Smallville, a New Superman for a New Century: Rolling Stone's 2002 Feature

The show in which Lana Lang is barely legal, Lex Luthor can't get laid and Clark Kent was once a beefcake

Stewart Shining
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The stars of Smallville — the WB's new series about Superman's early, formative years — don't get out much. Mostly they're stuck where they are, up in chilly, drizzly Vancouver, where the show is shot on a schedule that runs almost nonstop. But, of course, they hear the news. "We hear it from agents and managers and publicists," says Tom Welling, who plays young Clark Kent. And what they hear is that Smallville is one of the few breakout hits of the season, drawing 6 million viewers weekly and trouncing almost everything else in sight, that the WB has already ordered up another season and that the three of them will soon be immortalized in plastic as action-figure toys. This is heady stuff, of course, and if Welling, Kristin Kreuk (who plays Lana Lang) and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) were making the show in L.A., it would undoubtedly go right to their noggins. Pretty soon they'd be hanging out at Skybar, knocking back highballs with various sluts, sycophants and shoplifters out on bail.

But such is not the case, at least not yet.

This article appeared in the March 28, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone. The issue is available in the online archive.

"We're really kind of sheltered here, which is good," Welling says one afternoon on the set. "I mean, I've been working the last five Saturdays until dawn.

"But it kind of keeps us — well, it allows us to maintain our focus and to really just concentrate on what we're doing."

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Mainly what they're doing is putting a new spin on the early years of the Superman saga. In the WB's version, Clark doesn't wear a cape, doesn't cavort in a unitard, doesn't even fly yet. He's just a teenager who is developing some extraordinary powers while suffering the usual hideous agonies of adolescence and the occasional bout of kryptonite allergy. Of course, he's got a bad guy to battle every week. But the real heart of the show lies in Clark's unrequited love for Lana Lang, his odd, amusing friendship with bald bad boy Lex Luthor and his relationship with his folks, who are always good for some moral guidance. Plus, he's dealing with the guilt he feels over the way he arrived on Earth: in a meteor shower that killed Lana's parents, stripped Lex of his hair and in general turned Smallville into a weird place to live. It's a unique, inventive and often moving mix; and a number of highbrow types have praised the show for its "soul" and its "intuitive feel for the zeitgeist," and sensed in this particular Clark Kent a new kind of hero for the post-9/11 world.

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Naturally, Welling and Company don't spend a lot of time pondering this stuff. Mostly they're too exhausted. Plus they've got a show to create. At the moment, Kreuk is in the makeup chair, while Welling and Rosenbaum rehearse a scene, the two of them ambling around a battered Porsche, practicing their lines.

"Don't you remember anything about the accident?" Rosenbaum asks Welling.

"I remember pulling you out," says Welling. "That's all."

"You sure you don't remember anything?" asks Rosenbaum. He pauses. He lifts an eyebrow. Finally, displaying his own intuitive feel for the zeitgeist, he says, "My ass was sore afterward. You sure you didn't give me a superfuck?"

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The director steps forward and says, "Well, yes, that was very good, very professional."

Rosenbaum is chuckling, and Welling is looking kind of embarrassed. As well he might. Being the new kind of hero and all.

Bleary-eyed, welling shuffles into Morrissey's, an Irish-type bar in down-town Vancouver, and plops himself into an overstuffed chair, takes a deep breath, sighs, swipes at his mop of chestnut hair and says, "I'm hanging in there." Yawning, he stretches his legs out and grins good-naturedly. He's a tall fellow, with huge size-fourteen feet, and limpid green-grape eyes, and cheeks that seem to have a permanent apple-red flush on them. In other words, at the age of twenty-four, he's great-looking and totally WB, which undoubtedly explains why the network splashed photos of him, naked from the chest up, on billboards all over Los Angeles before the show's premiere.

He orders a BLT and an iced tea and gives an account of his early years growing up in Wisconsin, Delaware and Michigan, where he played a lot of sports (baseball, basketball and soccer) and did no better than "fair" in high school. After graduating, he had no idea what he was going to do with his life. He didn't want to go to college, so he got a job as a construction worker, lived at home (until retiring, his father was an executive for General Motors) and basically just hung out. "I was just going with the flow," he says. In that spirit, one spring day he and ten pals hopped on a plane and flew to Nantucket for a vacation.

Cocking his head at the memory, Welling says, "We were at this bar, and these people scouting for an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog shoot walked up to me. I learned they worked for photographer Bruce Weber, who is huge, so I thought, 'OK, maybe you need to take this more seriously.' So I went home for a week, then went right to Lake George, New York, to do the shoot, made a couple thousand dollars, and then I moved to Manhattan and became a model."

