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Dylan McDermott is on a path of rediscovery

Former ‘Practice’ star still gets called Bobby but hopes to break away from his old image with his new role in ‘The Messegners.’
/ Source: <a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a></p>

It has been a cold week and a long month, and there is melancholy in Dylan McDermott’s voice.

But he slept, at least, on the red-eye from Los Angeles to New York. And he is here to promote a movie — his first to hit theaters since he was canned from his gig playing a goodly lawyer on “The Practice.”

Gosh, how many years has it been, McDermott?

“I don’t know. I think I blocked it out,” he says with an exasperated laugh. “I think it’s three or four.”

Not that he hasn’t been working on other projects in those intervening three or four years. McDermott actually made four films during that stretch.

“Yeah, but they haven’t come out,” he concedes. “So do they count? I don’t know.”

So now to “The Messengers,” an American gothic horror flick that won’t exactly get the red-carpet premiere treatment, either, but will definitely make it to cineplex marquees. Which for the moment is maybe enough, because McDermott knows that if nothing else, “it’s a good thing for people to see me again.”

This time they’ll see him playing a father who moves his family to a sunflower farm in North Dakota to prevent his teenage daughter from getting into wrong-crowd trouble in Chicago. The farm turns out to be haunted, naturally, but by ghosts that only children can see, and thus the family drama escalates along with the supernatural one.

“I think the Asian take on horror is really interesting, because it’s really different than American horror,” the 45-year-old actor says, referring to the film’s Hong Kong-born directors, twin brothers Danny and Oxide Pang. “And I think that these movies historically perform, so I’m hoping — knock wood — that it does.”

Talk of McDermott’s career since “The Practice” is punctuated by breathy sighs. He was on the show for seven years. He taped something like 150 episodes. His blue eyes and square jaw showed up in family rooms week after week after week before his salary got so high he was written off the series. And now, when he walks down the street, people sometimes still call him Bobby.

“Yeahhhhh, sometimes. Sometimes,” he says. “It’s cool, though, you know? I get it. It makes people feel happy and feel like they know you. The good news about being on a television show is that people know you. The bad news is that they know you.”

Which wouldn’t be bad news, except: “They make up their minds; they say, ‘Oh, that’s who he is — that’s it — the guy in the suit running around.’ So it’s kind of my job to break down those doors and re-create.”

A feat that has turned out to be more difficult than initially expected. McDermott had a respectable film career before “The Practice” (playing Julia Roberts’s fiance in 1989’s “Steel Magnolias” and Clint Eastwood’s partner in 1993’s “In the Line of Fire”). But it wasn’t a particularly exhaustive one that might have pushed him into the American consciousness as an all-purpose actor. So although William Shatner can surely stop being Denny Crane anytime he wants, McDermott’s Bobby Donnell has been harder to shake.

That he’d want to be an actor in the first place isn’t something McDermott’s elementary school teachers would have likely predicted. His was an ill-fated childhood that produced an angry teenager. McDermott’s parents divorced early, and his mother was accidentally shot and killed by a boyfriend when McDermott was just 5. It was his father’s third wife, actress and playwright Eve Ensler, who urged McDermott to pursue theater.

“She was that person who changed my life utterly and completely,” he says. Ensler and McDermott’s father later divorced, but she had legally adopted the actor, and the two remain close. This fall McDermott starred in “The Treatment,” an off-Broadway play Ensler wrote about a soldier grappling with the heinous acts he committed during war.

Busing tables as a kid in New York, McDermott remembers waiting on actors such as John Belushi, seeing the way the world treated them differently, the attention they were given.

“I was like, ‘Oh, my God, how do I get that?’ And I linked up pleasure with that moment — ‘Okay, it’s really pleasurable to be an actor,’ “ he recalls thinking. “And I’ll tell you something — that was really important, because I never paid attention to all the negatives, the odds.”

But, of course, the special attention at restaurants didn’t turn out to be fulfilling. Neither are the rerun loops of “The Practice,” which he can’t stand to watch.

“I always thought it was about the result of looking at the complete picture when it was all done,” he says. “Then I realized the only pleasure I get now is in the doing of it, in the moment — and that’s it.”

And what he’s going to be doing next isn’t yet clear.

“I’m just kind of waiting, you know. I don’t want to do the wrong thing. I’d rather do nothing than do the wrong thing,” he says. “If it takes me two years, five years, I don’t care. I’m gonna hold out.”

Hold out and hope the right thing materializes?

“Yeah, you hope,” he laughs. “You hope.”