He was everybody’s all-American.
Flowing locks. Ripped abs. Square jaw. A breezy insouciance evoking a young Keanu Reeves. Chris Klein, the star of the seminal late-‘90s/MTV-era comedies Election and American Pie—and engaged to Katie Holmes—was, in James Cameron parlance, on top of the world.
About a decade later, in June 2010, Klein found himself alone in a jail cell, having been busted for his second DUI. His drinking problem had gotten so out of control that he’d often find himself boozing solo in his house, and blacking out. His relationships with family, friends, and representation were strained.
“I realized I had to get it straight and realize what the f--k was going on because the me that I knew was slipping away,” said Klein in a sit-down interview with The Daily Beast. “At that point, f--k acting. Can I even get out of bed? I was a 31-year-old man with bills to pay, a dog to take care of, and my mother sick with worry. And I’m in jail again. How did I get here?”
Chris Klein’s journey from the fields of Nebraska to film stardom is the stuff of E! True Hollywood Story cliché.
Born in Illinois, Klein and his family moved to Omaha when he was 13, and he enrolled in Millard West High School. An accomplished athlete—he played football, swam on the swim team, and dated a cheerleader—Klein had always dreamed of becoming an actor since his days performing in community theater and singing in church choirs back in Illinois. During his senior year of high school, he played Tony in the school’s production of the musical West Side Story. Then he got lucky.
Alexander Payne, an up-and-coming filmmaker behind the abortion-themed black comedy Citizen Ruth, was scouting locations for his upcoming high-school comedy, Election. He turned to his native Omaha for the setting, and during a tour of Millard West High, the school’s principal introduced him to Klein, a senior and the school’s resident actor. Klein didn’t think much of it, but then received a call that summer that Payne wanted him to audition for the film. After enrolling at Texas Christian University, he received a call one day in his dorm room that Payne liked his audition, and offered him the role of Paul Metzler, a polite, dopey football player opposite Reese Witherspoon in 1998’s Election. The witty, cleverly acted film received critical raves, and an Oscar nomination for best original screenplay.
For Klein’s follow-up, he was cast as Chris “Oz” Ostreicher—an impossibly polite high-school lacrosse player who makes a pledge with his fellow senior pals to lose their virginity before graduation—in the 1999 film American Pie. The gross-out, pie-sex comedy was a zeitgeisty smash, grossing more than $235 million worldwide against just an $11 million budget.
“My childhood dream was coming true in short order,” says Klein. “My career was starting to churn and I remember, to the detriment of myself and everyone around me, trying to maintain a sense of normalcy. When I look back on it 13 years later, I would have been better off saying, ‘This is cool,’ because when you’ve got a rocket up your ass, you should probably admit that it’s cool and rock and roll.”
According to Klein, he stayed in college for a little while, reluctant to move to Hollywood and dive into the club scene. He squirreled money away, and began dating the up-and-coming actress Katie Holmes, who like Klein was a small-town girl whose star had risen thanks to the TV series Dawson’s Creek.
“I was working all the time and [Holmes] was involved in a TV show that filmed in Wilmington, North Carolina, so we’d hang on hiatuses,” says Klein. “We were kids, man. We met before we could legally drink, so think about when you were 20 to 24, and that’s what it was. We were all working, successful, and having fun. It was late ‘90s, young Hollywood, and we were having a good time ... not unlike all those vampires today.”
After the clunky romantic drama Here On Earth and road comedy Say It Isn’t So, Klein had two films that were predicted to be Hollywood blockbusters released on back-to-back weekends in 2002: a remake of the cult film Rollerball, and the Vietnam War drama We Were Soldiers, opposite Mel Gibson. Unfortunately, Rollerball became a legendary bomb, grossing just north of $25 million worldwide against a ballooning budget, and overshadowing Klein’s nuanced supporting turn in the comparatively well-received Soldiers.
“Rollerball was definitely a dud,” says Klein, matter-of-factly. “I was 21-years-old, working on a movie with a budget of $103 million, and working with John McTiernan, who did Die Hard, Predator, and The Hunt For Red October. I did the best I could with that project. But listen: the movie doesn’t work. There’s a lot of reasons for it, but it certainly wasn’t for lack of effort on my part.”