He modeled in New York and Europe for the next two years, didn't feel especially at home in the modeling world, and in 2000 decided to move to Los Angeles to become an actor. He had no real acting experience, planned on taking no acting classes and gave himself one year to make something of himself. It took only five months for him to land his first big gig, a three-episode run on CBS' Judging Amy, as Amy's boy toy, which led to three more episodes of the show. Shortly thereafter, Smallville's producers rang him up.

At first, he turned them down, figuring the show would be dopey and lame. They called again. He turned them down again. After auditioning several hundred other young men for the part, they called once more, and this time Welling relented. He read the script and liked what he read. "It was focused more on Clark trying to be a human, rather than a superhero," he says. He auditioned — and the executives were bowled over. Says Miles Millar, one of Smallville's five executive producers, "He had innocence and earnestness and sincerity and a strength about him. He embodied everything that we wanted."

So that's how he got to where he is to-day, essentially on the wings of serendipity. As he likes to say, "It blows your mind, almost to the point where you're like, 'Nah, it's not — no, no, it can't be.'" And after saying that, he just sits there, happily munching on his BLT. Finally he says, "You know, one of the things about going from modeling to acting is it's so much more fulfilling. With modeling, you get your picture taken, which is great, good for you, you know? But in acting, you're able to reach in and show a little bit more of yourself."

That may be. But what he prefers to show off-camera isn't that much. In fact, he seems pretty low-key, even shy. "Tom and I get along very well," says Kristin Kreuk, "but he is very closed off with people." Or perhaps he's just wary.

"Do you have a girlfriend?"

"I have a very special woman in my life, yes."

He sips his iced tea. Then he says, "We have been together for three years." And then, later on, he says, "But, you know, we kind of keep that stuff between us."

"Do you."

"Yeah." He leans forward. "I don't mean to be rude, but I'm trying to respect her privacy. And mine. I mean, literally, I've been asked what the names of my dogs are, and I haven't told, just because, you know, let's talk about the show."

"OK, fair enough. What are your vices?"

"Well, I can't have my fingernails clipped or filed," he says deftly. "I just don't like it. So when they get long, I'll bite them and spit them out."

Over time, however, he loosens up a little. Pretty soon he's able to reveal that he's both a huge Christopher Walken fan and an equally great admirer of Bob Saget ("He's rude, he's crude, he's funny!"). Regarding his nose, he will blow it in the shower but only picks it "recreationally." His favorite cuss word is "Damn!" One of his favorite phrases is "There you go!" Yesterday, he had the song "Somebody's Baby" stuck in his head. Also yesterday, he nearly cried after his dog Cook, a pug, ate himself sick and had to go under the vet's knife.

"Is Clark Kent a virgin?" he muses. "We haven't gone there yet. But I hope we touch on that at some point!"

He himself lost his virginity at the age of seventeen, and he has no intention of guessing whether Kreuk, who recently turned nineteen, still has hers or not. "I have no idea," he says loftily, "but I'll tell you this much: She's a unique soul." If he's in the mood, he'll also tell you this: The kind of girls he tends to attract are "none lately, but I've had experiences with wholesome and not so wholesome."

All of which is good to know about the guy who is playing one of the greatest, most enduring of all iconic figures. It rounds him out, makes him human, somewhat more than what Annette O'Toole, who plays his mom on the show, says of him, that "he's simple and pure, both as an actor and a person, and just a very kindhearted soul." But it's time for him to leave. He's exhausted from all his fourteen-hour days. Before he goes, he wants to say one more thing. He says, "There's many more shades of Tom Welling than just Clark Kent."

Well, yes. Who could argue with that now?

Sorry it smells like bitter ass in here," says Michael Rosenbaum, 29, hopping into an SUV filled with his moldy old hockey gear. He fires up the vehicle and bumps through potholes into a dark night, bald pate gleaming. "Yeah, Lex Luthor, pretty wild," he goes on. "I'm not sure what it means, though. Like back in college, I remember watching the Superman movies. You never go, 'Hey, Lex Luthor! I'd like to play that guy!' And then one day, someone's like, 'Hey, you want to be Lex Luthor?' I'm like, 'I don't know. Do I?' I mean, dude, man, Gene Hackman — how do you top that? He's a genius. I'm just working, man."

That noted, he slaps a home-burned CD into the player, sings a few lines from an old song ("You're so vain, you probably ..."), extols the musical talents of David Soul ("Remember him? Hutch? Love his singing!") and starts talking. And unlike Welling, when Rosenbaum starts talking, he doesn't stop. The best thing to do is just sit back and let him take you on a ride.

He says, "I said to one of my friends, 'This Smallville is good. You know why? Because of the perks! Fly free to Vegas for a radio interview, then party for three days.' I mean, really, in a lot of ways that's what it's all about, isn't it?"

