The Young and the Focused

Us — May 1995

By David Hochman

Until recently, being a 25-year-old actor or director in Hollywood was a little like being a middle child. No matter how cool or smart or sexy you thought you were, someone else – usually someone much younger, like Macaulay Culkin, or else a generation older, like Sylvester Stallone – got all the attention. But now all that seems to be changing. A new band (not quite a Pack) of striking stars has stepped out of the shadowy corners of slackerhood and proved that it can do more than just sing the theme song from Gilligan’s Island. Not since the early ’70s arrival of young talents like Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino has Hollywood seen such an onslaught of creativity from a group that seems devoted more to artistic integrity and vision than to stardom or commercial success. In fact, like their alternative-rock brethren, many of these new artists share an active aversion to the trappings of fame.

The signs of young Hollywood’s ascent are everywhere. With Keanu Reeves’ pedal-to-the-metal heroics in Speed and, more recently, Brad Pitt’s charismatic performance in Legends of the Fall, Hollywood added two new names to its list of blockbuster movie stars (of course, the fact that both actors recently turned 30 may not be entirely a coincidence). Uma Thurman, who’d been known for ethereal performances in little-seen movies like Henry & June and Jennifer 8, took a shot of adrenaline to the heart in Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and wound up with an Oscar nomination. Winona Ryder went from being nominated in 1994 for Best Supporting Actress (for The Age of Innocence) to getting a Best Actress nod in 1995 (for Little Women). Ethan Hawke, who’s been flirting with fame ever since 1989’s Dead Poets Society, became a sort of patron saint for traveling Americans when he fell in love with Vienna and Julie Delpy in Richard Linklater’s romantic comedy Before Sunrise. Hot off her success in Boys on the Side, Drew Barrymore reportedly signed a $3.5 million contract for her next picture, The Honest Courtesan. “I think there have always been kids in their teens and 20s who wanted to pursue an acting career, but there was nothing for them to do,” says casting director Jane Jenkins (Parenthood, Home Alone). “Now all of a sudden we’re getting to see a lot of them.” Boys on the Side director Herbert Ross agrees. “For a long time, young talent was hard to find and hard to cast, but now there are a number of very gifted young actors out there.”

The shift comes not a moment too soon. Because for the past 5 years or so actors under 30 not named Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts have found themselves almost totally shut out of lead roles in Hollywood’s biggest pictures. Meanwhile, Tom Hanks, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Demi Moore, Holly Hunter, Meg Ryan, Michael Keaton and Geena Davis have all played parts in recent years that easily could have gone to younger performers. In another generation, Marlon Brando, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Orson Welles had wrapped their most famous movies by the time they were 30. It’s no wonder, then, that some of today’s young actors have tried resisting the age game. “I’ve made the choice to really keep my age to myself and not talk about it with anybody,” admits Christian Slater, who starred in his first movie, 1985’s The Legend of Billie Jean, when he was 15. “Age does affect people – it affects how they perceive you, it affects how they see you. So I’m just trying to keep it secret.” Winona Ryder agrees. “I think there’s this huge stigma about age in Hollywood,” she says. “The idea that someone of [high] caliber can’t get cast because of their age, I find it offensive.”

Who would have believed that being young could be a problem in a town that worships youth? It sounds ridiculous, but in a way it’s true, at least when it comes to dollars and cents. In the past few years, youth-oriented movies like Singles, S.F.W., Dazed and Confused, Naked in New York, Bodies, Rest and Motion and Sleep With Me were box-office disappointments or even downright duds. Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites was a modest success, but event hat much-ballyhooed film didn’t do nearly as well as its soundtrack did. Until very recently, it seems, most films featuring young actors have failed to reach beyond young audiences – a fatal problem when you consider that moviegoers in their 20s accounted for just 21 percent of total box office sales in 1994. Today, the lion’s share of moviegoers are over 30; nearly 40 percent are over 40. Movies like Speed and Legends of the Fall did well precisely because they captured the attention of that older audience. The success of those two films in breaking the age barrier has started to open Hollywood’s eyes to younger talents. “There has been an overt form of ageism in Hollywood, for young actors as well as older ones,” says Forrest Gump producer Steve Tisch, “though I think those borders are starting to be broken down.”

The actors breaking down those borders exhibit a much broader – and more grown-up – range of interests than those of the Brat Pack era, who came to be known primarily for their high school party-animal ethos. Fans of this new generation of stars are more likely to see them at poetry readings than at premieres. Hawke has set up a small theater group called Malaparte in New York, where his unostentatious lifestyle might lead one to mistake him for a starving graduate student. Reeves refers to his “gypsy-bohemian philosophy” on life; “I don’t want a home, because I don’t want roots,” he has said. Ryder collects rare first editions, including volumes by James Joyce. Actress Elizabeth Berkley, who makes her film debut later this year in Paul Verhoeven’s controversial Showgirls, about Las Vegas strippers, writes poetry and has a particular fondness for Rilke.

