People almost recognise Joe Mazzello as he wanders around the Four Seasons hotel in Beverly Hills; almost, but not quite. You can see little cogs in their heads whirr as they try, and then mostly fail, to place him in a mental list of celebrities. And since it's definitely not cool to stare at famous people, they'll discreetly nudge each other and whisper about who that strangely familiar young man might be. "I get used to being sort-of spotted," he explains. "Sometimes, strangers come up to me and ask: 'Aren't you that guy from...?' Then they'll just stop talking, because they've forgotten what film they saw me in."
The film was almost certainly Jurassic Park, in which Joe played mad dinosaur-scientist Richard Attenborough's grandson. It was released 17 years ago, enjoyed stratospheric success and turned him, at the tender age of 10, into one of America's most marketable child actors. In the years that followed, he scored big, demanding roles in movies such as Shadowlands (1993), where he played CS Lewis's stepson, and The River Wild (1994) in which he was Meryl Streep's son, Roarke. In 1997, the teenage Joe returned to Jurassic Park for its disappointing but nonetheless extremely lucrative sequel, The Lost World.
Then, after four years spent climbing Hollywood's greasy pole, Joe Mazzello disappeared. The sensitive and slightly awkward youth, who had walked hand-in-hand with Steven Spielberg up red carpets, suddenly stopped being cast in blockbuster movies; or pretty much any movies, come to that. His intense gaze and gingery brow (both of which are still very much in evidence) vanished from the public arena overnight. And that explains why he now finds himself, at the grand old age of 26, being "sort-of recognised" by members of the public at a Los Angeles luxury hotel.
So what happened to his career? What went wrong? Did a spectacular celebrity implosion, of Britney-like proportions, throw Jurassic Park's boy wonder off the gravy train? Actually, no: aged 14, Joe "just decided to take a break from acting" in order to pursue a normal childhood. "As I got older, things like high school, and going to the prom, and football games, those regular things, started becoming important to me," he says. "Acting just seemed less important. So I stopped going to auditions, and took a few years out to be a regular guy." Those few years lasted a decade. "For a while, I didn't even have an agent," he adds. "But now I'm back."
Indeed he is. We are meeting during a day-long press junket at the start of a month-long PR tour to launch perhaps the most ambitious, and certainly the most expensive, television series ever made, in which he is one of three co-stars. It is called The Pacific, cost upwards of $200m [£130m], and chronicles in forensic detail the American conflict against Japan during the Second World War. It was produced by Spielberg, whom Mazzello fondly describes as his mentor.
While this is his first major interview for over a decade, it's unlikely to be his last. Later this year, Mazzello is due to hit cinemas in an unauthorised biopic of the Facebook founders called The Social Network, which has an A-list director, a fashionable young cast, and an intriguing plot premise which has been making headlines for some time. We'll talk about that, along with the rest of Joe's childhood flirtation with superstardom in a minute. But first, The Pacific.
At present, Joe Mazzello's mud-spattered face is peering out from beneath a US marine's helmet on billboards that adorn almost every high street in America. The Pacific is being launched with the sort of drum roll that was once used to send men off to war. The 10-episode mini-series, which premières in the UK on Sky a week tomorrow, is the third in a loose trilogy by Spielberg and his co-producer, Tom Hanks, which began in 1998 with Saving Private Ryan, continued with Band of Brothers in 2001, and is noisily redefining the nation's relationship with its history.
That's the big idea, at least. And in the era of the mega-blockbuster movie, where Avatar broke almost every box-office record in existence, The Pacific certainly has a modish profile. It is, after all, a mega-blockbuster TV show: drama production on a scale so vast, so expensive, and so extravagant, that it simply demands to be watched, if only so viewers can witness the evolving possibilities of the filmed portrayal of warfare. The cover of Time magazine just celebrated the scale of its ambition by dubbing Hanks "America's historian-in-chief".
Mazzello plays Eugene Sledge, a former US marine whose 1981 war memoir, With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa, is one of a selection of books that informed the screenplay, by Bruce McKenna. The show charts the 1st Marine Division's progress, from the opening salvos of the appallingly brutal conflict at Guadalcanal (1942), through the famous battle of Iwo Jima, to the end of the war. Like every actor in the series, Mazzello was required, long before shooting began, to become an armchair expert in his subject.
Spielberg's office therefore sent him "several crates" of research material about the conflict, together with footage of every TV interview his subject had ever done. They also dispatched him to Alabama to meet and speak with Sledge's widow and children. Then, just before filming started, early in 2008, the entire cast was enrolled in a tropical island "boot camp" organised by Dale Dye, a Vietnam veteran who specialises in giving condensed versions of contemporary military training to mollycoddled Hollywood actors.
"Boot camp lasted 10 days, and in that time I lost 12 pounds," Mazzello recalls. "It's a lot of weight, and since I'm already pretty skinny, I was skin and bone by the end. The heat was sweltering, we were getting three hours' sleep at night, eating nothing but food rations, sleeping outside. There were no beds, there was no running water, and people were getting injured. Some of the guys got heat exhaustion. One man broke his collarbone. Another one got accidentally stabbed in the foot. So they gave us the absolute true experience, and it was very valuable."
