Jason Patric: On the trail of the elusive actor

Rising star refuses to be labeled

Jason Patric Credit: Avenue Pictures Productions/Getty Images

It was one of those slate gray mornings at the beach in Santa Monica, California, the kind of overcast day when anything can happen and usually doesn't. I was killing time inside an old roadhouse near the corner of Pacific Coast Highway and Entrada Drive, skimming the racing forms, sipping a cup of lukewarm coffee and waiting for an actor named Jason Patric to show up. The smell of burning bacon on the grill mingled with the scent of a vagrant sea breeze as Dooley Wilson crooned a ballad on the jukebox. That's when Patric walked in. He didn't have the pretty-boy looks you'd associate with most serious young actors, but he was an actor, all right. I could read all the signs: He had the slow, deliberate gait ... the piercing blue eyes ... the scraggly whiskers that went beyond stubble but stopped short of a full beard. He wandered into the place like he had just rolled out of bed. His aquamarine short-sleeved shirt was wrinkled, with a small rip above his heart. It was hardly a stylish outfit, unless you consider Salvation Army a designer label.

He may dress like an unemployed actor, but the 24-year-old Patric has been knocking around Hollywood for years in obscure plays and mostly minor movies. Who could forget him as the futuristic roller-skating hunk in Solarbabies? Or as the Russian tank driver in The Beast? Odds are better you caught him in The Lost Boys, that sappy teen-vampire flick in which he defanged a bat pack led by Kiefer Sutherland.

Now Patric has found a role he can really sink his teeth into. He plays an unbalanced drifter in After Dark, My Sweet, a thriller based on the pulp novel by Jim Thompson. It's the kind of movie that grabs you by the lapels and hurls you into its subterranean world of borderline psychopaths and boozy dames.

Giving Patric the once over as he sat down in the roadhouse and ordered a tuna sandwich, I couldn't help thinking that he seemed born to play a haunted soul. He had that look in his eyes that's somewhere between a squint and a stare — he sizes you up and ignores you at the same time. Instead of letting him get the upper hand, I decided to buttonhole him. I wanted to know what made him tick, why he wanted to get into movies in the first place. It wouldn't be easy.

"I don't want to give answers," Patric said with a disarming smile. "I'm not here to make message films or propaganda — just to pose questions. That's the only important thing. Illuminating the struggle."

Tough talk coming from a guy who got his start in a rollerskating movie. Only don't let his resume fool you. Patric is nothing if not totally dedicated to his work. That much is obvious from his latest performance, as Kevin "Collie" Collins, a washed-up boxer and escaped mental patient who becomes entangled in a kidnapping scheme hatched by a seductive widow (Rachel Ward) and a sleazy ex-cop (Bruce Dern). The film clearly belongs to Patric, who transforms himself into a fighter searching for some meaning to his confused and disturbing existence.

Patric almost warmed to discussing his role in After Dark, My Sweet. A question posed over lunch about Collie's inner demons allowed him to unleash an eloquent monologue about the "nobility" of the character, his "animal instinct," his "poetic sadness" and the "musical quality within him that he keeps going and churning." Yeah, sure, he obviously had some pretty deep insights into this fictional Collie. But when I prodded him about his own life story, he suddenly clammed up tighter than a thief without an alibi.

"I don't want to talk about my family and stuff like that," Patric warned in a tone more firm than testy. "It just doesn't matter, you know? It doesn't pertain. It's just interesting food for thought, but cheap. It's an extra paragraph, and once you get it, it's an identification. I don't want that. It's the character or the work that's important. The ultimate would be just to be able to play your characters and never have to say anything."

Apparently, I'd touched a raw nerve. Most young actors in Los Angeles are shameless publicity whores, content to yap endlessly about their lives. But Patric appeared painfully private. You won't spot him feeding at the usual industry watering holes. His home is a rented bungalow with old furniture in unfashionable Hollywood. He's never guested as a VJ on MTV or bantered with Letterman. And there's no way in hell you'd find him squawking about the rain forests on Entertainment Tonight.

I told Patric I just wanted some simple personal facts, but no dice. A routine background check had yielded meager information. His last interview before this year was in 1987, when he spoke to a weekly L.A. actors' trade paper to promote Beirut, a play about sexual disease he performed at a local theater. Even then, he revealed little about himself.

Three years haven't changed him much. During lunch, he winced any time a probing question came up about his past. Unfortunately for Patric, he has the kind of lineage that's hard to ignore. His father is Jason Miller, the playwright who won a Pulitzer Prize for That Championship Season and appeared as the priest Father Damien in The Exorcist and the current Exorcist III. His mother, Linda Miller, is an actress, while his grandfather was larger than life — the late comic genius Jackie Gleason.

