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Model Role Actor: He's got a list of movie and Broadway credits. Now, Robert Sean Leonard is adding Baltimore's Center Stage to his resume.

March 16, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The gesture, Vasen explains, is intended to "serve two functions -- one is that he's setting the stage for the audience and also he's setting the stage for himself. He's conjuring up his own memories, literally unveiling his past."

Devices like this are what lead Leonard to praise "The Glass Menagerie's" strengths as a stage play and to discount the various film versions. It's a work, he feels, that "requires something happening right in front of you."

Leonard's bias toward the stage is reflected in his involvement with the Malaparte Theater Company, a small New York troupe he co-founded about five years ago with a group of friends, including fellow "Dead Poets" alum Hawke.

"We would be sitting around New York a lot," Leonard explains, "and we bowled a lot, and eventually we thought, 'When we're not doing anything, why don't we see if we can put some new plays on?' " Since then, Malaparte has staged three-week runs of nine full productions, for which they've rented theaters and charged $10 admission. "I'm really proud of a lot of what we've done," he says.

Leonard's interest in theater, however, doesn't mean he has neglected films. Three Sundays ago he spent the day in Los Angeles re-shooting a scene for an independent movie called "Prairie Fire," in which he plays a young agent with the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

And on April 20 he will be seen starring in the HBO movie "In the Gloaming," directed by Christopher Reeve. Leonard plays an AIDS patient who returns home to die. His parents are played by Glenn Close and David Strathairn; Whoopi Goldberg plays his nurse.

Leonard's association with Reeve began in 1993 when, together with Reeve, Blair Brown, Harry Hamlin, Michael Tucker and others, he participated in a staged reading of Michael Cristofer's play "The Shadow Box" in Tucson, Ariz. The reading came about after a high-school production of the play about three terminally ill patients was banned and a drama teacher lost her job. Leonard and Reeve portrayed the homosexual couple whose relationship was the crux of the Tucson controversy.

The reading was followed by a televised panel discussion on censorship. "Chris spoke for [the actors]," Leonard says. "It was pretty amazing."

Freedom of expression is something Leonard has always enjoyed, unlike the character he played in his career-making 1989 movie, "Dead Poets Society" -- a prep school student whose theatrical aspirations defy his father's wishes.

In real life, Leonard says his father, a retired Spanish teacher, and mother, a nurse, have been "amazingly supportive" of his acting career. His first taste of theater came in his preteens, when he would accompany his mother to the Ridgewood, N.J., summer-stock company where she painted signs. He started out "running the garbage down to the Dumpsters," but by the time he was 13, he found himself on stage "whenever they needed a kid."

After an agent saw him play the Artful Dodger in "Oliver!" he was hired by the New York Shakespeare Festival as an understudy. He made his Broadway debut replacing the lead in "Brighton Beach Memoirs," a job whose demands caused him to drop out %% of high school in his junior year.

Leonard later got his high school equivalency and has taken courses at Fordham University, but he has never studied acting. On the subject of formal training, he quotes the advice he once received from seasoned actor George Grizzard: "If you're not working, acting class is great. If you're working -- work."

As it has happened, Leonard has worked not only steadily but also for an illustrious roster of film directors, including Kenneth Branagh, James Ivory, Martin Scorsese and Peter Weir.

Leonard says he admires directors who are "strong enough and self-centered enough to stick by their vision, but confident enough to listen to the ideas around them."

High on his list is Branagh, whom Leonard met when the British actor and director played an uncredited role in Leonard's starring vehicle, "Swing Kids" (a coming-of-age movie set in Nazi Germany that Leonard admits turned out to be "terrible").

Branagh was only on the set for one week, but he was about to make "Much Ado About Nothing," and Leonard describes himself as "pretty shameless" in pursuing the role of Claudio. "I prepared this campaign. I laid it on when I met him," he says. "When he left there was a package in my mailbox with the script [and a note that] said, 'Read it over. I'll see you on the set.' "

After a dozen movies, Leonard still prefers theater, and he also finds it easier. "I like the life of plays -- going home at night. It's more sane. You usually lay your head on your own pillow," he explains. "Movies are more difficult. They're more about fatigue and traveling and packing and staying in hotels and press people calling you."

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