Chris O’Donnell, the fair-haired star of Scent of a Woman, spent months working with Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen and still seems like a sweet kid from the Midwest.
O’Donnell has just returned from four months in Vienna and England filming The Three Musketeers. If, as all his press says, O’Donnell is “nice, nice, very nice,” a small-town boy from a big, supportive family who has shown no outward tendencies toward being seduced by booze or wild women, then I can only imagine that this might have been a trial by fire.
At The Regency Hotel in New York City O’Donnell comes to a dead halt. “Do I need a jacket to come in here?” The maitre’ d just smiles and leads us to our table. “I know you need a jacket in here for dinner,” O’Donnell tells me, completely unaware that it was his face and fame that got him in jacketless, not some lenient lunch policy.
“How’s it feel to be back home in the States?” I ask.
“Are you kidding?” he asks, his voice rising two octaves. “It’s great. I was going out of my mind. Everyone else had wrapped two weeks ago, but I was with the second unit. I was away for so long, and when you have a date in your mind that you’re going home, and then they change it, you go crazy. I was supposed to finish Friday, but I got finished Thursday night, and I made my driver take me straight to London. It took four-and-a-half hours, and I hid at the airport so they couldn’t find me and make me go back to do some more! We stopped at Stonehenge at, like, three in the morning.”
“Nineteen seventy-seven,” he says, and I almost fall off my chair. I’m not sure it’s legal to do an interview with someone who was born in 1977.
“No wait,” he says when he sees my face. “Nineteen seventy. What the hell am I thinking? Nineteen seventy. Definitely.”
“Okay, that’s better,” I say. “I just want to make sure that we don’t need a chaperon for this interview.”
“Nah, I just turned 23.”
“Were you a fan of The Three Musketeers before you got this film?”
“Are you kidding? To me, The Three Musketeers is just that candy that gets stuck in your Halloween bag, the one you try to trade away for a Kit Kat. When I get older, I will never give away 3 Musketeers bars for Halloween. Or maybe now I will. But everyone in Europe knows who The Three Musketeers are! They know all the characters. Whenever I’d tell someone what movie we were filming, they’d ask who I was playing, and when I said D’Artagnan, they knew his whole story.”
“Okay,” I say, feeling like some school teacher who wants to bring the class under control, “let’s start at the beginning. Of your career, I mean. I’ve heard you did some catalog work in Chicago, and that led to the part in Men Don’t Leave. How did that work?”
“S*, I don’t know. I think someone I knew at school was doing some catalog work, and then my sister met an agent in Chicago and said, ‘Why don’t you meet my little brother?’ And I met him, and I thought it would be a cool thing to get in the papers or on TV. So I did the catalog work for a few years, and then I got the audition for Men Don’t Leave.”
“How’d you know what to do at the audition?”
“Well, it took about eight auditions to get the part, and I just kind of did what they told me to. I didn’t really have any idea, I just kind of listened to what they said. I listened and I watched. Paul Brickman [the director] is incredible. He’s given lots of people their starts.
“They put us through a lot of rehearsal. I pretended that I knew what they were talking about. They rented this house in Virginia, and they put the four of us in it… me, Jessica [Lange], Charlie [Korsmo] and Tom Mason. And Paul had us rehearse and improvise and ad lib. We’d sit there and basically play house, and Paul would pull me aside and say, ‘Tell your mom that you’re going over to your girlfriend’s house,’ and I’d do that and walk out of the house and wait around till they called me back in. We had a lot of things that happened naturally, and then Paul just didn’t forget them, he used them in the filming.
“It was a fantastic experience, but then I turned 18 during the filming, and I wanted to go to school. I went to Boston College for a year and a half straight. I knew I enjoyed the experience of acting, but I was having a great time at school. The idea was that I would try to do some acting in the summer and not miss school. And the summer after sophomore year, I found some work that fit into my schedule [Blue Sky, one of Orion’s unreleased films, starring Jessica Lange]. And during my junior year, after this other dose of acting, I really wanted to do it more and more. It used to be that when I was in school, I was thinking of acting, and when I was acting, I was thinking about school. But then it got to the point where I was always thinking about acting, so I finally started looking for another job no matter when it took place. I got Fried Green Tomatoes and School Ties.”
“So school’s not a big priority anymore?”
“Oh yeah, definitely. I want to get my degree. I feel incomplete. If I don’t get an acting job soon I’ll take some classes. I only have a semester to go. Definitely, I’m gonna finish school.”
“Did you travel a lot when you were a kid?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. Of course,” he says.
“Oh, so you had been to Europe before?”
“Europe! Oh no. To Florida. We were seven kids, so we had our annual trip to Florida. Pile everyone into two cars, certain kids had to be separated, and off we’d go. There are three boys and four girls. I’m the youngest. My dad had been to London on business, but my mom had never been to Europe. So I brought them over when we were doing Musketeers, and they had a great time. They stayed in Vienna, and then they went to the south of France and to Paris, and they had a great time. I just saw the photos, and there they were…”
“I was laughing this morning,” says O’Donnell, segueing like crazy, “because I remembered the first time I came to New York. I was with my dad, for the audition for Men Don’t Leave. I’ve gotten pretty comfortable in this life style, you know what I mean? Well, maybe not comfortable, but I’ve gotten used to living in hotels like this. But I’ll never forget my first time in New York, and we came right here [to The Regency]. We went to the room, and I remember calling my sister, who’s a year older than me and she was back home, and I called her and said, ‘Angela, I’m in my room, and there are three phones and one of them is in the bathroom! Every time you wash your hands, you get a new bar of Regency soap!’ I’ll never forget it. I laugh at it now.”
