Like many college students, Charlie Korsmo has high hopes. Cosmically high. "My dream is to be an astronaut on the first trip to Mars," he says. Oh, and he also wouldn't mind making one good movie a year. "That would be ideal."
Korsmo's ideal is no idle fantasy. A physics major at MIT, the child star of such films as Steven Spielberg's Hook and Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, Korsmo, 20, has a shot at both heavenly and Hollywood stardom. For now, though, his feet are planted on terra firma at MIT—where he earned a 4.5 grade-point average (out of five) his sophomore year while living in a tiny dorm room. Group showers are down the hall. Still, Korsmo is happy because MIT "has the fastest Internet hookup."
Spoken like a true nerd—which may explain why Korsmo had no trouble playing geeky William Lichter in this summer's teen coming-of-age film Can't Hardly Wait. It's his first screen appearance since bowing out of Hollywood six years ago to have a normal adolescence, he says. An audition tape made in his dorm room got him the role. Then came the hard part: convincing professors to let him take three weeks of structural mechanics by fax from L.A. "They're a bunch of Nobel Prize winners," he says. "They weren't awed by the movie stuff."
Nor, it turns out, is Korsmo, an insight he traces to a lunch break during the 1991 filming of Hook. "My mom and I were going out," recalls Korsmo, "and Robin Williams asked where we were going. I said, 'Taco Bell,' and he almost cried. 'I wish I could go there,' he said. He can't go to normal places like other people. That made an impression on me."
So in 1992, when he was 13 and, as his father, John, puts it, "on the brink of Macaulay Culkin-hood," Charlie acted on Dustin Hoffman's advice to "get out of the business while you still can." Korsmo believes he made the right decision. "I had a normal high school life. It was fun."
Korsmo still spends summers in the family's three-bedroom house in suburban Minneapolis with mom Debbie Ruf, 49, who just earned a Ph.D. in educational psychology, and his two brothers: Ted, 21, a drama student at New York University, and Joe, 15. His parents divorced in 1989; Korsmo's father, 47, a hospital administrator in Fargo, N.Dak., four hours away, is close to his sons.
Korsmo's passion for acting was born in 1986 at an L.A. taping of Punky Brewster. Then 8 and on vacation, Charlie nudged his mother and whispered, "Gee, Mom, I could do that sort of stuff. Look into it." Back home, Ruf searched the Yellow Pages for an agent. After about 25 auditions, Korsmo won a role in a commercial. A year later he got his big break when he was cast as Jessica Lange's son in Men Don't Leave. "It was better than school," Korsmo remembers thinking. But a few films later he began feeling fame's strains. "It was hard to go out and eat with my family," he recalls. Says his mother: "It was uncomfortable for everybody—to have a kid who had more money than his family."
Now an older, more mature Korsmo is taking a second chance at stardom, without giving up his interplanetary dreams. "Charlie is one of the coolest people I've ever met," says Can't Hardly Wait costar Lauren Ambrose. And coproducer Jenno Topping says Korsmo has "a huge career in front of him."
If he wants it. "He's much more interested in going to Mars than to the Academy Awards," says Wait's codirector Deborah Kaplan. But Tom Hegg, Korsmo's high school drama coach, thinks his former student could have it all: "I wouldn't be surprised if Charlie is the artistic director of the first repertory company on Mars."
Margaret Nelson in Minneapolis
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