Life in the fast lane

Times Staff Writer

The slightly built Cambodian man stood in a room full of self-important film types and bowed reverently toward a new acquaintance, illuminating the surrounding space with incongruity. That is, of course, if one overlooked the fact that this former moto-taxi driver from Phnom Penh was bundled up in expensive winter wear courtesy of MGM Studios. Sereyvuth Kem is now not only an actor, but the co-star of Matt Dillon's latest film, "City of Ghosts."

At the Thursday night cocktail party, held amid the Asian decor of the Main Street restaurant Wahso, the two men hugged like old friends -- Hollywood style. Dillon "discovered" Kem in late 2000, hanging outside Cambodia's capital building looking for a fare, and cast him in a role similar to his real-life profession.

"He was funnier than all the other guys," said Dillon, grabbing Kem for a photo. "He stood out from the crowd."

Kem said he'd never seen a movie until Dillon gave him a stack of videotapes. His first-ever film? "The Godfather," he said. His second? Dillon's own "There's Something About Mary."

As Kem detailed his father's death under the Khmer Rouge and his young life in an orphanage, four unseasonably tanned, midriff-bared girls in Hawaiian Tropic T-shirts writhed to a dance beat spun by a live DJ.

"Ghosts" co-star Natascha McElhone, six months pregnant and surviving on two hours' sleep, leaned against a wall. "I should leave soon," she said, touching her velvet belly. Outside on the patio, the smokers, among them Maggie Gyllenhaal, huddled under heat lamps.

On Friday night, the cast of "The Secret Lives of Dentists" commandeered a long table in the middle of the noisy River Horse Cafe. The film's co-star Robin Tunney quipped that she'd been to Sundance so many times that "I feel like some kind of statue on Main Street."

This year was especially good for her, she said, because of all the great musical performances at festival parties. "I saw De La Soul, and George Clinton came up on stage," said Tunney. "I saw Guns N' Roses covering a Bad Company song with Gina Gershon."

At the other end of the table, her co-star Campbell Scott -- who was in town for "Off the Map," a film he directed -- talked about the changing scene at Sundance while nibbling at a plate of ravioli.

"It's popular with a lot more celebrities," he said. "And as the amount of celebrities increases," so do the corporations using that fame to sell products. "They call it swag," said Scott. "Personally, I like it when the lights go down."

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