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Skeet Ulrich runs for the roses in ‘50 to 1’

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Ten Furlongs - TEN FURLONGS
Underdog trainer Chip Woolley (Skeet Ulrich) has a heart-to-heart talk with long shot Mine That Bird (Sunday Rest) before the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

Skeet Ulrich’s co-stars must have wanted to hug, slap, tickle, kiss or smack him over his 25-year acting career. But until “50 to 1,” none had bitten him.

Not that Ulrich, who grew up mainly in Concord, did anything in particular to provoke Sunday Rest. But as he found out, “Thoroughbreds bite. I’d been around quarter horses, and we got along fine, but thoroughbreds are temperamental. Luckily, I had one of the best guys on the planet to get me through it.”

He’s talking about Chip Woolley, the horse trainer he plays in the film. (It’s based on true events and has an exclusive North Carolina opening this weekend at Park Terrace Cinema in Charlotte.) Woolley was down on his luck in 2008 when a friend hired him to handle a crooked-footed gelding named Mine That Bird. Man and horse proved their mettle by winning the 2009 Kentucky Derby.

If you know Ulrich’s family, you may wonder why he’s fooling around with horses instead of cars. Stepfather D.K. Ulrich was a Winston Cup driver and owner; uncle Ricky Rudd holds the NASCAR record for consecutive starts (788).

But Skeet, so named by a Little League coach who likened his quickness to a mosquito’s, gravitated toward acting in college. He was studying marine biology at UNC Wilmington when he became an extra in “Weekend at Bernie’s” and “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” in 1989-90. After switching to New York University for theater, he scored a “CBS Schoolbreak Special” in 1994.

Then came a rare burst of speed. Over five years, he worked with directors Wes Craven (“Scream”), Robert Linklater (“The Newton Boys”), James L. Brooks (“As Good as It Gets”), Paul Schrader (“Touch”) and Ang Lee (in the horse-filled “Ride With the Devil”).

He bought a 500-acre farm in the Shenandoah Valley, married British actress Georgina Cates, had two kids and found himself living very much in the public eye in his late 20s.

“When I was young, I was working out a lot of things personally, and that sort of seeped into interviews,” says Ulrich, now 44. “I’ve always considered myself an open and honest person, sometimes with the wrong people. I’ll never forget being on the cover of Details, when a reporter followed me around New York: I was astonished when I read the interview long afterward. But life changes a person, kids change a person, and there’s nothing I regret.”

Ulrich has continually reinvented himself as a performer. Before “50 to 1,” he’d made just two theatrical features since 2001. Yet he’d had recurring roles on four TV series, including the 2006 cult favorite “Jericho” (about a Kansas town left in the dark after seeing a mushroom cloud over Colorado) and the Emmy-winning “Robot Chicken” series at Cartoon Network.

“It wasn’t until ‘Jericho’ that I slept in my own bed,” says Ulrich, who has relocated to Los Angeles and remarried in 2012. “I was always on the road. TV afforded the chance to be with my kids; that was a great story, and I was compelled to tell it. I’m not offered the movies I once was, and it’s hard to find one creatively that’s appealing.

“ ‘50 to 1’ was one I fought for and was fortunate enough to get. But (production) money right now, unless you’re in Marvel’s pocket, is in TV. I have college coming (for my kids), and there’s a lot of decisions now I have to think about.

“I prefer films, because the prep time as an actor is so much longer. On TV, you may have 80-hour weeks and no time to prepare. But that’s the place to tell long-arc stories. Look at ‘Breaking Bad’: It’s akin to Tolstoy. It’s a challenge as an artist to think that far ahead on that deep a story.”

In an alternate universe, he’d probably be a golfer. He once played “obsessively, four to five times a week” and pared his handicap to a 7, though he “never fathomed any notion I’d be good enough to turn pro.

“It’s a joyous occasion to get out there; when you live in a metropolis, it’s the only real walk in nature that you get. It’s a solo challenge, which I like, and it’s so much about preparation and discipline.

“That’s what I saw in Chip Woolley. He likes to party; he’d have drinks with us, and we’d stumble out of a bar at 1 – but he’d be up at 4:30 to take care of his animals. That preparation and work ethic, whether you’re a golfer or a trainer or an actor, is everything.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232
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