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This story first appeared in the Dec. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
I know we are all devastated. It doesn’t feel real, but it is. And still, in the midst of this tragedy, when I think back on Paul, I can’t help smiling. Paul always made me smile.
I met him in a casting session for Pleasantville. It was probably his first big part in a movie (he was 23 at the time), and if he was nervous, he didn’t show it. He came in the door with that huge winning smile (like he’d already gotten some big cosmic joke), and it wasn’t until after a few minutes of chatting that I noticed the women in the room were speechless. Not just speechless, frozen — literally agape.
The audition was wonderful, and I decided to cast him. But before I could even call him to tell him he had the part, Paul showed up in the casting office. He was broke back then — really broke — and he was coming back to pick up his 8-by-10 headshots. He figured if we were all done with them, he could save the money on having new ones printed. It’s like reusing a plastic fork. When I told him I wanted to cast him, Paul didn’t believe me at first.
“Get outta here.”
“No, really. You’ve got the part.”
“DUDE! I can turn on MY PHONE!”
Everyone knows Paul was captivating onscreen, but I got the rare treat of seeing him be funny. If you watch Pleasantville again, you will see a guy fully committed to a character that he was having a ball with. There were several takes when playing this guy — this benighted, naive, unconscious high school hero — literally cracked him up.
“Is that too much?” he’d ask me after we’d cut.
“God, no — keep going.”
He delighted me every day. He was boyish, exuberant, happy and surprisingly wise. In one pivotal scene in the movie, when the film begins to morph into something darker — when all the emotions that have been unleashed on the town begin to be expressed — Paul came up to me before I could come up to him. … “I think I’m different here. I think this is the moment where I stop smiling.”
He was right, of course. It was subtle, but it was the turning point in the film. I just know that when I look back on him, I will never stop smiling.
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