The Relatively Lost Youth of Jason Bateman

Robert Lloyd writes on television for The Times.

It is a fact of show business--sad or happy, on a case-to-case basis--that most child actors do not grow up to be adult actors. They lose their youthful glow or appealing proportions, often exposing a limited talent. Or the public doesn't want to see the moppet grown, finds the idea distasteful, even. Or the actors themselves prefer to go on to what is usually called a normal life. For them awaits a future of random personal appearances, reunion shows and ironic cameo roles.

But there are some child actors who age like wine, becoming complex and full-bodied. They grow into themselves.

Such is Jason Bateman, who at 36 has been a working actor for a quarter of a century, yet has just arrived. In the years between "Little House on the Prairie," which he joined at the very beginning of the Reagan administration, and the fall 2003 premiere of "Arrested Development"--the Fox dysfunctional-family mockumentary sitcom that won him a Golden Globe award in January and made him cool enough to host "Saturday Night Live" shortly afterward--he has flashed in and out of sight. But until now the hits of his Tiger Beat youth--"Silver Spoons" and "The Hogan Family"--have overshadowed the failed sitcoms and pre-fab films of his young adulthood. (There are some of us who remember "George & Leo" and "Chicago Sons" with affection, but not enough of us to have made a difference.)

Now, with the success of "Arrested Development"--a critical and cult hit, if on the edge of viability in terms of major-network ratings--the words "Teen Wolf Too" are forever crowded from the lead paragraph of Bateman's eventual obituary. This is not a comeback for him, really, so much as a happy collision of maturity and opportunity that has brought him to a new level and a different sort of public consciousness, as if the essential Jason Bateman had been hiding in plain sight all these years. (And some who watch him now will in fact not have seen him before.) It's the movie moment where the dowdy secretary takes off her glasses and shakes out her hair, though for him it was more a matter of putting on a suit and tie and acting like an adult.

"Luckily I went in there and was the right guy for the part in [series creator] Mitch Hurwitz's mind," says Bateman of his casting as the compulsively responsible Michael Bluth, the solid center that kept the show from spinning off into unmodulated eccentricity. He is sitting in the garden of a hotel near his Hollywood home on an almost rainy day in March, drinking coffee and looking younger than he does on TV.

"I read it the way he saw it," he says. "And that oftentimes is the difference between one talented actor getting a part over another--you have to guess right, you have to look right, there are a lot of intangibles. I didn't take some sort of talent pill the week before that audition." He is modest discussing himself, perhaps to make up for much younger days when "I thought I was just about the best actor ever landed on the planet and there was nothing I couldn't do. And consequently, I did a lot of 'acting,' just really chewing up the scenery and being pretentious and precocious."

Those are not words you'd use to describe him now.

Pleasantly good-looking, he has a rumpled, sleepy charm that makes him instantly likable, along with a wry, laconic tone. Like Michael J. Fox, who appeared with Bateman's sister Justine on "Family Ties," he has managed to preserve his boyishness in a way that makes his maturity more attractive--"the everyman who's a little bit of a wiseass" is how the actor describes the type.

After a golden decade in the '80s, Bateman spent most of the '90s living out a belated adolescence. Possessed of a "hedonistic impulse and drive," he would make money in order to spend money, not necessarily the best way to manage a career. "I was basically doing a pilot every year and not that interested in working the other 10 months," he says. "I would tell my agents to stop sending me feature scripts, because they would sit there winking at me on my coffee table, and they'd ultimately be turned into coasters, because I was so set on playing as hard as I had been working up until '91 [the year "The Hogan Family" was canceled]--which would mean everything you think it might. Luckily, it didn't take some incarceration to make me figure out that I'd caught up."

Sometimes he "fantasized about liquidating everything and going down to LAX, the international terminal, and just looking up at the flicker board and picking a location and getting on a plane. I'd buy a stupid coffee shop or something and learn the language and just start over--unplug here and plug in there. Because it's a tough town to be in if you don't have a comfortable level of relevancy."

He's relevant now. Bateman has begun showing up in other interesting places besides "Arrested Development," scoring small oddball roles in the 2002 Cameron Diaz vehicle "The Sweetest Thing," and alongside Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn in last year's "Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story" and "Starsky & Hutch."

"This is the first year where I've had the opportunity to make choices. Most actors basically take what they get, because they've got to pay the bills. So you try to do your best with what you're given; you try to do your job. And now, at least this month, I've got a few things in front of me--some that are obviously going to make a lot of money, and others a little more in keeping with the stuff that I enjoy, things that are a little left of center."

As to the choices he'll make, he says, "you could be capable, qualified and worthy of doing 'Hamlet,' but there's a right time for that, and to me there's nothing more annoying than a performer jumping three steps forward when they should have just taken one .... Maybe David Hasselhoff would be great as King Lear--well, he's got to do two or three jobs to get there; you have a responsibility to earn it. I know I haven't done these sort of stretchy roles yet. I look forward to doing them, but I'm gonna be smart about the path. If Tom Hanks had done 'Philadelphia' right off of 'Bosom Buddies,' he would have been laughed at. Fortunately, the business usually doesn't give you those parts until the community's ready to see you do it.

"I notice that my style changes as I get older, and generally that means I do less acting," he says. "Your eye gets a little keener, and just like anything--your taste in music--it gets a little less obvious and a little more specific and a little more subtle. The less you can do the better off you are. The audience wants to see just enough. They don't want to be told a lot of things or shown a lot of things; they want to try to find it."

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