- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 14, 2002

NEW YORK — Benjamin Bratt, who has forged a career out of playing good cops on "Law & Order" and in a few films, is breaking out of the policeman's pigeonhole with "Pinero."
The biopic about the Puerto Rican poet-playwright Miguel Pinero, best-known for the 1970s prison drama "Short Eyes," has gotten mixed reviews, but the 37-year-old actor has been singled out for his performance.
The nice notices, Mr. Bratt is happy to report, are "opening doors."
"It's like someone put a little oil on the hinges, because they're opening a little bit easier and a little bit wider these days," he says with a chuckle during a recent interview.
The first door to open is "The Great Raid," a feature to be directed by John Dahl ("The Last Seduction") about the rescue of 500 American POWs from a Japanese camp in World War II.
Mr. Bratt maintains that he wasn't consciously trying to break typecasting when he took the "Pinero" part.
"I've never approached my work that way," he says, adding that he's guided mainly by the desire to do something challenging and by a lesson learned early in his acting studies: "My No. 1 goal should be to stay employed."
He gained moviegoers' attention with two 1994 features: "The River Wild," in which he played a doomed ranger trying to help Meryl Streep, and "Clear and Present Danger," in which he was the field officer for U.S. soldiers sent to infiltrate Colombia. After his "Law & Order" run as Detective Rey Curtis (1995-99), he wore a shield again as an FBI agent in 2000's "Miss Congeniality."
"I've been pigeonholed into playing the leading man in uniform and I've made quite a good career at doing that," he says. "A significant number of my roles have been as police officers or other uniformed types."
Now he's playing a guy who could keep the guys with badges busy.
Mr. Bratt has played people on the wrong side of the law before (the drug kingpin in "Traffic"), but he says his initial reaction after reading director-screenwriter Leon Ichaso's script for "Pinero" was that he wasn't the right person for the job.
Mr. Ichaso agreed at first, thinking Mr. Bratt was too "clean and strong-looking" to play the hard-drinking junkie-writer who had done hard time in Sing Sing.
Mr. Bratt, however, found himself drawn to "the power and the beauty of the words of Miguel Pinero's poetry. From an actor's point of view, it's a rare opportunity to get to recite poetry in a stage setting, let alone in a film setting."
He immersed himself in Pinero's writing and lost 20 pounds to look more dissolute. Mr. Ichaso says Mr. Bratt transformed himself into the poet.
"His eyes were the eyes of Pinero, with incredible power and charisma," Mr. Ichaso says. "He had a very convincing take on the man."
Sometimes, Mr. Bratt acknowledges, his judgment on roles is wrong.
"I've read scripts and said, 'No, that's a horrible idea' and then gone and done them and have been glad for it," he says.
The 6-foot-2 actor, who was raised in San Francisco by his Peruvian mestizo mother and American father of German-English ancestry, isn't the first in his family to act. His grandfather worked in New York theater; Mr. Bratt says it's part of family lore that he was in something called the Grand Street Follies and worked with James Cagney.
It wasn't until Mr. Bratt's father suggested he look into acting, though, that he really thought about it, and he didn't seriously consider it until college.
After graduating from the University of California at Santa Barbara, he entered a master's degree program at the American Conservatory Theater in his hometown.
"In case the professional pursuit of a career didn't work out, I reckoned that I could always teach," he says, laughing.
Things worked out well enough that he never finished his work on the degree.
In "Pinero," Mr. Bratt plays a man who couldn't kick drugs or crime (including robbing his own friends) even when he had a successful play running on Broadway and had co-founded the Nuyorican Poets Cafe on New York's Lower East Side. (Mr. Pinero also appeared in the movie "Fort Apache: The Bronx" and the TV shows "Miami Vice," "Kojak" and "Baretta.")

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