Of course, it is possible to make too much of young Hollywood’s newly serious image: Drew Barrymore recently showed up at a Manhattan bar and wound up stripping on stage. Johnny Depp’s hotel-trashing spree last year didn’t exactly kill off the stereotypes of recklessness. But despite the occasional excesses, this is a group leery of the dangers of fame. They’ve seen it change people, and they’ve watched one of their own – River Phoenix – get destroyed by it. Never has a group been so aware (and so wary) of the media. Like the megasuccessful alternative rockers who are their age – Pearl Jam, Green Day, Soul Asylum – many of these young actors would sooner be caught dead than caught talking to Barbara Walters. And though they may share a rather bohemian sensibility, none of these stars wants to be thought of as a member of a Pack or even a Generation (don’t even think about using the `X’ label around any of them). “I don’t really feel part of any kind of `thing,'” says Stiller, who is currently filming Flirting With Disaster, a dramatic comedy co-starring Patricia Arquette and directed by David O. Russell (Spanking the Monkey). “I mean, I have nothing to do with Brad Pitt or Halle Berry.”

Shying away from the media and the glitzy Hollywood life seems to be helping them focus on their work. “I don’t think these people are interested in just being starlets and movie stars and having their pictures taken,” says casting director Jane Jenkins. “I think they are interested in their body of work and having a serious career.” In interviews with the performers, the word real comes up frequently, as do concepts like artistic integrity and authenticity. The sincerity seems a pleasant relief from the conventional image of young-Hollywood types as club-hopping, convertible-driving airheads. “I want to get into films that have some social realism to them,” DiCaprio says. “I want to try and stay away from the contrived, spewed-out version of these reprocessed, same-type films that keep going around.”

When young actors talk about alternatives to standard commercial fare, they know what they’re talking about. “In the past 15 years, all the great, obscure movies became available on video,” says writer-director Cameron Crowe (Say Anything…, Singles). “Now all these guys have such great film libraries, and you find young guys talking about Truffaut and Godard.”

In many ways, the wildest experimentation going on about town seems to be happening in the independent-film scene, where movie makers are confronting every subject from lesbianism to incest. And many of the most successful young stars have been nimble enough to slip from these edgy, artsy projects into mainstream films and back again. Leonardo DiCaprio can star as a teenage druggie in the low-budget Basketball Diaries and then move comfortably into an appearance in The Quick and the Dead with Sharon Stone. At the same time, the independent scene has become a sort of Hollywood farm system for fresh directorial talent: Tarantino, Linklater, Russell, Kevin Smith (Clerks), Darnell Martin (I Like It Like That) and Allen and Albert Hughes (Menace II Society) all had their first taste of success while in their 20s at film festivals. “After you attend an event like the Sundance Festival and you walk away seeing the recent film-school graduates and directors and writers in their early to mid-20s who have created significant movies with very little money,” says producer Steve Tisch, “it’s no wonder Hollywood is jumping all over these people.”

For the dozens of qualified young stars whose careers have been in a holding pattern for the past few years, all of this comes as good news. “The industry has a voracious appetite to put young people on the screen,” says Tisch. “There’s nothing more exciting than the new kid in town.” Of course, with so many new kids in town, the competition for good roles will be intense. But even that competition might help the industry. “That there are so many actors my age now could be a quirk,” says Ethan Hawke. “And in theory it’s a very good sign, because if there are a lot of interesting competitors, it pushes everyone forward.”


Additional reporting for this piece and for the young-Hollywood actor profiles by Erin Culley, Carol Dittbrenner, Juliann Garey, Darcy Lockman, Mark Morrison, Steve Pond and Neil Turitz.

WINONA RYDER Age 23

Hometown Born in San Francisco, raised in Petaluma, Calif.

Notable past performances Lucas (1986), Beetlejuice (1988), Heathers (1989), Great Balls of Fire (1989), Edward Scissorhands (1990), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), The Age of Innocence (1993) (Oscar nomination), Reality Bites (1994), Little Women (1994) (Oscar nomination)

Upcoming projects How to Make an American Quilt, about the love lives of several women; Boys, a love story with Lukas Haas

Others have noticed “It was delightful to work with someone as fine-tuned as she is. It’s like having this most perfect musical instrument to play.” – Gillian Armstrong, director, Little Women

Off-screen enthusiasm J.D. Salinger. “I’m almost sorry I’ve talked about him so much. I respect his privacy.”

Earned wisdom “I want to educate myself, challenge myself. If I tried to alter myself to what people wanted to see, I would be less challenged.