If a few years ago I had landed the job of finding an actor to cast as a young demi-god, a kind of reluctant hero with identity issues, I don’t know if Logan Lerman would have been my choice. But whoever had that task must feel pretty pleased with themselves.
In the three years since Lerman’s first appearance as Percy Jackson, one half garrulous son of the god Poseidon, the other put upon dyslexic high school student, Lerman has cemented his reputation as an actor who can be both swaggering and sensitive. Just don’t ask him to take his shirt off.
On a crackly phone line from the Amalfi Coast, Lerman, 21, is just beginning the promotional tour for the new Percy Jackson instalment, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. That’s nice work if you can get it, I compliment him jokingly. “It is,” he says, “ridiculous. I feel like a little bit of a jerk when I even say that it’s work. My family back home just roll their eyes.”
But Lerman’s family have probably had long enough to grapple with the weird and wonderful life of a Hollywood actor by now to know that the Amalfi Coast is par for the course. Lerman made his acting debut in a commercial at the age of five. Before he had reached his teenage years, he’d starred with Mel Gibson twice (as his son in The Patriot and as his younger self in What Women Want). Lerman’s admission that when it comes to acting, he’s been “doing it for a while” is a brilliant understatement.
“I was almost born into the child actor machine in Los Angeles,” he says by way of an explanation, sounding maybe just a little sheepish. “It’s a machine of kids, it’s weird, really weird, especially looking back on it. I like to think that I’m sort of grounded but it is a weird atmosphere to grow up in.”
Lerman hails from Beverly Hills, neither of his parents worked in the movie industry but from the age of four their son knew that he wanted to. It was, he says, mainly a way to get out of school as well as an obvious choice when you live in the city that houses Hollywood. As he puts it, “there’s no culture there apart from the movie business” so it was pretty much a certainty for him, anyway, that acting is the route he’d explore. “Los Angeles played a huge part in my interest in movies,” he says. “I love them.”
Still, though, despite his success in film and on TV (Lerman starred in the series, Jack and Bobby, and appeared in the made-for-television film, A Painted House, winning the first of three Young Artist Awards) his parents weren’t entirely convinced that being an actor was a sensible way to make a living.
“In the back of my mind, I’d think I’m going to do this, I’m going to do well at this,” Lerman says, “but everyone else around me was like this isn’t a real career. My dad was like ‘I know you enjoy it and you’re doing well for your age, but you’re going to school and you’re going to figure out your career’.”
It turns out that the figuring out has happened along the way. The movies he made when he was a child might have been “just for fun” but in the last few years, Lerman has found his niche becoming one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors, without being typecast as a vampire or some such along the way. He was as cocky as they come as the young D’Artagnan in the overblown remake of The Three Musketeers, swashbuckling in leather trousers, his shirt tails billowing in the wind. But there was also The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the coming of age movie based on the novel by Stephen Chbosky. Alongside Emma Watson and Ezra Miller, it was was Lerman’s turn as the troubled young writer, Charlie, that garnered a Best Young Actor nomination at the Critic’s Choice Awards. Logan Lerman had made his point – he wasn’t yet another action star in the making. The turning point, he says, was 3:10 to Yuma back in 2007. Lerman was cast as William Evans, a farmer’s son desperate to be a gunslinger, in James Mangold’s western starring Russell Crowe and Christian Bale. It was, he says, one of the first films he felt truly proud to be involved in.
“It was a cool feeling to be part of a film that I actually enjoyed,” he says. “Everything before that I was a little embarrassed about. Not everything, but most things. They weren’t really motivating me to go in the direction of being an actor. But that movie did.”
And as for Percy Jackson, it might be big budget family friendly entertainment, but it’s also been three years since the first film based on Rick Riordan’s hugely successful children’s books which reboot Greek mythology for the 21st century.
“It was a little unexpected,” Lerman says of the sequel. “You know, years went by. It was quite a reunion when we got together and started to shoot it. I was 17, just turned 17, when I screen tested for the first movie. My opportunities were limited and this was a huge project. At that point, for a young actor, you walk up to the door where you’re going to audition and they say ‘here’s a contract, sign it or don’t come in’, so you sign it. I was in for the experience. Fortunately, I lucked out with a great group of people creatively and personally and it’s been a really cool experience.”
Lerman sounds genuinely pleased to be Percy again, this time on a quest for the golden fleece, although there’s no doubt that his attention is already on where he’s headed next. He’s already finished work on Darren Aronofsky’s Noah alongside Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly, which will be out in the autumn and his next project, too, is already lined up. But he’s taking absolutely nothing for granted.
“This year, more than any other that I’ve worked, I was offered a lot of projects,” he says. “Typically, two or three years ago, those projects would have been huge for me but the material really wasn’t very good. And they’re big movies, you know. All these ‘YA’ [young adult] films out there where the character manages to find an opportunity to take his shirt off. Or he has a romance with a female lead. It’s hard because the actors that I respect and the movies I enjoy are not those films.”
It can be difficult, he says, to navigate through the sea of people telling him he has to do this or that project, but he relies on a tight-knit small group of people who are “on the same page with what we want to do”.
“They give me the confidence to turn down the roles that seem hard to turn down for the creative satisfaction of a project that means something to me,” he says. “There was a period of time during which I was going crazy because I thought I wasn’t going to work and I’d put all my eggs into one basket. But it worked out and I’m doing a film this year which I’m excited about.”
And I suppose you would be, if you’d been cast alongside Brad Pitt and Shia LaBeouf in a Second World War film called Fury.
“I was so nervous because I’d turned down everything else,” Lerman says. “But we’ve been in prep and we’re starting at the end of September. I’m really excited.”
• Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters (PG) is on general release on Wednesday.