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Rusty Schwimmer: A True Character
by Richard Knight, Jr.

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Rusty Schwimmer. Pic by Gene Page courtesy of County Line Films


For Windy City Times/Knight at the Movies

Winnetka native and character actress Rusty Schwimmer and I have known each other for over 20 years. We met when we were both working in Chicago's nightclub scene back in the mid-'80s. By 1989, she'd headed out to the West Coast, and in a few short years established a career in movies and television that has never let up. Although she's had comedic roles, she's usually cast in dramatic parts. Movie audiences recognize her from those small but important character roles—like the anxious, worried juror in Runaway Jury; the tough but vulnerable barfly in The Perfect Storm; and the gutsy miner in North Country.

Now she is co-starring with Paul Giamatti in the offbeat indie The Hawk Is Dying ( premiering in Chicago this Friday at the Gene Siskel Center ) . In the film Schwimmer plays a distracted, anxious southern belle named Precious, who is the brother of Giamatti and the mother of an autistic son ( Michael Pitt ) . During a recent trip back to Chicago, she and I talked about the film, Desperate Housewives and A-list actors coming out.

Windy City Times: The Hawk Is Dying is a very unusual piece. It's very non-linear—a real test for an absent-minded audience. I loved that the normal assumptions you make about characters in a movie didn't really apply.

Rusty Schwimmer: Yes, right. Some people have pointed that out. I think it's because we've been spoon-fed as an audience—I'm saying this in a very general way—to figure out exactly where we are, who we are [ and ] what the relationships are within the first five minutes of the movie. I believe that in movies that are really, really great you don't have that spoon fed to you. Hats off to Julian Goldberger, the filmmaker, because he doesn't want to do that. He feels the audience is much more intelligent than the lowest common denominator and that the lowest common denominator is not as low as most people think.

WCT: How did this originally come to you, Rusty? Did you know this director-writer?

RS: I didn't know him or anything about him. He had worked with John Hawkes, who played Bugsy in The Perfect Storm; [ then, ] John and Nick Offerman—my friend who used to be with the Defiant Theatre in Chicago—both said, 'The character of Precious needs to be Rusty.' So Julian saw me at the very beginning of casting and then I didn't hear anything; I thought I did well. Then ,maybe six months later, I got a call asking if I'd be willing to play Precious.

WCT: Can you talk about working with Paul Giamatti?

RS: I was in a happy bubble to be working with such incredible people that really love what they do. I loved that Paul Giamatti is so open. We immediately had this connection. The first night I was on location in Florida he took me to this restaurant called Mom's—a great soul food place—and they all loved him because they'd seen Big Momma's House so many times.

WCT: Right! I'd forgotten he'd done that.

RS: Yes, exactly. So, from the get-go we were like brother and sister, and we could say anything in front of each other; working with each other was great. One of us would have an insane idea and the other person would giggle and then we'd try it and see if it worked or not.

WCT: Is it true that with material this emotionally difficult that those are the movie sets where the atmosphere is light and you have a great time?

RS: [ Laughs ] Yes—actually that's true, at least for me. One of the hardest, most serious sets I was on was a comedy that I did—EdTV; it was just a very serious set. The Perfect Storm was a hilarious set, North Country was hilarious and, this, the most hilarious of all. I think that unless you're a method actor—which Paul and I certainly are not and we'll drop character in a second [ laughs ] —you need a rest from the intensity. And in that scene that I won't give away that's so intense—in-between takes we were yukking it up, laughing so hard because it was too horrible to deal with.

WCT: How long was the shoot? Pretty quick?

RS: Yes—23, 24 days. We had to shoot quick but I think if we'd had to shoot anymore it would have hurt us because it was so compact that it was almost like a tornado went through, you know? This was the first movie that I came away with—and I've done a lot of intense movies—where I couldn't shake it. I think that if I was in that mode for any longer, I really wouldn't have been able to shake it and I had to do another movie right after that.

WCT: Let's talk about some of your TV appearances because you're on every hit show it seems—Heroes, Six Feet Under and Boston Legal . You [ also ] have a Desperate Housewives episode coming up, right?

RS: I do. I play a forest ranger. [ Laughs ] Now, who would meet up with a forest ranger, I wonder?

WCT: Hmmm. Our People love that show and one of the reasons for that, of course, is that it was created by a gay man, Marc Cherry. Did you meet him?

RS: Yes. briefly. What I really enjoyed about Mr. Cherry, to be perfectly honest, was that he said, 'Thank you so much for coming and playing with us.' He said 'playing'—not 'working'—and I thought that was very telling about what kind of human being he is. I liked him a lot. He was very, very sweet.

WCT: Okay, my gay-friendly friend who has worked for everyone in the business in both movies and TV: Do you think we're ever going to see a mega movie star come out in our lifetime?

RS: [ Crestfallen ] Oh honey, it's not going to happen unless they're a character actor. They just say to the actor two words: 'Rupert Everett.'

WCT: And those two words work because Everett's career was wrecked by his coming out?

RS: Well, they say no one wants to take him seriously as a heterosexual guy, which really sucks because it really shouldn't matter. Actors play all sorts of parts. I can't tell you how many lesbians I've played. Is that fair to the lesbian community that lesbian actors can't play straight roles? It's not fair and doesn't make any sense. But at the same time, a lot of people will look at Rupert Everett and not want to make waves.

WCT: Is it just a generational thing?

RS: Yes, but until those old white guys leave Hollywood and Washington, it's not going to happen. It might be another generation and, if it is, that's brilliant because then it's only one more generation instead of two or three. But I don't think it's going to happen in the next 10 years. Character actors [ will come out ] but not leading men. Not yet.

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