Chris O’Donnell breezes into the Four Seasons Hotel in L.A. looking more like someone’s driver than a guest. He’s been staying at a friend’s house and has come to the hotel for this interview, a neutral place where the writer can’t observe anything too personal about him, and he can make his exit without leaving much of a trace. He’s only 25, but he is guarded, and he prefers to maintain as much privacy as possible while still being a recognizable celebrity.
LAWRENCE GROBEL: Do you find that what you say follows you around?
A: Oh yeah, especially in foreign countries because they just get a piece of it. The funniest thing was when a woman journalist was trying to insist there must have been something between me and Drew Barrymore. She asked, “You’ve never fallen in love with any of your costars?” And I said, to make her happy, “All right, yes, it happened with Jessica Lange. I tried to ask her out, but she’s not into me.” A week later I’m watching the E! on TV, and it was reported that Chris O’Donnell is actively pursuing Jessica Lange, to no avail. This woman thought I was totally serious. It’s just weird — I don’t feel I can talk freely to a journalist. I don’t try to be completely calculating in everything I say and do, but there’s no way I’m going to talk. There’s no reason to. And that’s why I’m such a boring interview, because I don’t go for the shock value, or smartass answers.
Q: Robert De Niro still doesn’t know what he wants to say.
A: You get a lot of questions like, “What’s your philosophy?” And I’m thinking, I’m 25, I don’t have a philosophy. I still go to my dad for advice.
I think the only reason I wouldn’t live [in Chicago] was if I got married and my wife wanted to live somewhere else. I haven’t been here in L.A. for a couple of months and was excited to see it all, it’s so beautiful out here. But it takes me just a couple of days to remember why I can’t deal with it.
Q: What is it about L.A. you can’t deal with?
A: I really like it — there’s so much to do, and I have some friends here — but it’s not as exciting as when I first came here. When I spend too much time here, things get out of whack. Too many people here are too concerned about what car they drive, what they look like, where they go, who they hang out with, the whole scene. And when it comes right down to it, the scene here is not that fun. L.A. just doesn’t seem real to me. Chicago does. My real friends are there. It’s home.
Q: When you were in high school did you study acting? Were you in plays?
A: No, I wasn’t in plays. I was more into sports. I wasn’t really Joe Athlete — I was too small — but I was always playing sports. I was tiny in high school, the smallest kid: 5’ 9”, 95 pounds. I was a late bloomer. But that’s part of how I got into this business, because when I was 16 I was going in for auditions against 12 year olds. Of course I got the parts because the other kids were so immature and the directors liked me.
Q: Because you were so short throughout high school, did you worry that you weren’t going to grow?
A: Totally worried. My parents weren’t worried because it was the same way with my brothers. But when you’re 14 or 15 and you’re that much shorter than everybody else, you do start to freak out. I did most of my growing after I graduated high school.
Q: Did it bother you when Martha Frankel said in Movieline that you were the only watchable actor in Scent of a Woman?
A: It didn’t bother me. I thought Scent of a Woman was an unbelievable movie. I think Marty Brest is as good a director as there is. And Al Pacino is so good it’s scary.
Q: What makes Pacino so good?
A: He’s so powerful. Everything about him. His voice, even on its lowest register, still radiates. He’s a complete perfectionist. You think he’s just a natural, but he works so hard. Every day he was in the dressing room next to me and I’d hear him working on scenes [we wouldn’t be shooting] for days — and constantly coming up with new ideas. Every scene he wants 10 to 40 different ways. It’s amazing, this endless creativity, you don’t know where he gets it. How does he come up with so many ideas? It’s overwhelming.
Q: He often likes to rehearse, but on Scent, you didn’t.
A: Marty didn’t want us to. He knew I was already intimidated by Al and he didn’t want me to feel comfortable with him.
Q: That’s like when Pacino had to first act with Brando in The Godfather — he was very nervous doing that.
A: I’ll never forget being in the limo as Al was telling us stories about The Godfather. Marty Brest and I kept looking at each other, like two little kids high-fiving. “This is great!”
Q: Did Pacino acknowledge you when he won the Oscar or the Golden Globe?
A: At the Golden Globes, I was afraid he was going to forget my name. He was staring at me, and his mouth was jawing, and I knew he was trying to figure out my name, I was ready to shout, “Chris!” I don’t remember if he mentioned my name at the Oscars.
Q: Anybody else you’ve worked with who has the intensity that Pacino has?
A: Jessica Lange’s amazing. Those are probably the two strongest influences, as far as actors I’ve worked with.
Q: When you made Mad Love, Drew Barrymore called you the brother she never had. Did you feel that way towards her?
A: I really liked Drew. Going into it, I thought, oh my, this could take the cake for crazy stories, because I’d read so much about her. I’d read that she got married, then two weeks later she got divorced. But we got along real well. My girlfriend had been concerned that I was doing a movie with Drew — especially one with love scenes — but I watched them together at the Batman Forever premiere, and they turned out to like each other a lot.
