Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Straight Man

By Ray Pride

APRIL 19, 1999:  You'd be right to think that the bubblegum "Never Been Kissed" doesn't have much to say about being a man in America today.

But it does have something to say about the kind of actors who get cast today. An actor friend who's had the misfortune of being dismissed as "a younger Bill Pullman" often finds himself out of the running in an industry that seeks waif-youths from the WB or Leonardo DiCaprio-style pretty boys to represent portraits of desirable or admirable guys. (No wonder wrestling's gotten so popular.) While my friend is no Steve McQueen, he does have his point, which he's elevated to a kind of stand-up grand unified anti-man conspiracy theory I won't further burden you with.

The center of "Never Been Kissed" is obviously the irrepressible Drew Barrymore, but her first film as co-producer is intriguingly cast. Her choice for the too-cool, too-adult high-school teacher to have a crush on, as played by Michael Vartan, is just a notch or two above regular-guy, yet charming in the way nice schoolteachers shouldn't be, but often are, to their students. And, since Barrymore's character is a 25-year-old Chicago Sun-Times copy editor who goes undercover at a high school, the untidy, uneven script's neatest trick is to make their forbidden, potentially controversial attraction something that is not only possible but ultimately desirable.

Born in Paris to a French father and an American mother, Vartan grew up in a tiny Normandy village of 300 until he was 18 and moved to Los Angeles. He's been in an oddball clutch of films, starring in the Taviani Brothers' 1993 "Fiorile," as well as turns in the J. Crew cheese doodle "Myth of Fingerprints" and the dead-on-arrival "The Pallbearer." Self-deprecating to a fault, the 30-year-old actor who can pass for the nice guy next door jokes that he's been to auditions for "just about anything you could name that Ethan Hawke or Brad Pitt got." Yet without being hard or harsh, Vartan, both on screen and in conversation, has an offhanded authenticity, laconic without seeming lazy, something the goofball comic complications of "Never Been Kissed" gain from immensely.

Describing himself as selective, he claims surprise at being cast. "I read the script and liked it. My managers, my agent—my people! I'm kidding, please don't write that. They got me the audition. I went in, read, I guess I did all right." Vartan then veers into the kind of conversational cul-de-sac that stardom eventually trains actors out of. "But it's really funny. I never, I dropped out of high school because I lived in France and it's not high school, there's no cheerleaders, there's no sports, it's all gray. If that means anything, high school in France is gray and depressing and boring. I thought, my mom's in California, what the hell am I doing here at 17? I conned my way to L.A., telling my mom I was coming here to go to art school." (Vartan also confesses to a reluctance to spend time in the French national service.)

But what about the casting? "Yes. I got a couple of callbacks, then the wonderful process of waiting began. Always something like 900 years of wondering if you got the job. Then it was down to a couple of other people. It was weird because I didn't think I'd get the role. I never really saw myself as an English literature teacher since I don't understand what Shakespeare is saying, and now I'm teaching it?"

For him, the movie's lessons were behind the scenes. "The thing I'll take away from this movie is how you can be a very successful producer-actress and all the titles Drew had on this movie and still have empathy for everyone, down to craft service. She went out of her way to be nice to everyone. I've worked in this business for twelve years now, enough to known that's a really rare thing. A lot of people are nice and perfectly charming, but she really went out of her way to make people feel good. Gee, you don't have to be a prima donna or a jerk, you can say thank you and please and just be a nice person. It is a pretty privileged position when you're that successful, and people who act like they deserve it, that's just obnoxious."

Was she an example for his portrayal? "Not really. I just wanted him to come across as just a good guy who liked his kids. I hated school with a passion in France, but I had a couple of teachers who were so cool. Anything like algebra or economics. One teacher, I got straight Fs in his class, I didn't understand a word but I just liked listening to him. It didn't make me try any harder, but he treated us like little people instead of the young mindless idiots most of us were at the time. But most of the character is already on the page. It's already there. I take what roles I can get. I'm very selective because I don't want to be in a movie I feel passionate about, or I'd be a lawyer or something."

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