Los Angeles Times

This actor is no stranger to making roles his own

Sentinel Movie Critic

'Dostoevski was on to something," actor Giovanni Ribisi says."You are the path you choose. You are what your vocation is."

The 32-year-old is talking about being identified with acting, theprofession that has been who he is since he was 8.

But he is also talking about his corner of the Hollywood universe. Herejects the label "character actor" -- even if that is exactly what he is.

"I think the '70s should have disavowed anybody of that pigeonhole peopleused to get put into: character actor," he says. "I really think a film'ssuccess doesn't have that much to do with how good-looking the leading man is.It's about the quality of the film and the performances. I think I'm moreleading man than 50 percent of the leading men out there. What I do is moreabout me and my choices than about what hole Hollywood might think aboutputting me into."

What Hollywood puts him "into" is -- often as not -- a role that requireshim to wear glasses, to be the young, short, balding and serious guy -- thegearhead, the tech nerd. That's what he was in Sky Captain and the World ofTomorrow or Flight of the Phoenix. He can be the photographer-husband whoneglects Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation or the romantic lead, as heis in the upcoming indie comedy Dog Problem. But it's not much of a stretch tothink of Ribisi as an information-technology guy, a computer hacker-expert whohelps a reporter played by Halle Berry, which is what he plays in the newthriller, Perfect Stranger.

"You get offered somebody who maybe sounds a little like you," he says."But you do your research as an actor and you find things to add . . . IfI'm aware of any preconceived notions about me that lead to them asking me todo a part, that's my sign that I need to go completely the opposite of thatpart.

"This guy was written as an overweight frumpy cliche of what you think acomputer geek would be. I wanted this guy to be a little scary, but also 'acontender,' somebody who has a shot with her, or who thinks he does. He had tobe witty and charming and a little charismatic around her, because that's hisgoal, to win her."

Berry won't say whether Ribisi's character "has a shot." But she likes whathe brings to a part that could have been simply "the nerdy sidekick."

"He may have baggage, all actors do," says Berry. "But he's so good at whathe does that he doesn't let that be an issue."

In person, Ribisi has more hair than you might imagine. He is earnest andfriendly, chain-smoking Camels on the balcony of a swank Miami hotel, eager tolet you know that if he is in a mainstream-film pigeonhole, he isn't sweatingit.

And indie film allows him to branch out. That's probably where he'll tacklehis long-standing dream project, a biography of early 20th-century Austrianpainter Egon Schiele. Schiele was the classic "tortured artist" who diesyoung, a World War I-era icon who tested social mores on canvas -- his workwas called pornographic -- and in life, where he was linked with a successionof underage models.

"I'm really happy with where I am, the movies in my life," says Ribisi,pondering the project that's been just out of reach up until now. "Notsatisfied, necessarily. But I won't put it on somebody else, blame anybodyelse for my position in the business. It's the choices I have made."

Roger Moore can be reached at 407-420-5369 or rmoore@orlandosentinel.com. Check out Roger Moore's blog, OrlandoSentinel.com/frankly, for all the latest movie news and gossip. . First photo ran on C1.

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