Behind the smile

Times Staff Writer

AT 43, Greg Kinnear still looks like the cutest white boy in your college English class -- all round blue eyes and requisite self-deprecating smile. But for better or worse, he is one actor whose boyish good looks have not defined his career. On screen, narcissism, blind ambition, dumb luck, kindheartedness and pure evil have all been neatly tucked beneath that smile. Last year, he played (or voiced) a bad guy (Ratchet in "Robots"), an irritating guy (Roy Bullock in "Bad News Bears") and a good guy (Danny Wright, the Everyman foil to Pierce Brosnan's monomaniacal hit man in "The Matador").

This year looks to be just as varied. With three big movies coming out this summer and fall -- "Little Miss Sunshine" on July 26 followed by "Invincible," followed by "Fast Food Nation" -- Kinnear has been putting in serious festival time (in Cannes with "Fast Food," closing the L.A. Film Festival with "Miss Sunshine") as well as the necessary publicity for each film, and lately on not much sleep. He has good reason: His wife recently gave birth to the couple's second daughter. For a recent interview, Kinnear drives miles past the restaurant in a sleep-deprived fog and arrives with the hospital bracelet still on his wrist.

"I think I'm starting a new trend," he says. "The latest bling."

There are so many things going on at once that he isn't quite sure what to talk about. "Little Miss Sunshine," in which he plays the head of a dysfunctional family driving from Arizona to L.A. after the young daughter most unexpectedly becomes a finalist in a children's beauty pageant, is up first. Purchased at Sundance by Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million (the biggest deal in the festival's history), the film was for years one of those on-again, off-again deals that actors don't quite believe are going to happen until the dailies start coming in.

"I thought the script was brilliant, the cast was perfect -- how great is Alan Arkin? How great is Toni Collette?" says Kinnear. "Will it do well? I have no idea. I like it, that's all I know."

Next up is "Invincible," set for release next month, in which he plays the Philadelphia Eagles' coach to Mark Wahlberg's 30-year-old rookie.

And "Fast Food Nation" was quite an education: "Now when I see commercials for these places," he says, "I know that somewhere in a room a group of people were taking great care to figure out exactly how to manipulate kids into wanting things." But the story is so nonlinear, he says, it's difficult to explain the plot. He plays an executive who isn't exactly bad but isn't exactly good either.

"You have to see it. The moment it opens," he says, and it is difficult to tell if he is joking or not.

At such a time and in such a state, it is natural for a person to reflect on his life, on his place in the universe and all that jazz, and for Kinnear, an actor who good-naturedly defies categorization, that's a complicated conversation.

Since he launched high and fast into film about 10 years ago ("I wouldn't say high and fast," he says quickly. "I mean, I was out here slaving for seven years on obscure cable channels. But yes, when I got a break, it was a very high-profile break") with the much-talked-about (though in the end unsuccessful) remake of "Sabrina," he has built a career that jumps from comedy to drama, indie to studio summer flick, good guy to bad guy (sometimes in the same role).

Already there is talk about Kinnear's performance in "Little Miss Sunshine." As a would-be self-help guru on the verge of either a personal breakthrough or a breakdown, he is in equal measure exasperating and heartbreaking, from the zealous gleam in his eyes to his perfectly pressed khaki shorts.

"You liked the shorts?" Kinnear says. "I wasn't sure. But our costume designer convinced me. So I'm glad they worked."

About his performance, however, Kinnear shrugs, mugs and stops just short of rolling the baby blues.

"Who knows?" he says. "I have given up on trying to figure it out. It remains a mystery to me what people will respond to and what they won't."

His filmography backs this up. For every "You've Got Mail" or "As Good as It Gets," there is a "Stuck on You" or "Auto Focus" -- films that did not fare as well at the box office as they did with the critics. But even with the bona fide duds, like "A Smile Like Yours," it is rare to read a bad or even lukewarm review of Kinnear's work.

