Play it again? Not this time

Times Staff Writer

Currently, movie audiences can see Michael Caine as a world-weary Brit and jealous lover, smoking opium and reporting from Vietnam in "The Quiet American." Later this year he'll be a gun-toting, steak-chewing Texan, brother of the equally crusty Robert Duvall, in the family film "Secondhand Lions."

Caine, whose accent was trashed in one of his earliest Hollywood roles as a ruthless Southerner in "Hurry Sundown," says the first day he opened his mouth on the Austin, Texas, set in front of an all-Texan crew, "I was probably as nervous as I've been in a long time." He spent two months learning how to stop neatly separating his words as he normally does and let them lean together in a subtle way.

The role was "a tremendous departure," he says, "the most American character I've ever played."

In his efforts to try a new role, Caine is swimming upstream. Hollywood will churn out the largest number in memory of play-it-safe sequels, prequels and adaptations this year, and audiences will see many stars in familiar roles -- Bruce Willis goes to war in the action adventure "Tears of the Sun," Tommy Lee Jones will track an assassin in the thriller "The Hunted." Still, some actors and directors jump at the chance to do something completely different.

If it's hard to imagine the cockney Caine in a cowboy hat, picture bubbly Meg Ryan as a flamboyant boxing manager in "Against the Ropes." Or mega-star emeritus Jack Nicholson stealing Adam Sandler's girlfriend in "Anger Management." Or Julia Roberts teaching art history at Wellesley in "Mona Lisa Smile."

Even Johnny Depp, who once told an interviewer "I'm not Blockbuster Boy," is switching gears: You'll see him this summer as a pirate in producer Jerry Bruckheimer's popcorn movie "Pirates of the Caribbean," based on the Disneyland ride.

There's nothing surprising about actors wanting to stretch, says Leonard Maltin, film critic for television's "Hot Ticket." One school of thought is "give the public what it wants," but another is "don't paint yourself into a corner."

"I don't think there's an actor with a brain who doesn't want to try different things and doesn't want to avoid being typecast or pigeonholed," Maltin says.

What's different now, suggests veteran producer Robert Cort ("Against the Ropes"), is that audiences may be less forgiving of change than they were decades ago. When actors were under contract to studios, they could afford to depart now and then from roles they'd become identified with because they knew the studios would always be willing to employ them later in their more popular roles.

"Some of it had to do with your confidence, your ability, your standing and your own belief in your talent," he says. Now high salaries and box office pressures have made actors more fearful of switching gears, he says.

What's more, many actors overthink their choices, Cort says, because they're trying too hard to control their careers. "A lot of people talk about taking chances. But when presented with the opportunity, they pull back."

Some don't have the versatility. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, realized there was nothing beyond action movies that he could or wanted to do, Cort says. (And this year he will return to his most successful franchise with "Terminator 3.") His 180-degree turn is his quest to be governor, Cort says.

Several directors will also veer off into unfamiliar territory in 2003. Ang Lee, known for his eclectic choices ("Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), will try out computer-generated images in "The Hulk," the comic-book classic about a scientist whose rage turns him into a giant green brute.

Producer Avi Arad said Universal's Mary Parent, co-president of production, suggested Lee as director. For Lee, the special effects and computer-generated characterization were appealing.

"Usually a director like Lee, an intellectual, reacts to a story he can tell," Arad says. Once he understood that the Hulk represented metaphorical anger and rage, Arad says, "he loved the idea." Audiences should think of it as "an art film with amazing action and a big budget," he adds.

In other departures, Lawrence Kasdan ("Body Heat," "The Big Chill" and "Grand Canyon") will be directing the adaptation of Stephen King's "Dreamcatcher," a camping tale of four friends who encounter an alternate world. On the other hand, director Tim Burton ("Batman," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Planet of the Apes") will be trying "Big Fish," an emotional father-son story starring Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor.

Even for established, popular actors, taking on new kinds of roles can be risky. Many people questioned the casting of Harrison Ford as a Russian submarine commander in last year's "K-19: The Widowmaker." "Then we saw the film, and we were right," Maltin says.

The biggest risk for an actor is doing a bad picture, Maltin says. "Michael Caine knew that years ago. When some of his films weren't very good, he worked hard to be good in them."Caine, 69, says it is precisely because he has been so successful in those movies that he can afford to cherry-pick quality roles. He grabbed the part of the old Texan in "Secondhand Lions" for the chance to work with Duvall, and also with Haley Joel Osment as an impressionable nephew who comes to live with them. Another lure was the 10-year-old script, which he calls "lovely." "It has to be one of the best endings I've ever seen in a movie," he says.The movie's writer and director, Tim McCanlies, a native Texan, admits he worried about Caine's accent, which he wanted to be softer than a twang and thinner than a drawl. "A bad one is like nails on a blackboard to a Texan. A week out, I was bugging him to hear it," McCanlies says. Crew members held their breath as Caine performed an eight-minute storytelling sequence in one take, McCanlies says.

Other filmmakers' decisions depend on where they are in life. Depp, whose most recent films were "Blow" and "From Hell," is now the father of two children, Bruckheimer points out. "Actors like to do things their kids can see." Depp's role in the ensemble cast is an honest but roguish pirate who chases the pirate thief who stole his ship.

When Bruckheimer proposed the idea to Depp last year at Cannes, the actor was interested. The part isn't really a stretch, Bruckheimer says. "When you read the character, you never quite know what direction he's coming from. He tells you the truth, and you think he's making it up. Johnny has a look, a feel about him. You can see him being a rogue." The movie may have Disney values, Bruckheimer says, but it also has supernatural quirkiness.

Sandler, whose fan base began with boys, has also been stretching into dramatic roles, notably in last year's "Punch-Drunk Love." Still, the pairing of Sandler with Nicholson is an eyebrow-raiser. Nicholson normally picks carefully among prestige scripts and directors. In "Anger Management" he plays an over-the-top anger management instructor, a snarling menace and romantic rival to Sandler's innocent nice guy. Sandler plays more of the straight-man role.

Todd Garner, the film's producer, says he had the part written for Nicholson because no one else possessed the menace, sexuality and requisite comic timing. Nicholson and Sandler worked together on their parts, meeting at Nicholson's house with Garner, screenwriter David Dorfman and director Peter Segal.

Male actors have an easier time finding roles in which they can flex their acting skills, says producer Cort. "There are so few bravura parts for women," he says, "especially in contemporary pieces. Actresses get to take more chances in period drama ... when they're playing Queen Elizabeth or something."

Ryan and Roberts have previously tried -- with different degrees of success -- to change their on-screen personas, forged in romantic comedy. Roberts won an Oscar in 2000 for the feisty "Erin Brockovich"; Ryan had less box office success as an alcoholic in "When a Man Loves a Woman" and a vengeful photographer in "Addicted to Love."

In "Against the Ropes," Ryan's role as Jackie Kallen, boxing's first female manager, is a "significant departure but not a 180-degree shift," Cort says. "It used a lot of her intelligence and sense of humor. We wanted someone the audience had sympathy with going in so we could take real chances with the character. Meg did that.

"Meg has a much sexier body than the girl-next-door kind of parts have allowed her to play," Cort says. The first day on the set, when Ryan appeared in a provocative short skirt and tight top, the crew did a double take, he says. "From that moment on, she was known on the set as Jackie. No one referred to her as Meg."

"Fitzgerald said there are no second acts," Cort says. "That's a dated concept. There are big second acts today in American life. This is a bit of a second act for Meg."

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