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Making the Cut

Young Running With Scissors Star Holds His Own Among Formidable Cast

POINT BLANK: Joseph Cross (right) follows Ryan Muprhy's instructions.

By Cole Haddon | Posted 10/25/2006

Augusten Burroughs, the author behind New York Times best-selling memoirs Running With Scissors and Dry, grew up in the kind of eccentric, colorful childhood director Wes Anderson would have dreamed up if he also had been raised by an undiagnosed, bipolar, bisexual manic depressive with psychotic tendencies. And sexually abused, too. Oh, and abandoned by his parents, to be raised by a psychiatrist who doles out Valium to his family like it was candy. "If I had put in half the stuff in the book, people would've run screaming down the aisles," says Ryan Murphy, director of Running With Scissors' screen adaptation, during a Los Angeles press day.

The then-18-year-old actor who proved ideally suited to become Burroughs at 13 knows nothing of that sort of life. Joseph Cross is a bright-faced, sweet-mannered young man who was raised by parents still happily married after 28 years. "Joe has this quality about him," Burroughs says of Cross, now 20. "He's very grounded, especially for his age. He has a very strong sense of self, so I actually think he would've been great in my childhood. He definitely has the personality type that would've made it."

Cross and Burroughs are brought into the Beverly Hills Four Seasons Hotel suite together to promote Running With Scissors, and the smiling pair, seated side by side, offer up a surreal contrast--though probably not as surreal as Burroughs says it is to watch Cross play him on-screen. Cross still looks like a junior-high student, even though he left his teens behind this year; Burroughs shaves his head almost clean, wears glasses over a piercing stare, and sports a goatee.

Finding the right screen Burroughs was key to the movie. The memoirist says that he and director Murphy asked each other if they could cast anybody they wanted for the movie, budget be damned, who would they ask? The list included Annette Bening, Brian Cox, Joseph Fiennes, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Alec Baldwin. "And basically, they all said yes," Burroughs says. "But I didn't know who should play me." Murphy ultimately interviewed more than 400 candidates before settling on Cross, whose previous screen credits include major roles in a series of bombs like M. Night Shyamalan's Wide Awake and the Michael Keaton vehicles Desperate Measures and Jack Frost.

"[Murphy] said, `I found this guy," Burroughs remembers. "`He's going to be a huge star. He is, like, major, major, major, major.' I was concerned because . . . I didn't want some Hollywood brat I'm used to seeing passed out everywhere." Ultimately, though, "I was glad they chose someone so good, who's so talented. There's something cool about that, on a purely personal level."

Cross, who also appears in Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers, was, Murphy says, the only actor he auditioned who made him cry--which, he stresses, is a feat unto itself. He had watched so many kids play scenes for tears in the casting process that he thought he had become immune to it. And Cross' natural, empathetic, pitch-perfect performance in Scissors has a good deal to do with what Annette Bening calls his "simplicity, openness, and honesty" as an actor.

Try to imagine what it was like for Cross--technically a veteran after almost a decade in the business, but still young enough to be tickled by things like working with "Gwyneth"--to land in the middle of scenes with a heavyweight like Bening, not to mention Cox, Fiennes, and Baldwin, playing some of their darkest parts yet. "When I got [the part], I remember being very excited, and then immediately thinking it was going to be very hard," Cross admits in his please-and-thank-you manner. "I was very nervous about it. But quickly, from rehearsal, I realized that being intimidated just wasn't going to get me anywhere. I had to completely put any of that out of my head and muster up the confidence to pull it off. If people see you being intimidated, they immediately write you off, and then you're in a very bad place."

"I was really dazzled by [Cross], and inspired," Bening says later in the press day. Despite her fame and status as one of Hollywood's best actresses, she isn't at all pretentious in person, speaking with frankness usually absent from conversations with performers of her caliber. "I was a theater actress, I studied it, yada yada yada, and people who just go into the profession and do it very well [like Cross], I wonder, How does he do that? I've got to watch this kid."

In the end, though, it wasn't playing opposite a cast of Oscar winners that scared Cross the most. "I certainly felt a lot of obligation, and I really wanted to do Augusten justice as a person," he says. "His memoir was just such a beautiful, eloquently written book, and people who love it are obsessed with it. And I knew they would be very critical of who played him because he's a hero in their eyes. So that was a little daunting for me. But, when I met Augusten, he was so encouraging, so kind. So it all went away, knowing I had the blessing of the one person who mattered."

Murphy and his cast helped Cross relax, too, from talking him through scenes he was struggling with to using his shyness to torture him. "Joe Fiennes played horrible pranks on him," Murphy says, fingering the worst offender. "Joe was at a bachelor party, and the bride hit on little Joe Cross, and then Joe Cross was like, `Oh my god, this bride, she was drunk and she hit on me.' The next day we went to the Chateau [Marmont], and Joe Fiennes got a guy to pretend to be the fiancé and go up to Joe and say, `I heard you hit on my fiancée.' This charade went on for like 10 minutes. Joe Fiennes is such a good actor, he was like, `Joe, what are you doing?' Joe Fiennes lived to torment him."

The bashful young actor appears to be handling all this newfound attention well, though. After all, success can't nearly be as terrible as the childhood the real Burroughs lived through. Take it from Bening, who, given who her husband is, probably knows a few things about men and their relationship with fame and vanity.

"The ego is a tricky thing," she says. "It's quixotic. It's just a lot to go through, being the center of attention like that. I think he's pretty stable and smart, so I think he'll be fine."

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