Ordinarily, we’d expect a guy in Tobey Maguire’s position to tell us he’s planning a trip to Disney World. But days after the heart-tugging drama The Cider House Rules racked up seven Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture, it’s as if the film’s 24-year-old star has just found out there’s no Santa Claus. ”My perception of an Oscar-nominated film six years ago and now is quite different,” says Maguire. ”I’d watch one and think, ‘Wow, what did it take to be in a film like that?’ It was some super-magical thing.” Cider House, on the other hand, ”was a good script, they put together a great team, and we worked our hardest. And then it got nominated. It’s not as far out there. It’s just work. It’s just a movie.”
Way to bring us down. But then again, that’s practically Maguire’s stock-in-trade. As Cider House’s Homer Wells, an orphan who discovers a new life working as an apple picker and enters into a doomed romance with a soldier’s lonely girlfriend (Charlize Theron), Maguire anchors the film with a typically rueful performance so subtle it almost seems like he’s not acting at all. ”I wouldn’t say that he understates,” says Cider House director Lasse Hallstrom. ”He refuses to overstate. He just states.”
That may explain why Maguire, despite strong reviews, isn’t one of Cider House’s nominees himself. ”He deflects a lot of attention away from himself,” seconds Cider House author John Irving, who adapted his novel for the screen. ”I don’t know that Best Actors get nominated for roles that are as subtle as his. The usual approach is to go from loud to louder.”
Instead, Maguire is going from quiet to a little less quiet in the just-opened Wonder Boys, a peculiar variation on the coming-of-age drama from director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential). Maguire plays James Leer, a rootless, brilliant, semi-suicidal college student who develops a bizarre, almost filial relationship with his hapless writing professor (Michael Douglas). As in Cider House, Maguire plays a contemplative young man in search of knowledge, but as the film’s weekend-long narrative unfolds, James shoots a dog, steals a priceless jacket worn by Marilyn Monroe, and chases a dose of codeine with a tumbler of bourbon; in flashes of high volume or childlike giggle fits, he even gets to let loose a bit. ”The flashes are the key,” says Hanson, who chose Maguire over 100 other actors. ”Because it’s the flashes in which Tobey lets us into James Leer.”
Continuously shuffling a deck of cards while a box of red, white, and blue plastic poker chips lies spilled on the floor of his hotel room, the soft-spoken Maguire is something of a wild card himself. ”I can be pretty subtle and do my thing, but I love to pop out of that,” he says mid-shuffle. ”I’m excited that people have only seen so much of me, because then I get to surprise people. And that’s the best part.”
Maguire’s laid-back L.A. aura — he’s a vegetarian and a yoga freak — belies a remarkably tumultuous childhood. His parents — Wendy, a secretary, and Vincent, a cook — were 18 and 20 and unwed when he was born in Los Angeles; within two years they’d married and split, leaving Maguire to ricochet between them, moving constantly around California, Washington, and Oregon. By junior high, he says, ”I just couldn’t take it anymore. It was just so painful. When I started sixth grade in Palm Springs, I was throwing up almost every morning for weeks.” He was still a viciously competitive overachiever, both in school and as a child actor working the usual commercial and TV-bit circuit. ”I did one line on Blossom, a few lines on Roseanne,” he remembers, now absentmindedly playing a game of solitaire. ”I played a dead kid on Jake and the Fatman. I think I auditioned for The Wonder Years, like, 10 times.” He eventually landed a starring role in a Fox sitcom, Great Scott!, but the Walter Mitty-esque show was canned in 1992 after nine weeks.