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Adam Brody steps to the side of the spotlight

EntertainmentMoviesThe O.C. (tv program)Religion and BeliefJason BatemanNicolas CageTim Story

There was a hole in the sleeve of Adam Brody's threadbare T-shirt. His eyes were still puffy from sleep, even though it was nearly noon. He looked as though he had rolled out of bed just moments before leaving his home in Encino and driving down to Jan's Restaurant, an old-school West Hollywood diner.

He seemed nothing like Seth Cohen, the well-to-do nerd he played to great fanfare on the popular teen soap "The O.C." But it's been six years since the Fox program went off the air, and a lot has changed.

When "The O.C." ended, Brody was considered one of Hollywood's brightest young stars, endearing himself to Generation Y as Seth, a fast-talking sarcastic dude who liked comic books and indie bands but was able to land the popular girl. His affable character still has a cultural effect— a reminder of which came in August, when stories commemorating the program's 10th anniversary blanketed the Internet.

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That Brody, now 33, would go on to play what he jokingly refers to as "the token white guy" in "Baggage Claim," a film aimed at African American audiences, is probably not what most fans of "The O.C." anticipated. But his part in the movie, released Friday, is only the latest in a string of unexpected film roles. This year alone, he's popped up as mustachioed porn star Harry Reems in "Lovelace," a remorseful lothario in the Neil LaBute-penned "Some Girl(s)" and a Jewish suitor on "The Bachelor" spoof "Burning Love."

Busy? Yes. But it's not by design.

"I have a say in my career to a certain point, but I can only play with the toys I'm given," acknowledged Brody. "My agent fishes and brings me the couple catches of the month. He errs on the side of 'let's do it' and I err on the side of 'let's not' and we meet in the middle."

In a sense, Brody has become a character actor, except that the character he's playing is just a regular guy — think a younger version of Jason Bateman.

"He's a Renaissance guy, which seems to be rare in this town," said David Talbert, the writer and director of "Baggage Claim."

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Brody views himself as a "journeyman" and says the randomness of his career is what makes it fun: He loves traveling to different sets and making unlikely new friends, like Jean-Claude Van Damme, one of his boyhood heroes, with whom he recently filmed a comedy in Puerto Rico. Other times, though, he feels out of place, dropping in for just a few pages of dialogue during production or promoting a film in which he doesn't have much screen time.

"I would trade having two scenes in an interesting story versus being the lead of a bland movie, any day," he said. "But occasionally it is nice to be able to say at a film festival, 'No, let me field this question' and not feel like I'm tagging along. [With supporting roles] I feel like less of a part of it, in a way, and more like an observer who is a celebrity commentator on the movie itself."

It's this game-for-anything attitude that his collaborators find refreshing. When filmmaker Tim Story was casting his upcoming "Think Like a Man Too" — coincidentally, another movie with a predominantly black cast — he wanted Brody because he'd enjoyed the actor's work on "The O.C." But though the character he had to offer the actor turned up in a number of scenes, the part wasn't "hugely written."

"He could have said no," Story recalled. "But instead he took this small role and really filled it out."

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Brody didn't dream of becoming a movie star. Growing up in San Diego, he spent most of his time surfing. At 19, when he realized he had no chance of becoming the next Kelly Slater, he moved to L.A. with some buddies to try his hand at acting. He wasn't sure he'd be any good at it, but as a kid, watching movies was the only thing he liked as much as surfing.

Slowly, he was cast in some bit roles, playing a "high school guy" in "American Pie 2" and Barry Williams in the TV movie "Growing Up Brady." To make money, he valeted cars at the Beverly Hills Hotel until his big break came in 2003 with "The O.C." Playing Seth Cohen came naturally to Brody. They spoke at the same pace, shared the same mannerisms and were both genial Jewish dudes.

"So many girls still love him because of that show," said Talbert. "When he came into the 'Baggage Claim' casting session, all of the women in my office were aflutter. I asked someone to get me something to drink and she wouldn't move for fear of missing an Adam Brody sighting with her camera phone."

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Brody, however, seems to doubt the power of this allure. He knows people enjoy watching him play a nice guy but doesn't know how far outside of that wheelhouse he's capable of going.

"I don't think I'll ever be the actor I want to be or admire because I'm not eccentric," he said bluntly. "I know I have a couple great roles in me, but realistically speaking, there's a ceiling to my talent — and I don't mind."

Deep down, he says, he aspires to emulate Nicolas Cage — a guy he thinks is a "true artistic genius." He started to say he'd like to work opposite the "National Treasure" star but then backpedaled.

"I don't know what we'd do in the frame together in a really, truly exceptional way," Brody said. "Yeah, I could be in a straight-to-video movie with him and be the worse half. But what I could bring to his stuff? Maybe it's not where I belong. I wish I was a little bit more of an enigma, but I can't change who I am."

amy.kaufman@latimes.com

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EntertainmentMoviesThe O.C. (tv program)Religion and BeliefJason BatemanNicolas CageTim Story
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