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He's into roles that have some extra bite

John Hensley relishes 'Teeth' and 'Nip/Tuck' parts thanks to 'Harold and Maude' and Mom.

January 29, 2008|Greg Braxton | Times Staff Writer

In the first season of FX's drama "Nip/Tuck," John Hensley, who plays Matt, the perpetually troubled son of plastic surgeons, attempted to circumcise himself. A few seasons later, a white supremacist holding Matt captive forced him at gunpoint to cut off the penis of a transgender friend of Matt's.

And in the newly released movie "Teeth," Hensley portrays Brad, a brooding creep who unwittingly puts himself in harm's way with his infatuation with his stepsister, unaware that she has a rare condition that gives her a toothed vagina when she feels threatened. Of course, it's a comedy.

"There seems to be a connection here -- oh, man, I don't want to get dismembered anymore," Hensley joked about considering future projects. "Maybe I need to have a talk with my agent."

But though his roles don't seem to have much sunshine, Hensley -- whose stylish hair, distinctive but not grandiose tattoos and new indie cred make him a suitable fit for the current edgy young Hollywood -- is celebrating his walks on the dark side. Even though Matt is more tortured this season, the actor is having fun on the hyper-soapy "Nip/Tuck." And he's equally excited about the response to his glowering turn in "Teeth," in which he lashes out at everyone who comes near him. He was initially concerned that viewers wouldn't get the twisted humor of the film

"The first time I saw it at Sundance was with an audience, and they totally got it," Hensley said. "It was a real validation of my own take on the story."

For an actor currently on display both as a recovering drug addict and as an unsmiling brute whose only friend is a vicious attack dog, Hensley projects an infectious likability that is the polar opposite of his tense screen personas. He is polite, asking a visitor to his hillside home high off Laurel Canyon Boulevard whether it's OK if he smokes. He is proud of his motorcycles, his key mode of transportation.

Considering the similarities between Matt and Brad, he leans forward as if realizing for the first time that the two were brothers in angst.

"Brad is what would have happened if no one put the brakes on Matt," he said. "People might see Brad as this bad guy, but I never saw him as that. He's just a victim of circumstances. My initial intention was to have him be pure evil, but I really wanted to try and find the humanity in him.

"Matt is a victim of circumstances too, because he's grown up in this environment of highly dysfunctional people."

Taking on such fringe characters appears to be predestined for the 30-year-old. He got bitten by the show business bug at 8 years old when he saw "Harold and Maude," the classic film depicting the love affair between an elderly woman and a self-destructive young man.

"I remember my mother taking me into this room, putting in this Beta tape and saying, 'I need for you to see this.' " Hensley said. "I watched it and thought, 'Whatever this is, that's what I want to do with my life. I want to be part of stories that are worth telling.' I'm not sure why my mom did that -- she did the same thing with 'Alien.' But she planted some seeds there, and now I feel so fortunate to be doing this for a living."

However, he did not feel he was blessed with good fortune when he was first offered the role of Matt. In fact, he was adamant about not even auditioning for the role.

"When I read the pilot, I felt, 'This is the best piece of television that I've ever had an opportunity to read,' " Hensley said about the series that revolves around two plastic surgeons and their often wacky patients. "And I wanted nothing to do with it. Matt was a 17-year-old kid, and I was 24 at the time."

By that time, Hensley was already a veteran of two short-lived series, ABC's "Madigan Men" and TNT's "Witchblade." He made his TV debut in 1999 on Comedy Central's "Strangers With Candy" and once played the boyfriend of Meadow Soprano on HBO's "The Sopranos."

"I kept telling them, 'I will do anything for you, but I really am not the guy for this. And they said, 'That is exactly the reason why we think you're the guy.' "

Dylan Walsh, who plays Matt's long-suffering father, Sean McNamara, recalled how Hensley was often uncomfortable during the first days of the series: "He had long hair, and he was always very self-conscious about being older than his character. But we were always close because we played father and son, and he's really cool. We're like war veterans; we're on the same level."

Hensley said he is now more at ease with the heightened tone of the drama, with its unceasingly flawed, often illogical characters and heavy doses of sex and violence.

Since he said yes, the producers have put Matt through the wringer, physically and emotionally. In the course of five seasons, Matt had a romance with a life coach who turned out to be a transsexual and has gone through phases of being a skinhead, a Scientologist, a meth addict and an aspiring performer in a gay porno movie.

"Matt's been given more free rein this season, and the fact that he's a father has given him more dimension," Hensley said. "He's arguably the one character on the show who goes through the most from season to season."

Pleased with his day job, Hensley is eager to get back to "Nip/Tuck," which has been on hiatus due to the writers strike. He doesn't feel he's been pigeonholed yet for his darker roles and would love to add a "real comedy" to his resume.

"I've had these meetings where the producers weren't really sure if I could do comedy," he said. "At the end, they say, 'Hey, you're a funny guy.' I started out in improv, so it would be nice. The fight doesn't end for me because I'm on a TV show. I'm happy to fight for any role."

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