Ever heard of Emile Hirsch, James McAvoy or Sam Worthington? If not, you're not alone, but that hasn't stopped Warner Bros. and the Wachowski brothers from casting the 22-year-old Hirsch in next summer's "Speed Racer," or Universal from putting the 28-year-old Brit McAvoy in its spring 2008 action film "Wanted," a potential franchise that co-stars Angelina Jolie.
The macho Worthington — who's not even famous among the cognoscenti — is a 30-year-old Australian journeyman actor who won the jackpot recently when he landed the lead in "Avatar," "Titanic" director James Cameron's much heralded return to moviemaking, which is due out in 2009.
"The studios need that new generation," says casting director Joseph Middleton, who recently auditioned almost every guy in his early 20s for Doug Liman's next film, "Jumper," about a teleporting kid. "This is a window that opens every decade for the stars we're going to be watching for the next 30 years."
Or as former studio chief turned producer Tom Pollock puts it: "It seems that new stars — they come in bunches, and it's been a drought for a while."
You can also call it Hollywood's latest end run around the $20-million leading man.
Consider 20-year-old Shia LaBeouf, the first among equals in this set of new leading men. A former Disney Channel star, LaBeouf rocked the industry last month when his film "Disturbia" opened to a healthy $22 million, far more than the recent openings of such pricey stalwarts as 43-year-old Nicolas Cage, 35-year-old Mark Wahlberg or 52-year-old Bruce Willis. The film, a nifty high school version of Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window," held the No. 1 spot for three weeks.
LaBeouf also stars in this summer's blockbuster wannabe, the $145-million "Transformers," one of the few non-sequels to generate enthusiasm among teenagers. And he has been anointed by Steven Spielberg to co-star alongside the relatively elderly (in Hollywood terms) Harrison Ford in the long-awaited fourth installment of "Indiana Jones," which will premiere next May.
Spielberg first saw LaBeouf when he took his children to see the Disney movie "Holes" and thought that if Hanks ever needed to hire a son, here was the guy. He also noticed that "this kid had remarkable acuity. There was something about the way he listened and looked at the world through the character he was portraying, that he made me want to see what he was so interested in looking at."
Spielberg, who recommended him to Michael Bay for "Transformers," has no compunction putting unknowns at the heart of juggernauts. "It's smart," says the director. "If you look at the top 10 films of all time, the majority are populated with unknowns or actors that weren't known as movie stars, just as good character actors."
Despite his heat, LaBeouf is still a steal in Hollywood terms. According to insiders, he earned $400,000 for "Disturbia," $500,000 for "Transformers" and will move into the $1-million range for "Indiana Jones," which one studio exec terms the going rate for newcomers anchoring tentpole films — those big summer movies that studios count on to make bottom lines green. That's a fraction of the standard mega-star salary, the $20 million and 20% of the first dollar gross required to garner the services of a Pitt or DiCaprio.
"It's an economical thing," says Universal production chief Donna Langley, whose studio not only cast McAvoy but has recently tapped 26-year-old Aussie unknown Luke Ford to take over "The Mummy" franchise. "We have to have movie star movies, but you can't be in that business for all 15 to 20 movies you're making a year. If you can catch somebody on the upswing of his career, that's a nice place to be too."
With budgets for this year's blockbusters like "Spider-Man 3" and "Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End" hovering around the $300-million mark, the prospect of not having to pay top stars $80 million (Cruise's take on "Mission: Impossible 3") is enticing.
In Hollywood, youth is a matter of not just age, but of exposure. Whereas LaBeouf, Hirsch and Steven Strait (star of Roland Emmerich's prehistoric action flick "10,000 B.C.") are in their early 20s, the growing crew of would-be stars from England and Australia tend to be slightly older but still new to Hollywood's embrace.
Many have emerged as a result of collective Hollywood fatigue with the sensitive young men who have populated filmdom recently — the generation of people like Orlando Bloom, Josh Hartnett, Jake Gyllenhaal, even Tobey Maguire.
"They're all pretty boys," says one leading talent agent with a sigh. "They're kind of safe, not that masculine. They're very sweet boys, but by the time your 16-year-old is 18, she wants a little more testosterone. A lot of these young guys — they're not necessarily pretty boys, and they can act."
Director Cameron considered almost every actor in his 20s to play "Avatar's" lead, a silent, stoic former Marine suffering from a spinal injury. He quickly grew frustrated with the stars who were available. "I didn't think they were tough enough for what I wanted them to do. [I kept thinking] 'Where are the men? Show me the men.' "
After screen-testing a few, he ultimately opted for the unknown Worthington, who "literally had me at the first word out of his mouth. His line was, 'Yeah.' "