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Not strictly commercial

With a string of upcoming movies, Mac ad hip guy Justin Long is treading carefully as he sizes up showbiz one hit at a time.

July 23, 2006|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

JUSTIN LONG has about an hour and a half before he has to drive from Santa Monica to Burbank to shoot some footage for the website of his upcoming movie "Accepted." And though the hip and trendy Urth Caffe on Main Street does have awesome soup, and he is very into soup, the line is prohibitively long so he suggests Mani's Bakery, which is just a few doors down, as an alternative.

There he does indeed order the soup, some of which he actually eats while discussing the events that led to him having a half-dozen films in various stages of postproduction while, even as we speak, his pop icon status grows with every "Get a Mac" TV spot released by Apple.

"If I had been egotistical about the movies, I have been brought back to earth," he says. "Nine out of 10 people who recognize me recognize me from the commercials."

Although he is currently playing in theaters near you as Jennifer Aniston's gallery co-worker in "The Break-Up," Long was previously best known for his role in the TV series "Ed" (unless you are a horror fan and then it would be "Jeepers Creepers"). But now, as he prepares to ratchet up his film career (two of his movies, strangely enough, deal with Bigfoot -- "What are the odds," he says with a laugh), he is fending off computer geeks who either find his Mac guy righteous or maddening.

"I had a guy come up to me, in my face, saying, 'You think you're so cool? You're not cool' and I'm saying to him, 'Dude, it's a commercial.' "

There have been seven spots so far with Long playing the slacker-hip Mac guy to John Hodgman's nerdy PC guy and there are almost 20 more in the can, guaranteeing that what is currently the hottest campaign on TV can last as long as the heat does.

"It's not even a good story," he says of how he came to embody a computer-obsessed demographic. "I got a call from my agent about it and at first I was very wary. I was in this false arrogance, deluding myself that I was beyond that -- 'I'm doing movies.' " He laughs sheepishly. "Seriously. I thought that. But I grew up in a house where my mom was a commercial actress; she made a living making commercials, so I recognize the value of them."

He learned that Phil Morrison was going to direct the spots, and that swayed him. "I loved 'Junebug,' " he says of the indie director's film. "It was one of my favorite films, my favorite type of film. And he wanted it to be very uncommercial so I said, 'Yeah.' "

Although the Mac guy utilizes the same laid-back look and mien Long has in real life, filming the commercials was actually pretty difficult. "Commercials are hard because you don't have a lot to work with but you have a lot to work against. You don't want to look silly and polished but still, you know, you're selling something," he says. "We were fighting with the company people who didn't want it to be too subtle and I didn't want to come off too smug. People who haven't done commercials," he adds, "don't appreciate how hard it is."

A crash course

LONG, a Connecticut boy who has been very ambivalent about the fame part of the job since his breakout role as the young sci-fi geek in "Galaxy Quest," was shocked at how deeply affected people have been by the ads. "I didn't really know about computers," he says. "I didn't even have one -- though I do now," he adds quickly, "a Mac of course. But I was very surprised at how passionate people are about their computers, how deeply attached."

Are he and Hodgman the latest commercial demigods, the next Bartles and Jaymes? Long laughs delightedly.

"I am proud to be the new Bartles and Jaymes," he says. "Those guys got a lot of babes; they really cleaned up."

At 28, Long has a slightly goofy, very appealing face, the large and varied vocabulary of the literate hip and a syntax that reflects an already mature career as well as having a father who is a professor. If J.D. Salinger is reading this, and considering selling the film rights to "The Catcher in the Rye" any time soon, he might want to give Long a call. He'd make a perfect Holden.

Meanwhile, the young actor is about to find out if he can carry a movie. "Accepted," which Universal will release in August, follows high school loser Bartleby, as his scheme to rig a website that will fool his parents into thinking he has been accepted into college backfires. (Hence the importance of Long's participation in the film's website.) When people actually begin enrolling, Bartleby and his best friend are forced to create their own university.

"And highbrow hilarity ensues," Long says.

Fit for the job

ALTHOUGH he has been a successfully employed actor for seven years, Long found life as the star rather than the supporting player quite an adjustment. Before filming started, he turned to some of his higher-wattage friends -- Vince Vaughn, Sam Rockwell -- for advice and was pretty much floored by what they had to say.

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