While even the biggest fans of David Caruso still recall him mostly for his one-year-and-four-episode stint as Detective John Kelly on NYPD Blue back in the 1993-94 seasons, Caruso has done a lot of moving on. He left the hit show to do some feature film work (the money-losing Kiss of Death and Jade), returned to network TV starring in the brief run of Michael Hayes, then hit a string of unwanted downtime, the kiss of death for any actor.
Caruso, who costars with an ensemble cast in director Brad Anderson's new horror film, Session 9, is very candid about a time that he'd like to forget.
"There was a period where it was pretty tough," he says of the late-1990s, when journalists and fans were less than kind to him. "People were really angry, and they wanted to see me get what I deserved. And I did. I went from a guy who was doing big pictures to unemployment. I couldn't get a job for two years."
What followed was a period of waiting for the phone to ring -- during which time he took the lead in Oliver Stone's Cold Around the Heart, did a made-for-TV movie, and had a small scene-stealing part opposite Russell Crowe in Proof of Life. Just when it seemed the calls were slowing to a trickle, the phone rang again.
"They called me out of the blue," he says of the people behind Session 9. "They were assembling the cast, and I guess I was pitched to them. There was obviously something going on in this piece, something extremely different."
Caruso speaks in understatement. There's a lot going on in this creepy film. It focuses on a disparate group of men working on an asbestos-removal crew at the old abandoned Danvers State Hospital in Massachusetts. And it's filmed on the actual location of the huge, rambling old building, crumbling at every corner, just the sight of which is scary enough.
"The day after we arrived, Brad took us on a tour," recalls Caruso. "We were all handed a flashlight, and we walked around. The thing that's so powerful about the place is you can feel the deep grief and pain and carnage that was there. It was built more than 100 years ago, before they had any knowledge of psychotherapy. And in those days, mental illness, because it was so misunderstood, was perceived as a form of evil. So there was punishment involved with this type of incarceration. And you can feel that in the building, you can feel that these poor, misunderstood people were just thrown away, and the anguish that is resonant in that building is really palpable."
But in the end, all of this was okay with Caruso because it added to and challenged acting, a passion for which he's had since he was a kid growing up in New York. But he also admits that he hasn't been as fortunate as some industry people in being able to map his own destiny.
"What I've experienced is that the industry has kind of let me know where they need me," he says. "So I try to allow some things to take place. I wasn't even necessarily after a career. It's nice to be successful. I've been in a few things that people have seen, and most of the stuff I've been in people haven't seen."
So why did Caruso decide to leave NYPD Blue while it was at the top of the heap among TV hits? His answer is initially vague, something about not being able to compete in the same time slot on any other network show. But then he gets to the heart of the matter.
"I wasn't even looking to do TV," he says. "I had Mad Dog and Glory in the can, and I guess I was hoping that might translate into some other work in features. It translated into the TV thing, and that's a whole other ball of wax. It becomes kind of a celebrity-driven thing. The downside of that is the focus goes off the work and onto the celebrity or the ratings. That's where it becomes tricky."
It got even trickier when the movie failures hit. Then, to make matters much worse, there was a new TV show, South Park, that early on featured a scene in which one of the kids was trapped on a UFO, while his brother was yelling at him to jump. "Take a nosedive," he said. "Do an imitation of David Caruso's career."
"I thought that was great," says Caruso, laughing. "At the time, you've got to remember, things were a lot rougher for me than they are now. I mean, they were really gunnin' for me. The truth is it was the best publicity I had all year."