When Matt O'Leary says he's been swimming with sharks, he's not referring to the usual Hollywood power brokers.

His near-deadly dip occurred during a recent boating trip in the Bahamas, where he and actor pal Garrett Hedlund were promoting their new revenge thriller "Death Sentence" (which opened Aug. 31). Hedlund and some buddies spotted fins in the water and, fueled by liquid courage, dove in without hesitation. O'Leary was less sure: The 20-year-old Chicago native was nursing a gash to his Achilles tendon, which he'd slashed earlier that day on a boat rotor and patched with duct tape.

"They go, 'Matt, jump in!' I'm bleeding. I'm like, 'You guys are insane!' (But) I jumped in and a shark swims 2 feet underneath me."

He got out immediately, even as another friend grabbed hold of a fin for a four-second joyride.

"It was sooo cool! I'm saying, 'This is stupid,' but it was the greatest experience."

If nothing else, it's proof that the erstwhile star of the "Spy Kids" franchise is primed for his decidedly adult role in "Death Sentence." The kid brother in a family of meth-dealing punks, O'Leary's character -- sporting pitchfork-shaped facial fur, neck tattoos and jet-black hair streaked blood red -- triggers a series of vengeance killings after he murders the son of an insurance man (Kevin Bacon).

"I'm always going to be a dangerously underweight guy," says the 6-foot-1-inch, 155-pound actor. "(But in) 'Death Sentence,' I look bad ass! My character (doesn't) say many words, but I did see the movie, and afterward, people said, 'You were creepy as hell.' I kind of fell into the physicality of the character. It blew me away watching the transformation."

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Coming on the heels of a splashy cameo in this summer's "Live Free or Die Hard" (he plays a doomed, duped computer geek), O'Leary's latest role is something of a reintroduction for the actor. A former child model who auditioned unsuccessfully for the lead in "Home Alone 3," he first drew notice as John Travolta's imperiled son in 2001's "Domestic Disturbance." Months later, he wowed critics as the elder scion of a religious fanatic in "Frailty." Roles in "Spy Kids 2" and its follow-up further elevated his profile.

But more recently he's gravitated to edgy independent features like "Havoc" and the acclaimed neo-noir flick "Brick," both in 2005. He opted to go deeper with his film choices after shooting the big-budget 2004 flop "The Alamo." All but a few seconds of his role hit the cutting-room floor, but a meaty (albeit unseen) death scene afforded him a creative epiphany.

"Before that, (acting) was just a pure, natural thing that I did," he says. "Since that moment, I started actually putting my mind to it and figuring out what acting really is to me. I wanted to start doing good films."

His father also succumbed to cancer around that time, which proved a wake-up call for O'Leary. He secured his high school diploma and began outlining long-range career goals. Now the L.A. transplant is writing a series of six short films that he hopes will land him work as a director. He's also secured an offscreen romantic interest: a South African actress he visited recently in lieu of attending the North American premiere of "Death Sentence."

"This year, it all kind of fell into place, and it feels great," he says. "I always thought this year would be the worst of my life -- I (have) this weird sense about ages -- and it's turning out to be the best."

And if that's not reason enough to steer clear of shark-infested waters, what is?