OregonLive.com (US), August 19, 2003

The stars of "Thumbsucker," on the set in Tualatin, call Oregon burbs "exotic"

by Shawn Levy

Ah, Hollywood! The stars! The glamour! The bright lights! The . . . rock quarries?

On a toasty Saturday, the director and stars of "Thumbsucker," the independent movie that has been shooting in Beaverton and select Oregon locales throughout the summer, sat in an idle Tualatin rock quarry to talk about their experience shooting the film.

The day's work, which was to commence later in the afternoon, involved the staging of a TV show-within-the-movie about the adventures of the border patrol in the Southwestern United States -- hence the need for a dusty, rocky background that resembled the Grand Canyon and not an old-growth forest.

So in a setting that seemed more appropriate for an update on the war in Iraq than the promotion of even a low-budget film, director Mike Mills and stars Tilda Swinton, Vincent D'Onofrio and Lou Taylor Pucci sat on folding chairs under white tents and entertained reporters and each other with tales of their lives and hard times in the Portland suburbs.

"I love that we've all come to sit in a quarry," exclaimed Swinton, the tall British actress best-known in America as the immortal courtier of metamorphosing gender in the 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf's "Orlando." Accompanied by her children, who nibbled on blackberries with a nanny while their mother chatted with the press, she described life in a Washington County condo as a decided change from her family's usual stomping grounds above Inverness in Scotland.

"Beaverton's really exotic for them," she said of her twins. "We went up to Trillium Lake, and they finally breathed. It's what they're used to."

D'Onofrio, a hard-boiled actor known for his starring role on TV's "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" as well as such films as "The Cell," "Men in Black" and his stunning debut as Private Pyle in "Full Metal Jacket," concurred that suburban life isn't his particular cup of tea. "Beaverton suits the movie," he joked about the black comedy concerning a dysfunctional family. "That's why I'm staying in Portland."

With a couple days' growth of beard and a black-on-black outfit, worrying a cigarette and box of matches without ever quite lighting up, D'Onofrio is the picture of Pearl District chic, and it's no surprise to learn that he's enamored of Bluehour, one of that neighborhood's smartest dining spots. He admits that he's been only partly successful, though, in luring his director to join him on the downtown side of the West Hills.

"Mike finally came to dinner with us one night in Portland," and it was like the uncomfortable dining scene in "Apocalypse Now Redux," he said.

Mills, a spry, ginger-haired fellow bedecked in shirt and tie and a battered straw hat, laughs at this account of his absorption in his first feature film. "I'm totally wrapped up," he admitted. "Once I was driving along the Sunset Highway and my cell phone battery died and I realized I was out of touch. It felt like the scene in '2001' when the guy floats away from the pod."

As the four bantered, it became clear that there's real truth to the old saw that a crew making a film on location becomes like a family. "You're so isolated from your routine and your family," Mills said. "You're in a bubble. It's full-immersion sociological filmmaking."

Indeed, the three actors really are playing a family, the Cobbs, whose lives are disrupted by the troubles that the eldest boy, Justin (Pucci), has when he tries to kick the nasty habit of sucking his thumb. Before the press conference, the trio hunkered at a table in easy familiarity, and now and again as they answered questions they jokingly lapsed into character, calling each other by their fictional names and teasingly referring to their characters' flaws and habits.

This camaraderie, Mills said, was key to the film, and he helped to instill it in his cast by asking them early in the production to improvise in character in the Beaverton house that was rented to "play" their home. That trained veterans Swinton and D'Onofrio were able to perform the exercise would be expected, but this is virtually Pucci's first speaking role in front of the camera. There were no guarantees that he would rise to the level set by his colleagues.

Not to worry, D'Onofrio said. "When I was Lou's age I was still bumping into walls and drooling," he says. "But from the first day, he was neck and neck in improvs right with us."

Mills, gratefully, agreed. Calling his young star "a total gift from God," he said, "He came in on the last day of casting after we looked at 150 people -- conservatively. A lot of people are very good at pretending, but Lou is this magical chameleon."

Magical is, in fact, an apt word. Pucci is an actual aspiring magician with the stage name Loudini who has enjoyed digging around in Callin's House of Magic in Portland during his stay in Oregon. (He also gives a thumb-up to Nonna Emilia's Ristorante in Aloha, where he, the cast and crew and members of his family who flew in from New Jersey congregated to celebrate his 18th birthday at the end of July.)

Having his folks on hand was nice, Pucci said, because so much of his experience in making "Thumbsucker" has been new and strange. Chatty with nervous energy, he reveals that his first airplane ride was to audition for the film and his second was to come to Oregon to make it. And, yes, this press conference marked the first time he'd ever sat with reporters to talk about his work. "I just keep saying to myself, 'I've never done this before, but it's normal,' " he says with a laugh.

He'll get used to it. When he leaves Oregon later this week, he'll spend a sole day at home before heading to Maine to set to work on "Empire Falls," an adaptation of Richard Russo's acclaimed novel, starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, Ed Harris, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Helen Hunt.

One gets the distinct feeling that, before too long, young Mr. Pucci will have the press conference routine down cold. Even if he never again has the creature comforts of a rock quarry to fall back on.

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