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Rising Stars

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It seems as if most of the big box-office stars--Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Eddie Murphy, Harrison Ford and Robert Redford among others--are starring in big summer films. Several lesser known actors are also making splashes this season.

Here’s a look at five of these actors and the breakout roles they play this summer.

STEVE ZAHN “OUT OF SIGHT”

Background: The Minnesota native dropped out of college and worked at a machine shop while living in his parents’ basement. “I wanted to be an actor, but I didn’t know the path to take. I got my first professional job at a dinner theater for eight months in ‘Biloxi Blues.’ ”

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Later, Zahn trained at the American Repertory Theater and appeared in New York in the original production of Eric Bogosian’s “SubUrbia.” On film, he’s been in “Reality Bites,” “That Thing You Do!,” “Crimson Tide” and “The Object of My Affection.”

Breakout Role: The inept, stoned, hippy-dippy thief Glenn, who never is without his sunglasses, in Steve Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight.”

Character Traits: “I really don’t do things I don’t think I could be good at. It’s like I read things and I have a take on something. It’s not always what’s written necessarily. The next step is to put it on tape and meet the director and to see if he or she [is] thinking the same thing.

“I actually did a tape in my basement for [Soderbergh]. My wife was taping it. We did it with my back to the camera the whole time. It’s the scene in the car with Jennifer Lopez. I thought, I’ll turn around once and say, ‘Do you smoke pot?’ He cast me off of that tape.”

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The Future: Zahn will be seen with Sam Rockwell in the comedy “Safe Men,” opening Aug. 7. “We are, like, two folk singers and we’re really bad and we live in Rhode Island and we get mistaken for safe crackers by the Jewish Mafia.”

He recently finished the comedy “Happy Texas” with Jeremy Northam and William H. Macy, as well as the Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan comedy “You Have Mail.”

“I am actually right now doing ‘Force of Nature’ with Ben Affleck and Sandra Bullock,” he says. “It’s a romantic comedy. I play Ben Affleck’s best friend. It’s a great gig.”

NOAH EMMERICH “THE TRUMAN SHOW”

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Background: A Yale graduate, Emmerich studied acting in New York and landed his first job in a stock company production of “Biloxi Blues.” He made his film debut in 1996’s “Beautiful Girls” and was featured in “Cop Land.”

Breakout Role: Marlon, Truman’s (Jim Carrey) lifelong best friend--who is just really an actor being fed

his lines--in Peter Weir’s"The Truman Show.”

Script Appeal: Emmerich first read the script 4 1/2 years ago. “I responded immediately to its uniqueness. It really touched me. I thought it was just a pipe dream. I kept it on my bedside table and kept calling my agents every two weeks. A couple of years went by and I got the audition and I got the job.

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What I hope I portrayed was an inner conflict for this character and what an interesting and bizarre circumstance they all lived in.”

Character Traits: “I think there is real love between two characters. I think Marlon and Truman are best friends. I think Truman is Marlon’s best friend, as sad as that might be. We have our own crazy back story [for our characters], and the one I came up with is that Marlon was put on the show by a pushy stage mother at the age of 7. He didn’t even know he was on television until he was older. It wasn’t until my 13th birthday and my parents set me down and said, ‘You are on television.’

“Instead of just doing photo shoots, we did daylong improvisations. We got in our costumes and we would have an event. One day we had Truman’s wedding to Meryl. We lived in the skins of characters. We grew a lot and learned a lot.”

The Future: “I have three movies in the can. I love saying that. I have two Ted Demme movies, ‘Monument Avenue’ and ‘Life’ with Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence. I also have ‘Crazy in Alabama,’ directed by Antonio Banderas.”

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KATE BECKINSALE “THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO”

Background: The lithe British actress began acting at 17 and made her film debut at 18 in 1993 in Kenneth Branagh’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” She appeared in John Schlesinger’s comedy “Cold Comfort Farm” and played the title role in A&E;'s production of “Emma.” She was seen earlier this year in the British comedy “Shooting Fish.”

Breakout Role: The snobbish Charlotte Pingress, a Manhattan editorial assistant in the early ‘80s who loves the disco night life in Whit Stillman’s “The Last Days of Disco.”

