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Rising Actor Has That Star Quality : Movies: Johnathon Schaech makes more than muscles ripple in ‘How to Make an American Quilt.’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Hunky young college refugee arrives from points east, pays dues for a few years doing odd jobs, finally making a splash with shirt off and pecs bulging in a film otherwise dominated by women.

Brad Pitt in “Thelma & Louise,” sure, but the description also applies to “How to Make an American Quilt’s” Johnathon Schaech, a fast-rising 26-year-old actor whose looks and talent have gained the attention of some heavy Hollywood hitters.

Tom Hanks plucked him out of pre-"Quilt” obscurity to play the lead in “That Thing You Do,” which Hanks is directing for 20th Century Fox. When the film begins shooting this month, Schaech will be crooning his way through his performance as the lead singer of the Wonders, a fictional one-hit band that tops the charts in 1964.

But it isn’t the first time Schaech has had to ply his pipes. Although his “Quilt” character Leon spends most of his screen time enticing Winona Ryder’s Finn with juicy strawberries instead of serenading her, Schaech had to memorize three Latin love songs after screen-testing for the part.

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“Originally, the Leon character sang, but after seeing Johnathon work those strawberries I decided that would be enough,” quips “Quilt” director Jocelyn Moorhouse.

” . . . I hadn’t seen Johnathon in anything before. But he is this really strong actor with the right amount of sex appeal and sense of humor,” she adds. We found out just how much at the test screenings. The women in particular had a very strong reaction to him. They kept asking us, who is that guy playing Leon?”

The attention all seems a bit unnerving for Schaech, who is serious about being taken seriously. Cashing in on any anticipated glitz seems unreal, especially for a fellow who says, “I live in the now and that’s about it.”

Schaech mulls over the notion as he polishes off a plate of pancakes at a West Hollywood breakfast haunt. This, after all, is the son of a retired Baltimore cop and a grocery checkout clerk who grew up in the suburb of Edgewood, Md., dreaming of becoming an artist of the painterly kind.

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Press him on his early years, and he reveals a story of being so smitten by a girlfriend at 16 that he sold all of his paintings to buy her a diamond promise ring--one she lost in the dumpster of a Burger King.

“Oh God, I can’t believe I told you that. Do we really have to talk about all of that?” Schaech asks with some embarrassment. He is assured it goes with the territory: This is the stuff girls want to know about.

After high school, he headed for the University of Maryland with plans to become a lawyer after graduating with a degree in economics. But three semesters shy of graduation, Schaech chucked his studies and, like Pitt, ditched the security of home turf and headed for L.A. The acting bug had bit.

“I had been thinking about it for some time. Finally I just packed up and moved out. I got lucky,” he says, noting he took a few acting classes, then studied under Roy London for 3 1/2 years until the well-known drama instructor died.

There were bit parts including his first film, “The Webber’s 15 Minutes” opposite Jennifer Tilly. Then he went through a tough, three-month audition process before he landed the lead in Franco Zeffirelli’s “The Sparrow” four years ago. The picture, shot in Sicily and released internationally, has yet to appear in U.S. theaters.

Schaech would have become a regular fixture on Fox TV’s “Brisco County Jr.” but he bypassed the steady work to portray--like Pitt in “Thelma & Louise"--an unseemly yet alluring drifter. In Gregg Araki’s “The Doom Generation,” a raunchy message movie for the Generation X crowd that opened last week, Schaech plays Xavier Red, who performs a vile sex act in one scene. Asked about the scene, Schaech looks up, smiles and licks the back of his hand. “You mean that scene?” he asks.

This is not the same Schaech who blushed over pancakes and teen love confessions five minutes earlier.

“You know, after I came out here I did all these odd jobs. There’s never been any hype on me. But there’s been a lot of tears. A lot of fire and rain,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve gone 1,000 miles and I’ve got a 1,000 to go. Isn’t that how the saying goes? I would play that role [of Xavier] again. I loved that character.”

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And “Doom” director Araki apparently loved him in it. “Johnathon is brilliant, incredibly gorgeous and talented and there’s no limit as to what he can do and how far he can go,” he says.

After “Doom,” Schaech appeared in the TV series “Models Inc.” before spending three weeks on the set of “Quilt.”

“In the script, my role was much bigger than what you see,” he recalls. “There could have been more to it, but I enjoyed what was there. Winona was very kind and she helped me a lot.”

Since “Quilt,” Schaech has starred in two upcoming psychological thrillers, New Line Cinema’s “Lily” and “Invasion of Privacy.” In “Lily,” Schaech plays a sculptor caught up in a love triangle. In the other, he plays a killer.

“All of these roles have allowed me to stretch and that’s the way I hope it continues to be,” he says. “There is no grand plan. Except that I have to say I would love to work with Linda Fiorentino. She is incredible.”

But now the sole focus on Schaech’s mind is pumping up his psyche for “That Thing You Do.”

“Whatever Johnathon chooses to do, I’m sure he will do it well,” Moorhouse says. “He is extremely serious. I remember how he took a lot of teasing from the male crew. They gave him such a bad time when he did the pool scenes with his shirt off [for “Quilt”]. I kept telling him he had to pump up and he was quite embarrassed actually. But he was very earnest.”

And if this heartthrob image sticks? “Well,” she adds, “he doesn’t seem to look at it as if it were a glamour job. But then that’s part of the charm . . . isn’t it?”

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