THE SKEET SMELL OF SUCCESS

Details Magazine-- January 1997

by Aeraj Ahmed

First, let's get some basics out of the way.
1. That Name-- His driver's license says Bryan Ray Ulrich, but no one calls him that. "Skeet" is a childhood nickname that stuck, coined by a Little League coach who thought young Bryan small and swift, like a mosquito. The more intriguing question is, why won't Skeet reveal is real last name?
2. That Face-- Yes, Skeet has been told that he looks like Johnny Depp, ever since the days of 21 Jump Street, long before he (or Depp started acting. But director Paul Schrader contends, "It may just be similarity at first sight... Skeet's much taller."
3. Those Turtles-- Though Skeet's publicity bio would have you believe that he made his motion picture debut last year in Boys with Winona Ryder, check out a little movie called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In the opening moments, look closely at the thug who's on the back of a truck, stealing electronic equipment and then beating up the leading lady. Guess who? (That too was long before he started acting.)
Now let's begin.

Skeet Ulrich seems an unlikely golfer. Striding into Manhattan's high-tech Chelsea Piers driving range, wearing a faded AIRBORNE T-shirt, a NASCAR gimme cap, wrinkled khakis, longish hair, and a goatee, the twenty-six-year-old looks like just another Hollywood punk who golfs because it's replaced cigar smoking as the pastime du jour. Indeed, when Ulrich sees the futuristic facility-- four stories of stations with automated ball machines, dozens of golfers whacking toward the end of a 250-yard Astroturf pier jutting out into the Hudson River -- his first comment is, "Opportunity for lots of mulligans," golfspeak for a retry after a lousy shot. We ride in an elevator up to the second floor, where an attendant is on hand to provide VIP treatment, setting up our tee for unlimited free balls (instead of 14 cents each). Ulrich unshoulders his bag of shiny clubs which he's lugged all the way from Los Angeles, including a fancy Japanese titanium driver and the attendant looks... skeptical. But then Ulrich starts hitting, and reveals that beneath the jaunty hipster facade there just may be a serious artist. He plants his feet precisely, get religiously still, then draws back his 4-iron and swings. His ball soars in a high, slow curve, floating above the fray, landing prettily on the replica green, way, way near the back of the pier. Even the jaded attendant quietly intones, "Nice shot." "What got me interested in golf was the beauty of it," Ulrich tells me. "What got me obsessed is that it's a game of millimeters. The difference between a good shot and a bad one is like this." He angles his club a fraction. "It's like living moment to moment.... Kind of like great acting. It's a rare moment when it connects. When it does, it's so smooth, you don't feel anything." Last spring, Ulrich enjoyed the rare phenomenon of having 3 studio movies open in one week, but he didn't "connect" much. Not only were the roles subsidiary--in Boys, he played Winona's wild one-night stand; in Last Dance, Sharon Stone's doleful brother who turned her in for murder; in The Craft, a hunk tricked by teen witches into sleeping with the wrong girl-- but the films themselves ranged from stinker to middling, making little impact on the movie going public. Now comes another trio of films. Ulrich's profile won't be bolstered much by his part in Kevin Spacey's directorial debut, Albino Alligator; he barely spoke ten lines, and was still, as he has put it elsewhere, "a doe-eyed sympathy puppet." But, in the other two movies, Ulrich is cutting those puppet strings, graduating to his first leading roles, on angelic, on possibly demonic, both provocative. In Paul Schrader's Touch, a light romantic satire based on the Elmore Leonard novel, Ulrich plays Juvenal, a sweet, passive ex-monk who happens to get stigmata and heal people, warming the heart of a cynical rock promoter played by Bridget Fonda. And in Wes Craven's Scream, a serial-splatter, black comedy whodunit, Ulrich plays Billy, a shady high-school student who's trying both to woo Neve Campbell and deflect suspicions that he's the killer who's been offing their peers.

Both movies are eccentric: Locals in Santa Rosa, California, protested when Scream filmed there, calling it "the work of the Devil," and many people in test audiences of Touch walked out. Yet with these two disparate performances, Ulrich proves himself a bona fide actor. He's strong yet vulnerable ("A girl could fall in love with him," says Craven, "or he could be purely psychotic") and oozes the enigmatic charisma that confers movie stardom. "Skeet's got a light touch," says Fonda, "and he's mysterious--he's not offering everything--which makes him incredibly watchable." At Schrader's fiftieth birthday party last summer, the director told Skeet, "I love you so much, and in five years you won't even talk to me." "That was facetious," Schrader later explains, "but he has one of those careers. I'm sure the first person that cast Brad Pitt is today trying to get Brad on the phone." As Ulrich hits another beaut on the golf range, I remark that the ball's path mimics the ideal career arc. Then he smacks a line drive, prompting me to add, "And that's a Matthew McConaughey." Ulrich grins and plays along: "Here comes a Corey Feldman," he says lightly tipping the ball off the second-story platform so it plummets to the ground: "Straight down!" Then he starts a mock play-by-play: "Here's one that's falling-- but oh, it's bounces back up! It's Travolta!" He pauses. "Whose career is like putting? Someone who's stayed on the ground the whole time. I guess Gary Sinise. Or Viggo Mortensen." In a way, such character actors are Ulrich's idols: He's come to New York to film a supporting role as a street hustler in James L. Brooks Old Friends, with Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt, and Greg Kinnear; he chose the part over an action lead in John Woo's Face Off, with Travolta and Nicolas Cage. Ulrich stares out pensively at the driving rage, then down at the latest ball at his feet. "Watch this," he says. He shuts his eyes tight, swings his club-- and whiffs completely. He tries again, and the ball careens horrible off to the side. Sheepish, but unfazed, he finishes the rest of the hour with his eyes wide open.

