Penn, Depp … and Campbell Scott

“What is a blog? Will you explain that to me?” Campbell Scott politely asked last week over chicken noodle soup, head tilted to one side, listening intently to the answer. “So it’s different than a chat, then?”

The ‘T’ in ‘chat’ was clipped, the consonant-stomp a hallmark of a voice trained to project nuance from the floodlights back to the cheap seats. It is Mr. Scott’s distinctive speaking inflection, tightly controlled and falling just outside the average speech pattern, that is the easiest feature to recognize of a man who has hovered below the public radar, though he has starred in over 20 films and Broadway productions.

He was at an Upper West Side lunch joint, on a break from rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. He was playing Oberon and Theseus and co-starring with old friend Hope Davis.

Mr. Scott is an actor who you may only remember as Kyra Sedgwick’s love interest from 1992′s Singles, or as that good-looking sick guy from the Julia Roberts weepie Dying Young. With some prodding, you might recall his turn in David Mamet’s The Spanish Prisoner, or his lauded role as the almost-feral lothario in Roger Dodger in 2002, followed by the heartbreaking portrayal of the mustached dentist in despair over his wife’s infidelity in The Secret Lives of Dentists. You may have even heard that he is the descendant of theater and film royalty, the son of George C. Scott (the “C.” stood for Campbell) and Colleen Dewhurst.

But you more than likely won’t hear about any of these accomplishments from this exceedingly courteous yet private 43-year-old actor/producer/director. Don’t look for Campbell Scott to wax poetic about his craft on Inside the Actors Studio, though he certainly would have plenty to impart-a fact that hasn’t gone unnoticed by his peers.

“When people ask who you feel are the greatest actors of your generation-which, granted, is always kind of a bullshit question-the names that always come up are Sean Penn and Johnny Depp, and deservedly so,” said comic actor Denis Leary, who co-starred with Mr. Scott in The Secret Lives of Dentists. “I always bring up Campbell Scott in the same breath, and I know for a fact that those two guys do too.”

“Campbell is the actor of his generation,” said playwright and director Craig Lucas, who wrote the screenplay for The Secret Lives of Dentists. “By the time Campbell played Hamlet, I sort of decided he was the greatest actor in the world. If he had wanted to have Sean Penn’s career, I’m sure he would have gone after it.”

But instead, surely unlike Mr. Penn or Mr. Depp (or Mr. Leary, for that matter), Mr. Campbell was able to sit at a Manhattan luncheonette last week in a center booth in plain view, unnoticed. He arrived alone (he doesn’t have a personal publicist) and without baseball hat and sunglasses, instead wearing a dark green long-sleeved T-shirt, jeans and an easy smile. His hair is a dark, peppery gray and his wide-set blue eyes peer out of an unlined face. “I love that I’m rarely recognized. I like it, because I know I can look different from film to film,” he said. “If I get anything, it’s ‘Aren’t you Kyle MacLachlan?’”

Mr. Scott agreed to an interview no doubt hoping for a little exposure for his second solo directorial work, Off the Map, which opened March 11. The film stars Joan Allen and Sam Elliott and revolves around a family living in the wilds of Taos, N.M., grappling with a father’s depression and an I.R.S. agent sent to collect back taxes. It is a film full of charged silences and heartbreaking landscapes. “Oh, you must see it on the big screen,” said Mr. Scott.

“When you produce and direct, your movies are different to you,” he later explained. “They’re not just something you act in.” Off the Map was a decade in the making, going back to when Mr. Scott saw a production of the play by Joan Ackermann in Massachusetts. For years, the film languished.

“It’s been a long road. All the movies I make seem to take the long road. I don’t know why that is,” Mr. Scott grinned. “Maybe because they’re all completely inaccessible, where nothing happens in them?”

Meet the elusive Campbell Scott. During the year of his birth (1961), his father was co-starring with Paul Newman and nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in The Hustler, while his mother won a Tony for All the Way Home. The elder Scott, who developed a reputation that could kindly be called “difficult,” refused to attend the awards, which he once called “a two-hour meat parade.” ( A decision that didn’t prevent him winning for his most famous role, in 1970′s Patton). Ms. Dewhurst would go on to win another Tony (for A Moon for the Misbegotten) and play husky-voiced and slightly imposing mothers in movies ( Annie Hall) and on television ( Murphy Brown).

But Mr. Scott said that as children, neither he nor his older brother (also an actor) were overly aware of their parents’ fame. “You have to remember that when I was young, they were theater actors,” he said. “That life is a life of driving away for two hours a night. For us, seeing them perform meant playing cards backstage with nice stage managers.

“When you’re young, you don’t care about your parents and what they’re doing. But then you get to your 20′s and you start watching their movies,” he continued. “And then you become an actor, as I did late in college, and then you’re really watching them. And they were really very good.”

