With ''White Squall'', the sitcom standout took on the big screen again

By Jess Cagle
February 16, 1996 at 05:00 AM EST
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His name is Scott Wolf, but he goes by many other identities. Being a dimpled yet talented hunk, he’s known as The Next Tom Cruise. With a new movie, White Squall, and an esteemed drama series, Fox’s Party of Five, he’s known as The Next George Clooney. Some simply call him The Next Big Thing. And though his fame is recently minted, he already knows what Madonna knows about keeping one’s home address off the map. ”We’re in Laurel Canyon, and we’re tucked away,” he says, sitting in the far hind reaches of a black stretch limousine headed up a hill toward his house. ”I could tell you the name of the street, but then I’d have to kill you.”

But once he’s home, Wolf seems less shrouded in mystery. In fact, he seems like any other single guy who has just discovered the untold joys of disposable income. The house, which he shares with his younger brother, Gary, 26, a musician, is mostly unfurnished, with the exceptions of a big-screen, no, a great-big-screen Sony TV in the living room and a small basketball hoop mounted on the wall.

Wolf’s house tour starts with a small den decorated with a weight bench and a large desk. ”This is the office — slash — workout room,” he says, standing next to a bar that’s empty except for a few personal photos. He picks up a framed photo of the Party of Five cast. ”It’s such a cliché,” says Wolf. ”We love each other, and we work so well together. There’s ribbing here and there, but it’s all in good fun.” He points to fellow Party hunk Matthew Fox, who plays his older brother, and laughs. ”Matt calls me Movie Boy now,” he says.

In the living room, he picks up a miniature basketball and bounces it a time or two. ”I haven’t bought the house,” says Wolf, who is very nice, very polite, and a little jumpy, since this is the first time he has invited a reporter into his living quarters. ”I’m renting. I could’ve bought it. I guess I didn’t buy it for the same reason that my books are still in the boxes.” He nods his head and looks away, then tosses the ball squarely through the hoop.

House buying, of course, requires a steady paycheck, which is a new thing to Wolf. Until now, the 27-year-old actor, whose dimples allow him to play characters a full decade younger than he is, was the kind of star on whom teen magazines spilled abundant ink, while grown-ups never actually saw him in anything. But lately, his work has begun to catch up to his pinup appeal. In recent weeks, he has been jetting from L.A. to the Houston set of The Evening Star, Paramount’s sequel to 1983’s Terms of Endearment. And last month, Party of Five, about five orphaned siblings fending for themselves, won a Golden Globe as best dramatic series, beating competitors that included ER and NYPD Blue.

Wolf, who plays endlessly suffering 17-year-old Bailey Salinger, has been singled out as Party of Five‘s favorite by viewers who have watched him struggle, in less than two seasons, with the deaths of his parents, a confrontation with the drunk driver who killed them, the fatal drug overdose of his girlfriend, his resentment toward his older brother, bad grades, leaving the football team, and any other miseries the show’s writers can contrive for him.

”We cast Scott first, and we cast him on the first day,” says Party’s cocreator Amy Lippman. ”He’s such a warm person that he seemed completely right for that character.”

It was Wolf’s bankable, adorable, wise-for-his-years quality that caught the eye of director Ridley Scott (Alien) when he set out to cast White Squall, based on the story of a 1961 ocean voyage in which six people lost their lives (Wolf plays a teenage survivor who narrates the movie). ”It helped that [Wolf] was in his 20s,” says the director. ”He was already carrying a kind of maturity. And he keeps himself fit. He hasn’t drunk too much. He looks 18.”

Indeed, Wolf’s clear eyes and flawless skin are not those of a young man spending too many late nights at the Viper Room. ”I have not, nor do I ever intend to check into Betty Ford,” says Wolf. ”I’m no saint. I’ll go out and have a drink with friends — but I don’t have a problem with it. I’ve gotten a lot of it out of my system, and I really don’t have much of a need for that now.”

Actually, the youthful looks are an asset, since stars who can play teens and discuss the merits of the Meisner acting technique are a rare commodity. And his wholesome, sincere persona makes Wolf as good a poster boy as any for an era when Quentin Tarantino is out and Babe is in. ”If I didn’t play younger characters,” says Wolf without resentment, ”I wouldn’t be working.”

