I love acting, it’s great fun, but I don’t want to be a celebrity or a superstar, don’t want attention. I don’t feel comfortable with it.” That may seem a contrary opinion coming from a youth in a field where public recognition is practically the coin of the realm, but it’s a lot less surprising given the genes involved. The speaker is Matt Salinger, 23, the only son of one of the world’s most notable recluses, author J.D. (The Catcher in the Rye) Salinger.
The elder Salinger hasn’t appeared in print since 1965, when the New Yorker published his short story Hapworth 16, 1924, and hasn’t made a public appearance in almost as long, despite being steadily sought—and sometimes stalked—by nosy interviewers. Matt has inherited that same distaste—only now he’s about to step onstage as a Studio 54 doorman, of all things. The play is One Night at Studio, written by his Princeton classmate Jordan Katz. The drama will run in a small theater in L.A. Even Matt acknowledges the play needs all the attention it can get. “It seems so selfish not to do interviews if people are curious about me because of my name and that will help the play,” he says gamely. But before you can ask the first question, he lays down the ground rules: “I won’t let people try to get at my father—find out about his life—through me. I know how much he does not want public attention. He is a wonderful father and I respect him, so I won’t talk about him.”
All right, let’s talk about Matt. He and his sister, Margaret, 28, who is studying labor relations in England, were born and raised in Cornish, N.H., where J.D. still resides. His father and his mother, Claire Douglas, a Jungian psychologist now living in San Francisco, divorced when Matt was 6. But they lived near each other, and the children divided their time between them. “I was not the child of split parents,” says Matt. “I was lucky, I thought. I liked the change of pace, and I got to know my parents as individuals. They became friends to me.”
After two years as a boarder at a ski-oriented private school and four more at Andover, Matt found himself at Princeton, where he was as uncomfortable as Holden Caulfield in prep school. “At Princeton they were still stamping out Southern gentlemen for life in high corporate echelons, and that was just a little stifling,” he recalls. “People knew all about everyone else. I didn’t want that. I resent any sort of categorization.” So he crossed the Hudson and joined the class of 1982 at Columbia. “It was wonderful,” he says. “It was completely anonymous. One day I was walking across from building to building and found myself smiling. It was because I didn’t know anyone, and no one knew me.”
After trying his hand at several seasons of summer stock and getting his degree in art history, Matt worked briefly at Sotheby’s auction house, appraising paintings and wondering if acting was for him. He lives in an Upper West Side Manhattan walk-up and dates Betsy Becker, 27, who was a coworker at Sotheby’s. He has had roles on the soap operas Ryan’s Hope and One Life to Live. Surely the name helps a little? “Up until now I’ve gotten every acting job I’ve had without anyone knowing who I am,” Matt says. “I feel very good about that. In fact, only two people have ever recognized me on the street. One was a guy who tried to sell me a nickel bag on Columbus Circle in New York. He asked me, ‘Wasn’t you messin’ with Cassie [in One Life to Live] on the stories?’ ”
The current role of Pete the doorman is Matt’s first big part, and he relishes the challenge. “It’s fun playing a bastard,” he says. “I fill up pages and pages of a journal about Pete—how he’d behave in cold weather, what he has for breakfast. It’s nice thinking and writing about those things. It’s fun.” Wait, did he say writing? “Well, yes,” he admits sheepishly. “Right now I’m writing a screenplay with a fellow actor.” But that’s all he’ll say. Anyway, he has been contemplating a more urgent challenge: opening night, Oct. 25, when he must face the critics as well as his mother. “She’ll be coming down to the opening,” he says with a small smile, “but I don’t think my father will be coming here.”