Once upon a time, superhero roles were considered career-killers. But not anymore, not with Christian Bale, Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr. and Hugh Jackman proving that if the glove fits, you should wear it. Still, for Gabriel Macht, who suits up as the latest masked man in "The Spirit," which opens Christmas Day, there are new and different risks in this modern era of cinematic crime fighting.
For one thing, there's the danger of getting upstaged by the bad guy, who in "The Spirit" happens to be the nefarious Octopus, a near-invulnerable crime boss played with great zeal by Samuel L. Jackson. Macht first got a sense of that threat while doing an informal script read-through with his future costar.
"I needed earplugs when Samuel L. Jackson started doing lines, he had the volume at 11," Macht said with a bewildered smile a year after the table read. "Look, when actors come to read-through in Hollywood they don't give anything; everything is a whisper. They're not risking, they're not showing anything, and they're not trying to do stuff with the character. The attitude is: 'Put on a camera, get me lights and makeup and hair and wardrobe, that's when I'll perform.' Not Sam. He shows up and he was screaming and went crazy. It lifted everyone. And I knew way back then that we were going to be taking chances in this movie."
And "The Spirit" is absolutely a film that cranks the volume and goes for broke. The movie aspires to mint a leading man out of Macht, who may be a veteran of the New York stage and a graduate of Carnegie Mellon School of Drama but has a Hollywood resume of supporting roles and indie fare. The movie is the solo directorial debut of Frank Miller, the acclaimed comic book creator, and, like his artwork in the pages of "300" and "Sin City," "The Spirit" is a stylized visual swirl that instantly divided viewers into love-it-or-hate-it factions at screenings.
One person who is clearly in love with the outsized action is Jackson, who bellows and stomps his way through cartoonish monologues and changes his costumes more often than Cher. Early in the film, he and Macht (who both play characters that bounce back from injury better than Wile E. Coyote) hit each other with fists, an oversized wrench and a toilet in a showdown that might be called a battle royale with cheese. The film also features a squadron of beautiful actresses, including Scarlett Johansson, Eva Mendes, Jaime King, Paz Vega and Sarah Paulson, who play women who alternately want to kiss or kill Macht's bulletproof hero, who is a sort of Don Juan meets Dick Tracy and calls himself the Spirit.
After the flop of "Speed Racer," there may be some built-in skepticism about a hyper-reality film with a campy cartoon heart, but Macht said the film and its director are pushing the envelope. "Frank Miller is more of a visionary than any director I've ever worked with, and he achieves that vision better than anyone I've ever worked with," he said. "He put us in this extreme and abstract universe, and my reaction afterward was that I want to be in every movie that he makes."
Macht, now a month shy of his 37th birthday, has been an actor since age 8 (he is also the son of television actor Stephen Macht) and is consolidating his career in Hollywood after his past stage work. He costarred with John Travolta and Johansson in the 2004 film "A Love Song for Bobby Long" and was cast by Robert De Niro in his film "The Good Shepherd." Macht also played the doomed cosmic-country singer Gram Parsons in "Grand Theft Parsons" and, keeping the music theme, one of his favorite stage roles was when he played Elvis Presley in the off-Broadway production of Steve Martin's "Picasso at the Lapin Agile."
He's now at work on the dark indie comedy "Middle Men," which is written and directed by George Gallo (the writer of "Midnight Run") and has Macht leading a cast that includes Giovanni Ribisi, James Caan and Luke Wilson. Macht's wife, Jacinda Barrett, also appears in the tale of Internet porn and Russian mobsters.
On a recent afternoon, Macht took a reporter along for an afternoon hike up his favorite trail in the Hollywood Hills. As he followed the path, he chewed on the idea that "The Spirit" is the movie that will define him and his career to this point.
"This is your 'breakthrough chance,' but I feel like every role gives you something different, lessons and opportunities," Macht said. "When I look back the ones I really remember were the times I got the role in the room. When I auditioned for Steve Martin and he said, 'I want you to play Elvis,' or when I read for De Niro and he gave me a hug and said, 'I want you to be my guy.' "