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With a stacked résumé and a new movie out this month, Lee Pace is proving that nice guys don’t always finish last.

LEE PACE IS NOT YOUR AVERAGE HOLLYWOOD HUNK. The mild-mannered 29-year-old former Boy Scout prefers reading to the club scene and may, one day, jettison his acting career (you likely know him from ABC’s recently canceled Pushing Daisies) for a life of making jewelry on a tropical island. But on occasion, the quick-witted star’s adventurous side comes out -- in his work. He played a transgender crush in a TV movie called Soldier’s Girl and a cold-blooded killer in Infamous. This month, he’ll star as a morally ambiguous accident victim in Possession.

Tell me about Possession. It’s a really fun, sexy thriller with me and Sarah Michelle Gellar. I play her brother-in-law. My brother -- her husband -- and I are in this car accident, and he dies and I spend some time in a coma. When I wake up from the coma, I’m convinced that I’m her husband and try to convince her that I’m the husband she lost in the accident. It’s fun. It’s sexy. It’s mysterious. It’s complicated.

You’ve played some fascinating and fairly offbeat characters -- killers and transgender lovers. Pushing Daisies creator Bryan Fuller says you have “a very strange and wide range.” Thank you, Bryan. [Laughs] I think I choose to do what I’m interested in. When I read Soldier’s Girl, the first film project I ever did, it was not a character I was prepared to play, this guy who’d had the sex-change operation and falls in love with another man. But I was thinking about it all the time -- on my bike, on the bus, everywhere I went. It became something I couldn’t shake. It occurred to me that that’s probably a good way for an actor to choose which projects to do: Go with the ones that won’t get out of your head.

You’re building a solid résumé. How has life changed for you? Work has gotten harder, to tell you the truth. There are a lot of parts out there, but there are also a lot of great actors out there. I want to play the parts that will make me better for having played them, and those are the hard ones to get. I auditioned for [my part in] Robert De Niro’s The Good Shepherd for a year -- jumped through hoops, read with different actors, met with De Niro several times. I really wanted that. And that year was one of the most valuable times of my life. I learned so much.

You also used to be a competitive swimmer? I was for a while, but it hurt my ears too much. To this day, I can’t get my head more than a couple of feet underwater before it feels like my head’s going to explode. I eventually had to stop, which is when my mom urged me to go into high school theater. I was so competitive in swimming that I became just as competitive at acting. I did theater in high school, went to Juilliard, did theater, got film, got TV, and here I am. The truth is, if I had better ears, I might never have become an actor.

Tell me one thing we’d be surprised to know about you. There’s a version of me that would give it all up and sit on a beach, stringing beads. Wouldn’t you?