Skeet Ulrich has reached that crucial point in his career were the arc-- or the mulligan-- is up to him. Instead of begging for roles, he can suddenly make choices. But he's also less free to try something wacky with his eyes shut. He's already experienced some backlash, from being on Vanity Fair's hot-young-actors cover last spring alongside McConaughey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Will Smith, and company. Skeet was the one all the way down at the end, wondering what the hell he was doing there. "Everybody else has been seen, been proven," he says, "And people said to me, 'That's great for your career, but what have you done?' I kept feeling I had to defend myself: 'I'm an actor, coming from New York theater.' " He tried to poke fun at the process--for his requisite Interview photo spread, he scrawled NARCISSISM upside down across his bare torso, consciously mocking Julia Roberts' LOVE tummy on Entertainment Weekly's Valentine's Day cover. But it's a fine line between being a Sassy hunk as a lark and just being a Sassy hunk. "I was horrible in Boys, in my opinion," he says, "and I was hyped for it, and that's a weird thing to deal with. In this business, you're either Brad Pitt right away, or you're already going down the ladder, so there's no process, no learning." If there's one message he wants to impart, it's that "I'm disappointed in acting as a craft. I want everything to go back to Orson Welles and fake noses and changing your voice. It's become so much about personality. A lot of Hollywood, they don't work on acting, necessarily. They don't see you're gonna fall, make mistakes." Ulrich is ambivalent about revealing himself: he's still figuring everything out. "I'm not the most talkative guy in the world," he warns as we settle into a Times Square bar for the first of several chats over the next two weeks. "and there are things I just don't want to talk about." He gives many of his answers with his hands guardedly up in front of his mouth, shyly pulling his cap farther down over his eyes. He'd rather make a bad pun than give a direct answer. He'll say something intriguing, only to shutdown discussion: "I've never been one that was jumping out of my socks at every woman I saw--and I'm not opening the door to why." Or he'll recall a story and then deny its significance, like about the time in seventh grade when a school official called on him at an assembly saying "Yes, ma'am?" because Skeet looked like a girl: "I don't think it bothered me much," he claims. It's hard to divine much about his upbringing from other sources, because Ulrich won't let me speak to any. He only recently reconciled with his birth father (now a restaurant owner in Maryland) after a decade's estrangement, finding him through a phone directory on the Internet. Skeet won't even reveal the man's last name (and thus his own), saying it's "inconsequential." Though he refers to his stepfather as "my dad," they've fallen out of touch since Skeet's mother remarried; and when we meet, Skeet is not on speaking terms with either his mother or his only sibling, Geoff, who's in "sports advertising or something." He feels closest to his maternal grandfather, Al Rudd, who runs an auto salvage yard, but Ulrich says, "I don't know how much you'd get outta him. He's kinda like Clint Eastwood." When I try to unravel all this during a session in his room at the Paramount hotel, Skeet is soon lying face down on his bed, protesting, "This is boring!" Then he pops up and turns on his TV and a Sony PlayStation game called Resident Evil. He wants me to show me his favorite moment, when a female character implores the tentacle-ensnared protagonist, "Chris! Don't die!" When he hears the line, Ulrich howls with laughter. He later defends his reticence as professionally motivated: "The more you understand me, the less characters I can play." But the behavior is not unique to interviews. Bridget Fonda says, "I've gotten close with Skeet and I feel that I know him, but only part of him. He just doesn't give it away. You've got to know him a long time to peel the onion." Skeet admits that he still finds himself telling his live-in girlfriend, actress Leonora Scelfo, facts about himself that most couples would reveal right away. "She'll say, 'Why didn't you tell me that?' And my classic response is 'Well, I just did.'... I always feel like I want to crawl out of my skin, especially when people start questioning me."

