Although best-known as a sort of all-American male ingenue in films -- he won an Academy Award nomination for The Great Santini, in which Robert Duvall bounced a basketball off the back of his head -- Michael O'Keefe has had quite an adventurous stage career. He was in the original production of David Rabe's Streamers, and Off-Broadway he gave fascinating, unpredictable performances as a bisexual father in Harry Kondoleon's lunatic comedy Christmas on Mars and as a child molester in a revival of Miguel Pinero's Short Eyes.

I met Michael on the patio of the Kennedy Center in Washington, where he was appearing in Peter Sellars' extravagantly avant-garde staging of
The Count of Monte Cristo. Sellars later told me that when Japanese theater master Tadashi Suzuki brought his company to the Kennedy Center during the run of Monte Cristo, Michael joined the company every morning for their rigorous warm-up exercises -- the epitome of a serious young actor.

I was taught to think of myself as an instrument, and I learned to play my body, my voice, my spirit, my individuality. What I aspire to is to have an instrument that can adapt to any style. I've done a lot of contemporary, naturalistic drama; The Count of Monte Cristo is the first avant-garde thing, and it's a whole new challenge. The biggest danger is complacency, which leads to mediocrity. Especially when you're successful and young, there's a tendency to indulge yourself and think "I've done it." At times I thought a lot more of myself than I deserved to. But a consistent image in my work is growth. There's never a resounding chord at the end.

How does actor training prepare you for movies?
I instinctively understood film. I like movies. Doing them is like getting behind your dreams and finding out what makes them work.

What made you want to act?
I can't remember wanting to do anything else. When I was three, the girls in the neighborhood wanted to put on The Wizard of Oz and they needed a wizard, so I played the wizard. A bunch of us kids used to put on murder mysteries in my garage. It was a way of getting things I couldn't get from life. Camus says, "Actors get to cheat the absurdity of existence," because you get to play all these different people. When I did The Slugger's Wife, I spent four months with a hitting coach and went into spring training with the Braves. It was infinitely more interesting than doing the movie.

Most actors I know look back and think they weren't getting enough attention. As a kid, you're not taken seriously. I guess I still feel that way. I like being taken seriously as an actor -- I don't like to be thought of as a commercial entity or a star. My life is largely informed by what I didn't have as a child, those deeply rooted desires that come from dissatisfaction. It's very useful; whatever happened to you remains with you in the form of sense memories.

What do your parents do?
My father is a lawyer and professor of law at St. Thomas of Villanova University in Florida. Mom used to be a professional tennis player -- Stephanie "Red" Fitzpatrick --and she's done a lot of work for the Westchester Council on Alcoholism.

Do you have a routine you perform before going onstage?
I meditate. I create images I'm going to use in my performance. For example, in this play the themes are Finding My Father and Freeing My Mother's Spirit. I create those archetypes in my mind, let go of my conscious mind -- it's like being drawn into a well. The world around me disappears. Once I'm there, I create images of my own father and myself as a very young boy wanting love, ideal love from a father. Then I create this image of a longing mother in a great deal of pain. I let those things wash over me. Then I put it all out of my mind. There's no time or place for thinking onstage. What's required is action. I go on my instinct, my discipline, and my training.

What's the first thing you do when you come offstage?
Wash my face. I really like it when people come back after the show. It's an immediate message about what you're doing. When I did Short Eyes, though, I wasn't eager to see anyone before or after. I'm not so indulgent or possessed as to think I am the character, but you do live with it. While doing the play, I wasn't aware of the emotional burden, but after it was over, I felt the release.

What's the silliest thing about being an actor?
Wearing other people's clothes. In Slugger's Wife, I gave him really bad taste -- I wore loud checked jackets. It was pretty silly going to Barney's with the designer Ann Roth and saying, "Do you have anything a lot uglier than this?"

Being recognized is pretty silly. Or it's like this: At the premiere of The Slugger's Wife in Atlanta, I'm talking to Neil Simon in the lobby. There must be fifty pictures of me all over this lobby, and Neil Simon is one of the most recognizable writers in the country. This photographer comes up and says, "Can I get a picture?" We say, "Sure." Then he comes up and says, "And, gentlemen, you are...?" I say, "Timothy Hutton." And Neil Simon says, "Woody Allen."

from Caught in the Act: New York Actors Face to Face (a collaboration with photographer Susan Shacter, published in 1986 by NAL Books)