Sunday, August 1, 2004

Peter Krause relishes 'Who am I?' roles

By Frazier Moore
The Associated Press

NEW YORK - On tonight's Six Feet Under, grieving widower Nate Fisher is visited by his dead wife, who directs him to "make a connection" and "have a wonderful life" with the pretty co-worker he met at his new job at a dog kennel.

But not much later, the spectral Lisa sings another tune. Reappearing before Nate, she prods him to get back with his former fiancee Brenda, now hooked up with someone else: "You should be with her," says Lisa, "before it's too late."

Making life choices is a tug of war for Nate, the grudging funeral director on this HBO drama (9 p.m.). And for Peter Krause, the dreamy boy-man who stars as Nate, depicting existential conflict has become a specialty.

On film and onstage

In the upcoming film We Don't Live Here Anymore, Krause portrays a college professor happy enough with his home life yet not averse to extramarital flings - nor exactly rocked when his equivocal behavior sends his wife into the arms of his best friend (whose wife he then ends up sleeping with). The film, opening Aug. 13, also stars Naomi Watts, Mark Ruffalo and Laura Dern.

And in a revival of Arthur Miller's After the Fall, the 1964 drama opening on Broadway Thursday after a month of previews, Krause presides onstage for 21/2 hours as Quentin, a 40-ish lawyer torn by warring urges in his quest for a good life. Set in 1962, this memory trip through Quentin's past reverberates with that of Miller, whose troubled relationships included a stormy marriage to Marilyn Monroe.

Characters like Nate and Quentin remain works in progress, struggling to define who they are in plain view of the audience, "so it's difficult for me to pin them down," said Krause in his tiny, L-shaped dressing room last week.

"And yet, I gravitate toward them," he quickly added, "because it makes sense to me. If at the core of each of these characters is the question 'Who am I?' rather than a string of thoughts - I am this,' I am that' - the boundaries are sort of limitless."

TV comedy experience

Krause (pronounced KRAU-suh), a Minneapolis native who turns 39 next month, landed early jobs on Carol Burnett's 1990-91 sketch-comedy series and as a cast member of the sitcom Cybill.

But he first won public notice in the deceptively full-bodied role of Casey McCall, a cable-channel anchor on Sports-Night, aired by ABC from 1998 to 2000. Good-looking, glib-talking and successful, Casey underneath it all was a sad figure with a broken marriage who felt most at home at work.

Then, with Six Feet Under in 2001, Krause broke ground as Nate, the haunted gadfly whose aimlessness had kept him at a safe remove from the family-owned funeral home that creeped him out. But on the first episode, his father was killed by a bus. Though drawn back into the fold, Nate has never stopped pondering alternatives.

Krause clearly identifies with Nate's irresolution.

"You spend a lot of time looking at life's menu," he mused, "and then, at the last minute, you gotta order something. But when it comes, then: Oh, maybe I should have had ...'

"It seems like there are people out there in the world who don't second-guess themselves," he acknowledged. "In the play, Quentin says to (first wife) Louise, 'Don't you ever doubt yourself?' And she doesn't seem to.

"And he says to Maggie" - the Monroe-esque character who, played by Carla Gugino, becomes Quentin's second wife - "There's one word written on your forehead: 'NOW.'

"She says, 'What else is there?' And Quentin replies, 'There's the future: I've been carrying it around my entire life like a vase that must never be dropped.'

"It seems like a lot of the populace, they don't doubt themselves," Krause said. "They know right from wrong, and they know what should be done, and they don't question things very deeply. Those people are baffling to me: the people who open the menu and say, 'I'll have the steak. Well-done.'"

"I carry the future around like a vase," confessed Krause. "I did when I was doing Cybill and other things. I just wanted to get to a point where I'd be doing exactly what I'm doing now."

And now? Krause smiled. "I've started ordering off the menu a little more quickly."

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