A new day for Meat Loaf

JIM SLOTEK

, Last Updated: 11:35 PM ET

For the record, the name is now, legally, Michael Lee Aday. It's not Meat Loaf, nor Meat Loaf Aday, nor even his birth name, Marvin Lee Aday.

"Names are so weird to me," says the singer and actor who's still best known for groping and frenching his backup vocalist night after night onstage in the '70s rock opus Paradise By The Dashboard Light. "I mean, I've been called 'Meat' most of my life. I can't deal with names, it's confusing."

As he kicked back with a Cuban cigar on the balcony of his room at the Four Seasons Hotel during the Toronto International Film Fest, it seemed logical to draw a line between the bombastic rock-operatic personality "Meat" and the thinner and thoughtful actor-for-hire who was in town promoting his role in the film of the anti-racist Arthur Miller novel Focus.

For one thing, "Meat" began as a cruel nickname foisted on him during a traumatic Texas boyhood by his alcoholic father -- a man Aday now calls, among other things, "a racist."

"But my mother was not. And my mother (who died of breast cancer when Aday was 19) influenced me far more than my father did. In fact, any parental influence in my life, my mother gave it to me, musically, morally, she's the influence in my life. Really. Right there."

That her influence flies in the face of some of his movie roles goes without saying. Set in the 1940s, Focus revolves around an ordinary middle-class white American (William H. Macy) whose life turns to hell when a new pair of glasses apparently makes him "look Jewish." Aday plays the man's next-door neighbour Fred, who begins looking at him with fear and malevolence even as he tries to enlist him in a head-bashing organization of "America First" racists.

"I didn't claim Fred as evil," Aday says. "I never thought of him as evil at all. He was on that road, but I think he just wanted his block to conform to how it should be. It's all based on fear. To me, racism is completely absurd. It's like in that old Star Trek episode where the guys are half black and half white and they hate each other. And Kirk says, 'What's the difference?' And the guy goes, 'Well, he's black on the right side.' "

Similarly, the redneck Southern sheriff he played memorably in Crazy In Alabama (on the trail of suspected spouse murderer Melanie Griffith) "was, again, a very stereotypical character in whom I tried to find some inner good. That character is more in touch with the situation of what's right and what's wrong than Fred was, even though he's still a redneck sheriff."

There are no such shades of grey in his character in The 51st State, a movie in which he'll be credited for the first time as Michael Lee Aday. In it, Samuel L. Jackson plays an American superchemist who looks to score on a major drug deal. Aday is a lowlife named Lizard. "It's a black comedy," he says, "and I play a person with no redeeming qualities at all. I just went with it, and created somebody who's not likable on any level."

(Aday says he was assured that Focus would be the first movie with his new name -- "Paramount was going to change the trailer, but finally they said it would cost too much money." When that one's released, he'll be Meat Loaf Aday.)

I suggest to him that the sweet and tragic testicular patient he played in the controversial Fight Club might be closer to his real character (a survivor, the amiable Aday has battled various health problems of his own, as well as the rock 'n' roll lifestyle, before settling in as a husband and father of two daughters). But the notion of any of his characters reflecting his real life horrifies him.

"If you see me in any way, that freaks me out," he says. "Forget Meat Loaf, 'cause that's a whole other persona. He's like a cross between something terrifying and Red Skelton, it's something really overacted, a song and dance, a musical comedy.

"But even just seeing me ... it drives me crazy to see any piece of me onscreen, 'cause I really try to go to a physical place with these people I play. I'm like Shirley MacLaine channelling ... (he laughs) ... Okay, I'm not going that far, but you hear actors all the time say, 'I'm bringin' such and such from myself into this.' Well, I don't wanna. I don't want to see me up there, and I hate it when I actually do pop through. There's one little moment in Focus, you'll never see it, but I saw it, just for a hair. And it really bothered me."

Fans will see that other guy, Meat Loaf, back on stage in the next year.

His new album, due in March, is called Testify -- "which is something I've been doing my whole life. I should have been a preacher. If you liked my last record (Bat Out Of Hell 2), you're gonna forget that last record. This record is me, sounding like me, but it will surprise you."

And no, it won't be produced by his legendary mentor/Svengali Jim Steinman, a reunion he won't discount.

And it goes without saying that the proportions of his character in concert will be less "something terrifying" and more "Red Skelton." Aday wrestled with many demons in the Bat Out Of Hell days, sustaining a dozen or more concussions through sheer physical punishment, and "hitting the wall" twice in Toronto.

Once he ended up here after suffering a breakdown and going missing, while on another occasion in 1978, he fell off the stage during a Toronto show and ended up in a wheelchair for a month.

Just don't call him a rock star. "It's like people call me a rock star or this or that. And I go, 'Don't call me that. I don't think of myself in those terms. If you have to call me anything, call me a chameleon.' "


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