The first thing Gabriel Macht did when he found out that he had been cast to play The Spirit was to rush out to find background material. He purchased a book that contained later Spirit comics by creator Will Eisner.

That upset Frank Miller, director of "The Spirit."

"I bought 'The Best of Will Eisner,' which had all of the color versions of the comic he had done many years after the inserts in newspapers," Macht said during a telephone interview. "Frank Miller saw that I had picked that up and he said, 'Don't read that. Let me give you my picks.' He sent over a massive binder. It had all these great stories. The drawings were in black and white. There was so much nuance and details. And there was tons of humor. They were really, really funny."

At that moment, Macht knew that the film version of the '40s and '50s comic strip was not going to be the typical comic-book-inspired movie. The end result of Macht's work and Miller's vision hit theater screens yesterday. Eva Mendes, Samuel L. Jackson and Scarlett Johansson co-star.

There was certainly nothing typical with the way the movie was produced. "The Spirit" was shot over a 2 1/2-month period entirely inside a soundstage in Albuquerque, N.M. Everything inside the soundstage was painted green.

The green approach is neutral and would allow all of the backgrounds and props to be added by computer after the actors were done. Miller used the same technique to make his feature film "Sin City."

Macht had confidence that Miller's vision would be a tribute to Eisner's work.

"There has been a lot of concern that we are not doing 'The Spirit' exactly the same way with the blue suit and red tie," Macht said. "But Frank and Eisner were friends for years. So who better to bring 'The Spirit' to the screen? Frank has made it innovative and visually unique."

Macht's only concern is that some moviegoers will bypass the film because it is so visually different. He stresses that there is enough romance and humor in the movie to make it accessible to everyone.

"The Spirit" is a real change for Macht. His television and film background is more typical, in films like "Why Would I Lie?" and "A Love Song for Bobby Long," and the television show "The Others." It was his work on stage that helped him adjust to Miller's way of working.

"In theater, all you can rely on is your imagination," Macht said. "You are always imagining what's beyond the lights."

He added that even when he is shooting a movie in a real location, he has to imagine that he is in a real place. That's because he works while staring at a crew of more than a hundred people operating huge lights, cameras and microphones.

Macht was introduced to the unique way that fantasy and science-fiction films are shot through his father, Stephen Macht, who also is an actor. Macht would visit his father while he was working on sci-fi projects from "The Six Million Dollar Man" to "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine."

Growing up, Macht was not a big comic-book fan. That may have been because he started acting at a young age. He did like television versions of comic books, from reruns of the '60s "Batman" TV series to the animated "Super Friends."

And now he gets to join the ranks of costumed heroes. Macht made sure he was in tip-top physical shape so that he could handle all of the stunt work. The final piece to playing The Spirit was the costume.

"Every piece of wardrobe - the tie, the hat - helped me get into character," Macht said.

In other words, it enabled him to find the spirit of "The Spirit." *