“I felt at one point,” says Paul Freeman, with an admirably straight face, “that my entire history as an actor had been leading me up to this point.”
An imperceptible raising of an eyebrow is the one sign Freeman is being richly ironic. After all, he’s talking about playing the monstrous baddie Ivan Ooze in Fox’s summer offering for kids, “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” a live-action feature-length adaptation of the TV series that opens Friday.
Put it this way: “King Lear” it’s not. “Citizen Kane” it’s not. Yet Freeman, 52, is one of Britain’s best-regarded actors, classically trained, with stints at the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre under his belt.
Not that he is remotely snobbish about his turn as Ivan Ooze, a grotesque purple humanoid with horns and bony protuberances sprouting from all parts of his body, who can turn into, yes, ooze and back again at will.
“You’re acting behind a mask, and that mask gives you enormous freedom,” Freeman says with a chuckle. “It means you can play the whole part completely off the wall. So my style of acting is completely over the top and exaggerated--it’s like nothing else you’ve seen in the last 100 years.
“My last role before this was in ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ in [London’s] Regents Park, wearing a purple costume and playing Oberon, king of the fairies. So it really was as if I trained for six months to play [Ooze].”
In fact Freeman is following in a time-honored tradition of classical British thesps playing straight-faced in tongue-in-cheek Hollywood sagas: Think of Alec Guinness as Luke Skywalker’s mentor in “Star Wars” and Patrick Stewart as Capt. Picard in “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
“It’s a well-trodden path,” Freeman agrees. “I think the trick for British actors when they work in Hollywood is not to take it all too seriously.”
For all this, he’ll be taking meetings in Los Angeles around the time the “Mighty Morphin” movie opens, checking out the opportunities for more film work.
It’s something he has done before. Freeman appeared opposite Harrison Ford as the French villain Belloq in Steven Spielberg’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” in 1981. But that failed to launch his film career.
“Both Steven and George Lucas told me at the time they wanted me back for a sequel, then said they needed new characters,” he recalls. “I could see their point--if the hero stays the same, you don’t want the same villain, too.”
Now, he says, his appearance in Spielberg’s film counts for little in landing work: “Executives at studios today are so young, they hardly remember ‘Raiders’ at all,” he quips.
“Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” was shot in Sydney, Australia, over a five-month period--and playing Ivan Ooze required Freeman to put on prosthetic makeup, a process that took him 4 1/2 hours each day. “After a week or so my skin began to erupt, so we had to program in rest days when I didn’t work,” he says. “But once I had it all on, I was used until everyone was falling over with fatigue. There were some 22-hour days.
“But for all that, it was enjoyable. I was trying to get lots of characters into Ooze. There’s a bit of W.C. Fields, a bit of Bugs Bunny.”
And, he thinks, the resulting film is “surprisingly good for what it is. They’ve borrowed shamelessly from just about every children’s story. Ivan Ooze becomes a Pied Piper figure, luring children away from their parents to a world of total irresponsibility where everyone throws purple gunk at each other.”
“But there’s a strangely redemptive ending in which the parents and children recognize what they’ve missed in each other.” Freeman looks suitably solemn. “Which I can only approve of, of course.”
He also dismisses fears that the “Power Rangers” movie might promote violence among young viewers: “From what I’ve seen, it’s innocuous. There’s a lot of kung fu fighting, but you never see blood or indeed any impact. It’s a bit like those Bruce Lee films, but without all the grunting and groaning.”
He admits to trepidation at the prospect of working with the six young actors who portray the Power Rangers: “They’re not actors at all, they were discovered in some martial arts club in Texas. But they’d learned. In fact,” he jokes, “I think they’ll pioneer a new acting style.” (He mimes a typical Power Ranger reaction shot, with both hands in front of his face, kung fu style.)
The shoot in Australia was, by his account, fairly chaotic: “The film started off as a fairly modest project, around $18 million, and seemed to get bigger and bigger as we went along. The script developed as we were making it, and at one point the producer Suzanne Todd would be sitting in the corner on set, writing the script on her lap-top.
“In the middle of speaking lines, I’d get handed rewrites, and a producer would say: ‘Here, say this instead.’ Well, what was I going to say? There I was playing a character called Ooze, and anything was possible.”
Freeman has drifted easily between stage, films and TV in Britain. His film debut was in the acclaimed British gangster film “The Long Good Friday” with Bob Hoskins and Helen Mirren. After “Raiders” he spent a season as a regular on the TV soap “Falcon Crest,” opposite Jane Wyman. “But after a year living in L.A., I was feeling too European to stay longer.”
He has just completed work for the BBC on the third series of “House of Cards,” which stars Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart, a wily, unscrupulous Conservative prime minister.
“I play the new leader of the Conservative Party, who overthrows Urquhart,” Freeman says. “My character, Tom Makepeace, is a decent, civilized, compassionate chap, the way some Conservatives used to be. It’s hard to imagine someone like that now--it’ll be interesting to see whether anyone believes in him.”
At least, he reflects, in playing Makepeace he remains recognizable as Paul Freeman: “I actually think that in playing Ivan Ooze I gave rather a good performance. But the danger is, it might go by completely unnoticed. You see, I’m covered in so much makeup that quite frankly it could be anybody.”