NEW YORK (AP) — Logan Lerman is already one of the most sought-after young actors in Hollywood. You might then expect the 24-year-old to have a steady lineup of dystopian young-adult adaptations or house-party comedies in the pipeline. But his latest is in a different direction entirely: industry veteran James Schamus' Philip Roth adaptation, "Indignation."
The role, Lerman says, is exactly the kind of material he's attracted to, and he doesn't mind turning down more cookie-cutter (and lucrative) parts in order to find his own path.
"Let the other actors take the bad roles," he joked in a recent interview, only using a different word for "bad." ''I'm trying to figure out who I am through the choices I make. I don't know myself well enough. I'm still trying to figure out what person I want to be."
In "Indignation," which opens Friday, Lerman stars as Marcus Messner, the only son of a Jewish butcher in Newark, New Jersey. While the Korean War is raging, he goes to a Christian college in Ohio, where his rigid principles are challenged by a forward but fragile young woman (Sarah Gadon) and a rigid and judgmental dean (Tracy Letts).
The directorial debut of Schamus (the longtime writing and producing partner of Ang Lee and the former head of Focus Features), "Indignation" is a revelation of the maturing talent of Lerman. His performance is subtle and smart, but also with the kind of confident charisma that can make stars out of young actors. In the film's lengthy 20-minute centerpiece, he volleys back and forth with Letts, holding his own with the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and veteran stage actor.
"It was terrifying, but I like that. I mean, I didn't enjoy myself. But I wanted the challenge. I want to be the guy who can take the responsibility to try to tackle difficult obstacles," says Lerman. "When we got to set it was like two boxers getting ready for the fight. I had trained and been focused and brought a lot of caffeine."
And he won the admiration of Letts.
"One of the great joys for me was Logan. He was a complete unknown to me," says Letts. "He's so good in the role and so smart and so prepared. He's the real deal. I left very impressed with Logan Lerman."
Lerman, a Los Angeles native, made his feature film debut at the age of 8 in 2000's "The Patriot." Child actor roles continued to mount up: playing a young version of Mel Gibson and a child Ashton Kutcher; playing the son of Christian Bale ("3:10 to Yuma") and of Russell Crowe ("Noah").
The biggest hint to Lerman's ability came in Stephen Chbosky's adaption of his own novel, "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," a tender coming-of-age tale. His leading breakthrough was playing Percy Jackson in the demigod franchise, but the more crucial turning point may have been the rewarding experience of co-starring in David Ayer's World War II tank drama "Fury."
"After 'Fury' he just said, 'Look, I'm not going to do anything unless I want to do it.' He gets these offers every five minutes for more money than god," says Schamus. "What can I say? He showed up off-book, lines memorized, ready to work and he can mano-a-mano with Tracy Letts."
Lerman is also, for the first time, a producer of the film. He calls it a "glorified credit" but acknowledges a deeper involvement in the process is important to him.
"That's the only way I work now," says Lerman, who's also producing one of his next films, "Sidney Hall," a drama about a young novelist overwhelmed by sensation success. "I just want to find films that I like and help them get into production and do whatever I can to make it happen."
And in that pursuit, Schamus — long synonymous with intelligent adult dramas — has been an inspiration.
"It's a privilege to spend a minute with him, let alone hours and days. He's a wonderful mentor," says Lerman. "My relationship with James goes very deep into the fabric of who I am, in a way. He's responsible for why I'm here right now making movies. The films that he championed and made and distributed — the people he took chances on and the films he's been a part of — are the reason I'm interested in film."
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP