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Next Big Thing: unreal or unknown

Computer-made characters loom; Harry’s no star yet

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Hollywood's always looking for the Next Big Thing, or that New Fresh Face who's going to wind up becoming the movie industry's Star of Tomorrow.

Well, there's a chance that it could be Oscar-winner Al Pacino's co-star in the Hollywood-as-sci-fi piece "Simone."

Writer-director Andrew Niccol ("Gattaca," the screenplay for "The Truman Show") has cast Pacino as a Hollywood film producer, who serves as a Svengali of sorts to the title character, who becomes a movie star overnight.

Yes, the premise sounds a tad familiar, but there were stories in the Hollywood trade papers about Niccol's wild suggestions for casting the main role, which had almost all of Hollywood up in arms.

According to these reports, Niccol said he was unable to find the right "real-life" actress to play Simone, and was planning to have her be a fully computer-generated creation, done by digital artists.

Needless to say, officials at the Screen Actors Guild weren't pleased about the decision, and decried it as a marketing ploy that Niccol would probably regret — in more ways than one. (Why they didn't go after George Lucas for inserting Jar-Jar Binks in "The Phantom Menace" is anyone's guess.)

However, as it turns out, the reports were dead wrong. In a follow-up story in Daily Variety magazine, Niccol said that he is still looking for a flesh-and-blood actress to play Simone, though the part will probably go to a mostly unknown performer.

Also, it's evidently the character that's supposed to be CGI instead — the gist of the story line is that Pacino's character helps turn a computer-generated actress into a major star.

Before you write off the film's plot as sheer fantasy, remember that computer game characters, such as "Tomb Raider's" Lara Croft, have become quite popular, as have computer-generated pop stars in Japan.

And the digital animation for next summer's "Final Fantasy: The Movie" is rumored to be the most vivid and three-dimensional work yet. So the careers of flesh-and-blood actors still aren't completely safe.

HARD TO PLEASE . . . BUT IN A GOOD WAY:

Speaking of fresh faces, director Chris Columbus has finally done something right by "Harry Potter" creator J.K. Rowling.

The British author sounded a little peeved when American filmmaker Columbus ("Home Alone," "Bicentennial Man") was given the director's chair for next fall's adaptation of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first book in the fanatically beloved, best-selling series of novels.

(Curiously, the one person Rowling hadn't criticized to this point is screenwriter Steve Kloves, of "The Fabulous Baker Boys" fame, who's writing the adaptation.)

She did eventually relent on all of her sniping, though one thing she remained adamant about was that the actor playing Harry should be British.

Well, she's gotten her wish. This week, the Web site for for the movie www.harrypotter.warnerbros.com announced that 11-year-old Daniel Radcliffe (of the recent BBC adaptation of "David Copperfield") will play the lead character.

"We saw so many enormously talented kids in the search for Harry," Columbus said in a statement released on the site. "The process was intense and there were times when we felt we would never find an individual who embodied the complex spirit and depth of Harry Potter. Then Dan walked into the room, and we all knew we had found Harry."

Even Rowling seemed impressed by Radcliffe.

"Having seen (him) screen test, I don't think Chris Columbus could have found a better Harry." she said, hoping that Radcliffe has "as much fun acting the first year at Hogwarts as I had writing it."

Joining him in the movie will be newcomers Rupert Grint and Emma Watson, who will play Harry's best friends Ron and Hermione, as well as Maggie Smith (Professor Minerva McGonagall) and Robbie Coltrane (Hagrid).

And character actors Alan Rickman (Professor Snape) and Richard Harris (Professor Dumbledore) are currently in negotiations as well.

Needless to say, it's a good time to be a fresh face in the movies.

Between Radcliffe and Canadian actor Hayden Christensen (who's playing teenaged Anakin Skywalker in the second "Star Wars" prequel), two of the most coveted roles of late have gone to virtual unknowns, which could be good (if they're really talented) or bad (if you're a star looking to land a part).

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"(Both) involve coordination and a learning system and just physical dedication. It was just different kinds of pain." — Actor Keanu Reeves, when asked about the differences between football training for "The Replacements" and martial arts training for "The Matrix" by the Mr. Showbiz entertainment Web site.


E-mail: jeff@desnews.com