The Portland Tribune (US), July 4, 2003

Thumbs up to a juicy role

Actor in locally based film plays confused, orally fixated teen

by Michaela Bancud

Actor Lou Taylor Pucci isn't famous.

That's likely to change after the release of "Thumbsucker," a quirky feature film that begins shooting in Beaverton on July 9. Pucci's blond hair has been dyed brown and cut shorter for the lead role of a teenage boy with an oral fixation who's trying to kick his habit and make sense of his life.

And though he plays a head case, the 17-year-old doesn't come off like one in an interview.

What does Pucci make of his peculiar character?

"His name is Justin Cobb. And he just doesn't know," Pucci says. "He's trying to figure out who he is and where he belongs in his family. And sometimes it's just him, alone. He goes through a lot of changes."

When Cobb is "cured" of his thumb-sucking by his dentist (Keanu Reeves), he self-medicates with Ritalin, codeine, alcohol and marijuana -- anything he can get his hands on.

Pucci's first film role was in the small, independent "Personal Velocity," in which he played a boy with mysterious wounds. His character, who has only a few lines, is picked up on the side of the road by a woman played by Fairuza Balk.

Pucci, who is from New Jersey, has more extensive experience in musical theater. Among other roles, he played the older son, Friedrich, in "The Sound of Music" from 1997 to 1998 on Broadway.

With a $3 million budget, "Thumbsucker" will have a homespun feel to it, says director Mike Mills. Producers for the independent feature are Bob Stephenson and Anthony Bregman.

Stephenson explains why he chose Pucci: "Most kid actors are like, 'Here is my happy face. Here is my sad face.' Lou blew us away with his audition."

Despite its relatively low budget, the film has a first-rate ensemble cast that includes Reeves, Vincent D'Onofrio and Tilda Swinton. Matthew McConaughey dropped out of the project early this week. Twelve-year-old Portland actor Chase Offerle plays the part of Justin's younger brother.

The screenplay is adapted from Walter Kirn's 1999 comic novel, which Pucci has chosen not to read. "I'm the one who's avoiding it," he says. "I don't want it to change anything for me."

The actors are rehearsing now for "Thumbsucker." Swinton ("Orlando," "Adaptation") plays Justin's adored and complicated mother, Audrey. "Tilda's just so awesome," Pucci says. "The director sent us to the mall a few days ago so we could just hang out. Be friends." In the film, Justin is much closer to the mother than he is to the father. D'Onofrio, who plays the father, arrived this week.

Since coming to Oregon for pre-production last week, Pucci has ventured into Portland a few times. "It's like New York City, but a hell of a lot cleaner," he says.

Pucci, who likes card tricks, also discovered Callin's House of Magic in downtown Portland and has been playing laser tag.

Pucci graduated from high school two days before he hopped an airplane for the first time for a flight to Los Angeles to meet with the film's director and backers.

He was on the beach with friends in New Jersey when he heard he'd landed the part of "Thumbsucker." Then he did what anybody would do: "I just yelled like hell!"

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