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Graduating to the big screen

March 13, 2003|Michael P. Lucas | Times Staff Writer

HILARY DUFF, the 15-year-old best known as Disney Channel's "Lizzie McGuire," recalls the surprise of first seeing herself on a big screen.

"There's a really tight close-up of my face and I'm like, oh my gosh! You can see my pores!" she said with a laugh after watching MGM's "Agent Cody Banks," in which she makes her feature film debut. That opens Friday, and in May, she returns to theaters in Walt Disney Pictures' "The Lizzie McGuire Movie." And she recently signed to star in Warner Bros.' "Cinderella Story," an updated retelling of the fairy tale.

Many a youngster would wish upon a star for a life like that, but it's hardly the stuff of magic, the Texas native said.

Rather, her nascent movie career comes of two solid years' work in "Lizzie," a TV series in which she plays a pretty, popular middle-schooler who anguishes comically about not being pretty or popular enough. As the title character, she quickly learned a harsh reality of Hollywood: Few scenes were filmed without her. "We did 65 episodes in two years," she said. "We were so exhausted at the end of the year. We barely got any hiatuses."

Ironically, as she has awaited the movie releases, she's still working hard, with music lessons, voice lessons, studio work on a new CD and daily schoolwork with a tutor.

It's a schedule, she said, that even precludes having a boyfriend such as Aaron Carter, the teen pop music star she used to date. "I'm so busy. I go out of town so often I don't have time," she said.

Hilary gets away from work to a roomy house in the San Fernando Valley, where she proudly leads visitors to her bedroom, which is strikingly painted red, with cheetah-print carpeting. Among other teenage pastimes, she likes to bounce on her trampoline, paint pictures of the lemon tree in the yard and hold sleepovers.

The household includes her 18-year-old sister, Haylie, mother, Susan, and father, Bob, who commutes to work as a partner in a chain of 53 convenience stores back home in Texas. It was in San Antonio that the show-business bug first bit her, Hilary said. When she was a first-grader at St. Mary's Hall, a private school, she got to dance in "The Nutcracker." "I loved it all -- the makeup and the costumes and being up on stage."

After coming to Hollywood, she got her first big break as a beguiling 10-year-old witch in the made-for-TV movie "Casper Meets Wendy." She was 12 when she won the role of "Lizzie." Reading for the part, the athletic Hilary had a leg up on the competition when she walked around the audition studio on her hands. The stunt was a good fit for one of the show's gimmicks: a little animated alter-ego Lizzie who pops into most scenes espousing confidence and good sense.

It turned out that playing a klutzy youngster wrestling lightheartedly with common adolescent anxieties endeared her to young viewers. "I call her the Jimmy Stewart of her generation, the everygirl," said series and movie executive producer Stan Rogow. "Girls tell us, 'She's good and nice and kind -- she's like me!' "

"Lizzie" is the Disney Channel's highest-rated TV series among kids 6-11 and, although production stopped in June, Disney still has enough shows in the can to roll out new "Lizzie McGuires" for another year or so.

Thus, Hilary is likely to remain a major marketing force, driving an array of "Lizzie" merchandise from CDs to jewelry and nightgowns to food products. True, she's going to be in 2,000 or so theaters, but she's already been on 50 million Lunchables food packages.

In "Cody Banks," she gets to play a bit of an older character. Natalie is a confident, take-charge prep-schooler who turns extreme jeopardy to her advantage and delivers a bad guy his just deserts. "But it's done in a very tasteful way," Hilary said. "And he deserved it. He was a bad dude."

"Cody Banks" director Harald Zwart said he understands Hilary's appeal.

"She certainly looks good up there," Zwart said. "She has that star thing going on. When she smiles, she radiates infectious joy and laughter. And that can only get better."

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