Although much attention was, deservedly, given to Brosnan's late-blooming go at character depth, it was Kinnear who anchored "The Matador" in the reality that gave the film meaning. In fact, he is gaining somewhat of a reputation for being everyone's favorite co-star-to-crazy guy -- he provided somewhat the same service to Jack Nicholson's cranky obsessive-compulsive in 1997's "As Good as It Gets."

"Memo to agent," Kinnear says when this tendency is mentioned, "must play more self-destructive" jerks.

"It's hard to say what sort of roles you want," he says, "because you don't want to limit yourself. I guess I am interested in people who change. But who change not in a big way but maybe in a small way. Because that's the way it happens, mostly, in real life."

That's how, in fact, it happened for him. The fairly constant state of anxiety that he says pocked the first half of his career -- "I've been told I am a the-glass-is-half-empty kind of guy," he says deadpan -- has eased up in the last few years, though he can't really point to the moment it happened. Certainly it wasn't when he got his Oscar nomination for his role as Simon Bishop in "As Good as It Gets."

"Yeah, everyone is telling me, 'Now you're set,' " he says. "And at the time that is not how I felt at all. It's all so tenuous, the idea of earning your living as an actor. I used to tear my hair out a lot. But then I got married, had kids, hit a few life barometers, and at some point I had a greater sense of security. That somehow I was in it for the long haul."

Kinnear says he has a better sense of his place in the landscape than he has had in the past, though he is hard-pressed to describe it. "I guess character actor feels right," he says, though there is a lightness to him, not to mention the looks issue, that seems at odds with how the term is usually applied. "The people I admire are character actors -- William Hurt, Jack [Nicholson], the list is not surprising. But it's so hard to have that career conversation when it's so removed from your control."

Asked who his "competition" is -- who goes up for the same roles as Kinnear does -- and the actor looks genuinely perplexed. "You know, if only I were Matthew McConaughey, this would be easier," he says. "Let's just say it rarely comes down to me and Tom Cruise. I mean obviously I don't have a franchise, as I tell everyone I meet at every party I go to. Not that I wouldn't like to. Perhaps someone would like to start the very lucrative 'Stuck on You' franchise. I'm open to that."

Despite what people might think, the acting life does not consist of days spent waiting for an audition with other eerily similar actors in some beige office somewhere. At least not at Kinnear's level. Which doesn't mean he never auditions -- for "As Good as It Gets" he was taken to Nicholson's house for a meeting, an event that to this day floors him. "There I am, in Jack Nicholson's house. And there, coming down the stairs, is Jack. Unbelievable." And after a nice conversation, Kinnear says, it was clear that it was time for him to leave. "Because I think they had some other guy waiting out on the patio or something."

But mostly the process by which roles are chosen, pursued and attained is drawn out and circuitous. "You read scripts, you take meetings, some of which go somewhere, some of which don't. You meet people. It's never clear cut," he says. An actor may commit to a film only to have it stall for years. Kinnear says he is careful about the films he chooses to pursue with vigor.

"I don't want to have my heart broken too many times a year," he says. "So I date a lot, but I don't get engaged easily."

Occasionally, he'll see a movie and wonder why he hadn't seen the script. "Like 'The Illusionist,' " he says. "I see a movie like that, and don't get me wrong, Ed Norton is great casting, but it does get me wondering about the process, about how the choices were made."

But especially in the world of independent films, he says, the net cast is not big. "These are fueled more by passion, so the director usually has a person in mind fairly early on."

This surrender to the way things are, and the way things aren't, has given Kinnear a sense of confidence he says he lacked in the early days, which in turn has led to more diverse roles, like in "Auto Focus" and "The Matador." "I have an acceptance of where I fit in and where I don't," he says. "I mean, I don't think I'll be heading up an action extravaganza any time soon. Of course, as soon as I say that some wonderful role will be out there. Look at Philip Seymour Hoffman in 'Mission: Impossible.' Who'd have thought he would do that? I could do that. If anyone's, you know, asking."

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