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Bratt overhauls 'clean-cut' image

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Dec. 4, 2001 at 8:19 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, Dec. 4 (UPI) -- Benjamin Bratt -- best known as the former star of the NBC drama series, "Law & Order" and as Julia Roberts' ex-boyfriend -- is causing talk with his portrayal of Puerto Rican poet, playwright and drug addict Miguel Piñero in the new movie, "Piñero."

And he knows it, because he's hearing it himself.

"I cannot tell a lie," said Bratt in an interview with United Press International. "I've been getting really good feedback on it."

Piñero was something of an icon in the Latino community who served time in Sing-Sing for petty theft and turned his experience into "Short Eyes" -- a hit on Broadway in 1976 that was nominated for six Tony Awards and subsequently developed into a movie starring Bruce Davison as an accused child molester trying to survive in prison.

Piñero parlayed the success into a checkered career as a writer and actor on such TV series as "Baretta," "Kojak" and "Miami Vice" -- checkered because of his addiction and apparently irrepressible urges to be bad.

The character was a formidable challenge for Bratt because of the difficulty in figuring out who Piñero was -- the gifted artist or the con artist.

"He truly was all over the map," said Bratt. "He had so many different dimensions to him. He was completely from the street and yet could hold an intellectual conversation about Genet, or Kirkegaard or Shakespeare."

Piñero's best friend, Miguel Algarin, said the writer was "an elegant intellectual in the vestments of the street mind."

Bratt said Piñero was running "from a lot of demons" -- a man who for the most part led a completely selfish lifestyle, but could also be amazingly generous.

"On some level that proved to be irresistibly seductive," said Bratt. "People were charmed by him. People who knew him said he could be smiling and shaking hand your hand with one hand, and stealing your wallet with the other. They said that was part of his charm. What is he going to do next?"

Bratt said those qualities -- combined with Piñero's abilities as a writer -- made for a character that was larger than life.

The actor also admits that there were times, when he was shooting "Piñero," that he was petrified about the challenge.

"But whether in my personal life or my professional life, I like a challenge," he said. "Inasmuch as it put a little fear in me, I couldn't stay away from it."

"Piñero" was written and directed by Leon Ichaso, a Cuban-born director who directed episodic TV ("Miami Vice," "The Equalizer," "Crime Story") and the 1993 feature, "Sugar Hill," starring Wesley Snipes.

Bratt was sold on the project by, among other things, Ichaso's screenplay.

"The script had a musicality to it that you don't usually find in screenplays," said Bratt.

Many of the scenes include verbatim usage of Piñero's original writing, especially his poetry, which is often described as a precursor to rap and hip-hop.

Bratt said that in some cases, playing that dialogue was -- in its way -- like playing Shakespeare.

"You can't improvise Shakespeare," he said. "With 'Piñero,' I found myself putting just as much time and effort into getting the musicality of his work."

He said "a lot of other actors were approached" about playing Piñero, but had some reluctance about taking it on.

"This is not a role that you can lightly step into and do -- as with a lot of roles -- in your sleep," he said.

Bratt, who gained fame as Det. Reynaldo Curtis on "Law & Order," was frank to admit that he has had trouble, at times, seeing the challenge in some of his previous work.

"'Law & Order' is a great show," he said, "and yet after doing it for two, three, four years, there is a level of routine to it that becomes second nature. You show up, find your mark, say your lines and go home. The difficulty was to try to keep it fresh."

The performances in "Piñero" -- including Mandy Patinkin as producer Joe Papp, Giancarlo Esposito as Algarin and Rita Moreno as Piñero's mother -- are strong throughout.

Bratt's public image is better typified by the clean-cut, professional appearance of Det. Curtis than by the unwashed alcoholic junkie who cadges drinks and whatever he can from friends and strangers alike. When Moreno was told Bratt would be playing Piñero, she was quoted as saying it seemed unlikely because he "is so clean."

She said when she went to the set for her first day of shooting, she "looked at Ben and he was Piñero."

Bratt said the movie is already opening some doors for him that might previously have been closed because producers couldn't see him without a jacket and tie.

"There have been a couple of offers," he said. "It feels like the landscape is changing a little bit. The sun is shining a little brighter. But I'm being patient. I'm doing a lot of reading. The truth is that things are a little slow in the industry right now anyway."

Movie studios rushed a greater than usual number of projects into production early last year in anticipation of possible strikes by actors and writers. With so much product on the shelf, there has been a slowdown in production since last summer -- although many in Hollywood expect the pace will pick up early in 2002.

Bratt is optimistic that "Piñero" will change his image, and lead to more interesting acting jobs when the Hollywood machinery gets fired up again.

"It's very exciting," he said. "It's kind of ironic, I've always considered myself a character actor and yet in this industry there's such a strong tendency to pigeonhole you in one category or another. Most of the time it's boring to be the leading man. I love doing things that are little off-color and a little dangerous. I think that's where I thrive as a performer."

Up next for Bratt is "Abandoned," in which he co-stars with Katie Holmes ("Dawson's Creek," "Wonder Boys").

Written and directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan ("Traffic"), it's the story of a university student (Holmes) who may or may not have been involved in the disappearance of her boyfriend.

© 2001 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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