The term "character actor" gets tossed around a little too often in personality profiles of movie stars. But if there's an actor working today who truly embodies the phrase, it's Oliver Platt, currently making his Broadway debut in Conor McPherson's haunting new play, Shining City.
Platt's versatility has graced more than two-dozen movies and numerous TV series over the past several decades. The past year has been particularly triumphant for the 46-year-old actor. He was singled out by critics for his hysterical, scene-stealing roles as a repulsively rotund lard baron betrothed to Sienna Miller's Francesca in "Casanova" and as a drunk and disorderly disaster in "The Ice Harvest" alongside John Cusack. He's also chewing up the small screen as Russell, the booze-soaked, libido-stoked best friend of Hank Azaria's title character on the Showtime TV series "Huff," for which Platt earned his second Emmy nomination.
A far cry from the self-destructive train wreck in "Huff," the Canadian-born son of a career diplomat is the picture of affable, self-effacing graciousness in person. He's tall and stocky, with a cherubic face and a penetrating gaze. Sipping on a soda in a West Village diner, Platt says that he doesn't spend a lot of time ruminating on his career. But when pressed, he credits his success as a character actor to his quest for variety.
"If I was smart about anything early on, it was probably that I had the wisdom not to do the same things over and over," he says. "If you do something well, they ask you to do it again. So I would always try and look for something different - not because I was so smart and sophisticated about my career, but as a way of staying interested. Because if I'm not interested in what I'm doing, chances are you're not going to be terribly interested in watching me." Shining City director Robert Falls attributes Platt's power as an actor to a single word: humanity. "It's a weird word, and I don't apply it to a lot of actors. But there's something about Oliver that is so tragic and comic, and he just possesses it naturally. The play calls for a guy who's an everyman. And I think that Oliver in his work always brings a rich humanity to his guys."
Although he's spent the better part of the past two decades toiling in film and TV, Platt got his start working onstage. His big Hollywood break came when Bill Murray, whom Platt had met at his cousin's Christmas party, came to see him perform in Manhattan Punch Line's one-act play festival.
"I had this great conversation with him [at the party]," recalls Platt. "He said, 'So is there anything I can come to see you in?' And I [said], 'Well, actually…' I'll never forget, the last weekend of the festival, the artistic director came running backstage in the middle of the intermission, and was like, 'Bill Murray's here! And he's here to see you!' I had no clue how lucky I was."
Murray told director Jonathan Demme about Platt, and the actor soon found himself in Demme's new film, "Married to the Mob," opposite Matthew Modine. Platt followed that breakthrough with a supporting part in "Working Girl" the same year. Soon, he was getting offers for more challenging film roles.
His only theatre part since 1990 - when he co-starred Off-Broadway in the Mike Nichols-directed Jules Feiffer play Elliot Loves - was Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night in Central Park in 2002. So he's relishing the opportunity to return to the stage. "If you'd have told me when Elliot Loves was closing that I wasn't going to do another play for 12 years, I would have been insulted," Platt stresses. "But a lot of planets have got to line up to do a play. You've got to want it and it's got to want you."
In Shining City, Platt portrays John, a guilt-ridden man tormented by the ghost of his dead wife. Unable to face the apparition, he goes to see a therapist, Ian (Brían F. O'Byrne), to try to reconcile the vision and confess the painful betrayals of his marriage. As the play unfolds, it becomes clear that the equally troubled Ian, a former Catholic priest, has his own phantoms rattling around in the closet. The play, produced in Dublin and London to great acclaim in 2004, illuminates both men's gripping struggle to emerge from the darkness, and concludes with a brilliant coup de théâtre.
What I love about it and what I love about all compelling narratives is that it's got that healthy dose of mystery. When I say mystery, I'm not talking about 'Who did it?' but about a kind of otherness. With Conor, it's so much about what he doesn't write."
But what McPherson does put on the page is rapturously powerful, and that was what ultimately attracted Platt to the project.
"I always want my characters to have some sort of humanity to them. That's what I love about this play. Everyone is kind of groping, looking for something that they can't quite grasp, and dealing with pain that they are not even aware of on some level."