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STANLEY TUCCI has long been known as an actor’s actor, but recently he has emerged as everyone’s actor with two radically different but equally mesmerizing performances. First Tucci’s turn opposite Meryl Streep as chef Julia Child’s ever-besotted, ever-supportive husband, Paul, in Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia warmed audience’s hearts, then he chilled them to the marrow with his portrait of the banality of evil playing the child molester and murderer in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of the best seller The Lovely Bones.

Now Tucci’s standing front and center in the annual awards-derby spotlight—and, more important, in the eyes of appreciative filmgoers. How does he do it? Ask an actor: “Stanley’s a master of less is more,” says his Julie & Julia costar Jane Lynch. “He really knows how to do that. It’s all going on inside.”

We sat down with the Academy Award-nominated actor to talk about Meryl Streep, playing a dark character and what an Oscar nomination means to him.

LOS ANGELES CONFIDENTIAL: Mr. Harvey in The Lovely Bones is as dark as they come. How did you approach stepping in and out of the character? Was it a relief to set him aside at the end of the day?
STANLEY TUCCI: Oh my God, I couldn’t wait for the end of the day of shooting. You just want to get rid of it completely, but then you know you’ve got to come back the next day. Being able to change myself physically made a huge difference, because then you could just strip it off at the end of the day. The key thing is you have to remember that no matter what these people do, they are human beings. And that’s the scariest part. People say, “Oh, he’s a monster.” Well, he isn’t a monster. He’s a person whose acts are monstrous. You have to find the human elements.

In Julie & Julia, there seemed to be such a warm romance going on between you and Meryl Streep, whom you’d also worked with in The Devil Wears Prada. Was it nice to play a romantic leading man?
It was fantastic! I did The Lovely Bones first, and going to do [director] Nora [Ephron]’s movie was a great antidote to that. And to be a romantic leading man with Meryl—nothing could be greater! We’re becoming closer friends, and that film solidified the friendship. The times we spent together were always really joyful and sort of giddy. We share a very similar, cheap sense of humor.

At this stage of your career what does acting mean to you? How do you approach it, both as a profession and an art?
I love doing what I do. Ideally you want to get to that place every time that Meryl gets to—that playfulness, that childlike quality. You want to be serious about what you do, but you never want to take yourself too seriously. As a younger person, I almost took myself too seriously, and I think it was detrimental to my performances and to my outlook on acting as a whole. Now I’m much more secure as a person, and that security leads you to the ability to not take yourself so seriously. And once you do that, you have tremendous freedom. You have to remember it’s not nearly as hard as you think it is. I’m not saying it’s effortless, but I’m saying it must appear to be effortless in the end.

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