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Ready to take the lead

Special to The Times

It is a frequent lament that actors today keep getting younger -- both in actual age and in attitude. Making it in Hollywood is nothing short of an Olympic sport at this point -- there’s no age limit on eligibility, but your chances sure are better in your teens and 20s.

Timothy Olyphant is looking to buck that conventional wisdom. Married with three children, the 35-year-old has a few concerns in his life that likely aren’t weighing on the latest teen sensation. Now, after years of supporting roles, Olyphant seems to be coming into his own as a leading man.

In his scene-stealing turn in “The Girl Next Door” as a talent manager-slash-porn director, he projects a charming charisma and dangerous darkness, often in the same scene. He also has one of the lead roles in the new HBO series “Deadwood,” as a frontiersman looking to bring a little civilized justice to a lawless frontier outpost.

If “Deadwood” marks the beginning of a new chapter in Olyphant’s career, his role in “The Girl Next Door,” opening Friday, could be read as the punctuation mark concluding the previous one.

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Mentioning his roles in films such as “Go” and “A Man Apart,” Olyphant says he at first resisted auditioning for Kelly, the strong-arming pornographer. It felt too much like roles he’d played before. “I was hoping maybe there was something else out there I hadn’t done.” Flashing a quick grin, he adds, “As my manager dutifully reminded me, not many people saw those movies.”

“The Girl Next Door” deftly and unabashedly parallels the narrative trajectory of “Risky Business,” putting Olyphant in the Joe Pantoliano role of soft-hearted hustler. (Olyphant chokes back a laugh when asked if he watched “Risky Business” before the shoot. “I don’t think I prepared for the role, to be quite honest with you,” he says.)

His roguishly charming Kelly is a rival for the future of Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert), a onetime porn actress who’s trying to start over. She enchants her 18-year-old neighbor, overachiever Matthew (Emile Hirsch), but Kelly isn’t so willing to let go of his star talent. It’s typical boy-meets-girl stuff. Sort of.

“I don’t know if that comes from the fact that I’m 35 and married with kids and I have an understanding of the world, but relationships with porn stars are not going to be easy,” he says. “There’s going to be some issues there. The sequel to this movie involves some couples therapy.”

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Raised in Modesto, Olyphant studied fine art at USC and, after a stint acting in New York, came back to L.A. He got his first role in 1995 on a TV pilot, with Jim Caviezel and Maria Bello, that didn’t get picked up.

Until recently, Olyphant was most recognized on the street from his turn as Todd Gaines, the rascally drug dealer in 1999’s “Go,” directed by Doug Liman. The attention from “Go” allowed Olyphant to take the logical next step -- or something like it -- into a big-budget action spectacle. In his case, it was “Gone in 60 Seconds,” in which he played a detective.

“No disrespect to the people who made that movie,” he says, “but I was broke.... My wife was pregnant with our first child and was due that summer here in L.A. That shot here in L.A. and paid more than I’d ever been paid. At the time, that was perfect.”

And for right now, “Deadwood” is perfect. Set in an illegal settlement in the Black Hills of South Dakota just days after Custer’s defeat at Little Bighorn, it’s an unflinching look at the violent and morally shaky ground of the frontier. Olyphant is already looking forward to shooting the second season; HBO ordered 12 more episodes after only the first two episodes aired this spring. “Some of the things I’ve been in, I haven’t gone to see,” he says. “With this, I would watch the show if I wasn’t on it.”

Already, the role of lawman turned hardware salesman Seth Bullock is something of a turning point in Olyphant’s career. “ ‘Deadwood’ is probably the first time I’ve stepped up to a leading man role, one that’s an iconic character that Gary Cooper or John Wayne would have played,” he says.

He takes a very practical view of his craft and his career. He couldn’t keep doing supporting parts forever, he says, so pursuing this kind of role was a very conscious decision.

“I remember saying to my wife, you know that place I’m trying to get to, now’s the time I’d really like to go there,” he says. “I knew that was going to disrupt our life a little, and it was important to me that she and I be on the same page about that.”

He’d tried to make the leap to leading man before, of course, but failed to land the part, or the project wasn’t successful.

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But now the pieces are coming together.

“It’s not lost on me that in the industry, a guy like me -- a certain type -- you’re gonna get a couple swings of the bat,” he says. “You don’t want to go backwards, but inching forward is acceptable.”


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