by Mark Nollinger
As genius physics student Quinn Mallory on Fox’s sci-fi adventure series Sliders, Jerry O’Connell slips into a new parallel universe each week. So you’d think he’d be able to take the surreal in stride. But the veteran Slider admits he was occasionally thrown for a loop last summer while making the film comedy Jerry Maguire. Trading lines with Tom Cruise can do that to a guy.
“There were times when it would be like, “Wow, this is Tom Cruise I’m talking to,'” says the 22-year-old actor while taking a break on the Sliders set in Los Angeles. “But then I totally forgot that. He’s just so relaxed you don’t even think about it after a while. He comes to the set and everybody immediately gets a smile on their face.”
O’Connell appears to have the same effect on his television costars. John Rhys-Davies, who plays professor Maximilian Arturo, declares, “I think he’s going to be a big star. I consider him the most able young actor that I’ve ever worked with. And he’s as levelheaded as any young man can possibly be. I always tell his parents, “You did such a great job, I wish he was my son.’ I think the boy is perfect.” Cleavant Derricks (R&B singer Rembrandt Brown) adds, “You always hear about the young ‘bad boys’ of Hollywood. This one is a good guy.”
Despite such heady praise, O’Connell isn’t taking anything for granted. “All you can really do is ask for a consistent career,” he says with disarming modesty. “I’m not looking for superstardom, I don’t need any of that. I’d just like to make a living at this.”
In Jerry Maguire, which opens December 13, O’Connell portrays the golden-armed, NFL-bound college quarterback from Texas who has Cruise, a sports agent going through a midlife crisis, desperate to sign him. “I don’t want to say he’s a dumb jock,” says O’Connell, himself a surfer and former captain of his university fencing team, “but he’s not the most cerebral of guys. It was fun to play.”
The best part: living out some of his childhood fantasies of gridiron glory-without having to get sacked by 300-pound defensive linemen. “I got to be a quarterback without taking any hits,” O’Connell says with a laugh. “They bring in a stunt guy for that. I’d be having a bagel, watching the guy wearing my number get creamed.”
O’Connell’s no stranger to the big screen. The New York native made a splash in his feature debut a decade ago, beating out 500 young actors for the role of the chunky adolescent Vern in the Rob Reiner film Stand By Me. But he didn’t go the child-star route: His parents insisted he put his education first — O’Connell recently earned a Film degree from New York University — so he’d squeeze in acting in such TV series and films as My Secret Identity and Calendar Girl during school breaks.
Last summer the actor had his first starring role, alongside thousands of singing and dancing cockroaches in the quirky comedy Joe’s Apartment. That the movie was a commercial failure doesn’t concern O’Connell. “I can’t worry about that,” he says. “As an actor you try to get as many parts as you can that challenge you. You don’t want to get bored doing the same thing all the time.”
Not that getting bored is something the actors on Sliders have to worry about. “We play transients,” O’Connell says of the characters’ extra-dimensional odyssey. “We’re always pulling up our stakes. It’s never the same thing on any given week.”
While feature films beckon–O’Connell says he’s in discussions about several projects for next summer-the actor remains devoted to the three-season-old series, in spite of Sliders‘ many ups and downs. O’Connell insists that the show, which enlisted some new writers this year and moved the production from Vancouver to Los Angeles, is finally on the right track. “Sliders has definitely come a long way,” he insists. “This season it’s totally unpredictable. It’s a lot edgier, and a lot more of a show that I would watch.”
He’s also pleased that his character has matured. “When Quinn started out, he was very collegiate,” O’Connell explains. “Now that he’s been through this sliding stuff, he’s not so wide-eyed anymore. And that’s a lot more fun for me to play. Because you do three seasons of a TV show and you’re not so wide-eyed anymore, either. He’s growing, and I’m growing, too.”
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