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NewCityNet Who's the King?

Peter Gallagher knows what he's good at

By Ray Pride

MAY 15, 2000:  Hoping to be "Fame" for a new millennium, "Center Stage" has at its teen-seeking heart a love of ballet and a fear of camp.

Which is the film's great loss. Director Nicholas Hytner wends his way through the dangers of melodrama with reasonable ease, taking a stock tale of a year-in-the-life-of, a kind of "Fame"-meets-"The Turning Point" high concept -- set in a ballet school modeled after the American Ballet Theater -- and running with the opportunity to showcase fresh faces, lithe forms and terpsichorean talents of a raft of gifted young dancers. (Legs. Long legs. Lots of them.)

The man who seems to know what sort of film "Center Stage" ought to be is lizard king Peter Gallagher, the darkly, malefically handsome 44-year-old actor last seen smirking and flouncing his eyebrows and skunk-black coif as the craven realty operator in "American Beauty." "Who's the king?" he demands of Annette Bening during a particularly brassy sexual moment in the movie. It's kind of a weird thrill when someone in "Center Stage" addresses his stern choreographer character as "the king of ballet."

"Can you believe that?" Gallagher says, taking a seat. Did you laugh yourself sick when you heard that? "It was a reshoot, so it surprised the heck out of me. I saw it the first time on Thursday, and I'm sitting there, 'Did she just say, "the king of ballet"?' I don't mind. It could have been 'the jerk of real estate' and 'the jerk of ballet.'" Shrugging at the types of roles he gets cast in, he reflects, "I am the jerk of real estate and the jerk of ballet."

Gallagher said his primary reason for taking the role was Nicholas Hytner as director. Was that the only reason? "Pretty much. I'm a big fan of dance and I love dancers. But initially, there wasn't that much for this character on the page. But I was a fan of his stage work and 'Madness of King George' is one of my favorite movies of all time. I knew he was of the theater and would be responsible in sharing that world with an audience. It was pretty much a no-brainer. As it turned out, my participation in the movie grew somewhat. It was all about the kids, and then the old geezer, Jonathan, comes in, and is mean in two scenes and is gone. Initially, the role never had him even getting up out of a chair on stage or in the rehearsal room. Really, it was terrifying standing up among that bunch and walking. Here, I'm pretending to be a former ballet star, surrounded by the real thing. One's carriage and one's rhythm and where to touch a dancer, how to tell them what to do, yada yada yada. It was daunting."

Gallagher reflects for a moment, arching a caterpillary eyebrow. "It's like Marcello Mastroianni said about his life in that documentary about his films; he likened his life in films to being a luxury tourist. A tourist doesn't seize things, but a luxury tourist, you can sit down and have lunch with the gardener. You can see detail, in intimate fashion what goes on in that place. I felt that way in this production, watching these rehearsals, watching them dance, then being in the preposterous position to tell them how to do it better!" He cackles politely.

Gallagher has played a lot of arrogant guys through his film career, but he says he picks projects more than the roles. "Those are the best roles I can get at this point in my life. There is an equation written somewhere that if you are regarded as being sort of good looking in a way, the only way the audience will bear to look at you, is if you play a big junk or you suffer a terrible misfortune. So as I keep chipping away at that generic impression and hopefully my career grows more personal, and as I get older, it'll be less of an issue. But you know what? I'd much rather play the jerks in 'sex, lies and videotape' and 'The Player' and 'American Beauty' and 'Center Stage' than play, y'know, an angel of mercy. I ache for the opportunity to play good guys but I don't dwell on it because it would require a great deal of good fortune. Plus? I'm just planning to outlast everyone else. Anthony Hopkins said something interesting once, he said you don't do good work until your chronological age matches the age you've always felt inside. My first role was as a teen idol, and that didn't interest me. Teenagers don't have a future. If there's one thing I want, regardless the size of stardom or of the roles, is to last and have a rich and varied career. I just don't want to add too significantly to the junk pile."

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