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Klein of the Times

by Scott Huvers | Men's Book Chicago magazine | March 15, 2012

Back in 1999, a 20-year-old Chris Klein—who a year earlier made an indelible impression in his professional acting debut, Alexander Payne’s Election—hit it big in the teen-centric sex comedy American Pie. That film and its subsequent sequels provided 1990s Hollywood with its answer to the Brat Pack: a clubby new clique of actors who would co-star in projects and frequently hit the club scene together. “The late ’90s were an incredible time to be 18 and 19 years old,” says Klein. “The studios were building a lot of stories based around teenagers, and things like the WB Network were just starting. Kevin Williamson was making hit after hit, and we had our American Pie.”

Being young and hot in Hollywood, however, is a fickle, often fleeting, proposition. Not every film can be a blockbuster hit or critics’ darling, as Klein discovered. “Having those first two films work the way they worked, I did need a little education,” he says. “And of course there was going to be time to pay my dues and work it out.” Klein, now 32, has worked steadily since, on films like Just Friends, We Were Soldiers and the popular Wilfred TV series on FX. He’s learned to navigate the ever-changing tides of a life and career in the public eye. “I needed to learn how the business worked and [experience] some disappointment—all of the growing pains that needed to happen to get me to 32.”

That accomplished, Klein and his colleagues were thrilled to have the opportunity to come full circle—and mark the beginnings of their second acts—in American Reunion. “I don’t hesitate to speak for the whole group when I say that we were very excited about getting back together to make this movie,” he says. The sequel finds his character, Oz, having seemingly achieved it all—a career in sports broadcasting, a home in Malibu and a sexy younger girlfriend. However, Oz realizes that not everything’s come together as well as it seems once he’s back in the company of his high school pals—particularly his teenage flame, played by Mena Suvari.

“Of course, as only American Pie can do, all hell breaks loose from there,” he says. “We’re all still searching. As in life, we’ve all found what we found and have done what we’ve done, but it’s still the age-old: ‘What are relationships all about?’ ‘What’s sex all about?’ and ‘Let’s put a microscope on the funny.’ Because let’s face it; we all get ourselves into a whole lot of predicaments dealing with that. It’s a theme that we can all recognize—and hopefully laugh at.”

“It’s a celebration of a franchise that kicked off all of our careers,” Klein continues. “We were all new. We were all just hoping for a summer job in 1998. We were all just praying that we would get cast in something.”

Today, all their career rivalries, failed romances and dead-ends are water under the bridge. “For our group, it’s all unity and it’s all love and support for one another,” he says. “We all know where we came from. We all know who we were and we’ve seen each other grow up. We’ve seen some of us get married. We’ve seen some of us make babies. We’ve seen each other go through ups and downs. We’ve commingled for the past 10 years.” He adds, “This is a small town. We all know what went on.”

Klein wasn’t always a part of the L.A. fishbowl, though. Born in Hinsdale, he got his first part on stage via a community theater at the Sheraton Convention Center in Chicago. For the record, he sang “This Little Light of Mine.” That song and the music of Chicago has continued to inspire him. “The jazz and blues scene in [that city]... to go in to any one of those clubs and hear some of the finest blues or jazz that you could ever imagine—most of these guys play simply for the love of playing,” he says. “The truth that comes out of their instruments, just based on their love of soul, it’s magic.”

The tried-and-true Cubs fan also returns for the city’s sports culture. “I try to go back at least once a summer to get my Wrigley Field fix,” he says. “Yes, the Cubs struggle. It doesn’t matter.” The food is a big draw, too. “When you’re eating in Chicago you really know that you’re eating,” he says. One of Klein’s favorite restaurants is bustling La Scarola on Grand Avenue. “It’s the kind of little Italian spot where you know a lot went on.” He admits that Chicago is very different than L.A.: “When I’m there I want to put on a suit, and I don’t know why.”

In the meantime, Klein’s home base remains L.A. He has nursed a love of movies since early childhood, when he felt he ought to be in the films instead of watching them. That intuition, which propelled him as a young actor, is something he’s eager to reconnect with. “The most incredible lesson I learned making the very first American Pie is that when it feels right, 99 percent of the time it is right. Trust that instinct,” he says. “The one thing that I do [recognize] now is that in-the-moment thing. Really relishing the here-and-now, and not getting so caught up about the future and what it all means. Not getting hung up about the past, whether it was success or failure, but being right here.”

However, American Pie is a slice of his past that Klein will gladly taste again if more reunion plans surface. “Oh, man, listen,” he says. “If Universal wants to keep making these movies, and if my guys and my girls want to keep coming back and making these movies, and they keep getting talented writers and directors to put these movies together, then why not? I would never turn my back on something that has been such a gift to me, because I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have the opportunities that I’ve had without this.”

Just how popular was the original American Pie? While Klein was travelling, even people in countries largely without TVs recognized him from the film. “The opportunities to be involved in something like that are incredibly rare,” he says. “Once, maybe twice in a lifetime. That’s a gift that I’d never say ‘no’ to.”