Back in high school in Omaha, Chris Klein was the all-American teenager: junior-prom prince, star of the school musical, outside linebacker on the football team. “I had confidence, I was gregarious, I was popular,” he recalls, settling into a plush couch at Shutters on the Beach, a Santa Monica hotel near his home. Discovered in the hallway of his high school by Alexander Payne as the director was scouting locations for Election, Klein was cast opposite Reese Witherspoon in the acclaimed satire; after his freshman year in college, he starred in American Pie, the raunchy 1999 teen comedy that became a blockbuster hit. But the newly minted heartthrob, who dated Katie Holmes, slid into a battle with alcohol addiction that led to two DUI arrests, a jail sentence and a tattered career. Now nearly 19 months sober, Klein, 33, clean-cut and athletic in jeans and a white T-shirt, exudes midwestern politeness, even as he nervously discusses his struggles for the first time. As he returns to acting in the American Pie follow-up American Reunion, he opened up about starting over.
Election came out in the spring of 1999 and American Pie came out that summer. To say it all happened pretty quick would be downplaying it. It was nothing short of magic. Right away, being who I was and being in the right place at the right time, I was two for two. Heartthrob of the moment, zero adversity, life is great. What happens next? That time came to an end quickly. Every movie that I’m in isn’t a critics’ darling or No. 1 at the box office. It was a reality check. I felt embarrassed and angry. At that time my drinking was a conscious choice. I was partying with buddies. I thought, “I’m a man from Omaha, Nebraska, and I like to tie it on.”
Klein and Katie Holmes were together for five years and got engaged, but in 2005 they called it off. That February he was arrested for DUI.
Katie and I were on a journey together. It was the actor who played Oz in American Pie and the actress who played Joey Potter in Dawson’s Creek; we were like the prom king and queen. We had a similar upbringing and we were going through the same experience [in Hollywood]. As the teenage craze came to an end, we found that our relationship was changing as well. From my side there was a lot of denial and fear about the future. It ended as amicably as these things can end. When we were breaking up, we kept it to ourselves for a while. [When Holmes started dating her husband-to-be Tom Cruise], it looked like it was Katie and Chris together and two seconds later Katie and Tom together, but that’s ridiculously compressed. I didn’t understand what I was doing as the third wheel in this story. Kate was incredibly respectful about the decision she was making to move on. She called and said, “Listen I want you to know before you see it anywhere else.”
Did my drinking complicate my relationship with her? It didn’t help. Was there a conscious “I have a problem with this?” Not in a million years. I was drinking wine, single-malt Scotch, top-shelf gin-I thought I was sophisticated. I thought people with problems were the ones drinking out of a paper bag standing outside convenience stores asking for change. By 2007 I was a binge drinker. I would start on a Thursday and clean up by Sunday. And then the addiction takes hold; the window [of being sober] begins closing. Never under any circumstances did I show up to an audition intoxicated, but the wave of work stopped and my drinking increased. My confidence was completely shattered.
I made repeated attempts to get sober. Friends and family knew I was struggling and would talk to me about it. Drinking and depression affected my romantic relationship [He dated Big Love‘s Ginnifer Goodwin from 2006 to 2008] in a massive way. When I turned 30, I was drinking by myself, I was drinking to pass out and I was very effective at that. There were days with shaking, withdrawals.
June 2010 brought his second DUI.
I was a blackout drunk barreling down the 101, with my beautiful German Shepherd, Chief, and it landed me in Van Nuys Jail. I couldn’t even stay sober for a puppy I was responsible for. Then and there, I knew I needed help. I needed a full stop. I went to Cirque Lodge [a rehab center in Utah]. I was at a point where I didn’t know if I wanted to be an actor anymore. I didn’t care. I needed to save my life. I would have died [without treatment] and I think about that every single day.
After completing 60 days of treatment, he served his mandatory jail sentence.
I served 96 hours in jail. It was demoralizing, but it reminded me this is where I put myself. You wear a silly orange jumpsuit and sit in a 6-by-6 cell. I didn’t make any life-changing decisions in the first year of my recovery. I thought, “I’m an actor, a homeowner and I own a beautiful German Shepherd.” Those are the three things I know, so life became very simple. I dove back into acting 110 percent but calls didn’t come quickly. Those first months were about getting healthy. I began working out incessantly. I’ve always loved being an athlete. For the first time, I knew what it felt like to be me again.
Klein got a break with a role on the FX comedy Wilfred and shortly after got the call to reprise his American Pie role in American Reunion, out April 6.
It was amazing to be back with those guys, give them a hug and say, “Did our 20s happen? Yeah, they did. Can we leave them behind? Please.” I went down the wrong road for a long time and to turn around and come back feels incredible. On a Sunday I don’t wake up hungover. I sit in my dining room with the sun coming in through my garden. Then it’s Chief and me for the day, jogging on the beach, hitting the hiking trails. The sun goes down and we take it in. And I remember how close I came to not seeing another sunset.