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Interview

Shulman's Way

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Michael Shulman is frequently cast as a young innocent, but he didn't start his new production company, Starry Night, to combat typecasting by creating roles for himself. "I want to be involved in the creative process and to understand how projects get made," he says. "I will not be in every project." But he admits that being the producer allows him to shape the characters he does play. Sherman's Way, Starry Night's first production, is an example.

In this easygoing road-trip movie, which was released March 5, Shulman plays an overindulged, well-heeled mama's boy traveling through Northern California with an over-the-hill, blue-collar former Olympian. The two men, who have nothing in common, learn important lessons and grow up together. "I didn't want this to be just a rich kid who doesn't care," Shulman says. "So I tried to find the parts of Sherman that do care. If Sherman cares—if I care—the audience cares. I want the audience to understand, identify with, and hopefully like Sherman."

The 27-year-old New York City native, perhaps best known for playing Claudia's boyfriend Artie Baum on Party of Five, says, "The company's motto is 'Bridging the worlds of stage and film,' which means developing plays and films that are character- and dialogue-driven." One of them is Ponzi Scheme—Shulman says it has been on the drawing board for more than a year; its current topicality, courtesy of Bernard Madoff, is a fluke—which is being developed as a film and a Broadway musical.

The Hazards of Consistency

Shulman was introduced to acting at a young age because "I liked creative dancing, and my teacher thought I was crazy enough to be in the entertainment industry," he says. "She called my parents in and told them so. My father, who is an ophthalmologist, said he had no idea how to go about this. But like all New York ophthalmologists, he had a patient who was a manager. The manager auditioned me and signed me up."

At age 8, Shulman was sent to audition for his first role, in John Guare's play Gardenia, and landed it without saying a line. "My father was trying to tell me how to say the lines," he recalls, "and I said to him, 'I want to do it my way,' and the director, who was watching us, was so impressed that I told my dad off, I got the part."

Shulman went on to appear in such Broadway shows Les Misérables (as a replacement for Gavroche), Off-Broadway in the original production of Assassins, and in films like Jodie Foster's Little Man Tate and Paul Mazursky's The Pickle. But he took a break to go to Yale University, where he majored in art history—his company is named for the Van Gogh painting—though he still found time to appear on Law & Order and do some animation voiceovers.

He also found time to study acting formally for the first time (he'd previously studied singing). Shulman felt he'd never really explored his full potential as an actor, so he commuted to New York on weekends to study with teacher Harold Guskin. "As a child you're rewarded for hitting your marks and saying the lines the same way 50 times," Shulman says. "You're rewarded for consistency. I saw Inside the Actors Studio and the way all the actors functioned instinctively. I felt I was bottling my instincts up for consistency." The transition from child actor to adult actor was huge, he says. He lost his agent and manager, who represented only kids, and the security and stability that went with them. But artistically it was a period of growth, in which he got to play roles—in Chekhov, Ibsen, and Shakespeare—that he'd never before attempted.

"If I have a school of thought about how to approach a role, I'd say you have to find parallel experiences in your own life and have an extremely personal relationship with your lines," Shulman says. "You never take a line for granted. Each line is a way into the character. The shortest line might be the most important line in the play."

Recently, he completed an Off-Broadway run in White People, an intense three-hander by J.T. Rogers about racism. Shulman played a liberal professor forced to confront his unacknowledged racism when his wife is mugged by African Americans. The character talks to the audience, using it as a sounding board for his conflicted feelings, and also utters the N-word. "I'm floored every night when I say it," Shulman says. "I look at the black people in the audience when I say it. Sometimes I think they feel sorry for me. Sometimes they look away. Other times you can see them cry. One woman gasped. I started weeping on stage."

His research included familiarizing himself with the character's New York neighborhood and attending his church. He also grew a professorial beard and let his hair grow. Shulman calls it his most challenging stage role to date: "He had so many emotions going on simultaneously. It was also a challenge to keep it alive and real every night. I believe I've changed as a result of playing that role. I certainly think about some of my own reactions" to issues of race.

Starry Night has two additional films in development, based on original screenplays by Josh Hartwell and Gary Sunshine. The first centers on a group of aspiring artists in their 20s who are stuck working in a rundown movie theatre while watching their lives pass them by. The other is about a group of young actors who assemble at a house in the Hamptons to rehearse The Three Sisters in memory of an acting teacher. "It's kind of a Vanya on 42nd Street," Shulman says. "That was a most influential film for me."

What does he hope for in the future? "To be doing film after play after TV show after film," he says. "My dream goal is to have the freedom to choose."

Outtakes

> TV credits include All My Children and Chicago Hope

> Was featured in John Guare's play Four Baboons Adoring the Sun

> Was nominated for a Daytime Emmy and a CableACE Award for his performance in HBO's Lifestories: Families in Crisis

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