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— by Larry Carroll

TORRANCE, California — An abnormal chill pierces the California air, nipping at an 18-year-old face that has sold enough teenybopper magazines to wallpaper the Taj Mahal. His mere presence incites near-riots around the world, yet he has chosen to spend this early morning bound to a folding chair, in the parking lot of a nondescript office complex. Ill-fitting corduroys bunch up around his knees, paired with a faded button-down shirt and a tattered jacket pocked with holes. He pours a few more sugar packets into his coffee and drinks it black.

Jesse McCartney

Check out behind-the-scenes action from the set of 'Keith,' including insights from Jesse and more Twinkie cream than you can shake a Slim Jim at, on Overdrive.

Jesse McCartney just wants to be taken seriously.

"When I first went into this character, I knew that having long, blond, bright, poppy hair was not right," shrugs the "Beautiful Soul" singer, who has transformed his saccharine-sweet locks for the titular role in the independent film, "Keith." "He's pretty poor; he spends all his money on his truck. His physical appearance, and his hygiene, he doesn't really pay much attention to. He's wearing crappy clothes. So we tried to take all the 'pop' out of it. We dyed the hair brown, chopped it up — more of a Supercuts look."

Now, instead of lighting up a massive arena before thousands of shrieking girls, McCartney retreats to a simple trailer to concentrate on his lines alone.

"So far we haven't had anybody show up on set," he says of his famously overzealous devotees. "When I was shooting [the canceled TV show] 'Summerland,' it happened all the time; we were on the beaches and would get crowds coming out."

McCartney has stripped himself down to the bare essentials, trading in "Tiger Beat" for the small blessings of what he considers a once-in-a-lifetime role. Based on the short story of the same name from author Ron Carlson's 1998 book, "The Hotel Eden" (Carlson appears onscreen in a brief cameo), "Keith" tells the story of second-semester high school senior Natalie (Elisabeth Harnois) who thinks she has life figured out — until a chance encounter with a strange, unpredictable, troubled youth alters her take on ... everything.

 "Keith" Photos

"It's about the golden, the perfect girl destined for great things in the eyes of her family," says Harnois, who broke through earlier this year with the indie hit, "Pretty Persuasion." "She encounters this boy who is very offbeat, very different. At first, she's kind of repelled by him. But then there's something about him that keeps drawing her in."

Fueled by the dangerous combination of Ferris Bueller charm and "Fight Club" attitude, Keith takes Elisabeth on expeditions in his beloved yellow '65 Chevy truck. Through their shared rebellion, he shows her that the sweet adrenaline of spontaneity is sometimes the best way to appreciate the wonders of the here-and-now.

"My character has a way of drawing her, as well as the audience, in," McCartney marvels. "There's something about him that you don't really know, something weird about him that you don't really understand. So I was reading the script, trying to figure out the deal with this guy, when [something crazy happens] in the end ..."

Stopping himself from revealing the twist, McCartney takes a deep breath.

"And it's, like, 'No way!' "

Today, the duo are shooting one of their irreverent quasi-dates, which begins with Keith driving Natalie around and insisting that she select one of the anonymous office buildings they pass. After she humors him and chooses one, he parks and sets up the scene for her: They're to pretend they're claimants in an insurance case, there to attend a very important meeting with an executive.

The actors step inside the building. A stagehand ominously informs them that the small-budget production is "on warning for the generator problem." McCartney pauses, concentrates and enters into the role of his character.

The director screams "Action!" and inside the office, Harnois and McCartney blow through the doors and past several rows of cubicles. She carries her schoolbooks, staring down, while he fakes a limp.

 Elisabeth Harnois talks about her character Natalie

"Take me back to school now," Natalie sternly insists.

"Boy, these [bone] grafts are really starting to kick in," Keith shoots back, before spotting a suit-clad worker and slapping him on the shoulder. "Hey, Ralph!"

The man shoots a quizzical glance at the rumpled teen then watches as they duck into a conference room. Once inside, Keith pulls out an impromptu picnic of Slim Jims and Twinkies.

In take after take, McCartney's character delivers clever condemnations of Natalie's privileged upbringing, dipping a beef stick in Twinkie cream while she stares down at her homework. Finally breaking through, she therapeutically dips one for herself and rips it off in her mouth.

"They're both pretty complex characters," McCartney later reflects. "They're not really the simplest roles — they don't do what you'd expect. Fortunately, it's not a predictable story."

What is predictable, however, is that after more than a dozen takes, the demands of the scene are gradually overshadowed by gastronomic rebellion.

"The first glob looked great," director Todd Kessler urges. "Can you scoop another for her, and faster?"

"I can scoop so fast," McCartney shoots back. "But my mouth is so gross."

"Too many," McCartney grins, uneasily, when later asked about his consumption totals. "And they keep replacing the Slim Jim — as if that's the most disgusting part of it! After you feel like you've accomplished something, and gotten rid of all the cream, they throw another one in front of you."

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Whether it's his hair, his clothes or his taste buds, McCartney is willing to sacrifice it all if it allows him to become the kind of actor he respects.

"Robert De Niro's certainly one of them," he beams. "I think he's brilliant. Edward Norton. I mean, in that film, '25th Hour'? I love that movie."

McCartney's film ambitions extend behind the camera, as well, and lately he's been trying to make like a Slim Jim and soak up a few things himself.

"I'd love to direct, I'd love to produce," he says enthusiastically. "I'd love to learn all about it, and being around it all the time certainly helps."

His intentions are so sincere, in fact, that McCartney seriously considered slowing down his career for a while and attending film school instead.

"I was thinking about it," he concedes, running his hand through his darkened locks. "I decided not to. I thought about it deeply, and it took a lot of courage not to go because I really want to study film and the camera and know how it all works. But I decided to continue acting and writing and making music." It's a decision his fans are undoubtedly thankful for, and the pop sensation promises that they'll similarly come to appreciate the long, unglamorous hours that he has spent slaving away at his new craft.

"It's not any kind of 'Cinderella Story,' " he says of his film debut. "There's a lot of meat to this role."

Too much meat, sometimes, as this particularly chilly morning in Southern California graphically illustrates. When "Keith" lands in theaters, we'll all discover the movie's mysterious twist — and if McCartney has his way it will be the realization that he is, in fact, an actor worth taking very seriously, indeed.

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Photo: Gene Page/ MTV News

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