HOLLYWOOD -- Producers Lili and Richard Zanuck, coming off their Oscar-winning "Driving Miss Daisy," had a lot riding on "Rush," the story of two Texas narcotics agents swallowed up by the lifestyle they set out to combat. They had, after all, paid $1 million for the rights to Kim Wozencraft's first novel. And Hollywood skeptics came out in full force when the Zanucks announced that it would be Lili's directorial debut.
Casting 25-year-old Jason Patric, a talented up-and-comer without proven box-office appeal, upped the ante even more. But the Zanucks, who, along with a segment of the American public, discovered the actor through his compelling and critically acclaimed performance as a down-and-out boxer in last year's "After Dark, My Sweet," decided to go with their gut.
"Like the young McQueen, Brando and Mitchum, Jason projects 'man,' not 'boy,' " says the director, whose film opened nationwide this weekend. "Nothing about him says 'high school.' Something about him says 'history' -- he's been somewhere, seen something. Unlike any other actor in his age group who emerged in the past 10 years, Jason is vulnerable, but very grown up."
One hitch, however: Mr. Patric, then known in some circles more as the man in Julia Roberts' life than for his talent, rejected the role outright when informed that Lili Zanuck would be at the helm.
"I've always turned down jobs before I had the status supposedly needed to turn them down," Mr. Patric says in a tone that smacks more of confidence than cockiness. Both soft-spoken and imposing, understated and ambitious, he is soaking up the rules of Hollywood, but determined to play the game his way.
"They'd been talking about a 'director' in the third person," he continues. "When they told me it was Lili, I felt bushwhacked a bit. We were all together in this room, and I didn't like being put in the position of having to judge someone else's wife -- especially since, as a first-time director, she had nothing I could base any judgments on. I liked Lili and Dick, but they threw me a curve, and I didn't respond to that."
Further conversations with Lili Zanuck brought him around, however, and a few weeks later Mr. Patric signed on. "Rush," his seventh and potentially most commercial venture, may be the actor's best opportunity yet to show his stuff. Though critics have remarked on his Brando-like intensity, smoldering good looks and "emotional purity," Mr. Patric is an instinctual actor who declines to analyze his appeal.
"I can't figure out what people respond to in me . . . and I hope I never do," he says. "If you're not hitting deep enough or honest enough, it's too easy to use those things to get you out of a scene -- 'they like that little eyebrow twitch.' All actors really have is instinct, and I'm trying to protect mine. I've never used my nose, eyes or face to get me into a character, never ridden on a horse bare-chested. If you see the camera and a mirror behind it, you're in trouble."
Self-promotion of any sort is anathema to the actor. He is somewhat shy and self-contained. ("I don't even like to hang out with more than three friends at a time.") He's afraid of sounding pretentious. ("Don't put me on a pulpit," he pleads.) And, as the grandson of Jackie Gleason and the son of Jason Miller -- the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright ("That Championship Season") and Oscar-nominated actor ("The Exorcist") -- he is not unaware of the pitfalls posed by fame.
"I'm very focused, aggressive within myself, and I don't want to be distracted," Mr. Patric says. "Hollywood is one big Hollywood sign, and it's so easy to be seduced. I'm not putting blinders on -- knowledge is power. But I remind myself that clippings get yellow and the fans get old and have kids and at the end of the day you're sitting with yourself."
The elements of Mr. Patric's early life are sketchy, at best. Talk of Dad or Grandpa is off-limits. "I've been so careful not to connect with my family ties," he says. "I didn't want to have it help open doors. I don't want that extra paragraph or sentence in those stories about me and that always comes at the top. I respect my lineage, sure . . . but I refuse to grab it or cling to it."
He will confirm the basics, however. Born in the New York borough of Queens, he moved to New Jersey at the age of 7 soon after his parents split up. He, his brother Jordan, and his actress-mother, Linda, came out West when Mr. Patric was 16. It was in California, the summer after 11th grade, that the acting bug took hold, and the Vermont Champlain Shakespearean Festival that clinched it.
Mr. Patric's primary challenge in the $17.5 million "Rush" -- which documents the downward spiral of two undercover narcotics agents (Mr. Patric and Jennifer Jason Leigh) into a world of drugs and delirium -- was fleshing out a role only thinly developed in former narcotics agent Wozencraft's first-person novel. In order to effect the lean and hungry look of an addict, the producers recall, he went on a low-fat diet and worked out each day at 4 a.m. in order to drop 14 pounds.
The actor politely but firmly refuses to elaborate. "People want it both ways," he says. "They want the magic, but then they want to know how the magic is done. I don't like to talk about what I do. What counts is whether or not I managed to breathe life into the character."