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Dylan Walsh overcomes doubts to take on 'Stepfather' role

He was reluctant to play a serial killer who murders his families. But now he says he enjoyed portraying 'both guys': the loving father and the sinister killer -- sometimes in the same scene.

October 15, 2009|Michael Ordona

When describing his psychopathic-killer role in the remake of "The Stepfather," Dylan Walsh can't help but dwell on his character's mantra: "Family is the most important thing."

"This guy had kind of a '50s sentiment about what family is," he says. "He wants to be the king of the house but a lot has happened in the sense of how families have become more progressive. When he's not getting what he wants, when someone's questioning his authority, it's devastating for him."

But his David Harris is no mustache-twirling villain. He's constructed to seem utterly ordinary, even banal from all appearances, like a fish that dangles a faux lure to its prey. Once the jig is jagged, though, well, it's another dead family and on to a new life and name for him.

"When he keeps talking about 'family,' he's playing off a single woman raising kids: her needs, her paranoia about the world and her need to finally find somebody she can count on. So less than being seductive in a sexual way, it's more saying those kind of tried-and-true, family values phrases in a believable enough way to put her at ease, to make her think, 'This is the answer. This is the guy I want at home with my family.' And that's even freakier," Walsh says.

"Ted Bundy had this sexual allure that was part of his psychosis. But this guy is more of a type to make a speech to everybody in the backyard, while flipping burgers at the grill, about the importance of family."

While David Harris is a Frankenstein's monster of parts calculated to be attractive to single mothers, Walsh counts among his own components startling blue eyes (he once played Paul Newman's son); Chris Isaak's chin and nose; and a false name of his own. Born Charles M. Walsh, he changed it to avoid a SAG conflict.

"My father had wanted to name me for Dylan Thomas," he explains. "He had seen him speak on one of those drunken poetry tours he did."

The future Dylan's parents met in the foreign service in Ethiopia and stopped in L.A. long enough for the boy to be born. While in L.A., they stayed with Charles' grandfather, Frank P. Haven, then-managing editor of this newspaper. "The 'P.' didn't stand for anything," Walsh says. "So it's sort of in my family, these names we make up for ourselves."

Ironically, it was "family" that almost kept Walsh from taking the "Stepfather" role.

"I'm a father, I have three kids, and I needed somebody to help me understand this as an entertainment. Because my first thought was, 'This is just not cool,' " he says. The presence of his occasional "Nip/Tuck" collaborator, director Nelson McCormick, persuaded him.

Among the serial killers Walsh researched for the role was John Emil List, on whom the story's idea was very loosely based. List murdered his family in 1971 and was not captured until 1989. He had started a new life under a new name, even remarried.

"I read a couple of books about him. He was a scary person," Walsh said with the ring of understatement. "He only lines up in a couple of ways with [Harris]. John List didn't keep doing it, as far as anybody knows; it's not like he kept going family to family, which David Harris does."

Despite his initial misgivings, Walsh now says the role may be the most fun he's had in 25 years of acting.

"Look what I got to do. I got to play, in any given scene, both guys: The version of him that is this wonderful, too-good-to-be-true stepfather; and, in the same scene, you'd see my face darken and I'm the guy who eventually takes over the movie -- this sick, psychotic killer.

"As long as it's just an entertainment, a thriller, that's fun."

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Where you've seen him

Dylan Walsh is best known for playing plastic surgeon Sean McNamara on FX's "Nip/Tuck," which has already wrapped its final episodes (airing in 2011). "I was tired of that character. I think the character was tired of me," he says. "There were never off-episodes, where you're setting up something else; every episode was like a season finale. It definitely ran its course." Films include "The Lake House"; "Blood Work," with Clint Eastwood; and "Nobody's Fool," as Paul Newman's son. "After about a month of working with him, he said, 'Listen, kid' -- and I was in my 30s -- 'are you OK?' I said, 'I'll tell you honestly, I'm in awe of you,' and I started to go on," Walsh says. "He just said, 'Well, get over that!' "

-- Michael Ordona

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