The process continued on set, which was essentially a series of replica battlegrounds, constructed in a sub- tropical part of northern Queensland. The 10-month shoot was the very antithesis, Mazzello says, of a "turn up, learn your lines and leave job". The cast lived in mucky uniforms, ate on the hoof, put up with a level of fatigue and comfort that mimicked that endured by soldiers in a real-life battle zone (albeit without the threat of actually being shot).
"It was incredibly involved," he recalls. "On the first day, they pulled us to one side and said, 'Here are the 10 things that can kill you on the set. Don't do these things.' And we didn't have chairs. I don't mean that we didn't have chairs with our names on the back of them. I mean we didn't have anything with four legs. We were just sitting on the ground. For 10 months. We shot five days a week, and didn't eat a proper lunch. It was a very intense experience, so you had to really believe in what you were making."
All of which definitely seemed to float Mazzello's boat. An earnest and enthusiastic man, who dresses like he's off to a college lecture (brown corduroy slacks, shirt, sensible shoes), he clearly takes great pride in The Pacific. Quoting Spielberg, he hopes it will combine history lesson with drama, taking viewers "under the helmet" of soldiers, laying bare the journey that turned ordinary young men into hardened warriors prepared to indiscriminately kill, and perhaps be killed, by an enemy they barely knew in one of the most brutal conflicts of modern times.
Critics, in the US at least, are mostly giving The Pacific the thumbs up. Especially mesmerising, they rightly say, are its battle scenes, which have made headlines for their painstaking attention to historical accuracy. Minor details were closely observed, down to the exact weave of cloth on the uniforms that Mazzello and his co-stars wore: a type of herringbone twill specially imported from India. It was apparently the only place the costume designers could find old-fashioned looms that would produce fabric of the correct texture.
We've seen this obsession with detail before, of course, on Band of Brothers. And if raising the bar for war movies was one legacy of that series (which, by the by, generated more DVD sales than any other mini-series ever made), the other was its achievement of launching the Hollywood careers of its young stars, including Scott Grimes, Rick Gomez, and the British actor Damian Lewis. If history is anything to go by, Mazzello and his co-stars James Badge Dale and Jon Seda are therefore about to become big box office.
"It's a full-circle kind of thing for me. Steven Spielberg was a big part of jump-starting my career as a kid. Now he's got that same, ahem, honour of doing it as an adult," says Mazzello. "But I don't want people to think he gave me the role as a favour. I might know the guy, but this series cost $200m, and Steven Spielberg's not going to do me a $200m favour. I got the job the old-fashioned way: through auditions."
Given that The Pacific was the first big job Mazzello had sought in roughly a decade, his audition in 2006 was a nerve-wracking experience. "On the one hand, I felt like, 'Yeah, I've worked with Steven before, so I'll probably have a little bit of a leg up,'" he recalls. "But when I started thinking about it, it actually put a little bit more pressure on me, because I thought, 'What if I don't get the part? Do I stink now? Did my voice change and now I'm not good any more?' Anyway, on the day, I went into the room, Steven gave me a hug to relax me a bit, and then said, 'OK let's get down to business.'"
This chummy tone was in keeping with Mazzello and Spielberg's previous relationship, which began several years before they worked together on Jurassic Park. Joe was born in 1983 and brought up in Poughkeepskie, a town about two hours north of New York City, where his parents owned a dance studio. He followed his elder sister, who appeared in occasional TV adverts, into acting, and at the age of nine won a role in a film called Radio Flyer, directed by Richard Donner.
On that set, he was spotted by Spielberg (Donner's former collaborator on Goonies). "Steven saw me and decided he wanted me for the movie Hook. But I turned out to be too young , so he said, 'Don't worry I'll get you in a movie some time soon.' Not bad, right?"
So came the part in Jurassic Park, and after that Shadowlands and The River Wild. By his early teens, Mazzello was on the verge of becoming an extremely wealthy and famous young man. But his parents resisted the urge to move to Los Angeles and supported his decision to quit acting and go to film school at the University of California in Los Angeles.
"The classic pitfalls for child actors are drugs or arrests, but that was never an issue with me," he says. "It had to do with my upbringing, and the way my parents raised me not to feel like I was this big shot. I acted because I loved it. It was fun for me. I loved going to these different places, and I loved the atmosphere. But it wasn't ever because I wanted to be famous. When that side of things gets into people's heads at an impressionable age, that's when it messes with you."
If he could get five minutes with the child stars of today, Mazzello would have a word with their mothers and fathers. "Parents need to keep the kids knowing that they are just a kid, and that the acting thing is just fun. My dad didn't even know who Harrison Ford was when I got into a film with him. He had no idea. Another time I fought on set with a kid. His mother said, 'We have to stop, it's going to ruin their careers,' and my dad said, 'What career? They're seven.'"
