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Greeks and Heroes

May 07, 2000|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Playing the young Greek hero in NBC's four-hour adventure fantasy, "Jason and the Argonauts," was a life-altering experience for actor Jason London.

"I think everyone has this journey to go on in their life," says London, 27. "The journey I went on just making this film is comparable to what Jason in the movie went on."

London ("Dazed and Confused") did not encounter dragons and assorted other demons that beset the mythical Jason. But, after the four-month shoot in Turkey and England, the twin brother of actor Jeremy London ("Party of Five") came back to Los Angeles a different person.

"I felt older, wiser," he explains. "I had an appreciation for this country that I never had before. I had an appreciation for Southern California, in general. It has weather like this in Turkey and that's about the only thing I can say [that is the same]."

London wanted to discover the real man behind the legend: "I wanted to be really careful and not play into the drama of this old-fashioned [story]."

"I didn't want to play every moment. I took the quiet approach and as an actor, I think I grew in the sense [that I learned] that less is more. This is a project where I could have easily gone way over the top with all of the acting. But [director] Nick Willing said, 'Let's keep it simple.' "

Based on the centuries' old Greek myth, "Jason and the Argonauts" follows young Jason's quest to find the Golden Fleece, considered to be the greatest gift to man from the gods. Jason must give the Fleece to his evil uncle, King Pelias (Dennis Hopper), in order to reclaim his father's kingdom stolen by Pelias. On board the ship the Argo, Jason and his adventurers, including Hercules (Brian Thompson) and Orpheus (Adrian Lester), encounter a hungry dragon that enjoys music, the evil Harpies who kill anybody who touches their food, a murderous metallic bull, some nasty dead soldiers and even the evil Hypsipyle (Nathasha Hendridge), who rules over a kingdom of beautiful but murderous women.

Jolene Blalock stars as Medea, the beautiful sorceress who is the guardian of the Golden Fleece and who falls in love with Jason.

Generally cast in contemporary roles, the veteran Hopper ("Easy Rider," "Blue Velvet") relished acting in a classical piece: "What's really strange is that for the first time in my career I have been asked to do anything that is classical," says Hopper.

"I started doing Shakespeare from the time I was 13 to 18 years old; all my training was at the Old Globe Theater [in San Diego]. Then I went under contract to Warner Bros. when I was 18 and did 'Rebel Without a Cause' and 'Giant' and I never got back to anything classical."

Though Hopper was familiar with the myth, he never thought he'd end up playing Pelias: "I mean the monster of all monsters. He's bad. He kills his own brother. He kills his own son. And his wife commits suicide. This is not a great guy."

The 600-plus special effects were produced by London's FrameStore; Jim Henson's Creature Shop supplied the truly gruesome Harpies.

"The Harpies are lovely," jokes director Willing ("Alice in Wonderland"). "I love their haircut. They are really delicious!" Willing's main goal was to make this ancient story convincing to modern audiences. "In other words, not to do it tongue-in-cheek, not to camp it up," he explains. "That meant to give the audience the experience of the Harpies and make them really frightening. They are very scary. I was also aware that this comes on after 9 p.m. so I thought it was OK [to make them so scary]. But I wouldn't show it to my little daughter."

"Our brief [from Willing] was to make the Harpies really ugly-looking beasts," says visual effects supervisor David Booth. The Harpies, which were done digitally, took four months to create and animate.

They were particularly time-consuming, Booth says, because the creatures have several facial expressions. "They react to things," Booth says. "We also had to get the textures [of the skin] to work right."

Willing was introduced to "Jason and the Argonauts" as a child in London when he saw the 1963 movie featuring the terrific stop-motion special effects of Ray Harryhausen.

"When I was a teenager I wrote a letter to Ray who was living in London saying I was his biggest fan and I had studied all of his films which I had," he says. "I had grown up as an animator and he was an animator.'

Much to young Willing's surprise, Harryhausen, who is still alive, wrote back and invited him to a Sunday lunch where he showed his fan all the models for his famous creatures. "I am sending him a copy of this film," says Willing.

The director pays homage to the famous scene in Harryhausen's version in which Jason battles skeleton soldiers. "I had to do the fighting skeletons," says Willing. "That is what everybody remembers. But in the original stories, it wasn't exactly skeletons--it was ghost soldiers. It was Harryhausen who made them skeletons. I came up with the idea of these growing vines--strange things that push out the armor of soldiers who have been buried deep in the earth. They sort of wrap themselves around their weapons and take on the form of soldiers."

*

"Jason and the Argonauts" airs Sunday and Monday at 9 p.m. on NBC. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).

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