Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
July 25, 2003 AT 04:00 AM EDT

In the world-unto-itself otherwise known as Hollywood, Tobey Maguire is unavoidable. He’s the topic of conversation during drinks at the Four Seasons (”Can you believe that he fired his longtime agent?” shudders a rival talent rep). He’s on everyone’s lips over dinner at a chichi restaurant in Beverly Hills (”I hear Sony isn’t giving him his $17 million for Spider-Man 2 until he’s done filming,” whispers one studio executive. ”He’s getting scale until the last day. And anything over budget is on his head”). Even a nondrinking, non-eating health nut has something to say about him (”He’s no vegan, he just pretends to be”).

If you’re focusing on the details of the chatter about Maguire, you’re missing the point. It’s not what people are saying about him, but rather the intensity with which they’re saying it. After all, this is a place so small that switching zip codes merits a farewell party, and Maguire has made a far more dramatic move. In the summer of 2002, he migrated from critics’ darling in such movies as The Cider House Rules, Wonder Boys, and The Ice Storm to gargantuan movie star, thanks to a little blockbuster called Spider-Man.

This summer, Maguire has traded in his slinky superhero suit for a set of racing silks to star as real-life jockey Red Pollard in the Gary Ross-directed Seabiscuit. Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling book about the thoroughbred champion, the $86 million movie, opening July 25, is clearly designed more for Oscar voters than popcorn munchers. But in a season filled with second-rate sequels and oversize comic-book heroes, Universal’s Depression-era drama could end up being that rarest of pleasures: a serious summer flick that rakes it in at the box office. Which would make Maguire, once again, the summer superhero.

Of course you want the details. So let’s get back to those rumors, which for the most part are, sorry to say, false. Maguire is getting paid (to the tune of $12 million for Seabiscuit and $17 million for the Spider-Man sequel). And he’s a vegetarian, not a vegan — as evidenced by the dairy-filled latte accompanying the late lunch he’s scarfing down at his Beverly Hills production office.

”Would you like a corn dog?” the 28-year-old actor asks politely, offering up a tofu puppy. ”You might want to try one. They’re very tasty.” Okay, so it’s a glutinous take on the real thing, but it’s good to see Maguire eating. Despite intense bulking up for Spider-Man 2, which he’s currently filming, and intense portioning down for Seabiscuit (for which he shed about 20 pounds), Maguire has yet to break out of his amorphous adolescent build. Seated behind a giant desk in a looming black leather chair, the 5-foot-8-inch actor looks like he’s hanging out on a set from Big. With his flawless manners and slightly gargled speech, he sounds like he’s conducting an interview while scuba diving. The grand effect is that this yoga-practicing, teetotaling, meat-eschewing actor is…kind of a dork.

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