- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 26, 2000

Freddie Prinze Jr. chalks it up to sleepiness, and that might be all there is to it.

But somehow the normally spastic and spirited pinup star of "Down to You" doesn't seem himself. In a fancy Beverly Hills hotel to promote the new college-crush dramatic comedy, in which he loves and loses Julia Stiles, Mr. Prinze seems downright subdued.

In fact, the only time he shows his usual boyish joy is when the subject turns to comic books. Mr. Prinze eagerly explains all about the bold new direction the X-Men story line takes in the latest issue. He also concedes to a minor video-game addiction and describes how he plays in Internet bouts head-to-head against other gamers.

Perhaps discussing the film's star-crossed plot rubs salt in the wound of his recent breakup. A bit more than three months ago, the Albuquerque, N.M., native and his longtime girlfriend, "General Hospital" starlet Kimberly McCullough, stopped seeing each other.

"We lasted almost four years, and our secret was just a mutual respect that we had for each other," Mr. Prinze says. "Then what hit us was just that it's really hard to maintain a relationship long distance, especially in this business, when you're 23 and 21 years old. It's a difficult thing, and we managed to do it for a while. But it didn't work out, so we went our separate ways."

Mr. Prinze doesn't cloak his feelings behind a forced smile. As a young actor still passionate about mastering his art, the son of comedian Freddie Prinze (the star of the hit sitcom "Chico and the Man," who shocked America in 1978 when he took his own life at age 22) is smart enough to recognize the value in real emotions. He's required to fake joy or sorrow so often for the cameras that whenever true feelings stir, he says, he welcomes them as a learning opportunity.

"For me to act well, I have to have thin skin and wear my heart on my sleeve," he says. "I have to keep everything really close to the surface, because that way I keep my tools sharp. I try to improve on all the things that make me the actor I am every day, so it's important to me that I don't develop a thick skin or a shell. I mean, it's OK to get your feelings hurt. You can always feel better."

Expressing those feelings isn't just a simple matter of mustering the right facial expressions and vocal inflections on cue, according to Mr. Prinze. He characterizes acting as a dynamic process. He's always editing whatever he did last take and responding to subtle changes in a scene as it evolves. When he watches his performance on the screen later a task some actors avoid but Mr. Prinze welcomes he's constructively critical.

To gain useful insight into the way people interact in their everyday lives, Mr. Prinze has taken up people-watching. The airports in which he often finds himself make perfect uncontrolled social laboratories for a little clinical observation. Tearful farewells and joyous reunions are commonplace, and Mr. Prinze "soaks it all up like a sponge."

"Acting is about listening and answering, hearing something and seeing how that affects you, and responding honestly," he says.

"You've got to know why you're saying what you're saying. I preach and I practice working moment to moment. That's understanding each and every moment in a scene, and why it's happening. I've gotten better and better at it, and I don't want to peak; I don't want to be satisfied. By the time I finish a movie, I want to be better than when I began it."

Mr. Prinze says his work in "Down to You" was his best ever, at the time, but he's already wrapped two more films since then and is even more pleased by his latest performances. With a prime June release date, the romantic comedy of errors "Head Over Heals" casts Mr. Prinze as the possibly murderous love interest of museum curator Monica Potter.

In the fall, moviegoers will be able to see Mr. Prinze fall for Claire Forlani in "Boys And Girls," another funny romance set on a college campus. Mr. Prinze is most thrilled, though, with his project currently before the cameras. He's taking the mound in a baseball movie called "Summer Catch," and at the mention of the title, he lights up.

" 'Summer Catch' is a great script," Mr. Prinze says. "It's awesome. It's every kid's dream to be the pitcher who pitches the big game. That was my dream as a kid, and I never got to do it. This movie was a chance to do that, and I'm really excited about it."

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