother is white," he explains. "There were certain things that I automatically understood about the character and the story."

Miller, 31, grew up in Brooklyn, in the thick of New York's "melting pot," where questions of racial identity "just never came up." It wasn't until he went to Princeton that race became an issue. "College is really when the whole 'Who am I?' process begins anyway," he notes. "To be mixed race is to be between two communities. You have to define yourself for other people, or you'll be defined by them. I would say, 'My father is black,' and this expression would come across their face, this look in their eyes ... and then they'd associate me with every stereotype they had in their minds about being black."

Miller recognized this trait in Coleman Silk. "I think that's what he's rebelling against," he says. "It's not that he hates being black. It's about being put into a box not of your own making and being told, 'This is who you are and what you can and cannot do.'

"No one wants to be typecast. At the same time, I grew up with the experience of not seeing me on either the large or small screen, not seeing anyone that I could relate to, anyone that would reflect me back to me. I do feel in some ways that I'm at the forefront of things, and I feel as though it's imperative, given the opportunity, that one should step forward."

Ellen Baskin can be contacted at weekend@latimes.com.

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