For Lambert, Fame Is Overseas Kind of Thing

Here's the question. If they gave an award for Best Box Office Summer by a Heavily Accented Action-Adventure Superstar, who would be the winner for 1993?

Well, we all know it wouldn't be Arnold. Jean-Claude maybe? Oh sure, "Hard Target" did respectable business, but there are still some questions surrounding Van Damme, not the least of which is, "How'd he get that little bump on his forehead?" and "Would it help if he put some ice on it?"

And, of course, since the next "Ernest" picture isn't due until next year, Jim Varney is out of the running.

So, you might ask, who's left?

Christopher Lambert, that's who. You know, the guy who played Tarzan in "Greystoke," the one who spent two "Highlander" movies taking lessons from Sean Connery on how to chop people's heads off, the one who's married to actress Diane Lane (they had their first child, a daughter, Sept. 5).

Now, listen to this. "Fortress," Lambert's recently released exploding-stomach futuristic prison movie, was guaranteed to be a big summer hit before a single American moviegoer paid money to see it. Seriously. Even before the movie (shot in Australia on a relatively sparse $14-million budget) was released in the United States, it had already taken in more than $60 million in Europe and Australia, places where the 36-year-old Lambert, born in New York but raised in Switzerland, is a genuine hot-ticket movie star.

"Over there, he can be mobbed trying to walk down the street," says "Fortress" director Stuart Gordon, happy to report that the film--yet to open in England or Japan--has been No. 1 at the box office in France, Italy, Spain, Germany and Korea. In Australia, "Fortress" opened at No. 1 several months ago and has already been released on videocassette.

"We were in profits before we opened here," Gordon says, confirming that work on "Fortress II" is well under way, with filming scheduled to begin next spring. "In a sense, whatever we make in the U.S. (an underwhelming $6.5 million through last weekend) is just gravy."

If Lambert can convert the overseas success of "Fortress" into a higher American profile, the irony will be that he has done it in a project originally developed for Schwarzenegger. Although a considerably less imposing physical specimen than Arnold, Gordon thinks, Lambert ended up as a better choice for the role of a former soldier trying to bust himself and his pregnant wife out of a high-tech underground prison.

"Very few leading men, particularly action stars, ever want to appear vulnerable or scared on screen," Gordon says. "They always want to be macho and tough, where nothing fazes them. And, to me, that makes them seem stupid. To me, a hero is not someone who is unafraid, it's someone who does things in spite of the fact that they are scared. And Christopher is not afraid to be afraid."

Told all this as he chain-smokes Marlboros in his publicist's Westwood office, Lambert simply shrugs and smiles. This is not a conversation topic that keeps him up at night. He's not really all that interested, he says, in becoming the new Euro Action Hunk du jour, nor does it bother him that he's a bigger star in Europe and Asia than he is in the land of his birth.

"I think there is a time for everything and when the time is right, it comes," Lambert says when asked if he longs for greater visibility in the United States. "So I'm not chasing anything. All that's important right now is for me to keep making movies and keep loving my job. I know how lucky I am to have a job like this. I could be working in a post office."

Lambert, a child of privilege, has not always felt so lucky. The son of a French diplomat (his father was stationed at the United Nations when Christopher was born), he spent his youth in exclusive Swiss boarding schools, living with his parents only a few months per year. The rest of the time they were traveling the world.

They sent him gifts. They sent him letters telling him how important it was for him to succeed at school, telling him how they only wanted the best for him. He didn't hate them for it. He didn't know them well enough to hate them. He simply accepted that he'd have to make do on his own.

"It was difficult," he says now, "but it gave me a power of adaptation that was unbelievable. When I go to a foreign place now, I adapt almost immediately. I don't miss anything and I don't get homesick, because I'm used to not having a home. For the business I'm in, I think that's a plus."

He was 12 when he decided to become an actor, on holiday with his family when he and his half-sisters, "bored to death," decided to put on a play for the grown-ups. "People applauded," he says. 'And I had a feeling that for the first time people were recognizing something in me, that I'd done something good."

His parents indulged him for a while, but only until they realized he wasn't kidding. "When you're 12, saying you want to be an actor sounds cute," Lambert says, "but when you're 18, finished with school and still talking about it, things change. Then it becomes, 'Let's sit down and talk about this. Why don't you get a real job and you can act as a hobby.' And that's what's my father said to me."

He was sent, against his wishes, to London and jobs at Barclay's Bank and the London Stock Exchange. He lasted less than four months in the world of finance before his father relented, agreeing to send him to the Paris Conservatoire drama academy. It was a kind of probation, Lambert promising his father that he'd pursue a less frivolous career if, within three years, he didn't show promise.

He almost didn't make it. He spent most of the first year ditching classes, wandering off to talk to agents and casting directors instead. "It was all too intellectual," he says of the classical acting classes. "They were asking too many questions like, 'How do you hold your glass when you're behind the bar?' And I was thinking, this is stupid. In real life you don't ask questions like this. You just hold the glass."

He did better the second year, finding a professor who talked about passion instead of Shakespearean technique. But by the third year the academy director, noticing that Lambert had appeared in hardly any stage productions since enrolling, kicked him out. This, by the way, is where the lucky part kicks in.

"Three months later," Lambert says, " 'Greystoke' happened. He beat out the dozens of other actors and became, in the process, an international star. It was a mixed blessing. "Most of the parts I was offered at the time," he says, "I was always half-naked or something."

Instead of grabbing big bucks right away just to take off his shirt again, Lambert returned to Paris and dyed his hair spiky blond for a small French film called "Subway," a performance for which he received the 1986 Cesar Award, France's equivalent of the Oscar. That same year he landed the swashbuckling lead in "Highlander," establishing the split-personality pattern that has marked his career ever since, going back and forth between English-language action movies and smaller, more intellectual European films.

Given his choice, though, Lambert would just as soon stick with American movies for a while. He and Lane moved to Los Angeles last year and besides, if it's between movies where he gets to blow things up or movies where everybody sits around talking about soup and nihilism then, hell, he'd rather blow things up.

"Maybe it's because I didn't get to play cowboys and Indians as a kid," he says. "That doesn't mean that once a year I wouldn't like to do an intellectual movie but right now I'm interested in entertainment."

So, before "Fortress II" Lambert will do "Highlander III," which he promises will be nothing at all like "Highlander II: The Quickening." "I was terribly disappointed in the second one, but (contractually) I had to do it," Lambert says. "This one I've got script approval and its much more like the original."

Until mid-October, when Lane starts a film in Georgia and Lambert begins "Highlander III" in Canada, the couple will spend time with their new daughter in Malibu, a place, Lambert says, where he is as comfortable as he has ever been.

"People have to look at me a few times before they realize who I am," he says, not complaining. And sometimes, when they recognize him, after they've heard him speak, strangers tend to ask Lambert where he's from.

"Sometimes I tell them I'm from nowhere," he says, the accent heavy, a melange of his traveling youth. "And sometimes I tell them I'm from everywhere."

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