After Rollerball tanked, things hit a snag for Klein, resulting in a two-year gap in his acting resume from 2003-05.
“The studio opportunities started to slow down,” he says. “The teenage heartthrob thing had fizzled, and I was moving into my mid-twenties. I made some independent movies during that time and did a play, This Is Our Youth, in London. But yes, that teen thing and late nineties Hollywood came to an end.”
Klein’s personal life also became the subject of tabloid fodder. On Feb. 5, 2005, he was busted for drunk driving in San Diego. One month later, he and Katie Holmes announced they were calling off their engagement and splitting after five years together. According to Klein, despite their close proximity, the two incidents weren’t related.
“That first DUI was a bit of a wake-up call, but the breakup had little to do with where my life went,” says Klein. “Young Hollywood was ending. [Holmes’s] huge television show was ending. Life was changing and that adventure ended. It was a transitional period. So I was 25-years-old trying to find my voice, since my teenage one was played out.” He adds, “As far as the drinking was concerned, I was a country kid from Omaha, and I liked to tie it on. My bros were no different. It was party time. All of that—the drinking problem—everyone knows it’s a progressing issue. It takes a minute for that s--t to sink in.”
Over the next five years, Klein’s resume is peppered with supporting turns in indies as well as the occasional Hollywood film, none of which took off and allowed him to regain his former glory. During this time, he says he auditioned for most major roles in studio films that required “a square-jawed actor,” to no avail.
In May 2010, an embarrassing audition tape surfaced online that Klein had shot years earlier for Mamma Mia!, depicting a bug-eyed Klein struggling through an ABBA number. The video went viral.
“Was it terrible? Yeah,” says Klein, with a chuckle. “But I’m an actor, and I’ll take my chances. I’m not afraid to laugh at myself and that was a laughable audition.”
One month later, on June 16, Klein was again busted for driving while drunk in Los Angeles. This was a turning point for Klein after years of struggle with alcohol addiction, and he checked into the Cirque Lodge rehab facility for a 60-day alcohol addiction program.
“Living with addiction is not living, it’s existing and barely hanging on,” he says. “I was sick and tired of feeling that way and I didn’t know how to not feel that way, so I got help.”
Today, Klein is now 19 months sober and counting. At 33, he’s in the best shape of his life—both physically and mentally—and, while the hairline has receded a bit, he now possesses a more rugged, mature movie-star look.
And the much-anticipated fourth film in the American Pie franchise, American Reunion, is hitting theaters. In the film, Klein’s Oz character is, along with wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, an NFL sportscaster, and lives in a luxurious beach house in Malibu with Mia, a ditzy, pill-popping model, played by 30 Rock’s Katrina Bowden. The movie seems to be being released at just the right time, as the public goes gaga for ‘90s nostalgia (see: Titanic 3-D, Urkel on Dancing with the Stars, and the return of Beavis and Butthead to MTV). It doesn’t hurt that the movie is the best installment in the Pie franchise since the 1999 original, and Klein, exhibiting some impressive dance moves—and abs—steals nearly every scene he’s in.
“Tonally, it feels like the first movie and that’s special,” he says, cracking a smile. “For me, it’s such a beautiful celebration of a franchise that really highlights my career from then to the present day. Living in the dark, I wasn’t there to really appreciate and be present in all these beautiful moments.”
After Reunion, Klein will return as a recurring character on the F/X TV series Wilfred, opposite Elijah Wood, and has a few other high-profile projects in the works that he’s keeping under wraps.
“I know that today I’m still an actor and I love what I do more than I’ve ever loved it at any other time in my life,” says Klein. “I’m a red-blooded American dude, liked to drink, and took it way too far. But I’ve got a lot more to contribute than being some teen heartthrob who did a couple of movies and then flamed out. What happened happened, but tomorrow is a new day.” He pauses, and cracks another smile. “This isn’t going to be the last thing you read about me.”