Nathan Fillion is a nice guy. He can't help it. It's just the way he was raised. Won't take his seat until you take yours first, and if you're a lady, he's going to insist on pulling that chair out for you. In his 12 years as a professional actor, the 34-year-old Canadian has played a man of the cloth four times, including in Wes Craven's Dracula 2000 and the TV drama Pasadena. ''It's my pious face,'' jokes Fillion, the warm September sun bright on his friendly yet flinty mug here on the patio of a posh Beverly Hills hotel. ''I have that next-to-God quality.'' Even when ruminating on something remotely edgy like how much he enjoyed the fight scenes during his name-making stint on the defunct Fox sci-fi/Western Firefly his softer side can't help but assert itself. ''To fight dirty, even bite people, was...I just saw a huge hummingbird!'' He watches it buzz into the sky. ''Wow.''
Fillion's warm-and-fuzzies are more conspicuous considering that Firefly fans know him better as a cranky and embittered spaceman. And on Sept. 30, Fillion will bring that TV act to the big screen. The film is Serenity, a $45 million feature reboot of Firefly, in which Fillion reprises the role of Capt. Mal Reynolds, leader of a misfit band of space bandits. Backed by a built-in audience of faithful ''Browncoats,'' Serenity is poised to be a hit, and may do for Fillion what Star Wars did for that carpenter guy. ''He's the entire package: dramatic, comedic, romantic,'' says Serenity's writer-director Joss Whedon. ''I honestly believe he's Harrison Ford, if given a shot. And, yes, he's genuinely a good guy. Not only nicer, but occasionally more articulate than me. That's why I don't like him.''
''God bless him, I'll take it,'' says Fillion of his director's flattery. The tone is grateful, but there's no blushing: The man Firefly fans call Captain Tight Pants is ready for his close-up. Raised in Alberta by two English teachers who impressed upon him the importance of manners, assertiveness, and avoiding split infinitives, Fillion was planning to follow in their footsteps when he took a shine to acting in high school. His big break came in 1994 playing yep a reverend on ABC's One Life to Live. But after two years, One Life star Bob Woods took Fillion aside and warned him about the ''golden handcuffs'' of soap operas. ''He said, 'Pack your s---, move to Los Angeles. If it doesn't work, they'll always take you back.'''
Fillion took his advice and began climbing the ladder. Small part in Saving Private Ryan. Fourth lead in the sitcom Two Guys and a Girl. Leading man in Firefly. Then the ladder broke. ''I fell in love with the show and was crushed,'' says Fillion of Firefly's cancellation in 2002 after only 11 episodes. ''Put on 20 pounds. I took it hard.'' He recovered to make a memorable turn on Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer that allowed him to get dark this time, an evil priest. (Eye gouging was involved.) Still, the early weeks of shooting Serenity were fraught with post-traumatic stress. ''It wasn't until we started filming on the ship that I started to believe no one was going to take it away,'' says Fillion. ''It was like coming home.''
With Serenity launching now and the mutant-beastie horror flick Slither coming in early 2006, Fillion finds himself waiting to see what kind of bump his cinematic double shot gives him. At the very least, the self-proclaimed ''Firefly Fan No. 1'' hopes Serenity will fly again in more movies just as long as Mal kicks the bucket in the end. Why? ''So no one can ever play Mal but me! None of that James Bond turnover stuff!'' He laughs. ''Is that selfish?'' Looks like there's a bit of bad in this nice guy after all.