- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Audiences for politically charged dramas based on actual events don’t always get the whole truth.

Consider the questions swirling around “Fair Game,” the recent retelling of the Valerie Plame scandal starring Naomi Watts and Sean Penn. The film paints Mrs. Plame as saintly and buries the name of the person who leaked her identity until the film’s final seconds.

Actor Barry Pepper had a similar fear while reading the script for “Casino Jack,” the feature opening in Washington on Wednesday depicting the rise and precipitous fall of uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff.

“That was one of the main questions I had going into it. How accurate is this?” says Mr. Pepper, the intense actor known for roles in “Saving Private Ryan” and the HBO biopic “61.”

He says the legal ramifications helped allay those concerns.

“You have to hire a First Amendment lawyer to vet for accuracies,” Mr. Pepper says of film projects like “Casino Jack.” “You can’t just go forward. [Otherwise,] you’re in for a world of hurt with lawsuits.”

It also helped to have access to reams of material in the public record regarding the case, including e-mails sent between the real life players in the Abramoff scandal. Consider it the latest proof of reality being stranger than fiction.

“Some of the most humorous scenes in the script were verbatim [from transcripts],” says Mr. Pepper, who also has a small but corrosive role in the new Coen brothers remake of “True Grit,” opening Wednesday.

“Casino Jack” stars Kevin Spacey as the disgraced lobbyist, a Republican notorious for swindling American Indians and corrupting public officials. Mr. Pepper plays Michael Scanlon, a former aide to Rep. Tom DeLay who helped Abramoff pull off his acts.

Mr. Spacey chatted with an imprisoned Abramoff for background on the story, but Mr. Pepper had to settle for speaking with some of Scanlons old associates to fill in the character blanks.

The real Scanlon “spoke in authentic surfer dude lexicon,” Mr. Pepper says, adding he also held down a $10-an-hour job as a lifeguard through much of his illegal shenanigans in Washington. “He was a very smooth-operating, fast-talking character who could talk the chicken off the bone, but you instinctively knew you couldn’t trust him.”

“Casino Jack” portrays Abramoff in a complex light, a far more flattering portrait than some might expect. His misdeeds are front and center, but so is his devotion to family and charitable efforts.

Mr. Pepper’s version of Scanlon lacks those shades of gray.

“I try not to judge these characters. My job is to humanize them,” he says.

Mr. Pepper sounds like a political junkie in conversation, but he admits he didnt fully understand how superlobbyists operate before signing up for the film.

Political films havent fared well at the box office in recent years.

“Fair Game,” despite its starry cast, has hauled in less than $9 million since its Nov. 5 release. And films involving ideologically charged topics like the Iraq War have also struggled to reach a mass audience.

Mr. Pepper is optimistic about the film’s commercial chances. He sees movie audiences as sophisticated consumers “eager to exercise their First Amendment right in terms of dissension,” he says. Its why he tackled a project like “Casino Jack.”

Mr. Pepper’s handsome, severe visage serves him well when playing bad boys on screen. But he doesnt relish the chance to wear a black hat on screen over and again.

“I don’t take any joy in playing villainous characters. It’s quite a drain, emotionally,” he says.

“Casino Jack” may seem similarly disheartening on the surface, but the film bounces along in satirical fashion, powered by Mr. Spaceys Golden Globe- nominated performance.

Theres nothing funny about the take-away message, he warns.

“I hope the film is a cautionary tale, how our democracy is drowning under a tsunami of corporate financing and campaign fundraising,” he says. “Whats remarkable about this story is not what was illegal but what’s still legal.”

• Christian Toto can be reached at cftoto@gmail.com.

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