Coming up from 'The O.C.'

Special to The Times

ON the day the final episode of Fox TV's "The O.C." aired, a man approached Adam Brody -- who played the show's Seth Cohen -- in Greenblatt's Deli.

"I don't want to be rude, but I'm from New Zealand," said the fan, who was as giddy as a teenage girl despite his rugby player build. "And, like, the chance of seeing Seth Cohen is pretty improbable for me. And so I was wondering if there's any chance I could possibly get a photo with you. Yeah, I know it's like such a wanky thing to do."

"Sure," said Brody. Even though he had only recently arisen at this noon hour, he managed to strike the perfect balance between being affable and not inviting a longer conversation about wankers. There was little doubt that TV's sexiest geek has done this daily for the last four years, ever since the series launched him to stardom. And given the seamless transition he's making into film, the fan love should only intensify.

Despite the arduous shooting schedule of "The O.C.," which aired its last episode in late February, directors had already courted Brody for the big screen, casting him in small but memorable roles in "Mr. & Mrs. Smith" and last year's "Thank You for Smoking." Now, the actor is sliding into full-time film work and has two movies opening Friday alone. He takes his first turn as a leading man in Jonathan Kasdan's "In the Land of Women" and has a cameo as a dread-locked pot dealer in "Smiley Face." In August's "The Ten," a collection of vignettes based on the Ten Commandments, he plays a skydiver who forgets his parachute.

Kasdan (son of director Lawrence) had to suspend production on his debut feature for eight months to catch Brody on hiatus between his third and fourth "O.C." seasons. But the director thinks he was worth the wait. "The truth is, Adam is a way more confident, slightly better looking version of me," Kasdan says, laughing. "He's a pure, natural-born leading man."

Deviating significantly from the Cary Grant archetype, Brody stars as a soft-core porn television writer who, after being dumped by an actress, flees Los Angeles to become the caretaker of his slightly demented grandmother (Olympia Dukakis) in Michigan. He strikes up a romantic friendship with the girls next door (Makenzie Vega and Kristen Stewart) and their mother (Meg Ryan), who is coping with breast cancer and her husband's infidelity. "My idea of Jack Lemmon is what he reminded me of," Ryan says of her co-star. "He's got a looseness and tightness at the same time. He's light on his feet, but he has a weight to him too. It gives him an interesting kind of tension."

Brody's first sex scene, filmed opposite Ryan, was ultimately cut from the film to keep a more widely releasable rating of PG-13. "She's having a double mastectomy the next day, so it's a goodbye-to-the breasts love scene," he says. "It's the least sexy thing. I saw it in the theater by myself and I was covering my eyes because I was so embarrassed. I don't think it would be a heavily downloaded Internet scene." That day on set, Kasdan -- who battled Hodgkin's lymphoma at 17 -- gave the pair cupcakes to cheer them up.

Normally, Brody doesn't need sugar to maintain his youthful exuberance. After spending his childhood surfing and hanging out with his younger twin brothers in suburban San Diego, he moved to Los Angeles on his 19th birthday to try acting before heading to college. "When I was 18, I was too excited to read a book," says Brody. Instead, he earned a steady stream of acting work and found himself back in high school again on "The O.C."

"The thing about television is that actors can really transform their roles, so he became the leading man of 'The O.C.,' " despite the plot hinging on fish-out-of-water Ryan Atwood, says Doug Liman, who directed the first two episodes as well as "Mr. & Mrs. Smith." "Adam has really good story sense, really good comedy sense, and he made his character in 'The O.C.' -- and the show -- the hit it became. Still, four years in, he was playing the same story lines. He grew as a human being, and the part didn't grow. And I think that became tremendously frustrating for him."

Nevertheless, playing Seth Cohen was a golden opportunity that Brody cashed in at its full value. He tested the limits of TV meta-humor, injecting his own sarcasm, indie rock sensibility and comic book obsession into the character. Even as he was being swept along by the melodramatic plotlines, he improvised jokes that reflected viewers' observations about the outlandish Newport-set soap opera and the actors who inhabited it.

"He's pretty quick to say that 80%, 90% of the stuff was scripted, and that's true," says Ben McKenzie, who co-starred as his brooding best friend, Ryan. "But yeah, there'd be a little bit of extra special sauce thrown on some scenes."

Brody's quick wit and motor-mouthed delivery led to a cult of Seth Cohen that now stretches from California to, well, clearly, New Zealand. "I remember this teenage Asian boy who brought a full-sized, 6-foot stand-up cut-out of Adam Brody to the premiere" of "Thank You for Smoking" at the 2005 Toronto Film Festival, says writer-director Jason Reitman. "And as we were walking down this enormous red carpet on the way to a party, one girl just screamed out, 'I love you, Adam!' And he looked at her and went, 'No, you don't.' It was just wonderful, because he wasn't being cheeky. He was being completely sincere. And it showed a self-awareness that not many actors have."

Brody seems equally clear-headed about his career. He plays drums in the indie rock band Big Japan, wrote the 2003 short film "Home Security" and wrote an as-yet unproduced feature called "The Gamer." But he doesn't consider any kind of segue into the life of a multi-hyphenate a given. "I'm well aware that all that stuff -- writing, music, producing, I would love to direct something -- all that's a hobby," he says. And while he'll always be able to find some manner of acting work, he also realizes that A-list film stardom is reserved for the few.

"I've gained some perspective lately in my life," he says. "A big part of it is the show ending and ... I also had a long-term relationship end too," he says about his three-year relationship with his "O.C." co-star Rachel Bilson. "Life is so fleeting in a way -- and it's unlike me, because I'm very driven, and I get a little obsessive -- but I am trying to be very Zen about it. Just enjoy it."

"And, honestly, who cares if you get a good movie or not? I feel like I'm in semi-retirement already a little bit. I'm 27, and I have a house." He smiles. "I've decided that I'm happy with my lot in life."

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