Hoping to look Skeet up, I arrange to meet him and Scelfo for shepherd's pie at Molly's, an Irish pub he began frequenting when he lived in New York, trying to pick up an Irish accent for a movie audition. (He only moved to Los Angeles last year, and plans to move back to New York, having decided that "everyone's really lazy in L.A.") When I arrive, Skeet is lacing up new purchased clunky black Nikes with the AIR logo so large it could be read from an airplane. Scelfo explains, "It took him eight months to accept that the way people made tennis shoes now was like space shoes, and now he's got the most space-looking ones of the bunch. He's embraced the spaceman in him." Skeet's less certain. Just yesterday, he tried on the exact same pair and rejected them. "It's a prime example of my problem with interviews," he says. "One day I'll think one thing, and the next day I'll think the exact opposite." Scelfo, twenty-four, is a take-charge, instantly intimate blonde actress. The Pacific Palisades-bred daughter of actress Deborah Winters (The People Next Door), she Ulrich at a friend's dinner party; they realized they'd both been at NYU and had lived a few blocks apart for three year. "You start believing in fate," Ulrich says. Scelfo definitely brings out another side of Skeet-- he's more open and relaxed, bemoaning his drunken loss of virginity during an anonymous encounter on a high-school trip to the beach. And they're very affectionate during the meal, sitting side by side--she showing off the tiny sapphire necklace he just bought her, he chirping about bringing her to his analyst for couples therapy. But "Lee," as he calls her, also interrupts, completes, or derails many of his sentences. A few samples:
SKEET: I scored a 910 on my SAT. I didn't care about education. I don't know what I cared about.
LEONORA: But then he was honors at NYU. And he does the crossword puzzle every day.
Or:
SKEET: The thing about work, like doing Scream--
LEONORA: I have a scene in that. Wes Craven's so great.
Eventually, some details of his past emerge, and it seems the sort of character-building childhood that comes with divorce and illness. Ulrich's mother was nineteen when she had Geoff, twenty when she had Skeet; she divorced their father, then a cook, when Skeet was three. For a while the boys lived with their father and a stepmother; Skeet recalls the woman giving him a can of peas and a spoon and telling him to eat them all without dropping any. He and his brother were often left to their own devices, and invented a lot of games to keep themselves amused, like pretending they were the fish at Sea World. Skeet moved around-- Poughkeepsie, Virginia, Miami-- until age mine, when his mother married a man named Ulrich, moved to Concord, North Carolina (near the Charlotte Motor Speedway), and changed her kids' last name. Skeet hung out around the racetrack; his stepfather was "one of the grunts of the sport" who eventually wound up running a team instead of driving, but his mother's brother, Ricky Rudd, is one of the top ten drivers in the country. Skeet remembers pulling legendary driver Richard Petty around in a cart for a quarter, and being fussed over by "God" Dale Earnhardt. Director Wes Craven thinks the racing environment helped shape Ulrich's acting chops: "There's a sense of daring that runs through his genes. You take risks, and your skill and reflexes protect you where other people crash and burn." But the most defining fact of Ulrich's childhood was that he suffered five bouts of pneumonia before age ten; finally it was traced to a ventricle defect in his heart, and he had open-heart surgery in 1980. The fragility made him "hypochondriac," he says. "Anytime I got in emotional turmoil, I felt sick all the time, like at any minute I would die." (He still has a huge scar on his chest, and after becoming an actor had to do extensive physical therapy to fix his protective, introverted posture.) Despite Skeet's poor academics, he was poised to get a soccer scholarship to a local college. But during a crucial match, with scouts in the audience, his rage got the better of him. After being benched for punching a rival team, Skeet stood up and yelled at the other team, "Mother**ckers! Kiss my a$$!" The coach made him take off his jersey, kicked him off the team, and he lost the scholarship. "I sat in the middle of the stadium after the game and bawled my head off," Skeet says. Somehow he made it to the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, where he randomly chose to major in marine biology; he earned pocket money by taking work as an extra on low-budget movies shooting at the production studios in town-- not just Ninja Turtles but Chattahoochee with Gary Oldman, Everybody Wins with Nick Nolte and Debra Winger, and Black Rainbow with Jason Robards. "I didn't even know what acting was," he says. But one day, filming a crowd scene for Turtles for the umpteenth time, he began to envision different situations: "What if I'm on my way to the zoo for this take?" Suddenly, it felt "real." He started taking ad hoc acting lessons from a bizarre mentor: a middle-aged man who worked in a Carolina Beach deli. "Apparently, he'd done movies with Marilyn Monroe," Ulrich recalls, "but I think he was just an extra. He had this book of facial expressions, and he'd make me practice them: 'Look sad. Oh no, turn your lips down a little more.' " Seeking a more in-depth approach, Ulrich signed up for some theater classes, appeared in a few productions-- The Diary of Anne Frank, Hedda Gabler-- and switched his major to theater. He ended up transferring to NYU's acting program under David Mamet, and joining Mamet's Atlantic Theater Company. Ulrich's mother was paying his rent, so "for three of the five years I lived in New York, I barely left my apartment," he says. "I ate the same food every day-- a cup of chicken orzo soup, a grilled cheese sandwich-- and I just sat around and read. I was soaking things up. A lot of Russian literature." He also did some construction work, but found himself in danger of becoming a full-time carpenter. "I was remodeling this kitchen for this woman, drawing plans, making estimates. It was gonna be an eight-month job, and I realized, 'I don't want to be doing this in eight months!' " Luckily, director Stacy Cochran cast him in an ABC Afterschool Special, Same Difference, about a Catholic boy in love with a Jewish girl. That got Skeet a new agent (ICM's Aleen Keshishian); then Cochran cast him in Boys, and he never took another construction job.

