- The Washington Times - Friday, September 21, 2007

The three middle-aged women who were elbow-deep in happy hour grub knew something was up. So did the waitress, who paused midstride with a dirty plate in hand to size up the bizarre scene unfolding on this Friday afternoon at the Regatta Raw Bar on 12th Street Northwest.

Why were eight persons huddled around the big-screen TV watching “Oprah” when they could be bar-side, sipping reduced-price drinks and celebrating the start of the weekend? Furthermore, what compelled them to react so strongly — alternately shouting, laughing, cheering and recoiling? Tom Cruise wasn’t on again, was he?

“I gotta know,” said the waitress. “Who are we all waiting for?”

The group wasn’t waiting for anyone per se, but they had gathered for a purpose: Julie Taymor, a woman whose name is often preceded by the word “visionary” and followed with a mention of her magical 1997 stage adaptation of Disney’s “The Lion King.”

It just so happened that Miss Taymor was in the District that day, Sept. 14. In the room, to be exact. That evening, she and four other women would be honored for their creative contributions by the National Museum of Women in the Arts in Washington.

The director also happened to be appearing on “Oprah” that afternoon, discussing her new Beatles movie musical, “Across the Universe.” So she and several handlers, studio execs and journalists had assembled at the Regatta to catch the interview.

Reviews of the film — which uses 33 reinterpreted Beatles tunes to move along a fictional ‘60s-era love story — have been mixed. Oprah’s opinions of the work, however, were abundantly clear; the media mogul had a smeared tear below her left eye for most of the segment.

For Miss Taymor, eliciting an emotional response like this far outweighs a few scathing critiques. It’s the ultimate payoff for the kind of risk-taking she does: accepting ambitious projects, often being the first to adapt a familiar work for a new medium, inserting puppets and masks where they’ve never before been, and so forth.

“Risk is my best friend,” says the director. “If I don’t risk and I don’t try to challenge myself and everybody around to really explore the subject matter, how [am I] ever going to leave something that will really open people’s eyes in a new way and touch them?”

Miss Taymor’s resume teems with gutsy projects (most of them very well reviewed), from her 2004 puppet-laden version of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the Metropolitan Opera to 2002’s Oscar-winning “Frida.” Also, she isn’t afraid to wear many hats, be it as director, composer or costume designer.

This creative and independent streak surfaced during her childhood in Newton, Mass. There, she rode public transportation by herself each day after school to study at Boston Children’s Theatre. She finished high school early and went to Paris to learn mime, and after graduating from college, she founded a mask/dance company in Indonesia.

Now, she uses the courage she built up during those years on her own to go “all in” when she takes on a new project.

Her ultimate goal is to transform people. “I realize,” she says, “they want to be physically, emotionally touched, and we are absolutely numb.”

Jenny Mayo

Keeping em guessing

Justin Theroux says he has much enjoyed making the transition from actor to director with his new film, “Dedication.” The movie stars Billy Crudup as an irascible children’s book author forced to work with an insecure young illustrator played by Mandy Moore.

But, while the new role might mean more artistic satisfaction and more power, it also means more work — not all of it glamorous.

Take the (very memorable) opening scene of “Dedication.” Tom Wilkinson takes a reluctant Mr. Crudup to a blue-movie house in search of inspiration for their next children’s book.

“Because we were so broke, we couldn’t shoot porn,” Mr. Theroux explains by telephone. “It’s hard to call in a favor like that. So I trolled through days and days of bad ‘70s porn.” He describes the work as “soul-crushing.”

The 36-year-old Mr. Theroux, who was born and raised here in the District, has one of the most varied of resumes as an actor. He has starred in both big-budget blockbusters (“Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle” and “Zoolander”) and the outre art-house films of David Lynch (“Mulholland Dr.” and “Inland Empire”). He has a number of television credits, too, doing stints on “Six Feet Under,” “Alias” and “The District.” But he never stays there long.

“Once I’ve done a character, I don’t really like to retread it and trot it out again,” he says. “If I have to play a character for more than a couple weeks, I get exhausted, bored and sick of the guy. I try to be a moving target.”

It’s clear he cares more about some work than others, though: He seems genuinely interested in what this critic thought of “Inland Empire,” for example, adding that he wishes Mr. Lynch had a distributor rather than doing the work himself.

Will he work with him again? “Whenever he calls.”

The actor states his philosophy on being in the business: “It’s important to remind yourself that it is a creative endeavor at the end of the day and not a commercial one entirely.”

The creative spark might come more easily to him than most — he hails from a very artistic family. His father Eugene is an artist, his mother Phyllis is a writer, his uncle Paul is the author of books including “The Mosquito Coast,” and his cousin Louis is a BBC journalist.

He says it helps to live in New York rather than Los Angeles.

“I just don’t want to move to the coal mining town and drink the Kool-Aid,” he says. “I find that when I spend an extended period of time there, my thinking becomes a muddle and I start to lose the plot a bit.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

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