A north wind is blowing through Chelsea, which is posing these days as the small town of Kingdom Common in the new motion picture by Vermont filmmaker Jay Craven. The crew is bundled up in wool hats and down parkas. Between takes, big-name actors load up on long-johns. Only Rusty DeWees looks impervious to the cold on the set of A Stranger in the Kingdom — shirtsleeves rolled up, bottle of beer in his greasy hand. When he explodes on the scene in a burst of raw, masculine energy, suddenly it’s summer.
Things heat up pretty quickly in Stranger — black Reverend Walter Andrews transforms from mail-order pastor to murder suspect after a teenage drifter girl is found dead nearby. But the scene being shot today precedes the murder. Andrews is off-duty at the harvest fest when he runs into the local sheriff, who hassles him for participating in two-bit carnival games. Unintimidated, the reverend responds with a mallet. One swing sends a weight up the vertical scale and rings the bell.
Andrews is momentarily vindicated — until DeWees muscles in with his baseball buddies to show up the reverend. The script called for a simple “whoa,” but DeWees trumped that up to a one-armed swing. In rehearsal, he gets an even better idea. Instead of going right for the bell, he suspends the mallet over his head just long enough to suggest he might be capable of killing the pastor — or someone else, for that matter. Then in a beer-induced burst of testosterone, he brings the mallet down with one hand, a second time with both. A quick consultation with Jay Craven, and the change is committed to celluloid.
“Rusty is great. His part gets bigger every day,” Craven says of Vermont-raised DeWees and his badass, red-neck role in Stranger. Craven wanted a Hollywood actor to play Harlan Kitteridge, but when David Strathairn turned him down, he offered the job to DeWees five days before filming started. The director of Stranger has no regrets. Neither does the author. “Harlan is an s.o.b., but Rusty somehow makes him appealing. He never goes over the top,” says novelist Howard Frank Mosher. “He is just like my beer-drinking Northeast Kingdom buddies. He understands the part.”
The most striking thing about 35-year-old DeWees — besides his Paul Bunyan physique — is his untutored intelligence. A physical actor with almost no formal training, he has an intuitive, athletic approach to drama that puts the emphasis on action, not analysis. But knowing “nuthin from nuthin” about theater hasn’t stopped him from honoring Chekhov, Sam Shepard and David Budbill with brilliant portrayals of Waffles, Tilden and Antoine — he developed his French-Canadian accent for Budbill’s popular Vermont play Judevine watching late-night television commercials from Montréal.
Now, finally, his outsized talent is turning industry heads. Since sparring with Rip Torn in Craven’s last Mosher-penned feature, Where the Rivers Flow North, DeWees has landed a dozen big commercial jobs — before Stranger, he spent six days on location with Brad Pitt. “The only thing that surprises me is that the world has taken this long to find him,” says Bob Ringer, who directed DeWees in Shepard’s Buried Child. The secret’s out.
For all his talent, DeWees didn’t set out to be an actor. “There was never a point where I said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ he says in his raspy Tom Waits voice. The son of a Greyhound bus driver was a lousy student who excelled in drumming, basketball and the occasional musical at Stowe High School. He was driving schoolbuses and dump trucks when he got a scholarship to Champlain College — for his athletic, not dramatic, performances.
But his interest in theater persisted. DeWees took chorus roles in community musicals and teamed up with Vermont actor George Woodard to explore the realm of physical comedy. Budbill remembers the two men performing a hilarious “lateral soft-shoe vaudeville thing” at the Hyde Park Opera House. Woodard, whom DeWees calls a “mentor,” has the same low-brow propensity for drama. He played a haggard farmhand in Ethan Frome, which was also filmed in Vermont. DeWees had a smaller part, but remembers vividly getting stuck — and tongue-tied — in the same makeup trailer with actress Patricia Arquette. Despite his taste for “damsels,” he confesses, “I can’t do the relationship thing. I’m too selfish.”
DeWees was post-grad, playing a Nazi in a Lyric Theatre production of Cabaret when someone in the cast suggested he try out for director Bob Ringer. Knowing he looked “Sam Shepardy,” and having no idea what it meant, DeWees showed up at Vermont Repertory Theater to read the part of Tilden in Buried Child. “He looked like a farm boy, couple of days’ beard, old work boots, kind of shy. My first thought was, ‘What is this?" Ringer recalls. “It took one sentence. I let him read on, of course, but I knew ... It was a remarkable performance.”
