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Suit Yourself

Josh Lucas defies convention in this spring's breakout looks

April 09, 2006|David A. Keeps

Ask Josh Lucas, serious actor, why he agreed to star in "Poseidon," a remake of the mother of all cheesy disaster flicks, and his blazing baby blues narrow. Then he breaks into a wolfish grin that reveals a row of refreshingly imperfect bottom teeth.

"Two words," he says. "Wolfgang Petersen."

It was Petersen, the fabled director of "Das Boot" and "The Perfect Storm," who told Lucas: "I understand water and claustrophobia as well as anyone in the world." And who plunged Lucas into a simulated sunken ocean liner that he remembers as a petri dish of rushing water, panic and fiery explosions.

When "Poseidon" is released in May, Lucas promises audiences will see that, aside from a tidal wave knocking over a ship, it has nothing in common with "The Poseidon Adventure" of 1972. He describes the 21st century version as "a study of the ascent out of hell," in which he portrays a selfish card shark "who grows into a human being."

"Mother Nature, when it comes down to it, is totally in control," Lucas says of the movie. Life can be like that too. "There are times where I like to put myself in situations where there's nothing I can do but try to be accepting of that truth and get through it."

The 34-year-old Lucas was a hemp-diaper baby who bounced around the South with his folks, left-leaning believers in civil disobedience. He says his survival instincts--which guided him through the storms on the "Poseidon" set--kicked in as soon as he was old enough to comprehend his parents' activist convictions.

He was, he says, "definitely a love child," born in Arkansas in 1971 and christened Joshua Lucas Easy Dent Maurer. "My parents lived on an Indian reservation, and they name the child based on things that happen," he explains. "I came out so easy that the doctor hit my head on the bedpost and dented my head."

By the time the family settled in Seattle, 13-year-old Josh had lived in nearly 30 households and had internalized the fundamentals of acting. "I would wake up morosely in the morning before I'd start a new school and decide who I was interested in being," he recalls.

The self-described "angry satellite child" has mellowed, and now Lucas says he has profound respect for his mom and dad. "They were young and there's a beautiful romantic element to what my parents did," he says. His upbringing instilled in him a sense of morality and cultural integrity that, he says, puts him at odds with the red-carpet-lined star-making machine. "Actors," he says, "are almost trained to be neurotic and crazy."

"Poseidon" is Lucas' third outing as a Hollywood hero. Last summer, he was Lt. Ben Gannon in "Stealth," a military thriller that went down in flames. Early this year he was basketball coach Don Haskins in "Glory Road," which was No. 1 for a weekend in January and dribbled into a profit. It didn't, though, mint Lucas as the movie star people have expected him to become since Reese Witherspoon chose his country boy over Patrick Dempsey's city slicker in 2002's "Sweet Home Alabama."

In little-seen independent films, Lucas has been searing in down-and-dirty parts with gruesome comeuppances. He was impaled on an anchor in "The Deep End," bludgeoned to death in "Wonderland" and gutted like a fish in "Undertow."

With this dashing turnabout in "Poseidon," the industry shorthand seems to be this: Lucas is the next Paul Newman, a decent fellow who makes an indecently charming cad.

Indeed, the resemblance is so astonishing that Newman hired Lucas to play him as a younger man in "Empire Falls." For Lucas, Newman is a mirror that agreeably reflects what he might become. "Not just the fact that he can seriously act," Lucas says, but the "humanity, philanthropy and the quiet, humble essence of how he's gone about it."

After nearly a dozen films in three years, Lucas wants to slow down so he can undertake a creative project that one day might be considered as classic as the Kazan films, the Kundera novels or the Dylan tunes he loves.

The good work needn't be limited to the screen. Lucas rants passionately about how Oprah should hold everyone to the scrutiny she unleashed on James Frey, and how he is making responsible investments in bio-diesel cars and a fast-health-food franchise.

Perhaps the only thing missing is his Joanne Woodward. Lucas, who amicably ended a long romance with Salma Hayek, is now single and, he declares, "womanized out."

"Haven't you heard," Lucas asks, with a roar of mischievous laughter, "I'm dating Jessica Simpson."

The story goes something like this: He was in a hotel lobby with his 3-year-old godson. Simpson was also in the lobby. So, after a perfunctory but Southern gentlemanly hello, Josh Lucas' tabloid tryst consisted of watching his godson sneak off to Simpson's table and then getting up to haul him back to theirs, over and over again. "That was my entire experience with her."

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