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Casting cull for the next big hunk

MoviesCelebritiesJuvenile DelinquencyMovie IndustryTelevisionIndiana Jones (fictional character)

Call it the hunt for the new male movie star — a youngster to step into the shoes of Tom Hanks, Brad Pitt or even Leonardo DiCaprio, who's already hit the ripe old age of 32. In the next year, Hollywood is betting literally a billion dollars on a raft of relative unknowns in the hopes of creating a star to appeal to the Millennial Generation, those born between 1978 and 2000, for whom Tom Cruise could be their father.

Ever heard of Emile Hirsch, James McAvoy or Sam Worthington? If not, you're not alone, but that hasn't stopped Warner Bros. and the Wachowski brothers from casting the 22-year-old Hirsch in next summer's "Speed Racer," or Universal from putting the 28-year-old Brit McAvoy in its spring 2008 action film "Wanted," a potential franchise that co-stars Angelina Jolie.

The macho Worthington — who's not even famous among the cognoscenti — is a 30-year-old Australian journeyman actor who won the jackpot recently when he landed the lead in "Avatar," "Titanic" director James Cameron's much heralded return to moviemaking, which is due out in 2009.

"The studios need that new generation," says casting director Joseph Middleton, who recently auditioned almost every guy in his early 20s for Doug Liman's next film, "Jumper," about a teleporting kid. "This is a window that opens every decade for the stars we're going to be watching for the next 30 years."

Or as former studio chief turned producer Tom Pollock puts it: "It seems that new stars — they come in bunches, and it's been a drought for a while."

You can also call it Hollywood's latest end run around the $20-million leading man.

Consider 20-year-old Shia LaBeouf, the first among equals in this set of new leading men. A former Disney Channel star, LaBeouf rocked the industry last month when his film "Disturbia" opened to a healthy $22 million, far more than the recent openings of such pricey stalwarts as 43-year-old Nicolas Cage, 35-year-old Mark Wahlberg or 52-year-old Bruce Willis. The film, a nifty high school version of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," held the No. 1 spot for three weeks.

LaBeouf also stars in this summer's blockbuster wannabe, the $145-million "Transformers," one of the few non-sequels to generate enthusiasm among teenagers. And he has been anointed by Steven Spielberg to co-star alongside the relatively elderly (in Hollywood terms) Harrison Ford in the long-awaited fourth installment of "Indiana Jones," which will premiere next May.

'Remarkable acuity'Spielberg first saw LaBeouf when he took his children to see the Disney movie "Holes" and thought that if Hanks ever needed to hire a son, here was the guy. He also noticed that "this kid had remarkable acuity. There was something about the way he listened and looked at the world through the character he was portraying, that he made me want to see what he was so interested in looking at."

Spielberg, who recommended him to Michael Bay for "Transformers," has no compunction putting unknowns at the heart of juggernauts. "It's smart," says the director. "If you look at the top 10 films of all time, the majority are populated with unknowns or actors that weren't known as movie stars, just as good character actors."

Despite his heat, LaBeouf is still a steal in Hollywood terms. According to insiders, he earned $400,000 for "Disturbia," $500,000 for "Transformers" and will move into the $1-million range for "Indiana Jones," which one studio exec terms the going rate for newcomers anchoring tentpole films — those big summer movies that studios count on to make bottom lines green. That's a fraction of the standard mega-star salary, the $20 million and 20% of the first dollar gross required to garner the services of a Pitt or DiCaprio.

"It's an economical thing," says Universal production chief Donna Langley, whose studio not only cast McAvoy but has recently tapped 26-year-old Aussie unknown Luke Ford to take over "The Mummy" franchise. "We have to have movie star movies, but you can't be in that business for all 15 to 20 movies you're making a year. If you can catch somebody on the upswing of his career, that's a nice place to be too."

With budgets for this year's blockbusters like "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" hovering around the $300-million mark, the prospect of not having to pay top stars $80 million (Cruise's take on "Mission: Impossible 3") is enticing.

In Hollywood, youth is a matter of not just age, but of exposure. Whereas LaBeouf, Hirsch and Steven Strait (star of Roland Emmerich's prehistoric action flick "10,000 B.C.") are in their early 20s, the growing crew of would-be stars from England and Australia tend to be slightly older but still new to Hollywood's embrace.

