So Thomas Jane is on the phone telling me how much he enjoyed suicide. He's talking in a slow drawl and sounds far away.

Happily, the eerie echo to his voice comes not from the Other Side but from a bad Transatlantic line to Los Angeles, Jane's home and the location for much of his latest movie, The Last Time I Committed Suicide. Directed by Stephen Kay, the film stars Jane as nomadic Beat icon Neal Cassady, a good-looking, romantic chancer whose freewheeling lifestyle inspired the adulation of literary friends such as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, and earned immortalisation in Jack Kerouac's novel, On the Road.

Set in Denver during the 1950s, the film's shaggy-dog story follows Cassady's relationship with the beautiful but suicidal Joan (Clare Forlani), an early brush with respectability narrowly averted thanks to his affair with Catholic schoolgirl "Cherry" Mary (Gretchen Mol) and his friendship with seedy barfly Harry (Keanu Reeves). At times, Kay's slick visuals and Jane's square jaw bring Suicide dangerously close to an extended Levi's ad, but a strong sense of atmosphere and some engaging performances just about save it from pastiche. "It's over-stylised," admits Jane, "but I think if you think of it as a jazz poem, it works."

Reeves' decision to turn down Speed 2 to play Cassady's beer-drinking buddy has, of course, ensured this small, independent project wider distribution than it might otherwise have enjoyed and a slew of valuable publicity. Still, wasn't Jane committing career suicide by allowing his first leading role to be eclipsed by a more famous co-star?

"Oh, not at all," murmurs Jane. "He was just a real nice guy, we had a lot of fun together. He'd known the director for a while, so they already had a rapport going, which made it easy on me. It was a great experience. There was a lot of magic there. People all seemed to get along. Of all the films I've done, I keep in contact with people from Suicide the most."

Although he'd dipped into Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, Jane admits he knew little about the Beats before he agreed to the role. "I'd never really known much about the history of their writing, the social climate that it came out of and what they were striving for," he recalls. "With my research, I got to explore that in depth. That time in the 1940s was very interesting. It's fascinating to think how free everyone was, the innocence of their quests. They say the Beat Generation was the first rebellion against the American Dream. After World War II, all these young men were coming back and being promised turkey in every pot, a car in every garage, and when that didn't happen, they began to question what they'd been fighting for, what life was offering them. They were the first rebels. They started searching for something else, but they didn't know what."

As Kay's film makes clear, however, the Beat revolution didn't extend to women, who remained confined to the roles of ball-and-chain wives and throwaway lovers. "Definitely, it was a boys' club," agrees Jane. "Carolyn Cassady writes about that in her book, Off the Road. But I think there was also a great pressure at the time to find a girl and settle down, and they were rebelling against that, too. You know, kids were getting married at 18 years old then. I think Cassady just needed to travel and find himself first."

Like Cassady, Jane has been burning boot leather: he spent the years before he became an actor living "all over the place", including a year "bumming around" in Madras. "I needed to figure out what was what," says Jane. "I just never really found a home, I guess."

Recently, he's been living in LA, but "drops down" to Mexico as often as he can to get away from "all the nonsense" of La La Land, where his career is rapidly taking off.

"I did a little thing in Terry Malick's Thin Red Line," he reveals, "and I was in a love triangle with Vincent D'Onofrio and Salma Hayek in a film called The Velocity of Gary, which was a lot of fun. Oh, and I just did a film with Elizabeth Shue. I'm playing her boyfriend. She's autistic and she has an operation and is normal for a while. It's quite a tender little story. It's called Molly at the moment, but I think they're going to change that."

Such success is a far cry from Jane's humble beginnings in the movie business. "I got my Screen Actors' Guild card in a Coca-Cola commercial," remembers the actor. "I was dressed up as this chicken and I had to run around looking for a masquerade ball. It was pretty stupid," he laughs. "You can kill yourself trying to get work in Hollywood."

`The Last TIme I Committed Suicide' is on release