As Gabriel Macht parks himself at a table at Il Cielo in Beverly Hills, his polite, smiling demeanor doesn't immediately suggest that he would be the type to burst into performance over a public meal. But that's exactly what this sturdily handsome actor did just over a year ago to land a coveted part in the indie drama "A Love Song for Bobby Long."
Eager to escape a growing reputation as the sidekick in a string of action movies by taking on the role of Lawson -- a broken, disheveled young writer -- Macht flew to New Orleans at his own expense to have lunch with the film's writer-director, Shainee Gabel. When she suggested that Macht take time to learn a new scene and return later, he decided to spill a trade secret from his bag of audition neuroses.
"I was like, 'If I go off for a couple hours, I'm just going to get into my head and get nervous. Let me look at it once now, and I'll do it right here. In the restaurant.' " Macht imitates Gabel's reaction by darting his eyes around and muttering, "OK."
Nonetheless, he says, "I did it, and apparently she was impressed."
Macht's good-natured confidence is disarming and seems egoless. Sporting an open-collared dress shirt and charcoal gray Hugo Boss suit fresh off interviews with members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn., the 32-year-old Macht shows heartfelt gratitude for the high-profile supporting roles he's had in a short period of time.
He's played a fighter pilot in "Behind Enemy Lines," a CIA agent in "Bad Company" and Frank James to Colin Farrell's Jesse James in "American Outlaws" -- but explains he was ready to move on.
"As a kid, you have dreams of riding a horse, shooting guns, flying an F-18, working with guys like Gene Hackman and Anthony Hopkins ... and it was a great learning experience. But at a certain point it wasn't fulfilling dramatically. It was time to tell a story that meant something to me."
"Bobby Long," says Macht, gave him the chance to explore someone flawed, a nearly invisible fringe-dweller who idolizes a disgraced, alcoholic English professor played by a raggedy John Travolta. Lawson learns to come out of his shell when forced into close quarters with a visiting young woman played by Scarlett Johanssen.
Adds Macht, "When people can change you like that, have that much of an influence on you, that's when life becomes really beautiful and open with possibilities."
Macht has certainly been around his share of influential actors.
Playing a CIA trainee under Al Pacino's tutelage in "The Recruit" was, he says, closer to being in the ultimate acting class. Hopkins on "Bad Company" was an inveterate jokester. "We would do impressions," he says, adding: Call him "Tony," don't call him "sir," and compare your Brando to his. Travolta? Dances and sings "Grease" songs on request.
Overall, Macht came to feel that these giants were paragons of hard work and hard fun, "people who just happen to have this job, you know? And they treat other people like that. It's the ones who are full of it that give us a bad rap, I think."
IN HIS FATHER'S FOOTSTEPS
At the top of the esteem pile, though, is his father, Stephen Macht, a veteran theater, film and television actor with a "Hey, that guy looks familiar" face. The Bronx-born Gabriel was 6 when the family moved from Westchester, N.Y., to Los Angeles after Universal put the elder Macht under contract.
Macht says he got no resistance from his parents when his dad's business called to him: "He said plenty of times, 'It's a tough life,' but when they saw me in a couple things they were like, 'OK, you don't have to be a doctor now.' "
Now Macht phones his father -- who has a PhD in dramatic literature -- to rigorously analyze every role. "It's an amazingly nurturing dialogue."
Next year Macht marries his girlfriend of four years, Australian actress Jacinda Barrett ("Ladder 49"), and after a few years of bouncing around the world shooting action films with his possessions in storage, he's excited to lay down roots in L.A. But Macht usually feels at home whenever he steps on a studio lot, especially when seasoned makeup people perk up at the name. "It's always nice, 'Oh, yeah, I worked with your dad!' "
Macht pauses between sips of espresso, and his heavy-lidded, kind eyes reflect a certain calming peace.
"This may sound cheesy, but there's a real community of Hollywooders, and it becomes meaningful, you know? To think, 'I grew up on these back lots. My dad walked these streets.' It can be moving at times."