Photo by Larry Hirshowitz

THE TOBEY EFFECT HAPPENS NOT LONG AFTER HE appears onscreen, during those critical scenes when the film either wins you over to its emotional point of view, or loses you for good. At the moment of truth, the camera finds Tobey Maguire, and he holds it with an uncanny stillness — no false moves to distract you. Instead, he delivers the scene with an open vulnerability that peels away cynicism like turpentine strips paint. When he's done, you don't just believe him and the character; you believe the movie's sentiments. He is a great disarmer.

He may lack the matinee-idol appeal of Leonardo DiCaprio or the indie-film credibility of Johnny Depp, but if a director is looking to make a movie with heart, Maguire is fast becoming an obvious choice. Think of the adolescent narrator from a dysfunctional upper-middle-class '70s family in 1997's best film, The Ice Storm, or the kid who yearns for a place where everything is all right forever in Pleasantville. In these films, the young men seek relief in the outside world when their immediate environs besiege them. In the end, though, as they learn the only true safe harbor is internal and the only real change is personal, their journeys serve as a bridge to revelation for both the adults and the children around them.

These days, Maguire can be seen playing adolescents on the verge of self-discovery in Ang Lee's Civil War drama Ride With the Devil and in Lasse Hallström's adaptation of John Irving's The Cider House Rules. Overwhelming circumstance forces both Confederate guerrilla Jake Roedel and Irving's orphan, Homer Wells, to make choices and take actions that define them as individuals and initiate them as men. When Jake finally bucks his peers and stands up for the values informed by his experiences, or when Homer puts responsibility ahead of his own self-gratification, we are witnessing essential male rites of passage in which men summon their courage to abide by their better natures. Without the Tobey effect, however, these characters and films could have easily turned smug, preachy, even mawkish.

“Emotionally, he trusts that just by being present he can convey enough, instead of overstating or stating with technique,” says Hallström (who also directed My Life As a Dog and What's Eating Gilbert Grape). “Plus, if you don't overstate, or be overly manipulative by pushing buttons, if you stay soft-spoken with it, you can actually move people with your sentiment, rather than detach them with sentimentality.”

All of these lofty notions, though, are happily contradicted when Maguire saunters slack-kneed and late into a West Hollywood breakfast joint. Dressed in scruffy jeans, a plain T-shirt and a just-woke-up face, he shakes hands, sits down, yawns weakly, opens up a plastic pill box containing various vitamins and minerals, takes one from each of eight compartments, orders a veggie omelet and yawns again. He seems very much a 24-year-old who would rather have stayed in bed.

It's surprising only because Maguire's onscreen persona is far from the prevailing image of a typical young man, especially those minted in Hollywood. He has an ability to project a childlike innocence and an adult wisdom, giving his characters a mix of believable humanity and grace that is perfect for the timeless coming-of-age stories that are turning into his forte. Maguire, though, has been trying to come of age for as long as he can remember.

“I have the tendency to be a caretaker. When I was 3 or 4 years old, people used to call me 'the little old man.' My friends will say that kind of stuff about me,” says Maguire. “I was over being a kid at 14 or 15, and I was, like, ready to get into my late 20s as early as possible.”

It's understandable given his childhood. Although he will insist it wasn't as David Copperfield as the character he plays in The Cider House Rules, Maguire did decide early on to be the hero of his own story. His parents got married, had Tobey and split up, all before he chewed on his first Matchbox car. He bounced back and forth between his mom and dad, who were chasing a bare-bones existence up and down the West Coast. For Maguire, it was a perennial cycle of being the self-conscious new kid at school who was worried his bargain clothes would get razzed or that someone would spot his dad's junker truck.

“I did all right until about seventh grade, and then I couldn't take it anymore,” he says. “It was driving me crazy, you know? Because I was a really good student. I loved school. Well, I wouldn't say I loved it, but I enjoyed doing work. I was very competitive. And then I started to really hate going to school because of the moving around. My mom noticed my behavior changed dramatically in school. She was like, 'Look, you gotta do something. You can't fuck off like this.'”

That something turned out to be a year of acting school. In acting, Maguire found the structure, stability and community that had been lacking in his life. By the time he was 14, formal education for Maguire had succumbed to a flurry of commercials for the likes of Doritos and McDonald's, and a brief stint in a spotty sitcom called Great Scott! When he was 17, he landed a small role in This Boy's Life, the film that put his buddy DiCaprio on the map. Although Maguire says he sometimes gets a little “bummed” when he hears people talking about their proms or college experiences and the other “normal” youthful rites of passage he missed, if there's a chip on his shoulder it's hidden well.

“I mean, it's just been a little different than maybe, maybe a majority of the kids,” he says. “I don't know really, because life is just different for everybody. If I'd lived a different life, I wouldn't be Tobey in the life I'm in now. You know, I'm not just talking about my success in acting, but life in general.”

Of course, we are more than the sum of our experiences, but our experiences certainly go into the equation of who we are. The Tobey in the life he's in now is the one whom Hallström says “has an innocence and an old soul like Homer,” and Maguire admits he feels some kinship with the Irving character.

“I can tell you what I understand about him,” he says. “There are things that are kind of similar. I mean, he's kind of intolerant of human mistakes, and I think has this sort of fantasy that people should be responsible in the beginning, and that with forethought everything should be taken care of in the beginning, basically. I think it's his journey to figure out there is human frailty.”

And Maguire knows as well as anybody, it's an essential journey to make if one is to truly come of age.

LA Weekly