“So,” I say, waving my hand to include The Regency, New York City, and the world in general, “this wasn’t part of your plan?”
“Oh my no. I was on my way to college, to go to business school. Probably move to New York and get a job at an investment bank. I was 17, I didn’t know what the hell I was going to do. Acting was definitely an interest, but it was a dream. I’m a pretty realistic person, and I wasn’t going to get my hopes up for being in the movies.”
“What else didn’t you know about The Three Musketeers?” I ask.
“It’s a totally different movie than anything I’ve done. I was confused in the beginning. It’s a lot of action, pure entertainment. You do a scene and you do a bunch of takes, and you might get a few that come out okay, because the horses didn’t bolt, or the 800 extras did the right thing. But your performance is almost the last thing you worry about, because you don’t want to screw up on the horse and fall on your head. They’d say we were moving on, and I’d realize that I had no idea if I had looked at the camera or anything.
“I had never horseback-ridden before. I mean, I had been on a horse at camp, where the horse had done the trail so many times that the most exciting thing that happened was that he’d brush you up against a tree or something. But I took riding lessons every day for six or seven weeks, and then lessons in sword-fighting. I’ll tell you right now, Martha, if anyone messes with us [he grabs his butter knife menacingly] you have nothing to worry about. I had my sword on when I came into the hotel, I had it in my sheath, but I took it off so I wouldn’t attract attention.”
I might just believe him, but he starts to laugh.
“So tell me, were you with Kiefer when he found out Julia married Lyle?”
It takes him a minute to get the names straight.
“Yeah, I was there, we were filming that day, but he didn’t seem to have any reaction. It seemed like it was old news or something.”
“Did you have a wild time over there with Kiefer and Charlie?”
“It’s funny… these guys have kind of made a living as these bad boys, and now they’re in this Disney movie that’s rated PG. When I first got there, it was strange because all three of those guys had worked together before. Kiefer and Charlie had done Young Guns, and Kiefer and Oliver had done Flatliners, so they all knew each other. The only one I knew was Gabby [Gabrielle Anwar], but she was only on the set for a few weeks.
“I’m a different person when I work. I can’t party when I’m working. I just can’t. On School Ties I went out a lot, drank some beer, because we filmed 20 miles from Boston College. But with Scent and Musketeers, it’s like a mission. When I’m on a film I train every day, full circuit. You can get in the best shape of your life. It’s hard to do that in real life, but on a film you can. Now I’m done, I can f** around for a little while. I can go see some games, go have some beers.”
“You’ve played all these nice guys … what’s going to be your first prick role?”
“I’m less concerned about finding a prick role as I am about finding something… after these horses, and this long location shoot, I’m looking for something with dialogue, something that’s maybe filmed at a studio. That sounds real good right now.”
“Yeah. You seem so sweet, and this is such a disgusting business …”
“I’m waiting to get corrupted. I know it’s going to happen sometime.”
“Why do you think they sent me, Chris?”
He laughs, but he’s not sure if he should be. “It pisses me off. Everyone is so afraid to tell you what they really think, because they don’t want to insult you. Everyone’s so afraid of everybody, you can’t get a straight answer out of anyone. You see it at auditions, they say, ‘Oh great, that was wonderful.’ Even if it wasn’t. And then you see it from the people who are working for you. After Men Don’t Leave, I got a lot of attention and a lot of offers, people were really interested in me. And I said, ‘Well, I’m going to school.’ So things really cooled down, and I’m so glad I went to school, I don’t regret it for a minute. It was the greatest experience I’ve had, those are my best friends. But then I came back, and suddenly you don’t get that same amount of attention, and it’s weird. And then I got Scent of a Woman, and then everyone’s back on the phone. It’s kind of pathetic, but that’s the way the business is. And it also keeps it in your mind that this is a business and you can’t get too concerned with trusting people.”
This is one smart kid.
“But you have a good, big family. That helps, doesn’t it?”
“Yes. I’m so grateful. I make all my decisions and I talk to my managers, but it’s so nice to have my dad back home to read scripts. If I’m considering something, I say, ‘Send a copy to my dad.'”
“You say that to the producers? You tell them to send it to your dad?” I’d like to sit in on those meetings.
“No, no, let’s say my agent and I are discussing a script, and it looks like it’s good… I tell them to send it to my dad because he’s so Middle America, he’s a real conservative guy, and I can trust him.”
“A lot of people who hear about how I got into this business think I’m not real serious. But everyone starts out some way. You need a break here and there in life, and I got one. But that doesn’t mean I’m not working as hard as anyone else.”
“Are you ambitious?”
“Yeah, I am. For Scent, I never wanted anything so bad in my life. And I really worked my ass off to get the part. Just getting that role was one of the most satisfying experiences I ever had in my life. I worked hard and prepared. It came easy to me at the beginning, but I’m paying my dues now, believe me.”
“Do you have a girlfriend now?”
“Oh, now you want the dirt, huh?”
“Not the dirt… just the story.”
“No, I don’t. I date some girls here and there…
“Last fall I dated a girl at school. We still talk every now and then. I love working, though. That’s the best thing I do. This not knowing what you’re doing stinks. Working is as good as it gets.”