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Ready for His Closeup

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A man intense enough to worry his costars

TERRY KINNEY WAS BAFFLED. THE actor had reported to the Yonkers, N.Y., set of Sleepers—in which he plays an abusive reform school guard—and for some reason one of the film’s stars, Jason Patric, wouldn’t speak to him. Worse, every time they passed each other, says Kinney, “he was staring daggers at me.”

What Kinney didn’t know at the time was that Patric, 30, takes his work very seriously. The reason for Patric’s attitude had nothing to do with Kinney and everything to do with Sleepers’ storyline. Consider: Playing a junkie cop in 1991’s Rush, Patric insisted on having real hypodermic needles stuck in his arm (though fortunately he didn’t insist on real heroin). For Frankenstein Unbound (1990), he arrived at his first rehearsal limping because his character, Lord Byron, had a bad foot. In Sleepers, Patric plays a writer avenging childhood abuse by Kinney’s character, so the last thing he could do, he explained to Kinney later, was speak to his tormentor, even when the cameras Weren’t rolling.

Patric’s approach is well-known in Hollywood. Director Walter Hill, who worked with him on 1994’s Geronimo: An American Legend, says he found the actor “self-absorbed, defensive and wary. I have no idea why—there’s a good guy deep down there.” Patric’s friend Jami Gertz told US that when she joked around on the set of a 1986 I play they appeared in, he looked “like he wanted to put my head through a wall.” Yet whatever his excesses, Patric’s devotion to his craft is bearing fruit. With a key role in Sleepers—which costars Brad Pitt, Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro—and his assignment as Speed 2’s designated driver, succeeding Keanu Reeves, Patric seems poised for mainstream success.

Whether he’s ready for the exposure that goes with it is another matter. Patric rarely grants interviews and refused to speak to PEOPLE for this story. “People like to say I’m moody and dark, but that’s a load of bulls-t,” he once said, somewhat moodily and darkly, to Rolling Stone. Patric is particularly guarded about family members, among them his father, Jason Miller, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning play That Championship Season, and his maternal grandfather, actor Jackie Gleason, whom he barely knew and who died when Jason was 21. The only relationship Patric will discuss freely, in fact, is the one he has with Fergus, the 90-pound Vietnamese potbellied pig who has the run of his modest Santa Monica home. “Pigs,” he proudly told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, “are noble creatures.”

Not that Patric has had to rely solely on porcine companionship. His current flame is supermodel Christy Turlington, 27, whom he has been dating since 1994. It is his onetime role in the life of Julia Roberts, however, for which Patric may still be best-known. In June 1991, only days before her scheduled wedding to Kiefer Sutherland, Roberts left her fiancé for Patric, whom she had dated briefly a few years earlier—and who had been a friend of Sutherland’s since they costarred in the 1987 vampire flick The Lost Boys. Then virtually unknown, the actor, who had recently broken up with actress Robin Wright (Forrest Gump), was thrust into a media frenzy that didn’t end until Roberts left him to marry Lyle Lovett a year later. “I knew [dating her] would be trouble,” Patric told ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY in 1993.

Life used to be simpler for Patric, who was born Jason Patric Miller (later dropping his last name to avoid any appearance of nepotism, he said). Growing up in New York City and later in Bergen County, N.J., he was by all accounts a shy, quiet boy. After his parents divorced when he was 7, his mother, Linda, an actress, moved Patric, his younger brother Jordan and older sister Jennifer to L.A. At St. Monica High School, he was too timid to ask a classmate out, so he used an intermediary. “He gives me a card and a rose and asks me to put them on her doorstep for him,” recalls Scott Rowe, a classmate and still a friend. “Well, it worked.”

After a summer building sets and acting at the Champlain Shakespeare Festival in Vermont, Patric got over his shyness sufficiently that he decided to become a full-time actor. A year later he was a troubled youth in the TV movie Toughlove and then moved on to play a roller-skating stud in the disastrous 1986 sci-fi film Solar babies and a hunky teen vampire in Lost Boys. From then on, says Rowe, “Patric was concerned with doing projects he believed in rather than projects that were going to make him famous.” The upshot was roles in such acclaimed but uncommercial films as After Dark, My Sweet and The Journey of August King.

Sleepers and Speed 2 would seem to signal a change of direction, and those who have worked with Patric think it makes sense. Notes Sleepers producer Steve Golin: “Doing commercial movies will help him pick and choose what he wants to do in the future.” When the actor was wavering about taking Speed 2, Golin told him, “Even if it’s bad, it will be a giant hit. Just do it and get it over with.”

On limited evidence, Patric seems more comfortable in public as well. He looked almost content accompanying Turlington to the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas and sitting by her side at this summer’s Venice Film Festival showing of Sleepers. Of course that could be Turlington’s doing. “They are very much a couple,” says Jim Robinson, coproducer of the suspense thriller Incognito, which Patric just finished filming in London. “She is very supportive and nurturing.”

So will Patric end up a household name after all? “Assuming he doesn’t get fat, which I don’t think he will,” says Robinson. “Assuming he doesn’t do drugs, which I know he doesn’t; assuming he doesn’t get on the booze, which I know he won’t, what is he going to be like at 40? Hot!”

In an ideal world, Patric might like to linger at lukewarm a while longer. For all his seriousness, he has, says Jami Gertz, “a very fun-loving, crazy side”—and he and Turlington let off steam by riding horses on the California ranch of pal Rudy Ugland, who taught Patric to ride for Geronimo. But after Sleepers, finding the time for such things might not be so easy. “His life is not as simple as when he stayed home in L.A., hosed down Fergus, read scripts and complained about how bad they were,” says Rush director Lili Fini Zanuck. “Those are probably starting to look like the good old days.”

DAN JEWEL

VICKI SHEFF-CAHAN and CHAMP CLARK in Los Angeles and CYNTHIA WANG in Manhattan