He says, "Nope, no girlfriend at the moment. Yeah, Tom's got one. Poor bastard. I mean, she's great. But you know what? This is probably the time to not have a girlfriend, if you know what I mean. Because twenty years from now, he'll be like 'Don't you remember me? I was Superman!' And they'll be like, 'I don't give a shit. You looked a hell of a lot better then.'"

He says, "Sometimes the ass needs a shaving. It's gotta glisten. No one likes hairy asses. You see a hairy ass on film and you're like, 'The guy could have used some Nair.'"

He says, "I haven't had that much sex without the hair. I'm on Sunset, in a car with my friend Dave, and these two girls are in a jeep next to us. I look over and go, 'Heyyy.' Just a friendly smile, nothing too much. One girl says to the other, 'Like, is that bald guy talking to me?' It was awful."

Finally, slowing down to pull into a parking lot, he says, "I think I lost a filter a long time ago. My mind's always working. I'm always trying to think of something. I wish I could learn to relax. Sometimes it eats away at you. But I guess I'm very insatiable in that regard."

When Rosenbaum first read for the Lex Luthor role, the producers didn't think he was quite right. But three months later, they asked to see him again. "This is a pretty savvy guy," recalls executive producer Mike Tollin. "He walks into the room with that swagger of his, sits down and says, 'OK, obviously you guys aren't finding what you're looking for. So what is it?'" Says Al Gough, another of the show's executive producers, "What we wanted was somebody like a young Michael Keaton who has energy and a charisma and humor but also a certain amount of danger, and who'd be willing to shave his head. When Michael came in like that, we knew we had him."

Unlike most of the other Smallville kids, Rosenbaum has been around in the acting world. He's had roles in movies (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Urban Legend, the upcoming Sorority Boys) and appeared on several short-lived TV shows.

Growing up in Newburgh, Indiana, however, Rosenbaum remembers that he was little more than "a geek" — the undersize, overloud kid who wore cardigans and turtlenecks and who at the age of fifteen didn't want to hit the showers with the other guys because, he says, "there's nothing going on down there, no pubes, no hair at all; and I'm looking at my friends, going, 'God, how I wish I had their hair on my body!'" Then he went to Western Kentucky University, where he roomed with one of the coolest, most popular guys around, which, in turn, made him cool and popular; acted in numerous plays; graduated and moved to New York; acted in several more plays (including a run of Dracula "way the fuck off-Broad-way"); earned money as a hard-driving telemarketing phone wrangler; got some commercial voice-over work ("Trojan condoms — get real"); smoked a bit of weed ("Always in moderation, always; no Dionysus"); shaved his balls one time; and got a gig performing skits on Late Night With Conan O'Brien.

"You know what?" he says later inside a Vancouver restaurant, huddled over a nice ribeye steak. "It's all about confidence. No matter what anybody tells you, that's what it's all about." He leans forward. "Here's what I like about Kristin. As far on the opposite side of her as I am in terms of personality, she respects that. Because she knows that's who I am. And that's important." He chews his steak, waggles his fork in the air and says, "You know, most girls Kristin's age don't like bald guys. But I'd be interested to know who she would rather go out with, Clark Kent or Lex Luthor. She'll probably say Clark. But ask her. I want to know. But don't say that I want to know." He thinks about this, then starts talking about his late grandma, and how much he loved her, and how she once smoked some of his dope — "She must have smoked half the joint in one hit!" — and afterward ate a whole pizza. And on he goes, of course, great, very insatiable fellow that he is.

Kristin Kreuk is wearing tight flare jeans and a white shawl-collar sweater, her long, dark hair pinned up with shoots and tendrils dropping; being half Dutch and half Chinese, she is totally dewy to look at. It is little wonder, then, that the Neutrogena people recently chose her to be their new spokesmodel — although they might do well to keep her in front of the cameras and not let her go out to dinner at Japanese restaurants with visiting inquisitors who ask dopey questions. Because, in response, she tends to roll her eyes, curl her lips and turn snippish.

"So, how'd you get your role in Smallville?"

"How'd I get the role? Pretty much the same way everyone gets their roles: I auditioned," she says. And she starts drumming her fingernails on the table.

That's OK, though. It's entertaining. She's entertaining. A Vancouver native, the daughter of two landscape architects and just a year out of high school, she seems to be extremely intelligent, and that makes up for a lot. For example, before auditioning for her Lana Lang role, she listened to the character description — "popular girl ... parents die in meteor shower ... dates star quarterback ... cheerleader" — and thought, "She seems like an idiot!" But when she read the complete script, she thought, "This is just amazing!" Both these sentiments are, of course, exactly true.

"What were you into in high school?"

"What was I into?" she asks. "I was a student, I studied, I got good grades."

