Dave Karger
September 28, 2007 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Jason Bateman spent the 1990s in fear of cocktail parties. After becoming a pinup in the ’80s thanks to his dimply turns on the big (Teen Wolf Too) and small (Silver Spoons) screens, he often found himself at Hollywood social gatherings facing the same dilemma. ”People, out of politeness or genuine curiosity, would say, ‘Hey, what are you up to?”’ he says. ”You can either say, ‘Oh, nothing!’ or you can risk sounding defensive and start rattling off what your résumé looked like for the past couple of months.” At that time, his CV consisted mainly of some crappy TV movie or a sitcom pilot with no chance in hell. Bateman’s response to inquisitive partygoers? ”I basically went, ‘F— it’ and started saying, ‘Nothin’! Just hangin’ out! Doin’ a lot of going out at night and playin’ a lot of golf.’ You start to see their eyes drifting around the room for someone bigger and better to talk to.”

A decade later, Bateman is the party guest everyone’s hoping for. Since the demise of his Emmy-winning series Arrested Development last year, Bateman, 38, has lined up juicy roles in five big-ticket features, starting with the Middle East thriller The Kingdom, in which he, as intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt, provides much-needed comic relief as well as the film’s biggest narrative jolt.

The role was the result of last winter’s crime comedy Smokin’ Aces, in which Bateman had a bit part opposite Kingdom director Peter Berg as a cold-sore-laden attorney locked up in a Vegas hotel. ”Bateman had a monologue that was so funny we were all literally chewing on the insides of our mouths not to laugh,” Berg recalls of the scene, which also featured Ben Affleck. ”I was bleeding I was biting my mouth so hard. That’s when I really felt the full impact of his talent.” With The Kingdom, Berg aimed to use Bateman’s smart-aleck skills for a different end. ”He’s a master of sarcasm, and I always find that not so deep underneath that sarcasm lies pretty raw emotion,” the director says. ”I thought it would be interesting to take that persona and introduce it to genuinely horrific situations.”

Filming The Kingdom, in which a team of FBI agents travels to Saudi Arabia to investigate a deadly terrorist bombing, involved three major firsts for Bateman. To begin with, it was shot in the hardly cushy locales of Abu Dhabi and Arizona. ”I’m a guy who’d much rather freeze than sweat,” he says. ”We had this long sequence on this closed-down highway. It was 140 degrees for two weeks. It was hell.” Then there was the live falcon that served as his costar in one scene. ”It was surprisingly stinky,” he reports. ”You don’t expect falcons to smell like ass, but they do. They’re not showerers.” Most notably, since his character finds himself in harrowing circumstances, The Kingdom called for Bateman to do something he’s never had to before: play visceral, white-knuckle fear. But he didn’t exactly break out the Method. ”I just try to do what I see other actors I like do,” he says with typical self-deprecation. ”I mean, you could do it too. Acting’s not that tough.”

Considering the professional roller-coaster ride Bateman’s been on, faking a bit of terror must have seemed like a snap. The son of a TV director-producer and a flight attendant — and, of course, the little brother of Family Ties star Justine — Jason got his start in 1981 at age 12 as adopted son James Cooper Ingalls on Little House on the Prairie. Major roles on sitcoms Silver Spoons and The Hogan Family — and in that Teen Wolf sequel — meant forgoing a normal childhood, so when his Tiger Beat days ended in 1991, Bateman embarked on something of a late adolescence. ”Basically my whole 20s were a lot of drinking, a lot of drugs — there wasn’t a whole lot of ambition,” he says, sitting on a hotel balcony in Toronto, where his upcoming indie Juno was the crowd-pleaser of the film festival. ”Feature scripts — not that there were that many — were basically scrap paper for messages. I was definitely in a place of depression, a little upset at myself for making such a big commitment to a career that I didn’t have control over.”

In 1998, Bateman began dating childhood acquaintance Amanda Anka, daughter of singer-songwriter Paul. Soon after the couple married in 2001, the actor scored the role of exasperated dad Michael Bluth on Arrested Development, a show that would spark a cult following and a career comeback before getting canceled after three seasons. Rather than capitalize upon the career boost and seek out starring roles in silly comedies, he’s chosen smaller parts in more substantial projects. ”We’re trying to not screw this whole thing up by taking the wrong comedy too soon. If I want to be above the title, it’s probably going to be a s — -ty film,” he explains. ”And then I’m going to be selling oranges and peanuts on freeway off-ramps pretty soon.”

As a result, his Kingdom costars Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner, and Chris Cooper occupy all the above-the-title real estate, while Bateman, despite his pivotal role, is virtually MIA even from the film’s TV spots. ”It truly is okay in that I want to be around for a long time,” he insists. ”If you’re on top, there’s really only one place to go. If you look at this transition from TV to film like I am, then I’ve sort of graduated from TV and now I’m a freshman in film. Now that I’ve got another flash of relevancy, I don’t want to screw it up. I don’t want my name to get in my way again, which for a long time, unfortunately, it was.”

These days, his name is hardly a liability. Besides starring in Juno, he’ll appear this fall in the Dustin Hoffman fantasy Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. He also just reteamed with Berg for the superhero comedy Hancock opposite Will Smith, and he’ll soon begin shooting the political drama State of Play with Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. And there’s always the hope for an Arrested Development movie. ”It’s something that we all talk about on e-mails,” he says. ”If they make a deal, the principals are interested.”

Whatever happens, it seems that the Hollywood powers that be are once again on his side. ”Jason’s one of the greatest examples of how unpredictable an acting career can be,” says Berg. ”There aren’t a lot of guys that’ve been able to survive as long as he has — and he’s entering his 40s completely reinvented.” The surest sign of Bateman’s stability? He and Anka welcomed daughter Francesca last October. ”I really made sure that a lot of things in my life were ready for when I would get the adult thing: the wife, the child, the career,” he says. ”Not drinking, not doing drugs, getting up early, exercising, and putting my mind 10 years ahead, being really clear on where I want to be. And it’s happening. And I want to try to keep the car on the road.”

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