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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

'Are you looking at me?'

Globe and Mail
Tuesday, Sep. 9, 2003

''People see me all the time, and they just can't remember how to act/Their heads are filled with big ideas, images, and distorted facts.' Bob Dylan, Idiot Wind

We are sitting in the white table-clothed café at Toronto's Park Hyatt Hotel talking about fame. The intense, dark, young man and the small, big-eyed, young woman at his side have ordered a Hollywood lunch of water and diet cola. The waiters hover, watching from a discreet distance, wondering who exactly these people are and why they are worth being interviewed.

The small, big-eyed woman is Christina Ricci, who has been in the public eye since she was 9, starring with Cher in the movie Mermaids. From child roles in films such as Addams Family Values, she has made the successful transition to adult star with roles in Sleepy Hollow, Pumpkin and Prozac Nation and is lauded as a distinctive and independent kind of new star.

The intense, dark, young man, Adam Goldberg is, himself, an excellent movie actor though he has the gift, or misfortune, of disappearing into his roles. He was John Nash's loyal buddy in A Beautiful Mind, Chandler's psycho roommate on two episodes of Friends and the sardonic Jewish soldier Private Stanley Mellish in Saving Private Ryan. Now he has written and directed a new film, I Love Your Work, about fame and its strange distortions in human relationships. Ricci, who became romantically involved with Goldberg during the making of the film, has a relatively small part. In a way, she's the bait, and he's the hook in the celebrity-marketing game. He knows the dangers of failing to promote a film after his first feature in 1998, Scotch and Milk, "fell into the art-house gutter.

"This is obviously a really bizarre thing because we're talking about these issues but here we are [at the Toronto International Film Festival] and they're right in our faces," acknowledges Goldberg. "But this is what I have to do, to find my little crack in the mainstream. It's not like being a painter. You can't run away and hide. You're working in a business with a lot of people using a lot of money." A few years ago, Goldberg received a fan letter from someone who lived nearby. He had an impulse to deliver a reply in person, just to see the fan's reaction. It struck him that it was perverse, even a "crazy" thing to do. It also struck him that there was an idea there that had deeper resonance. This led, eventually, to I Love Your Work, a film that follows movie star Gray Evans (Giovanni Ribisi) through the disintegration of his marriage, his mental breakdown, and his obsession with a young film student (Joshua Jackson), who reminds Gray of himself before he became a celebrity. Rude fans, arrogant stars, and the often twisted and obsequious relationship between the two is explored.

"If you divided the population up, you have celebrities and fans. That pretty much covers it. I grew up as someone fixated and intoxicated by movies and then I became part of them. I realized that line was very fine. Later, I discovered that the people who stalk movie stars are very similar to the people who become movie stars.

They have the same drive, and obsession and above all, narcissism. This theme came up again and again, that the pathology of the fan and the person who was the object of fan worship was very similar."

Often, actors solemnly assure interviewers that fame is merely a distraction and an inconvenience. What they are really in show business for, they say, is "the work." Neither Goldberg nor Ricci buy this.

"There are clearly people who are only doing it to be famous," Goldberg says. "That's painfully obvious and that's a large percentage of people in movies. I just don't believe the people who say they're doing it for 'the work.' Why wouldn't you do stage if that were the case?" Ricci asks. Besides, she adds, "fame means a lot more freedom."

"That's a big part of it," agrees Goldberg. "I know when I haven't had a job for a while, I start getting depressed and I can't really separate whether it's because I'm not working or because I'm not getting any attention."

The freedom of fame, though, is kind of like living in a well-appointed mobile prison cell. Says Goldberg: "Your self becomes separated from people's perception of you and this makes you feel very disconnected. Once you become part of the movie screen, your personality seems to dissipate. Peter Sellers was the famous example; he'd become the character he was playing for sustained periods."

"I've met people when they were just starting to become famous and they were pretty normal," Ricci adds. "A few years later, they were a shell of themselves -- completely paranoid. They're always looking around asking, 'Is that person looking at me?' "

As for herself, she divides her awareness into two stages. As a child, her reactions were instinctive and she learned techniques for handling public attention. Then she became self-conscious. (According to early interviews, at one point, she covered all the mirrors in her home so she wouldn't have to be confronted by her image all the time. Over time, she says she has managed by selectively filtering out how people are responding.)

"I live in a bit of denial," she says. "I only notice people when they're really rude. As long as it's not malicious, I don't hear it. Sometimes, somebody will mention someone was acting really odd around me and I won't have noticed. With the whispering buzz, I'm really self-conscious so I tune it out so I won't notice."

The "whispering buzz" is an idea Goldberg included in his film: "It's not so far a reach from hearing whispering all around you whenever you go out, to start hearing those voices in your head," he says.

Goldberg talks about the phenomenon of false familiarity, people who "start up in the middle of a conversation with you as if they know you. It's not just, 'Hey it's nice to meet you.' I did it myself one time when I was about 20 and coming out of this liquor store and I saw Richard Lewis. I was always a big fan of his and suddenly I realized I was walking right toward him as he was getting in his car. I was acting like a psycho."

Goldberg thinks that actors are professionally oriented toward getting lost in other identities. "When I was 14 and 15, I remember seeing movies set in New York and I was longing to be part of this world I'd never even visited. Feeling identity-less and formless, and ultimately being much more of an observer than an active person, I'd search for things on the outside and then process that information and make it part of myself, then spit it back out in my work. Maybe that's my job."

Ricci's experience was different: "I was watching these people in the movies and often working with them at the same time," she says. "I'd imitate the real person as much as the movie. I remember changing my handwriting to be like someone I was working with."

"Is that why you sing like Cher?" Goldberg jokes.

The stars and publicist move out, leaving the bill behind them (the publicist later apologizes: "I'm so sorry. You get so used to just leaving a table").

The Indian waiter comes forward to clean the table and asks: "Who were they?" Apparently the name means nothing to him, but then, Hollywood fame is hardly the whole picture.

"Do you know if there are any big Indian movies coming to Toronto this year?" he asks. ROBTv Workopolis