Studio City, Calif. — It's hard to feel sorry for Frankie Muniz.
The 16-year-old actor has his own Fox television series ("Malcolm in the Middle"), is the star of a new movie comedy ("Big Fat Liar") and just bought himself a $100,000 souped-up Volkswagen Jetta featured in the hit film "The Fast and the Furious."
Still, at this very moment, one could feel sorry for the teen.
He has just finished filming a scene on the Studio City set of his TV show. Although the adult actors on the show get to return to their dressing rooms between scenes to rest, Muniz must report immediately to a private classroom where his studio tutor, teacher Eva Jensen, is putting him through his paces on the dreaded Pythagorean theorem. Yes, even a TV star can't escape geometry.
In fact, Muniz, a high school sophomore, has to attend classes three hours a day during the TV season, regardless of how hard he has to work on a particular episode. It's the law.
"Do you want to start your newspaper interview," Jensen asks the actor upon his return from the set, "or do you want to finish the problem we were working on before?"
Muniz doesn't hesitate; he wants to get that nagging geometry question out of the way once and for all. Little does he know that he will never be asked about the Pythagorean theorem when he grows up, unless he appears on "Celebrity Jeopardy."
Hanging out with adults
Later, when he completes the problem, he moves across the hall from his classroom to his dressing room. He leaves behind a room festooned with wall maps, a poster-size magnification of human skin and a jar containing a sheep's heart for biology class. He enters a quiet, tastefully decorated retreat, where Los Angeles Clippers paraphernalia dominate the walls.
"It's a hectic schedule, working on the show and going to school, but I like being this busy," Muniz says in an excited tone. "Actually, with the movie and the show and school, I've only had three days off in the last year. And I was never so bored in my entire life. I had no idea what to do with myself for those three days."
Don't feel sorry for him. Muniz, who said he plans to go to college if his career slows a bit, emphasized that he enjoys his hectic lifestyle.
"I've had kids ask me if I feel like I'm missing something by living this kind of life. I ask them why I would miss sitting in a classroom eight hours a day and putting up with the pressures of high school.
"I say to them that I might be missing out on proms and hanging out at the mall, but they're missing out on going to the Emmys and the Golden Globes. They're missing out on meeting Britney Spears and playing basketball with 'N Sync. They're missing out on courtside season tickets to the Clippers.
"Listen, I have a best friend and a girlfriend my own age, but basically I don't like hanging out with kids. Kids annoy me. I'm used to being around adults."
Willing to work
Born in New Jersey, Muniz moved with his family to North Carolina when he was 4. At 8, he won the role of Tiny Tim in a popular regional production of "A Christmas Carol." He reprised the role twice before outgrowing the part. But by that time, he already was becoming a local celebrity of sorts through his appearances in at least 30 commercials, including a national commercial for Ford.
Roles followed in three TV movies being filmed in North Carolina and, finally, he and his family moved back to New Jersey to be close to the theater scene in New York City.
"I started working almost immediately, but the plan was to return to North Carolina for sixth grade," he explained. "I had gotten into a really good middle school, but I missed the first two weeks of school because of work. They kicked me out of the school, so I began home-schooling and we stayed in New York."
While in New York, he auditioned for and won roles in his first feature film, the well-received "My Dog Skip," and "Malcolm in the Middle." The family moved to Los Angeles for the TV show, now in its third season.
"This is an amazing business," the well-spoken teen-ager said. "There was a time just a few years ago when my mother and I would jump up and down on the bed if I got a callback. You know what a callback is? It's when they narrow the field of actors from 1,000 to 500. But at the time, that was the biggest thrill in the world.
"Now, I don't even have to audition for a role. They call me up and just offer me the starring role in a movie. That's what happened with 'Big Fat Liar.' They gave me the script and it was my movie. They didn't even have a director yet. It's weird how everything has changed so fast."
Muniz said he plans to do more movies and has not ruled out dramatic roles. In fact, he hasn't ruled out any roles.
"I like working," he said. "And I want to work as much as I can while I'm here. There are so many actors in this town who can't find work, and I'm going to take advantage of what I've got. You never know how long you're going to last in this business, and I'm not going to waste a minute of it."