Skeet is wandering souvenir shops in Times Square, looking for a picture postcard of Brad Pitt to cut into a heart shape and hang from his belt. Yes, he's a fan, and sympathetic to the difficulties his fellow pretty boy has had being taken seriously as an actor--but this quest is part of Ulrich's preparation for Old Friends. A few weeks before filming started, he met a man at a party who was carrying around a Princess Diana doll's head on his key chain. "What's that?" Skeet asked. "Lady Di was stalking me," the man replied, dead serious, "so I had a voodoo guy give me this head so she'd stop." Ulrich loved the obsession concept and decided to use it for his street-hustler character. "[Director] Jim Brooks said I should pick a guy," Ulrich recalls. So now his character wears the photo and rattles off Brad's films in chronological order. "I see my character as the gay version of Brad Pitt's part in Thelma & Louise," Ulrich says. "The outsider who comes in and rolls the lead [Greg Kinnear], uses his sex, and takes the money." Why did Skeet take the smallish part instead of the lead in the John Woo movie? "Because it's not something you can roll out of bed and start playing," he says. "It takes work, research, a leap of consciousness." He's hoping to play another gay character in Todd Hayne's Velvet Goldmine, about the glam-rock scene; he's also signed to be in Richard Linklater's movie The Newton Boys, about bank-robbing brothers, which is slated to star Ethan Hawke and Matthew McConaughey. Ulrich is most passionate-- and comfortable-- discussing acting, though he warns that his ideas are still forming. He has employed offbeat tactics: Just before filming a disorienting scene in The Craft, he watched a show he'd taped about face-lifts, in which a surgeon moved his hands around under a patient's skin. And for Last Dance, he repeatedly listened to "Black" by Pearl Jam, for its themes of abandonment. Skeet says he hopes to avoid what he calls "cinematic reality"-- the fake, limited repertoire of expressions usually depicted onscreen. "There's been a boiling down of real emotion into a set pattern instead of individualism. What's the classical moment that every actor or actress deals with? A tragic thing. They get that blank, faraway look in their eyes. But in life, it's not that way. I also think that most people don't look face-to-dace when they talk, the way they do in movies. When I have fights or conversations about love, I'm never looking at people. I'm straightening the table." Trying to see him in action, I arrange to visit the set of Old Friends, but at the last minute, Skeet's publicist calls and says, "It isn't going to work." Skeet will later explain that the filming schedule was suddenly changed, and he had to prepare for "an intense scene with Jack and Helen and Greg that I wasn't prepared for. I couldn't have done it if someone was there." Since I already know the location and it's in a public place, I decide to watch discreetly from the sidelines. Skeet is wearing some futuristic wraparound sunglasses, a tight T-shirt, and has his hair up in a little ponytail atop his head, which he toys with absently. He and his fellow street hustlers solicit from passing cars, while Nicholson, Kinnear, and Hunt sit in character in a parked car across the street. Kinnear's character recognizes Skeet and freaks out. They enact this over and over; after three hours, I go home. After all Skeet's talk stressing his vocation, his reticence to let me on the set for an innocuous-looking scene is disappointing. Just a few days earlier, on the way to a pickup basketball game, he hadn't felt any inhibition about relieving himself on the side of a building in front of me or anyone else who happened to be walking by. I asked him why. "To show I have balls," he replied.

One last story. On the set of Touch, Ulrich didn't understand the meaning of a religious term in the script, and he asked Christopher Walken about it. Walken told him, "You know, other actors, they'd look that up. I just say it--I don't care what it is." Recounting this, Ulrich laughs. "He also told me 'Don't listen to directors. Do what you want.' The genius of Chris Walken. Of course, I think he was lying. I think he's a complete preparer." Perhaps, I suggest, Walken was toying with you because you were the new young stud. Ulrich replies, "Because I was young, period." He leans over the tape record, all serious-like, and intones a promise. "Oh, you just wait, Walken!" he says. "I'll get older!" And Skeet Ulrich laughs for the first time in a while, ready to face the back nine.

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