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Level-headed Phillippe is making good in life and work

(ran GB edition)

Actor Ryan Phillippe is always forgetting things. That's his worst fault, he confesses, as he unfolds into a green, nubby side chair in a hotel room here and smiles.

At 25, Phillippe is already known as the comely young lion who can actually act. His credits include the movies Cruel Intentions, Playing by Heart and the spooky I Know What You Did Last Summer.

"I'm really forgetful," he says, shaking his blond, curly hair. "I'm always thinking, so I'm constantly overlooking things."

Car keys might disappear, library books might fall overdue, but there's not much that Phillippe actually misses.

Married to actor Reese Witherspoon (Election), he is the proud father of a baby girl.

"What I'm good at is I've got a good level head," he says, pondering a moment. "I'm pretty smart about most of the decisions I make in my life just because I take so much time and am very careful."

Compromising can be a problem.

"A lot of times in this business you have to be really conscious of being a strong person and being true to yourself. I've compromised in the past, but I'm less likely to do that as I get older," he says.

There's always the temptation, he says, "But you don't have to succumb to it. You can't blame that on anyone else. If you make decisions like that, you just have to learn from them and not repeat them."

The lad from Delaware has already made good not only with his personal life but with his work.

In his latest film, Way of the Gun, he's almost unrecognizable as the sinewy sociopath who masterminds the kidnapping of a young surrogate mother _ a crime that escalates into tragedy.

Phillippe's mom had a day-care center in the house when he was growing up with three sisters, and his dad is a chemical technician for DuPont.

"For some reason they believed in me. I don't know why they did," he says, shrugging.

"I guess because I was a pretty smart kid, and when I finally took something so seriously they didn't want to stand in the way, I guess."

Educated in Catholic schools, he was only 17 when he headed off for New York to try acting.

"When I first started acting, I was really into the idea of being other people, and I think that's stayed to be the ultimate theme. But when you're young you want to be famous and have money, and as you get older, you realize it can be something more serious than that. I started out just fascinated by the idea of becoming other people. I had really an active imagination, and when I would see a movie when I was young, I would live with it for the next few weeks and pretend like I was that character," he says.

"Also, I think I always had a sensitivity or understanding to, like, people's feelings."

Phillippe soon got a role in the soap One Life to Live, but gave that up for a riskier try in Los Angeles.

"When I moved out to L.A. for the first time, I had no money, no car and took the bus. It hasn't been a completely smooth road for me," he says.

"But I'm almost 26 now, so I feel like it's been a fun ride just because it hasn't been so easy. I've learned a lot from the adversity. When I moved out here at 19 I had no family near me, and there were nights where I had a tough time _ being broke and not knowing if it was going to work out. But for whatever reason, you just kind of hang in there."

Guest spots on a few TV shows like Chicago Hope led to a part in White Squall, directed by Ridley Scott.

"I was about to turn 20, (it was with) Jeff Bridges and a really good cast, and a great experience in eight different countries. And once a director like that puts you in a film, people tend to take notice, more so than they do when you've got nothing to show for yourself."

Phillippe has never been a partygoer and almost declined when he was invited to Witherspoon's birthday party before they'd met.

"It was half by coincidence and half by plan," he recalls. "She had seen me on a TV show or something and found out we had the same publicist, so she asked her if I'd come to this party. . . . I was actually leaving town the next day to shoot a movie, so I wasn't going to go.

"I had a friend who was with me that night. He said, "I just feel you should go, I feel there's something destined about this.' So we went and he was right," he says, grinning.