If an actor gives an amazing performance but nobody is in the theater to see it, does it still make a sound?
That’s the question prompted by the unusual career path of 32-year-old Giovanni Ribisi. For the recent film “The Dead Girl,” he transformed himself into a hulking, tattooed, sexually adventurous grocery clerk; in “Heaven,” he shaved his head and delivered his lines in Italian; in “Basic,” he was a gay soldier with a tic; and in the 2004 remake of “Flight of the Phoenix,” he channeled Peter Lorre to masterfully craft a timid, nasally voiced architect with a secret.
This is a man who even changes the way he walks from movie to movie.
But for all his efforts, chances are you’ve never seen most of those performances.
“I looked on IMDb recently, and there’s, like, 40 movies that I’ve done,” he said. “I thought, ‘Holy sh–!’ ”
The actor’s back catalog includes other “watch-them-for-him” flicks, such as “SubUrbia” and “The Gift”; it is only intermittently broken up by an actual hit like “Saving Private Ryan.” Now, with a part in the Halle Berry/ Bruce Willis thriller “Perfect Stranger,” the question isn’t whether Ribisi will bring something unique to the flick, but whether anybody will actually see this one.
“[Every role] is whatever I am at that given moment,” he said of his script-selecting tendencies, which place little importance on the commercial prospects of a project. “I do what I’m attracted to, as far as the people I work with and the characters I play.”
In “Stranger,” that character is a reimagining of an overused stereotype. “My character was written as this guy who was grumpy and overweight — the classic cliché computer-geek guy,” Ribisi said. “But the first conversation with the director, James Foley, was going in a completely opposite direction, making him witty and charming and attractive and having a crush on Halle’s character. [That creates] more of a turn when you find out how dark he is.”
The twisty flick, about a journalist (Berry) who suspects an influential businessman (Willis) of murder, is also notable for casting the proudly chameleonlike Ribisi next to a megastar with a very different cross to bear. “Some people would say [the same things] about Marlon Brando,” Ribisi reasoned, addressing the perception that Willis simply plays himself in one movie after another. “My experience with [Willis] was that we had a two-week rehearsal before the movie started, and he was so f—ing committed to the movie. There’s a reason for his success.”
Ribisi took on his “Perfect” role largely so he could work with “Glengarry Glen Ross” director Foley. “That film, as a whole, is just great,” marveled the actor, whose “Boiler Room” in 2000 was largely seen as a “Young Guns”-like reworking of the 1992 classic. Ribisi added that his dream gig would have been “Alec Baldwin’s ['Glengarry'] character, or maybe even the Jack Lemmon role.”
If he could do his career all over again, Ribisi insists, he would change little else. “I have no regrets about the movies I’ve done. With DVD and cable, films are a lot more successful than people believe. [Ultimately], it’s difficult for me to be objective, because I’m in the fabric, and I’m aware of what was being manipulated for an audience to have an experience.”
Still, it is remarkable that Ribisi takes even the most commonplace roles so seriously. “I once built a whole car from scratch for a movie,” he said when asked about the most extreme preparation he’d ever undergone.
That movie? The forgettable Nicolas Cage clunker “Gone in 60 Seconds.”
“It was a movie that was all about cars, and I just wanted to get my hands deep into it,” an unapologetic Ribisi said. “[I needed to] get into that world.”
So whether he’s playing a mentally disabled man in love (“The Other Sister”), a drummer in a struggling pop band (“That Thing You Do!”) or an overeager sci-fi sidekick (“Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow”), one guarantee remains: You’ll never see Ribisi, perhaps the best under-the-radar actor of his generation, play the same role twice. But if you’re like most people, you may also never actually see the movies.
“I just consider myself a committed actor,” he said. “If a movie is a success, that’s great; I’m happy for that. But I’ve learned just to concentrate on my job and do the best that I can.
“I’m really proud of ['Perfect Stranger'],” he concluded, perhaps crossing his fingers a bit this time around. “This is a movie that might have some success.”
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