Charlotte native Jim Rash won an academy award tonight for best adapted screenplay on the wryly touching script for "The Descendants."
He was honored, along with collaborators Nat Faxon and Alexander Payne.
Rash's show business career did not start well. His adolescent portrayal of a duck - wearing shorts and a Camp Thunderbird T-shirt, with streamers wrapped around his arms for wings and a homemade bill shoved into his mouth - set no critics abuzz.
Hollywood being what it is, there's no way to know if he'll be in demand at the finish, either.
But he's having a great middle.
The Charlotte native is a cult figure on NBC's "Community," as the odd and often clueless dean of a community college. (Search online for "Dean Pelton" and "Dalmatian fetish" to obtain proof.)
Rash was pumped, because the Writers Guild of America honored these scribes last Sunday. (They were also nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA, the British Oscar, but didn't win.)
At 40, he finds himself the hot new hyphenate - a writer-actor - on the strength of just one movie produced for theatrical release.
"Nat and I define ourselves as actors who started to write ... parts people in TV didn't see us (playing)," says Rash, who has worked steadily in supporting movie and television roles for 15 years.
"I did the persnickety assistant over and over. Now I've hit a nice sexual deviant area, that gay/not gay area." (He played a similar role in the series "Help Me Help You.") "It becomes a challenge to show people what we can do."
He has met that challenge since joining The Groundlings, the L.A. improv/sketch comedy gang that launched Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig. (Like them, Rash later auditioned for "Saturday Night Live," but no go.)
Rash still teaches for that troupe, a Grandpa Groundling after all these years. But the most important thing he did there was meet Faxon.
Faxon remembers his first view of Rash acting:
"Up (onstage) ran this small bespectacled man with a receding hairline. I sized him up, wondering if this wiry little guy had the chops. The improv started, and he just started killing it. He had an unmatched commitment level that left the rest of us doubled over with laughter and jealousy.
"We ended up meeting a few months later in the Sunday Company - sort of the Triple A group of that theater - and I thought, 'You'd better latch on to this guy, if you want to go anywhere.' Luckily, our senses of humor meshed well, as did our drives and ambitions."
Says Rash, "When I teach sketch writing, there's still a beginning, middle and end. You have to figure out within 3 to 5 minutes how to present that, especially in a relationship scene, and it's still about characters - not stereotypes, but unique individuals. And in comedy, wonderful things are borne out of moments of pain."
Thinking on a big scale
Rash and Faxon decided to work on a larger canvas. They wrote "Adopted," a 2005 pilot for a TV series about an adult who finds out his parents aren't his birth mom and dad. (Rash, who is adopted, has always known.) They weren't cast, and the series didn't take off. But the partnership did.
They followed that with "The Way Back," a story about a real incident in Rash's life that forced him to re-examine the young man he was becoming. That script landed on the Black List, a roster of top-quality unproduced screenplays up for grabs. Payne, who won an Oscar for writing "Sideways," liked it.
Payne had also just bought the rights to "The Descendants," a Kaui Hart Hemmings novel about a wealthy Hawaii lawyer whose family has begun to crumble. Rash and Faxon happily came aboard.
"We sit in our waiting-room-like office at the Santa Monica airport or in a coffee shop and brainstorm ideas," says Faxon of their collaboration. "Eventually, something we both like is agreed upon. We then try to frame the idea by figuring out whose story it is that we are trying to tell. After that, we try and write. And when I leave, Jim usually stays.
"He does so for three reasons. One, sometimes (OK, probably most of the time), it's easier to work without me interjecting. Two, he's the one who doesn't have children. Three, he's neurotic and brilliant and has a hard time letting things be left uncompleted and in a state of disarray. So when I come in the next day, and he says 'How about this,' I look at it. Then I thank the lucky stars that he is who he is."
A different kind of dream
Rash realized long ago that he wanted to act. He knew it at Charlotte Latin School, where he played the title beagle in "Snoopy: The Musical." ("It's a sequel to 'You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.' And I was the worst Snoopy possible.")
He knew it while waiting on tables at Marie Callender's in L.A., filming his first commercial as a McDonald's customer - "they had me running all over Denver, which wasn't hard, because I'd run track at Latin" - and getting his first TV acting credit, telling Cybill Shepherd her car was towed in a 1995 episode of "Cybill."
Yet his life is suddenly changing. He is focused on getting "The Way Back" made - possibly in Wilmington, and possibly even with Rash as director. (It has to be retitled, because a film with that name hit theaters last year.)
"The story comes from a trip my stepfather and I took each year, driving from Charlotte to Lake Michigan. I was about 14 at the time, and he asked me where I saw myself on a scale of 1 to 10. I said, "Uhhhh, a 6.' He said he saw me more as a 3.
"He went on to explain that I wasn't taking advantage of opportunities. Even though it was a horrible way for a kid to hear it, that started me on a new path to something cool. It's a coming-of-age story, and the film's journey starts there."
He and Faxon are also working for Fox Searchlight on a dysfunctional-family movie with an array of characters who may or may not be based on their own kin.
"I think about the ways we all make choices in a moment to do something we think is right," he says. "Then we regret the way things come out, but they had to happen (that way).
"To me, those moments are all good. Because if they had never happened, we'd never have had something to write about!"
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