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Sneaks 2003

Play it again? Not this time

As films repeat themselves, Michael Caine, Johnny Depp, Meg Ryan and others try their best to avoid doing likewise.

January 19, 2003|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Currently, movie audiences can see Michael Caine as a world-weary Brit and jealous lover, smoking opium and reporting from Vietnam in "The Quiet American." Later this year he'll be a gun-toting, steak-chewing Texan, brother of the equally crusty Robert Duvall, in the family film "Secondhand Lions."

Caine, whose accent was trashed in one of his earliest Hollywood roles as a ruthless Southerner in "Hurry Sundown," says the first day he opened his mouth on the Austin, Texas, set in front of an all-Texan crew, "I was probably as nervous as I've been in a long time." He spent two months learning how to stop neatly separating his words as he normally does and let them lean together in a subtle way.

The role was "a tremendous departure," he says, "the most American character I've ever played."

In his efforts to try a new role, Caine is swimming upstream. Hollywood will churn out the largest number in memory of play-it-safe sequels, prequels and adaptations this year, and audiences will see many stars in familiar roles -- Bruce Willis goes to war in the action adventure "Tears of the Sun," Tommy Lee Jones will track an assassin in the thriller "The Hunted." Still, some actors and directors jump at the chance to do something completely different.

If it's hard to imagine the cockney Caine in a cowboy hat, picture bubbly Meg Ryan as a flamboyant boxing manager in "Against the Ropes." Or mega-star emeritus Jack Nicholson stealing Adam Sandler's girlfriend in "Anger Management." Or Julia Roberts teaching art history at Wellesley in "Mona Lisa Smile."

Even Johnny Depp, who once told an interviewer "I'm not Blockbuster Boy," is switching gears: You'll see him this summer as a pirate in producer Jerry Bruckheimer's popcorn movie "Pirates of the Caribbean," based on the Disneyland ride.

There's nothing surprising about actors wanting to stretch, says Leonard Maltin, film critic for television's "Hot Ticket." One school of thought is "give the public what it wants," but another is "don't paint yourself into a corner."

"I don't think there's an actor with a brain who doesn't want to try different things and doesn't want to avoid being typecast or pigeonholed," Maltin says.

What's different now, suggests veteran producer Robert Cort ("Against the Ropes"), is that audiences may be less forgiving of change than they were decades ago. When actors were under contract to studios, they could afford to depart now and then from roles they'd become identified with because they knew the studios would always be willing to employ them later in their more popular roles.

"Some of it had to do with your confidence, your ability, your standing and your own belief in your talent," he says. Now high salaries and box office pressures have made actors more fearful of switching gears, he says.

What's more, many actors overthink their choices, Cort says, because they're trying too hard to control their careers. "A lot of people talk about taking chances. But when presented with the opportunity, they pull back."

Some don't have the versatility. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, realized there was nothing beyond action movies that he could or wanted to do, Cort says. (And this year he will return to his most successful franchise with "Terminator 3.") His 180-degree turn is his quest to be governor, Cort says.

Several directors will also veer off into unfamiliar territory in 2003. Ang Lee, known for his eclectic choices ("Sense and Sensibility," "The Ice Storm," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), will try out computer-generated images in "The Hulk," the comic-book classic about a scientist whose rage turns him into a giant green brute.

Producer Avi Arad said Universal's Mary Parent, co-president of production, suggested Lee as director. For Lee, the special effects and computer-generated characterization were appealing.

"Usually a director like Lee, an intellectual, reacts to a story he can tell," Arad says. Once he understood that the Hulk represented metaphorical anger and rage, Arad says, "he loved the idea." Audiences should think of it as "an art film with amazing action and a big budget," he adds.

In other departures, Lawrence Kasdan ("Body Heat," "The Big Chill" and "Grand Canyon") will be directing the adaptation of Stephen King's "Dreamcatcher," a camping tale of four friends who encounter an alternate world. On the other hand, director Tim Burton ("Batman," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Planet of the Apes") will be trying "Big Fish," an emotional father-son story starring Albert Finney and Ewan McGregor.

Even for established, popular actors, taking on new kinds of roles can be risky. Many people questioned the casting of Harrison Ford as a Russian submarine commander in last year's "K-19: The Widowmaker." "Then we saw the film, and we were right," Maltin says.

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