Malibu actor Jamey Sheridan lets it roll

The actor, who stars in the film “Handsome Harry,” to be released locally this Friday, talks about his 21-plus years of work in the film and stage business.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

When it comes to making great independent films, it’s all about the script and what hits you in the gut. So says actor and Malibu resident Jamey Sheridan, star of the new film from director Bette Gordon and Paladin Films, “Handsome Harry,” set for release this Friday in Los Angeles.

“When I saw the script for ‘Harry,’ I loved it,” Sheridan said in an interview with The Malibu Times. “I liked the integration of music, the surprises. It kept turning. It had elements of John Cassavetes and film noir, yet it was this deep, emotional, painful thing.”

Sheridan and Gordon had teamed before for the 2000 film “Luminous Motion,” which Sheridan characterizes as a sort of “surreal road movie.” Though that film had opened to rave reviews, Sheridan “had forgotten” about it until Gordon contacted him for “Handsome Harry.”

The film is about taciturn Harry Sweeney and a trip he takes to reconnect with old friends who share a terrible secret. Harry doesn’t have a great track record as a husband or a father and even keeps his small circle of local buddies at arm’s length. But in fulfilling the dying wish of someone from his past, Harry is forced to confront a core truth that he has run from all his life.

Sheridan has tackled difficult roles in the past. He earned a Tony Award nomination for his performance in Broadway’s 1987 revival of Arthur Miller’s “All My Sons,” playing the betrayed son of a man responsible for the death of war heroes. He played an emotionally disconnected father in Ang Lee’s 1997 film “The Ice Storm.”

With “Handsome Harry,” one could say he is making a career out of emotionally unavailable men, but Sheridan disputed that, saying, “Ah, you’re always remembered for just a couple of roles out of hundreds.”

The Southern California native attended UC Santa Barbara where he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to study acting or modern dance. Old football injuries settled the debate before he moved to San Diego to work at The Old Globe. Then he decided he “didn’t like acting” and quit to travel the world.

“I surfed in Hawaii and sailed the Mediterranean,” Sheridan said. “Eventually, I made it to the Edinburgh festival and watched a lot of Polish films. It reminded me I could act. I headed home but I was broke, so I only made it as far as New York.”

By his second year there, he had enough work to keep him busy at least half the year (“Enough to collect unemployment,” Sheridan said) and ended up working in a number of productions by top-notch playwrights as diverse as Bernard Shaw and Neil Simon.

He played repertory performances of “Ah, Wilderness!” and “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Eugene O’Neill’s shattering autobiographical story of familial dysfunction. In that production, he played opposite Jason Robards, Colleen Dewhurst and Campbell Scott (Dewhurst’s son with actor George C. Scott). Twenty-one years later, with a career that has seen Sheridan featured in dozens of television and film roles, Scott and Sheridan worked together again in “Handsome Harry.”

When asked what he taps within to find such emotionally wrenching characters, Sheridan reflected awhile.

“Sometimes, you really start to despair and then the answer is just staring you in the face,” he said. “I lost my father young, so I use a lot of family stuff. When I did ‘Hamlet’ [also with Campbell Scott], I couldn’t really get Claudius. But then I came across this book John Updike had written, “Gertrude and Claudius,” defending maturity, and I found my inspiration in this long speech Claudius has that is usually left out of most productions. It’s about riding and sportsmanship and I just had it.”

For “Handsome Harry,” Sheridan was helped in his quest to find the psychic truth in his role by working opposite some of Hollywood’s finest character actors, including Steve Buscemi, Aidan Quinn and John Savage, also a Malibu resident. The film won the Best Ensemble Cast Award at the Boston Film Festival last year.

In the film, Savage plays a man who is outwardly successful, but whose inability to accept his son’s homosexuality prevents him from forming any real human attachments.

“I was attracted to the idea of working with these other actors,” Savage said about working on the film and connecting to his role. “But you can’t analyze it too much. Bette was a great director. She really inhabited a lot of the work.

“To have kids is to see how relationships aren’t perfect,” he continued (Savage has two children). “I think one of the messages of this movie is that there is goodness in not holding onto anger and sharing that we screw up. Even if you don’t get the forgiveness you want. By not expecting anything back, you’ve done your duty. You accept your own faults.”

Sheridan said he is pleased to see that “Handsome Harry,” which he helped produce, is finally getting a national release this month. He said he’d love to do a comedy, if one came along.

“But I have no idea why what happens, happens,” Sheridan said. “I’m just going to let it roll.”

“Handsome Harry” opens April 16 at Laemmle’s Sunset 5 in West Hollywood.

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