Jason Bateman - a child star grows up

Jason Bateman found stardom as a boy in Little House on the Prairie. Now, he tells Gill Pringle, he's making adult choices
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"As an actor, I'd rather be a Gene Hackman than a Tom Cruise," muses the former child star Jason Bateman, who has learned a few things in the 27 years since launching his career in the US TV series Little House on the Prairie.

Having largely squandered his twenties on Hollywood's party scene, Bateman, now 39, turned his career around five years ago with cult TV sitcom Arrested Development, and has never looked back. Having appeared in recent films Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Juno and The Kingdom, and next starring opposite Will Smith in Hancock, today his only complaint is that his career is so hot that he's rarely home to enjoy his 18-month-old daughter. Take note, Lindsay Lohan and Macaulay Culkin – child stars can grow up.

Bateman says he owes his comeback to two things: his happy marriage and Arrested Development. "A lot of people in America didn't watch Arrested Development but folk in LA did and they're the ones hiring," says Bateman who, along with former cast-mates Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett and Michael Cera, is currently considering whether to reprise his role in a film version of Ron Howard's cancelled Emmy-winning comedy.

"Maybe I'm a cynic but I've always thought that if you're somebody that a producer or director can brag about over lunch, when they're talking to one of their colleagues about who they've just put in their next film, then you're going to get that job. It's got less to do with talent than it is about heat and buzz."

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Having successfully altered his image from washed-up former child-star to in-demand actor, he's sympathetic to the problems faced by today's young actors. "Quite frankly, they're doing what a lot of people their age are doing, only they don't have a flotilla of cameras documenting it. I'm glad I no longer drink. This would be a tough time to go out and try to have fun. I did all my misbehaving at a time when that whole side of the entertainment industry was in its infancy. It's unfortunate for these kids who are trying to balance the books a bit as far as working hard during the day and then going out at night and having a social life.

"My own parents certainly helped me navigate some of the challenges of this industry, although I'd personally discourage any child from getting into this business. There was a lot of stuff I felt I missed out on during my childhood which is why I spent my twenties, when I wasn't being invited to work that much, kinda catching up on that," says the actor, whose older sister, Justine, also began acting as a child, starring in popular TV sitcom Family Ties. Today she's enjoying her own comeback, guest-starring in TV's Desperate Housewives as the tenant of Gabby Solis (Eva Longoria).

"I've spent all my fun chips and now I've parked my drinking boots in the closet. I haven't had a drink in four years. There wasn't any real specific bottom to it. I was just ready to graduate from adolescence and try my hand at being an adult. And, quite honestly, the woman I was in love with was not really that tolerant of it, so I turned it off."

Bateman is only grateful he met future wife Amanda Anka, daughter of Sixties pop idol Paul Anka, at a time when he was looking to change his life. "I made a very smart choice with my wife. I didn't marry a 'girlfriend'. I married a 'wife'. I think my gender is known to pick women that make us feel good, and who are kind of subordinate to us. And I was guilty of that for a long time. I didn't really have the balls to be with someone who was my equal and, as a result, a lot of those relationships were short-term. So I said to myself, 'well I only want to get married once, so make sure I marry a friend that I'm really attracted to.' She was a very close friend, and it's worked because I don't need to be in a certain mood to like her – she's like a friend who you never tire of. And since then I haven't been picking jobs that are frivolous and celebrity-making; they are jobs that are career-making. Hopefully I've made some decisions and I'll reap the benefits. My wife is definitely responsible for a lot of that.

"There are some things that are now coming my way that could probably get me kicked out of the party pretty quick – some popcorny, commercial crap that I'm trying to be disciplined about not accepting although the money's good and the chances of fame are high. I'd much rather be somebody with a small part in a really good film than be on the top of the call sheet on something that might make a bunch of money."

That said, there's little he can divulge about his role as a publicist opposite Will Smith's sozzled, sarcastic superhero in Hancock. Determined to foil bloggers from ruining the film's surprise plot twist, director Peter Berg is still editing so that even Bateman doesn't know if he'll make the final cut: "Well, my cheque cleared. That's all I'm worried about," he shrugs, mute to internet gossip that Charlize Theron, who plays his screen wife, will also be unmasked as a superhero. "If you were married to a superhero you'd probably know it, one would hope," he says evasively. He's only relieved that Hollywood doesn't perceive him in superhero mould: "I don't think they'll be asking me to play a superhero anytime soon. And I definitely wouldn't want to fly. Will didn't look too comfortable flying in harness. If I did play a super-hero, I'd want my superhero to be somewhat flawed and human like Will's."

If playing a genial, happily-married PR guy wasn't much of a stretch for the affable actor, then he's eager to get his teeth into his next role as a fetish-club promoter in the thriller State of Play, co-starring Russell Crowe and Robin Wright Penn. "It's a bizarre and nasty character who wears a lot of leather and likes gags and also has an OxyContin addiction," he enthuses.

While grateful for his role in the recent hit movie Juno, Bateman admits he fails to see what all the fuss is about: "I mean, Juno's a good film but, good God! They talked about it like it was the second coming. And then, there's other films that get slammed like Smokin' Aces, which I had a small part in. I thought Joe Carnahan did an incredible job and they killed him for it. But who knows? All you can do is just act in these things."

'Hancock' opens on 2 July