Whether Playing Shakespeare or Himself, Aidan Quinn Proves to Be a Rebel Without a Pause

updated 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/01/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

The dark of night provides cover for the kid with the can of spray paint. Standing before the wall he writes in dripping white letters: To Be/Not to Be. Then he whips around. "That is the question," he says. And on this night, as usual, Aidan Quinn's audacious approach to Hamlet's famous soliloquy gets a laugh from the audience. "You have to make them laugh and then make them listen," says Quinn. Best known for starring in last year's movie flop Reckless, Quinn, 26, is tackling Shakespeare's Dane in a rule-breaking production of Hamlet at Chicago's Wisdom Bridge Theater. This modern-dress, four-hour version uses onstage video cameras, tape recorders and the Talking Heads' Burning Down the House. The Slinky, which Hamlet uses while feigning madness, was Quinn's idea. "I don't do drugs," he says. "But I used to do acid when I was young. I used to play with a Slinky when I was on acid and I used to love it."

In a sense, Reckless was an aptly titled debut vehicle for the renegade Quinn. Just three years ago he was an unknown who got the movie part after a casting agent showed the director a Polaroid shot of him. Before the film opened there was talk of Quinn as the next James Dean. With the looks, blue-eyed gaze and seductive soft voice of a heartbreaker, Quinn was sent out on a promotional tour. "So how do you like the movie?" the interviewers asked. Not much, Quinn said. "I tried to avoid the question, but it just kept coming up," says Quinn. "And I can't lie." Goodbye, overnight sensation. Quinn spent his $20,000 fee from Reckless on a trip to Ireland and returned to his native Chicago to work as a cocktail waiter. "It was so embarrassing and I was so bad at it. I sort of did it on purpose. I had to bring myself back down to being a normal person again."

Seven months after Reckless opened, he was starring in the off-Broadway Sam Shepard play Fool for Love, and while in New York he met his girlfriend, a would-be actress, whom he declines to identify. "It's a very good relationship, the first real one I've had in many years," he says.

The second of five children, Aidan was born to Irish immigrants. The family moved back to Ireland and lived near Dublin for a year when Aidan was a toddler and again at 13. On that second visit, he says, he discovered cigarettes and girls. "I'd sneak out of the house to meet girls at 3:30 a.m." Back at his Chicago high school, "I'd wear clogs, short pants and ladies' bracelets. I created this aura for myself," says Aidan. Adds his mother: "He liked to annoy the other kids. I always kind of knew he was just putting on an act." After high school Aidan returned to Dublin for a year and during that stay attended lunchtime shows at a local college because soup and a sandwich came with the ticket price. Back in Chicago in 1978, he was working as a roofer when he decided to try acting, but even then he wasn't sure he should make it a career. Byrne Piven, his acting teacher and Hamlet co-star, recalls that when 19-year-old Aidan called about classes, he thought the kid might be stoned because he seemed so hesitant.

Later this month Quinn's second movie, Desperately Seeking Susan, opens. "I haven't seen it. I don't know what it's like," he says. Then stubbing out a cigarette, he says quietly, "I had some problems." Director Susan Seidelman adds: "I won't say we had an easy working relationship, but what I got on film is worth it. He's a thinker and it shows." Next month he starts filming The Mission, in which he plays Robert De Niro's younger brother.

At a restaurant before a performance, a young woman with purple hair, black fingernails and spiked leather jewelry approaches Quinn. "Oohh, Aidan, how are you?" she asks. "How's doing Hamlet? My mother and I are trying to get tickets. I want to see it sooo bad." After Quinn makes pleasantries the woman walks off. "I don't know who she is," he says. "Must be from my punk rock days." Even Quinn can't entirely account for his history.

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