Hollywood Casting for Its Next Hunk
HOLLYWOOD — Call it the hunt for the new male movie star — a youngster to step into the shoes of Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt or even Leonardo DiCaprio, who’s already hit the ripe old age of 32. In the next year, Hollywood is betting a billion dollars on a raft of relative unknowns in the hopes of creating a star to appeal to Millennial Generation, those born between 1978 and 2000, for whom Tom Cruise could be their father.
Ever heard of Emile Hirsch, James McAvoy or Sam Worthington? If not, you’re not alone, but that hasn’t stopped Warner Bros. and the Wachowski brothers from casting the 22-year old Hirsch in next summer’s tent pole “Speed Racer,” or Universal from putting the 28-year old Brit McAvoy in their spring 2008 action film “Wanted,” a potential franchise that co-stars Angelina Jolie. The macho Worthington — who’s not even famous among the cognoscenti — is a 30-year old journeyman Australian actor who won the jackpot recently when he landed the lead in “Avatar,” “Titanic” director’s James Cameron much heralded return to moviemaking, which is due out in 2009.
“The studios need that new generation,” says casting director Joseph Middleton, who recently auditioned almost every guy in his early 20s for Doug Liman’s next film, “Jumper,” about a teleporting kid. “This is a window that opens every decade for the stars we’re going to be watching for the next 30 years.”
Or as former studio chief-turned producer Tom Pollock puts it: “It seems that new stars — they come in bunches, and it’s been a drought for a while.”
You can also call it Hollywood’s latest end-run around the $20-million dollar leading man.
Consider 20-year old Shia LaBeouf, the first among equals in this set of new leading men. A former Disney Channel star, LaBeouf rocked the industry last month when his film “Disturbia” opened to a healthy $22 million, far more than the recent openings of such pricey stalwarts as 43-year-old Nicolas Cage, 35-year-old Mark Wahlberg, or 52-year-old Bruce Willis. The film, a nifty high school version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window,” proceeded to hold first place for three weeks. LaBeouf also stars in this summer’s blockbuster wannabe, the $145 million “Transformers,” one of the few nonsequels to generate enthusiasm among teenagers. And he has been anointed by Steven Spielberg to co-star alongside the relatively elderly (in Hollywood terms) Harrison Ford, in the long-awaited fourth installment of “Indiana Jones,” which will debut next May.
Spielberg first saw LaBeouf when he took his kids to see the Disney movie “Holes” and thought if Tom Hanks ever needed to hire a son, here was the guy. He also noticed that “this kid had remarkable acuity. There was something about the way he listened and looked at the world through the character he was portraying, that he made me want to see what he was so interested in looking at.”
Spielberg, who recommended him to Michael Bay to top “Transformers,” has no compunction putting unknowns at the heart of juggernauts. “It’s smart,” says the director. “If you look at the top 10 films of all time, the majority are populated with unknowns or actors that weren’t known as movie stars, just as good character actors.”
Despite his heat, LaBeouf is still a steal in Hollywood terms. According to insiders, he earned $400,000 for “Disturbia,” $500,000 for “Transformers” and will move into the $1 million range for “Indiana Jones,” which one studio exec terms the going rate for newcomers anchoring tent-pole films — those big summer movies that studios count on to make bottom lines green. That’s a fraction of the standard mega-star salary, the $20 million and 20 percent of the first-dollar gross required to garner the services of a Pitt or DiCaprio.
“It’s an economical thing,” says Universal President of Production Donna Langley, whose studio not only cast McAvoy but has recently tapped 26-year-old Aussie unknown Luke Ford to take over “The Mummy” franchise. “We have to have movie-star movies, but you can’t be in that business for all 15 to 20 movies you’re making a year. If you can catch somebody on the upswing of his career, that’s a nice place to be too.”
With budgets for this year’s blockbusters like “Spider-Man 3,” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” hovering around the $300 million mark, the prospect of not having to pay top stars $80 million (Tom Cruise’s take on “Mission: Impossible 3”) is enticing.
In Hollywood, youth is a matter of not just age, but of exposure. Whereas LaBeouf, Hirsch and Steven Strait (star of Roland Emmerich’s prehistoric action flick “10,000 B.C.”) are in their early 20s, the growing crew of would-be stars from England and Australia tend to be slightly older, but still new to Hollywood’s embrace.
Many have emerged as a result of collective Hollywood fatigue with the sensitive young men who have populated filmdom recently — the generation of people like Orlando Bloom, Josh Hartnett, Jake Gyllenhaal, even Tobey Maguire. “They’re all pretty boys,” says one leading talent agent with a sigh. “They’re kind of safe, not that masculine. They’re very sweet boys but by the time your 16-year-old is 18, she wants a little more testosterone. A lot of these young guys, they’re not necessarily pretty boys and they can act.”
Director Cameron considered almost every actor in his 20s to play “Avatar’s” lead, a silent, stoic former Marine suffering from a spinal injury. He quickly grew frustrated with the stars who were available. “I didn’t think they were tough enough for what I wanted them to do. (I kept thinking) ‘Where are the men? Show me the men.’ ” After screen-testing a few, he ultimately opted for the unknown Worthington, who “literally had me at the first word out of his mouth. His line was, ‘Yeah.’ “
“The whole sensitive man phenomenon is appealing, but we’re looking to get back to a more masculine movie star,” says casting director Joanna Colbert.
Most of these boys are featured in big idea tent-pole flicks, in which the concept remains bigger than the star. Still, betting on unknowns can be risky. No one walked out of last summer’s “Superman Returns” overly impressed by newcomer Brandon Routh; his overly pretty appearance and charisma deficit appear to have dampened the box office returns.
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Even for a superstar director like Cameron, the Fox studio was nervous about letting him hire Worthington to top-line “Avatar,” whose official budget is starting at $200 million. “It’s a scary thing for (the studio executives) to do,” says the director.
“Their instinct is a cover-your-butt, knee-jerk response. Even I started to feel it. Maybe we better give ourselves an insurance policy by casting someone with name value internationally.” Cameron ultimately rejected the famous faces who were available. “They’re overpaid and they’re not that great,” he said.
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“Although they might not be household names yet, most in the class of 2007 have fairly extensive acting resumes. LaBeouf and Hirsch were child actors. McAvoy has appeared in British television since 1995, but caught Hollywood’s attention only with his turn as Mr. Tumnus in 2005’s “The Chronicles of Narnia.” “Avatar’s” star Worthington has knocked about Aussie TV and film for the last six years. His only other claim to fame is as the man who was almost James Bond — ultimately losing out the part in “Casino Royale” to Daniel Craig.
For the lucky few, getting the nod can be an exhilarating experience. LaBeouf had no idea why Spielberg had summoned him to his office out of the blue. “I think he thought I was going to call him in to punish him for something he did in one of the two movies he did for DreamWorks. He walked in my office like he was walking into the principal’s. He came in looking all hang dog,” recalls the director. Then Spielberg offered him the role as Indiana Jones’ sidekick. Spielberg describes the youngster’s reaction: “I thought that young man was going to drop dead of a heart attack in my office.”