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Director Travis Fine put pilot career in a holding pattern

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Updated: January 31, 2013 6:22AM

Travis Fine has one of those faces you know you’ve seen before but can’t quite place.

As an actor he landed roles in films such as James Mangold’s “Girl, Interrupted” and ABC’s “The Young Riders,’ as well as small parts in a long list of other series and television movies. Or maybe you encountered him in his second career as a commercial airline pilot flying somewhere over the Midwest.

But it is his current career move to a spot behind the camera that is getting the most attention. “Any Day Now,” opening Friday at the Music Box Theatre, is a drama about a 1970s gay couple fighting to retain custody of their foster child, a teenager with Down syndrome who has been abandoned by his drug-addicted mother. It has been a hit on the film festival circuit, gaining praise for performances by Alan Cumming and Garret Dillahunt (as the couple Rudy and Paul) and Issac Leyva (as the young Marco).

“I really admire Travis for wanting to tell this story and for doing it so truthfully and honestly,” Cumming says via email. “He is a true collaborator because he listens, and he feels things in the room. Most directors do neither.”

Around 2001, Fine became disillusioned with acting (“Was this really the way I wanted to live my life?”) and left to pursue a career as a pilot. Years later, in the air at 37,000 feet with the plane on autopilot, he found himself “thinking about stories and scripts and characters and moments.”

Fine’s first step back to directing was the 2010 movie “The Space Between,,” which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival and later aired on the USA cable network. Written by Fine, it starred Melissa Leo in a story about a woman and an unaccompanied minor on a plane during the Sept. 11 attacks. It was while Fine looked for a second project that his music supervisor, PJ Bloom, suggested he take a look at a 35-year-old script written by his father, George, that had been on the verge of production several times.

“I read the script and was instantly attracted to the character of Rudy and his relationship to this young boy,” Fine, 44, recalls. “As a director and visual storyteller, there were things I wanted to bring to the script, and George let me put my own stamp on it. I started out not wanting to be the writer on this project but ended up being a co-writer.”

The role of the strong, forthright Rudy, a drag queen who works in a nightclub, may seem tailor-made for Cumming, but Fine actually considered another actor until his agent said, “You know you’re describing Alan Cumming, right?”

“As soon as he said that, I almost felt silly for not having thought of him literally as I was writing the character,” Fine says, with a laugh. “Alan won a Tony for his performance in ‘Cabaret,’ a role which has elements of Rudy, some of that same naughtiness, danger and sensuality.”

Cumming says he immediately related to the sense of injustice in the story and, because he was brought into the process early on, he was involved in several drafts of the script, an experience that evolved into “great discussions about the story and the character.” Yet while the drag queen idea “might be a bit of a tired cliche” in terms of gay portrayals in film, he understood why it was good to see Rudy as someone “very brazen and brave and at a different end of the gay spectrum” from Dillahunt’s Paul, a lawyer barely out of the closet.

“I really like the fact that you meet this man and you get a very quick and intense glimpse into his life,” Cumming says of Rudy. “Then immediately he is plunged into a completely life-changing series of events, and you see him struggling and growing and evolving because of them.”

Over his career, Dillahunt has played some pretty dark, edgy characters but probably is best known as the patriarch of the goofy family on the Fox television comedy “Raising Hope.” In “Any Day Now,” his portrayal of Paul brings an added dimension and balance to the story.

“Paul is so specific, quiet and powerful, all the things that his character really needs to be in order to counterbalance the whirlwind that is Rudy,” Fine explains. “He finds these great moments to let this passion out, and it’s quite beautiful.”

While it was shot with digital technology, “Any Day Now” retains the gritty feel found in ’70s films (“Mean Streets,” “Rocky,” “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie”) and has a distinct texture and look not often seen in current movies. Fine also has no qualms about telling a story that might seem out of date in this day of advancing gay rights. He feels the movie’s message is still very relevant.

“While this is a story that deals directly with LBGT rights, ultimately it’s very much about human rights,” Fine says. “That all of us no matter who we are have the right to give and receive love openly.”

Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.

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