New Face: Peter MacNicol

He Gets Wrapped Up in Other People's Lives

by Leslie Bennetts, The New York Times, Dec. 12, 1982
Peter MacNicol had run away. Appalled at his first experience with movie making, afraid that he might be
temperamentally unsuited to his profession, he had left New York "in the most profound kind of confusion"
to roam around Europe and the United States.

"I was traveling like some sort of pilgrim in search of an urging," the actor recalled the other day. "I didn't
know what I was going to do."

No one knew where he was or how to get in touch with him, and he hadn't been in contact with his agent in
months. But suddenly, while fishing in Minnesota, Mr. MacNicol was struck with the urgent thought that he
should call New York. "It was the most compelling kind of voice," he said, "the kind that says, 'Hurry home,
you left the oven on.'"

He called, and within hours he was on a plane, trying to make it back to New York for the last day of casting
for the crucial part of Stingo in the film "Sophie's Choice."

"Everyone was assuring that I wasn't going to get the role," Mr. MacNicol added. Among other problems,
Stingo  is supposed to be well over 6 feet tall, but the 25-year-old actor is short and slight. "I bought a pair
of cowboy boots with four-inch heels," he reports. "It was like walking in on Folger's coffee cans."

Audition Does Trick

His audition doubtless had more to do with it than his footgear, but he got the part. And when "Sophie's
Choice" opened to critical acclaim this month, Peter MacNcol was hailed for his portrayal of the young
Southern writer who becomes entranced with the exotic lovers who live upstairs in the same Brooklyn
rooming house.

The role is deceptively difficult. Stingo is an essentially reactive character, who exists less as a personality in
his own right than as a vehicle to reflect and interpret the lives of Sophie, the passionate Polish Catholic
haunted by her experiences at Auschwitz, and Nathan, the charismatic Jewish intellectual she loves. "Stingo
lives in their pauses, and only in their pauses," Mr. MacNicol observed.

He identified strongly with the part, however. "It fitted like a hand in a glove," the actor said.  "Finding the
common ground between Stingo and myself was to go into the loneliest country in my own life: his complete
awkwardness, his bashfulness, his uncertainty about himself. We're both off to the side of things; Stingo
watches other people's lives, and that's exactly what I do. I just get wrapped up in other people's lives."
But what about his own life? Mr. MacNicol looked confused, as if startled even to be reminded he had one.
"I'm not very much involved there," he admitted.

Actually, he stared out to be a paleontologist. Growing up in Texas and in Minnesota, he dreamed of probing
for fossils in the Gobi Desert, but a growing interest in theater eventually led him to the Guthrie Theater in
Minneapolis, where he spent two years in repertory. then it was on to New York, which he promptly left to
do his first film, "Dragonslayer." It was a painful experience and precipitated Mr. MacNicol's crisis of
self-doubt over whether he was "too sensitive" for his profession.

But his return to New York brought him the role of the young Southern lawyer in "Crimes of the Heart," a
performance for which Mr. MacNicol won not only praise but also the admiration of Alixe Gordon, the casting
director for "Sophie's Choice."

At the moment, Mr. MacNicol is rehearsing for the role of a young Communist student in a British public
school in a play called "Another Country" by Julian Mitchell, which will open Jan. 5 at the Long Wharf Theater
in New Haven.

Does he feel more comfortable with his choice of career now?

Mr. MacNicol sighed. "Intermittently," he said, looking glum. "The problem is that I only love acting when the
situation is perfect, which is so rarely is. I'm not one of these people who can just love doing it for the sake
of doing it. It takes you into areas of your own experience that can be unpleasant, even awful. There are
people for whom acting is as natural as respiration, but for me it's always a journey."


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