Mr. Scott’s parents divorced in 1965, only to remarry each other and then divorce again in 1972. “I wouldn’t call it a normal upbringing,” Mr. Scott said evenly of his country (upstate New York) childhood. George C. Scott, a notorious drinker (he described himself as a “functioning alcoholic”) was a bit of a hothead, and he had legendary fights with directors and well-publicized romances, including one with Ava Gardner.

No matter how open and friendly Mr. Scott appears, one can’t help but feel that one is being impolite by bringing up his parents.

“When you’re 20, I was just trying to stay above water and work,” he said. “It’s no wonder I spent as much time as I did saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to talk about my parents.’ ‘Cause you’re just a kid and you’re just trying to figure it out. Now I’m like, ‘Sure, I’ll talk about my parents.’ I miss them … I admire them.” He paused. “And I know everything about them that you’ll never know, so fine.”

O.K., then!

He continued: “I find it kind of comforting to watch them. They’re both dead now, so I like seeing them. I like hearing their voices. It’s like”-he gestured vaguely-” there they are.”

Mr. Scott resisted the allure of acting for a while, attending Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., with the idea of becoming a history teacher.

“I was a reader,” he said. “Books, stories-I was all about the reading.” But the genes proved too strong, and soon he was making his Broadway debut in 1982′s The Queen and the Rebels alongside his mother. A breakout role in the 1990 AIDS movie Longtime Companion caused many to take notice.

“In the editing room, my estimation of Campbell-which was already quite high-went though the roof,” said Mr. Lucas, the playwright and screenwriter of Longtime Companion. “We found that even though he had the least number of lines, we were always cutting to him. Even when he was just listening, he was more interesting. It became like a kind of joke: ‘What do we do now? We cut to Campbell.’ But nine times out of 10, that was the real solution.”

As opposed to the characters that Mr. Scott has played with such burning intensity, in person he is all open-palmed ease. “People don’t realize how extremely funny he is,” said Mr. Leary. “I’d love to do a comedy with him.”

When asked why the title of The Secret Lives of Dentists was changed from the Jane Smiley novella’s original, The Age of Grief, Mr. Scott shrugged. “I’m guessing the thinking back in the producing facility was that it sounded like too much of a downer.” A mischievous grin flickered across his face: “Like Dying Young, for example.”

Which brings us to Joel Schumacher’s Dying Young, perhaps better known as the movie that might be partly responsible for Campbell Scott running from Hollywood to the tall grasses of the indie world. Think Pretty Woman­ –era Julia Roberts with the miniest of mini-skirts and an abundance of hair, opposite a pale, red-eyed Campbell Scott wearing lots of hats (his character was going through chemotherapy) and delivering lines like “I’m not going to die. I’m going to recover … but I can’t do it without you.” Mr. Scott was nominated in 1992 for MTV’s Best Breakthrough Performance; 14-year old Eddie Furlong beat him with Terminator 2: Judgment Day. “No, I wouldn’t call that an enjoyable experience, though I loved Julia and everyone on the crew,” he said. “I didn’t really know what I was doing in film yet, and I was unprepared for the sort of decisions that are the obvious sort in Hollywood, all of which have very little to do with the script. At the time, I was like”-he threw up his hands – “‘Hey I got a job! Great! It’s a great script-what can go wrong?’”

Mr. Scott recovered nicely with the love-in-the-time-of-grunge flick Singles (his character was equally obsessed by Kyra Sedgwick and a plan to save Seattle traffic with a supertrain), and then he hightailed it out of tinsel town.

“I did the two Hollywood movies one right after the other, and in a way it was good, because it formed my opinion-not about Hollywood films in general, but just about how to go into something and control things a bit better.”

“You would not be able to talk him into a big-budget movie if he didn’t find the material interesting,” said Mr. Leary. “He won’t take the money.”

Mr. Scott instead went back to the theater – Long Day’s Journey Into Night with his mom and Jason Robards-and quirky films: He played Robert Benchley in Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle and was part of an ensemble cast in The Daytrippers, on which he was also a producer.

Was he consciously staying out of the limelight?

“They’re never conscious decisions-not in the large sense,” he said. “Adult decisions are smaller, and different. You start to think, ‘I don’t want to go there,’ or ‘I don’t want to do that unless this is happening or that person is involved.’ They’re tiny decisions, but they are ones you feel you can control.”

Final, his first solo venture directing (he co-directed Big Night with Stanley Tucci in 1996), was another difficult-to-define project that fluctuated between talky drama and  thriller. It was shot on an estimated $80,000  budget and featured solid performances from Denis Leary and Hope Davis, but it only made about $8,700 in theaters when it was released in 2001.

“You sat through it? Oh my God, you’re kidding,” Mr. Scott exclaimed in mock shock. “I really liked that movie. It’s horribly flawed, but there is something about it that really is fascinating. I see nothing but my mistakes now, but so what? You always see what you should have changed. Same with Off the Map.”

