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Over the span of two decades and change, Jerry O'Connell has gone from kid thesp (Stand By Me) to successful TV and film veteran ("Sliders," "Crossing Jordan," Jerry Maguire, and, uh, Kangaroo Jack) -- I mean, "Hollywood treasure" -- with an unfailing effervescence disappointingly uncommon in most Hollywood actors. So when given the chance to speak with him on the occasion of his appearance in the year's most unapologetically crass wide release, Piranha 3D, there really was no choice. I had to do it.
On hiatus from law school, which he took up last year in the evenings while working as a stay-at-home dad to his daughters with wife Rebecca Romijn, O'Connell is now prepping a new fall TV series (CBS's "The Defenders"), in which he plays, ironically, an attorney. Said show is produced by Davis Guggenheim, husband of O'Connell's Piranha 3D co-star, Elisabeth Shue. Piranha 3D also features Richard Dreyfuss, who played "The Writer" in Stand By Me. O'Connell's world is a strangely small place, but he takes the peculiar twists and turns in stride.
In fact, Jerry O'Connell may be the realest celebrity Hollywood has to offer. As evidence, I present to you the following conversation in which he talked Piranha 3D (and how his character's TOTALLY NOT based on "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis), reminisced about filming Stand By Me, shared "Gossip Girl" dish, and answered a burning question that, years later, could still very well shake the "Sliders" fan community to its very core.
What did you know of the illustrious Piranha film franchise when you first went after a role in Piranha 3D?
Jerry O'Connell: Listen, I went to NYU film and Roger Corman sort of did what every NYU film student wants to do with their lives and their careers. So when the script for Piranha 3D was out there, I was like, "I've got to read this," and I knew that [director] Alex Aja was attached. If you haven't seen High Tension, I highly suggest everyone sees it. I knew it was going to be a lot of fun. It's a fun popcorn movie.
How did you wind up getting attached to Piranha 3D?
O'Connell: I knew the project was out there, and they were looking for a guy who could play this Joe Francis-type character, the Girls Gone Wild founder. He's got a little empire there.
So Derek Jones is based on Joe Francis?
O'Connell: Yes. Loosely. This is what I've been told to say by the Weinstein Company legal department. Loosely based on Joe Francis, the founder and CEO of Girls Gone Wild. LOOSELY BASED!
Tell us more about your character, Derek Jones.
O'Connell: He's sort of exactly like Joe Francis. [Laughs] He's got this boat in Lake Victoria, which was actually Lake Havasu in Arizona, and he's trying to lure young women, even partially underage women, onto this boat to videotape them and get them drunk and naked so he can make hundreds of millions of dollars distributing these tapes and videos and DVDs. So you sort of hate him from the beginning, and these massive piranha are obviously going to eat a lot of people in this movie, so you hope he's one of them.
It was really well written. Also, because this Frenchman Alex Aja wrote it; they just have such a funny view of the United States and they really go for it. He really went for the dark side of Joe Francis. It was a lot of fun to do. And Elisabeth Shue was probably in the best shape out of everybody. I think Elisabeth Shue is going to look better than Sly Stallone in The Expendables.
Well, naturally! Speaking of your cast mates, Elisabeth Shue, Ving Rhames, Richard Dreyfuss -- those aren't the sort of names one might associate with a blood 'n' guts creature feature.
O'Connell: I don't know, I think everyone just wanted to be a part of it! We had a lot of fun making it, we had a lot of fun reading it, and I think we just knew it was going to be a good time. Ving is hysterical; I was a little afraid of him when we were shooting because he's a big, imposing man, and he is, he's big! He really is a character. He's funny, he's got a good sense of humor. But generally he's a pretty scary guy. Physically big. It's not often that you meet big people in the entertainment business, but he is a big man.
Says the guy who stands over six feet tall...
O'Connell: I'm over six foot, so I'm big in the entertainment business, but he's big everywhere. And he's big in a muscular way.
Did you see much of Richard Dreyfuss on set?
O'Connell: We worked at the same location for days. But you know what's funny? I never mentioned Stand By Me to him. It just slipped my mind, I didn't even think about it.
As a film school geek, was it particularly fun to be in the same movie as Dreyfuss unofficially reprising his character from Jaws?
