Ed Lauter admits he doesn’t have a standard movie star mug.
The veteran actor, known for roles in “The Longest Yard,” “Family Plot” and “The Artist,” considered having his generous nose fixed years ago to look less like “the guy on the back of a nickel,” he tells Big Hollywood.
Lauter eventually changed his mind, a decision that helped him become one of Hollywood’s most reliable character actors.
His latest project, “The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” cast the lanky New York native as a father trying to reconnect with his large Irish brood for the holidays. Lauter’s Big Jim abandoned the family years earlier, and now his grown children aren’t sure they want to let him back into their lives. It’s the latest independent feature from writer/director Ed Burns, who stars as one of the children trying to hold the family together at a critical juncture.
“The Fitzgerald Family Christmas,” available in select theaters now as well as via iTunes and Video on Demand services, lets Lauter drop his tough guy act for a change. He’s often cast as a film’s heavy – a colleague once dubbed him as a “turn” actor.
“The movie starts, it goes along, then you’re character gets introduced, and it takes a turn,” he recalls the friend explaining.
With “Fitzgerald,” Lauter considers a philosophical approach to his character’s flaws.
“He didn’t go out and kill anybody. He wanted to go in another direction in life. He’s self centered in that respect,” he says. “You can make an excuse for him, but what about his kids?”
Lauter’s expansive film career found him working alongside screen legends like Lee Marvin, Burt Reynolds and Alfred Hitchcock. This year, he got the chance to share a set with Clint Eastwood in “The Trouble with the Curve,” a drama following a baseball scout trying to heal his damaged relationship with his daughter (Amy Adams). He learned Eastwood and Burns had something in common despite their significant age difference. Both like to keep the mood calm on set, diminishing any pressure bubbling up during the production.
It echoed thoughts shared to him by Marvin years earlier.
“I asked Lee Marvin some acting advice – I though he’d make a good director. He said, ‘well, how would you do it if nobody were here?’ When you work with Ed Burns and Clint they’re so attuned to what an actor needs to do they get you so relaxed, and you really can perform.”
Marvin also taught him how to bring texture to the villainous roles Lauter would go on to play. Pick out moment in the film that shows the audience you have a little tenderness within, Lauter recalls of Marvin’s advice.
“It keeps the audience off guard,” he explains, a characteristic built in to his “Fitzgerald” character. “I loved playing [Big Jim]. I’m a bad person in the beginning, but I have redeeming qualities.”
Lauter, 72, has worked alongside several generations of A-list actors. What separates the Brad Pitts and Tom Cruises from the Burt Lancasters and Marvins of yore, he says, is life experience.
“They came out of the Depression and what that did to them, what kind of jobs they had to hold down and scrape through life … then they went through the turmoil of World War II. That gave them some kind of foundation … when you met these guys they were interesting.”