CHICAGO — The minute Chris O'Donnell walks across the cafe at the American Girl Store on Chicago Avenue, the mothers there take notice.
There's a breeze in his hair as he quick-walks across the room, bypassing all the pink and white fondant-covered birthday cakes — there must have been half a dozen "Happy Birthday" songs sung in the minutes before his arrival — toward the hobby-size house that replicates the one his movie family lived in for the "Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" film in which he co-stars with Oscar nominee Abigail Breslin. The Chicago native autographs it, and the moms quietly swoon behind him, some pulling out cell phones to discreetly snap pictures.
He wants to know if it's OK if we move to another location, instead of having lunch at the pretty-in-pink cafe that little girls are twirling around in, wearing tulle-trimmed dresses.
His reasoning makes sense. "My daughter would be so mad if I had lunch here and she wasn't with me," he says.
Fair enough. We go to a more adult-friendly seafood spot next door and munch on Waldorf salads and bowls of bisque while talking about his five children, life in Hollywood, and why he was going to be a part of this film even if the script was horrible.
Q: What made you want to be a part of this project?
A: When they sent the script, all I could think of was, "I really hope it's good," because I'd love to do it for my daughter's sake alone. I'd be her hero, you know, doing this.
Fortunately, it was a great script. I was really familiar with the "American Girl" story, because of living here, and I have a bunch of nieces. And it was a big deal to get to go to the store. I've been to the store. I've been to that cafe with my daughter. Let me tell you, it was pretty empty today. That place around Christmas time, you can't even get in there. It's a neat experience for the kids. But this film, I'm shocked with how well it all turned out. I would have done it even if it were some lousy movie. My hat is off. They did a fantastic job. They got a great cast, a great script. The works. I was just really impressed.
A: Oh, yeah. I was getting choked up watching the thing. And I'm in it!
Q: I guess it does seem difficult to strike a nice balance with children's films that adults feel completely entertained by as well.
A: Yeah. I see all that stuff. And I sit through so many movies, and I'm like, "I cannot believe that somebody created this movie." It's either so bad that you can't believe it. Or it's so inappropriate you can't believe it got the rating that it got. Or it's "(Finding) Nemo," and you're just like, "How did they do it?!" This one, I'm happy to say, is absolutely enjoyable. You can sit through it and genuinely enjoy it. It is a real G-rated movie. And that's hard to find these days. It's nice when something can be entertaining and safe. And safe and not have some hidden religious message in there that we're freaked out about.
Q: So does being the father of five affect the choices that you make?
A: Maybe a little bit. Kind of in the same way that when I was single I would think, "I can't believe my parents are going to see this!" And now it's like, "I can't believe my kids are going to see this!" It registers in your head.
But ultimately, as an actor you've got to go with what feels right, what feels interesting and what excites you or what seems scary to you. And that's where you need to go. But it's something that you consider, for sure.
Q: So, you've been making films now for 20 years; how would you characterize that experience?
A: I think it's funny the way life works. It was something I always wanted to do at an early age. And I can't believe I'm still doing it. I'm pleased in the fact that I come from a real traditional background and family — that's real important to me — and I'm pleased that I've been able to have the experiences that I've had in the business. And still get to have that other half of me, the traditional family life that I've always wanted. If one of my kids got into the business, that would be my biggest worry. But it has been an absolute blast. And I'm so happy and feel so fortunate that I get to do what I do for a living.