Meet the 17-year-old leading ''Dangerous Lives.'' Emile Hirsch's nuanced performances and modesty recall another onetime rising talent: his costar Jodie Foster
Emile Hirsch

At 17, Emile Hirsch is already a serious actor. To prove it, he turns away from the mirror in his hotel room. ”No, vanity!” he bellows. ”I turn away from you! To be or not to be!” He’s joking, of course, and thank goodness. The movies don’t need another self-absorbed upstart. On the other hand, there’s always room for someone with an ultrarefined sense of emotional nuance — which means there’s room for Hirsch.

”Jodie [Foster] had this great expression: ‘It’s going to be mining for gold,”’ says Peter Care, director of ”The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys,” who in 2000 cast the then 14-year-old as conflicted Catholic schoolboy Francis. ”She said, ‘You’re going to get these nuggets you won’t get with anyone else.”’ She was right. After five grueling auditions, the actor finally veered from the script, pulling off an improv so true, it stunned the filmmakers. Recalls Care: ”He broke my heart.”

With his radiant hazel eyes and darkgood looks, he’ll break more before he’s through. ”I was thinking about being a cartoonist,” says Hirsch, who grew up mostly in Topanga Canyon, Calif., the son of an industrial consultant and a pop-up-book artist. ”I got a single-panel cartoon published in the newspaper when I was in third grade. The caption was ‘A Lemming Amusement Park.’ And then it had a cliff and then a roller coaster, and the track ends, and it shoots the lemmings out into the ocean.”

Many would say that’s how Hollywood can treat its child actors. But Hirsch shows signs of precocity: After roles in such TV fare as ”NYPD Blue,” ”ER,” and the giant-lizard telepic ”Gargantua,” Hirsch told his manager he wanted to hold out for a truly exceptional film script. Luckily, he got his hands on the ”Altar Boys” screenplay. ”Francis is very intelligent,” Hirsch says of the role. ”He’s passive in the way that artists are passive. He’s got that sort of Jackson Pollock aura about him.”

Hirsch has an aura of his own — one that led director Michael Hoffman to cast him in the upcoming prep-school drama ”The Emperor’s Club,” opposite Kevin Kline. And he certainly charmed Foster, with whom he shared many an on-set conversation — though none about the hazards of being a young thespian: ”You finally meet Jodie Foster, you have all these things you want to ask her, and you talk about…child acting? No. There’s nothing to talk about.” What’s this? An actor resisting the urge to turn the conversation back to himself? Perhaps that mirror business was sincere after all.

The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys
  • Movie
  • 110 minutes