Archives: Marrying Art & Politics with Dan Futterman

Dan Futterman, shown here with Alan Cumming, is one of Hollywood’s most talented actors. This morning in a building in Century City, he wonders out loud what city he’s currently in, having been so busy filming scenes for his role on Judging Amy and promoting his latest movie, Urbania. He appears almost shy when I first meet him but as soon as we sit down to begin the interview, he engages me with those piercing blue eyes and one of the most disarming smiles I’d ever seen.

Best known for his role as Robin Williams’ son in Birdcage and as a con man in Shooting Fish, Futterman’s next incarnation is that of a troubled young man in Jon Shear’s surreal film, Urbania.

Based on the play Urban Folk Tales by David Weitz, Urbania has been generating a buzz ever since it debuted at Sundance, and has already won numerous awards — including a Best Actor award for Futterman at the Seattle International Film Festival.

Futterman plays Charlie, a man who has “clearly gone through some kind of trauma. There’s a great deal in the movie that’s either real or not real, conversations with people that are either there or not — expressive of the fact that something terrible has happened in his life.”

Whatever this terrible event is, it is just one of the many puzzles Urbania has to offer. Along the way, the movie offers a montage of urban legends that have already caused a “Rocky-Horror-Picture-type of experience where people guess the urban legends as they start to come onscreen, and shout the endings to them,” he smiles. You’ve probably already heard a few — stolen kidneys, mystery meat, needles in the phone booth, and so many more.

Futterman read for the role while he was doing the play Fair Country at Lincoln Center in New York. “It was some six months before Jon was able to make the movie, but I was incredibly eager to do it.”

While Futterman was drawn to the script, Shear admits that “there was nobody who could do everything that the character needed to do better than Danny. To find an actor where you feel like you’re peeling away layers of them and they’re expanding in front of you instead of just manipulating you is a great gift.” High praise from the man who originated Charlie’s role onstage before it was optioned as a screenplay.

Urbania is a movie about sexuality and trauma. On why he chose this particular role, Futterman explains that “there are very few opportunities as an actor to marry your art and your politics. There’s a definite message for me about forgiveness and about men choosing how to be a man that I felt was important for me to express. You make a decision when you encounter a role whether you are appropriate for the part or not, and try to bring as much of yourself as you can.”

Urbania’s Charlie is far from the character Futterman plays on television these days. He admits sheepishly that Vincent Gray, the character he plays on Judging Amy “is pretty similar to myself — sort of morose and overly concerned with thinking about life and not just living it.”

For his latest role, where he plays opposite fellow Broadway alumni, Alan Cumming, Futterman says that he did a lot of research by roaming around New York’s East Village, “going to some odd sex clubs and gay bars like Rawhide on 8th Avenue.” But he concludes, “it’s pretty much the same thing — about what’s attractive and what’s not, what’s sexy and what’s not,” whether one is straight or gay.

Was it a stretch to play a gay character onscreen? ” I am a believer that there is some kind of continuum to sexuality and that there are people on very strong ends of the spectrum — purely homosexual or purely straight,” he says. And Futterman is no stranger to such roles. He played Louis in Angels in America, a two-part play that dealt with the AIDS epidemic. “It was probably the first time that I could appreciate what it was that was attractive about a man that was different from what would be attractive about a woman.” He adds, “and while it’s not something that is sexually exciting to me, it’s something I can appreciate.”

As liberal as he is with his views on sexuality, however, Futterman draws the line when it comes to nudity in most of his roles. “It can be generally distracting, unfortunately mostly for men,” he explains, “it takes the audience out of the scene.”

Although he was already a veteran of stage productions like Fair Country and Angels in America, Futterman got his big break in Fisher King. Then came the role in The Birdcage before starring in When Trumpets Fade, Breathing Room, Shooting Fish, Thicker Than Blood and finally landing the role of Vincent Gray in the television series Judging Amy opposite Amy Brenneman and Tyne Daly.

Futterman is not about to limit his choices these days, however. Already, he plans to direct a one-man play based on Noel Coward, “find a theater and do it a couple of nights a week for some months.” Another role he’ll be adding to his ever-growing resume is that as husband to Anya Epstein, whom he marries next month in New York. And with that announcement, he flashes one of those disarming smiles again. This time, I suspect he knows exactly where he will be this time next month.