Chris O'Donnell: Innocent Abroad

Chris O'Donnell, the fair-haired star of Scent of a Woman, spent months working with Kiefer Sutherland and Charlie Sheen and still seems like a sweet kid from the Midwest.

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Among the questions that haunt me--Is God watching? What happens if your G spot moves and doesn't leave a forwarding address? Does the heart really need what the heart wants?--the one that genuinely puzzles me is: what's a sweetheart like Chris O'Donnell doing in a place like Hollywood?

I fell in love with O'Donnell in his first movie, when he played Jessica Lange's rebellious teenage son in Men Don't Leave (my all-time favorite sad movie). As the teenager who loses his father and gets seduced by an older X-ray technician (the wacky Joan Cusack), O'Donnell was full of poignant gestures and unnamed hurts. He followed that up playing the revered brother who gets killed on the railroad tracks in Fried Green Tomatoes, and then took on the thankless role of the roommate in School Ties. But it was his portrayal of a young prep-schooler who takes the weekend job from hell in Scent of a Woman that showed his range and revealed him as someone who could keep up with Al Pacino's over-the-top rantings and still come out intact. He was, as far as I was concerned, the only watchable thing in that film.

O'Donnell has just returned from four months in Vienna and England filming The Three Musketeers, in which he plays D'Artagnan, the stubborn boy who wants to join up with the Musketeers (Kiefer Sutherland, Charlie Sheen and Oliver Platt). If, as all his press says, O'Donnell is "nice, nice, very nice," a small-town boy from a big, supportive family who has shown no outward tendencies toward being seduced by booze or wild women, then I can only imagine that this might have been a trial by fire.

When I arrive at The Regency Hotel in New York City, I make a mental note of what I think O'Donnell will be wearing: jeans, black high tops, a shapeless T-shirt. When he comes down to greet me, I almost laugh because I'm right on the money. But the sneakers are clean, with no visible holes, the jeans seem pressed, and the shirt is a bright white golf shirt with three buttons and a small Nike insignia. Sort of Young Hollywood meets Young Republican.

The maitre d' takes all this in as we walk into the restaurant. "Oh God," O'Donnell says, coming to a dead halt. "Do I need a jacket to come in here?" The man just smiles, and leads us to our table. "I know you need a jacket in here for dinner," O'Donnell tells me, completely unaware that it was his face and fame that got him in jacketless, not some lenient lunch policy.

"How's it feel to be back home in the States?" I ask while I set up the recorder.

"Are you kidding?" he asks, his voice rising two octaves. "It's great. I was going out of my mind. Everyone else had wrapped two weeks ago, but I was with the second unit. I was away for so long, and when you have a date in your mind that you're going home, and then they change it, you go crazy. I was supposed to finish Friday, but I got finished Thursday night, and I made my driver take me straight to London. It took four-and-a-half hours, and I hid at the airport so they couldn't find me and make me go back to do some more! We stopped at Stonehenge at, like, three in the morning. All I could think of was Spinal Tap."

Yeah, that's what I'd think of at Stonehenge, too.

"We used to play golf with the English stunt men, and we'd be quoting lines from Caddyshack, and none of them would get it," Chris next tells me, apropos of nothing.

"What year were you born?" I ask, wondering if all of his references are going to be from the '80s.

"Nineteen seventy-seven," he says, and I almost fall off my chair. I'm not sure it's legal to do an interview with someone who was born in 1977.

"No wait," he says when he sees my face. "Nineteen seventy. What the hell am I thinking? Nineteen seventy. Definitely."

"Okay, that's better," I say. "I just want to make sure that we don't need a chaperon for this interview."

"Nah, I just turned 23. You saw Spinal Tap, didn't you?" I nod. "And Caddyshack, too," I assure him. "Were you a fan of The Three Musketeers before you got this film?"

"Are you kidding? To me, The Three Musketeers is just that candy that gets stuck in your Halloween bag, the one you try to trade away for a Kit Kat. When I get older, I will never give away 3 Musketeers bars for Halloween. Or maybe now I will. But everyone in Europe knows who The Three Musketeers are! They know all the characters. Whenever I'd tell someone what movie we were filming, they'd ask who I was playing, and when I said D'Artagnan, they knew his whole story."

Amazing, huh?

"Okay," I say, feeling like some school teacher who wants to bring the class under control, "let's start at the beginning. Of your career, I mean. I've heard you did some catalog work in Chicago, and that led to the part in Men Don't Leave. How did that work?"

"Shit, I don't know. I think someone I knew at school was doing some catalog work, and then my sister met an agent in Chicago and said, 'Why don't you meet my little brother?' And I met him, and I thought it would be a cool thing to get in the papers or on TV. So I did the catalog work for a few years, and then I got the audition for Men Don't Leave."

"How'd you know what to do at the audition?"

"Well, it took about eight auditions to get the part, and I just kind of did what they told me to. I didn't really have any idea, I just kind of listened to what they said. I listened and I watched. Paul Brickman [the director, who also did Risky Business] is incredible. He's given lots of people their starts.

"They put us through a lot of rehearsal. I pretended that I knew what they were talking about. They rented this house in Virginia, and they put the four of us in it... me, Jessica [Lange], Charlie [Korsmo] and Tom Mason. And Paul had us rehearse and improvise and ad lib. We'd sit there and basically play house, and Paul would pull me aside and say, 'Tell your mom that you're going over to your girlfriend's house,' and I'd do that and walk out of the house and wait around till they called me back in. We had a lot of things that happened naturally, and then Paul just didn't forget them, he used them in the filming.

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