It was, of all people, Burt Reynolds who first saw potential in the dimples. After growing up in West Orange, N.J., (his father was a health-care executive) and graduating with a degree in finance from George Washington University, Wolf briefly studied acting in New York and, at 22, moved to L.A., where he struggled to get walk-ons and small roles in shows like The Commish and The Trials of Rosie O’Neill. One evening after a play, a mutual friend introduced him to Reynolds. ”He actually grabbed my face,” says Wolf, ”and said, ‘Look at this face!’ Then he pointed my face at Loni [Anderson] and went, ‘Look at that face!’ And she said, ‘What a face.”’

Reynolds cast Wolf in his first substantial, though temporary, role — as a heroic high school quarterback on the series Evening Shade. Before he got Party of Five, Wolf also starred in two films that went largely unnoticed, Double Dragon (1994) and Teenage Bonnie and Klepto Clyde (1993). The reporter apologizes for missing them in theaters and promises to catch them on video.

”Please don’t,” says Wolf.

”See? I have my own Forrest Gump bench,” Wolf says as he steps into his trailer outside the Party of Five soundstage and points to a small concrete-and-wood seat outside his door.

Wolf, like the rest of the cast, knows he’s lucky to be here. Critics have tried to get people to watch the show — God knows they’ve tried. In The Washington Post, Tom Shales praised the show for its ”depth and intelligence” and called it ”the antithesis of Fox crap like Beverly Hills, 90210.” Still, the show finished last season 123rd out of 141 shows in the ratings, and only attractive demographics and the corporate mercy of Fox, which saw breakout potential in the show’s lunch box-ready stars, kept it alive.

This fall, Party’s audience began to grow — it even licked CBS’ heavily promoted Central Park West in its Wednesday-night time slot — and the Golden Globe, an attractive ornament for a network whose trophy case isn’t exactly full, has probably helped its chances for a third season. Should that materialize, Bailey, who has been accepted to a fictional college in Boston, will face the prospect of going away to school and leaving behind his devoted new girlfriend (played by Jennifer Love Hewitt). ”I don’t know what’s in store for Bailey,” says Wolf, ”but if I was a betting man, I’d say that he’s not going to Boston.”

While Wolf has been seen only fleetingly in boxer shorts on Party of Five, he will make full use of his hunk potential in The Evening Star as Bruce, a wannabe underwear model and boyfriend of Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers), who plays the granddaughter of Shirley MacLaine, reprising her Terms of Endearment role as Aurora Greenway. Wolf has already shot a scene in which Bruce demonstrates his modeling technique — ”bumps and all,” he says. ”He really likes to discuss and discuss and discuss a scene,” says Evening Star director and screenwriter Robert Harling (Steel Magnolias). ”He’s fun to watch [as Bruce] because he’s so real and so sincere about this character’s abject self-absorption.”

”It’s, like, goofy beefcake,” says Wolf, sitting in his trailer with a smear of TV makeup on his face. Back on the Party set — a dingy high school hallway — Wolf shoots a short scene with Hewitt. It’s difficult to hear the dialogue from behind the camera, but after the director says ”Cut,” Wolf refuses to say what the characters were talking about.

”It’s sort of a secret plotline,” he says. ”I could tell you what it is, but then I’d have to kill you.”

Wolf is no less reticent about his personal life. He refuses to give the name of ”the secret person” he’s dating, though he isn’t at all shy about showing a reporter his bedroom with a pile of dirty clothes on the floor, an unmade bed, and three abstract paintings of his own creation. ”That one,” he says, pointing to a black-and-white geometric design interrupted by amoebas of color, ”is sort of the battle between the clear and logical and what is blurry and creative.”

The house tour continues. ”This is the kitchen,” he says. ”This is the ‘Scott’ mug I got in my Christmas stocking.” In the living room, Wolf dribbles the little basketball, which thuds and echoes. When his brother appears, he tells him, ”Be sure not to say the secret person’s name.”

But he will submit to a few last questions as he strums quietly on his guitar.

Is there anything he regrets from his 27 years?

”I regret not realizing what a great opportunity I had to learn while in college,” he says.

What’s the last book he read?

”It’s called The Artist’s Way. I haven’t decided what I think about it yet.”

Is there a movie remake he’d like to star in?

He gets up and thumbs through a rack of laserdiscs looking for the answer.

The Graduate,” he says, ”but I’d be so afraid to remake it.”

Amid the clutter on the coffee table, there’s a Melrose Place mug. Does he watch the show?

He pauses to think for a moment, then says, ”As a member of the Fox network, I take the Fifth.”

In other words, he could tell you, but then he’d have to kill you.

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