NEW YORK -- Tom Welling has learned firsthand: Being Clark Kent isn't easy.
That, above all, is the lesson of "Smallville," which finds Clark, even more than the typical teen, consumed with awkward self-discovery.
Clark feels like an outsider without understanding why. He senses an emerging destiny, yet he's blind to his future as the Man of Steel. His plight is any teen's plight, writ large and shrouded in secrecy.
"You play this kid in school who's trying to be normal and has these abilities he thinks work against him," says Welling, who stars as that kid. "It's like an exaggerated form of puberty for him as he gets these abilities, which are just exaggerations of things that we all can do: We can all run, he can just run faster; we can all pick things up, he can pick up things that are heavier."
Big deal. What Clark really wants -- the heart of schoolmate Lana Lang (played with winsome appeal by Kristin Kreuk) -- remains beyond his reach. The pain it causes him proves he's not invulnerable.
Catching Clark at this formative, pre-Superboy stage has spelled success for "Smallville" (Tuesdays at 9 p.m. EST on the WB). Its second-season ratings are up by more than one-third. Viewers readily identify with the self-actualization process he is struggling with, even as they relish knowing what no one in Clark's world has any inkling of: the life as a superhero that awaits him.
When Welling landed the role, he clearly fit the blueprint for Clark: Boyish good looks, plenty of hustle -- and no idea what he was in for.
For one thing, Welling was a former model who, apart from a six-episode guest shot on "Judging Amy," came to "Smallville" with no acting experience.
"The first season, I didn't know how to act," he admits, chatting with a reporter on a recent visit to Manhattan. "I just tried to believe in the character. But I think my confusion on-set translated into Clark's confusion as a character.
"If you watch how Clark is now, he's a bit more comfortable. I'm a bit more comfortable, too. I don't know if there's a direct correlation, but I think there's a connection."
Moreover, Welling began "Smallville" as a Superman novitiate.
"I didn't know anything about the mythology of Superman," he confesses. "But I think it was a blessing in disguise. I don't have any of that information in my head to compare anything to, and Clark doesn't have that either -- HE doesn't know who he's gonna be."
Christopher Reeve -- who, for millions, personifies the man Clark grows into -- has only recently seen "Smallville." He approves.
"What they did was take the segment of 'Superman I' on the farm and draw it out into a series," says Reeve, who, of course, starred in that 1978 film and three sequels.
Speaking from his home outside New York City, Reeve recalls scenes from the movie with young Clark (played by another actor) "kicking a football into outer space and racing beside a train. He has all these powers and doesn't know why."
Now 50, Reeve was paralyzed in a 1995 horseback-riding accident and has since spent much of his time as an advocate for research into spinal-cord injuries. But he returns as an actor to the Superman saga for a "Smallville" guest appearance next week.
He plays an astronomer who unaccountably detects signals from Clark's doomed home planet, Krypton.
"Clark and I talk about what the meaning might be," says Reeve.
His scene with Welling was filmed in New York -- a far piece from the countryside outside Vancouver that doubles as Smallville's Kansas heartland.
There, the 25-year-old Welling has made a comfortable home with model Jamie White, whom he married last summer. But hours on the set are long and demanding. Being Clark Kent isn't easy.
"The show takes up so much of who you are, you can't do it unless you absolutely love it," says Welling. "But it's complicated when people don't separate me from Clark.
"There was this car explosion and a character gets thrown out of the car. The director comes up and says, 'OK, Tom, I want you to run over, pick him up and carry him across the street.'
"He wants me to bend down and pick a guy who weighs 200 pounds up off the ground!
"I go, 'I'm not Clark Kent!'
"Another time, we had a shot where Clark gets a saliva swab inside his mouth for DNA. The director wants to shoot into Clark's mouth while it happens.
"I remind him, 'I've got fillings.'
"He says, 'How do you have fillings?!'
"I say, 'I'm not Clark!"'
Welling sighs. "They get carried away."
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EDITOR'S NOTE -- Frazier Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org