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Behind the smile

The good looks aren't why Greg Kinnear gets a wide variety of roles.

July 17, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

AT 43, Greg Kinnear still looks like the cutest white boy in your college English class -- all round blue eyes and requisite self-deprecating smile. But for better or worse, he is one actor whose boyish good looks have not defined his career. On screen, narcissism, blind ambition, dumb luck, kindheartedness and pure evil have all been neatly tucked beneath that smile. Last year, he played (or voiced) a bad guy (Ratchet in "Robots"), an irritating guy (Roy Bullock in "Bad News Bears") and a good guy (Danny Wright, the Everyman foil to Pierce Brosnan's monomaniacal hit man in "The Matador").

This year looks to be just as varied. With three big movies coming out this summer and fall -- "Little Miss Sunshine" on July 26 followed by "Invincible," followed by "Fast Food Nation" -- Kinnear has been putting in serious festival time (in Cannes with "Fast Food," closing the L.A. Film Festival with "Miss Sunshine") as well as the necessary publicity for each film, and lately on not much sleep. He has good reason: His wife recently gave birth to the couple's second daughter. For a recent interview, Kinnear drives miles past the restaurant in a sleep-deprived fog and arrives with the hospital bracelet still on his wrist.

"I think I'm starting a new trend," he says. "The latest bling."

There are so many things going on at once that he isn't quite sure what to talk about. "Little Miss Sunshine," in which he plays the head of a dysfunctional family driving from Arizona to L.A. after the young daughter most unexpectedly becomes a finalist in a children's beauty pageant, is up first. Purchased at Sundance by Fox Searchlight for $10.5 million (the biggest deal in the festival's history), the film was for years one of those on-again, off-again deals that actors don't quite believe are going to happen until the dailies start coming in.

"I thought the script was brilliant, the cast was perfect -- how great is Alan Arkin? How great is Toni Collette?" says Kinnear. "Will it do well? I have no idea. I like it, that's all I know."

Next up is "Invincible," set for release next month, in which he plays the Philadelphia Eagles' coach to Mark Wahlberg's 30-year-old rookie.

And "Fast Food Nation" was quite an education: "Now when I see commercials for these places," he says, "I know that somewhere in a room a group of people were taking great care to figure out exactly how to manipulate kids into wanting things." But the story is so nonlinear, he says, it's difficult to explain the plot. He plays an executive who isn't exactly bad but isn't exactly good either.

"You have to see it. The moment it opens," he says, and it is difficult to tell if he is joking or not.

At such a time and in such a state, it is natural for a person to reflect on his life, on his place in the universe and all that jazz, and for Kinnear, an actor who good-naturedly defies categorization, that's a complicated conversation.

Since he launched high and fast into film about 10 years ago ("I wouldn't say high and fast," he says quickly. "I mean, I was out here slaving for seven years on obscure cable channels. But yes, when I got a break, it was a very high-profile break") with the much-talked-about (though in the end unsuccessful) remake of "Sabrina," he has built a career that jumps from comedy to drama, indie to studio summer flick, good guy to bad guy (sometimes in the same role).

Already there is talk about Kinnear's performance in "Little Miss Sunshine." As a would-be self-help guru on the verge of either a personal breakthrough or a breakdown, he is in equal measure exasperating and heartbreaking, from the zealous gleam in his eyes to his perfectly pressed khaki shorts.

"You liked the shorts?" Kinnear says. "I wasn't sure. But our costume designer convinced me. So I'm glad they worked."

About his performance, however, Kinnear shrugs, mugs and stops just short of rolling the baby blues.

"Who knows?" he says. "I have given up on trying to figure it out. It remains a mystery to me what people will respond to and what they won't."

His filmography backs this up. For every "You've Got Mail" or "As Good as It Gets," there is a "Stuck on You" or "Auto Focus" -- films that did not fare as well at the box office as they did with the critics. But even with the bona fide duds, like "A Smile Like Yours," it is rare to read a bad or even lukewarm review of Kinnear's work.

Although much attention was, deservedly, given to Brosnan's late-blooming go at character depth, it was Kinnear who anchored "The Matador" in the reality that gave the film meaning. In fact, he is gaining somewhat of a reputation for being everyone's favorite co-star-to-crazy guy -- he provided somewhat the same service to Jack Nicholson's cranky obsessive-compulsive in 1997's "As Good as It Gets."

"Memo to agent," Kinnear says when this tendency is mentioned, "must play more self-destructive" jerks.

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