Q: Speaking of love scenes, you’ve complained in the past about emotional scenes being “such a draining experience.” Isn’t that what movies are all about, showing emotion?
A: I don’t complain about it, but I don’t get excited about it.
Q: You’re to star opposite Sandra Bullock in Richard Attenborough’s big-budget Hemingway project, In Love and War, first the film version of John Grisham’s The Chamber. This is the one that’s supposed to put you up there with Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt. Is that how you see it?
A: No, not at all. I see it as an interesting story, getting to play someone more my age for the first time.
Q: Before you locked in on The Chamber, how many scripts were you looking at and how many were you close to making?
A: There were so many, it was crazy. Most of them were projects I would have jumped at a year ago, if things hadn’t worked out the way they have recently. You’d think being in my position it would be so easy, just pick out a project, do it, no big deal. But you really have to take your time and make smart decisions. After Batman Forever, I started getting offered these huge commercial films that you know are going to make hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide. And you can jump on that train if you want and cash in, make a ton of money, get a couple of sequels and some merchandising. But in two years, I think people would be just so sick of your face, that would be it.
Q: But doesn’t a rising star need to make exactly those types of movies?
A: Yeah, as much as those films aren’t good, you need them. You really do. The ideal world is to do films that Tom Cruise and Tom Hanks and Harrison Ford have done — huge films, but they’re still respected as actors. That’s the best of both worlds.
Q: About your playing Robin in Batman Forever, one agent said it showed you were either reaching as an actor or as a capitalist. Which was it?
A: You mean cashing in? I was just balancing out a year of work. You have to do commercial type films…you can make a lot of quality films and have the respect of many people, but studios greenlight films by looking at what’s been successful. It’s a business, after all.
Q: What superhero did you want to be growing up?
A: I was really into the G.I. Joe dolls, I also liked Spider-Man, the Six Million Dollar Man and Evel Knievel. I was in Lee Majors’ fan club. I think I’m still in it — it’s a lifetime membership.
Q: How well did you get to know Val Kilmer?
A: Not very well. When I talk with Val, I think he’s kind of screwing with me sometimes. He used to give me a lot of s* — like, “Oh, did Al Pacino teach you that?” Which is hilarious because when he got cast in Heat, I was able to start giving it back to him.
Q: Are you able to psyche yourself up to do the next Batman, or is it more: “S*, I’ve got to put on that costume again”?
A: I’m not excited about gluing the mask to my face again. But I’m excited to do the next one, as long as Joel Schumacher comes back.
Q: Among your peers, are there any actors you enjoy watching?
A: My peers…um…name me an actor.
Q: Leonardo DiCaprio.
A: I didn’t see What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Basketball Diaries or Total Eclipse — although I’ve heard from so many people about him.
Q: Brad Pitt.
A: I thought Legends of the Fall was great. I didn’t see Seven. He’s really good. As is Ethan Hawke, who was great in Dead Poet’s Society. I missed Reality Bites, though I got the soundtrack. Who else?
Q: Johnny Depp.
A: The guy is awesome. He’s just great. He was at the hotel we were at in Paris and I walked by him in the hall, but I don’t know the guy, so I’m not going to be like, “Johnny, I’m an actor too, how’re ya doing?”
Q: Could you have played the lead in Ed Wood, Speed or Legends of the Fall?
A: I could have. Whether or not I could have done them as well as they did them, that’s a whole other thing. Now you’ve got me trying to analyze my career and I hate when actors start getting all serious about themselves.
Q: It’s been written about you that, with the exception of The Three Musketeers, you haven’t made a wrong or foolish move yet. Feel that way too?
A: I liked The Three Musketeers. I just didn’t like my hairdo.
Q: What did you learn watching Charlie Sheen and Kiefer Sutherland?
A: It was wild, hanging with those guys. I’d never met anybody before who was close to my age and such a big movie star and had a lot of money. They had different spending habits than people I’d met before. Charlie buys antique watches like I buy tennis shoes.
Q: How do you like reading what’s written about you?
A: It’s kind of entertaining [but] I suppose there are times I get really pissed off. I’ve never been someone the tabloids have been interested in until Batman Forever. Then, suddenly, I’ve had these stories written about me. There’s been a lot of stories lately that I’ve purchased a ring for my girlfriend, Caroline. So she now gets letters of congratulations from all these people thinking that we’re engaged.
Q: Is she waiting for you to ask her?
A: I don’t know…probably…maybe.
To me, the relationship I have with my girlfriend I value more than just a fling here and there. It’s what you believe in, it’s part of your religion, the way you’ve been brought up, and your values. The way I live my life is not the perfect way, it’s just the way I was brought up.
Q: How did you meet Caroline? What does she do?
A: Her brother was one of my roommates in college, so she used to come visit him. She’s working for a non-profit organization in Washington now.