- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 3, 2007

Jonny Lee Miller isn’t a Scotsman, but his near-native accent probably could fool a Glaswegian. With his latest role as Scottish cycling phenom Graeme Obree in “The Flying Scotsman,” the English actor has had four chances to do so.

“I keep gravitating north,” he jokes while on the phone from New York City.

He says he isn’t quite sure why he keeps getting cast in roles requiring this particular brogue (those who watched his performance as “Sick Boy” in the Edinburgh-set “Trainspotting” may have some idea) but he’s “quite happy to go to Scotland” to film.

On his most recent jaunt, Mr. Miller got to see that part of the world from the bicycle-seat vantage of Mr. Obree, an unknown amateur who came out of Ayrshire to take the world one-hour record and other titles.

To get into character — and fighting shape — the actor cycled to and from the set each day in addition to training on the velodrome track. It shows: In “Scotsman,” Mr. Miller is a lean contender who did nearly all the high-speed cycling by himself.

In the film’s most exhilarating scenes, he zooms around the velodrome in a breathless fury — something that becomes much more impressive with the knowledge that these tracks require riders to maintain a minimum speed in order to stick to the severely angled curves and that cyclists must use fixed-gear bikes with no brakes. Once the bike is at top speed, the only way to slow down is to wreck or ride it off. In plain English, this means that velodrome cyclists have to be fearless.

Mr. Miller, an avid runner for years, escaped injury, although he admits that the work could be quite exhausting some days. “It doesn’t matter how fit you are,” he says.

He explains that the intense workouts helped him better understand Mr. Obree’s mind-set, which isn’t all that easy for anyone, including the audience. The cycling champ, who’s still alive and was on the set, has long battled bipolar disorder and has stated that winning “seemed to justify my existence as a human being.”

“Once you get to understand that physical side of [what Mr. Obree put himself through], though, it really influences the rest of it,” Mr. Miller says.

The demanding role was a bit of a departure for the thespian, but he says he likes variety. Scotland isn’t the only place he has visited on-screen; he has stuck tacks all over the acting map. Since getting his start on the stage, he has been in the British soap “EastEnders” (1993), the Oscar-nominated “Afterglow” (1997) and Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda” (2004). He has portrayed Lord Byron for BBC’s “Byron” (2003) and appeared alongside ex-wife Angelina Jolie in “Hackers” (1995). Next up: He plays the central character, a lawyer, in ABC’s upcoming “Eli Stone.”

“I wouldn’t want to commit to eating one kind of ice cream for the rest of my life,” he says.

Jenny Mayo

Fear factor

Of the emotions that wracked America’s psyche in the aftermath of September 11, perhaps none was so pervasive and insidious as fear. The attackers lived among us. Their weapons were everyday items. Everything — and everyone — suddenly was suspect.

That is the starting point for “Civic Duty,” an ultimately ambiguous tale of one man’s post-September 11 descent into hellish fear.

At the center of the film is the complex figure of Terry Allen, portrayed with humanity and depth by Peter Krause (HBO’s “Six Feet Under”). Having lost his job just after the terror attacks, Terry begins to harbor suspicions about his new neighbor, a “Middle Eastern guy” (Egyptian matinee idol Khaled Abol Naga in a confident U.S. debut) who takes out his garbage in the middle of the night and keeps a makeshift lab in his kitchen.

Fueled by the round-the-clock fear-mongering of the cable news networks (“essentially the devil on Terry’s shoulder,” says screenwriter Andrew Joiner) his growing obsession starts to alienate Terry from his wife (a luminous Kari Matchett) and draws him into escalating, angry confrontations with Richard Schiff’s masterfully underplayed FBI agent, Hillary.

Terry’s eventual breakdown and the convulsive climax it precipitates — as ugly and inevitable as the death it portrays — is followed by a clever twist: the kind of cinematic sleight-of-hand that leaves one wondering, even after several viewings, exactly what the filmmakers intended.

Is Terry’s fear paranoid delusion? Or is he the only person who can stop the next big terror attack?

The filmmakers report. You decide.

The ambiguity is deliberate, according to Mr. Krause.

In a telephone interview from his Los Angeles apartment, the actor explains that in the original script, the ending vindicated Terry’s paranoia. Noting that “Terry is crazy” by the end of the film, he says, “The original idea was to shock the audience, turn them around” by confirming his “delusions” as truth.

However, by leaving the question open, Mr. Krause says, the filmmakers are trying to make a point. “As responsible artists,” he declares, “it’s more important to ask a question: Why are we allowing ourselves to continue to live in fear?”

It is a subject on which he waxes lyrical.

“We all felt frightened here in the States after September 11, and with good reason,” he says, adding that news outlets at first “fairly reflected that fear but then started to magnify or amplify it back to us.”

“It’s not a good thing psychologically [or] emotionally,” he says of that fear, “but it is the world that we live in. We can’t discount the fact that terrorists have continued to try and attack us.”

“You can’t exist in a heightened state of fear indefinitely,” he adds.

“When people watch the film, they look at themselves in the mirror,” producer Andrew Lanter says. “They have to ask: Who was I during that time? Were my fears rational or irrational?”

Shaun Waterman

Short takes on EU

The European Union marks its 50th anniversary this year. From Germany to Estonia, the Goethe-Institut salutes the diversity of the group of 27 states with its EU Short Film Festival. It runs Monday and Tuesday evenings at the institute’s building at 812 Seventh St. NW, serving as an early celebration of Europe Day on Wednesday.

The films, all recent, include “The Mozart Minute,” with 28 filmmakers from around the world considering the Austrian genius, and “Before Dawn,” which explores the situation of illegal immigrants in Hungary.

Although the films are in the many languages of an increasingly unified Europe, they all have English subtitles. For more information, visit www.goethe.de/washington.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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