“I was a little worried about working with him as a director, just because we were so used to him carrying the acting in our films,” said Dave Newman of Holedigger Films, which produced Off the Map and previous Scott projects. “I had seen Final, I had seen Hamlet. I know how capable he is as a producer, and how he always brings a sense of calm to a set, but I was curious to see how far he was willing to push himself. And he did it. He’s a real actor’s director-that’s what the other actors tell me.”

Explained Denis Leary: “Here’s what being an actor’s director means. In this business, executives as well as directors and other people- nobody knows what they want, or everybody is trying to follow someone’s agenda, and the last person they trust is the actors. So they all find this need to talk on and on and on and to tell you what you need to do-when, in fact, if you’ve hired the right people in the first place, they’re already going to know what to do. The best kind of director gets out of your way and make everything else happen, and when you’re lost or you have a question, they have an answer. That’s what it means with Campbell.”

The Holedigger partnership, started seven years ago, has proved to be a fruitful one, making Roger Dodger, The Secret Lives of Dentists, Off the Map and the upcoming The Dying Gaul-a film adaptation of a Craig Lucas play, directed by Mr. Lucas and starring Mr. Scott, Peter Sarsgaard and Patricia Clarkson, which did well at Sundance but has yet to find a distributor. Holedigger was founded in the most unlikely of ways. “My friend George Van Buskirk and I had sorta started this company on a whim,” said co-founder Dave Newman. “We love movies, and one day we were watching the IFC channel and Campbell was on. He looked right into the camera and said, ‘If anyone’s out there with $5 million to make a movie, give me a call.’ We wrote him this crazy letter, and he took a chance with us. The movie we met about was Off the Map.”

While Holedigger was working on financing for both Off the Map and The Secret Lives of Dentists, a young man named Dylan Kidd approached Mr. Scott in a restaurant with a screenplay. Mr. Scott agreed not only to produce and star in the film- Roger Dodger-but to allow the young screenwriter to direct. “My partner called and said, ‘Yo, some guy gave Campbell a script he really liked,” said Mr. Newman. “Campbell was able to lure talent like Isabella Rossellini, Jennifer Beals and Elizabeth Berkley. He’s been our rabbi in our introduction into the independent film world.”

Roger Dodger won Best Narrative Feature at the first Tribeca Film Festival. For Mr. Scott’s predatory performance as a smooth-talking manipulator of women, he won the National Board of Review for best actor and was nominated for an Independent Spirit award.

Mr. Scott, who is quick to praise his crew, producing partners, co-stars and directors, dismisses his own performance: “All I had to do was smoke and talk fast.” (“He can be self-depreciating to the point that it’s annoying,” said Mr. Newman.)

As for the pressure of following his parents’ legacy, he demurred. “Actors aren’t all the same,” he said. “They have very different skills. There are actors of intellect who are very thoughtful about everything they do … and then there are actors of instinct who don’t know what they’re doing until the cameras roll …. My father was actually quite thoughtful about what he did, while my mother was much more instinctual.”

When asked where he fell, he said, “I guess hopefully it would be a bit of both. I like to be thoughtful about things, and then I like to just whoooosh. With something like Roger, you gotta say a lot and smoke, and basically the camera rolls and you are there and you thread it and hope it looks good.”

“The minute you say ‘Action!’ he lets anything happen that occurs to him,” said Mr. Lucas, after having directed him in the upcoming The Dying Gaul. “There is usually a surprise at least in the first take or two.”

But Mr. Scott insists that as his career progresses, acting will take a back seat to producing and directing. “I love being behind the scenes,” he said. “Producing is really controlling your work environment more than you usually do.”

Being in control is clearly important to a man who has worked hard at maintaining a sense of privacy-he lives outside the city, his name never appears on Page Six (can you imagine Campbell Scott groping a starlet at Bungalow 8?). He has a son, but when he divorced from his wife Anne, a painter, in 2002, their split was nothing that Us Weekly would cover. Nor is his current relationship with actress Patricia Clarkson tabloid-worthy.

“I’ve gotten really good at knowing the difference between my one life and the rest of it,” he said. “When you’re young, you don’t, because you just want to get a fucking job and that’s your story. Then, if you have a certain amount of success, thank God, and you actually make a living from it, then you change and it’s up to you to decide what your structure’s going to be. I know now how to compartmentalize. And being a dad, I know to make decisions so that I don’t have to worry about what’s private and what isn’t-it’s just done. I love producing and directing, because if I’m going to spend time away from my other half of life, I would prefer it not to be in a completely foreign situation where I have no control.” He grinned. “It’s nice when things are messy, but not all the time.”

It was time for him to be getting back to the rehearsal for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “It’s fantastic,” he said animatedly. “Mendelssohn’s music is so lovely. And it’s the Philharmonic! In Avery Fisher Hall!”

As he walked out of the restaurant, his face brightened, glad to be back in the anonymous sunshine.