12A - The Michigan Daily - Monday, October 4, 1999
Writer Ridley reaches
screen with 'Three Kings'
Los Angeles Times
John Ridley says listening is a key
to writing. With a new TV show, third
novel and much-anticipated film, his
hearing must be acute.
His screenplay about the Persian
Gulf War is now the basis for the
Warner Bros. movie "Three Kings,"
starring George Clooney, Mark
Wahlberg and Ice Cube, which opens
He also is a supervising producer
on "Third Watch," the new NBC
drama exploring the gritty world of
big-city paramedics, police and fire-
And Knopf has just published his
third novel, "Everybody Smokes in
Hell," and promptly dispatched him
on a cross-country book tour.
But Ridley, a blossoming
Hollywood success story if there ever
was one, isn't likely to be found
hanging out at showy Hollywood
eateries. Look for him at Norm's, a
coffee shop chain featuring steak and
eggs. Like all his favorite haunts,
Norm's is just the kind of place on
the fringes of Tinseltown where a
writer can go to observe ordinary
people and listen. Always listen. "If
you want to be a writer," Ridley
explains, "you've got to be a listener
At 33, the Wisconsin-born Ridley
is proof that show business success
does not always occur overnight. In
Ridley's case, it has been a gradual
yet steady ascent stretching back
more than a decade, from the days he
performed in small New York night-
clubs as a stand-up comedian, to
Hollywood TV and film writer, to
novelist. Piece by piece, year after
year, his resume has grown until now,
he believes, his writing is beginning
to have an impact, which he hopes
will showcase African Americans.
"The lead characters of all my
books have been black," Ridley says.
In "Third Watch," he points out, the
ensemble cast includes whites,
blacks, Latinos and women. And, in
"Three Kings," although director
David. O. Russell changed the lead
character from black to white in cast-
ing Clooney, he kept an African
American (Ice Cube) in one of the
"Three Kings" is based on a -script
Ridley wrote in the mid-1990s called
"Spoils of War." The story, which
takes place during the 1991 Persian
Gulf War, revolves around some
American GIs who find a map that
leads them to a treasure cache in Iraq.
Although the outlines of the story
are the same, Ridley says writer-
director David O. Russell made sig-
nificant changes in the final script.
"He has made it more of a political
story," Ridley says. "More about
America's role in the war." Ridley,
receives a "story by" and a co-pro-
ducer credit on the film.
While the movie was going for-
ward, Ridley remained busy in televi-
sion. Last year, he was a writer on the
NBC series "Trinity." While the show
was short-lived, it brought him in
contact with John Wells and Ed
Bernero, who asked him to work on
their latest creation, "Third Watch."
"They're both good guys, bright
guys," Ridley says. "I didn't know if
I would work in television this year
or not, now with the movies and stuff,
but they called me up and it sounded
exciting. It has turned out great."
Yes, he understands that
Hollywood is, first and foremost, an
industry about commerce so any pro-
ject has to be one that can make
money, but the fun is the process of
"I really like to create," he says. "I
enjoy writing. I would like to do
things that are a bit different, things
like writing a movie and making sure
that the lead character is a black
But achieving his goals has
A native of Milwaukee, Ridley
knew early on that he wanted to
expand his horizons. He moved to
New York with a dream of becoming
a stand-up comedian. Meanwhile, he
had enrolled at New York University,
majoring in, of all things, East Asian
"In the '80s, everybody was afraid
of Japan," he recalls. "I was very
fond of the culture and the people
were very interesting."
While living in Queens, he would
stop in at a dojo (a martial arts gym)
a block away. "When you are doing
stand-up, you have nothing to do all
day," he says. "You go out at night,
tell jokes for 20 minutes, and that is
your day. I would spend all day with
guys who took classes."
Ridley eventually became so pro-
ficient in martial arts that he joined a
karate team, competed in tourna-
ments and rose to the level of third-
degree brown belt in "shotokan"
karate (Okinawan karate). He even
learned Japanese and lived for a time
Back in the United States, he con-
tinued to pursue a career in stand-up,
eventually landing spots on "The
Late Show With David Letterman"
and "The Tonight Show With Jay
In 1990, he moved from New York
to Los Angeles, but soon found him-
self writing comedy on the side. He
not only wrote for such sitcoms as
"Martin," "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air"
and "The John Larroquette Show,"
but was hired to do "punch-up work"
on numerous films .
