|Better Roles Movies: The actor has rarely wanted for work, but 'The Assignment' may be his
ticket to upper-echelon parts.
With all the sepia-toned gravity of a borrowed dream, the image sputters into focus: Three soldiers, Irish, circa 1916, staring at the camera with the curious awe of your ancestors. One pair of eyes in particular stands out, pale orbs floating against a backdrop of civil war and infant film.
The piece is part of "Lumiere and Company," a 1996 project involving 40 contemporary directors, using an original Lumiere brothers Cinematographe. John Boorman shot it on the set of Neil Jordan's "Michael Collins." The "soldiers" included Liam Neeson and Stephen Rea. The eyes in question belonged to Aidan Quinn.
Cut to Toronto, circa September '97, and those eyes are looking across a hotel room, bright blue though they haven't slept all night. "Six o'clock this morning I was on set in Lenox, Mass.," Quinn says, a crooked smile balanced on his face. "We're shooting nights. That's why I'm out of it."
Out of it? He's got one film in production--"In Dreams" the new Jordan movie being shot in New England--and another just completed: "This Is My Father," with direction and script by younger brother Paul and cinematography by older brother Declan ("Leaving Las Vegas"). On this night, as part of the Toronto Film Festival, there will be a gala screening of "The Assignment"--Canadian director Christian Duguay's spy thriller starring Quinn as both Carlos the Jackal and the U.S. Navy doppelganger assigned to destroy him.
His co-stars are Donald Sutherland and Ben Kingsley. ("It'll probably be the year 2000 before I have this good a role," he says.) The man's working. He's working. All he has to do tonight is stay awake. And since it's the first time he's seen the completed film, it shouldn't be a problem.
At the same time, Quinn's career, which has been described as both "eclectic" and "strange," has been a bit topsy-turvy, ever since his early '80s successes in "Reckless" and "Desperately Seeking Susan." Not that he hasn't shown versatility: He's played Jewish in "Avalon," Irish in "The Playboys," Montanan in "Legends of the Fall" and urban neurotic in "Commandments."
While his looks are a classical composition--comparisons to the young Montgomery Clift are neither inappropriate, nor infrequent--his fortunes in Hollywood have been more like the young Humphrey Bogart's: There always seems to be a George Raft, Paul Muni or John Garfield to spirit away the better parts.
"Well, when I first got sent the script to 'The Assignment,' I thought, 'Why don't they offer this to Andy Garcia?' And it turned out they did," he says with a laugh.
"I said, 'Oh, OK.' I had a little bit of question of 'How the hell am I gonna be believable?' Or 'Will it be that much of a question in the audience's mind that I'm supposed to be Venezuelan?' So we went with the brown contacts for Carlos and darkened my skin, worked with a good dialogue coach.
"And then when I heard Andy Garcia was playing an Irish cop in Sidney Lumet's movie ["Night Falls on Manhattan"], I stopped worrying about it."
He draws on his No. 2 Monte Cristo--Cuban cigars being a Canadian perk--and a fearsome nimbus ascends. "But that's one of the great things about being an actor. We get to play dress up. And that's what this movie was for me. Wigs, beards, mustaches, dialogues. Intrigue. It was a tremendous amount of hard work, but fun work for me."
Quinn, who spent his childhood in a kind of commuter existence between Ireland and the Midwest, would really like the prerogatives of the Travolta-Cruise-Gibson Club, the members of which are in their late 30s and early 40s. Quinn, at 38, is centrally located. So he's made what for him is a preemptive strike: He's hired a publicist.
"I mean, this is the first time I've really had one," he says, "because they've told me, my manager and agent, that I must have a publicist. And I told her, I was very frank, I said, 'Listen, I'll give it a year. You're delightful, hard-working, but if it doesn't make any difference after then it's not worth it for me.'
"Because I'm not particularly a career-oriented guy," he continues. "I'm lucky. I can make really interesting films much of the time with interesting people yet be anonymous, have a private life. But," he pauses, "I'd like to have the choice of the better roles. This role is a great role. But they just don't come along that much unless you're in the top echelon of the actors in competition for the really good scripts."
And that's what he'd like. "Yeah, I think that's the idea."
He puffs. "But in the end it doesn't really matter. I make a tremendous living. I get to work on really interesting, really different kinds of roles and still have a family life and some aspect of privacy, which a lot of these guys don't. I mean, having worked with Brad [Pitt] when he was becoming really big, with paparazzi chasing him, and big premieres, and when I was with Johnny Depp in 'Benny and Joon' . . . it's not a nice way to live. I don't envy them."
Quinn is married to actress Elizabeth Bracco ("Trees Lounge") and with their young daughter they live just outside New York City. Being a father makes an enormous difference in how he approaches his life ("an enormous difference.") But hasn't anyone ever said, "Hey! Move to Hollywood!"?
"Sure, lots of times," he laughs. "But people have dropped it now, because they know it's never going to happen. I just don't like being surrounded by just the movie business. It's so insular. It really is the main topic of conversation in Los Angeles. All the time. For me, I consider acting a business, a job, sometimes--rarely--an art form. And it should be part of one's life, not the whole deal. And I think living in the Northeast you're just much more connected to other aspects of life a lot. Plus, I like the seasons, and I like the country."
As strongly as Quinn feels about his Irish heritage, and he does, he seems to harbor just as much a passion for the craft of acting. And his career. While in Budapest filming "The Assignment," he procured an illicit tape of the terrorist's interrogation by Hungarian secret police ("a little money here and there . . ."). And he still seems wounded over not getting the leads in the Coen brothers' "Raising Arizona" or "Miller's Crossing" ("I told them, 'Don't ever ask me to audition again,' because I won't. It's too heartbreaking").
Neither can he rate his work, or say whether "The Assignment" is indeed his best role to date. "I don't know about that," he says. "I feel like if I said that I'd be picking a favorite child. That I'd be disloyal to some of the other journeys I've taken. Let's say it was one of the more challenging roles I've had. And I enjoyed it immensely.
"And anyway," he says, brandishing that Cuban, "I can't really speak of it until after tonight. . . ."