America has an insatiable appetite for sturdy, fresh-faced heartland heroes, and boyish actor Chris Klein deliciously satisfies it. The 23-year-old Illinois native moved with his family to Nebraska when he was 13, and while still in high school was handpicked by director Alexander Payne for his debut role as a hunky football player in Election. Klein's spot-on performance no doubt led to his being cast in the super-successful American Pie, playing -- what else? -- a hunky football player (a role he reprised yet again in American Pie 2).
Breaking out of the gridiron grind, Klein went on to play the romantic lead in the sentimental Here on Earth (opposite Leelee Sobieski and Josh Hartnett) and the romantic comedy Say It Isn't So (with Heather Graham). Add to his resume two new films - the Mel Gibson Vietnam War drama When We Were Soldiers, in which he plays a young lieutenant, husband and father, and Rollerball, an update of the 1975 James Caan actioner, in which he stars as the roller-blading gladiator.
"When I was in the fourth grade we were supposed to write a little paper on what we were going to be when we grew up, and I wrote about being an actor," Klein reveals. "And the teacher handed it back to me and told me to redo it because acting was not a real career. That was far from inspiration to be successful to do this. But I've wasted plenty of summer afternoons in the movie theater."
The first movie he ever went to see in the theater was 1984's Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. The Vietnam War was long over by the time he was born. And yet Klein speaks with sensitivity about We Were Soldiers, which is based on the true stories of the men who participated in the battle of Landing Zone X-Ray, considered the first battle of the war.
"This certainly isn't a 'rah-rah, go America' film. This is a tragic film," says Klein.
"This movie is about the first three days of the Vietnam War. This movie is about November 1965. This movie is Kennedy's idea of using Huey helicopters to drop soldiers into jungle terrain, coming to life. This is the first time they ever did that. This is the first time American soldiers set foot in Vietnam. This movie is about the humanity and courage of soldiers and their wives who they left behind. That's what this movie is about."
Klein's character in the film -- 2nd Lieutenant Jack Geoghegan -- was a real hero of the battle, and a prominent part of the film's effort to portray the experience of the war on the soldiers' families at home; Felicity's Keri Russell plays his young wife, who gives birth to a baby daughter just months before her husband leaves for Vietnam. Klein met with Geoghegan's widow on set.
"[Barbara Geoghegan] provided me with an incredible biography of Jack, shared her soul on about five pieces of paper. And she loved him," recalls the actor. "It was very, very exciting. I was very nervous...I really wanted her to accept me as Jack. And when she came to set, and I went out and met her, it was brilliant. She just looked at me and she put her hand on my face, and she said, 'I'm really happy that you're playing Jack.'
"Making a movie like this -- portraying someone who deserves to be honored who hasn't been honored -- I kept the pressure on myself to try to do good work. And I was very inspired by that and by their story. I was very touched."
While he missed the "Hollywood Boot Camp" basic training that his elder costars -- Gibson, Greg Kinnear, Sam Elliott and Barry Pepper -- were subjected to (he was filming American Pie 2) to prepare for the role as Geoghegan, Klein worked closely with a military consultant.
"When I first sat down with him he was talking about going to the shooting range and firing guns and going through the obstacle course. And I said, 'What I want to do is for you to teach me how to march, how to stand at ease and at attention, and all those things that soldiers learn...how to salute, how to shake hands, how to make eye contact, how to be a soldier.' Those subtle nuances are what will make the difference between an actor playing a soldier and an actor being a soldier, because I went into this movie without knowing anything about the armed forces at all. So I wanted to learn about the chain of command, I wanted to learn why it is the way it is. I wanted to ask all those questions, I took notes. I spent most of my time sitting listening to him telling me what the military was all about, and the military code and the soldier's code."
The film was shot on location in California, and rather than rely on computer-generated images, elaborate battle scenes were shot using actual pyrotechnics, including real napalm explosives.
"That's scary stuff," confesses the six-foot-one actor. "There was one scene where they were firing AK47-wattage shells about five feet away from us. It was pretty gnarly, but at the same time, we found a whole lot of truth doing that kind of stuff. I mean, soldiers are scared."
Rollerball, the extreme sports fest directed by action guru John McTiernan (Die Hard, Predator), involves some pretty scary stunts as well, and while Klein was game for some, he left the death-defying moves to the professionals.
"There were some stunts I did. But I'm not going to take the credit for all of it. The credit goes to four young French Canadian skaters who do underground freestyle skating and skate movies."
While generally panned by critics, the futuristic thriller has scored at the box office. "[Special effects coordinator] John Sullivan and John McTiernan are perfectionists," says Klein of the filmmakers. "John McTiernan is a man of control who will fight to the death to make his movie. And I think we won, and I'm very, very proud of that movie."
As for another run as Oz, Klein could not confirm whether American Pie 3 was on the horizon. But his next project -- "a little independent movie called The United States of Leland about the murder of an autistic youth" -- is being coproduced by Kevin Spacey's Trigger Productions and also stars Don Cheadle and Ryan Gosling.