Meanwhile, Ridley also found
time to work on novels. His first
book was called "Stray Dogs," which
became the basis of Oliver Stone's
1997 film, "U Turn." Critics said his
second novel, "Love Is a Racket,"
had all the elements of "classic
In his latest novel, "Everybody
Smokes in Hell," Ridley uses
Hollywood as the backdrop as he
tells the story of Paris Scott, a night
clerk in a scuzzy convenience store,
who comes into possession of the
last musical works of a grunge band
singer just before the star commits
Problems arise, however, when he
tries to peddle the tape for $1 million
and discovers that others would
rather kill for it.
"It's a 'story about the American
work ethic," Ridley says. "It's about
a guy who has a lot of ideas and big
dreams, but he doesn't have the
capacity to fulfill them."
The characters that fascinate
Ridley most are not your stereotypi-
cal Hollywood power players -- the
arrogant directors, the egomaniacal
stars, the screaming studio execu-
tives. Instead, Ridley says, he is
drawn to the "down-and-out fringe
characters" who are so consumed
with Hollywood's lure of riches and
fame that they fail to see behind the
curtain: so many hollow souls,
ruined marriages and lives tortured
"You're always reading about peo-
ple in Hollywood who are divorced
or in rehab or whatever," he says.
"Yet, people say, 'If only I could get
in Hollywood, wouldn't life be
great?' ... (But) there is nothing
wrong with being a normal
Courtesy of Gramercy Pictur(-s
Illeana Douglas portrays a prostitute In "Action," a hypnotist In "Stir of Echoes" and a sultry teacher in "Happy, Texas."
Acton -oriented Douga delgt
witU new roles n Hilywood
Los Angeles Tunes
Illeana Douglas sat in the passenger
seat of a reporter's Isuzu Rodeo with a
neap of Hollywood in her lap and mis-
chief in her smile. The 34-year-old
actress had agreed to let a stranger in on
one of her favorite pastimes - ogling
celebrities' houses - and she had come
prepared: Two dog-eared guidebooks,
marked with scribbles and yellow Post-it
notes, were within easy reach.
"My friend found it first. He showed
me the place and I said, 'She does not
live there.' Then we drove by and I said,
'Oh, my God, it's her!' "Douglas said
excitedly as she spotted the stuccoed
bungalow of a famed actress (whose
name Douglas asked to omit to protect
the star's privacy). "Now, I drive by all
the time. It gives you a little adrenaline
Douglas paused for a moment, sud-
denly aware of how odd it must seem for
one recognizable actress to be spying on
another. " 'Why do you like to drive by
famous people when you are a famous
person ?' That would be the obvious
question," said the veteran of more than
20 films. She had an answer: "I don't
consider myself to be a famous person, I
Douglas' modest self-appraisal is part
of what has made her best roles so mem-
orable. Whether playing Robert De
Niro's most scarred victim (he bit her
cheek) in Martin Scorsese's "Cape Fear"
(1991), Matt Dillon's suspicious, figure-
skating older sister in Gus Van Sant's "To
Die For" (1995), or her first leading role
(as a songwriter) in Allison Anders'
"Grace of My Heart" (1996), the emer-
ald-eyed, whippet-thin Douglas brings a
frank vulnerability to the screen.
But with September's launch of
"Action," Fox TV's acidic comedy about
Hollywood in which Douglas and Jay
Mohr star, the self-effacing actress may
have to update her self-image. If the
measure of her fame to date has been, as
she says, "a guy coming up who's had
eight beers and says, 'You're an actress,
right?' " Douglas now seems poised to
become a real star, the kind whose house
she herself might want to visit.
Pretty in an off-centered way, Douglas
exudes both a shy elegance and a goofy
charm (think Anjelica Huston crossed
with Lucille Ball).Believable playing
both losers and winners, sex sirens and
down-and-outers, she looks familiar.
And yet there's a feeling that you can't
quite place her.
"There is a very off-kilter aspect to her
- a sensuality but without an overt sex-
uality," said Chris Thompson, the writer
and executive producer of "Action," who
said he envisioned Douglas when he cre-
ated the role of Wendy Ward, a former
child star turned high-class prostitute
turned movie executive. "She can be
world-weary without being cynical. She
manages to portray a character who has
had a rugged road, but does not feel
sorry for herself. She has a quirky sani-
Lately, she's also had a lot of work. In
addition to her role in "Action," Douglas
can be seen on the big screen playing a
perpetually stoned hypnotist (opposite
Kevin Bacon) in Artisan Entertainment's
spooky "Stir of Echoes." This mdonth,
Douglas appears as a Texas schoolmarm
in Miramax's "Happy, Texas."
