Tobey Maguire is no hunky movie star. If he were, he'd never be able to stroll into a crowded coffeehouse on Sunset Boulevard and stand in line to buy bottled water, undisturbed.

No, a movie star would be at least 20 minutes late for an interview, wear sunglasses the whole time and have no money in his pocket. He'd never casually reveal that everything he's wearing today--a black shirt made of parachute cloth, black shiny pants and Puma sneakers--was given to him by the manufacturers. All except for a white Calvin Klein T-shirt, whose label he obligingly reveals.

Uh-uh, not a star. Not yet, anyway.

For now, the 24-year-old actor is merely an undeniable, rising screen presence, propelled not by the Hollywood hype machine but--amazingly--by talent. Consider: Maguire has skipped from one significant role to another without making the cover of Vanity Fair, without becoming the Matthew McConaughey of the nano-moment, without a powerhouse publicist. He's made it to the Oscar gossip circuit without doing the Roberto Benigni I-love-you jig.

Instead, he has just worked. In the past three years, Maguire has played a troubled suburban teen in "The Ice Storm" and a wide-eyed youth time-traveling to the 1950s in the surrealist "Pleasantville," and is in two films now in theaters: He plays a Civil War-era rebel in "Ride With the Devil" and the orphan Homer Wells in the acclaimed screen version of the John Irving novel "The Cider House Rules." It is this last role, set in the 1940s, that is winning him the most attention.

Something about Maguire's earnestness and vulnerability makes him especially believable in period films. And "Cider House Rules" is a near-perfect vehicle for his sober-eyed naivete, for his ability to project a hundred emotions below a calm exterior, for his knack for suggesting the boy beneath the man. Newsday said he "gives a career-making, powerful performance," and Premiere magazine gushed that his work was "miraculous."

While Maguire often plays characters younger than he actually is, "he seems very much like an old soul," says "Cider House" director Lasse Hallstrom, who also has won praise for his lyrical adaptation of the novel. "He's so intuitive. He looks through you. He is very observant of human behavior, of the true motivations for how you behave.

"You see so much that is overstated and flashy," Hallstrom continues. "Tobey is really bold in sticking to the subtle, low-key notes. He trusts the understated choice."

Homer's Odyssey

"Homer had a lot of pride."

Tobey Maguire is explaining his decision to play Homer Wells without tears or hysterics, without much overt emotion at all. The actor hasn't touched his bottled water, and he's watching a sparrow pick at somebody's old muffin.

He is more handsome than on-screen--perhaps because he often plays strait-laced guys with dorky haircuts. Now he looks effortlessly hip, slouching in a cafe chair, his blue-gray eyes warm and animated, his cheeks peppered by a three-day-old beard, his light brown hair falling in wisps across his forehead.

"I told Lasse that I wanted to make this guy believable. Not all wide-eyed in the world, but someone who would keep his experiences for himself."

In the film--a much-abridged version of the best-selling novel--Homer has plenty to keep to himself. He grows up in a nurturing orphanage in the New England countryside, a protege of its complicated but good-hearted director, Dr. Larch (played movingly by Michael Caine). Dr. Larch teaches Homer all he knows, which includes not only delivering babies but also performing illegal abortions.

Though Homer is groomed to take over Dr. Larch's role, he burns with a desire to know the world outside. How cloistered is he? By the time Homer leaves the orphanage with a couple who have come for an abortion, he has seen only one movie in his life, over and over, the orphanage's print of "King Kong."

As Homer, Maguire is determined not to let people see the maelstrom of emotions that swirls within him as he leaves the safety of home--that's what the actor means by pride. Homer takes a job picking apples and lives with a group of black migrant workers. He learns about incest. He falls in love with the girl who came for an abortion (Charlize Theron), and thus betrays a friend who has gone to war. He learns about life.

"As a person--I don't think of Homer as a character--he would be trying to control himself. He would try to keep secret what he felt," Maguire says. "It's hard for people to open up and share, really." He pauses. "People choose whom they want to trust."

If that sounds like Maguire talking about himself, it may be because the actor seems smart enough to distrust much of what Hollywood has already offered him, the too-easy glamour held out to rising stars. Often it gets yanked away a few years later (McConaughey being only the most recent example). So he's guarded. Maguire won't answer questions about his private life. (We asked.) He insists that being an actor is not all there is to life.

"I'm pleased with who I am as a young man, with who I strive to be. My career is only one portion of me. My work is important, but only to a point," he says. "There's only so much of myself I want to show. I don't define who I am by my work. A lot of people put a lot of importance on that, but I don't want to. I appreciate my career; I work hard. That's important."

