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johanna schneller: fame game

"I do play nice guys, I really do," William Fichtner insisted. "But sometimes in Hollywood, if you try to make interesting choices, and have cheekbones, then everybody thinks you kill people."

We were mid-interview in Toronto last week, and the actor, 54, was giving the hotel couch springs a workout with his bouncy energy. He was friendly, funny, fast-talking and self-deprecating, with a sand-paper voice and an off-kilter delivery reminiscent of Christopher Walken. "I remember hearing early in my career, 'He's way too edgy, he's a killer,'" he continued. "I was like, 'Really? When did you think that my blind character in Contact was going to kill Jodie Foster?' I also do comedies! I'm not funny ha-ha, but I look for real humour in just about everything I've ever played."

But as he noted, in Hollywood cheekbones are destiny. So despite Fichtner's charms, his résumé is crammed with cops, colonels and crazies. He has played "that guy" in enough movies - including Heat, Armageddon, The Perfect Storm and Black Hawk Down - to have landed at No. 162 on the Internet Movie Database's recent posting of the 250most underrated character actors. Even his comedies - Blades of Glory, Date Night and his recurring role in the HBO series Entourage - tend to send up his sinister image.

"What I truly get excited about is not the genre of a movie or the size of a part - it's character," Fichtner said. "I like to find characters. Here's the bottom line: I can't play someone if I can't figure out what he cares about. Everybody cares about something, even a rough character. It defines where we step in life. As soon as you find out what somebody cares about, then it all gets real."

In his latest, Drive Angry 3D, co-written and directed by Patrick Lussier ( My Bloody Valentine), Fichtner plays The Accountant, a servant of Satan sent to Earth to drag a bad-ass (Nicolas Cage), portentously named Milton, back to hell. The film, which opened on Friday, is aggressive counterprogramming to Oscar fare, a giddily preposterous comic book filled with underdressed women and over-the-top cars. Its centrepiece scene pushes the sex-violence combo to new heights (or depths, depending on whether you're a fanboy or me): Engaged in coitus with a barmaid, Cage is beset by assassins. He shoots them one by one - while still inside his lover.

"Pretty out there, huh?" Fichtner admitted, chortling. "That didn't happen in my college! Listen, the movie is tough, sexy, weird, gritty. But I think it pushes the envelope in interesting ways, kind of a seventies road movie but smarter, with 3-D technology and great characters. I hadn't seen that, and I liked it. Now, my eight-year-old son isn't going to see this movie. But there's an audience for it, and it didn't offend me, at all. Over time, certain characters have come my way that - sometimes to the disappointment of my agent - I didn't want to go there. I didn't feel that way about this."

Shooting in 3-D required only minor technical adjustments to Fichtner's usual working style. The director would ask him to move one quarter-inch to the right, or point his finger four inches to the left, that sort of thing. "But I'm never one who at the end of the day goes, 'God, I was good today,'" Fichtner said. "It's not my life. I have friends, you ask them, 'How was work?' and they'll say, 'I was brilliant.' Whereas after a full day I'd see Patrick pulling out of the parking lot and I'd say, 'Can we redo that scene tomorrow?' He'd say, 'No, Bill.' The van's pulling away, and I'm hollering after it, 'I'll come in early!'"

A Buffalo Sabres fan who went to hockey school in St. Catharines, Ont., Fichtner was raised in Cheektowaga, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo. "When you get your driver's licence, the first place you take your girlfriend is to Toronto," he said. "Walk around Centre Island, throw the Frisbee." For most of his career he lived in New York, but five years ago, he moved to Los Angeles. with his second wife, actress Kymberly Kalil, and their son. (Fichtner also has a child with his first wife, actress Betsy Aidem.)

"I got tired of commuting on planes," he said. "But I still have East Coast rhythms, East Coast friends. I don't mind when I wake up in L.A. and it's rainy, I'll tell you that. I can't take 52 days of sunshine in a row, it drives me nuts. And I'm such a wimp now, my blood's thinned right out. I have sweaters now. I have cardigans! What happened to me?" He also owns a muscle car, a "vitamin-C orange 1970 Road Runner," Fichtner said. "People ask me all the time, 'What's wrong with you, your screen saver's not your children?' No. It's my car."

Though Fichtner said he's "so grateful" for his career, he immediately added, "Do I want to work more? You bet I do. I want to work every day. I don't work every day. When I finish something, people ask me, 'You gonna chill for a little while?' I'm like, 'No. I chill on Sunday afternoon.' I need to be engaged. I'll clean the garage out, deeply, for a week, because I have to be thinking about something or working on a project."

Last year was "a real slow year," he said, "and that was hard. I'm a lot pickier than I should be at times." But the lull did give Fichtner time to delve into a script he's been co-writing with his best friend, the Canadian actor Kim Coates, and "that's been amazingly fulfilling," he said. "I don't want to talk too much about it. I'm a Buffalo guy; I don't put the cart before the horse. But it's something we're writing for us to star in that I want to direct."

The two did a table reading here last week "with 15 of Toronto's finest," Fichtner said. "Went to a great bar afterward. I paid for it the next day in the YMCA pool. But it was good. I love this town. I was really glad to be here. I realized I have some changes to make, but not big. Knock on wood." He grinned. "If it becomes something to talk about, we'll talk about it. I hope we do." I hope so, too - just to see what that brain of his cooks up next.