Upcoming feature projects include "The
Last Treasure," a romantic comedy
opposite Denis Leary and directed by
In show business, this is what's known
as range. In "Action," she's a sleek, sexy,
seen-it-all Hollywood casualty - the
kind of woman who can be trusted to tell
you the truth, even as she's stealing your
Rolex. In "Happy, Texas," she's a small-
town, big-haired naif - the type who
might actually fall for an escaped convict
(Steve Zahn) who is passing himself off
as a gay beauty pageant coordinator.
"Sometimes people will say to me,
'Why do you seem so happy?' But I
can't believe I'm getting to do this,"
Douglas said during a two-hour, on-the-
road interview that took place all over
Hollywood. "I'm so consciously appre-
ciative of the fact that I've managed to
make a living in this business.
Wen I talk to young actors, I say it's
about stamina. If you're the last person
standing, you will be successful." What
is most fun about Douglas in person is
exactly what seems to make her perfect
for her role in "Action," which depicts
movie industry players as nothing short
of ruthless. Though she has Hollywood
roots (she is the granddaughter of Helen
Gahagan, star of "She," and the late
Melvyn Douglas, who won an Oscar for
his supporting role in "Hud" ), she has
an outsider's take on the movie business
that mixes genuine enthusiasm for its
magic with a clear-eyed comprehension
of its brutal customs.
But this is a woman who has wit-
nessed how mean modern Hollywood
can be, particularly to female actresses
above the age of 22. ("I call it the
'Logan's Run' theory: When you're 30,
they try to kill you.") This is a woman
who has auditioned in vain for a peanut
butter commercial ("I asked them, 'How
can I say, "Mmm-mmm, peanutty!" if
my mouth is full?' ") and who has, on
occasion, had trouble paying her bills.
"I auditioned once for a (TV series)
pilot called 'Incredi-girl' - the story of
a girl who plays a superhero, yet her life
is not all it's cracked up to be. And for
whatever bizarre reason, I made it to the
finals," Douglas said, launching light-
heartedly into a story so devastating it
could easily be an "Action" subplot.
"They'd flown me out from New York,
and afterwards, they drove me back to
the hotel and there was a message wait-
ing for me: 'So-and-so from Universal
called. Sorry, it's not going to work out.'
They didn't even tell me directly! The
operator delivered the news.
"The next thing I knew I got a call say-
ing, 'You're going to have to check out of
the hotel within the hour.' I remember
being so crushed that I didn't get the
worst pilot ever written. Like, 'What do
you mean they don't want me for
Incredi-girl? I am lncredi-girl!' " shi
said, her eyes .huge with mock outrage.
"Your standards get lower and lower,
from a high of''ll never do TV' to a low
point where you're auditioning for one
scene on 'Blossom' and saying, 'Please!
I have to pay my rent!'"
Which helps explain, in a roundabout
way, how Douglas came to be an expert
in Hollywood landmarks. Although until
recently her permanent residence was i
New York (she moved to Los Angeles
year ago after marrying producer
Jonathan Axelrod), she has lived here off
and on in a series of what she calls "hor-
rible studio apartments with no bedding
and a large TV and a bottle of Absolut
Kurant vodka and a phone I'm desper-
ately holding onto, hoping it will ring."
Born in Massachusetts, Douglas grew
up in Connecticut in a "kind of hippie-
esque family. Very 'Free to Be, You an
Me,' " she says. The youngest of threw
kids, Douglas says she saw movies as the
glue that bound her family together, even
after her parents divorced.
She moved to New York at 18 to study
acting at the American Academy of
Dramatic Art and the Neighborhood
Playhouse. Five years later, in 1988, a
tongue-in-cheek list of her attributes on
her resume - "Great legs, bloodcur-
dling screams" - prompted a phone cal
from Scorsese, who needed someone t
shriek in "The Last Temptation of
Christ." The next year, she had her first
on-screen acting role in Scorsese's seg-
ment of "New York Stories" and began
what would be an eight-year romance
with the director.
Lately, Douglas has begun sounding a
lot like her TV character - or maybe
she always sounded this way.,Those who
have seen "Boy Crazy, Girl Crazier," a
short film she wrote and directed i'.
1995, say it echoes "Action" in its depic-
tion of two aspiring actors who are will-
ing to sell each other out (and far worse)
in order to snare a part in a film.
"(When you're working), acting is the
easiest thing in the world. How hard can
it be? You have 100 people looking at
you. You're totally the center of attention.
You ask for a latte and someone hands it
to you," she said as the SUV idled in
front of a shabby-looking apartme4l
building that was briefly the residence of
Elizabeth Short, nicknamed the "Black
Dahlia." Douglas looked up at a banner
draped over the building's entrance -
"Move-In Special: $300!"- and won-
dered how many aspiring actors had
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