Entertainment & Arts

Brendan Fraser stands tall with ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth’

Brendan Fraser
SUMMER JOBS: Fraser stars in “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and another “Mummy.”
(Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)
Special to The Times

BRENDAN FRASER is big man in Hollywood.

The 6-foot-3 actor has a firm handshake and a marquee smile, but when he talks, he’s so soft-spoken -- and aware of that fact -- that he’s constantly leaning in and stooping over during conversations. But he’s aware of the lean as well; he acknowledges that he routinely makes himself smaller to fit in.

“I’ve always had a bit of a complex about being over 6-2,” he confesses. “I’ve developed bad posture; I always try to become diminutive and stoop so as not to feel I’m dominating.”

This from a bona-fide action star with well more than a billion dollars in worldwide box-office grosses and two high-profile movies out in less than a month -- “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” which opened Friday (including 3-D showings in some venues), and “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” in theaters Aug. 1.

It’s that larger-than-life image that Fraser says follows him around the globe. People in seemingly every country he visits ask him when the next “Mummy” film -- in which he plays intrepid adventurer Rick O’Connell -- is coming out. They rarely ask him about working with Ian McKellen on the critically acclaimed indie movie “Gods and Monsters” or Graham Greene’s prescience in writing “The Quiet American.”

“I suppose everyone wants to enjoy themselves,” says Fraser over a bowl of corn chowder at a Santa Monica restaurant. The actor is clearly proudest of those smaller films he’s appeared in, including 2005 best picture winner “Crash,” but is cheerfully unapologetic about his higher-grossing, less-cerebral work in the likes of “George of the Jungle.”

“Larger-budget fare . . . heck, I go to the movies to have a good time,” he says. “I want to be taken somewhere else. I want to be shown something new. I want to have the opportunity to laugh out loud. Put whatever’s on your mind aside for a while. And I’m grateful every time I have a chance to make a film.”

He’s not kidding. Fraser still feels the bruises from stumbles like 2001’s “Monkeybone.” He’s also honest about a period of time after the second “Mummy” movie in which he says he “couldn’t get arrested.”

“Then, when you least expect it and stop working so hard, stop caring how you’re perceived by others in the industry, you start enjoying yourself again and the job gets a lot easier,” he says.

In his popcorn movies, Fraser exudes a masculine and earnest accessibility, a throwback charm that hearkens to an earlier Hollywood era and brings to mind names like Flynn and Gable. So while he’s discovering a hidden world in the Earth’s core or brawling with the undead, fans cheer rather than cringe. “Journey” director Eric Brevig says, “I needed a guy who could go from being a sad sack to the Man of Steel in 90 minutes and make you love him the whole time, and Brendan does it better than anyone else.”

Trying to fit in

AS THE 39-year-old father of three boys talks about personality traits that aided his success, a pattern emerges. He says his family moved around a lot (Indianapolis, Toronto, Seattle), often leaving him scrambling to belong, needing friends and sometimes resorting to imaginary ones. And it’s a motif reflected in many of his early roles. He describes " Encino Man” as the story of a caveman who has been in a time capsule and is trying to fit in, a theme repeated (sans Neanderthal) by the struggling outsiders in “School Ties” (“The movie is about belonging and not belonging,” he says) and “Blast From the Past” (in which he plays another man out of time trying to find his place in a strange world).

Brevig, an Oscar recipient for his special-effects work on “Total Recall,” said by phone that Fraser’s surprising vulnerability and self-knowledge are strengths: “He is aware of what audiences want to see of him. He understands his image and that his fans have preferences. He tries to give them what they like. He knew this wasn’t a maudlin film, an art movie.”

But Brevig got more than a leading man for “Journey” with Fraser:

“I was surprised that he was so smart that he was aware of how to fix some of the shortcomings of the script,” he said, crediting the actor with the key suggestion to switch the main characters’ relationship from a father and son in the screenplay back to the uncle-nephew identities they had in the Jules Verne novel, among other ideas. “I had been meeting with development executives for months and no one said this.”

“So they made me an exec,” says Fraser, proud of earning the executive-producer stripe, “which I asked for, because I wanted to have a voice at the table. Because on ‘School Ties’ [1992], one of the producers referred to actors as ‘talking props.’ That told me a lot.”

Fraser says that although “Journey” is an action-fantasy movie shot in 3-D, budget restrictions forced Brevig to return to “student filmmaking techniques.”

“They wouldn’t build us a waterfall to slide down” for an important stunt, Fraser says. “So Eric said, ‘We’re gonna build a runway, cover it with a slick surface, and get fire hoses from the fire department.’ Then there was like a pickup truck [pulling us along].”

He laughs, then adds, “We were all asking for extra takes because it was so much fun.”

True to his ability to straddle the line between indie and more commercial fare, he then offers this take on the characters’ actual plunge to Earth’s core: “They fall down this volcanic tube, almost like Lewis Carroll, backward through the rabbit hole, splash! A quasi-baptism takes place and they’re reborn. They become better versions of themselves.”

Fraser says Brevig wooed him with cutting-edge 3-D footage at James Cameron’s Lightstorm facility.

The actual filming necessitated a great deal of playing to nonexistent monsters and environments, which Brevig said was one reason he wanted to hire the actor.

Noting that Fraser had fended off cartoon characters added in postproduction, Brevig says, “I knew he was he brilliant at being able to pantomime fighting against creatures that weren’t there.”

When asked if he ever felt silly pretending to be menaced by imaginary dinosaurs, Fraser laughs and says, “Never. That’s my job, my friend. If you want respect, go be a doctor.”