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Lipnicki looks forward to challenging roles

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Gone are Jonathan Lipnicki's trademark round glasses and short spiky hair. And with them have gone his opportunities for child roles in films and television series. (He's best-known for the "Stuart Little" movies and as Renee Zellweger's son in "Jerry Maguire.")

Now 14, Lipnicki says he's looking forward to playing older characters and acting in more challenging material. "I knew I couldn't keep doing that routine forever, that I'd get too old for those kinds of parts. I'm simply moving forward with the next phase of my career. I'm going to prove what kind of actor I can be," he said during an interview in the lobby of Hotel Monaco.

As for the glasses, as he got older, Lipnicki found that he didn't need them, and besides, "they kind of limited the parts I was getting.

"It seemed like every director wanted me to be that cute little spiky-haired boy with glasses, and that's all they would have me do. It was depressing. So now I'm hoping to play parts that are more like the real me."

However, fans of the "old" Lipnicki still have one more movie to look forward to. He was 11 during the shooting of "When Zachary Beaver Came to Town," a family drama based on the best-selling children's book by Kimberly Willis Holt, which opens locally today.

In the film version, Lipnicki plays Toby Wilson, a Texas boy who becomes distraught when his mother (Jane Krakowski) runs off to become a country star. Toby then gets into adventures with the title character (Sasha Neulinger), a traveling sideshow performer.

For Lipnicki, it's a dream project. In fact, after he read the book, he and his mother Rhonda tried to buy the film rights. Then filmmaker John Schultz got involved. "I met John when we were making 'Like Mike,' " Lipnicki said, "and he was awesome. He just gets kids, and I thought he'd be the perfect person to make the movie. And since he was coming off a hit, he had the clout to get it made."

Still, there were production challenges galore. During the shoot it rained for several weeks (the story takes place during the hottest week of the year). And then there was Lipnicki's first romantic scene, in which his character dances with Scarlett (Amanda Alch), a classmate with whom he is smitten. "I was just glad they didn't ask me to do anything more than dance with her," Lipnicki said. "Not that I didn't enjoy it, but it's a little embarrassing to do that in front of the whole crew and with your mother standing there."

The film wrapped up production in late 2003, and since then it's been a long process just to get it into theaters. As Lipnicki recalled: "We went from one film festival to the next, trying to find a distributor. It was frustrating because the crowds loved it, but there wasn't much interest."

Eventually, the film's right's were picked up by Echo Bridge Entertainment, a home-video company better known for distributing lower-budget thrillers, such as the 1999 Jean-Claude Van Damme movie "Inferno."

But Echo Bridge is trying to branch out into the family market now and is opening the film in a handful of cities, including Salt Lake City, to see how it does with audiences.

"It's about time," Lipnicki said. "You can probably tell how anxious I am for people to see this one. Finally you have a family movie that doesn't aim low. There's none of the lowbrow humor that you get in so many family films. Kids have better taste than that — they're smarter than people give them credit for."

Since the film wrapped, Lipnicki has finished work on another film, "The L.A. Riot Spectacular," and has been trying to resume some semblance of a normal life. "I've stayed so busy with movies and TV that I haven't really been able to hang out with my friends and been able to be a kid. Maybe someday."

E-mail: jeff@desnews.com