More nail drumming follows, though it fades, as Kreuk starts building a case for herself as "the most boring person ever!" she says.

"I don't get into trouble, because I never do anything bad, and I never have. I'm pathetic. I don't even have any jokes to tell. Really, I'm boring." She is, however, a tireless worker; in addition to her Smallville role, she's also starring in a teen drama on Canadian TV. In her spare time, she likes to read; right now, she's deep into The Alchemist, though she can often be found rereading Wuthering Heights, Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. Doesn't smoke, doesn't pick her cuticles, is intensely aware of the color of her eyes ("hazel, dark-green outside, then light-green, then kinds of a browny, yellowy, speckly inside"). She lives with her parents. Her mom once told her she had to take karate lessons to protect herself. She has never gotten drunk.

She has never driven a car, either, believing that she will be a terrible driver. "It's going to be a disaster," she says softly. "I could very well kill somebody. But I won't. I'll be careful. I'm very careful. Very cautious,. I'm a very good girl. Oh, I'm amazingly boring."

You have to wonder about somebody who is so insistent of a single point. Especially when others have such a different take on her. "I look at her, and she's shy, but there's something else going on in there," says John Schneider, the onetime Dukes of Hazzard star who plays Clark Kent's dad on the show. "I mean, have you seen her? She's flawless! It's got to be interesting to have lived at all on this earth looking like she looks."

Kreuk isn't so sure about that. She thinks people have gotten the wrong impression of her. "You know why? It's because I don't open up very easily to people. In high school, I came across as a snob. Well, I am sort of a snob. I'm not very nice to people, because ... well, I'm just not. I can come across as mysterious."

She smiles wanly.

"Have a boyfriend?"

"No."

"Have you had a boyfriend?"

"Yes. But we don't have to talk about that. We mustn't."

"How many have you had?"

"Actually, I haven't been in a serious relationship. I couldn't wear makeup or date until I was sixteen, and I've had bad experiences with guys ever since I was a kid. I haven't told my mom all of the,. I've had to hide them from her. I mean, it's just guys being guys, how they follow you around and chase you and try to kiss you all the time. But that's kind of traumatizing. When you're a kid."

This is interesting stuff, and Kreuk is proving herself to be a bundle, both cold and reserved and warm and revealing. Plus, she is wonderful to look at, with a clear, prominent forehead and facial expressions that change from pixieish to kittenlike to exasperated to fed up in a flash.

"What makes you weak in the knees?"

"Nothing. I think I got weak in the knees once, out of fear of this guy. But that was it."

"So you're not pining for anyone?"

"Definitely not. I am not the pining sort. I guess I wouldn't define myself as sexual. Like, I don't need to have somebody. I am very content."

Contentedly, she picks up her napkin, folds it along the diagonal twice and starts shredding it into little pieces. And, really, she can't fathom in the least why having a boyfriend might do her some good. Shred, shred, fold, shred.

But, she says, if she had to pick one character from the show to go out with, it'd probably be Lex Luthor: "Lex is really sexy. He's got all that depth and darkness." She pauses; somewhere Michael Rosenbaum must be smiling. But Kreuk herself is frowning. "You really don't want to date anyone you're working with," she says a little later. "That would just be weird. And awkward. And not good. Anyway, I can't think of anyone that I'd really end up with."

After, she launches into a discussion of the WB's attitude toward her hair. "The WB's anal about it," she says, making an unhappy face. "It's because of the whole Keri Russell Felicity hair incident. So I can't do anything with it. Like whenever I do a TV interview, I'm not even allowed to wear it up. It has to be down, because I'm going to be known for my hair. I can't cut it or make it choppy or put streaks in it, because Lana, the small-town girl, wouldn't do that." Next she gets onto the congratulatory phone call she received from Jordan Levin, president of the entertainment division at the WB, after the show's debut­a phone call she missed and decided not to return. "If I'd called him back, I would have felt uncomfortable," she says. "Because I don't know him. And I already knew what he wanted to say. Anyway, he probably didn't call. It was probably his assistant." She laughs out loud. "I guess I just don't communicate with people."

And with that, she turns suddenly philosophical: "To reach enlightenment, there's an arc that we all have to go through. In my case, I have to learn to care about people, because I don't. I care more about Mother Nature and all those exterior things. I have just never been able to truly care about people. I mean, I don't do anything bad to people, because that's mean. But everyone has their evil thoughts. Everyone has those sporadic I-want-to-kill-you moments. Blah, blah, blah. Anyway, so that's not very interesting. I tell you, I'm boring!"

Shortly afterward, she opens her mouth and bares a pointed, jutting tooth. "It's my fang," she says happily. "And I like my fang!"

She waits for a reaction.

One reaction is, if this is boring, boring sure has improved some.

From The Archives Issue 892: March 28, 2002
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