The Times - may 2000
The leading lads who want to shake the world

Hollywood's new generation of male actors is knocking at the door of stardom. Lesley O'Toole meets four of the young pretenders

Hollywood is forever decrying the advancing age of its leading men, and the lack of suitable younger replacements. There currently exists a reasonably healthy coterie of thirtysomething leading men - Tom Cruise, George Clooney and Russell Crowe, among them - but the market in noteworthy twentysomething male actors is positively booming. Tobey Maguire is a prime example. One of the stars of The Cider House Rules, he will be seen next in September's Wonder Boys, the critically acclaimed film of Michael Chabon's novel. Starring Michael Douglas as an English professor and novelist, the film features Maguire as James Leer, one of the Wonder Boys - or wunderkind - of the title. Hollywood's real-life crop of "wonder boys" are not only excellent actors, but also intelligent, well read and likely to be serious A-list contenders by the time Harrison Ford is safely ensconced in his retirement rocking chair.

The first wonder boy at a cinema near you is Joaquin Phoenix, one of the stars of Gladiator. Richard Harris had a nickname on the set for the 25-year-old Phoenix, who plays his screen son - Stanley Kowalski. Harris compared Phoenix's anxiety with that of Marlon Brando
when he was rehearsing a stage version of A Streetcar Named Desire. During rehearsals, Brando seemed nervous, forgot his lines and caused consternation among his fellow cast members. Yet on the first night, he brought the house down. During the filming of Gladiator, Phoenix, it seems, was forever in a state of near-panic.

"He fretted all the time," says his screen sister, Connie Nielsen, "then every time he worked he was phenomenal. Gladiator star Russell Crowe is similarly effusive about Phoenix. "I hope he learns one day how good he is because he's a damn fine actor."

Phoenix is indeed impressive as Commodus, Rome's fey, conniving emperor, a role that requires him to become increasingly unbalanced as the story unfolds. Yet Phoenix
himself seems oblivious to the quality of his performance. "It's difficult for me to watch myself in films. I don't really enjoy it because all I see are mistakes."

He has been excellent on film before, especially in 1995's To Die For, in which he literally killed for Nicole Kidman, and 1998's Return to Paradise, in which he played a student busted for drug possession in Malaysia and eventually hanged. The latter film made very little money, which aggrieves Phoenix. "It just goes to show that not all good or interesting films really get seen."

Gladiator, with all the might of Hollywood behind it, is unlikely to suffer the same fate. And there's a less obvious advantage to Phoenix's burgeoning career - people may at last stop referring to him as River Phoenix's brother. The eldest Phoenix was only 23 when he died of a drug overdose, and his younger brother was deeply affected. Phoenix remains close to his three sisters - Summer, Rainbow and Liberty - so christened by missionary parents who raised their children as vegans. Phoenix is still a vegan and if he ever rebelled against his hippy-like upbringing, it was in changing his given name - Leaf.

For Commodus's first appearance on screen, the young actor worked out "for a few months" and permed his hair - twice. "I wanted him to have really curly hair and look like a prince-in-waiting who had been on the road for weeks coming to see his father. Once he became emperor, I wanted to change his appearance and I did that mostly with make-up and costumes. Whenever he was out in public, I wanted to show his vulnerability, so he has his armour on, which symbolises the fragility he feels. In the palace, the costume is considerably scaled down. All those alterations change the physicality of the character and that makes such a difference to an actor."

Phoenix rarely appears in big studio films, but such is the buzz on his Gladiator performance that if Phoenix won't come to the blockbusters, they will come to him. "Yes, I had a meeting with Michael Bay about Pearl Harbor . I thought it was a well-written script but ultimately it just wasn't a film I really wanted to make. It all worked out well, though, because they ended up casting Josh Hartnett, who's a really sweet kid. I think it will be great for him."