There’s a TMZ video that tells you a bit about the peculiar fame of Johnathon Schaech — Edgewood, Md., native, working actor, near-miss celebrity.
Ambushed by the paparazzo as he leaves a Sunset Strip nightclub, Schaech is poised and polite, all the more so when the cameraman inevitably asks him about his (more famous) ex-wife, Christina Applegate. Then, some drunk dude blunders over, gawks at Schaech getting the star treatment and blurts, “Who is this guy?”
Johnathon Schaech: He’s that guy from “That Thing You Do.” (Not the cute one; the really hot one.) He played Judas and Houdini on TV; he kissed Gwyneth and Winona on screen. He was the psycho killer in “Prom Night,” required viewing for American teenagers in 2008. But if you’ve read about him at all recently, it probably had to do with his love life. Does that bother him?
“I never wanted to be famous,” Schaech says with a shrug. “I want to be more famous than I am so I can get the roles. I hate losing the roles.”
He adds: “I was famous more for being around people who were famous, and I hate that kind of fame.”
Schaech pitched us on the idea of writing about him. He’s in a new indie film, “5 Days of War,” that he wanted to hype. And we wanted to talk to someone who could explain the cost-benefit of fame, or lack thereof, in the Hollywood meat grinder.
The University of Maryland Baltimore County dropout was one of the Next Big Things of the late ’90s, on a Vanity Fair cover with Leonardo DiCaprio and Will Smith. But “That Thing You Do,” Tom Hanks’s directing debut, flopped at the box office. (You probably saw it on cable, right?) “Welcome to Woop Woop” was “supposed to make me a star,” he says, but no one saw it. “Finding Graceland” got standing ovations at the film festivals, but its indie producers went out of business, and it never made it to theaters.
In the meantime, he married sitcom princess Applegate. They divorced in 2007. By the time he wed TV starlet Jana Kramer last year, he was often described by the celebrity press as “Applegate’s ex.” When he and Kramer split a month later, that was news, too.
What’s the old saying, there’s no such thing as bad press? He disagrees. “It didn’t help me, the way I look at my career.”
Schaech got into it, he says, for the craft. “What I learned about acting — it really is the art of living. Brando would say, good actors know everything human.” He recently lost a role on “Desperate Housewives” because he neglected to smile enough on the audition tape. “I saw the pain in the character,” he explains. Dude, have you not seen “Desperate Housewives”? “I put a little more into it than I had to, I guess,” he says.
The roles now are small ones in big movies, or big ones in small movies. The income is show-biz middle class. He owns a three-bedroom house in a Los Angeles neighborhood that’s not posh but cool; the living, he says, is “probably like a lawyer.”
In recent years, most of the paychecks have come from his growing sideline as a screenwriter. He not only starred in but wrote the straight-to-DVD “Road House 2,” a Swayze-less sequel to the Patrick Swayze camp classic “Road House.” (Sure, you laugh, but you’re probably Netflixing it right now.) More promising is the comedy he wrote with a couple of partners based on Orioles legend Rick Dempsey’s memories of his old Little League coach who turned out to be a bank robber. They sold it to Adam Sandler’s production company.
“5 Days of War” is a somewhat more ambitious production: Director Renny Harlin’s take on the 2008 Russian-Georgian clash in South Ossetia — largely financed by Georgians, which should tip you as to who the good guys are. Schaech deploys his ambiguously swarthy looks (he’s German-Italian) as a heroic Georgian Army captain. In a cast dense with former Next Big Things, Schaech’s fame deficit is sort of an advantage: When the others come on screen, you think, “Well, there’s Val Kilmer; that’s Andy Garcia.” When the camera pulls in for Schaech’s first close-up, you think, “Who is this guy?” In a good way.
“The good thing is, I get to play roles,” Schaech tells us. And: “You're always one role from being famous.”