The Unexpected Brendan Fraser

There was mild surprise a few years back when the serious boy from School Ties turned into the lovable goof of Encino Man. Nobody guessed the same "goof" would turn George of the Jungle into a major hit. More than a few jaws dropped when this guy held his own with Ian McKellen in Gods and Monsters. And now Brendan Fraser is starring in two high-profile movies, The Mummy and Dudley Do-Right.

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Brendan Fraser is not your macho strutting type of actor. What comes through upon first meeting him is his sensitivity. He exudes a gentleness, and his soft-spoken voice is calming. He's a big guy (six-foot-three), but instead of using his stature and strength to play action heroes, he's made a strange career out of being the lovable doofus in films like Encino Man, Airheads, George of the Jungle, Still Breathing, Blast From the Past and this summer's Dudley Do-Right. That isn't what he started out to do--his first major role was in School Ties, where he played the vulnerable Jewish boy in a prep school that counted among its students then-unknowns Chris O'Donnell, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. But the sweet-spirited looniness Fraser showed in Encino Man led to the improbable string of cartoonish portrayals that have overshadowed his work in less successful films like Twilight of the Golds.

One person I spoke to about Fraser commented, "He's done career-suicide material so many times, yet his films grow in popularity. He's got some wholesome, transparent quality. You can't see his personality in the back of his characters." Fraser's personal unobtrusiveness on- and offscreen may well be the result of growing up part of a family that moved so often he never became part of any community. His father worked for the Canadian government in Europe and the United States as well as Canada, and Fraser went from one school to another before finally getting his degree at the Actor's Conservatory at Seattle's Cornish College of the Arts.

The last couple of years have marked an unmistakable transition for Brendan Fraser. First, he turned 30. Second, he married his girlfriend of six years, Afton Smith, and settled down to a home life. Third, he surprised anyone who'd dismissed him as a lightweight by playing Clayton Boone, the good-hearted, hunky gardener, opposite Ian McKellen's over-the-hill Hollywood director James Whale in the award-winning Gods and Monsters. And fourth, he took on his first action-hero role in the big-budget pre-_Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace_ extravaganza The Mummy. Fraser has done lots of movies since he first got to Hollywood, more than most actors his age. Now what may have seemed until recently a lark of a career strategy looks like something a good deal more deliberate and enduring.

LAWRENCE GROBEL: Are you aware of the Brendan Fraser Shrine on the Internet? BRENDAN FRASER: I looked at it about a year ago and it was like opening a Pandora's box. I freaked out and haven't done it since. I don't want that much information printed about me. I appreciate that there are fan sites, that's wonderful, but there's part of me that says: beware. The Internet is a big, scary vehicle and we don't know exactly what it's going to do. It's just a little too easy to find things out.

Q: Do you have a lot of skeletons in your closet that you don't want exposed?

A: No, I don't.

Q: You've made a long list of movies to build up the fan base that likes to follow every detail of your life. What character in your films is closest to who you are?

A: The truth is you have to put a piece of yourself into every part. Otherwise it's cheating. But my work in Gods and Monsters symbolically said a lot about how I have felt about my place in the world--it's about a man who learns to be a man.

Q: Would you agree that the shape of your career is very different from any of your peers? A: Yeah. It fibrillates in many different ways.

Q: For example, you've never done a typical leading-man role in a thriller or romantic drama.

A: The Mummy is a first-time leading-man hero type of role for me.

Q: How seriously is the Mummy character taken in this film?

A: He's powerful and has an army of mummies at his control, and he uses magic. And he has a strong sexual tension around him.

Q: Can the Mummy get laid?

A: [Laughs] He's trying to! He's been buried for 3,000 years until treasure seekers unwittingly awaken him and he sees his mistress, who's been reincarnated as an archaeologist.

Q: And he goes after her, and you do battle with him?

A: Oh yeah, again and again and again.

Q: The role you played in last year's Gods and Monsters made critics take a different look at you. Were you intimidated working with Ian McKellen?

A: At first, but then he completely put me at ease. He's such a nice, soft, thoughtful man. He has the acting chops that come from the mind of the very brilliant. I admired him from the time I first started to act. I introduced myself to him through a letter when he was doing the film Richard III. I wanted to be in that film very much. The casting director wanted nothing to do with me, so I decided to take the bull by the horns and write him a thinly disguised fan letter, asking if there was anything I could do. I got a reply from him on a notecard saying, "We could use somebody of your enthusiasm but I just don't have a part for you right now. Hope to see you in the future. All the best, Ian McKellen.' I stuck that card in a book.

Q: When did you begin to feel comfortable with the fact that you were going to be acting with McKellen?

A: The first time we met was for a benefit premiere at a theater in L.A. Lynn Redgrave was also there. At a press reception afterwards, Ian said he was going to be starting this film and working with Lynn Redgrave and Brendan Fraser. To hear him speak my name, from row 15 in this theater, just electrified me. Like a diamond epiphany bullet right between my eyes--that's when it became real.

Q: For the women in the audience--were you totally nude when you dropped that towel in front of McKellen?

A: That was shot with frame lines, defined with a piece of tape. [Laughs] That's an integral scene in the film because it says that Whale has something to offer Boone that's far more disturbing than sex: redemption through an act of violence, and it goes horribly wrong. It was an ugly scene to shoot. We broke everything in the room. I don't remember ever weeping that deeply-- I'd never had something that horrible happen to me that made me feel that sense of despair.

Q: Do you like to shoot a lot of takes for each scene of a movie?

A: I'm a take one or two kind of guy. I'm selfish and don't want to give them too many choices. [Laughs] Also, it's fresher and better.

Q: Though you claim to like all of your films, are there any you'd like to reshoot?

A: I would have liked to have left the ending of School Ties alone. We did a reshoot on that. Matt Damon's character, Dillon, who's just been expelled, says to my character, David, "You know something? I'm still going to get into Harvard. And in 10 years nobody's going to remember any of this. But you'll still be a goddamned Jew," and David says, "You'll still be a prick." If you look at the way the scene is shot, the reaction takes lessen the weight of the dialogue, because they had me come back and do a take where I didn't really let him have it. I just sort of winced or smiled and looked over to the corner. It didn't turn the screw nearly as much as I wanted it to.

Q: School Ties is one of those pictures that will be looked at to spot all the famous actors before they became famous. What were the dynamics between you and Chris O'Donnell and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck?

A: There was a healthy sense of rivalry in the group. Any time you stick young men together there's going to be competition, mock fighting, displays of attitude, jockeying for position. Either by accident or design. At that point I was expecting someone to hand me a towel and say, "Brendan, it's time to go back to Seattle." I'd met Matt at my screen test. He came in from Boston to read with me. I was struck by his amazing ability to speak with such a natural quality no matter what you handed him. He owns what he says. I thought, "I'm never going to be able to do that." It was movie acting, and I came from the theater. All I knew came from a book by Michael Caine about tuning it down for the movies. I felt good that, if it was possible for me to get the role, I'd be going elbow to elbow, shoulder to shoulder, and ultimately toe to toe with Matt. He's a great, really solid guy.

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