You always hear those stories about how famous people got discovered -- shopping at the mall, grabbing a slice at the local pizza parlor -- and they seem too good to be true. Too fortuitous, too perfectly anecdotal.
Chris Klein has one of those stories. He was a senior at Millard West High School in Omaha when a big-time Hollywood director, Alexander Payne, came to scout the location for his next movie. The school drama teacher introduced Klein to Payne, the filmmaker liked what he saw, and the aspiring actor was suddenly cast opposite Reese Witherspoon in 1999’s “Election.”
But the whole thing was, in a way, too good to be true. Yes, after “Election,” Klein became the go-to guy for anyone looking to cast an all-American jock type. He scored a slew of those kinds of parts in the late ’90s, most memorably in “American Pie” as Chris “Oz” Ostreicher, a lacrosse player who makes a pact with his buddies to lose his virginity by graduation.
And then Hollywood stopped calling. Klein would occasionally make headlines, but not for his successes. He was arrested on suspicion of drunk driving twice and checked into rehab at Utah’s Cirque Lodge for alcohol addiction in 2010. That same year, a video of Klein auditioning for the film “Mamma Mia!” went viral because of how utterly terrible he was in it.
Outside of the “American Pie” franchise -- which had its fourth outing in 2012; all told, the films have made $989.5 million worldwide -- Klein hasn’t been in a box office release in six years. He’s still kept busy, turning up in a Lifetime movie and on FX’s “Wilfred,” where had a 15-episode stint.
But this week brings the first time in years that he’s had a film playing on the big screen: “Game of Aces,” a tiny historical thriller that was produced for just $500,000. The movie, directed by newcomer Damien Lay, isn’t exactly a commercial play: It’s a period piece about a World War I pilot (Klein) stranded in the Arabian Desert who has been tasked with rescuing a downed German double agent. It’s opening in only five theaters this weekend, and if you live in L.A., you’ll have to drive to Lancaster or Orange to see it.
Still, Klein is hopeful the movie will mark a new chapter in his Hollywood career.
“I’m 37 years old. I’m married. I’ve got a little boy now. I’ve got a lot of life experience and 20 years in the business,” said the actor, who wed travel agent Laina Rose Thyfault last year. “Those characters that are of that age, going through some similar things? I can play those guys. Maybe the voice is a little bit more grizzled. Maybe the character has a little less hair. I can handle that. Here I am.”
Klein was walking around an airport hangar at the Museum of Flying in Santa Monica, pointing at a Fokker Dr.I similar to the fighter plane replicated in “Game of Aces.” A publicist for the movie had suggested the interview include a ride on the museum’s flight simulator, but the actor balked at the idea. Instead, he took the opportunity to show off the aircraft as if he were a tour guide.
“Just imagine, this is what they did battle in,” he said, circling the plane. “And there you have your manual guns and your manual sights. It’s a pretty masculine situation, isn’t it?”
He’s so “gee whiz!” about the plane that it’s not difficult to see why Payne cast him as an an earnest football player in “Election.” Klein is the kind of polite, corn-fed guy who seems like he was genetically bred to be “The Bachelor.” He was a star athlete, a standout on the football and swimming teams, who also played the lead in his high school’s production of “West Side Story.” He dated a cheerleader. He sang in his church’s choir and had just enrolled at Texas Christian University when he found out he’d gotten the role in “Election.”
His wholesome reputation in Hollywood as a clean-cut ’90s heartthrob is something he’s still fighting.
“The late ’90s were a very interesting time to be a young actor in Hollywood,” said Klein, who was engaged to Katie Holmes before she wed Tom Cruise. “The channel the WB, which then became the CW, started right then. Kevin Williamson was doing all of his movies. So to live in a time capsule like that, it is a bit of a challenge.”
Even “Game of Aces” director Lay was initially skeptical about casting Klein. When he floated the idea to industry backers, the filmmaker said, many were puzzled by the suggestion.
“People couldn’t understand the choice at all, given Chris’ filmography and the way people perceive him,” Lay said. “But I don’t think he comes across as your male heartthrob kind of lead in this film. He looks a little rough and weathered.”
The character Klein plays, Jackson Cove -- whom the actor refers to only by his full name -- is a drunkard whose affinity for the bottle has forced air officials to keep him out of the sky. Klein, who has been sober since he was 31, brought his own history with addiction to bear.
“It’s part of my story, and it was definitely a really amazing learning experience and growing pain for me,” said Klein, who was frequently drinking alone and blacking out before he entered rehab. “I didn’t want to behave the way that I was behaving, so I made a conscious effort to change and better myself. I needed to get healthy so I could continue to do what I love, which is making movies.”
Klein seems to have this optimistic an outlook on nearly everything. Was being a part of the “American Pie” franchise a burden? No! It’s hard to get parts in Hollywood with or without a massive franchise on your resume. Is it hard to balance an acting career while living in Austin, Texas? No! It’s a wonderful way to work, and films shoot all over the place. And come on, wasn’t that “Mamma Mia!” leak super embarrassing? No! He’s not afraid to fall on his face. And he was flat. He couldn’t get on pitch. So it looked awful, because it was.
“Listen, the business is tough,” he reasoned. “And when you don’t deliver and when your films don’t deliver on expectations, then people are going to start second-guessing what you have to offer. Early on, I got a big boost. I was in some successful movies, some critically acclaimed movies, some box office successes. And then I was in some movies that weren’t so much successful in either realm. And then it was gonna be time to grind and it was gonna be time to grow and I was gonna have a challenging time. And that’s what a career is, no matter what job you do. You keep grinding. You keep searching and you keep trying. You only fail if you quit.”