Many have emerged as a result of collective Hollywood fatigue with the sensitive young men who have populated filmdom recently — the generation of people like Orlando Bloom, Josh Hartnett, Jake Gyllenhaal, even Tobey Maguire.

"They're all pretty boys," says one leading talent agent with a sigh. "They're kind of safe, not that masculine. They're very sweet boys, but by the time your 16-year-old is 18, she wants a little more testosterone. A lot of these young guys — they're not necessarily pretty boys, and they can act."

Director Cameron considered almost every actor in his 20s to play "Avatar's" lead, a silent, stoic former Marine suffering from a spinal injury. He quickly grew frustrated with the stars who were available. "I didn't think they were tough enough for what I wanted them to do. [I kept thinking] 'Where are the men? Show me the men.' "

After screen-testing a few, he ultimately opted for the unknown Worthington, who "literally had me at the first word out of his mouth. His line was, 'Yeah.' "

"The whole sensitive-man phenomenon is appealing, but we're looking to get back to a more masculine movie star," says casting director Joanna Colbert.

A different idealOthers point out that a different kind of star is needed to appeal in the global marketplace. The strapping All-American look is no longer the ideal, says Middleton: "Movies go to so many markets in so many places. The landscape of America is not so pristine white. It makes room for what looks like a leading man in so many other forms. You look at Shia, and you don't know exactly his ethnicity. Is it Jewish? Italian? French? Who knows?"

Most of these boys are featured in big-idea tentpole flicks, in which the concept remains bigger than the star. Still, betting on unknowns can be risky. No one walked out of last summer's "Superman Returns" too impressed by newcomer Brandon Routh; his overly pretty appearance and charisma deficit appear to have dampened the box-office returns.

Even for a superstar director like Cameron, 20th Century Fox was nervous about letting him hire Worthington to headline "Avatar," whose official budget is starting at $200 million. "It's a scary thing for [the studio executives] to do," says the director.

"Their instinct is a cover-your-butt, knee-jerk response. Even I started to feel it. Maybe we better give ourselves an insurance policy by casting someone with name value internationally." Cameron ultimately rejected the famous faces who were available. "They're overpaid, and they're not that great."

Many of these upcoming franchises are copying "Spider-Man's" wildly successful playbook and grafting coming-of-age stories onto action-adventure dramas, all which necessitate casting very young leading men.

" For "Transformers," the tale of sentient machines (autobots) whose lineage includes a toy line, comic book and cartoon, the filmmakers opted to create a human lead (LaBeouf) and give him a classic coming-of-age experience.

"There's this universal notion of a boy and his first car. What is that experience like when your first car is an autobot," says "Transformers" producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. "It wouldn't hold if you cast somebody older."

Building fan basesAlthough LaBeouf might appear to be an overnight success, he in fact is a former child actor who has slowly and steadily built fan bases. At 10, he was a stand-up comedian performing at an L.A. club whose shtick was, as he has told interviewers, talking "disgustingly dirty."

He later earned child fans by starring in the Disney Channel series "Even Stevens" and garnered a following in Hollywood when he appeared on the second season of the reality show "Project Greenlight." The series documented the making of the indie film "The Battle of Shaker Heights," and although both the film and the series tanked, LaBeouf appeared charismatic and endearing trudging through a disastrous film shoot.

"We were absolutely convinced Shia was a movie star," recalls producer Chris Moore. "I've been around it before with 'Good Will Hunting' and 'American Pie.' Shia has real acting ability. If you're a guy, you want to hang out with him. If you're a girl, you want to sleep with him. To be mainstream, if boys want to hang out with you and girls want to sleep with you, you can have a career for an awfully long time."

Although they might not be household names yet, most in the class of 2007 have fairly extensive acting resumes. Like LaBeouf, Hirsch was a child actor, but he eschewed Disney fare in favor of a raft of edgy films. McAvoy has appeared in British television since 1995 but caught Hollywood's attention only with his turn as Mr. Tumnus in 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia."

