A crusader answers the call of the antihero

Times Staff Writer

THERE'S a moment in "The Good German," Steven Soderbergh's hommage to 1940s film noir, when baby-faced Tobey Maguire turns shockingly nasty. The quivery voice is still there, but instead of projecting vulnerability, it's full of ego and self-satisfaction. The wide-eyed look, so endearing from Maguire's half-decade reign as "Spider-Man's" lovable puer eternal, now simply serves as a scrim to hide sociopathic amorality.

As Tully, a low-level Army officer trying to make an illegal buck in postwar Berlin, Maguire injects the movie, which opens Friday, with a shot of decadent adrenaline. He is casually vicious, subjecting Cate Blanchett to rough sex; he whops her in the belly at another point, and for good measure tells a legless Holocaust survivor not to "Jew me down."

It's a kick to see Spidey go bad and a reminder that before he donned the iconic red tights, Maguire was known for his acting chops -- he certainly does effective jujitsu on his screen persona.

"He's a small-town kid who's come over [to Berlin], and he's gotten into the black market and he's discovered some power and some money," Maguire says of Tully. "He's kind of feeling that -- the ego, the greed, the seductiveness of it, but really, he's kind of a naive kid, and he's in above his head."

The star is sitting with utter stillness in a generic posh hotel room, yet he somehow manages to make the most impersonal of environs seem a little less rote by carrying his quiet intensity around, like a turtle with its shell. He's trim in a discreet button-up shirt and trousers, with a sparse beard that reminds you he's an adult but doesn't really make him look older. Although he's been playing 20 or so for the last few years, Maguire is actually 31, and the brand-new father of a baby girl with fiancee Jennifer Meyer, Universal Studios President Ron Meyer's daughter.

Maguire seems to relish the expectation-busting aspect of Tully, and the opportunity to finally play a character who's old enough to have an honest-to-God job. The only time he ever gives a suggestion that he might have a superhero alter ego is when he suddenly demonstrates throwing a punch and his arm snaps with the sudden fluidity of a panther -- the product no doubt of literally years of filming and training. The rest of the time, he appears thoughtful, friendly and guarded.

Superherodom can be a gilded cage -- just ask Christopher Reeve, George Reeves or Michael Keaton, none of whom ever really transcended his jaunt as Superman or Batman -- or a steppingstone. Who was Hugh Jackman before "X-Men"?

It's no surprise, then, that Maguire appeared so ambivalent about stepping up again after the first "Spider-Man" film -- an ambivalence, and a back injury, that, according to Kim Masters in the pages of this newspaper, led Sony to briefly fire him, and required the intervention of his future father-in-law, once a Creative Artists Agency honcho, to reclaim his signature role. None of the back story appears particularly relevant now that Maguire has completed two sequels. It's clear that the actor, who chooses his roles very, very carefully and works sparsely, is planning for the long haul.

"I've noticed there's a five- or 10-year cycle for actors," he says. "When the cycle changes -- there'll be some kind of turning point. Somebody will do a certain kind of role for five years or 10 years, and then they'll play another role and it will open up all these other roles." Indeed, it's certainly possible that Maguire has a future as the Peter Lorre of the 21st century.

In "The Good German," adapted by Paul Attanasio from a book by Joseph Kanon, soldier-journalist George Clooney returns to postwar Berlin and discovers an old flame, Lena (Blanchett), who's now ensconced in a mutually exploitative relationship with Maguire's character, and desperate to get out of town.

Shot in black and white on a Southern California back lot subbing for the devastated German city, the film's a self-conscious throwback to the 1940s -- Soderbergh prepared his actors by sending them such movies as "Casablanca," "The Maltese Falcon" and "Mildred Pierce."

There was no pre-game character discussion. "He's just like, 'Know your lines and show up and it will be fine,' " says Maguire, who explains Soderbergh wanted to mimic the studio system of the era where "actors were making three or four movies a year." This is anti-Method acting. There is no dredging up of deep personal traumas to serve the character. Instead, it's movie-star acting -- the Clint Eastwood school in which an actor's larger-than-life persona travels from movie to movie.

Explains Maguire, "They're using their personalities in different stories. It's kind of like that." And, oh yes, Soderbergh did no coverage, Hollywood's long-established practice of shooting scenes from different angles and perspectives and cutting the film together in the editing room.

"He would shoot the shot and that was what was going to end up in the movie. At first, it was a little like, 'Whoa!'

