"It was the craziest weekend of our lives," recalls Shea, 33, of the period last February when both Missing and The Dining Room opened back to back, each with favorable reviews. "When you keep a low profile for years," says the actor, who lives in a cluttered SoHo loft with his photographer wife, Laura Pettibone, "you're not used to the glare of celebrity."
Now that Missing has established him as one of Hollywood's hottest newcomers and The Dining Room's producers concede that his success has been a boon to the box office, Shea may have to get used to it. Says Missing co-star Sissy Spacek of Shea's potential: "I see him as a leading man wherever he wants to be—on stage or screen."
New Hampshire-born Shea admits a certain kinship to Charles Horman, the real-life Harvard-educated writer with leftist sympathies who moved to Chile with his wife, Joyce, in 1972 to witness the socialist regime of Salvador Allende and on whom the Missing role is based. Although never so politically involved as Horman, Shea spent three months researching Horman's life and the political climate in Chile when Horman vanished there during the coup that toppled Allende in 1973. Shea's "linchpin for the character" was not his grasp of Horman's political idealism. Instead, Shea focused on the personal motives that led Horman to return to Santiago despite authorities' warnings of danger. "I knew the gut reaction. I know what it's like to be in love, to be separated from your wife. I'd have had to get back and see if my wife was okay, too."
His Yankee background also stands Shea in good stead for his part in The Dining Room, a two-act piece that, in a series of gently comic vignettes enacted around a dining room table, explores what one character calls "the WASP culture of the Northeast." Playing a series of New England archetypes ranging from a tweedy psychiatrist to a sullen college student, Shea contends that "this is the only role I ever spent 18 years in rehearsal for. I grew up around a dining room table."
The son of a school superintendent and the eldest of five children, John headed to Bates College in Maine with plans to become a career diplomat, but he switched to acting after landing the lead role in a college production. "Bitten by the fatal bug," he later enrolled at Yale Drama School. There he studied directing (while Laura took special photography courses) and performed in the school's Repertory Theater. His co-star in one play: fellow student Meryl Streep, now a neighbor with whom John and Laura occasionally socialize.
"I've been lucky," admits Shea. Indeed, he landed work almost as soon as he hit New York. After debuting in the decidedly un-WASPy Broadway play Yentl opposite Tovah Feldshuh, he scored in a string of off-Broadway dramas (Sorrows of Stephen and Safe House) that eventually led him to Hollywood and TV parts in The Last Convertible and most recently Family Reunion with Bette Davis. ("I asked her in her dressing room if she minded if I smoked," he recalls. "She said, 'I can't stand men who don't,' and gave me one of her nonfilters.")
After a part in Jill Clayburgh's It's My Turn that ended on the cutting room floor, Shea flew back to New York and opened in off-Broadway's American Days. His role as a Machiavellian showbiz exec who bullies a bunch of auditioning punk rockers brought him to the attention of Costa-Gavras. The director signed him for Missing without even seeing American Days. "We shook on it after a half-hour talk," says Shea. "But Costa caught the play that night, just to double-check."
Despite the success of Missing (which is favored to win the Cannes Film Festival Best Film award next week), Shea is reluctant to stray far from the New York stage for long. He will do a three-night engagement of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale at Carnegie Hall and perhaps summer stock with actress Sigourney (Eyewitness) Weaver, but he is picking and choosing film scripts carefully. One possibility is a Robert De Niro film. Also coming up: Hussy, a British movie he made pre-Missing that is scheduled for release in the U.S. this fall. So far his summer plans include a stretch in the Elizabeth Islands off Massachusetts where he and Laura have a house and where he races his boat, a 13-foot dinghy.
How does Shea feel about being typed as Hollywood's newest up-and-coming sex symbol? "If it brings audiences in to see you," it's okay. But, Shea points out, "I'm in this for the long run. I hope when my 'heartthrob looks'—if that's what I've got—die away, the audiences will still come. I'll be here until I'm 60, and I want them to grow old with me."
When last seen on the big screen in Constantin Costa-Gavras' political thriller Missing, John Shea had been kidnapped by right-wing junta forces in Latin America, leaving Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon to sleuth his whereabouts. But Manhattan theater audiences know just where to find him. Six days a week Shea is front and center at the Astor Place Theatre, appearing with a group of ensemble players in an off-Broadway hit called The Dining Room.