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Matthew Broderick Finds That Being a ‘Terrific Reactor’ Pays Off : Movies: The star is still waiting for a romantic lead. He plays opposite Brando in ‘The Freshman.’

Matthew Broderick stands uncomfortably in his hotel room while his baggy, pleated pants are being pinned up. In three hours he’ll be on “The Arsenio Hall Show” for the first time, and his brand-new outfit--what he calls his “Arsenio outfit"--is still a work in progress.

“I didn’t really pack anything, so I had to go shopping when I got here from New York yesterday. I went to Fred Segal,” he says, pausing for a beat. “Maybe I can get something cheap there for saying that.”

Is he nervous about Arsenio? “Yeah, I’m nervous,” he admits. Despite a decade in show business and his success on Broadway and in films from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” to “Glory,” even after working on par with such veterans as Sean Connery, Dustin Hoffman, Neil Simon and Mike Nichols, the 28-year-old actor still seems tentative.

He’s more like a twentysomething friend from your college dorm, the guy who could be your best pal, than a movie star. Which makes him perfect for his part in “The Freshman,” the film he’s here to promote, in which he plays an earnest first-year film student from Vermont smack in the middle of New York City. He winds up learning more about the Godfather than he does about film when he meets up with a man who looks like the long-lost twin of Don Corleone, played by Marlon Brando himself.

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The “Arsenio” pants are rushed off to be hemmed, the makeup people are done with his face for his day of promo work, and Broderick gets more comfortable in faded jeans. Now that his room at the St. James’s Club on Sunset Boulevard is cleared of publicist types, he can play a little.

“Hey, look at this,” he goes over to a bar and TV on a mahogany chest. He presses a button, and the TV and refrigerator slowly descend to form a flat table. “I can even do it from my bed with a remote control.”

It’s an ironic playfulness, his unique combination of highbrow intelligence and a sense of wonderment, that caused writer-director Andrew Bergman (who wrote “The In-Laws”) to cast him in “The Freshman.” Bergman says he wrote the script with Broderick in mind.

“He has that great blend of intelligence and naivete,” says Bergman. “Matthew is a wonderful deadpan, a terrific reactor.”

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The role of the film student called for a reactor to react to Brando’s Godfather self-parody. The part also called for a young actor strong enough to play against a legend. As Bergman puts it, “Matthew really held his own. How many actors of his age wouldn’t be swallowed up by Marlon Brando?”

Broderick says that when he met Brando for the first time, his knees quaked. He had a mild anxiety attack before the first rehearsal. “We were waiting for Marlon to come, and I was so hysterically nervous. I kept turning the stereo on and off and adjusting the speakers,” he recalls. “I’m not normally like that, it was all Brando-related.

“And then he came in wearing a sweatsuit and sunglasses and he gave everybody a big hug. But when we sat down to read the script, I was too scared to even open my mouth. It was terrifying. I got less scared eventually.”

As he worked with Brando, Broderick says, he began to feel nurtured by him. “I don’t know how to explain it, but when you act with him all his attention is on you. There’s nothing self-conscious. You feel like you’re being taken care of--like you’re in very good hands.”

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Broderick says Brando took almost a fatherly interest in him on the set. “He would say, ‘My trailer is your trailer,’ ” Broderick recounts, dropping into his Brando voice. “So we’d hang out there a lot and eat his crudites. . . . One day, when we were shooting stills, he said he thought I looked pale and wasn’t getting enough sleep, things like that.”

Brando may have been working on his character all that time, because in the film he plays father figure to young Broderick. That part of the role made him think of his own father, actor James Broderick (of TV’s “Family”). “My father died when I was 20,” he says, his voice soft. “So, sure, I can relate to the story.

“My father was very, very influential. He was a lot of the reason I went into acting. He never pushed me though. He never encouraged me until he knew I wanted to do it myself.”

After starring in high school plays at the Walden School in Greenwich Village, Broderick played opposite his father in an Off-Broadway production of “Valentine’s Day.” He went on to land a role in Harvey Fierstein’s “Torch Song Trilogy.” The play caught the eye of Neil Simon, who asked Broderick to try out for “Brighton Beach Memoirs.” He later did Simon’s “Biloxi Blues.”

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A real Broadway baby who says he misses the stage when he’s away from it for too long, Broderick has lived in New York most of his life. Much of “The Freshman” was filmed in the Village neighborhood where he grew up. “It was really right in my yard,” he says.

Broderick went from stage to screen with roles in “WarGames,” and “Max Dugan Returns”; then came “Ferris Bueller,” the role that has stuck to him like Krazy Glue.

“ ‘Hey Ferris,’ ” people will call out to me when I’m in an airport. And I’ll say, ‘Hi,’ and they’ll say, ‘How come you haven’t done anything since?’ ” Broderick says. “Now that disturbs me. I’ve done a lot since then.”

Broderick says he’s working to overcome being typecast, and would like to play a romantic lead. “I’ve been approached for some, but they haven’t worked out. Most people try to cast you in things they’ve already seen, so it’s a little hard to make that step sometimes.”

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In his personal life, Broderick is involved with actor Helen Hunt. She starred with him in “Love Letters” on the Los Angeles stage, and Broderick says working with her was “an absolute pleasure. She was very good in the role.”

He was previously linked to actor Jennifer Grey, who was with him in the BMW that hit an oncoming car head-on in Northern Ireland, a much-publicized accident that cost the lives of two women. It’s a tragedy he has tried to put behind him. “I think basically it was a terrible traffic accident. Two people were dead, I was almost dead. I don’t think there’s much you can color that with,” he says, becoming terse.

He labels this past year a breakthrough--with three films back-to-back, great roles and great people to work with. He threw himself into preparing for his part in “Glory,” learning the complete history of his Civil War character. He was surprised when “Family Business,” with Connery and Hoffman, essentially flopped, but the friendship he developed with Hoffman, he says, was “worth the entire movie.”

For his role in “The Freshman,” Broderick admits he didn’t do much preparing. He already felt close to the character. “I tried not to plan it out too carefully. This is a guy who is reacting to everything around him. I wanted to capture that,” he says, stopping to think it over. “I often feel like that in my own life.”

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