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Northwest Indiana Times

Generation NeXt
- Jeff Bell, Times Correspondent

It's the not-too-distant future - do you know what your children are? In the comic book universe of "X2: X-Men United," opening today, they might very well be mutants capable of freezing the blood in your veins, transforming your cigarette into a fireball, morphing into a mass of organic steel, or slipping - quite literally - through the back door.

In the sequel to 2000's blockbuster film, Professor Charles Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters is besieged by a covert military force -- and four young actors find themselves flirting with the same instant superstardom bestowed upon Hugh "Wolverine" Jackman three years ago. Meet the next generation of X-Men.

Shawn Ashmore: "Iceman"

Never before has an actor made the Hot List by being so cold.

Shawn Ashmore's role as Bobby "Iceman" Drake -- upgraded from a glorified cameo in the first film -- has positioned the 23-year-old opposite marquee-level talent such as Oscar winner Anna Paquin (who plays his love interest, the superpower-stealing Rogue). Mindful of his good fortune, Ashmore wisely chilled on the frost-themed puns (think Arnold's Mr. Freeze in "Batman Forever").

"'Ice to meet you.' wanted to use that soo bad," he says. "But I was like, 'I can't do it.'"

His alter ego shows less restraint in "X2," enjoying an icy-fresh lip lock with Rogue. And given the lady's penchant for sending suitors into comas at the slightest touch, their tortured romance also works as an amusing take on the "no glove, no love" safe-sex slogan. "I don't think it was specifically written like that," he says, laughing, "but it definitely lends itself to that sort of interpretation."

Apparently there's something in Ashmore's demeanor that lends itself to superheroism. The Toronto resident played a shape-shifting do-gooder in Nickelodeon's "Animorphs," a teen paramedic in the Disney Channel series "In a Heartbeat," and, briefly, a default Superboy on the WB's "Smallville." "The last thing I want to be is typecast, but that element of heroics is sort of interesting - having that power and how you deal with it."

Hanging with an ego-free "X2" cast gave Ashmore perspective in that department. "People are like, 'Honestly, there must have been one diva on set,'" he says. "But there was just no attitude. It was very cool."

Something he should know a thing or two about.

Aaron Stanford: "Pyro"

When he coveted Sigourney Weaver in last year's independent film "Tadpole," Aaron Stanford became the darling of the art house circuit. So it's not surprising that when he was cast as John "Pyro" Allerdyce, a conflicted mutant transfixed by his ability to manipulate fire, Stanford tried to bring some high-minded indie sensibility to his "X2" character.

"I dug up facts like the fact that pyromaniacs are predominantly chronic bed wetters, all kinds of interesting stuff I was hoping to use," says the 26-year-old actor. "But guess what? There's no place for it. I brought it up to (director) Bryan Singer, and he kind of didn't want to hear what I was saying."

Stanford laughs this off, knowing that the same big-studio mentality that grounded his artistic flight of fancy also muted the onscreen appearance of his character, which, in the comic, was a garish study in flame-retardant flamboyance. "(He wore) this bright orange and yellow spandex outfit (with this massive flame-thrower strapped to his back and two tubes coming up his arm)," says Stanford, who wears pajamas for much of the movie. "But for the film, spandex always becomes leather, which I suppose is still suspect, but a bit better."

A casual "X-Men" reader as a kid, this Massachusetts-born Jersey boy is finding that his megabudget franchise affords him the financial freedom to make smaller pictures (he just finished the corporate satire "Rick"). And just to ensure employment in future X"-sequels he won't be asking any more questions regarding the fate of Alex Burton, the actor who briefly played Pyro in the first film. "I have no idea what happened to that guy," says Stanford, laughing. "I asked a bunch of times, and no one seems to want to tell me."

Daniel Cudmore: "Colossus"

One look at Daniel Cudmore, and you're quick to dismiss the old canard "There are no small parts, only small actors."

His screen time in "X2" amounts to only a few frenetic minutes, but at 6 feet 8 inches and 255 well-muscled pounds, the 22-year-old acting neophyte makes a potent first impression as the metal-plated Russian mutant, Piotr "Colossus" Rasputin.

Quite a change from a year and a half ago, when the West Vancouver, B.C., resident was bailing from a stateside college football scholarship after two injury-plagued seasons. Encouraged by his mother to revisit a childhood interest in acting, Cudmore snagged the part of an emasculated gridiron giant in an OxyClean commercial. "We're rolling around in blueberry pies on this field, (wearing) pink prom dresses," he says. "It was hilarious."

With that ignominious role as his sole acting credit, he didn't expect much when he attended a cattle-call audition for "X2." "I thought it was a long shot, (but) I kept getting called back. The final (time) was just to see if I had the body for it. It was just, 'Stand in front of the camera and flex in a pair of shorts.'"

And if his physicality gives him an edge over his peers, Cudmore's more than willing to stand and deliver. "It'll be great, later on, to get actual characters and break that big guy/tough guy mold," he says. "But right now, if someone wants to use me as the thug (on) the left, I'll be there, looking big and mean."

Katie Stuart: "Kitty Pryde"

Mutant Kitty Pryde can walk through walls. Actress Katie Stuart tends to run into them.

"It's not so much that I'm clumsy," insists the fresh-faced 18-year-old. "I just have too much energy - I tend to move before I think."

She certainly does enough of that in "X2," passing through levels of the X-Mansion in a breathtaking chase sequence. A Vancouver native best known for her stint on the TV series "The Crow: Stairway to Heaven," Stuart still isn't sure how she snagged her currrent role, which was played in the first film by Sumela Kay. "I've never met the girl, but I feel bad about it," Stuart says. "I'm assuming that she looks older than Kitty Pryde should. I'm 18, but I still pull off 14 pretty well."

Except when she straightens her naturally wavy hair, as she did during preproduction. The unexpected side effect: She resembled co-star Anna Paquin. "I almost didn't get the part because they thought that I looked too much like her," says Stuart, who quickly reverted to her original coif.

You'd think she'd have more job security, having worked with Professor X himself, Patrick Stewart, in the 1997 flick "Masterminds." But Stuart's more interested in sharing the screen with another "X2" actor: Daniel Cudmore. In the comic, Colossus and Kitty were once romantically involved -- a fact that clearly intrigues the 5-foot-2 actress. "I don't think I'd have any problems doing that," she purrs, sounding more vixen than kitten. "I might need a footstool, but we could pull it off."

Northwest Indiana Times