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From Sneaky Kid to Comic Creep

3 minute read
James Poniewozik

Mike White’s father says one of his son’s big cinematic influences is Woody Allen. It makes sense. Like Allen, the screenwriter acts in his movies and usually plays one of the film’s creepiest characters. But in White’s case, the creepiness is intentional. In Chuck & Buck (2000), he starred as an emotionally stunted man who so badly wants to reconnect with a childhood friend that he stalks him. In this year’s teen comedy Orange County, he was an unctuous, semiliterate English teacher. In The Good Girl, he’s a born-again security guard with a crooked grin and a suspiciously relentless evangelism. (“I’m not a pagan, but thanks anyway!” he says when co-workers wish him a happy Halloween.)

The security guard might seem like a snarky L.A. writer’s easy swipe at a red-state sort he has no firsthand knowledge of. In fact, White’s father Mel was an evangelical minister who ghostwrote books for Jerry Falwell and Billy Graham. Mel White was also gay and deeply closeted, undergoing electroshock and aversion therapy to “cure” his homosexuality. (He is now out and heads an organization for gay Christians.) When White was 11, he found a tape of his parents discussing his father’s sexuality with psychologists and asked his father about it. “He was such a sneaky little kid,” Mel remembers. “We always had a motto in the family: we wouldn’t answer questions that weren’t asked, but we would always answer honestly questions that were.”

White, 32, was inspired to write by his second-grade teacher, the mother of playwright Sam Shepard. (“I read Buried Child in the second grade,” says White.) And his discovery about his father led to a lifelong fascination with secrets. “You feel like even really good people are showing a different public face than their private selves,” he says. Sexual secrets are the brick and mortar of The Good Girl and Chuck & Buck, and in 2001 White created Fox’s Pasadena, a twisted, sly and regrettably short-lived prime-time soap (set in his hometown) about the criminal, financial and bedroom secrets of a newspaper-mogul family.

White’s first career break, though, was as a writer for the WB’s more well-scrubbed teen soap Dawson’s Creek. “That was very difficult for me because it was about people who are better-looking than the normal person and more eloquent, and they live these more exciting lives,” White says. “To me, watching that kind of thing is oppressive.” But he does have a commercial streak. Orange County was a rare, mature teen comedy with well-drawn characters and a surprising message: an aspiring teenage writer (Colin Hanks) discovers he doesn’t have to escape his suburban-hell home to become an artist.

In his Madame-Bovary-hits-the-strip-mall tale The Good Girl, White gives the misunderstood-author type another twist, making Jake Gyllenhaal’s Holden both a genuinely tortured soul and a childish poseur. It’s that tension–between satire and empathy, pathos and bathos–that gives White’s scripts their characteristic discomfiting humor. “Most comedies are so insubstantial that I come out feeling kind of empty,” says White. “I feel it’s sad to leave all the great themes of drama to the dramatists.” White’s upcoming movie, The School of Rock (starring Jack Black), is likewise a comedy. Let’s hope it also has a role for a creep with a crooked smile.

–Reported by Jess Cagle/Los Angeles

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