Tackling a new role

Jon Favreau, who gained fame as the writer and star of "Swingers," takes a break from " The Replacements."

September 18, 1999|By Tamara Ikenberg | Tamara Ikenberg,SUN STAFF

Before Jon Favreau sits down for his 4 p.m. "breakfast" at the ESPN Zone, he's got to dash next door for coffee.

"If there's one thing wrong with this city, it's that there aren't enough Starbucks," says the 32-year-old actor who's co-starring with Keanu Reeves and Gene Hackman in "The Replacements." The fictional account of the misfits who replaced the Washington Redskins during the 1987 strike is being filmed in Baltimore -- currently from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Favreau, best known for writing and producing 1996's surprise hit "Swingers," buys a pound of ground house blend and a cup of black coffee with ice.

He heads out of the store, looking like a tired football player with his shaved head, drab sweats and Adidas sandals.

Inches from the door, he's stopped by an employee, suspicious about whether he's paid for his purchase.

"They didn't give me a bag," explains Favreau, as he starts searching for his receipt.

Would Keanu get accused of shoplifting?

No way, Dude.

"He's a real movie star with a capital M," Favreau says. "I'm a lowercase m movie star."

But Favreau's "m" has been growing since the semi-autobiographical "Swingers," his cinematic salute to L.A. nightlife and the pursuit of a cute girl's phone number. His name now fits firmly in the Hollywood hipster rolodex.

He works and networks in the same circles as Janeane Garofalo, Ben Stiller and Ed Burns. In the last two years, he's hit the ultimate Gen-X jackpot with a recurring role on "Friends" and a part in the movie "Very Bad Things" with Cameron Diaz and Christian Slater.

Success has meant more work -- and sometimes at odd hours. But sleep deprivation hasn't rendered him a zombie. Barely 90 minutes into his day, Favreau settles into a "skybox" at the ESPN Zone and tackles topic after topic in a conversational monologue.

On misperceptions of him as an independent film icon: "I don't profess to be this bastion of integrity. I just like to take roles in films that are going to be fun to do and fun to watch."

On football fantasies: "As an actor, you can do all the things that you were never able to do growing up. I was never a linebacker, but here I am breaking people in half."

On the cult appeal of "Swingers": "Write an inexpensive movie, get famous friends to be in it, and you get to do whatever you want."

The cool-cat flick (Entertainment Weekly gave it an A, declaring "If it was any fresher, it would deserve a slap in the face,") starred such buddies of Favreau as Vince Vaughn and a pre-diva Heather Graham.

"People knew who she [Graham] was, but she was sort of just bobbing along. There wasn't a lot happening. Then the combination of roles in `Swingers' and `Boogie Nights' and `Lost In Space' put her on top," Favreau says. "She's a beautiful woman, and she's a really good actor. And she's a new face. When you're in that category, there's a feeding frenzy."

"Swingers" lingo like "You're money," (translation: You look great. You rock, etc.) and "Swingers" scenes, such as the one where Favreau's character Mike scares a girl off before they go on a date by leaving a series of neurotic messages on her answering machine, have become embedded in the pop cinema lexicon.

"If I meet a girl, and I have to leave a message on her answering machine, do you have any idea how much pressure that is now?" says Favreau, who lives in L.A. with his cat Ziggy. "If I screw up, then they're playing it for all their friends."

Today, Favreau sounds a little like Harvey Fierstein. Blame the rasp on his character, linebacker Danny Bateman.

"The way I've sort of been written is this uncontrollable force that Gene Hackman has on his list of players. That's why I have no voice," Favreau says. "Most of it just comes down to trying to get genuine, honest, raw emotion blowing your voice out."

But he's no dumb jock. And fans know that.

"If you just got the big, crazy guy with the shaved head, it's a one-note joke," says "Replacements" producer Dylan Sellers. Favreau "looks the part, but he's got that very interesting, intelligent side to him."

He got his entertainment start in sketch comedy, studying improv in Chicago. His fans' perception of him as the perennial charming modern intellectual is largely misperception.

"To do broad comedy of this type [in "The Replacements"] is why I started acting," he says.

While independent filmmaking can be exhilarating, Favreau is wary of many young auteurs getting so high on creative freedom that they forget to actually entertain the audience.

"All the indies are so talky talky talky. Here [in "The Replacements"] I'm just a physical presence," he says. "It's like the John Belushi role. I always grew up idolizing him."

Favreau's co-stars aren't having nearly as hard a time seeing him in a Belushi-esque role as "Swingers" devotees might.

"He's got a touch of the Buster Keaton about him," says co-star Rhys Ifans, recently seen as Hugh Grant's bizarre roommate in "Notting Hill." "I'm the wee kicker, and he's the crazy muscle man."

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