Catching fire
by Lynda Gorov
HOLLYWOOD - Overcast skies aside, Aaron Stanford is having the quintessential up-and-comer's afternoon.
     He's ensconced at the fabled Chateau Marmont above the Sunset Strip, in his own bungalow no less. Better still, a movie studio is picking up the tab. Poolside, he mentions three meetings he will have with directors and/or producers who may want him in their next pictures.
     His face predictably stubbly, his hair de rigueur disheveled, Stanford sounds believably blase about it all.
     He's not. One giveaway: Turns out he's a bit of a celebrity spotter. There was actor's actor and peacenik Sean Penn in the hotel bar, for instance, and Keanu Reeves, the monosyllabic star of the "Matrix" trilogy, elsewhere on the premises.
     Another giveaway: Stanford actually uses the young actor's standby "a dream come true" to describe the work he's doing and the people he's doing it with. It's just that fancy hotels that cater to the Hollywood elite never figured into the 26-year-old's plans.
     Growing up in Westford, Mass., honing his craft on community and college stages, he says he never anticipated the lifestyle embellishments or even the autograph seekers. The other day a gaggle of them sought out Stanford at Los Angeles International Airport. He still doesn't understand how they knew when he was arriving and where.
     "I never do that, approach someone," Stanford says. "I did that once when I was in college. I went up to a girl who was in Larry Clark 's 'Kids' and started talking to her, and you just realize that basically no one ever wants you to come up and speak to them. A lot of people are really good sports about it, and I'll try to be one. But after that one instance, I decided I didn't want to be the person to impose upon someone or put them on the spot."
     But that's the well-trod path of celebrity, if not stardom, and Stanford could well be on it next. His new movie - only his fourth release - is "X2: X-Men United," the sequel that last weekend brought in more than $85 million at the box office.
     Better known until now - and not that well-known at that - as the much younger half of a May-December romance in the well-received indie "Tadpole," Stanford stands to see his profile rise considerably.
Pyro with a lighter      His fire-throwing character, Pyro, gets decent screen time in "X2" even if he's not one of the movie's major players, among them Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, and Halle Berry. Without giving away the ending, let's say that Stanford stands to return bigger and badder in any future X-Men film, if one is made.
     Stanford is a self-described introvert. The attention of strangers makes him uncomfortable. He says he's been in the company of exhibitionist peers who craved the crowd. He adds that he fell into acting in part to overcome his shyness, to be a pretend extrovert if not a real one.
     But he knows how seriously comic-book fans take the films featuring their childhood superheroes. They tend to make superstars out of the humans who bring them to life. Stanford himself was no X-Men-ophile as a boy. He did enjoy Wolverine, an X-Man with his own comic book and the character who has so far driven the film franchise. In preparation to play Pyro, Stanford read stacks of comics sent his way. He says he became a fan. But it was the human scale of the script that won him over from the start.
     "It's the best of both worlds," Stanford says. "It's an action comic-book genre piece, but it's multilayered. It's got reluctant superheroes. It's got a little more sophistication than a lot of films in the same genre ... Pyro's story line changed from the comic book, but I tried to stay true to the spirit of the character."
     Fortunately for Stanford, a slender 5-foot-9 or so, Pyro has never been known for his physical prowess. He can, after all, throw fire a good 50 feet. Muscles aren't what make him and many of the other "mutants," as the X-Men are called, superhumanly powerful. Lounging at the empty pool, his legs sprawled in front of him, the sandy-haired Stanford is unrecognizable as a superhero, or even as the teenager in love with Sigourney Weaver, his stepmother in "Tadpole."
     He says he rarely gets recognized for his role in that film as the hormonal Oscar Grubman, or for his parts in Spike Lee's "25th Hour" or Woody Allen's "Hollywood Ending."
     Clearly, though, directors have noticed him. Stanford, who attended Westford Academy and still gets home for regular visits, drew attention even before he graduated from Rutgers University in New Jersey, landing parts in campus theater productions there and in London, hiring a manager after the senior class showcase, then quickly moving on to his first movie role just months after school ended.
     He can't explain why he stood out from the crowd - which includes, he stresses, his equally talented actor roommates in a rented apartment in Union City, N.J. He says he'd rather not even try, afraid both to jinx his luck and look like a pompous idiot."I think anybody who does well at all in this industry, it's a combination of preparation and luck," he says. "You have to be in the right place at the right time, but you have to have the right amount of preparation when it comes to you. Why me? I love what I do. I've always been really passionate about it. I put everything I have into the projects I do and, hopefully, that comes through."
     His strategy appears to be working. Just back from the London premiere of "X2," Stanford is off to shoot "Winter Solstice," the sort of small character-driven piece he says most appeals to him. Starring Anthony LaPaglia, it's about a father and his sons coming to grips with growing apart. Stanford plays the eldest son, a part close to but not quite his age. He looks young and, to date, has often played young.
     In "X2," Pyro is one of "the kids," a band of not-quite-superheroes in training. But Stanford's got another adult role in the can, as Bill Pullman's boss in the dark corporate satire "Rick." Either way, Stanford says he's happy to avoid the teen comedies that came his way after the droll "Tadpole," whose entire $50,000 budget was probably less than the catering costs for "X2."
     "I guess it's a relief to play my age," he says. "You're allowed to use more sides to yourself, because when you play young you have to hold back a lot of behavior that you take on as you get older, layers of sophistication that you have to strip away. But it's part of my job as an actor to become things I'm not. To play younger is a little challenging, but in this business it's a really common thing."
     What isn't common is Stanford's refusal to act as if he enjoys the attention beyond the camera. He feels no compulsion to share his views on the war in Iraq. There's nothing he's desperate to buy, no car (unnecessary in the New York area), no flashy jewelry (it would clash with his studied casual look), no first-class plane tickets for trips he hopes he won't have time to take for a while.
     "An indulgence? I don't have one," he says. "I pick up bar tabs a lot more for friends than I used to. But I keep it pretty simple. I'm less careful with things now because I have a little more financial stability, although who knows how long that's going to last?"
     The question is rhetorical, of course. The answer is a while, at least.
Text from The Boston Globe "Living/Arts" section, May 8, 2003, posted on this site with permission of Lynda Gorov. Photo: Kerry Hayes/SMPSP; ©Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Dreamworks LLC. All rights reserved.