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Anthony LaPaglia: Fortysomething

Does an actor need a career strategy to have a career? Anthony LaPaglia is living proof that showing up and doing good, often great work in whatever medium will have him—film, television, stage—is enough to build a fine living as a working actor, and, not coincidentally, a reputation as a brilliant and versatile one, too.

While LaPaglia has played plenty of cops and heavies in his day, Leon Zat, the torturously introspective police detective he plays in his new film, Lantana, is not your typical law-and-order role. Leon is cheating on his loyal wife (played to perfection by Kerry Armstrong), though the affair seems to bring him more guilt than comfort. And his work on a disturbing case leads him to investigate himself more than the crime.

LaPaglia is almost always an actor who can signal huge emotions with minimum effort—who can be larger-than-life without being "big"—but his Leon has a nuanced impassivity that borders on inscrutable, until despair at last cracks the surface. It's a beautifully modulated performance, in other words—one that takes us off guard, even from an actor of LaPaglia's gifts.

"Over the years, I've learned to do less acting and more being," said LaPaglia, engaging and chummy in person. Mere restraint wasn't enough for Lantana's director, Ray Lawrence. "Ray kept asking me to do less," said LaPaglia. "I'm already an actor who doesn't do a lot, who's traditionally been more on the subtle side than the big side. To have him ask me to do less was a bit shocking, to the point where I really felt like I might be making a mistake, it was so small. But I realized the camera just picks up everything if it's in the right spot."

LaPaglia has been in the right spot often enough to land a series of breakthrough roles—from the gentlemanly gangster in Betsy's Wedding to the unlucky lottery winner in 29th Street, from the taciturn hit man in Bulletproof Heart to the brutal Mafioso in The Client, from Daphne's troglodyte brother on Frasier to the fiercely jealous longshoreman in A View From the Bridge on Broadway (the role nabbed him a Tony, and he's co-producing a film adaptation). But it was youthful restlessness that first led him to acting, and to America. Born in Adelaide, Australia, he moved to New York in his 20s after seeing a production of William Congreve's The Way of the World. He dreamt partly of becoming an actor—but only partly.

"I felt like I was missing out on something, and I really wanted to live in New York City," he recalled. "Acting was in some ways tied into it, but I would've moved to New York anyway, with or without acting. Acting wasn't the lure."

Since then he's become a sort of honorary Italian-American, with a real-life accent that hovers somewhere between Brooklyn and the Outback. In fact, it was LaPaglia's Hollywood notoriety that interested Australian filmmakers as much as his birthplace. In addition to Lantana, he appeared last year in the Aussie thriller The Bank.

Of course LaPaglia's occasional trips back to his home industry aren't charity. "There's a freshness to the filmmaking there that seems to have disappeared" in the U.S., he said. "It's a raw energy that I really love—a maverick, everyone's-in-it-together kind of feeling, which I prefer."

The diversity of his career hasn't just been a matter of culture-crossing, though. After years of typecasting as a mobster, he's started to turn down those roles (making an understandable exception to play Al Capone in Sam Mendes' upcoming The Road to Perdition). You won't catch him whining about it, though.

Said LaPaglia, "Stereotyping is partly your responsibility, because you say yes or no to certain projects, and if somebody keeps offering you 'Mob Guy No. 4,' you have to say no often enough to change their mind. It is your responsibility to diversify."

Not that he's had a master plan from the start. "I've had no career strategy," he confessed. "I look at something, and I never go, 'This part is too small.' I look at it and I go, 'How interesting is this? Would I be interested in acting with these other people?'"

This has led to a career some perceive as "checkered," he said.

"I get the impression sometimes that people are disappointed. People have flat-out said to me, 'I thought you were going to be such a big movie star.' I'm like, OK, how am I supposed to respond to that? I wonder what the gauge of success is? I actually feel quite successful. I guess in some people's eyes there's only one kind of success. But I wanted to be a working actor, and that's exactly what I got."

One thing he did sense from the start, though, is that his best work would come later.

"I've always thought, from the time I started as a young actor, that my career would not take hold until after the age of 40," he said. "I thought I was too young, too weird, too in the middle. I didn't really fit into leading man, I didn't really fit into character. I knew that after the age of 40, when I started to mature and I started to get a better sense of gravity, things were going to start to pop. And they have. The last couple of years have been by far the best."

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