Ten years ago, Tobey Maguire was filling out his eighth-grade class schedule, ready to sign up for home economics. He wanted to be a chef. Maguire's mother bribed him with $100 to take drama class instead, and the rest could be Hollywood history someday.
It's a nice story, but it begs a question from all actors:
Why didn't Maguire negotiate for scale wages?
"I never thought of that," Maguire said, laughing at his oversight. "A hundred bucks was a lot to me then, and to my mother. I never paid her back directly for that, but I've helped her out a little bit."
So, what does a 14-year-old do in Santa Monica with an easy $100?
"You know, I've told that story about 40 or 50 times and only one other person has asked me what I did with the money," Maguire said. "I've thought about it, but I can't remember."
Pretty good investment, though. Two years later, Maguire landed a role in Great Scott, a short-lived TV sitcom. In 1993, his haunted look was introduced to film audiences in the child-abuse drama This Boy's Life. Maguire made a minor impression and a close friend. Some guy named DiCaprio.
Poor luck dogged Maguire with roles in S.F.W. (barely released) and Empire Records (cutting-room floor). Finally, a key role in Ang Lee's 1997 film The Ice Storm was a breakthrough. Maguire played Paul Hood, an eerie son in a dysfunctional family.
When Paul was cornered in a bathroom by a seductive neighbor (Christina Ricci), moviegoers first experienced Maguire's trademark expression: gawky awe, slightly fearful, certainly curious and blessed for living at that particular moment in time. Maguire's characterizations can spin anywhere from that single look.
Audiences saw it again, when Maguire stepped into the black-and-white perfection of Pleasantville, and hitchhiked with Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Currently, it is on display in two high-profile films: Oscar-nominated The Cider House Rules and an odd character study, Wonder Boys.
Maguire was interviewed a day after The Cider House Rules earned seven Academy Award nominations, including best picture, best supporting actor (Michael Caine) and best director (Lasse Hallstrom). Maguire was still excited. At least, as excited as this still-waters personality shows in public.
"It's a great feeling," Maguire said. "It's interesting to think about my perception four or five years ago of a film that would be nominated for seven Academy Awards, and my perception of that now, being more on the inside.
"That kind of thing just seemed so far away then. I felt like you had to get on some sort of magic carpet to have that happen. All that happened was that we went out and tried to make a good movie, put our hearts into it, and it came out pretty good.
Maguire still didn't anticipate the Oscar support that resulted.
"I kind of expected (screenwriter/author) John Irving to get nominated, and I was certainly hoping for some other stuff," he said. "When I heard Lasse got nominated, I was thrilled. He did such a great job, such a great partner for me. I don't think he has gotten the attention he deserves.
"But, you know, (the Oscars) are what they are, and there's some kind of silliness to them. At the same time, it's nice."
Wonder Boys casts Maguire as James Leer, a college student who becomes a codeine-addled muse for his writing professor (Michael Douglas). The movie is as contemporary as The Cider House Rules is quaint, yet Maguire noted a comparison between the two films.
"The thing about Cider House that people are loving, what carries you along, is this feeling of homecoming," he said. "It's heartwarming. There's a coming of age there, and I think Wonder Boys has the same quality, even though it's a guy in his 50s. It's certainly a peculiar role for Michael."
Maguire's role is even farther out there, but continues his effortless way with emotionally fragile characters. The pleasure of watching him work is that Maguire never seems to be trying, a level of realism to which all actors aspire.
"I think I "got it' intellectually long before I could put it into practice," Maguire said. "I'm still learning to do that; it's very much a process. I've been studying for 10 years, either in class or reading acting books.
"Or, I'll watch a lot of actors whom I admire and see what they do. I'm trying to see the difference. What are they doing that I like so much? They're not acting, they're just being there.' That's what I want to do."