Dean Winters is not a stark raving psychotic bastard, but he plays one on TV. As Ryan O'Reilly on the HBO prison drama OZ, Mr. Winters has arranged for one man to be burnt to death, fed another broken glass till his insides bled out, taken over the drug trade, and in his spare time helped organize a prison riot.
The actor himself is slightly less well ordered than his nemesis. At the age of 33, he has only been acting for six years, since his younger brother roused him from bed and dragged him to an acting class. Small parts ensued in NYPD Blue, Homicide: Life on the Streets, and Millennium. There was also a blink-and-you'll-miss-it turn in the Mel Gibson popcorn flick Conspiracy Theory, but mostly there were the bars.
"I bartended in 16 bars over seven years," he says with evident pride, while sipping a coke in an East Village cafe. "I wouldn't trade my bartending days for anything. Cafes, after-hours bars, strip clubs, I worked them all."
Winters grew up in Manhattan ( with a character-testing spell in Arizona ) within a "tough Irish family," which includes brothers Scott and Brad. Scott, you may recall, was the ponytailed asshole intellectual in Good Will Hunting, while Brad is a television writer. In a rare and pleasant twist, Scott appears in an upcoming episode of OZ and in one scene speaks lines written by Brad.
So how would the real Dean Winters fare in prison? "I probably wouldn't do real well," he says. "I have a couple of really good friends who've done time--one of them's in right now--and I think that it takes more than inherent toughness. I think I would have a lot of problems."