This actor is no stranger to making roles his own

'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, the profession that has been who he is since he was 8.

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

"I think the '70s should have disavowed anybody of that pigeonhole people used to get put into: character actor," he says. "I really think a film's success 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 more leading man than 50 percent of the leading men out there. What I do is more about me and my choices than about what hole Hollywood might think about putting me into."

What Hollywood puts him "into" is -- often as not -- a role that requires him to wear glasses, to be the young, short, balding and serious guy -- the gearhead, the tech nerd. That's what he was in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow or Flight of the Phoenix. He can be the photographer-husband who neglects Scarlett Johansson in Lost in Translation or the romantic lead, as he is in the upcoming indie comedy Dog Problem. But it's not much of a stretch to think of Ribisi as an information-technology guy, a computer hacker-expert who helps a reporter played by Halle Berry, which is what he plays in the new thriller, 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 . . . If I'm aware of any preconceived notions about me that lead to them asking me to do a part, that's my sign that I need to go completely the opposite of that part.

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

Berry won't say whether Ribisi's character "has a shot." But she likes what he 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 what he does that he doesn't let that be an issue."

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

And indie film allows him to branch out. That's probably where he'll tackle his long-standing dream project, a biography of early 20th-century Austrian painter Egon Schiele. Schiele was the classic "tortured artist" who dies young, a World War I-era icon who tested social mores on canvas -- his work was called pornographic -- and in life, where he was linked with a succession of 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. "Not satisfied, necessarily. But I won't put it on somebody else, blame anybody else for my position in the business. It's the choices I have made."

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First photo ran on C1.