Home Boy

Photo: Jenny Gage and Tom Betterton

Famous people, aware that they are being looked at and appraised, can never be natural again—every action, every glance, creates a ripple. This sort of self-consciousness produces unpredictable effects. There are those who are lifted up by the attention, such as Catherine Zeta-Jones, and those who reject it, becoming anti-celebrity celebrities, such as Daniel Day-Lewis, who once shunned acting to cobble shoes in Italy. Which brings us to Matthew Broderick. He represents an unusual breed, the idle celebrity, neither opposed to his fame nor especially motivated by it. He’s the reed bending in the wind.

Take, for example, his latest career move. As Leo Bloom in The Producers, Broderick became one of the biggest draws on Broadway. So what does he do for an encore? He signs up for an Off Broadway comedy, The Foreigner, and begins a series of intense rehearsals in unglamorous surroundings. On a recent afternoon, he was sitting around a folding table with his fellow cast members, eating a deli salad. He was chatting quietly, dressed in a red T-shirt, unshaven, and at ease. This is not a guy who wants to be Tom Cruise, or even John Cusack, but he’s not aggressively anti-star, either. He’ll answer questions, pose for photographs, do what he’s asked.

On this day, Broderick is initially wary, using distraction, it seems, as a defense. But when the words Sarah, Jessica, and Parker are not immediately strung together, he starts to engage. He joined this production of The Foreigner, he says, because he thought he had too much time off before his next project, a movie version of The Producers. (Directed by Mel Brooks, it will be the first production shot at the refurbished Brooklyn Navy Yard.) He’s looking forward to having one more chance at playing Leo Bloom, but he’s worried that he and Nathan Lane won’t be performing in front of an audience. “It will be like we are missing a character,” he says. “I have a love-hate thing with the audience. Sometimes I get annoyed that I am desperate for their love.” When he’s doing a play, he keeps his days simple. After a show, he’ll go out for dinner with friends at Joe Allen or Angus McIndoes and then take a long time walking home. In the summer, he plays on the Naked Angels theater group’s softball team. He bats lefty, throws lefty. His famous wife is a lefty, too, and, so, potentially, is their son, James.

Broderick is one of those New Yorkers who could barely survive living anywhere else. It also suits his preferred mode of celebrity. With the right baseball cap and the judicious use of Town Cars, Manhattan offers a famous person the chance at a halfway normal life. Broderick was actually born here. His father was an actor (best known as the dad on the seventies sitcom Family) and his mother was a playwright. For outsiders, New York is the repository of our dreams, the place we come to be the person we’re supposed to be. For natives, it’s home, the contours of their memories. Riding in cabs, strolling Fifth Avenue, acting in plays, directing movies, living in a loft: It’s just what people (or their parents) do. Broderick is the kind of local who sticks close to his childhood friends and refuses to use real-estate acronyms.

“I have a love-hate thing with the audience. Sometimes I get annoyed that I am desperate for their love.

Except for a year that he spent in Los Angeles, Broderick has lived his entire life in Greenwich Village. His townhouse is a short walk from that of his best friend since grade school, Kenneth Lonergan (the playwright and director). They talk on the phone several times a day. Broderick also has idiosyncratic New York habits: He went to Film Forum often when he lived two blocks away, but now that he lives six blocks away, he never goes. He has highly developed opinions about what is appropriate in the city. (“Mountain bikes are not acceptable, unless they have thin tires.”) He rides a Vespa to avoid traffic, buys a tabloid for the subway, and believes the West Village has gotten “too posh.” Most nights, he prefers to stay in, putting his son to bed.

With the success of Sex and the City and The Producers, Broderick’s cover has been blown. When he walks his son to the playground, the photographers are waiting. It’s almost as though the city has let him down. Sure, he gets recognized on the street, but New Yorkers usually keep their distance, occasionally dropping a snide comment: “I like some of your work.” E. B. White described the special anonymity of the city in the opening line of his essay “Here Is New York”: “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” It’s a funny showbiz irony that Broderick is married to Parker, given that his vision of New York—the local deli, the bad coffee, the deserted street on Sunday—is gradually being replaced by her Sex and the City version: the glass-fronted boutiques, the tell-all brunch, the women searching for men with French souls and American bank accounts. It’s no longer enough to survive in the city: We also have to be fabulous.

Broderick describes a childhood that only a New Yorker could feel nostalgic for: “There wasn’t this fear of being abducted. I will say, though, that I was constantly mugged and robbed. My prize baseball mitt, my skateboard, my new bike. They were all taken from me.” He would roughhouse with friends and play handball against the Washington Square arch. “I know it sounds like I grew up in the thirties,” he says, “but I actually did that stuff.” His mother took him to the Met, the Frick, the old planetarium, and Gilbert and Sullivan shows. But most of this time involved “lying around in Central Park, charging food to parents, and going to the movies.”

Broderick went to a progressive school on the Upper West Side called Walden, now defunct. In the afternoon, he and Lonergan applied themselves at Marty Reisman’s table-tennis palace on 96th Street and Broadway. “The place was downstairs, huge,” Broderick recalled. “Reisman wore this big pimpy hat, like Streets of San Francisco, and aviator glasses.” Broderick still plays a lot of “pong” at his gym. It’s a sport that suits him: boyish and old-school and occasionally competitive and intense. At Walden, Broderick quit football after an injury and tried acting. As a senior, he decided to take a year off to see what would happen.

Broderick’s first success was on the New York stage, but then came Ferris Bueller. Despite his talents, he has never really escaped the matrix of this breakthrough role. He made a few attempts at big-budget stardom, but at 42, he’s become the anti-Ferris, a specialist in dweebs. There was his turn as the bank-branch manager in You Can Count on Me, the sexually desperate high-school teacher in Election, and, most successfully, as the drippy accountant in The Producers. One wonders where the smirk has gone. It’s tempting to send a text message to the Treo cell phone he carries: “Save Ferris!” Discussing his future, Broderick, true to form, doesn’t display any anxiety or strong ambitions. “Kenny has a new play that he thinks I would be good in,” he says, adding that he would like to meet his current favorite director, Pedro Almodóvar, just to talk. Broderick sounds so casual about his career that I almost think he’s bluffing, that there’s a master plan he’s secretly working from. Can someone who has succeeded the way he has be this passive about it? Near the end of one of our conversations, I ask him what he’d do if he weren’t an actor, and he stares into the middle distance and says, “I might be a garbageman. I’ve always liked late at night. There’s something appealing about hanging out on the back of the truck, going through the city streets, all alone.”

Home Boy