Hollywood has been plucking actors from anonymity ever since Lana Turner made history at the counter of Schwabs on Sunset. But this season, jitters about next spring's anticipated actors' and screenwriters' strike have created what Universal Studios VP of casting Joanna Colbert is calling an "unprecedented" feeding frenzy for newcomers -- specifically young white males. With the dance cards of bankable big stars like Pitt, Cruise, and Willis already full, the studios, desperate to stockpile films before the strike, are duking it out for unknowns like Johnny Knoxville and Colin Farrell. "There are no leading men available," says Colbert. "So we're looking to the next level."
Prices for these barely-knowns have skyrocketed, creating a bizarre new millionaire boys' club. Knoxville, star of MTV's Jackass, will earn a reported $1 million to star in MGM's The Tree. The rotund singer-comedian Jack Black (last seen as John Cusack's sidekick in High Fidelity) will be savoring close to $3 million to star opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in the Farrelly brothers' Shallow Hal. American Pie's Jason Biggs will net $2 million for Saving Silverman, and Jason Lee (Almost Famous) will get his seven figures for Stealing Stanford. Dubliner Colin Farrell has particularly profited from bigger stars' busy schedules. Never heard of him? He stepped into Phone Booth when Jim Carrey passed, and into Hart's War when Edward Norton bailed. He'll be assuming Matt Damon's role in Steven Spielberg's Minority Report -- if he can fit the film into his schedule. "He had a lot of offers, so it caused his price to go up," says Hart's War producer David Ladd, who will have to pay Farrell north of a million for his services. "It's demand and supply. We all want the same people, and the agents are shrewd enough to drive a hard bargain."
The next candidate for the club is Eric Bana. Two years ago, the 32-year-old was toiling away on an Australian sketch-comedy show. His life changed when a reporter asked Australia's most notorious criminal, Mark "Chopper" Read -- famous for having chopped off his own ears -- who he envisioned playing him in his biopic. He suggested Bana, who walked off with an Australian Film Institute Award, Australia's equivalent to the Oscar, for his performance in Chopper. When advance copies of the film swept through town this past September, Read's prescience was proved. "It became a big frenzy. Every agent in town was going after Bana," says William Morris agent John Fogelman, who won the race. "In this town, anything new has real currency to it." William Morris held a special industry screening of Chopper on the Fox lot. "We flew Bana back to L.A. for four days, and he met with major filmmakers and studio heads," says Fogelman. "He left with a bagful of offers." Bana ultimately opted for a lead in the upcoming Jerry Bruckheimer-Ridley Scott extravaganza Black Hawk Down.
"The best talent is getting gobbled up right away," says Bruckheimer, "and the agents can certainly ask for more money." The producer insists that counting on someone like Bana, totally unknown in America, to carry a $100 million war epic isn't a gamble at all. "We wouldn't put him in the movie," he says firmly, "if we didn't think he was a movie star."