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Interview

Chris Noth - Tech and the City

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A great actor must remain chameleonic to assume the different roles that scripts call for. But what if a character becomes iconic, as did the Fonz, Captain Kirk, and Kramer, and audiences won't let him go? The tall, dark, and handsome Chris Noth knows something about moving on—and up—in his career on the small screen. After all, before he played the sly, unattainable Mr. Big—Carrie Bradshaw's on-again off-again love interest on HBO's smash hit Sex and the City—he was Detective Logan for five years on the long-running Law & Order.

Of his Golden Globe–nominated role, Noth says, "Mr. Big has become this phenomenon, which is, to me, a little strange. There's nothing I can do about it except to keep working as an actor. If people are stuck on [the character], there's nothing really I can do about it. I had no idea that [Sex and the City] would become a pop culture event. But I'm going to go wherever I want as an actor. It has stuck, but not for me."

As the final season ends and the dust settles on Sex, Noth will move on by executive-producing and starring in Bad Apple, a TNT original movie premiering Feb. 16, based on the book by Anthony Bruno, who wrote Seven: A Novel, on which the film Se7en is based. In it, two FBI agents try to bring down a loan shark operation run by the mob. The movie teams Noth with a stellar cast that includes Colm Meaney, Mercedes Ruehl, and Elliott Gould.

The actor has also appeared in films such as Cast Away; Double Whammy, with Denis Leary; and the independently produced Searching for Paradise, and in September he will appear with Bernie Mac and Angela Bassett in Mr. 3000. But TV has been the more beneficial medium for his career, beginning with his earliest parts on Hill Street Blues and Another World. Indeed Bad Apple is Noth's fourth TNT movie, after Rough Riders, Abducted: A Father's Love, and the epic miniseries Julius Caesar, in which he portrayed the Roman general Pompey opposite Jeremy Sisto, Richard Harris, and Christopher Walken.

With a killer smile and bedroom eyes, Noth has become a bona fide TV star. His look, demeanor, and New York charm inspire nostalgia for an earlier era, when Cary Grant and his ilk made dames swoon. As Carrie said on Sex and the City, when Mr. Big announced plans to move to California, "You can't leave New York. You're the Chrysler Building."

Noth, too, is a true-blue New Yorker, but, unlike Mr. Big, he never headed West in his earlier, struggling years, even when the bulk of TV and film was being produced out of Hollywood. "I'm typical of a lot of struggling actors—and there was struggle, I'll tell you," he says. "I must have knocked on so many agents' doors, and you always had to be in something, and film was on the West Coast. There were, like, six TV shows filmed in New York, and [even] at its peak, there were, like, 10 or 12. But I didn't go out to L.A. I either couldn't deal with it, or I didn't want to leave. It was desperate times. I got lucky that in New York, at the time, the city was more suited to the struggles of an artist. You could get an apartment for a couple hundred dollars in neighborhoods of the East Village or the Upper West Side that have now been gentrified; so it's impossible now."

The actor recalls days nursing single beers so that he could load up on free happy-hour buffets at bars to save money on food. While studying with Sanford Meisner, he arranged to stay in maid's rooms for little or no money as long as he cleaned house once a week. He catered bar mitzvahs and weddings all over New York; he bartended at a basement pub with a brothel upstairs; and once, as a waiter, he forgot to return Gov. Hugh L. Carey's American Express card with the bill, which promptly got him fired.

Close to despair, Noth reached a turning point in his career when he decided to go back to school and train more classically so that he could appear in a wider variety of plays. "I happened to be reading the biography of Laurence Olivier at the time and reading about the English theatre in the '40s and '50s, which was just unbelievable in some of the riches that it had," he says. "I wanted that. I was ambitious for that, and I thought Yale Drama School would be great if I could get in, because it was really hard. But I did get in, and I took a loan out; I got a scholarship; I stopped focusing on getting an agent or a job; and I just started acting again in plays while I trained during the day."

His love for the stage stems from joining a repertory company while attending Marlboro College, originally for writing. That passion put him in Broadway's revival of Gore Vidal's The Best Man opposite Charles Durning and Spalding Gray, as well as numerous productions for theatres such as Circle Rep, La Mama, and the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. "For me," he says "the best acting lesson of all is doing a stage play for any length of time, because it's always changing within the world of that play, and your moment-to-moment performance isn't going to be like last night's, and if you try to make it the same, you're going to be sorely disappointed. So it's a fabulous playing field for understanding how you work with your own craft and technique while doing the part."

Almost every New York actor has appeared on Law & Order, the NBC series that set the standard for the primetime crime-drama genre and launched many imitators. Noth auditioned and landed the pilot in 1988, playing the no-nonsense, rebellious cop for five seasons. His fans called him the "soul of the show," so when series creator Dick Wolf replaced him with Benjamin Bratt, Noth wrote Logan's return in a 1998 TV movie spinoff, appropriately titled Exiled. "They've done pretty well without me," Noth says, now apparently able to laugh off his dismissal. "It was a glorious time to be in New York, doing a show that was steadily growing and feeling like it was a show that mattered at the time. It was very unlike most TV at the time, and we were creating as we were going, and I'm proud to have been a part of that."

What keeps roles such as Mr. Big and Logan interesting not only for the actor but also for the audience? Noth credits good writing and a well-developed inner life for the character. Law & Order's producers and writers created a restrictive environment, not sharing any information about Logan's personal life, so Noth found his own way to show how old-fashioned and patriotic his character was by wearing the trademark plaid ties and flag pin. "It had to be behavior that didn't outreach itself, wasn't striving to say 'pay attention to me,' but was seamlessly woven into the scene," he explains. "What I find a mistake in that show for some actors is, they think that just saying these procedural lines is going to be interesting, and it's not always. You have to create an inner life and story going on, so that your silences are still dialogue. You're saying something, or you're answering something, or you're asking something even though you don't have a line."

In the first six episodes of Sex and the City, Noth felt that Mr. Big needed expansion as well, and this time the writers and producers were much more open to his ideas. "Remember when Big falls in love with the big Hollywood star?" he asks. "'She can reach me, but I can't ever get her'—that was actually my line. I'm not in any way saying that I created that. We talked about things, but what's great about it is that they're willing to take an actor's suggestion and then take it to the next level. You need to see the flesh and bones of why [Mr. Big] becomes an archetype. I also wanted to bring him down to earth a lot more without losing any of the mystique. I think it humanized him more."

When tackling any character, Noth believes in staying open to any direction—even the wrong one. "Sometimes you have to go to the place that would be wrong in order to find what would be right," says Noth, who works with his coach, Harold Guskin, on every script. "If you immediately go with what you think would be right, then you get locked too much into one way of doing something, and you cut yourself off from all kinds of wonderful, impulsive moments. I work slowly that way to always keep open and let it sink in who this person is." BSW

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