March 18, 2002 12:00 PM

>The moment they met, director Randall Wallace suspected Chris Klein might be the right guy to play a straitlaced lieutenant in the Mel Gibson war drama We Were Soldiers. “He looked me right in the eye and called me ‘sir,’ ” Wallace recalls. “I’m a Southerner, and manners go a long way with me.”

They also go a long way in Omaha, where Klein, 23, still lives with his parents—Terri, 51, a kindergarten teacher, and Fred, 50, an engineer—and two siblings. While he bounces from location to location—he has made six films since his 1999 debut in Election—his family keeps him in check. “When my brother comes to visit on-set,” says Klein, “he’ll come up to me and say, ‘Look, get the next take right, will you? This is boring, and I’m getting hungry.’ ”

Conflicting shoots meant Klein missed the preproduction boot camp for Soldiers, but he had already sustained his share of wounds filming Roller ball, the remake of the 1975 cult Roller Derby flick, on which he “crashed every day for six months.” Back-to-back movies have left little time for his girlfriend of two years, Dawson’s Creek actress Katie Holmes, 23. “We certainly don’t see each other as much as we’d like,” says Klein. “We’re both busy.” Which is okay for now. “I’m waiting for that morning when I look in the mirror and there’s something different that says, ‘You’ve got to settle down,’ ” says Klein. “But there’s no rush.”

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