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Gummersall puts the best face on things

The Dallas Morning News
November 28, 1998

Gummersall puts the best face on things

The trick to great acting, especially in supporting roles, is to say a lot - but not too much - with a little.

Leaving room for the audience to imagine a character's inner life, while conveying enough to intrigue the viewer in the first place, is a trait that Devon Gummersall, even at his young age, has down pat.

The 20-year-old actor - best known as Claire Danes' shy, awkward next-door neighbor Brian Krakow in 1994's critically acclaimed but underwatched ABC series My So-Called Life - has one of those expressive faces that leaks emotion even as the characters he plays struggle to communicate their feelings without revealing too much about themselves.

Mr. Gummersall has specialized in these kinds of troubled souls, most recently as Zack - a.k.a. "The Pink Guy" - a sensitive filmmaking student who commits date rape on the WB's college drama Felicity.

"Both of them," he says of Brian and Zack, "had their inner life that allowed you to fill in the blanks. You could imagine that there was other stuff going on."

Mr. Gummersall, who started his acting career in a Stouffer's frozen- food commercial at age 10, first made an impression on the public in My So-Called Life, one of the best treatments of teen angst ever to make it to the small screen.

For one amazing, 19-episode season, he spoke volumes, quietly, as the brainy but socially inept Brian Krakow. Brian's secret crush on Ms. Danes' Angela Chase was a key thematic thread running through the show.

The series, in fact, ended on that note. In a touching scene outside Angela's house, Brian finally conveyed his feelings for her but without ever talking about it directly.

"When we shot that episode, we didn't know whether we were picked up or not, and it was so weird not knowing," Mr. Gummersall says. "I wish it would have gone on longer, obviously. But it turned out to be a perfect ending."

Two seasons later, he returned to series television in an even smaller part in ABC's Relativity. He played Jake Roth, another understated character with emotional problems.

But it wasn't until his five--episode appearance on Felicity this fall that Mr. Gummersall again got a part worthy of his low-key talents.

Thanks to good writing and Mr. Gummersall's sensitive portrayal, Zack emerged as a sympathetic character despite his rape of Felicity' s rival-turned-best-friend, Julie (Amy Jo Johnson). The cataclysmic event, which resulted in Zack leaving school, ended Mr. Gummersall' s run on the series earlier this month.

Zack and Julie first met in their dormitory's laundry room, where he had washed a red garment with the rest of his clothes, turning everything pink. Hence the nickname.

When Zack agreed to show Julie his movie-in-progress - something he had never done with anyone before - a bond began to form. They became an item, but Julie kept telling him to go slow. Eventually, Zack, a virgin, went too far.

"That's what really intrigued me about it, to deal with that issue in a way that I haven't seen before, to show both sides and not to show the guy as this terrible monster. They came up with a three-dimensional character and showed him as a good person who does something bad.

"I think the main difference [with Brian] is that Zack was a little more mature and a little more confident with himself and what he was doing with his life."

Mr. Gummersall, who was born in Durango, Colo., and raised in California, started acting because he was a movie fan. Growing up with two brothers and his father, painter C. Gregory Gummersall, he used to act out whole scenes from films around the house, "annoying everybody."

After his Stouffer's commercial ("You almost have to put it in slow motion to see me, it's so quick"), he played small parts in Step by Step, Blossom, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and the films Beethoven' s 2nd and My Girl 2.

But it wasn't until My So-Called Life, he says, "that I realized this was something that I could do for life. . . . It was a meaty part, and all of a sudden, it was something that felt very natural to me.

"I guess it's just being able to communicate something, to be able to see something on the page and have a feeling of what that needs to be. . . . But most days when I'm acting, I don't really have any clear concept of how my work was. It's such a strange thing to do, to play with your emotions like that."

After My So-Called Life and Relativity, he had small roles in Independence Day, It's My Party and the TV movie After Jimmy.

Though a return of the Pink Guy on Felicity remains a possibility, the next time you're likely to see Mr. Gummersall playing with his emotions is in the film Dick, a satire about Watergate directed by Andrew Fleming (The Craft, Threesome) and starring Kirsten Dunst (Interview With the Vampire) and Michelle Williams (Dawson's Creek).

They play President Nixon's 15-year-old dog walkers, who stumble into the scandal and become Deep Throat. Mr. Gummersall, who expects the film to be released next spring or summer, plays Ms. Dunst's stoner brother.

He also just completed filming the lead role in an independent movie, The Young Unknowns, playing an aspiring director of commercials who self-destructs over a 36-hour period after his mother dies.

"It's very dark, kind of a Less Than Zero thing," he says.

Not that Mr. Gummersall let it affect him off-camera. "This whole generation of young actors, everyone buys into this crap about having to be a Method actor," he says. "I don't see how that's necessary. The whole thing is made up anyway. If you're playing a murderer, you don't go out and kill someone. . . .

"My thing is to get involved with it emotionally when I'm doing it and then leave it. Especially when you're doing something dark, it's depressing. . . . At least this is the phase I'm in. Maybe I' ll realize later that I'm wrong."

So far, he's been just right. PHOTO(S): 1. (Byron J. Cohen) Felicity's Devon Gummersall (right). 2. Devon Gummersall had a memorable role on My So-Called Life. ; LOCATION

© 1998 The Dallas Morning News

“My dad thinks every person in the world is having more fun than him.”

Angela Chase, Episode 1: "My So-Called Life (Pilot)"