By Jim Colucci
TAYLOR HANDLEY IS HOLDING COURT at a long dinner table at Culina, the popular Italian restaurant inside the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills. The 28-year-old actor, dressed in a preppy gray cardigan and navy insignia tie, fits right in among the Hollywood power players and glam visitors who are filling the industry room.
It's a stark difference from how Handley looked a few days ago, when he strode into a casual Los Angeles cafe sporting a baseball cap and a week's worth of scruff after a salmon-fishing trip to Alaska. But he's used to sartorial switches by now, having played dozens of characters since he began acting as a teen, including a drug-dealing surfer in the soon-to-be-released film Chasing Mavericks.
It's in the hotly anticipated CBS drama Vegas, though, that the young actor may make his biggest mark yet playing Dixon Lamb, a young and impulsive cattle rancher in the ‘60s-era crime drama, who may (or may not) be up to no good. It was a role Handley was born to play, even though he almost didn't get the part.
"I had a great read," Handley remembers of his audition, for which he wore a leather jacket and boots from a previous role as a biker in the soon-to-be-released film Channeling. But producers felt he was "too contemporary" for the part, which was initially envisioned as a younger brother to star Dennis Quaid. Then, a stroke of luck borne only in Sin City: The character was reconceived as Quaid's rebellious son, opening the door to Handley again. This time, wearing cowboy boots, jeans and a Wrangler shirt, he nailed the part cold."
"What attracted me to Dixon was this carefreeness that I saw in him," Handley remembers, owning up to a bit of an impulsive streak himself as well. "Things like that, you read and say, "Wow, this is me! I can do this!" It's really rare and refreshing when a role really speaks to you," the actor says. "When you find one, you want to do everything you possibly can to go after it and get the job."
Especially when the job comes with such a stellar pedigree-the show was created by Goodfellas writer Nick Pileggi and features stars Quaid and Michael Chiklis.
BLAZING A TRAIL
A Santa Barbara, Calif., native whose heritage traces back to the area's pioneering Spanish colonial Ortega family, Handley started acting in school plays and summer stock productions before he was even a teenager. At 13, he decided to pursue professional acting roles, and on his third-ever audition he landed a role in the 1998 comedy Jack Frost, playing "a snowboarding, punk-ass bully," he recalls, laughing. Then, only two auditions later, Handley was cast in a TV pilot. "I remember my agent calling and saying, 'Do you know if you were a baseball player what your batting average would be?'" Handley remembers. "I don't play baseball, so I didn't know. So he said, 'You're batting a thousand!'"
Throughout high school, Handley commuted an hour and a half south to L.A. for auditions and acting classes, and by his junior year, he decided to "go full blast," moving to the city after graduation to pursue acting.
Luckily, at such a young age, Handley already had a wide range of roles for his reel, such as a "stoner, fun, doofus character" on 2001's short-lived sitcom Go Fish and his part in the 2003 pilot Then Came Jones, set in turn-of-the-20th-century El Paso.
"I've always had a lot of diversity in the roles that I play," Handley explains. "Maybe you could say that I could be typecast as a villain, because I've played some villainous roles where I've kind of stood out." Such as a stint on the hit Fox soap The O.C. when he was only 19. "I had this little six-episode arc and I was a real jerk. People remember that. It was a really popular show at the time, in its first season, and here I was, this guy who broke up the perfect relationship" between the characters played by Ben McKenzie and Mischa Barton. "I've enjoyed being a villain, but there's never been one thing I've been attracted to."
By his early 20s, Handley had entered a new phase of his career, with the teen roles behind him. "After [the 2007 CW soap] Hidden Palms didn't [last], it got pretty quiet for me," the actor says. "From then until now, it's been a steady climb," he admits, "sometimes harder than others, into manhood and adult roles. It has been tough for a lot of child actors, who aren't able to make the transition."
TAKING THE REINS
Now, as Dixon, Handley will definitely be getting to do some adult stuff; in the first scene of the Vegas pilot, he's bare-chested and barefoot while fleeing a married woman's bed, narrowly escaping shotgun blasts from her cuckolded husband. "Dixon grew up in the boring desert, and now has this playground in his backyard," Handley says. "He was doing ranch work, flipping hay and herding cattle, and all of a sudden, the girls and the gambling and the bars are there. So to be in your mid-20s when that happens, you're going to have a hell of a time. I think the best part about Dixon is that he gets to do stuff in the show that people only kind of dream about doing. And he gets away with it. How fun is that?!"
Less fun was training to actually be a cattle rancher.
"My father likes to ride horses, so I was riding from a very young age," Handley explains. Still, when it came time to appear onscreen as a lifelong rancher, "I'd hoped that because I had ridden sporadically during my life I could just get on the horse and just be a pro again." But, he admits, that wasn't the case. And so, Handley "had to do quite a few sessions to kind of knock the rust off and get back in the saddle."
In fact, as the young actor notes, it's a challenge to keep up with his co-star and TV dad Quaid, who for many years owned a real Montana ranch. "Dennis gets on the horse and is just in control as soon as his foot is in that stirrup," Handley says admiringly. "It's really cool to watch. I'll be just kind of testing the waters, and he's already taken off." Ironically, Handley had been up for a role as Quaid's son in the 2009 film Horsemen; now, he gets to realize that dream. "He's always been a standout actor for me," Handley says. "There was a moment in the pilot where he gets punched in the face, and just the look on his face as he comes back at the guy-Dennis pulls off moments like that so smoothly, and I so admire that." The appreciation is mutual.
"Taylor brings a great sense of humor to the show," gushes Quaid. "He has incredible youth and enthusiasm, and the result is a great character that he's playing. I really like that kid. He's so likable."
OCTOBER AND BEYOND
It's going to be a big autumn for Handley, and in particularly a hot October, with Vegas just beginning to sprout up on the small screen, and Chasing Mavericks hitting theaters Oct. 26. With more films in the pipeline-not just Channeling but also later this year Mentryville, a thriller in which Handley plays a newly returned soldier fighting an evil pharmaceutical conspiracy-the actor says he wants to spend his summer TV hiatuses on the big screen, "whether heading something up or just having a great supporting role where I can do something fun and different."
"My roles continue to be really diverse, and that's really important to me, to get to put a different hat on for each character," Handley says. "Dixon is the best character that I could play at this time in my life. I think there's so much room to grow with him, and there are going to be so many opportunities to do great work with this character. For Dixon's cowboy hat to be the main one for me to wear for hopefully seven years and beyond, that would be pretty phenomenal."