"You can't escape where you are from and who you are," Patric said, trying to dodge a question about his family. "There are certain things within you — feelings, myths, stories, patterns — that you learn from your parents. But I don't want help from anybody in my family. Nepotism is not something that sits well with me. I want to make my ascent or demise as pure as possible. I only want one person to blame or thank — myself."

Instead of exploiting family ties to enter show business, Patric took acting lessons, dropped his last name and went out on his own. After his parents divorced, he moved with his mother and his brother Jordan from a small town in New Jersey to Los Angeles, which put him nearer the acting action. He quickly captured a lead role as a rebellious teen in a 1985 ABC movie, Toughlove. A year after his debut, he headed to Spain for Solarbabies. Then came The Lost Boys, a project that was more popular but still somewhat unsatisfying. "I think it could have gone farther than it did," he said, lamenting the picture's failure to reach its full potential as a study in Oedipal horror. "It could have been a lot harder. You go back to vampire lore, and they were just sexual monsters."

Patric was subsequently showered with high-paying offers to appear in commercial pictures such as Young Guns, but he wasn't interested in playing anymore cartoonish characters. "I really turned all that kind of crap down," he said. "I mean, who needs it?" He yearned for more challenging roles and got them in movies no one ever saw. His turn as a philosophical Russian soldier in The Beast went unnoticed, because the film barely opened before heading directly to video. Another feature, Loon, was never even released and is gathering dust somewhere in a metal can.

At one point Patric seemed a shoo-in for the role of Jim Morrison in the long-brewing movie about the Doors. But by the time that project came together, he was already deeply entrenched in After Dark, My Sweet. He had latched on to the script through a friend and recommended it to James Foley, who had previously directed the gritty crime saga At Close Range, which starred Sean Penn.

Early on, Foley and Patric decided to update the story, forsaking the original Fifties setting and the atmospheric film noir cliches, like sunlight streaming into shadowy rooms through window shutters. "By putting it in the past, there was a safe nostalgia to it," said Patric. "It's something you can watch, but it's not as real. It should be 1990; it should hit you in the stomach."

The vintage sets may have been abandoned, but the primal passion that ignited Thompson's original novel remains. From the moment Patric's befuddled boxer meets the widow played by Rachel Ward in a creepy barroom, the erotic tension between the two characters seethes like a volcano about to explode. Indeed, After Dark, My Sweet is so hotblooded it originally earned an X rating for its extended bedroom scene, an aggressively sexual climax that reveals more about the doomed couple than any dialogue imaginable.

"It's the only time where these people just break through everything, and that's where true betrayal comes," Patric said, polishing off his sandwich. "I admire scenes that go for it. I like the degree of difficulty."

We finished our lunch, but the interview wasn't over. I was still hoping he'd give away some small piece of himself. We made plans to meet the next day at the La Brea Tar Pits, the murky quagmire on Wilshire Boulevard where prehistoric animals were once trapped in primordial ooze. The perfect backdrop for unearthing some of Patric's secrets.

The next afternoon was much brighter, the overcast skies from the day before pierced by a harsh, blaring sun. Sitting high atop a grassy hill overlooking the tar pool, Patric seemed a little more open.

For the next hour or so, we talked about loneliness, the failure of the Reagan years, the abstract meaning of a career, the rituals of the Catholic church, the elusive quest for truth and his role as Kenickie in a high-school production of Grease. Heavy stuff. Sooner or later, as with all actors, the talk turned to films.

Maybe Patric didn't enjoy being interviewed, but he loved recalling classic Al Pacino pictures. His favorite was Scarecrow, starring Pacino and Gene Hackman as two bums who dream about opening a carwash. Also high on his list was The Godfather, and he appeared genuinely awestruck as he described the slight but devastating wave of Marlon Brando's hand in the office scene in which Sonny Corleone sides with Sollozzo the Turk.

Patric was in a spirited mood. The sunlight was refreshing, and the park near the tar pits was filled with little kids giggling while they played tag. It seemed like a good opportunity to finally pry loose a personal perspective, so I asked him how he felt when people used gloomy adjectives to describe him and his characters.

"People love to label you," he said, shaking his head from side to side. "They love to make you brooding or intense. It's such general bullshit, you know? I don't know how to characterize myself. Yeah, I'm sure people like to say I'm moody and dark and this and that, but that's a load of bullshit."

Now was my chance. I looked straight into Patric's eyes and played my trump card, asking him if any of those words even came close to pinpointing his true personality. Maybe, just maybe he'd take this opportunity to clear the air and wipe away the misconceptions. He paused for a moment, then said with a self-satisfied grin: "I guess I'd have to say dark. Because in a dark room, there are infinite possibilities."