It's almost been two decades since Chris Klein
, now 37, was first plucked out of Omaha, Nebraska, to play the sweet jock opposite Reese Witherspoon in Alexander Payne's Election
. With his winning dimples and a desire to act since childhood, he got out of the Midwest and into American Pie
, perhaps the top comedic franchise at the turn of last century.
Throughout the early '00s and since 2012's American Reunion, the last of the American Pie films that Klein was a part of, the actor has found steady work with guest roles on TV -- most notably Wilfred and Raising Hope -- and in under-the-radar independent movies. His latest, the low-budget indie Game of Aces (in theaters Sept. 2), gives Klein an opportunity to sidestep possible pigeonholing he’s been subjected to and play the handsome hero in a WWI action drama.
"Jackson Cove is a real rascal," says Klein of his character in the Damien Lay-directed project. "The film is multilayered and I got very excited about the opportunity to play a World War I aviator. He's a throwback to some of the heroes that I grew up with, like Indiana Jones."
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After a bit of a rough patch
-- including a public breakup from his then-fiancée Katie Holmes and alcohol abuse -- Klein hit his rock bottom. In June 2010, he found himself in jail after having been arrested for his second DUI
. "I realized I had to get it straight and realize what the f--k was going on because the me that I knew was slipping away," Klein told The Daily Beast
Now, sober for six years and married to Laina Rose Thyfault, the topic of fatherhood is at the forefront of Klein's desire to move forward. It's now his turn to be a hero for his newborn son, Frederick Easton Klein, who arrived on July 23
"Anything that came before this is a wonderful learning experience," a candid Klein tells ET. "We all have growing pains going through our twenties, and I was no different. Hopefully, the negative experiences that you go through, you learn from and they help make you a better person down the line. I believe that is the case for me. I believe that I learned some things that I needed to learn, and I'm using those things to my advantage today to be a better man."
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While Klein thought that his wedding day to Thyfault
-- a travel agent he met at a mutual friend's wedding -- was the epitome of his love for another human, that wasn't the case. "We have this beautiful experience together sharing this healthy baby boy, and the amount of gratitude I have as a husband is just incredible. It's just a really beautiful time in our lives," he says.
Admittedly, Klein doesn't have a lot of reflective wisdom about fatherhood. He's only been doing this for just over a month.
"There's a lot of business that goes on," he says. "The baby has got to sleep; baby has got to eat; diapers have to get changed. Then there are these beautiful moments in between. And during all those, where the whole world just stops and there I am with my son, it's just remarkable, and I'm told it only gets more incredible as you go."
On the front lines of parenthood -- to borrow a WWI metaphor -- Klein is all in. "It's eat, sleep, poop or pee, repeat," he describes. "That's the deal."
In between press for Game of Aces and prepping for his next feature -- a romantic comedy set in Portland, Oregon -- Klein was able to be home in Austin, Texas, with Thyfault and Easton for the first month after he was born.
"It was a great place to go through the pregnancy process with Laina," he says of Austin, where they moved three years ago for a change of scenery, and where his wife is originally from, “and a great place to have our child. In late September, kiddo is going to be old enough that he can travel a bit, so he and Laina are coming up to Portland with me to make a film."
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Hearing Klein's genuine happiness and seeing it plastered on his face makes it hard to even remember there was a time of turmoil. Even he says it's something he just doesn't think about much anymore. It was a chapter in his life that he's chosen to put behind him and move on as a clean, sober man.
"There's a big stigma with that whole thing," Klein says. "As anybody will tell you that goes through it, it's a personal decision, and for me, the reasons today are a lot different than they were back then. I'm in a great place now and I love doing great work. Anything in my life that doesn't help me accomplish my goals needs to go away."