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Filmdom’s latest flame

Special to The Times

FIRST Matthew Goode confounded all the early comparisons to Hugh Grant by playing an American sociopath in 2007’s “The Lookout.” Now the handsome, lanky English actor takes on perhaps his most morally complex role in the film version of a literary classic listed among Time magazine’s top 100 novels since 1923.

But more on the graphic novel-to-big screen “Watchmen” later.

Right now, Goode is in another adaptation: Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” (which also made Time’s list) as the reserved, working-class Charles Ryder. A role Goode almost didn’t accept.

“I found him quite cold; I didn’t understand him,” said Goode between bites of Cobb salad. “And obviously with the [famed 1981 Jeremy Irons] miniseries, which was perfection. . . . It’s not a flashy character; you can’t suddenly -- ‘Charles is a mambo dancer!’

“But then, I knew that Emma Thompson was going to be in it, and Michael Gambon and Ben Whishaw. If they’d signed off on the idea of this, then how could I not?”

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The polite, charming Goode, who occasionally articulates with the mouth of a sailor, grew up in Devon, England, and moved to Birmingham at 18 to study acting, then on to London, where he has lived since. But to say this was his calling might be a stretch.

“It was never a burning ambition,” he says. “I think it came from laziness; I’m not very good in an office.”

Goode’s American breakthrough, “Chasing Liberty” opposite Mandy Moore, started the comparisons with Grant. His nice-guy persona was polished in “Imagine Me & You” and “Match Point” before he bashed it in the face in the dark crime drama “The Lookout.”

“I shaved all my hair off so they could see I looked like I needed to,” he said. “But it wasn’t one audition; I had seven or eight. Maybe I just bored them into giving it to me.”

Despite positive buzz, Goode didn’t take another role until “Brideshead.” He rattles off the obstacles of the adaptation, such as the loss of Charles’ narration, with the clarity of a practiced literary analyst.

“Brideshead” director Julian Jarrold, speaking by phone from London, was impressed right away with Goode’s cerebral approach: “His comments were very intelligent. He studied the book carefully, and there are great differences.

“We had to find somebody to take you into this exotic, alluring world of Brideshead, so you have to be able to identify with him. Charles is an observer, communicates a lot without saying much, which Matthew does brilliantly.”

Also key to Charles is his interaction with the scions of the aristocratic Flyte family, with whom he becomes entangled. When Goode came to the project, Whishaw (“Perfume”) was already cast as the dazzling Sebastian Flyte.

“With Ben, you never know what’s going to happen. And he had just given the best ‘Hamlet’ in 40 years,” at the Old Vic, said Goode, following up his salad with a series of cigarettes. “If we hadn’t had our chemistry going on, it would have been someone else playing my part.”

For love interest Julia Flyte, he said rising star Hayley Atwell (“Cassandra’s Dream”) “literally knocked my . . . socks off” at the audition: “In the scene, she’s meant to smash Charles about the face a few times. I was expecting her to stop, but she went straight into it and started slapping me. I was like, ‘Oh, my God! They should really give her the part. She’s the best!’ ”

Goode recovered from the thrashing sufficiently to don the breastplate of super-genius Ozymandias in Zack Snyder’s upcoming “Watchmen.”

“As far as superhero films, it’s the ‘Citizen Kane’ of that world,” the actor said of the 12-issue comic series. So how did he land such a coveted role in one of 2009’s most highly anticipated movies?

He went to the bathroom.

The casting director “came up on the train on Sunday to York, where I was filming ‘Brideshead.’ ” Goode performed a reading for him on a makeshift stage in his hotel bathroom. “Hung a sheet behind the loo and just read it. I didn’t know the story. I never expected to hear back.” But he thinks Snyder saw “The Lookout,” “and that comes back to why that was so important for me.

“I’ve seen some of ‘Watchmen,’ a tiny little bit of me and [genetically engineered lynx] Bubastis, and it looks . . . awesome!” He seems less worried about academic purists who might scoff at “Brideshead” than Comic-Con purists who might riot over “Watchmen.”

“Apparently, it’s crazy down there,” he said with a broad smile. “I’m going to re-read ‘Watchmen’ again before I go because they’ll know every single thing about it, and I’m going to stand there looking like a complete loser.”


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