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Growing Into His Own Man

January 28, 1999|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Freddie Prinze Jr., who starred in the teen horror films "I Know What You did Last Summer" and its sequel "I Still Know What You Did Last Summer," moves from screams to sighs as he takes on his first romantic leading role.

The son of the late comedian Freddie Prinze stars as popular high school prom king Zack in Miramax's romantic teen comedy "She's All That." The film, which opens Friday, takes a humorous look at the social pressures teens face in high school. Prinze's character makes a bet with his friends to ask the most unpopular girl, Laney Boggs (played by Rachael Leigh Cook), to the prom and make her his queen.

Playing a character like Zack is a departure not only from Prinze's previous acting roles but also from his real-life high school experience. As a student in Albuquerque, where he was raised by his mother and grandmother, Prinze was mercilessly teased as a "weirdo" and outsider.

But his high school "weirdo" days are long over, and his marketability as a teen idol will probably increase with the film. Still, Prinze, an energetic young man with an affinity for comics, video games and baggy pants, cannot shake off the legacy of his famous father. The senior Prinze, who committed suicide 22 years ago Friday, would have been 44 this year.

Prinze is 22, the age his father was when his career began to take off. But Prinze, who was 10 months old when his father died, maintains he is his own man and has been careful to walk a different path, staying away from drugs and the Hollywood party scene.

He lives in the Valley with his girlfriend, actress Kimberly McCullough. He will begin working on his next film, Miramax's "Down to You," in April.

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Question: How was being cast as a romantic lead different for you as an actor than the work you did in the "I Know" movies?

Answer: Every character that I've done with the exception of the ["I Know"] sequel has been very different. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to make this movie. When I was in high school, I was a lot like Laney. I was considered very weird and strange. This was a chance to look at Laney the way my school looked at me. I looked at the role as an attraction to be something that I never was.

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Q: In the film, your character takes part in a very mean-spirited bet, yet you are able to come off as sweet and nonthreatening. How were you able to find that balance?

A: It was hard. I had to somehow figure out how those guys could call me those names [in his high school days] and feel OK with themselves and sleep at night knowing that what they did hurt my feelings. I never was able to figure out how they could [live with themselves], so I couldn't use that.

I just had to look at Laney and not even think of her as a human being. That was the only way I could make those scenes work; otherwise you would have seen guilt all over my face and it wouldn't have looked real.

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Q: Do you ever get the impulse to go back to Albuquerque and meet with some of those guys who used to torture you and ask them, "Why were you so mean to me?"

A: I've thought about that, but I've never had an impulse to go and try to find them. The way I look at it, high school is a different planet than the rest of the world. It's crazier than Hollywood. If somebody is different and doesn't necessarily fit in, you are ostracized. I was an untouchable. I understand [now] that's what it was about.

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Q: This movie is likely to transform you into even more of a teen idol. How have you dealt with the fame and with fans?

A: People who have seen my movies don't look at me like an idol. They just give me a lot of love and respect. When I do get chances to see these people on the street, they give me hugs and handshakes. This girl came up to me and said, "You're so cool!," and I was like, "You think I'm cool?" Nobody ever said that to me before except for Kimberly, my girlfriend. So it's been about a lot of respect more than anything.

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Q: Have you had any situations when you feel overwhelmed with the attention you're getting?

A: A couple of times. I'm claustrophobic as it is, [and] when people rub up against me I kind of freak out. [Media frenzies] scare me; it's nerve-racking.

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Q: With fame and celebrity come a lot of perks but also a lot of pitfalls. How are you trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in your life?

A: I don't do drugs, and that to me is the main threat in this business. You can understand why people do drugs because it's such a high-tension, high-pressure job with people always seeing you and judging you. But I don't mess with that stuff. I don't really drink either. I really don't go to any parties. I try to stay away from that because I have more fun playing video games and reading comic books in my house or playing miniature golf or paint-balling with my friends.

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Q: Is there an actor that you look to for guidance or try to learn from?

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