Actor Barry Pepper was strolling through an airport recently when he heard his name called out. "I assumed it was someone who knew me," says Pepper, who plays Saving Private Ryan
's pious sharpshooter Private Jackson. "So I turned around and realized it was an absolute stranger." Get used to it, guy. Steven Spielberg's visceral homage to World War II dogfaces has grossed $179 million and introduced a troupe of talented new actors. Sure, the movie confirms Tom Hanks's status as heroic Everyman, but it's the grunts of the hard-luck unit who make it real. "I tried to find young men who had the faces and the innocent spirit of post-Depression Americans," says Spielberg.
Since his splashy tabloid breakup with Minnie Driver, he refuses to talk about his private life
Damon is a one-man, walking A-list. Signed to practically every major role through the end of the millennium, Damon, 27, is at a theater near you. He is currently starring as a cardsharp and law student in Rounders
. Damon spent the summer in Italy shooting The Talented Mr. Ripley
(he plays the title's charming sociopath opposite Gwyneth Paltrow
and Cate Blanchett
), and earlier this year he wrapped the religious parody Dogma with best bud (and Paltrow's squeeze) Ben Affleck
. Damon says making Ryan
, which he completed before catapulting to celebrity with Good Will Hunting
, put some things in perspective. "My generation," he told The Buffalo News
, "[is] naturally apathetic. You can see us on Sally Jessy Raphaël talking about how tough our lives are because we weren't breast-fed long enough. Try taking a beach."
Notwithstanding his escalating salary—$5 million for the film version of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses
—and his winsome girlfriend Winona Ryder
, Damon seems unfazed by his success. "I've been working straight," he told the Boston Herald
. "I haven't had time to lose my mind yet."
At 7, he was making $20 a week acting Off-Broadway
"It's bizarre, like a fairy tale," says the actor of his leap from obscurity to playing bighearted Private Caparzo. Spielberg had the role written into the script just for Diesel after seeing his short film Multi-Facial
. Diesel, 31, even got to operate a camera during battle scenes. "I thought, oh, s—t, why is he giving me this great opportunity?" he says. Some of his footage made the final cut.
A onetime bouncer, Diesel is now in Australia shooting Pitch Black
, a science fiction film. He also lends his voice (with Jennifer Aniston
's) to the upcoming animated feature The Iron Giant
and is directing a screenplay he wrote called Doormen
, based on his previous occupation. But the single guy remains modest about the new attention. "At the end of the day," he says, "I'm just a lucky kid from New York."
Greeting Spielberg "was sort of like meeting God"
Davies's portrayal of tenderfoot Corporal Upham has brought him rave reviews and a taste of fame. But the actor, best known as the incestuous son in the 1994 indie film Spanking the Monkey
, is staying wary. "I'm violently self-deprecating," says Davies, 28. But he admits that he improvised two of his best scenes in Ryan: one in which he freezes in front of a German soldier, and one when he translates an Edith Piaf song. Spielberg, he says, "was extraordinarily trusting of me."
L.A.-based Davies says he hasn't had a girlfriend in four years but is content to concentrate on his craft. "It's a fluke making it in this business," he says. "I consider myself a fortunate fool, so I have a responsibility to do my job well." His next film, Ravenous
, due in 1999, is another soldier tale—with a twist: It's about a group of army misfits who turn into cannibals.
"I was convinced I would be killed off in the first five minutes of the film," says Goldberg
In 1989, Goldberg thought getting a part in the pilot of the short-lived Gabriel's Fire
would change his life dramatically. But when the pilot aired, Goldberg "realized I had been cut. I was mortally depressed." Depression should be a thing of the past for the 27-year-old actor, who plays cynical, laconic Private Mellish.
A self-confessed "genetic ham," the L.A. native's sense of humor and tendency to improvise kept his Ryan mates going on the demanding shoot. Ron Howard, who directed Goldberg in the upcoming Ed TV
, recalls telling him jokingly, "Hey, remember the script, Adam? Let's try one [take] like that." Goldberg, who plays guitar in an alternative rock band, the Personal Power, with two pals, lives in L.A., has a girlfriend, actress Daisy Hall, and a 65-inch TV set. "If I was evicted and they took my car," he says, "I could always live inside the box that the [TV] came in."
"He's deliciously mad," says costar Jeremy Davies
Sizemore's sturdy Sergeant Horvath stands as a buffer between Hanks's Capt. John Miller and their young squad. The 36-year-old Detroit native had supporting roles in Natural Born Killers
and Devil in a Blue Dress
, and he gained 30 pounds to play gangster John Gotti in the May NBC miniseries Witness to the Mob
Sizemore, a recovering alcohol and drug abuser, credits pal Robert De Niro with straightening him out three years ago. "I was careening," Sizemore told Esquire
last month. Married since 1996 to actress Maeve Quinlan, 33, Sizemore told the Los Angeles Times
that Ryan's attitude toward war is ambiguous. "It asks a question: At what cost do we fight and for what?"
Working with Spielberg made him want to direct bigger films himself
After seeing the Irish-American family drama The Brothers McMullen
, Spielberg felt that Burns, its star, writer and director, would be just right as wisecracking Noo Yawker Private Reiben. "Ed has a dry, Brooklyn quality," Spielberg told the Los Angeles Times
. "He just seems real." Burns, 30, is from Long Island, N.Y., however, and Ryan was the first film he worked on that he didn't write or direct himself. Burns says Spielberg taught him "how little I know about filmmaking. The guy is an incredible master." In Trillion (due out next year), Burns plays a determined NBA player. He's also writing a film about a New York City cop, called The 2-5
. Reportedly dating actress Heather Graham (Boogie Nights
), Burns denies that he had an affair last year with Lauren Holly while she was still married to Jim Carrey. "We're friends," he says of the actress he directed in No Looking Back
. "Just buddies."
In college, Pepper majored in "hot-tub parties"
"It was a never-ending nightmare to work with Barry," jokes Adam Goldberg. "He was much more gung ho than the rest of us." Maybe that was because the Canadian-born Pepper, 28, had three relatives who served in World War II—but only one came home. Or maybe he's just intense. "I quite literally wept," says Pepper of landing the role. With the completion of Enemy of the State
, starring Will Smith
, Pepper now spends his days on the set of The Green Mile
, a Stephen King adaptation starring Tom Hanks. Pepper traveled the South Pacific as a child in a 50-foot sloop his parents built. He and wife Cindy, 28, a furniture designer, split time between Vancouver and L.A. Pepper, who revels in his freedom, is proud to be "part of a film that reminds people of that."
Acting since age 9, the new dad says filming Ryan
was "freaky "
Moved by Ribisi's role as sweet-natured T/4 Medic Wade, a woman came up to him several weeks ago in tears. "I was kind of shocked," he says. "I thanked her, but I was kind of stolid actually." It might be one of the few times the versatile actor failed to connect. Ribisi, 23, has dozens of film and TV credits, but is something of a chameleon. Did you catch him as Lisa Kudrow's spacey, long-lost brother on last season's Friends
("He's so talented," says Kudrow.) Or maybe you saw the independent film First Love, Last Rites
, in which he and Natasha Gregson Wagner (daughter of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner) burn up the sheets as teenagers in love.
You'll have no trouble spotting him in next year's big-screen version of The Mod Squad
, alongside Claire Danes
and Omar Epps. Married to actress Mariah O'Brian, 27, and the father of 1-year-old Lucia, Ribisi is now focusing on domestic life: "You never really know what being a parent is like until you've done it."
•Deanna Kizis, Ulrica Wihlborg, Amy Brooks and John Griffiths in Los Angeles