Thursday, April 24, 2008

‘Tin’ man: Movie actor Michael Willis not pushing for stardom

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Photo courtesy of CinemArts
Actor Michael Willis, of Maryland, has appeared in a number of motion pictures, from ‘‘Tin Men” to ‘‘Men In Black,” as well as CinemArts’ 100th film presentation, ‘‘Pushing Tin.”
In 1987, actor Michael Willis worked with Baltimore director Barry Levinson on the film ‘‘Tin Men,” starring Richard Dreyfuss and Danny DeVito as rival car dealers.

Twelve years later, he joined an equally prestigious cast in the comedy ‘‘Pushing Tin,” a tale of combating New York air traffic controllers.

One wonders if, during his Wooly Mammoth Theater days, the Air Force veteran turned character actor ever donned an oil can to join Dorothy and the gang on the Yellow Brick Road — or if he simply has a penchant for pressed metal plays on words and displays of bravado.

The theater-trained thespian began pursuing film and television work seriously in 1994, parlaying his talents into various ‘‘day player” roles — industry speak for professionals hired sans long-term contract — while segueing to more substantial turns, like his role of Pat Feeney in ‘‘Pushing Tin.”

That film will serve as CinemArts 100th film presentation Tuesday, and Willis will be on hand to help the Frederick organization celebrate the milestone.

He had received a call ‘‘out of the blue” by CinemArts head honcho Walter Chalkley, who had reached Willis through mutual acquaintance John Healey.

‘‘It’s fun to do something like this,” Willis said. Such opportunities are relatively infrequent, he noted. He’s not a marquee name, after all, and it’s the stars who are in high demand.

Still, people foster a ‘‘vicarious interest” in what goes on behind-the-scenes. And Willis has an insider’s perspective, having appeared in a bevy of big-name projects, from ‘‘Major League II” to ‘‘Men In Black.”

He started out on stage, though, before gradually transitioning to the silver screen.

‘‘Film pays infinitely better than stage work,” he said.

It wasn’t a tremendous leap. Willis had worked in a number of smaller venues, performing on small stages. It helped with the physical dynamic of being confined to a camera’s lens.

‘‘You don’t get into this business unless you have some sort of ego. We all want to be upwardly mobile,” he said. ‘‘Film is the natural next step for an actor if the ability is there.”

He was fortunate, he said, in television work. Having appeared in the Maryland-based productions ‘‘Homicide” and ‘‘The Wire,” as well as ‘‘Law and Order,” several of those roles evolved into reoccurring characters. A true rarity, said the actor.

Location, too, has yet to hinder the Calvert County actor.

‘‘If you want to make a living in this business, you relocate to New York or LA. But I commute,” he said. ‘‘I’ll audition in New York. I take the train three hours up and three hours back. I may spend three hours in New York. Out of which, 30 seconds could be the audition. It can be a long, frustrating process.”

For ‘‘Pushing Tin,” Willis commuted to Toronto for a seven-week shoot as a second lead.

‘‘That was the first, big hunk of a movie I got,” he said. ‘‘I think it was my first time in Canada.”

The movie was directed by British auteur Mike Newell, he of ‘‘Four Weddings and a Funeral” and ‘‘Goblet of Fire,” the fourth of the Harry Potter films, and featured ‘‘quite a cadre of actors,” said Willis.

Leading the charge were Billy Bob Thornton, John Cusack, Angelina Jolie and Cate Blanchett.

‘‘Nobody knew who she was at the time,” he said. ‘‘Everyone has gone on to bigger and better.”

The experience was an eye-opener, said Willis.

‘‘It’s interesting. When you’re filming you’re the most important person in the world. When you’re not, you might as well be — I don’t know — fish food.”

While not in front of the camera, Willis wandered Toronto, saw the sites, and caught up on movies he wasn’t in. ‘‘If anyone was stuck with you, they were the people you spent time with.”

As far as star power, Willis said the film’s household names were true pros.

‘‘Very dedicated. Focused on their work. There’s a different kind of importance to them,” he said. ‘‘They’re much more visible. People are much more interested in what Angelina Jolie’s next film is than Michael Willis’.”

For the record, though, Willis has a number of upcoming projects, though most are theater related. As much as he enjoys film work, the call of the stage is never far off.

‘‘It’s different kinds of exhilaration,” he said. ‘‘There’s nothing quite like being on the stage.”

In film, when the camera stops rolling, actors may get a ‘‘good take,” from the director or a pat on the back from a crew member.

‘‘It’s more peer appreciation,” he said. And it pales in comparison to the applause of a packed theater.

‘‘For a stage actor, that’s the ultimate.”

Currently, Willis is working on a production at George Mason University, and has been involved with a series of readings at the Kennedy Center, in which playwrights from around the globe share their latest work with their peers.

‘‘It’s really exciting to do that sort of new stuff,” he said. ‘‘To breathe life into a role.”

‘Pushing Tin’

CinemArts’ 100th presentation Special guest Michael Willis

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday

Where: Delaplaine Visual Arts Education Center, 40 S. Carroll St., Frederick

Tickets: $6

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