“I feel like my career is just beginning.”
It’s a curious thing for Michael Vartan to say, and even he admits it’s an “odd” remark to make. At 48 years old, the actor maintains a healthy, youthful perspective about his life and career, the latter of which has spanned nearly three decades. Though he isn’t a household name, Vartan made a mark playing resident nice guys and men you’d want to take home to your parents, like CIA handler Michael Vaughn on Alias and the English teacher who fell in love with Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed.
“For the first part of my career, I’ve really been an insecure actor. I’ve really struggled to find ways to be good,” Vartan reflects over the phone one early February morning, graciously apologizing earlier for being under the weather. “As I get older, it’s not that I care less, but I really do. I care less about what people think about me. I care less about what I look like. I care less about things that, at the end of the day, are ultimately unimportant.”
“I feel like I haven’t delivered my best performance yet,” he boldly contends.
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Vartan’s continued desire to reach for that higher (sometimes unachievable) peak is both inspiring and a little stress-inducing. It’s that unenviable drive that often has him looking to the past and wishing for a do-over. “I wish I could go back in time with what I know now and reshoot every job I ever had -- I’d maybe not be better in them, but I’d have a much wider understanding of what I was doing,” he says, sharing one such experience in the late ‘90s.
“My first day on set of Never Been Kissed with Drew, my inner monologue was ‘Oh my god, I’m so nervous. Please don’t vomit on her shoes. Don’t do anything stupid!.’ That’s not necessarily the best headspace to be in as an actor,” the French-born actor candidly recalls, chuckling at the memory. “The fear of vomiting on my co-stars has disappeared, which is a good thing.”
It’s been more than five years since Vartan has starred in a lead role on the small screen (his last was TNT’s medical drama, HawthoRNe, which ended in 2011), but now, he’s taking on a decidedly darker route playing the “bad guy” on E!’s Hollywood soap, The Arrangement, which, on paper, follows a hotshot actor Kyle West, played by Josh Henderson, who enters a binding contract relationship with aspiring actress Megan Morrison, portrayed by Christine Evangelista. The long lull between series regular roles for Vartan (aside from a few stints on critically hailed TV dramas) wasn’t by design. “Unless you’re part of the one percent, you often go where you’re wanted, as opposed to where you want to go.”
Where Vartan wanted to go, and what led to The Arrangement, was taking a complete 180 from roles he’s perfected in the past: the guy next door, the caring boyfriend, the supportive co-worker. “I wouldn’t be on the phone with you if it hadn’t been for movies like Never Been Kissed and Monster-in-Law, and I feel privileged and blessed to have been a part of those projects,” he notes, understanding that those parts have played significant roles in keeping his career going. “Ultimately it’s the darker roles that have always been more interesting to me, and unfortunately, typecasting is a real thing. As I’ve gotten older, those doors are cracking open a little more.”
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In The Arrangement, Vartan slips into the character of Terence Anderson, the enigmatic head of the Institute for the Higher Mind, whose morally ambiguous agenda and motives loom large. “When he started the institute, his main goal in life was to help people, and along the road, with incredible wealth and secondary fame through Kyle, he lost his way a little bit and succumbed to the greed and the influences of Hollywood,” he says of his alter ego. But, not all is lost for Terence. “He has several moments of self-reflection and re-questioning everything he’s doing and why he’s doing it. He’s not all dark, but he’s not a choir boy, that’s for sure.”
The temptations, tribulations and manipulations reflected on The Arrangement are, to a point, highly dramatized versions of the unrelenting push and pull of Hollywood. “I’ve been doing this long enough where I’ve learned to insulate myself from all of that, but I can’t imagine being a young 18-year-old actor just getting off the bus in Ohio,” Vartan says. “I’d much rather be unknown [where] I can still go to Starbucks or take my dog for a walk down the street without 15 paparazzi following me. I can’t imagine living like that. I’m very happy with the way it’s all unfolded.”
Though Vartan is a veteran of the industry, he acknowledges his Hollywood journey has had its fair share of peaks and valleys. He points to the final year of Alias in 2006, a project he says he cherishes to this day, as a pivot point in his career. “This business is much harder than I thought it would be, to be honest with you,” he confesses. “I got Alias when I was 31 or 32. By the fifth season, naturally I felt established in the business -- ‘This is going to be my life. I’m going to go from show to show. Maybe I get lucky and get another Alias down the road.’”
In many ways, he’s still waiting.
“The moment you think you’ve arrived, even if it’s not at the top of the mountain, you realize very quickly that nothing is a given. You have to get it.”
The Arrangement premieres Sunday at 10 p.m. ET/PT on E!.