Intuition paying off

`Punisher' is first big role for Jane

April 28, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Poised on the brink of movie stardom, Thomas Jane is a man to be envied. He's got the looks, he's got the career, he's got the glamorous fiancee (actor Patricia Arquette) and the cute young daughter, 14-month-old Harlow.

But consider what it took for him to become what he is - dropping out of school at 16, sleeping on the streets of L.A., eating out of garbage cans, living off the residuals of playing a guy in a chicken suit. For all the dues-paying he's done, success may be the least he deserves.

"I guess I was young and crazy," the sandy-haired Jane says between cigarettes in the bar of a posh Washington hotel. "I just didn't see myself doing anything else. I knew that I had to take some kind of action - that's a kind of boldness that lends itself to its own creativity."

Jane, 35, is the Baltimore-born, suburban D.C.-raised actor whose steady rise in the Hollywood ranks took a major leap this month with the opening of The Punisher (No. 4 at the box office last weekend), his first starring role in a major-studio release.

There really was no other way to go but up.

Disinterested in academics, determined to make it as an actor and convinced the Washington-area schools in which he was enrolled would be of no help, Jane chucked it all for a life of casting calls and agents, parts that don't materialize and parts you may wish had never materialized.

Nineteen years later, with his turn as Marvel Comics' vigilante killing machine having opened on 2,649 movie screens nationwide, Jane realizes how lucky he is to have gambled so much and won, in a game where losses are much more the norm.

"I just kind of felt it instinctually," Jane says, "that if I really wanted to do something, I had to do something about it, something outside the box. I had to jump in with both feet and just hit it as hard as I could. It turned out to pay off for me."

That appears to be true. While The Punisher, the story of how FBI agent Frank Castle evolved from law enforcer to vengeance-seeking vigilante, received tepid reviews, Jane has earned praise for the workmanlike solidity of his performance and his refusal to resort to caricature. The movie may not make him a major star, but it should help the steady ascent of an actor who has worked with such influential directors as Terrence Malick (The Thin Red Line), John Woo (Face/Off) and Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia), and such screen mainstays as Gene Hackman, Morgan Freeman, Sean Penn, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage and Samuel L. Jackson.

"I always try to work with people who are better than I am, because I'm trying to learn as much as I can," he says. "I'm trying to hone my craft and become the best actor I can be. ... Stanislawski said it takes 20 years to make an actor. I think he's probably right. I've got a little bit to grow."

`Alien' fascination

Jane's stay in his native Baltimore was brief - so brief, in fact, that the only thing he claims to remember is eating clams alongside his dad at Faidley's raw bar at Lexington Market. His father's job (he works in biogenetic engineering, developing tools and instruments) soon had the family relocating to the Washington suburbs. At age 9, Jane experienced something of an epiphany when his dad took him to see Ridley Scott's Alien. "I was fascinated," he says, "I discovered there was this other world there."

Jane began building sets for the school vaudeville review. "I sort of got cajoled into auditioning for the play we were building sets for, because I was always cutting up and acting the goof. I got in the play, and that kind of sparked it off that I [could] do what I wanted to do. So I dropped out of high school."

And into the arms of Ralph Tabakin, a Silver Spring acting coach who died in 2001 and is best known locally for the small roles he has played in every Barry Levinson film (on TV's Homicide: Life on the Street, he played medical examiner Scheiner). It was Tabakin who got Jane his first role on camera.

"Some Indians - from India - came to town, and they wanted to make a Romeo and Juliet-type story, about an American kid and an Indian girl. I got the job through Ralph, went off to India to live for a few months, toured all around this country making the movie."

One Bollywood credit doesn't guarantee a 17-year-old much in the way of a career, however, and Jane soon found himself pounding the Hollywood pavement. "I was basically penniless. I stayed in welfare hotels and lived off food stamps, played guitar on the street, slept on the street sometimes.

"I bummed around different little acting classes around L.A. for a while, I saw a lot of guys keep their waiter jobs and go to school on the side to be an accountant or whatever. Everybody had a backup plan. I did not. I ate out of trash cans, that was my backup plan."

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