DeWees liked straight acting, and it showed. Ringer cast him in True West, Of Mice and Men and “a Chekhov that we have never recovered from,” Ringer says. Then and now, DeWees brought a powerful physicality to his roles that, despite his hulking physique, can also be extraordinarily delicate. Ringer remembers one startling detail he contributed to True West — “He picked a fly out of the air and ate it,” Ringer recalls. “Strangely enough, it was just right. He was always surprisingly you with things like that.”
The unexpected actor certainly surprised David Budbill, who had envisioned a short man in the role of the wild French-Canadian logger in his ensemble-play, Judevine. “When Bob Ringer came along and said, ‘I have the perfect person for Antoine — he is six-foot-five and a redhead,’ I said, ‘No way, man. Impossible,’” Budbill says. “I agreed to give him a look. And as soon as I did, of course, that was that."
DeWees crafted the "Christly" character of Antoine from the Budbill script and his own childhood memories of Stowe. And in the process, he discovered a prop that has since helped him promote his own rough-hewn mysticque. DeWees was packing hams at Harrington's when he noticed a guy with a Vermont Mack hat sitting across from him. "It was a goodie," he says, noting how the visor was black in one spot where the guy had touched it repeatedly with greasy hands.
He paid $10 for the chapeau that appeared on the poster for Judevine and figures prominently in both Stranger and Rivers. It also helped land him a lucrative Corn Flakes ad – his third commercial job.
They wanted a Maine fisherman and I thought, This is something I can do," DeWees says. "When I got called back I wore my Mack hat and a Carhartt barn coat. It was pouring rain out, so I decided to come in all wet." The "look" was not lost on the director, who yelled to DeWees to "leave the coat and hat on." A few days later, he got the job.
DeWees probably had the same hat on when he left for New York City — a move many thought was a play for the big-time. In fact, he's maintained his laissez-faire attitude about acting. Hard as he works at his craft, DeWees is a person who believes "the important things in life are blood running through ya and your friends and your family and the trees."
In fact, DeWees got "side-tracked" in New York by a job he also excelled in. He became the right-hand man for art dealer William Doyle, and spent his days driving art in and out of estates on Long Island and in Connecticut. “I was making dough re mi and, you know, it was interesting,” Dewees says. “I was pouring concrete before that. All of a sudden, I am eating lunch at The “21” Club with fucking Gloria Vanderbilt.”
Of course, the jeans and work boots had to go. Doyle, who called DeWees “the preacher,” sent his charge off to Barneys “with a couple of grand” for clothes. But when his boss died of leukemia at age 53, DeWees realized it was now or never. “It was six years after I had come to New York, and I am in these apartments throwing dead people’s clothes into garbage bags. I started thinking, If I am going to be in New York, I gotta check this acting thing out."
He used the launch of Rivers — and his fortunate association with Rip Torn in a photo that appeared in The New York Times — to send out inquiries to casting agents. Out of 100, he got 10 calls back. His first commercial job was a cigarette-smoking industrial, then Citröen flew him to Nova Scotia for six days to do an ad that aired in France. Since then, he has had work from Ameritech, Kelloggs, Chevy, Pringles, Hardees, Sharp, Renault — and he plays a cop in the Wendy's Christmas commercial.
Most of the soaps have also found work for DeWees. Ditto the sitcoms. “Law and Order” cast him as a psycho-killer — a choice part that involved getting shot. His performance got the attention of the stunt coordinator, who found him work with Brad Pitt on The Devil's Own. DeWees rehearsed the fight scene with Pitt, but it got scrapped at the last minute. And when the brother of the stunt man showed up on the Stranger set, DeWees took note for further networking.
Asked if he worries about typecasting, DeWees bellows, “No! Come on, please, typecast me.” If playing the bad guy means the difference, count him in. Harlan Kitteridge is right up his alley — even if he spent five months waiting for the role. He is just as thrilled to be “rapping” with Mosher about the next Craven collaboration.
“If this goes well,” DeWees predicts, “Disappearances is going to get more dough, more Hollywood actors.” In the meantime, DeWees is working on his own material — a solo series of quirky portrayals of Vermonters to be performed at First Night — and a new “Shakespeary thing” with Budbill for Christmas.
Asked what role he would play if it had to be by the Bard, DeWees responds, “I don’t even know. Maybe that Puck guy.” He explains, “I think that takes something different than what I got. I’m not an actor. I’m not a good actor. I am just able to do these lines in a certain way that sounds good.”