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More Mr. Nice Guy : Chris O'Donnell is having quite a year. First 'Circle of Friends,' then 'Mad Love,' and now 'Batman Forever.' How can the Caped Crusader's high-flying sidekick be so down-to-earth?

June 11, 1995|David Kronke | David Kronke is a regular contributor to Calendar

For the Great Robin Hunt, casting directors for "Batman Forever" trekked around the coun try. They looked at about 6,000 aspiring sidekicks ranging in age from 14 to 25, from a variety of ethnicities, religions and economic levels. In some cities, the casting directors held mass auditions; in others, they rooted around martial arts schools and community centers.

In the end, it was a no-brainer: Go with the proven talent.

Chris O'Donnell, who, with no acting background, shined in Paul Brickman's "Men Don't Leave," held his own against Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman" and is currently basking in accolades for his recent performances in "Circle of Friends" and "Mad Love," was recruited, without so much as an audition, as the fledgling Robin.

Still, O'Donnell was momentarily circumspect before flying into the Bat's radar.

"I didn't get totally swept away," he says during an interview at Beverly Hills' Peninsula Hotel. "I did step back there for a second, if maybe only for a second. I was talking about it and one of my friends said, 'Are you kidding me? This is "Batman," how can you not do it?' As opposed to the usual discussions we have about movies: 'Will this help me or hurt me?' "

"Batman Forever," which opens Friday, is poised to revive the series after the disappointment surrounding "Batman Returns." Here, the Dark Knight's sensibility is melded slightly with the old Caped Crusader's, as director Joel Schumacher jettisons some of the monochromatic Sturm und Drang that was the touchstone of Tim Burton's movies in favor of a more assertively colorful lunacy.

"This is one of those movies that it's as fun to be on the set and watch them make it as it is to be in it," O'Donnell says. "These sets and these gadgets and cars and costumes, it's just amazing."

Here, Batman (Val Kilmer) compares costumes and arsenals with Two-Face (Tommy Lee Jones), who wants him dead, and Riddler (Jim Carrey), who is happier simply to humiliate him. Batman--and Bruce Wayne--flirt with Dr. Chase Meridian (Nicole Kidman), who's a deviant psychologist in every sense of the term, and Wayne adopts Dick Grayson, a young acrobat whose family was cut down by Two-Face and who seeks revenge as Robin.

But this is not your father's Robin. Ditching the yellow cape and green booties of the old comic book and TV series, O'Donnell cavorts about in a high-tech rubber suit (which reportedly gave "Batman" creator Bob Kane fits) with built-in nipples and an extravagant codpiece.

"It was a running joke," recalls O'Donnell, who turns 25 on June 26. "They'd say, 'Chris, we need you and your codpiece on the set.' "

Schumacher says of his Boy Wonder, "I've kept my eye on him, but never had a role for him really. He was great in 'Men Don't Leave,' then he had to carry 'Scent of a Woman.' Like Tom Cruise in 'Rain Man,' Chris did extraordinary work in an unsung role. Not to take anything away from Al Pacino and Dustin Hoffman, but they have so much sound and fury going on for them--accents and infirmities, suicidal tendencies and madness--and you get to be reactor to all that. It's easier in a way to play an aberrant person than a normal person, where you have to dig much closer to your being and do very controlled acting. Many times in this business, the most restrained acting gets the least attention."

'B atman Forever," however, hardly calls for quiet Method acting--the reason there are so many sets in this movie is apparently because there are so many actors chewing them up. "I had a number of scenes with Tommy [Lee Jones]," O'Donnell says, "and you would definitely be drowned out by that."

Schumacher adds: "There are many young people who have been spoiled--they're beautiful, talented and have made a fortune at a young age. They're very talented, but they're lazy, they come in hung over, unprepared, they don't know their lines. Chris is the exact opposite of that. He's always on time, always ready, always . He worked-out strenuously for this part, which was demanding physically. He works very hard: He'd do 100 takes, if I would let him, on every scene.

"And he has no respect for me whatsoever. He would mock me, make fun of me, all day long."

Actually, O'Donnell has plenty of respect for Schumacher: He'd want the director in place before considering any sequels. "The guy is just a machine. I don't know how he does it; he just works nonstop," O'Donnell says. "He's always in a good mood. He was so great on this set, because on a film this big, there's a lot of money on the line so there can be a lot of stress, you're really under the gun to perform. He keeps the atmosphere great."

O'Donnell recalls a prank Schumacher pulled on him, when shooting a scene in which Riddler has trapped Robin in a giant test tube.

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