Mazzello duly quit acting when it stopped being fun, and disappeared from Hollywood. He went on to have a boringly successful undergraduate career and, shortly after leaving USC in 2005, wrote, produced and directed a short film called Matters of Life and Death, which showed on the festival circuit. Then he finally decided to get back into acting, on the grounds that: "Of all the stuff I liked, I felt that was the thing I was innately best at. I didn't have to work so hard at it."
Having landed The Pacific, he also scored a role in David Fincher's The Social Network. Based on the book The Accidental Billionaires, it's due out in October and has acquired plenty of buzz, thanks to both its newsy subject matter and the modish profiles of its co-stars Justin Timberlake, Jesse Eisenberg and the glamorous Rashida Jones.
"The running joke on The Pacific was that after this we're going to do a romantic comedy. You know, the sort where an accountant meets a dancer, he teaches her to be more responsible, and she teaches him to loosen up? So when I got The Social Network I thought, 'Man, this is exactly what we were talking about.'"
Mazzello will play Dustin Moskovitz, one of three room-mates (the others were Mark Zuckerberg and Chris Hughes), who, according to Silicon Valley folklore, founded Facebook as a hobby while studying at Harvard. "They were in their dorm rooms trying to meet girls, and it became a billion- dollar business. The whole thing caused a lot of conflict between the friends and eventual lawsuits."
Quite what Fincher will make of this story is anyone's guess, though the man behind Se7en and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button directed the underrated Zodiac, about a notorious serial killer, a couple of years back so has his own pedigree for tricky biopics. The bigger question, perhaps, is what Mazzello will do with his relaunched acting career.
Though he is just 26, Mazzello has been acting in major films for 18 years now, and the irony of his trajectory so far is that though he is rich in talent, he perhaps lacks edginess. Joe is a man of simple tastes, whose hobbies, he volunteers, include golf and driving his car. While this middle-of-the-road element to his personality is probably what kept him from adolescent implosion, it may not now help him to be marked as a fashionable young Hollywood player.
Does that matter? "I just feel lucky," he says. Historically, it's not the norm that someone comes out of being a child actor and has a career. But you know what? I feel that more people have been able to do it recently. Christian Bale was a child actor. I know he's had certain problems, but he has been able to transfer to an adult career. Elijah Wood made the transition. People have been able to do it. And hopefully I will too." Then, with a bit of luck, he'll no longer keep getting sort-of recognised. n
'The Pacific' starts at 9pm on 5 April on Sky Movies Premiere HD
Spielberg's child stars: What happened next...
Haley Joel Osment
At six, Haley Joel Osment played Forrest Gump's son, and at 11 he was Oscar-nominated for The Sixth Sense (1999). Since playing the boy-robot in Spielberg's 2001 film AI, Osment has mostly done voice-work for animations. In 2006 he was arrested for drink-driving and drug-possession. He made his Broadway debut in 2008 in a David Mamet revival that closed after a week and his last film, Home of the Giants, went straight to DVD.
Born into a Hollywood dynasty, Drew Barrymore first appeared on screen as an 11-month-old, but landed her breakthrough role in ET (1982) as an adorable seven-year-old. Her drink-and-drugs wilderness years were over by her late teens, and she has worked solidly ever since, most notably in films (Charlie's Angels, Donnie Darko, 50 First Dates) made by her own production company. Her directorial debut, Whip It, opens in cinemas soon.
Eight-year-old Dakota Fanning already had several awards on her shelves after her performance opposite Sean Penn in I Am Sam, when she was cast in the sci-fi series Taken in 2002. Spielberg, that show's executive producer, cast her again in 2005, as Tom Cruise's daughter in War of the Worlds. Forbes magazine has estimated that she is one of Hollywood's highest-earning youngsters, behind Lindsay Lohan, the Olsen twins and Daniel Radcliffe.
Christian Bale followed his breakthrough role as the 13-year-old JG Ballard-figure in Spielberg's adaptation of Empire of the Sun (1987) with parts in Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, Little Women and Velvet Goldmine, before starring as Patrick Bateman in American Psycho (1999) and then donning the rubber suit for Batman Begins (2005). Despite his "inexcusable" tantrum (his word) on Terminator Salvation, he has since been employed by Michael Mann and on an as-yet-untitled Terrence Malick film.
Jonathan Ke Quan
Vietnam-born Ke Huy Quan followed his debut film performance as Harrison Ford's 12-year-old sidekick in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) with his role as Data, one of The Goonies (1985), and a part in the sitcom Head of the Class. Then he changed his name to Jonathan Ke Quan and re-trained as a stuntman and fight choreographer, assisting with the action in X-Men and Jet Li's The One.
The teenaged Gwyneth Paltrow made only her second film appearance as 'little Wendy' in her godfather Steven's 1991 film Hook. Just seven years later she was making a tearful acceptance speech having won an Oscar for Best Actress in Shakespeare in Love. She has since starred in The Royal Tenenbaums, Sylvia and Iron Man, but has chosen to work less often since the births of her children, Apple and Moses Martin.