November 01, 2002 at 05:00 AM EST

Greg Kinnear won’t be baring his butt on the set of Auto Focus today. He’ll get around to it eventually — along with shooting other sordid scenes including oral sex, orgies, and masturbation — but for now all he has to do is stroll into Colonel Klink’s office and flirt with Fraulein Hilda.

”I show up in the morning and ask, ‘Clothes on or clothes off — what are we doing here today?”’ he says as he slips into a leather aviator’s jacket with the name Robert E. Hogan stitched above the breast pocket. ”I never know what to expect. There are nights when I drive home after shooting a group grope or some other sex scene, and I’ll spend the whole time thinking, What have you just done? Believe me, those can be exceedingly long drives.”

What Kinnear has done — what he’s doing right now on an L.A. soundstage on this sunny January afternoon — is take the biggest risk of his career. After years of being pigeonholed as the smirky but sweet charmer who doesn’t get the girl in perky comedies like You’ve Got Mail and Someone Like You, he’s gambling on a completely different sort of character: Hogan’s Heroes star Bob Crane, a smirky but not so sweet charmer who got hundreds of girls, videotaped them having sex with him and others, and ended up bludgeoned to death with his own tripod in a 1978 slaying that to this day remains one of Hollywood’s sleaziest unsolved mysteries.

”I’ve done dark comedy and I’ve done serious drama,” Kinnear continues, tugging on his colonel’s cap. ”But I was looking for something new. I mean, you won’t see me doing any of this stuff in Sabrina.”

You won’t see anything like the scene in which Kinnear and costar Willem Dafoe masturbate while watching homemade porn together. Or the fantasy sequence in which Colonel Klink and Sergeant Schultz have a three-way with Hilda. Even Kinnear’s Oscar-nominated turn in 1997’s As Good as It Gets — playing the smirky but sweet gay guy who didn’t get the boy — wasn’t as stunning a stretch. ”The sex isn’t very explicit; it’s not Monster’s Ball,” he says. ”It’s like watching underwater mammals on the Discovery Channel. But it’s still pretty disturbing.”

Disturbing enough to almost earn the movie an NC-17 (until the naughtiest bits were digitally blurred). And even though Kinnear didn’t always put his own butt on the line — letting his wife, former model Helen Labdon, choose a body double for some of the orgy scenes (”She went a little bigger than I would have”) — his performance may just be disturbingly authentic enough to give him another crack at that Oscar.

”Greg was in a bit of a box with the roles he was getting,” explains Auto Focus director Paul Schrader (who’s done disturbing before in such movies as Affliction and Hardcore). ”So this was a really smart choice for him — a chance to show his range — even if he sometimes needed to be reminded how smart it was.” A smart choice another way, as well. ”Casting somebody like Mickey Rourke would have been predictable,” Schrader notes. ”But Greg is such a slice of white bread, he makes the movie seem even more perverse.”

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