"I was beaten up pretty bad doing that film," says Schaech, 29, who did all his own stunts. In fact, he almost drowned trying to pull off one of the master magician's signature tricks: the Chinese water-torture chamber. "I ran out of air in my lungs," says Schaech, who was pulled out of the glass tank just in time during five separate takes before getting all of the needed shots. "I thought I was going to die."
He can now breathe easy. With Houdini, Schaech is breaking out in a manner worthy of his title character. He has had five big film roles in as many years, including parts as Liv Tyler's beau in Tom Hanks's That Thing You Do! and Winona Ryder's lover in 1995's How to Make an American Quilt. But Houdini—along with the just-released film Welcome to Woop Woop, in which he plays a con man on the run—marks the first time he has carried a major movie alone.
Still, it's not his first leading-man audition. After being introduced to Applegate last year by Doom Generation director Gregg Araki, "They both called me asking about each other: 'Do you think she likes me? Do you think he likes me?' It was very junior high school," recalls Araki. A first date was soon arranged, and the couple have been an item ever since. "It's almost like they're each other's halves," says Araki. Schaech denies reports they are engaged but otherwise agrees. "I love her," he says. "I never had anyone understand what I was going through [with my career]. Christina's the first. She's extraordinary." The feeling is mutual. "He's so beautiful," says Applegate, 27. "But he doesn't play with [his looks]. That's what's wonderful about him."
Schaech didn't always look like chiseled statuary. Growing up in Edgewood, Md., the younger child of Joanne and Joe Schaech, 59, who is a retired police officer (sister Re-nee, 31, now works as her brother's assistant), Johnathon was always the smallest boy in his class. "I remember one date he had," recalls Joanne, 55, a telemarketing executive. "He was as small as the little girl he was dating." Then, in the summer after his junior year in high school, he gained four inches and 40 pounds.
In 1987 he entered the University of Maryland, where he studied economics. Schaech was just three semesters shy of graduation in 1989 when a friend sent his photo to the beefcake dance troupe Chippendale's. Though he got the job after trying out in L.A., he turned it down after his father urged him to aim higher. Schaech did just that, moving to L.A. to try acting later that year. For the next three years he supported himself doing commercials, until landing the lead in director Franco Zeffirelli's The Sparrow in 1993.
Next, he won the role in Quilt and then in 1996 a tryout with Tom Hanks for the '60s period piece That Thing You Do! Schaech showed up for the reading in '60s regalia with a shaggy hairdo. "Hanks could have said, 'What an idiot!' " he says. But the director loved the look and cast him as a rock band member.
Then this year, Schaech signed on for Houdini the day before his film Hush was released. It promptly bombed. "I think it was kismet," he laughs. "If it had been the weekend after it opened, I might not have gotten the role." With Houdini and Woop Woop behind him, Schaech is fielding a raft of new scripts. But there's one role he does not want. As a child, when neighborhood kids played CHiPs, a game modeled on the TV show, Schaech always refused to be Ponch, Erik Estrada's character. "I couldn't imagine being called Ponch," says Schaech, who spent months studying Houdini's every nuance. "I guess I wasn't deep into my characters then."
Elizabeth Leonard in Los Angeles