He waits a while, as if reluctant to trot out his personal philosophy. But then he does. "You get defined by what you do. . . . Society puts so much importance on what career you have, which is largely based on how much money you have, and what job you have. I don't want to get caught up in that. And it's hard. I'm a person." Another pause. "When you die, you die without any of that stuff."

Out of Inglewood

So where did he come from, this earnest young man who--despite the cool slouch--seems like a throwback? Tobey Maguire got knocked around a bit before Life set him on the path to success.

He spent his early years in Santa Monica, but his parents--his mom was 18 when she had him, his dad, a chef, only 20--divorced when he was 2. Maguire spent his entire childhood being moved around, like a piece of furniture: Venice. Hollywood. Silverlake. Studio City. Santa Clarita. Small towns in Washington. Oregon. Seal Beach. Westwood. This list leaves out a couple of moves. They were poor. He remembers his mom spending $2,000 on a car, and thinking what a lot of money that was.

Mom had dreams of being an actress, so she poured her ambitions into her thoughtful young son. She gave him a few piano lessons, a little ballet. She thought he had talent. When he was 12 (Maguire has long tired of this anecdote, but it's true), his mother offered him $100 to take drama instead of home economics at school. By then, they were living in Palm Springs. He took the money, took the class and found an outlet for his emotions.

But there were problems. "I was a good student. I really liked school, but I got so sick of moving around. I started to be a pain in the [butt] about school. I was rebellious." When he was 13, and they moved yet again, to North Hollywood, Maguire balked at starting over. His first day at school, some girls ripped his shirt, and he saw kids with knives and alcohol.

He started cutting class. His mother pleaded with him to do something with his life, so Maguire took acting classes and gradually phased out going to school. By 10th grade he was doing home study full time, and eventually earned a high school equivalency degree.

By 14, he was already working as an actor. He had a role in a Rodney Dangerfield comedy, did commercials and student films. In 1992 he landed a part in a short-lived TV show called "Great Scott."

"I started in the mailroom and worked my way up to being a junior executive, then an executive in the company," he says dryly. And now? He grins. "Now I'm a junior vice president."

Does he aspire to run the place? "I knew what I wanted to do at 15 or 16," he says. "To work with great people on great material in film. The way I look at my acting--it's just a process. I'm a young man. I have so much room to grow, so much yet to give."

Pre-Stardom

Here's another way you can tell Tobey Maguire isn't a movie star: When you get up to buy coffee, you come back to find him reading the studio press notes about himself--and laughing.

" 'Although only 23, Maguire is already a veteran actor, with an incredible variety of films and several weighty roles to his credit,' " he reads mockingly. " 'He earned critical kudos' "--a snort--" 'for his portrayal of a precocious adolescent yearning for a romantic liaison . . .' Who writes this stuff?"

But it happens to be true. Maguire did earn critical praise for his portrayal of a yearning teen in "The Ice Storm." And when it came to casting "Cider House," producer Richard Gladstein remembered him from a short film by Griffin Dunne, "Duke of Groove," that was nominated for an Oscar. At the time Maguire was too young to play Homer, but--in classic Hollywood fashion--the film took another four years to put together and "Tobey grew into Homer," says Gladstein in the press notes. "Tobey has a quality about him that is the right sort of innocence and maturity and thoughtfulness."

Maguire, who had just finished "Ride With the Devil" at the time (think many, many hours at full gallop), had badly wanted a break, but was persuaded to do the film after meeting with Hallstrom on location in Massachusetts. Both say they had an unusual connection. "He's the closest thing I can imagine to the extension of my mind. It was almost scary," says Hallstrom. Says Maguire: "That was the most fun of the whole thing; mapping it out, mapping out how to do something, and feeling successful."

Hallstrom sees Maguire as a person with many contradictions: confident in his abilities, but often shy and awkward in public. Says the director: "I think he'll be a star. I trust he'll be a star. He's a very smart actor, and very ambitious. I know he'll have a great career."

And Maguire, who has finished shooting yet another film, "Wonder Boys," which will be released in the spring, fully agrees. He doesn't yet know what his next project will be, but he has learned to trust what life has brought him.

"It's coming, I can feel it," he says, rising to leave the cafe. "I'll take whatever's good. A great director, a great script--I'm not worried about it." He pauses tableside. "The key to everything is faith. Faith that I'll do well. Faith that I'll have a diverse career. Faith that I'll do well for the planet in a small way, you know--for all the people around me and all that [expletive]. I know my future is bright. So I'm really happy."

And inside of three seconds, he's disappeared into the crowd on Sunset.

CAPTION: Tobey Maguire played a wide-eyed youth time-traveling to the 1950s in "Pleasantville," with Reese Witherspoon.

CAPTION: "I don't define who I am by my work," Tobey Maguire says.