- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 11, 2003

NEW YORK — Ridley Scott made his early reputation with a string of spectacles: “The Duellists, “Alien” and “Blade Runner.” In recent years the director, who was knighted earlier this year, has specialized in martial spectacle — set in vastly different time frames — with “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down.”

Moreover, he plans to make before the decade ends a sequel to “Gladiator” and an epic revolving around Saladin during the Third Crusade.

Compared to these projects, his latest film, “Matchstick Men,” opening today, is uncharacteristically compact and modern dress. Three major characters are in the picture. The story is based on a novel by Eric Garcia and concerns the downfall of a self-described con artist named Roy. Played by Nicolas Cage, Roy lives in obsessive-compulsive seclusion in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills. A successfully dishonest profession has encouraged an array of tics and phobias.

A consultation with a psychiatrist brings a fresh cause for anxiety and exposure into his evasive orbit: an unsuspected teenage daughter named Angela, portrayed by Alison Lohman, the astonishing “juvenile” actress from “White Oleander.” The astonishment continues in “Matchstick Men,” where Miss Lohman, nearing her 24th birthday, persuades you that she’s a footloose 14-year-old.

During roundtable interviews at a New York City hotel to promote the film, Mr. Scott identifies the common denominator in his work as “the fact that these films have nothing to do with each other.”

The script for “Matchstick Men,” written by the fraternal team of Nicholas and Ted Griffin, fits neatly into this pattern of patternlessness. “I was attracted to ‘Matchstick Men,’” Mr. Scott explains, “because I could say, ‘Wow, I haven’t done this.’ It’s like being on a snowboard and thinking, ‘I wonder if I should try a somersault.’”

The script had more to offer than novelty alone.

“It was a very amusing script,” the director recalls. “You know if you’re in good hands within a paragraph. At least I do. If I’m engaged after a page and that interest has stretched to 10 pages, I’m already starting to think about a cast and how it should look. I’m starting to see the film as I read the script. That’s usually a good sign.”

Mr. Cage sprang to mind immediately as a desirable Roy.

“He’s one of the few actors who keeps looking for something different,” Mr. Scott says. “I’ve always admired that funny chameleon aspect of his work. I thought it would be ideal for this role. Roy and Nick became interchangeable very quickly.”

Mr. Scott also found it amusing that Roy’s fussiness kind of hit home.

“There’s a lot of Roy in me,” Mr. Scott observes.

“Roy lives mostly on tuna, eating straight from the can to avoid dirtying a dish. I can be compulsively fastidious. If I’m home alone and hungry, I’m not likely to cook for myself. I don’t want to muck up the kitchen and have to clean up. I began to identify more and more with Roy as the project progressed.”

Mr. Scott had expected the trickiest casting choice to be Angela, the 14-year-old who comes out of a seemingly closed chapter of his past to invade Roy’s domestic isolation. Debra Zane, the film’s casting director, made it easy for him.

“We had about two or three good candidates,” Mr. Scott recalls, “but Alison was particularly appealing. … She has this great sense of reality, which I learned can be very deceptive. I didn’t realize she was 22 when she came in for her first audition. She had her hair up in a little funny way that seemed exactly right. Then she read, and that was perfect.”

In person, Miss Lohman cuts a more uncannily youthful figure than she does photographically. She has a tiny face and frame that reinforce the illusion.

She admits that she gets carded “all the time.” From the look of things, this form of misapprehension may be long lasting.

Miss Lohman enlisted the cooperation of “an adorable 14-year-old cousin named Jessie” while preparing to meet Mr. Scott.

“We hung out at the mall,” she recalls. “Had our nails done, had a Frappuccino at Starbucks, talked about boys. Boys, boys, boys. She’d get messages about various boys on her cellphone from friends. That was a huge deal. I think I absorbed a lot of intangibles. It’s this sense at her age of everything being fresh and possible. People can drastically change as they get older, become more jaded and pessimistic. Hang out with a happy 14-year-old and you’ll feel great.”

The idea of deceiving her potential director at first glance seemed appropriate to the job description.

“I thought I should give it a shot,” she says. “This was just the first meeting, you understand. I wasn’t going to go on pretending to be 14. I thought that if I couldn’t con him at the start, I probably didn’t deserve the role of Angela.”

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