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Playing this felon was tough for Skeet Ulrich.

IAN SPELLING NYT Syndicate Skeet Ulrich had heard the whole sordid story. Back in June 2002, 14-year-old Elizabeth Smart was kidnapped from her Salt Lake City house by Brian David Mitchell, a self-professed prophet. He held her prisoner in a campsite where, aided by an equally deranged accomplice, Wanda Barzee, he withheld food, drugged her, forced her to wear a wig and veil, and assaulted her every day for nine months. Smart was rescued in March 2003, but at first denied to police that she was Elizabeth Smart. "I was aware of the outer edges of her story," Ulrich said."I knew about the rescue nine months later. But, outside of that, I knew nothing. It's incredibly dark and disturbing. She's a true marvel of a human, I have to say, having gotten to know her a bit personally, by meeting her on the set and certainly through my research. "She's a very unique, marvellous person who endured so much, and to be who she is now, that's amazing," the actor said."She certainly could have gone the other way very easily." Smart's ordeal inspired three books. Bringing Elizabeth Home (2003) was penned by her parents, Ed and Lois, with Laura Morton. In Plain Sight: The Startling Truth Behind the Elizabeth Smart Investigation (2005) was written by her uncle, Tom Smart, with Lee Benson. My Story (2014) was by Elizabeth Smart herself, with Chris Stewart. It also launched two television movies, The Elizabeth Smart Story (2003) and the upcoming I Am Elizabeth Smart. The new movie casts Alana Boden as Smart, Deirdre Lovejoy as Barzee and Ulrich as Mitchell. The production was made with the cooperation of Smart, who serves as onscreen narrator. Ulrich, who spoke about the movie by telephone from his Los Angeles house, noted that it took him two weeks to decide to sign on for I Am Elizabeth Smart. "It was a hard decision," the 47-year-old actor said."I had to think about the value, the worth of taking that on. I ultimately felt that, if I could bring the realism, that it'd have a lot of value. That's aside from the fact that somebody's got to do it. Plus it is, unfortunately, part of her story. "Elizabeth's story is certainly worth people hearing, but it was a challenging, challenging part," he said."I didn't grow up religious at all, and he used religion. Some people pervert religion for ill gains, and some can use it to save their own lives, for salvation. "Once I realised what part I had in that, and that that was the context I was working under, then I felt like I knew what I could do with it," Ulrich continued."That's when I knew it was worth taking on. I'm also the father of a 16-year-old daughter, so I knew I had to be very protective of Alana in playing our scenes." Mitchell, who later received a life sentence for his crimes, had a God complex. He was remarkably cruel to Smart. Ulrich considered it his challenge to properly calibrate his performance. He aimed not to twirl the proverbial mustache, but, at the same time, sought not to imbue Mitchell with too many glimpses of humanity. "Most people who knew him, not that he was a Ted Bundy-like figure, but they didn't see this side of him and felt that he was a nice man, a charming man, that he had a lot of goodness in him," Ulrich said."To me, because I carried probably three quarters of the dialogue in the story, there had to be a way to have a variation in the scenes to make it work. "Because of his narcissistic personality disorder, and because he had this grandiosity, I played him as if he was a rock star," the actor said."That became the only way I could tackle the day, and I still had nightmares every night. "The real conundrum was that he, into his teens and even early 20s, was an atheist until he started to realise that was just an act, a very long act," Ulrich continued."There was a letter his mother wrote him as he started to grow his hair and beard, that he really should get a haircut. He said, 'Well, mom, this is a role I'm playing and it helps me. I like to act.'" Ulrich scrutinised a 206-page psychiatric report that was released as prosecutors attempted to determine whether or not Mitchell was competent to stand trial. Mitchell fancied himself an angel from Heaven during his drifter days. Upon his arrest, however, and in the next years as his trial loomed, he seemed to drop the pretence. "He was in the Utah State Mental Hospital," Ulrich said."Once he got in there, he never mentioned God, never had nothing to say about religion, nothing at all. It was just a strange, strange role he took on to basically justify his paedophilia and to actuate it. He was a really fascinating, darkly interesting person, the most disgusting individual I've ever read about, let alone played." Ulrich delivers a memorable, sinister turn in I Am Elizabeth Smart. Couple that with his series-regular role as FP Jones, the ex-convict gang leader who is the father of Jughead (Cole Sprouse) on the red-hot CW series 'Riverdale', and you have the makings of a former 1990s heartthrob doing quite nicely for himself more than 20 years later. And, make no mistake, two decades ago Ulrich who was born Bryan Ray Trout was a ranking Hollywood 'It' boy, courtesy of The Craft (1996), Scream (1996), Touch (1997), The Newton Boys (1998) and Ride with the Devil (1999). His star dimmed, though, in the wake of Chill Factor (1999), a costly box-office dud, and several little-seen indie features. He also chose to maintain a low profile, rarely attending premieres and, after his 1997 marriage to actress Georgina Cates, living on a farm in Virginia. In 2001 they welcomed twins Jakob and Naiia into the world, and Ulrich focused on raising them before and after his 2005 divorce from Cates. Ulrich didn't vanish entirely from movies or television screens, of course. He starred in the series 'Miracles' (2003) and 'Jericho' (2006-2008), the latter a cult favourite, and endured an ill-fated, abbreviated run on 'Law & Order: LA' (2010-2011). Now there's the high-profile one-two punch of I Am Elizabeth Smart and 'Riverdale'. Looking back, Ulrich said that fame, more than anything else,"scared" him, hence the relocation to Virginia and the"willingness to remove myself" from the Hollywood scene as much as possible. He also grew tired of comparisons to other actors, notably Johnny Depp. Don't get him wrong, though: Ulrich stressed that he loved and still loves the work. "I'm not necessarily scared of hype now, but at that time I wondered if I could live up to it," he said."If I was the performer, I needed to be able to justify it all. (The instant celebrity), to some extent, gave me a career quicker probably than I would've had it. "The internet was just taking hold," the actor continued,"and I was working with a lot of very talented, very well-known people who weren't even doing talk shows because they wanted the mystery of their character. They wanted people to fall into whatever part they were playing and not be distracted by what you saw at the checkout counter. "So it was a combination of a lot of things, but I just wanted to keep getting better and better as an actor," Ulrich continued."And I was a little worried about the frequency of the idea of what I could or couldn't do." At the end of the day, the roller coaster of Ulrich's career has enabled him to ply his craft, pay the bills and raise his kids. He still aspires, as he noted, to deliver the best performance possible each time, and to improve, but he also better understands that show business is, well, a business. "Quite honestly, I never looked at it as a business until a few years ago," Ulrich said."It's always just been art to me. It's only recently that I've had to really look at 'What do I need to do to sell me as a tennis shoe?' It's changed quite a bit, my perspective, and yet I'm happy I've been able to keep it about good material, or trying to get good material. "Some of the movies, some of the pilots that didn't go, they had incredible potential and it just didn't happen, but at least I set out to do something good," he said."Now I sit here on 'Riverdale' incredible writing, and I love my part. I think it has incredible value for the blue-collar workforce of America. He is the coal miner, the only character who's not well-to-do and suffers for it, and who tries to be a good human being, despite how people perceive him. "Anyway, I guess the long and short of it is that I still try to do good work," Ulrich concluded."The rest falls where it does."

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Publication:Qatar Tribune (Doha, Qatar)
Date:Nov 10, 2017
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