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James LeGros steers his career in the right direction

In 'Sherman's Way,' he gives a college student a lift into an unknown future.

March 14, 2009|Susan King

If it hadn't been for a girl, James LeGros may not have become one of the stalwarts of independent cinema.

Though he's not quite a household name, the 46-year-old actor has consistently given complex and daring performances for the last two decades in such indie films as "Drugstore Cowboy," "Living in Oblivion," "Lovely & Amazing," and can be seen in a new comedy, "Sherman's Way," which opened in theaters on Friday.

And along the way, he's also appeared in such mainstream flicks as "Zodiac" and TV series such as "Sleeper Cell" and "Ally McBeal."

Flashback to the early 1980s. LeGros -- who was born in Minneapolis and raised in Redlands -- was going to college in California but "I didn't really know what I was going to do" for a career, he said over his cellphone from a chair lift going up to a ski slope in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where LeGros, his wife and two sons have lived for the last eight years.

"I thought I was going to be a photographer. Some girl I liked was trying to get one of these apprenticeships for [South Coast Repertory]."

Because there were open auditions, LeGros decided to try out with her. "I didn't know any better," he said. "Out of the hundreds of far better choices, they picked me. And it turned out to be a life-changing event for me. It was a year of employment. They had me come back as a member of the company next year. I continued to work."

Eventually, he left Orange County and came to Los Angeles to try his hand at film and TV. "I kind of crashed on various people's couches and took showers at the YMCA," he said. "I lived out of my truck and tried to make a go of it."

And LeGros paid his dues, doing guest shots on the original "Knight Rider," "Punky Brewster" and "Rosanne," and appearing in such horror films as "Phantasm II."

"They were terrible movies and terrible jobs," he said. "I was terrible in them. But the good news is that I learned. Slowly I got better."

And the roles got better, especially his acclaimed comedic turn in Tom DiCillo's 1995 comedy "Living in Oblivion" as Chad Palomino, an acting diva who doesn't seem to realize he's working on a "B" movie. "I was kind of on the ropes at that point," LeGros recalled. "They were willing to take a chance"

But he's never plotted or planned his career. "Honestly, I just make it up as I go on," he said.

LeGros decided to do the coming-of-age road comedy "Sherman's Way" because he thought it was a very endearing story. And he definitely steals the film as Palmer, an eccentric, washed-up former Olympic skier who is estranged from his grown son and family and makes a living doing personal appearances in small towns. Palmer ends up meeting an uptight college student named Sherman (Michael Shulman), who is stranded on the West Coast and agrees to drive him to Beverly Hills so the young man can get an internship at a law firm. But their trip doesn't turn out quite the way Sherman plans.

LeGros didn't have to look much farther than the slopes of Jackson Hole to do research for his role.

"He reminded me of some fellows I refer to as 'professional hand shakers' that you find in Jackson Hole," he said, laughing. "The place is lousy with them"

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susan.king@latimes.com

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