Joel David Moore jumps from supporting standout to leading man with two new films.

No longer is Joel David Moore just the lanky, likably nerdy supporting player with the timid demeanor. In February, Moore—who first came to prominence in the 2004 Vince Vaughn–Ben Stiller comedy Dodgeball—headlines two features: Spiral, a stylish thriller he co-directed, and The Hottie & the Nottie, a romantic comedy, opposite—of all people—Paris Hilton. Had Moore not been a risk-taker during his audition for Dodgeball, however, he might not be in the catbird seat right now. "I knew some bigger names were attached to it," he says. "So I figured, There's no possible way I'm going to get this. I had a crazy character that I developed for the part. I remember doing it in front of my roommate, Dave, and he was like, 'That's really strange.' And I was like, 'Yeah, but you know what? I may as well just show 'em some crazy thing so that they can remember me for the next time." Fortunately, it seems Dodgeball's producers were seeking just that.

Moore grew up in Portland, Ore., and attended Southern Oregon University in Ashland, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. He worked two summers at OSF, playing a Fisherman in a musicalized Pericles and subbing as Cloten in Cymbeline.

Moore had signed with a Portland talent agent, Rachelle Ryan. After he graduated from college, in 2000, he made the move to Los Angeles. Ryan accompanied him, becoming his manager. Initially, Moore set his sights on commercial work. "I thought, I'm tall; I'm goofy. I figured that commercials would be a good thing to get into." But the commercials strike hit soon after Moore's arrival, and he spent much of his first year in California working at Circuit City.

Eventually, a few high-profile TV spots came his way, including a Best Buy commercial for which he spent three weeks in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, attending Rolling Stones concerts. "I was able to be front and center for all the concerts, me and my lovely co-star. Literally, the commercial was us sitting front and center as Mick Jagger would shake his hips at us." Moore adds, deadpan, that he believes Jagger "even wooed me"—that Moore "would have gone home with the rocker" had the actor not held fast to his professionalism.

Moore soon grew accustomed to a diet of commercials and featured TV roles. But after Dodgeball, he began getting more opportunities in film. He appeared in such projects as Art School Confidential—working with one of his idols, John Malkovich—and the audacious comedy Grandma's Boy, playing a video-game designer in touch with his inner robot.

In 2006, Moore landed his first starring role in a feature, the slasher film Hatchet. His casting was in part the result of a misunderstanding. Director Adam Green had not realized that Moore was reading for the lead, which was written with a "Chad Michael Murray type" in mind. Green liked what he saw in Moore and decided to take the role in a quirkier direction. "I guess I sort of broke the mold, and then the mold couldn't be glued back together," the actor says.

Green and Moore worked together so swimmingly that they decided to team up on another low-budget project, Spiral, which they wound up co-directing (Moore co-wrote the script with his producing partner, Jeremy Boreing). Spiral, like Hatchet, is a horror film—but instead of a stomach-turning bloodbath, it's a suspenseful study of the inner turmoil of a (possible) serial killer. Moore calls the film "Hitchcockianesque."

The project was shot in Portland, where the often dank atmosphere proved appropriate for the film's creepy story line. One of the benefits of shooting there, notes Moore, was the opportunity to work with a top-of-the-line crew: "You sort of have an A crew in Portland, and it is either working on the $40 million project that's in town or the $1 million project that's in town. So we really got a treat with those guys."

In November 2006, Moore signed on for a role in director James Cameron's sci-fi epic Avatar. But he had time for another picture before heading to New Zealand for Avatar. So he accepted the male lead in director Tom Putnam's The Hottie & the Nottie, in which Moore plays a young man pursuing his childhood crush (Hilton). An obstacle to the romance is her unattractive best friend (Christine Lakin). Hilton's character vows not to date anyone until Lakin's character finds romance.

How was it working with pop icon Hilton? "She was actually fabulous through the whole thing," Moore says. "She was way more prepared than I was. And she's actually pretty funny."

Moore agrees that the film industry is more open to "character leads" like himself these days. "I think people enjoy seeing an offbeat character carrying a film," he says. "So I hope there are more in the future. But sometimes you don't get to have as much fun with a lead as you do with a supporting character, a crazy character. So I think I'll always be doing those kinds of roles as well."

Spiral will have a limited theatrical run in six cities beginning Feb. 8, followed by a DVD release Feb. 19. The Hottie & the Nottie opens in theatres Feb. 8.