Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Josh Lucas

Cool Hand Lucas

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Even if you happen to recognize Josh Lucas in the new film Sweet Home Alabama, playing Reese Witherspoon's sweet, down-home husband from a former, forgotten life, you probably won't remember from where.

Lucas has spent the past three years building up an impressive resume of cads and slimeballs; the kind you can smell coming a mile away.

Fans who were not too busy rooting for the attractive heroes in his films might remember him as Rory Culkin's nasty biological father in You Can Count on Me, or as the conceited math jock Martin Hansen, who goes head-to-head with Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

Horror fans will know him as Craig McDermott, one of Patrick Bateman's slick executive cronies in American Psycho, or as Hank, the scoundrel who dates the hero's ex and gloats to him about it, and greedily hoards a coin collection in Session 9.

Later this year, he will be seen as Sean Penn's brother in Kathryn Bigelow's The Weight of Water and next year as the evil Major Glenn Talbot, who hopes to take over the world in Ang Lee's The Hulk.

So when he unleashes his diamond-mine smile in Sweet Home Alabama, you'll most likely think, "who is this guy and why haven't I seen him before?"

"It was massively important for people to say I was a good actor," the 30 year-old Lucas explains during a recent San Francisco visit, "and so I was running away from anything close to myself." Hence, a sweet guy from Arkansas ends up playing a run of cowardly, sneering bad guys.

He says that "Sweet Home Alabama" is the hardest thing he's done. "I had to strip away all these defenses that I've built up over the years."

To illustrate, Lucas brings up the long-standing battle between acting and personality. Some actors like Robert Duvall, Marlon Brando, Sean Penn or Anthony Hopkins have the ability to disappear into a role, while other actors, like Jackie Chan, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood or Woody Allen use their screen personalities to lure audiences into a film.

Lucas knows he could probably use his smile, his twinkling blue eyes, and his warmth to play a series of nice-guy romantic leads, but he's more interested in the former camp. He wants to disappear.

"Jodie Foster said that an actor's job is to support the director's vision, and I think I agree with that," he says. "In A Beautiful Mind my job was to support Russell. The scenes I was in were all about him."

The actor got a big dose of role immersion just before shooting The Weight of Water. Sean Penn wanted to develop a brotherly relationship with Lucas, and so invited him to stay at his place for a while. "Sean is a generous and lovely person. He's been a big influence on me as a person and as an actor."

For Sweet Home Alabama, however, Lucas had to learn a new trick: to be himself on camera, which turned out to be a bit like giving a speech without a podium. He did however, find a bit of a hypothetical mike stand -- an Alabama accent.

He says he listened to tapes of author Rick Bragg for inspiration. "They wanted a gentle and accessible accent but I think I missed it," he says modestly. Though he was born in Arkansas and considers Charleston, South Carolina his home base, Lucas moved around a lot as a young boy -- thanks to politically active parents -- and so never developed a Southern accent of his own.

Thus far, Lucas has been successful at supporting the director's vision and staying out of the way of audience adoration. But not everyone is fooled by this invisible actor. Recently, Lucas went out to dinner in New York with his girlfriend. A couple sitting at the next table were talking loudly, and the woman mentioned A Beautiful Mind.

"I asked her if she liked it and she said that she did, very much, except for this one character, the guy who played his friend. She thought he was just terrible. My girlfriend is fuming at her and her boyfriend is going, 'what are you talking about?' I'm getting concerned, wondering what she thought I did wrong. Finally she said, 'gotcha.'"

"We had a great time after that and we all got drunk together."

Date: September 24, 2002

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