J.C. Cutler is the Steve Buscemi of Twin Cities theater.

He works a lot but is not well known. And Cutler is fine with that. His love of the craft seems to supersede a desire for fame or top billing.

Cutler has landed a plum role this holiday season, as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol" at the Guthrie. He has played in dozens of Guthrie productions over the past three decades, including five productions of "Carol." This is his first time as Scrooge.

"The challenge of Scrooge is to create a character that really needs redemption," Cutler said. "He's definitely a full-blown misanthrope. I'm applying all that I know to play this guy."

"The thing that's so special about J.C. is his humbleness: I've rarely worked with someone whose ego is sublimated so entirely to the process of making the work," said Tony Taccone, artistic director of Berkeley Rep. He cast Cutler in "Tiny Kushner," five short plays by Tony Kushner that played at the Guthrie, in San Francisco and London. "He simply wants to service the play, and all of his considerable energy and talent and intelligence is focused on that one task. It makes working with him special. Plus, he's a die-hard Twins fan, so you have to feel great empathy towards him."

A poet's son

The actor grew up mostly in Wichita, Kansas. He moved around in his youth, as his father, a poet and professor, took up Fulbright fellowships in Spain, Paraguay and Switzerland. He also spent summers in Italy, where his mother was born.

"When I lived in foreign countries, I was aware I stood out as an Americano, and I always wanted to blend in, feel like I'm part of a family," he said. "I tried really hard to sound and look like I'm from the place I'm in. Now when I approach characters, that immersion that came at a young age has stood me in good stead."

Cutler moved to the Twin Cities area to attend Carleton College. In the fall of his junior year, he went to England, where he saw a Royal Shakespeare Company production of "Twelfth Night."

"It absolutely blew my mind," he said. "I remember the bus ride back to London that evening. I just stared out the window. I wanted to, if I could, experience what those actors experienced."

He told his parents about his passion.

"My father, bless his heart, gave me really good advice," he said. "'The industry can use smart, discerning actors. Don't quit just yet.' I stayed at Carleton and cobbled together a theater major."

He then auditioned for and got into Juilliard.

Started at CTC

After Juilliard, where he studied with former artistic director Michael Langham, he returned to the Twin Cities, starting his career at the Children's Theatre, where he played "a variety of different physical characters.

"That taught me that I could do 11 shows a week," he said. He added that he also learned a lot from understudying actors such as Stephen Pelinksi and Richard Iglewski at the Guthrie.

"Before there were acting schools, actors learned by watching and trying to capture what they saw," he said. "You're like a pinch hitter in baseball. I know some actors pooh-pooh it, but it's a noble part of the profession."

Cutler has three grown children. His wife, Judy, was his college sweetheart. He's had some recent stand-out performances, including playing a psychologically tortured patient in Joel Sass' production of "Shining City" at the Jungle Theater.

"He's still the oldest graduate student I know," said Sass, who directed him in the Conor McPherson drama. "At a certain age, people begin to sigh when presented with huge challenges. J.C.'s over 40 but he's lost none of the enthusiasm for acting, for craft. He has this extreme, earnest desire to excel in whatever role."

Guthrie director Joe Dowling, who cast Cutler in "Macbeth" before "Christmas Carol," agreed. "He comes to the role with a clear sense of what he wants to do with the character, but is flexible and collaborative with director and fellow actors as rehearsals progress," he said. "He is never afraid to try new things out but is always sensitive to the director's vision and honest to the text. He grows in stature with each performance he gives."

For his part, Cutler, who uses J.C. because there's another John Cutler who registered the name with Actors' Equity union before him, chalks up his good fortune -- he has almost always worked -- to his attitude.

"I've been fortunate to be challenged to play a lot of different types of roles, including character roles," he said. "I hate to use that terminology. Everything is an opportunity to learn. Even 'Triple Espresso,' which I did on and off for several years, presented a style I'd never done before: singing, direct address, improvisation."

It is that gung-ho work ethic and studied curiosity that has endeared Cutler to directors, and why he keeps working.

"J.C. is a dream actor," said Dowling.