He caught our eye as Charlie Simms, the kind hearted collegian, playing opposite Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman and young ladies swooned when he broke up a Circle of Friends as Jack Foley. Chris O'Donnell is the quintessential American male with conventional good looks, smarts and the friendly disposition of the boy, now man, next door. He's the kind of guy that men and mothers like. And, he's the only actor that made us believe that Meredith might pass up McDreamy.
The real life father of five — Lily, 8, Chip, 7, Charlie, 4, Finley, 2 and Maeve, 6 months — who is married to wife, Caroline, is spending the summer on the silver screen as Mr. Kittredge in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl starring Abigail Breslin. The scenes between the dapper dad and his precocious daughter who face hardship during the Great Depression leave a lump in your throat. We recently had a chance to chat with the actor about his latest film.
There are two moments in the film, when Kit spots her dad in the soup kitchen and the ensuing conversation they have by the tree-house, that have an incredible impact on the audience. It's that notion of a parent not being able to provide for his children. How did you prepare for the scene?
I've got kids of my own; We all love our parents and we love our spouses, but until you have your own kid you don't really know what that kind of love is. It's where you would put yourself in front of a moving train for your kid and I think that you understand what that must have felt like. Mr. Kittredge's trying to protect his daughter as most parents do and not have her worry about the hardships of what was going on in their time. And when she sees him in the soup kitchen, he's forced to tell her a little bit more about what the realities are and what they are going to have to do. He tries to put the best spin on it or prepare her for it by telling her that story about his car — don't let it beat ya, and as parents that's about all you can do. It's a situation where he has to go off to find work.
To see the actor's fears as a father, read more.
In that same vein, as the father of five who found early success much like Mr. Kittredge, is being able to provide for your children a legitimate fear of yours, or do you have others?
What's tough for me is when I'm away on location because in my business it's feast or famine when it comes to spending time with my kids. I either have more time than I know what to do with or I don't have any time with them, so I try to maximize my time when I'm with them. But when I'm away on location, thank God for Apple iChat because I can see them on the computer. It's scary — part of being a parent is trying to teach the kids the lessons they need to learn. And sometimes, the kid comes home and asks you a question and you're kind of stalling thinking what's the answer that I am supposed to give here. I'll be calling my older brothers or sisters and asking what do we tell them about this again? Because you realize they are coming to you for all this information and most of it is instinctual, but every once in a while they'll come up with something and you'll think that's a tricky one. You know, let me get back to you on that one.
It's been said that you did Batman for your sons and this movie for your daughters? Is Lily a fan of the American Girl series?
She is a fan and I knew about it because I'm from Chicago and I had visited the store before with my nieces and now with my daughter and we've got a lot of the dolls and that sort of thing. I was highly aware of the whole American Girl phenomenon and I think that for people that do know about the dolls they are going to be so excited about the movie. And, for everyone else that wants to take their kids to a movie on the weekend, they are going to be really pleased because there's so many times that kids want to go to a movie and I can't tell you how many bad family movies I've sat through. This one really works; It's a great ride. It teaches kids a great lesson and they don't even realize they are being taught a lesson. When I left the theater with my daughter, she started asking me all about the people who lost their houses and it was great to have brought that subject up especially now — it's going to be so timely.
Do you think there's a difference between the way kids are said to grow up fast today versus the way they did during The Great Depression?
We've had an incredibly successful run in the economy for the last however many years. I mean obviously it's stalled and heading in a recession now. Then, the economy starts to get tough and that trickles down and you kind of get back to basics. Certainly anyone who lives through a depression and my father did, they don't forget the lessons they learned the same way that the men and women that fought in WWII don't. People don't always have an appreciation of what happened unless they were there and I think that's what's so great about films and books. If you saw Band of Brothers you have such an appreciation for what these guys went though in that generation. And not to compare this to Band of Brothers, but I think it's a great way for kids to get some understanding of what the depression was about, what people went through in a way that they will be excited to see and learn about it.
You've gone from being the naive character in Scent of a Woman to the father in American Girl. Is that transition hard to take or a natural transition?
It felt like the role was easy for me to relate to because I've got an 8-year-old daughter and the emotions that Mr. Kittredge is feeling for his daughter — I just understood and connected with that. But it was the first time I played a parent and I've been doing this for a long time and you start to play different roles. I'm not the kid anymore and I'm a dad so it's just kind of a natural evolution.
The Kittredges lived by the motto, "Don't let it beat you." Do the O'Donnells have a motto?
I don't know that we have a motto. That's a pretty good one right there.
So you'll adapt that one?
We might have to.
We're celebrating Kit Kittredge: An American Girl with a special giveaway next week. Stay tuned for more details.