"I'm used to a very different kind of machine," says Maguire, who's spent a chunk of his life doing blue screen for "Spider-Man." "That was just like a breeze. It didn't even feel like work."

A systematic approach

WHILE Maguire's performance seems fluid, and naturalistic, he actually prepares quite methodically, breaking down every scene into how it serves the director and the character -- "I'll talk to myself about the different things that would inform the scene emotionally" -- and writing it all out on index cards, which he affixes to the wall so that when he's actually shooting, he can just glance up and remind himself what he was thinking.

There's also just good casting at work -- an inherent sense of loneliness that runs through almost all of his screen performances, including "Spider-Man," "The Cider House Rules" and "Seabiscuit."

Born to an 18-year-old secretary and a 20-year-old cook, Maguire did have a knockabout childhood, traipsing through various schools, passed among relatives. Halfway through seventh grade, Maguire got yanked out of school in Palm Springs and ended up with relatives in Washington state, where "I started to become truant. I started to leave school and I started, like, making things up, which I had never done. Before, I had been a very, like, honest, kind of straightforward person, hard worker, loved school, honor classes. Finished my tests, really super-competitive. I loved it. And then I started, like, making up stories about my character, like who I was, and I started, like, ditching school."

He went back to Hollywood to live with his mom but was still barely attending school.

"I didn't want to go through the social thing anymore and re-integrating into a new population of kids. It was really getting me sick to my stomach because I moved, like, a ton."

His mother, who once yearned to be an actress, gave him a choice, either school or acting. "So I said, 'I'll do that.' I became kind of isolated and really [kept] to myself a lot for a couple of years. And through acting I think I found, you know, something to put my energy into, basically."

Maguire ended up on the kid-acting circuit, doing commercials and TV, and at 16 really discovered acting for himself. He was doing the play "Thanksgiving Cries" at the Odyssey Theatre: "I just had a moment where I had to do something, and it was kind of like I was self-conscious and embarrassed, and I decided the only way I can get through it was just to really commit myself to the task, and I did it. I lost all of my self-consciousness and went into a, like, a little time warp of being."

It was then that he began consuming acting books and studying the greats on tapes -- "Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro and going, 'What makes them better than everybody else?' " Maguire famously met another Hollywood kid, Leonardo DiCaprio, when he had a small part in "This Boy's Life," while DiCaprio played the lead opposite De Niro. The duo became part of a high-profile posse of partying young actors. But in truth, it was practically the first time in his life that Maguire actually had friends, because "there was some continuity of people from 14 to 15 on. I made friends that I still have from, like, 14 to 22. That's when I made all of my friendships. And there were really no friends before, and not many after."

Twenty-two is when Maguire became a star, after appearing in Ang Lee's "The Ice Storm," a trenchant and sad exploration of family dysfunction circa 1975.

At 27, he debuted Peter Parker, the soulful linchpin of a huge franchise. If the first installment was a classic creation myth, and the second, the "Ordinary People" of superhero movies, the third examines the burden and intoxicating allure of power. Yup, deciphering Maguire's words, there appears to be an existential battle brewing for Spidey's soul. "There's a lot going on in the movie, but part of it is kind of battling my dark side. Peter Parker's own kind of character flaws manifesting into .... " Maguire begins stumbling about, trying not to give too much away.

"Basically, there's the goo, right? The symbiont which has, like, a dark energy, like the goo from the thing that creates venom." To someone not totally versant in the Spider-Man mythology, Maguire sounds vaguely demented. He realizes it, laughs and backs up. He's not referring to venom, but Venom, "a very, very popular character from the later Spider-Man comics. He has the same kind of attributes that Spider-Man has, but he's just stronger, faster and more vicious than Spider-Man. And it comes from this goo that comes from outer space, so first the goo comes and gets hold of me."

According to Maguire, the "Spider-Man 3" story arc was laid out by Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan, and written by 76-year-old Academy Award winning screenwriter Alvin Sargent. At some point, Maguire was consulted. He's known for being opinionated about his characters, and does sound proprietary about his more famous alter ego.

"It's important to me to have continuity of character," he says. "To not see the same movie regurgitated over again, because I would go crazy."

Even within a genre, Maguire wants to make sure to expand his character as far as he can go. He pressed the filmmakers to reinvent the wheel one more time. "I can't play that same scene," he says. "It's just uninteresting. I don't want to see it; I don't want to be in it."

rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com

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