"Avatar" star Worthington has knocked about Aussie TV and film for the last six years. His only other claim to fame is as the man who was almost James Bond — ultimately losing the part in "Casino Royale" to Daniel Craig.

For the lucky few, getting the nod can be an exhilarating experience. LaBeouf had no idea why Spielberg had summoned him to his office out of the blue. "I think he thought I was going to call him in to punish him for something he did in one of the two movies he did for DreamWorks. He walked in my office like he was walking into the principal's. He came in looking all hangdog," recalls the director. Then Spielberg offered him the role as Indiana Jones' sidekick. Spielberg describes the youngster's reaction: "I thought that young man was going to drop dead of a heart attack in my office."


rachel.abramowitz@latimes.com*(INFOBOX BELOW)Up-and-coming hunks*Shia LaBeoufBrawn factor, on a barbell scale of one to five ***Resume Star of the Disney Channel series "Even Stevens," performed sketch comedy on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," appeared in tween fare "Holes" and "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and in the edgier "I, Robot" and "Constantine." Upcoming films include "Transformers," "Surf's Up" and the fourth "Indiana Jones." In April, LaBeouf, 20, was named ShoWest's male star of tomorrow.Spiritual forefatherTom Hanks. Genuinely funny. The scoop At this moment, LaBeouf is the only break-out star of the new generation, someone who in the wake of "Disturbia" can actually get movies greenlighted on the basis of his own mojo.--Emile HirschBrawn factor, on a barbell scale of one to five *ResumeHirsch, 22, spent his youth playing vulnerable adolescents in such films as "The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys" and "The Emperor's Club" before going edgy and playing troubled anti-heroes in "Alpha Dog," based on the notorious Jesse James Hollywood case, and the skateboard movie "Lords of Dogtown." Stars in Sean Penn's upcoming directorial effort, "Into the Wild," based on the bestselling book by Jon Krakauer.Spiritual forefatherRiver Phoenix. Would love to be Sean Penn.The scoopHirsch's films haven't yet connected with audiences, although he's landed the commercial role of a lifetime in the upcoming Wachowski brothers' ("The Matrix" trilogy) PG version of "Speed Racer," based on the 1960s cartoon.--Sam Worthington*****Brawn factor, on a barbell scale of one to five ResumeVirtually unknown in America until he was cast as the lead of James Cameron's upcoming "Avatar." Previously starred in Australian TV and movies, with bit parts in the little-seen American war films "The Great Raid" and "Hart's War." Upcoming, Worthington, 30, plays the lead character in a gangland retelling of "Macbeth" from director Geoffrey Wright, the man who unleashed Russell Crowe on the world.Spiritual forefatherRussell Crowe. The latest in Australian superhunks.The scoopThe rugged Worthington was the runner-up in the race to become the new James Bond, ultimately losing out to Daniel Craig.James McAvoyBrawn factor, on a barbell scale of one to five *A staple of British TV, starring in such series as "Shameless" and "State of Play" before capturing Hollywood's attention playing the faun Mr. Tumnus in "The Chronicles of Narnia." Career went into overdrive when he held his own opposite Forest Whitaker's Oscar-winning portrayal of Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." McAvoy, 28, has already picked up the British equivalent of an Oscar for best supporting actor and rising star.Spiritual forefatherMichael CaineThe scoopA Glasgow native with a thick brogue, McAvoy has acting chops and a kicky insouciance but hasn't been tested in the box office arena. In the comic book adaptation "Wanted," he plays opposite Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman as a young man enlisted into a secret organization of assassins.--Channing TatumBrawn factor, on a barbell scale of one to five*****ResumeA former model whose big break came in Ricky Martin's video "She Bangs." Tatum, 27, starred opposite teen star Amanda Bynes in "She's the Man" and headlined Disney's dance movie "Step Up," which cost $20 million and made $100 million worldwide.Spiritual forefatherMarlon Brando and Burt Lancaster. A man's man.The scoop Though his movies haven't yet demanded any acting range, his charisma has wowed insiders. He reportedly break-danced for Kimberly Peirce at his audition for the Iraq veteran drama "Stop Loss," one of the most anticipated Oscar-hopeful projects of the fall. Already fielding offers for new action-adventure pics.*Source: Rachel Abramowitz, Times staff writer

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