06/18/2001 at 01:00 AM EDT
Last winter, Chris Masterson, who plays prankish military school cadet Francis on FOX's Malcolm in the Middle
, decided to surprise his actress girlfriend Laura Prepon (Donna on That '70s Show
). Arriving with him at L.A.'s Equestrian Center, where they often rode, Prepon noticed a new horse in the stable. Says Masterson, 21: "She was like, 'Oh, he's so pretty,' and I was like, 'Oh yeah, that's your horse,' and she was like, 'What?' and then she started crying. It was so cool."
Prepon should have known. A few months earlier, Masterson, whom she first met at a '70s Show
party and with whom she shares a Spanish-style house in L.A., had taken her to a Hollywood restaurant for what she thought would be an intimate 20th-birthday dinner. Twenty of their friends were waiting inside. Prepon's reaction? Maybe you can guess. "She started crying," says Masterson. "It was so nice. It worked out really cool." The odd thing is, he adds, "I'm not normally one who does surprises. But I love doing it for her."
"They're madly in love, and that has brought out the romantic in him," says his brother Danny Masterson, 25, Prepon's '70s Show
costar. But Prepon, an avid Malcolm watcher, says, "I see a little of the real Chris in Francis. Chris has a mischievous side too."
It was that puckish streak that helped him beat out dozens of other actors who auditioned for Francis in 1999. "None of them were funny," says executive producer Linwood Boomer. "Chris was hilarious. He has a real sincere look that we've been able to use both when Francis is doing something heroic—like fighting the forces of injustice at military school—or when he's doing something skunky, such as taking advantage of an innocent girl."
His charm is infectious. His younger TV sibs Frankie Muniz, Justin Berfield and Erik Per Sullivan "idolize Chris," says Boomer. "I can tell them a hundred times to pipe down. Chris will say, 'Shut up,' and suddenly they're quiet."
Not that Masterson has ever been one for following orders. "I base Francis on my viewpoint of the world when I was 14," he says. "I didn't like people telling me what to do. If my mother told me to clean my room, forget it. I would rather be grounded for two weeks."
In fact, says his mother, Chris would rather have been in front of the camera. "He did his first TV commercial [for Trident Sugarless Mints] when he was 3," says Carol Masterson, 47, who was then a" Asharoken, N.Y., homemaker shepherding her boys through modeling gigs and TV spots, and who now manages both their careers. In 1991 they moved to L.A. with Carol, who was divorced in 1984 from their father, Peter, 52, an insurance agent. Soon after, Chris landed a role in the film Singles, and Danny was cast in Joe's Life, a short-lived sitcom.
After receiving his high school diploma in 1996, Masterson opted to pursue acting full-time. ("I never liked school," he explains.) He worked steadily, scoring guest spots on shows including Murphy Brown
and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman
. In 1997 he appeared as Dermot Mulroney's best man in the Julia Roberts
movie My Best Friend's Wedding
. Then came the casting call for Francis. Next month he'll costar in the slasher spoof Scary Movie 2
And how is Danny taking his kid brother's success? Just fine, he says: "We don't go out for the same roles. We're best friends. We goof around together. It's very normal."
Actually, says Chris, "Laura's my best friend. I never get tired of hanging out with her." And though there are no marriage plans yet, "I know Chris is the one for me," she says.
As for her laid-back beau, who recently splurged on a Dodge Ram 1500 truck and an Audi TT, "I don't really think about my future," he says. "I don't really worry about anything. I just try not to spend all my money."
Ulrica Wihlborg and Susan Christian Goulding in Los Angeles