HOLLYWOOD-- --Michael Angarano falls into the "he looks familiar" category of actor.
The 18-year-old may not be a household name, but his face is recognizable and his performances are often memorable. He was the young Red Pollard in Seabiscuit, the young William in Almost Famous, Meryl Streep's son in Music of the Heart, the teenage son of superheroes in Sky High, Jack's son Elliot on Will & Grace and a champion skateboarder dying of a brain tumor in Lords of Dogtown.
It was Angarano's eclectic resume that impressed Alex Steyermark, the director of his newest film, One Last Thing ..., which opened theatrically last week in select cities and debuts on DVD on May 23.
"One of the things that impressed me the most were his choices in terms of his films," Steyermark said. "I was always impressed with the quality of them, and he has a real honesty to what he does."
"This is the first thing I could sink my teeth into for a long time," Angarano said. "I could cover a wide range of everything. There are a lot of different aspects to it."
In the R-rated dramedy, Angarano plays Dylan Jamieson, a 16-year-old with terminal brain cancer. When a charitable organization grants him a final wish, Dylan shocks everyone when he says that he wants to spend the weekend with famous supermodel Nikki (Sunny Mabrey), who makes Kate Moss look like the model of functionality. Despite his mother's (Cynthia Nixon) protestations, Dylan and his two best friends head for New York so he can fulfill his wish. Brian Stokes Mitchell plays his doctor and Ethan Hawke is Dylan's late father in flashbacks and visions.
Angarano found Barry Stringfellow's script uncompromising and "bold" because it didn't tie up things in a neat, pretty bow at the end.
"I felt so strongly I didn't want anybody else to do it," said Angarano. "I knew this person. I felt so connected to it."
Despite the downbeat subject matter, One Last Thing ... isn't a maudlin male "weepie."
"This guy is sick but he's just like every one of us," said Angarano. "Dylan is obviously aware of what's going on, but it's not going to take over his life."
Angarano said visiting with the film's medical consultant, Dr. Michael Brescia, was a life-changing experience.
"Alex, Brian Stokes Mitchell and myself went to Calvary Hospital in the Bronx, which is a hospital for the advanced stages of cancer," said the actor. "We spent a whole day with him. We talked to him for five hours."
"It was the best rehearsal one could possibly hope for," said Steyermark. "Dr. Brescia talked a great deal about certain aspects of the script he found effective. He started talking to Michael as if he were a patient. I remember we were all just stunned and silent" afterward.
Although Dylan's desire is to spend his last hours with the supermodel - and lose his virginity - Angarano believes there's more behind Dylan's request than sex.
"Most people perceive it as sexual, as lust, as a boy lusting after a woman," he said.
"In the end, though, it's about these two people who needed each other. He feels connected to her. Sunny also felt that it wasn't a sexual thing. I think he just wants to be in her company."
Steyermark found Angarano extremely collaborative on the set. "He is so unaffected by his success. It's like every film for him is a whole new experience, and he embraces it with such joy and vitality."
"He's really grounded," added Stringfellow. "His parents are so normal. Seeing his father on the set quite a bit, he's such a good guy and not like your typical stage parent."
Angarano is close to his family, which includes an older sister and a younger brother and sister. "Both my parents are high school sweethearts," he said. "I am best friends with my uncles and cousins."
The Brooklyn-born Angarano is the only family member in show business. His mother, though, operated a series of dance studios, which led to Angarano's "discovery": "They ended up taking pictures of me - I was in a tap dancing outfit."
The photographer sent the photos of 5-year-old Angarano to the Ford modeling agency in New York City.
"I modeled like crazy for six months - magazines, newspapers. I was probably doing five or six jobs a day. Ford gave me a commercial agent and I did, like, 100 commercials and then soap operas."
His first substantial movie role was in Music of the Heart. "I had to learn to play the violin for it," he said. "I was doing a good amount of TV for a while, and then I started getting more and more movies."
With no formal training, he just acted instinctively. "I didn't know what I was doing," he said. "I was just doing it."
Angarano began to take his craft seriously while working with Danish director Thomas Vinterberg on Dear Wendy, a controversial 2005 drama about a group of teenage misfits who develop a deadly fascination with guns.
"I was 15 and really started getting into acting. Thomas Vinterberg took us, modeled us and created this environment for us to work in. I was in Germany and Denmark for two or three months. When I came back, I was a different person."
Susan King writes for the Los Angeles Times.