O'Connell: Matt Hooper! Listen, before I came on board I knew he was on board, and that was a big reason why I really wanted to come on board. This film was going to have a lot of fun with these things. I mean, Richard Dreyfuss coming back to play the character he played in Jaws? Come on. But that's Alex Aja, he really likes to pay homage to these great films.
So you didn't share any scenes with Dreyfuss; who did you get to play with?
O'Connell: I got to work with Jessica Szohr, of "Gossip Girl" fame... I was very excited also because Ed Westwick was on set when they were dating.
Really, are you a big "Gossip Girl" fan?
O'Connell: I was very excited to meet Chuck Bass. But we also had a lot of fun, because I'm playing this guy who's trying to get her to do bad things. It's behavior that I would never take part in myself, so as an actor when you get to play roles where you're asking an underage girl to expose herself to the camera, you've gotta sort of do it. They're roles you don't always get a chance to play. I won't be taking my daughters to it, but it was a good time had by all.
Now I've got to go back in time to a time when you were known for much more innocent kinds of characters. In 1986 you were in Stand By Me when you were 11. Do you feel like in subsequent years you escaped the stereotypical, often-tragic child actor experience?
O'Connell: You know, I went to Comic-Con a couple of weeks ago for Piranha, and I went to the Warner Bros. booth because one of the guys in Piranha, Paul Scheer, is in a show called "Children's Hospital" on Cartoon Network. So I went to go visit that booth and Corey Feldman was at the booth. I went over and said hello and it really got me thinking, it's so crazy that there I was talking to Corey Feldman and 25 years ago we did Stand By Me! Twenty five years ago! And it's sad, because River Phoenix passed away; it's sad in some sense because it was such a fun time... how did I escape some of the problems some of these people had? I don't know. I went to college and I didn't live in Los Angeles, which I think had a lot to do with it. I think these people were maybe professional actors at a young age whereas it was more of a hobby for me, an extra-curricular activity. When I was that age and it came out it was all fine and dandy, but college was the goal and once I finished that I could do whatever I wanted.
And sometimes you see these young actors who do crazy things or say crazy things in interviews, Lady Gaga getting drunk at Mets games - these are people who are in their early 20s. They're kids! When you're that young, you do dumb things. If you have cameras following you around, people are going to see those dumb things. Luckily for me, I did all those dumb things and nobody saw me do them. I got drunk at baseball games and I'm sure I gave people the middle finger and said some crazy stuff. I don't know; I think it was my parents and growing up in New York, I think it's not taking yourself too seriously. Also, I was younger than the Stand By Me guys; I was 11 and those guys were all 14, 15, 16 - way older than me. So when Stand By Me came out they were teenagers and I think they were able to reap the benefits from that movie being popular with teenagers. I was in the 8th grade when it came out, and it wasn't really popular with 8th graders. I wasn't pulling the chicks because I was in that movie.
Another blast from the past question that my fellow "Sliders" fans have been dying to know the answer to: Which girl did Quinn love more, Wade or Maggie?
O'Connell: [Pause] I'd say Wade. I'm gonna say that because Sabrina Lloyd was the O.G. character. Man, I haven't seen her in years. Crazy, isn't it? So crazy, this business! You work with people for five years and then it's over and you stop talking to them! Oh my god, I worked with that girl every day!
Speaking of "Sliders," you directed a number of episodes towards the end of the series. And you also wrote a feature script, for First Daughter. Any plans to return to writing and/or directing in the near future?
O'Connell: I'm having a lot of fun acting, really trying to concentrate on that. I've got this new show called "The Defenders" on CBS, and all of the episodes have been executive-produced by Davis Guggenheim, who is the documentarian who did Things Might Get Loud and An Inconvenient Truth and the upcoming Waiting for Superman...
And he's married to Elisabeth Shue, your Piranha 3D co-star!
O'Connell: Yes! That's how small this world of show business is. He's got me all excited about the documentaries. I've become good friends with him, and that seems like a fun area to go into. I have a Netflix on Demand subscription and I use it to watch all of these documentaries. So I don't know; in terms of writing and directing... I really just want to act these days. I don't have time to do anything else. It takes time, it's something you have to relentlessly pursue. I just get too tired. Maybe I have mono. I should check myself out.