Actor Garret Dillahunt Gets Serious -- Again

Yes, Garret Dillahunt says, things do come full-circle.

Sitting in the press lounge of the Tribeca Film Festival, where he was talking about one of the films he had in the festival, Any Day Now, Dillahunt noted that, when he first started working professionally as an actor after getting out of grad school at New York University, he did a lot of comedic roles.

As a result, it took a while for him to get cast in bad-guy roles because casting agents only saw him playing benign, funny characters. But when black-hat roles came, they weren't just bad guys but truly evil types, made to seem more so because the boyish Dillahunt, 47, did and said absolutely frightening things with a smile that accented his Tom Sawyer-choirboy good looks.

He did it particularly well as memorable recurring characters on such TV series as Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Life, Burn Notice and, particularly, David Milch's Deadwood, in which he played not one but two different - and chilling -- characters during the show's three seasons.

So when he auditioned to play Burt Chance on the Fox network's hit sitcom, Raising Hope, which just finished its second season, Dillahunt found himself running into a new obstacle.

"For the first time in a long time, I had a director express concern whether I could do comedy," Dillahunt says with a chuckle.

No longer. Dillahunt's Burt is one of the show's many high points -- a man-child content to struggle and aspire while running his own lawn service and thinking of get-rich-quick schemes like yogurt in manly flavors (beef stew?) that would be marketed as Brogurt.

But Dillahunt couldn't be farther from Burt Chance territory with Any Day Now, Travis Fine's new film based on a true story, which had won the Heineken audience award for best feature at Tribeca last week. In the film, Dillahunt plays Paul, an attorney in 1979 Los Angeles who is not quite out of the closet when he falls for Rudy (Alan Cumming), a drag performer. When Rudy tries to become the guardian for an abandoned teen with Down Syndrome, Paul must argue the custody case in court and runs directly into the kind of discrimination that would-be adoptive parents who are gay still face.

Where Burt tends to blurt whatever's in his head, Dillahunt's character in Any Day Now tends to come out with perfect citations of legal precedent, to be the voice of reason to Cumming's voice of passion.

"It's fun to work with dialogue like that," Dillahunt says. "It's sort of how it was on Deadwood, when I was playing Francis Wolcott and would have these incredible speeches. Somehow, because they're well-written, they flow off the tongue. It's fun to express yourself in different ways. You hardly ever get to do things like that."

Dillahunt, who grew up in Washington State, went to NYU's graduate school to get an MFA. But he claims he got a new lesson in acting from working with Isaac Leyva, who plays the teen at the center of the film's conflict.

"He was probably the best actor on the set, to our shame," Dillahunt says. "The thing that was so valuable to me was that he was so filled with joy at the whole process. It was his dream to be in a movie. And his emotions are right there, so close to the surface. It shamed me. I'd get caught up in minutiae of the business or be dissatisfied with the way things were going. You get cantankerous and start to micromanage.

"And then you get reminded by this boy why you started doing this in the first place. It helped the dynamic of the movie. There was a real danger of falling into sentimentality or stereotypes, which would make the movie easy to dismiss. But Isaac -- and Travis, the director -- helped us tread the fine line between sentimentality and keeping the emotions truthful."

The continued conservative bias against gay adoptive parents (including laws prohibiting it in Florida, Mississippi and Utah) was one reason Dillahunt wanted to be part of the film.

"I can't believe how long ago the '70s were -- you wouldn't think this would still be a debate," Dillahunt says. "That this is still an issue almost 40 years after the fact is disappointing. I'm sure there will be people who have no interest in this message. And I'm not sure how powerful a film is in spreading it. I have to believe it is.

"I'm sure the fact that the protagonists of the film are two gay men could make it a hard sell. But, on paper, you wouldn't think this film would even get made -- and we did that. So maybe the battle is old hat. I'm just pleased to be making even a small contribution to the argument. I'm proud of it."

Dillahunt went to the University of Washington with the intention of going into journalism: "I was a stud on the high-school newspaper and journalism was what I was going to do," he says. "In a lot of ways, writing is a similar discipline to acting. You have to examine character and psychology -- except, as an actor, you do it live. There's a similar itch being scratched."

Indeed, he had never considered acting: "I was painfully shy," he says. "I still am."

This interview continues on my website.