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NAMES

Justin Long on riding 'The Wave’ and his harrowing near-death experience

Justin Long stars in the surreal sci-fi comedy "The Wave," playing at the Coolidge this week.
Justin Long stars in the surreal sci-fi comedy "The Wave," playing at the Coolidge this week.Epic Pictures

Justin Long can’t find his wallet, and that’s the least of his worries.

In “The Wave,” Long plays Frank, a corporate lawyer who goes out partying with a co-worker (Donald Faison, of TV’s “Scrubs”), only to end up dosed with a powerful hallucinogen.

As the walls between fantasy and reality collapse around him, Frank embarks on a psychedelic quest to find a missing woman (Sheila Vand), a lost wallet, and hopefully a path back to his normal life. The film, directed by Gille Klabin, plays the Coolidge this Friday and Saturday, as part of its After Midnite program.

It’s a sizable role for the actor, 41, who says he’s at a point in his career where he can be more selective about the parts he plays. Long was prolific in the 2000s, playing affable underdogs in comedies like “Dodgeball" (2004) and “Accepted” (2006), as well as the romantic lead in films like “He’s Just Not That Into You” (2009).

These days, he’s shifted away from Hollywood, splitting his time between New York and the Berkshires. He prefers the solitude of Western Massachusetts, even if acting roles often pull him from it. Born and raised in Fairfield, Conn., Long spent some formative summers in the Berkshires, at a small cabin not unlike the one he currently owns.

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“The older I’ve gotten, the more time I’ve spent up there and the less I can manage being in the city,” he says, speaking by phone from New York. “I just feel like I’m too old for the chaos.”

Long’s eager to talk about those summers, and his childhood in Fairfield, which he remembers as a happy one. The middle son of three boys, Long grew up watching his mother, an actress, perform in local theater productions. He doesn’t, ironically, remember feeling much desire to be up on stage with her.

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“Acting was actually kind of the last thing I wanted to do growing up,” explains Long. Though his mother was happiest at the theater, it didn’t pay the bills. Long would accompany her to auditions in New York, where she sometimes struggled to book commercials.

“I saw the uglier side of being a professional actor, this near-constant stream of rejection,” he remembers. “It certainly wasn’t a glamorous profession to me.”

But Long was under five feet tall his first few years of high school, taking sports off the table. Trying out for plays was a chance to make friends and meet girls, he recalls, even if he didn’t feel totally comfortable on stage. It wasn’t until later in high school, when Long appeared in a production of Neil Simon’s play “Biloxi Blues,” that he became truly interested in acting as a craft.

“I found this feeling of being wholly present on stage, how liberating and safe that felt,” he recalls. “I couldn’t get enough after that. It became all I thought about.”

That idea of being present has since guided Long throughout his career, on stage and screen. “I never want to get caught acting,” he says. Instead, Long explains that he tries to invest in the realities of his characters before cameras roll, so that he can deliver their lines with relative ease.

“I’m oversimplifying it, but that is just a simple thing I do, being present,” he says. “Sometimes, I feel a little guilty for having made money doing this, having a professional career doing something that’s still really fun and playful.”

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Though “The Wave” has comedic elements, Long says he approached his role the same way he would have if it was a serious drama. To embody Frank, he took inspiration from “Marathon Man” and “Run Lola Run,” ticking-clock thrillers with life-and-death stakes for their protagonists.

“Within 10-15 minutes, the stakes go from this guy being at work to not knowing if he’s dead or alive,” says Long. “I loved the idea of getting to play that.”

Long also had a more personal connection to the character, following a harrowing incident in Michigan during the filming of “Youth in Revolt” (2009).

After a night of drinking, Long was offered marijuana by some locals. Instead, he believes, what they gave him was phencyclidine, also known as PCP. With Long incapacitated by the drug, the strangers loaded him into a car and brought him to various locations against his will, threatening to film the actor and sell the footage to TMZ. He remembers that night in flashes.

“I had this feeling of, ‘Oh, [expletive], I’m going to die,’” says Long. “‘And it’s going to be in a way that’s really brutal, that my mother is going to be extra-upset about, probably behind a dumpster.’”

Eventually, Long leapt from the car to escape, getting run over in the process. He incurred permanent nerve damage in one leg. “I’ll never forget the fabrics in the tears in my jeans, and blood pooling around them,” he recalls.

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Long disclosed this incident for the first time last May, on actor Dax Shepard’s podcast “Armchair Expert.” It was cathartic to talk about it, he says. The incident changed his outlook on life and celebrity, he says with certainty. Perhaps subconsciously, it’s also led him to focus on projects that mean the most to him, such as an ongoing podcast, “Life is Short with Justin Long,” that he hosts with his brother Christian.

“You can’t believe what a fine line we all walk, how close we all are at any time to death,” he says. “That’s what I like to talk about. Life’s so precious. What’s the best way to spend it?"


Isaac Feldberg can be reached at isaac.feldberg@globe.com, or on Twitter at @isaacfeldberg.