By Dan Jewel
June 15, 1998 12:00 PM

Mae Whitman passed her first audition with flying colors. A director for TV commercials had noticed the then 3-year-old a few days earlier, after her mother, Pat, a voice-over artist, tried out for an ad. Mae seemed like a natural, so the director asked her mother to bring her in for a meeting. He stood across from the toddler and, in an attempt to get a reaction, pointed to her white-and-purple outfit, saying, “My, what a pretty yellow dress you’re wearing.” Whitman peered down at her clothes, looked back at him and replied, “What are you, some kind of knucklehead?”

Faster than you can say Shirley Temple, Whitman landed her first role, in a Tyson’s chicken ad. Six years later she has built a résumé most grownup actors would envy—including prominent parts as the First Daughter in Independence Day, George Clooney‘s soulful child in One Fine Day and, since 1996, the recurring role of Sara Wilmette, Christine Lahti’s wise daughter on CBS’s Chicago Hope. Currently, Whitman is starring as Sandra Bullock‘s precocious offspring in the romance Hope Floats. “I love doing movies,” says Whitman, 10. “I like meeting people—that’s the best part.”

People like meeting her too. “I had more fun hanging out with Mae than I do with most people,” says Bullock. On the Independence Day set, says Bill Pullman, who played her father, Whitman was “like a surrogate daughter.” And Clooney—who gave the young actress an open invitation to babysit his pet pig Max—is simply smitten. “Mae promised she’d wait until I’m old enough to marry her,” he jokes. As for her acting ability, “She’s frighteningly gifted,” says Bullock. “What she does now blows most adults away.”

Nothing to it, says Whitman. To prepare for a scene in Hope Floats in which her character’s father walks out on her, she says she thought about “the band going down on the Titanic.” (She hasn’t seen the movie but has “studied about the real deal.”) “She was acting much like a water faucet,” says her costar Harry Connick Jr. admiringly. “She would turn on these emotions and shut them down just as easily. She’s just a pro.”

But when she’s not on-camera, Whitman acts her age. She is amassing a Beanie Baby collection—27 and counting—and always takes stuffed animals with her on location. (Sadly, she explains, Tommy the tiger has to stay home, since he “doesn’t like to fly.”) When she’s at her family’s modest three-bedroom home in suburban Glendale, Calif., Whitman, an only child, is far more interested in playing with her real pets—a dog, two cats and a turtle—than in going to premieres or sampling the L.A. party scene with other child actors.

Her healthy attitude, say her co-stars, comes from her parents, Pat, 49, whose voice-over credits include the film An American Tail, and Jeff, 49, a former set-construction coordinator who manages his wife’s and daughter’s careers. Though Whitman has appeared in films since age 4, when she beat out 700 other girls for the part of Meg Ryan’s younger daughter in When a Man Loves a Woman, “she’s balancing it all out,” says her father. When not filming, she attends private school in L.A. (math and science are her favorite subjects), takes weekend horseback-riding lessons and roller-skates with friends. On the set, at least one parent is always by her side, and a private tutor keeps her from falling behind in her schoolwork. As a result, her father doesn’t worry about Mae becoming fodder for the tabloids someday. “My fears,” he says, “are the usual stuff—that no matter how cool I think I am, she will at some point just decide to hate me and go out with guys I can’t stand.”

Indeed, Whitman, who says she might become a lawyer or teacher someday, is already preoccupied with preteen trends. She hates Barney but adores Friends (“I love Joey”), Growing pains reruns and her Jewel and Spice Girls CDs. So it’s not surprising that one perk of acting particularly appeals to her: “It’s fun to try out being new people,” she says with a smile. “Sometimes you get to talk back to your mom.”

Dan Jewel

Elizabeth Leonard in Glendale