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COVER STORY

He's Not a Household Name ...Yet

September 29, 2002|JON BURLINGAME

Josh Lucas has appeared in more than a dozen movies, but in "Sweet Home Alabama," he finally looks like himself: matinee-idol handsome.

In previous films, the 31-year-old Arkansas native has played such diverse parts as Russell Crowe's mathematician rival-turned-friend in "A Beautiful Mind," the sleazy predator whose murder sets off the chain of events in "The Deep End," and Laura Linney's deadbeat ex-husband in "You Can Count on Me." They won him critical plaudits, but not leading-man roles.

That could change with "Sweet Home Alabama." The actor's intense blue eyes and classic features wowed 'em at the initial reading in New York. "Everybody was just staggered by his charm, his looks, the way he carried himself," director Andy Tennant says.

During editing, as Tennant was trying to trim a few minutes from the film, he shaved 10 frames from a Lucas close-up. "Ten frames isn't even a blink of an eye," he says. "But when we played the movie back, my producer and one of my editors [both of whom were women] noticed. They demanded that I put them back." He did.

For Lucas, though, those good looks have been a problem. When he first arrived here more than a decade ago, "I felt like being an actor in Los Angeles was about being part of a lottery system, where you're really just rolling dice at a craps table. I was starting to see that my numbers were coming up because of my physical presence, but not because of anything at all to do with my talent."

So eight years ago, he moved to New York and started taking classes, becoming serious about his acting. He eventually landed the role of Judas in Terrence McNally's controversial 1998 play "Corpus Christi," which imagined Jesus as a gay man in Texas white-trash country.

Since then, Lucas has been in demand, first by independent filmmakers, now by the studios. It may have something to do with how seriously he takes his craft: As Martin Hansen in "A Beautiful Mind," he went from 165 to 220 pounds to play the young Princeton mathematician and his older self later in the film.

He auditioned for the role of Jake, Reese Witherspoon's down-home husband, in "Sweet Home Alabama" in part, he says, "because I had not done anything close to myself at all. I thought it was going to be really easy. It turned out to be terribly difficult. My instincts are not comedic. I was always making these dark, dramatic choices."

An exasperated Tennant finally told him: "Stop being Ralph Fiennes!" It became a joke with the crew, Lucas admits. "I would get my Ralph Fiennes take, and then we'd do it the right way, which was to lighten it up and make it more playful, much more who I am inside myself."

Then there was the accent: He had worked for years to eliminate the Southern twang, only to find he needed it back for "Alabama." Luckily, the dialect coach Disney hired happened to be the same teacher with whom he had been working in New York, and "she's got all my notes."

Later this fall, he will be seen in "The Weight of Water," playing Elizabeth Hurley's boyfriend in a psychological drama about an unsolved 19th century murder. He has just finished shooting "The Hulk," next summer's Marvel comic-book adaptation in which he plays the bad guy, Major Glenn Talbot.

Lucas is uncomfortable about the looming threshold of name recognition, though clearly he's considered one of Hollywood's rising young stars (he's designated as such in the recent issue of Vanity Fair). But he's confident that his New York friends will keep his head from swelling. He plays poker every Wednesday night in his Washington Square Park neighborhood. "That game is so grounding," he says. "You can't get away with anything."

Jon Burlingame is a regular contributor to Calendar.

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