Growing up in Minnesota, how did you start pursuing acting as a career?
I tore my ACL when I was playing high school football. I was not a good football player. I was always more of an artistic kid. After the tear, I was just moping around and wasn’t doing much of anything. My aunt suggested that I audition for a play. They were doing Tom Sawyer at a local youth theater. I was fifteen or sixteen. I was already arrogant about it at the audition because I was like, “I don’t want to be there for all this time if somebody else is playing the cool role. If I don’t get Huck Finn, I’m not going to do the play.” They offered it to me.
And that was it? A star was born?
Well, while I was in high school I did a few more plays because that was now fun for me. It was an artistic outlet, and I enjoyed it. Then I went to college in New York and eventually got a call about management from a woman who had seen me perform in Minneapolis. She said I should audition for pilot season in Los Angeles and that she had an agent lined up for me. The agent happened to be the Phoenix family’s agent, plus Kirsten Dunst’s and other young people of that generation.
And so started the series of roles that launched you towards the Hollywood A-list – just as you were deciding to skip town.
It was a very heady time. I had just finished shooting Black Hawk Down in Morocco, just outside of Rabat, in an area called Sidi Moussa. I was working with a director who I still consider a friend and really just think is a filmmaking genius: Ridley Scott. Some of the things that I saw in the interim, not directly on set but while being there, changed my perspective on how I wanted to live my life, what I thought was important. It was really difficult for me to see the goals in Hollywood as strong goals anymore. The things that I had thought I wanted from the business and probably would have happily continued pursuing – more control over my projects and more fame – are still very important to me, but they lost their significance a bit because I, for the first time in my life, had been exposed to terrible poverty.
You mean a type of poverty different than what you might have seen in the States?
Yeah. There were situations there that just seared into my mind. Kids who had been purposely maimed by their parents so that they’d become better beggars. It was their only employment opportunity. I was of an impressionable enough age that I was like, “I don’t know what to do about this, but it hurts. I’m going to recollect myself and figure out what it is that I can accomplish in my life that will be in line with maybe a different set of goals.” The best place to do that for me was to go home where people knew me. I made Minnesota my base for a long time because I wanted to come home to people that knew me for something more than what I was doing for a living. Minnesota is and always will be the place that people know me best and I know people best.
You ended up focusing on local charity work in Minnesota?
There were a lot of clichés running through my brain at that point – think globally, act locally, all that stuff. I started to work with an organization that dealt with child abuse. Some having to do with homelessness. Some having to do with organizations that were geared toward helping youth that were born without means within the Twin Cities to get involved in the arts. I went to a public school, and I know that sometimes you can skate by without learning a thing. That doesn’t help you later in life. I needed the arts to help me. I thought maybe that would be a good way to help out there. Then I also donated to a bunch of other causes that were more globally oriented – some of them environmental, some of them having to do with education in Africa. Today I have a foundation in Minnesota. It’s part of a larger foundation that recommends really worthy smaller causes. It’s called the St. Paul Foundation. They have a great staff of people who find people who are doing worthy things that sometimes require only smaller donations in order to keep their organization going.
What kind of work-life balance were you recalibrating when you were in Minnesota?
I was young. I was having fun. Really just enjoying my time off, and speaking to people in LA about projects. There were things that I would have gone to do had they come together. But they just didn’t end up coming together. Those were difficult moments.
Then I started to take certain things into my own hands. I read this script about this guy who has Asperger’s syndrome and meets a girl who has Asperger’s and they fall in love. I met the guy who it’s about and he just immediately struck me, so we made Mozart and the Whale. A friend of mine wrote a script that was absolutely insane called Lucky Number Slevin. We were able to put together a great cast [including Morgan Freeman and Ben Kingsley] to do that. Just started to do my own things with the hopes that they would strike a chord with vast audiences. They didn’t at the time make the money that I would have liked them to. Had they done that, the conversation would probably be completely different about what I did with my career. But this business is all planning.The hope at that time was to marry a really strong personal life with what had become a very lucrative professional life. What I wasn’t doing, because I was in my early twenties, was pushing hard enough to make these things successful. I know now that you need to be a lot more hands-on these days to see something through to its final stage. If you ever think that your job is over when you’re making a film and you don’t push it through the final stages, you’re deluding yourself.
So how are you channeling all that past experience into current role selection?
Penny Dreadful obviously is the thing that I guess people are seeing right now. For me, it’s about working with great people if I can. I also don’t want to spend too much time working on projects that I don’t think have a chance of at least catching some people’s interest.
How do the fears of your twenty-something self compare to your fears of today?
I’m a little less worried about making mistakes, and a little bit more excited about giving things the benefit of the doubt and taking the opportunity and seeing where it goes. When I was younger, I was trying to structure my life. I had an idea of what I wanted to be. Now, I am what I am. Hopefully my fears today are more founded in how to live a good, solid, satisfying life in my own way.