Script Appeal: “It’s a very different kind of script to read. It is very verbose. I am glad I had seen his movies before because it requires a different part of your brain than most scripts do. It’s so written, and most scripts aren’t really written at all. Also, he doesn’t sell jokes in the same way people sell jokes, which is really interesting. He kind of lets them creep up on you so you don’t know it’s a joke until it’s already happened.”

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Perfecting the Accent: “I didn’t do anything [to learn the American accent]. I just listened to everybody else. They had a guy come in for a half a day who listened to how I was doing and listened to me reading some bits out of the newspaper and that was that.”

Character Traits: "[Charlotte] is unpleasant. It’s always fun playing people who are slightly too honest for their own good, especially if you aren’t really the person. It’s interesting to play any kind of extreme. I really enjoyed her. I thought she was pretty funny. Also, she’s complicated. She gives off that she’s very confident, but if she were, I don’t think she would be putting down her friend quite so much.”

The Future: Beckinsale will next be seen in the Jonathan Kaplan-directed drama “Brokedown Palace” with Claire Danes.

“I had a little break and I am about to start a film of ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass,’ ” she says. “I never got to do things like that when I was a kid. I guess I was a little too fierce. I played the nasty Red Queen or the old man of the village. That’s the nice thing about being an actor, you actually get to play the Virgin Mary or Alice in Wonderland.”

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KRISTEN WILSON “DR. DOLITTLE”

Background: The Boston native danced professionally with the Boston Ballet as a teenager. She attended Syracuse University, where she become involved in acting. Wilson appeared on Broadway in the ill-fated 1991 musical “Nick and Nora.” She first caught audiences’ attention as Robin Givens in the 1995 HBO movie “Tyson.”

“I remember laughing so hard because Don King was quoted in the New York Post as saying he was really upset with HBO doing the Tyson story and, ‘I think they even got a white girl to play Robin Givens,’ because I am light-skinned. I was very offended by that. It was, like, ‘Don, I don’t think so.’ ”

Williams also starred with Montel Williams in the short-lived 1996 CBS series “Matt Waters.”

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Breakout Role: Wilson plays Lisa, the loving wife of John Dolittle (Eddie Murphy), a doctor who discovers he can talk to the animals in the hit comedy “Dr. Dolittle,” directed by Betty Thomas.

Script Appeal: “I knew the concept behind it was going to be good,” says Wilson, who got the role after six auditions and a screen test with Murphy. “I met him and our chemistry was really good.”

Puppy Love: “I was not afraid [of the animals]. I know Eddie was kind of afraid of a couple of animals. I thought it was great. I am more of a straight man [in this], so is Eddie. The animals have the punch lines.”

The Future: “I just had a baby, a girl. It has been good that it timed itself because I was pregnant when I finished ‘Dolittle.’ I’ve had this time off and I’m spending time with her and reading scripts.”

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EVAN ADAMS “SMOKE SIGNALS”

Background: The Coast Salish Indian from British Columbia has been acting for 13 years. “I was 18 and was doing a biochemistry degree at McGill University and a woman saw me on the street. She was a casting agent. She said, ‘Are you an actor?’ I don’t know why I did this, but I lied and said yeah. She said, ‘Oh great, come and audition for me tomorrow.’ Eventually, I was cast in this Canadian feature. I got six weeks’ work. The pay was amazing, so I got bit by the bug.”

Breakout Role: Thomas-Builds-the-Fire, a sweet, nerdy American Indian storyteller in the acclaimed drama “Smoke Signals,” the first feature written and directed by Native Americans. Adams, a good friend of its writer, Sherman Alexie, had previously played Thomas in an unreleased short film, “Somebody Kept Saying Powwow.”

Character Traits: “When I first played him, I knew he spoke some great words because Sherman Alexie is a great writer, but I thought he was a very quirky character. He was really the kind of Indian I never wanted to be. He didn’t speak English very well. He obviously wasn’t educated. He had few prospects. He wasn’t beautiful. He wasn’t popular--all of those things the Western world tells us we should be. I spent a lot of time in my life trying not to be like Thomas.”

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The Future: Adams recently completed a workshop of Alexie’s new movie, “Indian Killer,” in which he plays a psychopath. He also has written a script, “Snapshots,” which has been optioned by a production company in Vancouver. Though he wants to continue acting, school is his first priority. Next month, Adams starts medical school at the University of Calgary. “My intention is that I would like to work for native people in Canada, perhaps in the States as well. There are so few physicians of American Indian ancestry.”


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